Archive for May, 2014

the present day at preservation hall

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the preservation hall jazz band.

As he watched his two year old daughter dancing to the music he was playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band last month, Ben Jaffe was struck by two flashbacks.

The first was built around familial love. As chieftain of Preservation Hall, the famed French Quarter music haunt, as well as the Grammy winning band steeped in New Orleans jazz tradition that bears its name, Jaffe saw in his child the same love of music he felt as a youth. Growing up, he regularly saw his father, Preservation Hall founder Allan Jaffe, perform with early incarnations of the ensemble.

The second was more complex. It was stemmed back eight years to the same event he played in late April – the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, long known to fans and locals as simply JazzFest. Back in 2006, the festival made its first showing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the monstrous storm that shut the doors of Preservation Hall for nearly eight months and threw its future into limbo.

Five members of the band lost their homes, their cars and their instruments to Katrina and were forced to live outside of New Orleans for the first time in their lives.

“That first Jazzfest after Katrina, we were struggling emotionally, we were struggling physically,” Jaffe said. “We had really been brought down to our knees. The rebuilding process, even on the best day, was overwhelming.

“In that first year, our audience was a couple hundred people. Our audience last weekend was probably over 5,000 people. It was a huge crowd. And to be up on that stage… it filled me with so much pride and so much happiness – a happiness for the guys in the band because it was really a reflection of how much they persevered. And we’re still here. That’s really the story of New Orleans. So, yeah – it became overwhelming to me. I actually had to stop playing because I was so choked up at one point.”

Perhaps the moment also reflected just how far the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has come since Katrina. Though he still has not returned to full time touring duty (Jaffe plays tuba, the same instrument favored by his father, when performing with the band), Jaffe has overseen a series of extraordinary recordings. They include 2010’s Preservation (a benefit recording for the band’s music outreach program that featured vocal help from Steve Earle, Tom Waits, the Blind Boys of Alabama and many others), 2011’s American Legacies (a full collaborative album with the famed bluegrass quintet The Del McCoury Band), two 2012 releases – 50th Anniversary Collection (a four-disc retrospective) and St. Peter & 57th St. (a live set recorded at Carnegie Hall) and 2013’s That’s It! (its first ever recording of all original material.

That’s It! also continues a fruitful artistic relationship with Jim James of Louisville’s My Morning Jacket. James co-produced That’s It! with Jaffe.

“Getting that opportunity to work with Jim was life changing for me and for the band,” Jaffe said. “The interesting thing about the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is that we are all the sons, grandsons and great grandsons of New Orleans musicians. When you are inside a tradition, when you’re part of a legacy, perspective can be challenging. So you turn to people like Jim, who understand and appreciate what you are and what you create and can build on that tradition while honoring the tradition. They can take it a step or two forward. That’s an amazing thing.

“It takes a special artist who has maybe not been influenced by New Orleans music but has been inspired by the legacy. People like Steve Earle, people like Tom Waits, people like Jim honor that and respect that. They know these are important shoes that we wear.”

Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third. Tickets are $36.50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to www.lexingtonlyric.com.

black and blue

the black keysBy now, The Black Keys have nothing left to prove. Coming to national prominence as an ultra-primal, blues-saturated guitar and drums duo, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney opened their ears and minds to the input of outside producers, expanded its sound to welcome all kinds of pop accents and became big leaguers with a sound that was alternately joyous, brutish and psychedelic.

Now Auerbach and Carney gives us Turn Blue – an orgy of crunchy, beat-heavy rockers and beautifully warped reflections that collectively serve as a primer on what makes the band so continually fascinating.

To start with, Turn Blue inverts what many might view as its opening and closing songs. It kicks off with nearly seven minutes of Weight of Love, a luxurious jam initiated by the cool sway of acoustic guitar and vibraphone before grooving along with the steady, ragged rhythm of an electric Neil Young record from the mid ‘70s. Then the music explodes with an extended blast of Auerbach’s guitar work and a haunting vocal passage that utilizes a backup chorus in the same manner that the Keys’ superb El Camino album did a few years ago. It’s also the kind of anthem a band works up to, the sort of piece de resistance usually saved for last. Here, Auerbach and Carney toss it out like a dare, an outrageously confidence indulgence that forces a rethink for fans won over the immediacy and musical economy of El Camino or its equally lean predecessor Brothers.

But then as Turns Blue starts to wind down, the Keys kick back into action. The album closing Gotta Get Away is a royal kiss-off song with a killer guitar hook, an almost giddy pop chorus (“I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo, just to get away from you”) and the kind of block party spirit that would have served as a proud, enticing intro to any serious garage rock album. But on Turn Blue, it’s the parting shot.

What’s in between isn’t exactly filler, either. The title tune is a pop cauldron of a song where after hours soul (complete with Auerbach crooning in a near falsetto) swirl around in an orchestral frenzy. The current single Fever, an electro-dance beat manifesto, follows to keeps the party moving. And as the record heads into the home stretch, In Our Prime lights the fuse to an autumnal reverie that ripens into an absolutely molten guitar solo by Auerbach.

Turn Blue also reteams the Keys with producer Danger Mouse, whose presence in the songwriting and keyboard departments is significant. But everything, even Auerbach’s most open-faced guitar adventures, blend into a singular, magnificent sonic joyride.

Cue up summer, everyone. The party album of the season has arrived.

critic’s pick: jessica lea mayfield, ‘make my head sing…’

Jessica-Lea-Mayfield-Make-My-Head-SingJessica Lea Mayfield has never been one for bottling up her emotions on record. But the Ohio-born songstress also knows the difference between blunt and obvious.

Her two previous albums wrapped every brittle romantic blemish up in an often elegant Americana sweep led by a light, trance-like voice that was often placed back in the mix. It was as though she were trying to keep a safe distance from the fuss her lyrics kicked up.

Upon first listen, her new Make My Head Sing… sounds like an abrupt about face, a retreat away from the Americana leanings of 2011’s sublime Tell Me into a scorched, power trio-fortified no man’s land. But then you examine the voice, still whispery and plaintive but now soaked in enough reverb to make Neko Case blush, as well as the general narrative unrest and you’ll find the changes within Make My Head Sing… are largely ornamental. The juggling of ragged guitar squalls and jangled but still queasy riffs, all generated by Mayfield, sound like any number of late ‘80s and ‘90s bands. The Cure and Nirvana are the most obvious references. But add in Mayfield’s demure but dark voice, which seems largely unrattled by the sonic wreckage around her, and the great Mazzy Star comes to mind.

Of course, it is within her red flag love songs that the blunt force cunning of Mayfield’s songcraft truly surfaces. “I’m insane,” she sings in the chorus over a sidewinding guitar riff than runs thoughout I Wanna Love You. “You’re going to find this out.” Such an admission brings us to an intriguing fork in the road. Is the song’s antagonist crazy for you or just plain old bats-in-the-belfry crazy?

At the other extreme is Party Drugs, a burnout’s requiem that sounds perplexed when the tenuous thread of a chemically enhanced romance tears completely. “Party drugs just make us argue,” Mayfield sings with boozy, blurred detachment. “Don’t know why. They didn’t used to.”

Then there is the album-opening Oblivious, which blends both the fearsome crunch of Mayfield’s new sound and the familiar sense of resignation underneath it (“I could open up the sky to a world unknown, but I’d rather be oblivious”).

While it is easy to miss the neo-country ambience Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys brought to Mayfield’s first two albums as producer, stepping away from that sound is a pretty gutsy career move. Ultimately, though, the ramshackle immediacy Mayfield creates on Make My Head Sing… with bassist/husband/co-producer Jesse Newport is simply a different guise for the same restless, indefinable sentiments. Under the record’s sonic crunch lurk stories as euphoric as they are troubled and as poetic as they debilitating. Ain’t love grand.

no boomslang for 2014; festival’s future in question

boomslangSad news from WRFL-FM this morning: the student-run University of Kentucky radio station has called off its annual Boomslang festival, leaving its future in limbo.

A statement issued this morning by WRFL’s board of directors said, “The decision follows a careful assessment and review by the station’s leadership of the current festival model and its impact on our regular station operations. In light of WRFL’s mission to bring diverse, educational, and independent music to its listeners, WRFL will continue to pursue and program more individual live music concerts and other events throughout the 2014-2015 season, rather than in the concentrated, festival format.

“We can’t say with certainty whether or not the festival will continue in the future, but please be assured that WRFL will continue to provide a platform for non-commercial, all-the-way-to-the-left music and programming, and that we will explore what we feel are the best and most feasible ways to do so with the resources that we have.”

Billed as “A Celebration of Sound and Art,” Boomslang began in 2009 as a weekend long event that incorporated performances at various locations throughout the downtown area. Top-billed acts included Os Mutantes, The Psychedelic Furs, The Tom Tom Club, Death and Jeff Magnum. But Boomslang’s biggest charm was the sense of discovery it offered patrons willing to take a chance on little known, multi-genre indie acts from around the nation.

Last year’s Boomslang became part of a major concert traffic jam that had nearly every club venue in Lexington, along with Rupp Arena, the Singletary Center for the Arts, the Christ the King Oktoberfest and Crave Lexington staging live music on the same late September weekend.

“So many individuals have made Boomslang possible,” the WRFL release stated. “The festival would never have taken place without our amazing community of DJs, listeners, supporters, and friends. We’ve all enjoyed the amazing energy the festival has brought to Lexington.”

moonlighting with moonshiners

BCLP

Blind Corn Liquor Pickers: Nick Fahey (replaced by current electric guitarist, Jeoffrey Teague), banjoist Travis Young, vocalist Beth Walker, mandolinist Joel Serdenis, bassist Will Rush, guitarist Frank Ward, drummer Ben Vogelpohl. Photo by Tara Young.

It all began with a chicken-or-the-egg scenario.

In the case of the long running Lexington bluegrass, jam and groove unit known as Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, it centered on a project that would define not only the band’s music but the community of fans and fellow artists that have helped it thrive. Of course, there was also the matter of financing such an endeavor.

So which came first? Actually, the financing did. BCLP went with the popular online fundraising program Kickstarter, which seeks donations from independent contributors. With a means of getting the project off the ground, what would the project actually be? A new album? A regional tour? No, what BCLP banjoist Travis Young envisioned was the band’s very own festival. Thus, The Moonshiner’s Ball was born. The event has its inaugural run this weekend at Homegrown Hideaways in Berea.

“We had the idea collectively as a band of running a Kickstarter, but we couldn’t agree on what we wanted it to be,” Young said. “It’s nice to ask everyone to help you make a CD. There’s value in that. But I just felt a festival was a win-win for everyone. So we ran the Kickstarter for the event and went about 150% on it. The target was $5,000. We ended up getting over $8,000. We were well on our way at that point.

“We’ve been playing music in this area for probably 12 years now as Blind Corn Liquor Pickers. We’ve toured a fair amount and have gotten to know a lot of musicians across the state and across the region. So in many ways this was the perfect format for being able to bring together this community that has formed around our music – be it the people who have come out to our shows or other musicians we have played with and collaborated with.”

There is plenty of kinship in that community, too. BCLP’s original frontman, Todd Anderson, went on to form the Paducah band Solid Rock’It Boosters, which will perform at the Ball. Anderson also served in the rural roots-savvy Legendary Shack Shakers, whose founder, J.D. Wilkes, will also be on hand this weekend with his current swamp rock troupe, the Dirt Daubers. Closer to home comes former Lexingtonian Mark Heidinger, better known nationally as folk stylist Vandaveer. His connection with Young is as personal as it is musical.

“Vandaveer is an interesting pick because Mark is an old college buddy of mine. We both went to Transy. I played basketball with Mark in the back yard when he was still in high school.”

But Young, who serves as producer for The Moonshiner’s Ball, said the scope of the festival goes beyond a roster of like minded artists and friends. He hopes the Ball can grow into an event where local, national and regional acts can be presented – and appreciated – equally.

“When we play at show at Al’s Bar, which is pretty much our home base, we can look out from the stage and recognize all these faces. These are people we know primarily through the band. They’re family to us. So the idea of taking the community and expanding it is very appealing.

“But the big picture goal is to spotlight Kentucky bands. That wouldn’t be exclusive. I would love to have great national touring acts play the festival someday. But I would still like to put them side by side with Kentucky artists. There is talent here that equals anything anywhere, so let’s showcase it.”

The Moonshiner’s Ball will be held May 9-11 at Homegrown Hideaways, 500 Floyd Branch Rd. in Berea. Performers include Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, Vandaveer and J.D. Wilkes and the Dirt Daubers. Tickets are $50 (weekend pass advance), $65 (weekend pass at the gate). For more information, go to : www.themoonshinersball.com.

case breaker

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peter case. photo by ann summa.

Picking a song that best reflects the emotive and narrative detail of Peter Case would be as frustrating as singling out a single champion work from the catalogs of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson or any other world class songsmith.

But after sifting through two decades worth of extraordinary Case recordings last weekend, a selection surfaced that at least serves as a sublime primer for anyone not familiar with his music. It’s a bittersweet tune called On the Way Downtown that was first issued on Case’s 1998 album Full Service No Waiting and again on the fine 2004 compilation Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile?

The song is, in essence, a ghost story although its light folk-blues melody and Case’s cordial singing initially suggest otherwise. Poetically distraught with the present, the song’s protagonist returns to the scene of younger joys and glories (“where my friends who died still hang around”). An out-of-place intruder to the newer, younger inhabitants of his former haunts, Case still sings hopefully about a full circle sense of change (“the season’s been and gone, another one’s comin’ on”).

It’s a masterful bit of storytelling, one that provides at least one reason for taking in Case’s return performance tonight at Natasha’s. But On the Way Downtown is a snapshot in a career full of extraordinary solo recordings that emerged in the wake of tenures in two West Coast post-punk bands – The Nerves from San Francisco and The Plimsouls from Los Angeles.

Case’s own critical hit parade began in 1986 with a self-titled solo album that sported help by a pair of studio hands that would become two of the most heralded record producers of the ensuing decades: T Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom. The tone, texture and temperament of Case’s following records shifted considerably from the rockish drive of 1992’s Six Pack of Love to the sketch pad folk immediacy of 1993’s Peter Case Sings Like Hell.

The stylistic changes were more subtle when Case signed to the longstanding folk label Vanguard in the mid ‘90s. Recordings from the period – which included two of his best, the aforementioned Full Service No Waiting and 2000’s Flying Saucer Blues – coincided with Case’s first Lexington performances at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club.

While little by way of commercial popularity has come his way through any of this, Case’s critical reputation has remained at a peak. A 2001 tribute album to the music of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt that Case curated (Avalon Blues) along with a 2007 record of folk-blues themed originals (Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John) both earned Grammy nominations. Still, Case’s commercial visibility remains sadly out of sync with his artistic reputation. His last album of original material was the 2010 roots savvy trio set Wig!

If his initial Natasha’s shows stand as an indication, Wednesday’s return performance should be a retrospective of sorts. His June 2010 show at the venue included Two Angels (a Case gem from the 1986 album), the sublime On the Way Downtown, several Wig! highlights including The Words in Red and a selection of covers that ranged from Bob Dylan’s Pledging My Time to Bukka White’s Fixin’ to Die Blues. A reading from 2006’s As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport – a whimsical memoir that treated Case’s initial move from his upstate New York roots to his ‘70s digs in San Francisco like a spiritual pilgrimage – rounded out the performances.

Peter Case performs at 8 p.m. May 6 at Natasha’s Bistro. 112 Esplanade. $15. Call (859) 259-2754.

way down watson

williewatson

willie watson.

Peruse the preparation that went into his debut album and you can’t help but assume Willie Watson’s solo career is off to a grand start.First of all, he has the credentials – specifically, an extended but recently completed tenure with Old Crow Medicine Show.

Secondly, he has the repertoire – a library of generations-old folk, blues and pre-bluegrass country tunes, 10 of which make up Folk Singer, Vol. 1, the debut Watson album due for release on Tuesday.

Finally, he has the producer – in this case, Americana chieftain David Rawlings, who produced Folk Singer just as he did Old Crow Medicine Show’s breakthrough album O.C.M.S. in 2004.

With all that, plus a touring schedule that has him playing Kentucky no less than five times over the next three months, you would think the early days of Watson’s solo career were looking a little golden.

“I’m excited about the record, but my perspective is skewed in a way,” said Watson, who kicks off his spring/summer string of Kentucky shows with an appearance at the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday. “I don’t really hear it the same way people do, so I don’t know if it’s good. I haven’t really even heard it at this point. I wouldn’t listen to playbacks or anything in the studio. I mean, I heard it once through when it was mastered and then through different mastered versions as they went by over at Dave’s house. But I am interested to see what people think.

“I guess it’s not a matter of being happy with it. Those songs are those songs and that’s the way they sounded that day, and they might sound different now. So I don’t really need to be happy or unhappy with the record. I try not to get too hung up on that. I think as long as other people are happy with it then that will make me happy.”

“Those songs,” in the case of Folk Singer, are familiar folk/blues relics like Midnight Special and James Alley Blues as well as less obvious fare like Memphis Slim’s Mother Earth and Charley Jordan’s Keep It Clean. But instead of a full blown studio depiction of such music, Rawlings recorded Watson alone on guitar singing the songs of another time with rustic, intimate immediacy.

“In splitting from Old Crow, I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen,” Watson said. “I didn’t really know what the next thing was going to be. I didn’t know what road I was going to go down, so. I started writing songs and playing a few shows.  It just seemed that the old stuff went over a lot better with the audience, and I enjoyed it a lot more, too. I wasn’t really into what I was writing. I’d much rather sing Midnight Special than anything I could write. It was just a lot more enjoyable for everybody.”

The practice of taking new but unvarnished views of antique material was, in itself, nothing new for Watson. It was essentially what the revivalist string sounds of Old Crow Medicine did in its early days.

“Back then, we didn’t really concern ourselves with writing songs. We were just a string band. I think that’s what we were best at, just playing these older songs. So with my record, it’s kind of back to the early days of Old Crow.”

Willie Watson performs at 7 p.m.  May 5 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour with Acoustic Eidolon. Tickets are $10. For reservations, call (859) 252-8888.

Watson will also appear May 9 at Zanzabar in Louisville,  June 26 at the Brown Theatre in Louisville with the Dave Rawlings Machine,  July 11 at the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset and  July 18 at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville.

in performance: jay farrar with gary hunt

 

jay farrar

jay farrar.

As Derby Week concert celebrations go, last night’s outing by Americana mainstay Jay Farrar at Louisville’s Clifton Center was a subdued, studious affair. In direct contrast to the hoopla running loose in the city with the Kentucky Derby less than three days away, an evening retrospective devoted to Farrar’s stark but oddly serene music – a blend of roots country inspirations wrapped up in a sort of folk noir ambience – amounted to shelter from the storm. That Farrar performed in a stripped down, semi-acoustic setting with guitarist, fiddler, mandolinist and pedal steel ace Gary Hunt as his only accompanist enhanced the sense of performance intimacy all the more.

Although the 85 minute set went heavy on the narrative heavy moodpieces Farrar has penned for the various Son Volt lineups he has led since the band returned to active duty nearly a decade ago, the repertoire was essentially a career overview. It included tunes penned for collaborative albums with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the folky travelogue California Zephyr) and Gob Iron mate Anders Parker (the eloquently rootsy Hard Times) as well as an all-star project that offered new music for lost Woody Guthrie lyrics (the exquisitely wistful Hoping Machine).

There was also a run through Farrar’s own past that began with a revisit to his neglected 2001 solo album Sebastopol (Barstow), a trio of tunes from the original ‘90s Son Volt crew (highlight by the “dusted off” chestnut Back Into Your World) and even a snapshot from the folkier side of his tenure with the famed alt-country troupe Uncle Tupelo (Grindstone).

Fascinating as the retrospective was, the newer Son Volt tunes best suited the duo setting with Hunt (the band’s current co-guitarist) while reflecting Farrar’s unassuming depth and a vocalist and writer.

Upholding the former was Down to the Wire, from 2009’s American Central Dust, where Farrar’s singing poured, and eventually hardened, over the song’s lovely, languid melody like candle wax. Ditto for The Picture, which downshifted from it brassy inception on 2007’s The Search into a harmonica-drenched, Neil Young-like affirmation.

The six tunes offered from 2013’s Honky Tonk were rooted, not surprisingly, in varying shades of traditional country sentiment, from “the sound of heartbreak from a jail cell” in Bakersfield to the fiddle-fueled waltz upended by Hunt during Hearts and Minds.

This is how retrospective shows ought to run – with a broad and not-always-obvious glance at the past that sets up an assured, vital portrait of the here and now.

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