Archive for October, 2014

braving the elements


ben sollee. photo by ann evans.

When last we left Ben Sollee, the Lexington cello stylist turned national (and now international) pop-folk journeyman was winning an argument with Mother Nature.

The setting was Phoenix Park, where Sollee, Coralee and the Townies and Josh Nolan held court for the August installment of WUKY-FM’s inaugural Phoenix Friday concert series. Nolan managed to squeeze in his set before the heavens erupted with what was arguably the summer’s most unrelenting thunderstorm.

“When the rain came, everybody went into the various corners,” recounted Sollee, who returns to the region on Thursday for a performance at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. “Some people went ahead and left. Some people stayed on. Probably about 30 or 40 of us collected under the canopy of Park Place Apartments. Eventually they called the police, who told us to move along. So we jammed into the elevator lobby.”

Calling the lobby Sollee refers to compact is, at best, generous. Still, with a weatherbeaten crowd that had dwindled from the hundreds to a handful of devotees that included two major VIPs, Sollee adapted to the setting and carried on.

“I grabbed the cello and started playing tunes. It was like, ‘Alright, folks. Elevator concert! Who wants to hear what?’ So as I played my songs, the elevator would come down and the doors would open like in some type of Wes Anderson movie and the people inside would look shocked. Then others started getting the idea to climb up the stairs and get in the elevator and then come down to watch the concert from the elevator.

“It was a really special experience. Probably what made it extra special was my parents, Bob and Myra Sollee, were also huddled around that space. They’re musicians – not professional, but wonderful musicians that raised me on a lot of good music. It’s a rare occasion when we get to sing or jam in any type of public setting. So my mom sang with me and my dad kind of drummed on things. It was really fun.”

The August show continued a fruitful year for Sollee. In September, he undertook his first headlining tour of Europe (he played there previously in collaborative settings with banjo star Abigail Washburn and bluesman Otis Taylor). Last week, he was literally left hanging in North Carolina by the Charlotte Ballet (“They had me in a little platform cage suspended above the stage that moved around during different parts of the show. It was pretty crazy.”). Then, on the heels of the EKU performance, Sollee will perform for two evenings with the Louisville Orchestra and Nashville fiddler Jeremy Kittell on a composition by the latter aptly titled Big Fiddle.

But what of Sollee’s own music? While collaborations and activism continue to drive his career, the always prolific Sollee has not released a new studio album since 2012’s Half-Made Man. That doesn’t mean, though, that the cellist hasn’t been stockpiling a few songs.

“I’ve had music recorded for a long time, but I haven’t put anything out because management and so on are going, ‘Well, we should just get a record label.’ So we keep searching and searching. But I’ve gotten kind of tired of waiting, so I told everybody, ‘Hey I’m going to put out two EPs (a two volume set called Steeples) this fall. Hope you’re all okay with that.’

“You know, I’ve always been the kid who has been into everything. When I was a student at SCAPA (School for Creative and Performing Arts) Lafayette, I was in the orchestra, was in all the musical theatre that I could get into, was briefly on the cheerleading squad, was involved in student government… all of that. I got into everything. What I liked about that was it really taught me how all artistic disciplines kind of inform each other. That’s what I really get excited about.

“Could I have imagined it would all lead to this broad spectrum of projects I’m involved with today? Totally. But picturing how it all shook out on the path to get there? Unimaginable.”

Ben Sollee performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

critic’s pick 244: george harrison, ‘the apple years 1968-75’

appleyearsIn 2004, we were presented with The Dark Horse Years 1976-1992, a box set collection that gathered five studio albums and a tentative sounding concert recording that followed George Harrison through a period of commercial and critical rebirth. A fascinating but uneven set, the package left one looming question unanswered – specifically, why wasn’t the initial music Harrison created during the aftermath of The Beatles not given equal attention?

A full decade later comes the reply. The Apple Years 1968-75 serves up Harrison’s first six solo recordings – two experimental instrumental sets and four “proper” albums, one of which has long been sorely underappreciated – to showcase a spiritually imbued sense of pop songcraft.

The instrumental records, Wonderwall Music (1968) and Electronic Sound (1969), have long been dismissed as indulgences. But the former is a real sleeper, a musical kaleidoscope grounded in Eastern instrumentation and inspiration that regularly spins off into a variety of Western pop accents. It is a far more inviting listen today than the primitive analog synthesizer mischief of Electronic Sound (initially released on the short lived Apple offshoot label Zapple).

We won’t spend much time here on Harrison’s first song-oriented record, All Things Must Pass (1970) other than to say to it remains the finest solo album ever issued by a Beatle. Comprised largely of music ignored or unfinished during the Beatles’ final sessions, it is a majestic work in terms of sound, execution and intent. It belongs in everyone’s record collection.

Living in the Material World (1973) sounds as conflicted today as All Things Must Pass sounds resolute. Its appeal is strong, but the spiritual connections seem more obtuse and weighty at times (as in The Light That Has Lighted the World). But there are stunners here, too, like the achingly beautiful awakening anthem Try Some Buy Some and the comparatively whimsical title tune.

In some ways, Dark Horse (1974) is equally stilted, but its sound is looser and leaner. That underscores the hapless domestic upheaval of Simply Sadie and the learned bliss of Far East Man. Unfortunately the scorched vocals of the title song would surface again on a critically lambasted tour to promote the record, Harrison’s only North American concert trek as a solo artist.

If The Apple Years succeeds in nothing else, it helps reintroduce Extra Texture (Read All About It), Harrison’s curiously titled 1975 swansong record for the Apple label. Dismissed as readily as the tour that preceded it, the record is a delight from the start of the brightly orchestrated pop of You to a series of light soul-savvy reveries that culminate in the playful His Name is Legs. The record places the secular and spiritual concerns of Harrison’s music in animated balance to close out The Apple Years in a state of hapless harmony.

critic’s pick 243: lucinda williams, ‘down where the spirit meets the bone’

LUCINDA-BONE_0001If you ever had the desire to simply glide into the ocean of joy and misery that is the music of Lucinda Williams, her new Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone album offers an immediate one-way ticket.

A two disc, 20-song, 1 ¾ hour opus, the recording explores in gloriously unrelenting detail the narrow bonds between love and loss and then colors them with loose, jangly Americana jams that feature such masterful guitar stylists as Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz and others. Topping it all is Williams herself and that worn, morning-after voice that sounds alternately battered, hopeful and defiant.

There is a fairly elemental song structure to many of the tunes on Down Where the Spirit

Meets the Bone. It presents Williams as a kind of fact checker that lists the numerous reasons for her particular mindset of vengeance or vulnerability. Take the boozy guitar lament Cold Day in Hell, which catches Williams in an especially unforgiving mood. “Before you trust me again, before you use me again, before I lust for you again, it’ll be….” That, of course, is where the title comes in.

Similar in design, but not intent, is Protection, a cautionary affirmation of a woman “traveling thru the world with dedication” as she seeks shelter from the enemies of love righteousness, good, kindness and, of course, love.

At times. the rants, confessions and meditations peppering the record turn topically political (West Memphis) or richly allegorical (Something Wicked This Way Comes). During When I Look at the World, however, the brilliant duality that has long distinguished Williams’ best music comes to bear. The singer outlines a litany of abuses (“I’ve been been lost, I’ve been turned away, I’ve paid the cost and there’s been hell to pay”). But the song, in essence, is a prayer when its world view becomes less self involved (“I look at the world and it’s a different story”).

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone bookends all this introspection and outward hope with two powerful tributes. The opening Compassion is written around a poem by the singer’s father, Miller Williams, which provides the album with its title. A plea for understanding (“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it”), Compassion is performed as a stark, unaccompanied spiritual. The record ends with a gorgeous cover of J.J. Cale’s Magnolia, which Williams performs as a eulogy before the chiming guitar harmonies of Frisell and Leisz take flight.

How curious. Compassion suggests deep rooted conflict even amid tenderness (“You do not know what wars are going on down where the spirit meets the bone”). But Magnolia almost unwillingly surrenders to love and remembrance, asserting yet another blissful way Williams looks at the world.

in performance: the fauntleroys


The Faunterloys : Nicholas Tremulis, Alejandro Escovedo, Ivan Julian and Linda Pitmon. Photo by Jeff Fasano.

Perhaps the most telling moments of last night’s performance by The Fauntleroys at Willie’s Locally Known came during the two cover tunes it cooked up for an encore.

The first, Elvis Costello’s post-punk pop anthem Pump It Up was so untested that the band’s resident celebrity, Alejandro Escovedo, sang the verses from a lyric sheet – and that was only after the members went rifling through stacks and satchels in search of said lyrics. The other was The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog, a tune Escovedo has been playing long enough on his own that he can practically lay ownership to it.

There you had it. One tune was ultra tentative, the other second nature. Yet both reflected rock ‘n’ roll in its most joyously elemental form. In other words, the resulting music was as much the expression of four friends sharing a love of proto-punk and pop tradition as it was a declaration of high art (although there was a bit of that at work, too).

The more formal aspects of The Fauntleroys – Escovedo (who played bass), guitarists Nicholas Tremulis (who has led numerous rock ensembles out of Chicago) and Ivan Julian (a one-time bandmate of Lexington-born punk purebred Richard Hell and a veteran of the ‘60s pop troupe The Foundations before that), and drummer Linda Pitmon (last seen in Lexington as part of the all-star Baseball Project) – were quickly put on display by the six songs performed from its newly released debut EP disc Below The Pink Pony.

The best of the lot was Julian’s (This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song, a John Cale-meets-Mazzy Star-like pop incantation that expertly utilized Pitmon as a support vocalist. The most curious entry was the EP’s lone cover, a Tremulis-led take on the Incredible String Band’s Chinese White that underscored obvious accents of psychedelia within The Fauntleroys’ post-punk drive – accents that Tremulis and Julian further enhanced with scattered layers of guitar orchestration.

Escovedo went off the menu for his show-stealer – a riveting obscure original called The Man From Japan that was initially cut for his Real Animal album. An intense, mid-tempo rocker, the tune played readily off of Pitmon’s hearty grooves, Tremulis’ glossary of rhythm guitar chatter and a sense of band immediacy that remained vital right up to the song’s jagged and beautifully abrupt ending.

the new lord fauntleroy


alejandro escovedo, moonlighting as a fauntleroy.

The Fauntleroys may reflect the design, feel and sound of a strictly extracurricular rock ‘n’ roll activity. But get them in the same city, in the same basement studio and, eventually, the same performance stage and you have making of a champion band.

“Everyone has their own careers and bands that they’re involved in and music that they’re doing,” said veteran Texas songsmith Alejandro Escovedo, who along with three longtime pals – New York guitarist Ivan Julian, self-described Chicago “raconteur” Nicholas Tremulis and celebrated drummer Linda Pitmon – make up The Fauntleroys. “But when we’re together, we really do have the feel of a band. There is just something about it. It’s easy for us to play together having known the music that we’ve known for so many years. We all have the same aesthetic somewhat.”

The four came together in New York with the idea of writing and recording songs with the kind of post-punk pop energy that resounded around the city during the late ‘70s. While Escovedo’s punk fascination initially began on the West Coast with the San Francisco rock troupe The Nuns, he became acquainted with Julian while living in New York in 1978. Already a pop survivor from his ‘60s tenure with The Foundations, Julian had become a member of The Voidoids band led by punk entrepreneur and Lexington native Richard Hell. But the catalyst for The Fauntleroys was Tremulis, whose Chicago bands have meshed multiple accents of rock, soul and pop.

“We’ve talked a long time about doing this but we never really had any time,” Escovedo said of the formation of The Fauntleroys. “So Nick kind of pulled us all together and set up a period where we all were free.”

The New York meeting ground for the four members was a Lower East Side coffee shop called The Pink Pony and, more specifically, the recording studio located beneath it. The members would write lyrics in The Pink Pony then quickly adjourn downstairs to record what they came up with. What resulted was a six song, 23 minute EP disc aptly titled Below the Pink Pony.

“ We would go downstairs to work on a track and then Nick and I would go upstairs and write the lyrics out then go back down and sing them and get everyone to do things. It was a really great experience and a lot of fun. I love working with fresh ideas like that and taking chances. It was really cool.”

Escovedo (who plays bass as a Fauntleroy), Tremulus and Julian each sing lead on two songs. Pitmon, last seen in Lexington with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey and husband Steve Wynn in The Baseball Project, added back-up harmonies to each song.

“Linda is amazing, man,” Escovedo said. “What a great drummer and what a great spirit to have in the studio. She’s very, very involved in the moment… just a great musician to play with.

“I think what we came up with is a very New York sounding record. That’s largely due to Ivan’s guitar work and the way he writes. It’s a style that I’ve always loved. I’ve always felt like a part of the New York scene. I guess I really was a part of it because The Nuns were so close to all of the New York bands. We were really more New York than California.”

The Fauntleroys’ fall tour will be brief and brisk – 10 cities in 11 days. After that the members will resume work on their separate careers. But Escovedo said the prospect of returning to The Fauntleroys down the road is favorable.

“There is no reason not to come back to this and make a record that involves more songs with more of an album-like feel and more touring. I’m hoping so, anyway. I mean, it’s just a great band.”

The Fauntleroys perform at 8 p.m. Oct. 5 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to

the soul side of robert cray

robert cray

robert cray.

For a bluesman long devoted to the vocal, compositional and emotive depth of traditional rhythm-and-blues, Robert Cray came to the soul music design of his newest album largely by chance.

The record in question is In My Soul. Specifically, it’s named after Deep in My Soul, a slice of regally orchestrated R&B first popularized by the late blues-soul singer Bobby “Blue” Bland. But as a more encompassing title, In My Soul, also refers to the soul traditions that have always been integral to the blues appeal of the five-time Grammy winning Cray.

Still, it took a little gamesmanship on the part of producer Steve Jordan (known for his work with Keith Richards, Neil Young, John Mayer and many others) to fit Cray’s full run of soul inspirations into In My Soul.

“The album just came out of nowhere, basically,” said guitarist/vocalist Cray, 61, who returns to Central Kentucky for a Monday concert at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. “We had a couple of ideas that were thrown to us by Steve, the first of which was cutting the Otis Redding cover, Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Then he threw out (the 1966 Stax Records gem popularized in 1969 by Lou Rawls) Your Good Thing (is About to End). The guys in the band and myself, we wrote the rest of the songs. But nobody else, outside of myself, knew about those other two songs Steve had suggested. We only presented our material to one another three days before going into the studio with the instructions from Steve to not over rehearse anything. So when we showed up, we had all this R&B stuff.

“As the session went on, I added the Bobby Blue Bland song as kind of a tribute to him because we lost him last year.”

Your Good Thing and Deep in My Soul become subtle epics in the hands of the Cray Band, brewing from subtle studies in brassy R&B into fearsome guitar/vocal confessions. At the other end of In My Soul’s retro-savvy roots exploration is a celebratory party jam called Hip Tight Onions that serves as a gleeful tribute to the ‘60s organ-fueled R&B of Booker T and the MGs. The title is an appropriation of three career defining hits for Booker T – Hip Hug Her, Time is Tight and Green Onions.

“That one came from our bass player Richard Cousins. It’s the first instrumental we’ve ever done.”

Cousins is more than a composing member of the rhythm section. He co-founded the Cray Band with the guitarist in 1974, a time when the soul and even pop inspirations of the budding guitarist began leaning toward the blues.

“When I first started, it was all about the Beatles’ music,” Cray said. “Everybody in my neighborhood got a guitar, so I wanted to play guitar, too. Back then I was inspired by just about everything.

“But I think it was when I saw (Texas born blues guitar great) Albert Collins that everything changed and kind of set me in the direction for where we are now. I saw him having so much fun and just laying waste to anybody else who came onstage before or after him. He was such a great player. I think that was the inspiration for us in starting the band. In the early days, even before we started the Cray Band, Richard and I played in bands together. We even tried to model ourselves after Albert Collins and his show.

“When we get up onstage today, we’re always searching. That’s the one constant. You’re always searching for a new approach to something that’s already there. That’s what makes it so fun for me. Just trying out different things and being put on the spot and being forced to make decisions right then and there – it all about being there at all times. That’s the challenge and that’s what I enjoy about playing music.”

The Robert Cray Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $40, $50 and $65. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to

critic’s picks 242: mike auldridge, jerry douglas and rob ickes, ‘three bells’ ; the earls of leicester, ‘the earls of leicester’

three bellsOn his own, Jerry Douglas has revolutionized the repertoire of the wiry resonator guitar known as the dobro, taking the resulting music down unexpected jazz and Americana side roads.

But within a band or collaborative context, the one-time Lexingtonian has favored the instrument’s most familiar setting – bluegrass. Of course, it helps that two of his most visible affiliations – a groundbreaking ‘70s stay with JD Crowe and the New South and his current tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station – have approached bluegrass with the same expansive thinking in terms of style and direction that Douglas has brought to the dobro.

Two simultaneously released new Douglas-led recordings explore such stylistic extremes. Three Bells is a summit with two other dobro journeymen, Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes. The self-titled debut of The Earls of Leicester, as the title perhaps doesn’t immediately imply, embraces the bluegrass legacy of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

Three Bells is something of a destiny record, one with an urgency underscored by the fact that Auldridge was battling cancer during the 2012 recording sessions. He died three months after their conclusion.

There is no rhythm section or additional accompaniment of any kind on the record’s 11 tracks. On paper, that might seem like a static game plan, but Three Bells exudes all kinds of rich, acoustic color.

The opening cover of Silver Threads Among the Gold is beautifully conversational in its casual tradeoff of lead melodies and subtle, percussive rhythms while The Three Bells, a 1959 country hit for The Browns with roots that stem to Edith Piaf and the Andrews Sisters, possesses pining instrumental harmony full of light, efficient expression.

earls of leicesterThe Earls of Leicester, on the other hand, stands as one of the most traditionally minded adventures of Douglas’ largely progressive career. A cross-generational band made up of Douglas contemporaries (mandolinist Tim O’Brien, Union Station bandmate/bassist Barry Bales, fiddler Johnny Warren), a distinguished elder (veteran Nashville banjoist Charlie Cushman) and a youthful frontman (guitarist/vocalist Shawn Camp), the Earls freshen 14 staples from the Flatt & Scruggs canon, from the robust dobro/vocal holler of Big Black Train that opens out into banjo-led merriment to the gorgeous gospel eulogy of the album-closing Who Will Sing For Me.

Two dobro spirits pervade these records. Auldridge obviously guides Three Bells with a quiet desire for widening the instrument’s stylistic scope, a skill long mirrored in the solo recordings of Douglas and Ickes. What an outstanding victory lap this album is for such a mammoth career.

On The Earls of Leicester, the silent pilot is the late Josh Graves, the dobro giant that drove Flatt & Scruggs’ greatest records and served as Douglas’ foremost formative influence. How epic it is to hear Graves’ royal inspiration edging on such dutiful subjects.

in performance: chris thile and edgar meyer


chris thile (left) and edgar meyer.

How telling, really, can a song title be? In the case of the wonderfully crafted concert by Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, the answer would have to be a resounding “not much.” Given the largely genre-less nature of their repertoire, naming a composition seemed as debilitating as restricting the resulting music to a specific style or mood.

But that’s not to say there wasn’t fun to be had with the whole titling process. When introducing I’ll Remember For You, a piece of warm, wintry intimacy, a reference was made to the tune’s presence on the duo’s new Bass & Mandolin album, a record named for the instruments Meyer and Thile have long held virtuosic command over. The joke, however, was that I’ll Remember For You diverted the two to piano and guitar, respectively.

Then there was Tuesday, a piece filled with dizzying string runs, bits of freer exchanges that allowed the players to stylistically butt heads before opening out into more lyrical dialogue and a captivating double bass coda from Meyer. Thile noted the irony in playing a piece called Tuesday on a Wednesday night. Meyer added that both evenings are essentially the same, making the Tuesday title seem “a little more reminiscent.”

Finally, there was a new work built around a feathery blues/jazz exchange that broke off into grassy mandolin dashes and emotive bowed bass colors before the tune’s full lyrical thrust accelerated like a locomotive. Thile let the Norton Center shout out title suggestions after the music concluded. The winning entry – for the night, at least – was Land Dolphin.

Such onstage mischief with titles also pointed the way to an inherent performance playfulness in the bass/mandolin (and more) music of Meyer and Thile.

Sometimes, such animation was subtle, as in the show opening Why Only One? There, the music began with a mandolin melody that danced about like a ballet before bowed bass stepped like a fussy parent to give earthy punctuation to the dialogue

But on This is the Pig, the music became almost slapstick with a giddy barnyard groove that bloomed into the kind of friendly musical fire than only develops when such askew kindred spirits collide.

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