Archive for December, 2014

in performance: big bad voodoo daddy

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Big Bad Voodoo Daddy: Joshua Levy, left, Dirk Shumaker, Kurt Sodegren, Andy Rowley, Karl Hunter, Glen “The Kid” Marhevka and Scotty Morris. Photo by Don Miller.

Given the scholarly ease with which Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has navigated its career, it should come as little surprise that a similarly schooled confidence was applied to the band’s holiday concert last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. But it took a seasonal program like this to underscore an attribute that has long defined the West Coast ensemble as much as its command of swing and jump blues styles, jazz-friendly instrumentation and inventive arrangements.

The secret ingredient, the catalyst that sparked the aforementioned finery, was as essential as it was simple – attitude.

From the time a backdrop was lowered behind the band depicting a winter landscape highlighted by a snowman with boxing gloves and a stogie, the performance’s light hearted but still very learned view of holiday music lit up like a Christmas tree. This was not a stoic, overly reverential celebration of the season, nor was a crassly sentimental one. Frontman/vocalist Scotty Morris, pianist/arranger Joshua Levy, an ultra flexible rhythm section and a five man horn team kept the mood fun and the music hot.

The bulk of the program was devoted to the primarily original tunes from 2004’s Everything You Want for Christmas album and the revamped staples that dominate 2013’s It Feels Like Christmas Time.

From the former came the show opening Rockabilly Christmas, a blues cool treatment of Merry Christmas Baby, the Mardi Gras groove-a-thon Mr. Heatmiser and a noir-style instrumental version of We Three Kings that placed the horn section front and center.

The newer recording favored more familiar tunes with riskier arrangements. That translated into a brass sass savvy Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, a hornless jazz quartet update of All I Want for Christmas (is My Two Front Teeth) and a wonderful rumba revision of Winter Wonderland funky enough to put Scrooge in a conga line.

There was also a brief smattering of non holiday fare (Diga Diga Do, Why Me and the band’s traditional show closer So Long, Farewell, Goodbye). But even the concert’s most prominent swing hit, Go Daddy-O, became Go Santa Claus for the evening to cement a program full of inviting seasonal fun.

Given the scholarly ease with which Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has navigated its career, it should come as little surprise that a similarly schooled confidence was applied to the band’s holiday concert last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. But it took a seasonal program like this to underscore an attribute that has long defined the West Coast ensemble as much as its command of swing and jump blues styles, jazz-friendly instrumentation and inventive arrangements.

The secret ingredient, the catalyst that sparked the aforementioned finery, was as essential as it was simple – attitude.

From the time a backdrop was lowered behind the band depicting a winter landscape highlighted by a snowman with boxing gloves and a stogie, the performance’s light hearted but still very learned view of holiday music lit up like a Christmas tree. This was not a stoic, overly reverential celebration of the season, nor was a crassly sentimental one. Frontman/vocalist Scotty Morris, pianist/arranger Joshua Levy, an ultra flexible rhythm section and a five man horn team kept the mood fun and the music hot.

The bulk of the program was devoted to the primarily original tunes from 2004’s Everything You Want for Christmas album and the revamped staples that dominate 2013’s It Feels Like Christmas Time.

From the former came the show opening Rockabilly Christmas, a blues cool treatment of Merry Christmas Baby, the Mardi Gras groove-a-thon Mr. Heatmiser and a noir-style instrumental version of We Three Kings that placed the horn section front and center.

The newer recording favored more familiar tunes with riskier arrangements. That translated into a brass sass savvy Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, a hornless jazz quartet update of All I Want for Christmas (is My Two Front Teeth) and a wonderful rumba revision of Winter Wonderland funky enough to put Scrooge in a conga line.

There was also a brief smattering of non holiday fare (Diga Diga Do, Why Me and the band’s traditional show closer So Long, Farewell, Goodbye). But even the concert’s most prominent swing hit, Go Daddy-O, became Go Santa Claus for the evening to cement a program full of inviting seasonal fun.

in performance: trans-siberian orchestra

tso

trans-siberian orchestra in full regalia.

Early into the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s telling of The Christmas Attic last night at Rupp Arena, narrator Bryan Hicks spoke of a child being warned that life during the holiday was merely a reflection of “the same old world all tinseled up.”

For close to 2 ½ hours, the pomp and pageantry TSO brought to its own seasonal songs as well as to quasi-originals and medleys fashioned around familiar carols and classical works, reached for something more than a gussied up version of holiday music. In the end, though, “tinseled up” was exactly what The Christmas Attic seemed.

You could appreciate the family friendly theme of a child fascinated by the music boxes, gramophones and especially letters discovered in an attic. But the sheer weight of the production design and the generally overwrought delivery of the singing, instrumentation and even narration just sank the sentiments. It was like tying a brick to a duck and expecting it to fly.

In fairness, bombast has always been at the heart of TSO’s music, especially onstage. It has long embraced arena rock excess on all levels, from the requisite guitar shredding to the vocal pageantry to the overall anthemic feel of the compositions, even the ballads. On top of that were enough lights, lasers and pyrotechnics to make Kiss blush.

While the crowd of 8,600 ate every effect and postured riff up, it was disappointing to experience The Christmas Attic in such a puffed up setting. Released as a recording in 1998, it was one of TSO founder Paul O’Neill’s first rock operatic works. It remains one his simplest and gentlest pieces in terms of sentiment.

There were instances where that came through last night, especially in singer Rob Evan’s delivery of Christmas in the Air, the ‘80s-esque pop-rock piece that brought the work out from the attic of the past into the city streets of today. Similarly, The Three Kings and I exhibited a playful pop-soul strut until the arrangement simply took on too much near its conclusion. Ever heard The Hallelujah Chorus and Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir quoted in the same tune? Well, here was your chance.

The stage was constructed to resemble a large storage trunk (yes, like you would find in an attic) that opened up to reveal TSO’s more stationary players – a string quartet, a drummer and a keyboardist. A 10 member vocal team made periodic turns on stage floor, alternating lead vocal duties while a three man guitar lineup, led by veteran TSO mate Chris Caffery, were in constant motion on the ground and, quite often, in the air on various hydraulic lifts.

The last third of the program, which incorporated music from other TSO recordings, was more loosely presented but went even heavier on the artillery until the pop-rocker Sparks (from 2009’s Night Castle) brought the lasers up to Spinal Tap proportions.

But there was also a moment that effectively captured the seasonal spirit, and it had nothing to do with the music. In making good on TSO’s promise to give a portion of the evening’s ticket sales to charity, Caffery said before the show began that nearly $8,000 was being donated to the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital. That was when you sensed that Christmas was truly in the air.

critic’s pick 253: the velvet underground, ‘the velvetunderground – 45th anniversary deluxe edition’

velvet-underground“If you can’t be a communist and make money,” offers a 27 year old Lou Reed in the midst of the wonderful new reissue of the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album, “then you have to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer – at least, in Hoboken.”

With that, The Velvet Underground – 45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (available in two and six disc versions; the double-disc set is reviewed here) revisits the seminal New York band in yet another season of change. Recorded during the closing weeks of 1968 and released the following spring, the record is a step away from the sonic assault of 1967’s White Light/White Heat. It’s also the first VU recording cut after the exit of guitarist/violist John Cale. With Cale gone, the Velvets effectively became Reed’s band. A few of the vocal duties are shared, but Reed penned all 10 melodically engaging but thematically restless tracks and was at the helm of the album’s lighter, heavily rhythmic sound.

Of the four remarkable recordings the VU released before Reed’s departure for a solo career in 1970, The Velvet Underground is often the most overlooked. But several songs here rank among Reed’s finest work. Pale Blue Eyes, a subtle saga of a love tryst with a surprise ending, leads the list with a melodic charm as devious as its storyline. Then there is After Hours, a closing tune sung with blunt but quiet vulnerability by drummer Maureen Tucker that wears its insecurity like an open wound against a disarming, dance hall melody. But the stunner is Jesus, an open-faced plea for faith that today approximates a traditional spiritual.

Of course, the real treat behind these Deluxe Editions of the VU catalogue have been the accompanying bonus discs, which often unearth some long lost archival delicacy. The one discovered for The Velvet Underground is quite the treasure – a 70 minute set of concert recordings taken from a pair of late November 1969 concerts at The Matrix in New York.

Some of this material was issued, along with recordings from an October show that year, on a 1974 live set titled 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. Here the October recordings have been jettisoned and the number of November performances have been doubled and remastered into what is perhaps the best sounding VU live album yet. Among the unreleased nuggets: a slow, woozy take of Sweet Jane (which would surface in 1970 on Reed’s final Velvets album, Loaded), a cantankerous saga about “the sorrows of the contemporary world” called I Can’t Stand It Anymore (which would be retooled for Reed’s 1971 solo debut record) and a percussive, menacing update of Heroin (from the first VU album, 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico).

Filling a gap in the history of a legendary band, the reconstituted The Velvet Underground does the legacy of the actual Velvet Underground proud and then some.

up in the attic with tso

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paul o’neill of trans-siberian orchestra.

There is a curious addition to the titles Paul O’Neill can now make claim to.

Alongside duties as composer, instrumentalist, producer, engineer and all around rock music entrepreneur – all of which stem from his role as founder of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra – O’Neill can now rightly call himself an outlaw. Such as a distinction comes as a result of a youthful transgression that would later trigger the inspiration for The Christmas Attic, the double-platinum 1998 album TSO will bring to gargantuan life on Thursday at Rupp Arena.

“Well, the statute of limitations ran out on this a long time ago, so it’s okay to talk about. I think the technical term for it is breaking and entering.”

As a kid growing up in New York City, O’Neill and several youthful pals were drawn to rows of abandoned buildings. Vacated and boarded, he would venture inside and find little more than a whole lot of empty – that is, until he reached the attic.

“These attics had stuff left from decades, sometimes centuries ago,” O’Neill said. “The one I will never forget was like a wonderland for kids. The first thing I saw was a Gramophone. There was all this stuff from the past including this old sea chest. When we opened it, it was filled with letters from the 1850s and 1860s. That day we just sat and read those letters till twilight. It was like a time machine. That’s where we got the whole idea for The Christmas Attic.”

This month marks the first full seasonal run for The Christmas Attic as a concert piece. But that doesn’t mean TSO will retreat from its usual performance assault. In addition to the rock opera trapping of strings and guitar will be TSO’s equally cherished arsenal of pyrotechnics, lighting effects and general all-out flash.

The year began with the opportunity to take such grandiosity to a new locale – specifically, a New Year’s Eve performance at Brandenburg Gate. But there was a hitch – getting TSO and all of it titanic gear to Berlin after a pair of Stateside concerts the night before.

“We had that puddle between us and Germany to deal with called the Atlantic,” O’Neill said. “Plus we were flying against the clock. There have been times when I’ve played in Europe and then in America the next day, but there every time you crossed a time zone, you would get an hour. It’s the exact opposite when you’re going the other way. But this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. We had the jets waiting on the Tarmac because we only had about two hours of error room. But there was no turbulence, everything worked out perfect and we finished soundcheck with 15 minutes to spare.”

The result was a performance where TSO rang in 2014 before a live audience of two million and an estimated television viewership of eight million.

Next up for O’Neill is something perhaps smaller in scale but considerably larger in terms of ambition. With three new non-holiday recording projects in the works, he hopes to take TSO to Broadway and redefine the role of rock music in contemporary theatre.

“The idea of arena rock theatre is something we have developed quite nicely. But I’ve also wanted to take on Broadway.

“I love Broadway. But the problem is it is so stuck in the past. So I would like to take some of the special effects from the world of rock ‘n’ roll, the quality of musicianship from rock ‘n’ roll, but also the coherent storytelling aspect from Broadway and combine that so maybe in the next couple of years we will have our first Broadway production.”

And the cost? If there is anything more overblown than ticket prices to an arena rock show, it’s the ticket prices of most Broadway productions.

“We’re working on that aspect right now because getting the show written and put out there is only half the battle. It still has to be affordable for everyone. But it can be done. We are a perfect example. TSO keeps its ticket prices between $25 and $70 and we have one of the most expensive productions in the world. We’ve done that for 16 years, so it can be done. There has to be a way to do that for Broadway, too.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs 7:30 p.m. Dec.11 at Rupp Arena. Tickets: $31.50-$61.25. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

in performance: wynonna

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wynonna judd.

To paraphrase a classic song title, everyday may not necessarily be a holiday for Wynonna Judd. But judging by the gusto and spirit that drove her performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, the Kentucky born country star supplied an array of Yuletide tunes with the same vocal nerve as the many country-pop hits she has chalked up over the past three decades. Leave to Judd not to discriminate.

Take the show opening Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. When the song reached the “deck the halls” reference in its chorus, Judd’s left hand became a clenched first while a vocal roar slid between bared teeth. Sure, the seasonal mood was still there. But Judd also looked like she was ready to deck something (or someone) other than the halls.

Last night’s program was billed as A Simpler Christmas. In essence, that was what she delivered – or at least, intended. The stage was adorned with candles, antique lamps, a Christmas tree and the like, giving it the air of a Cracker Barrel. Judd also employed a resourceful four member band, which included husband Cactus Moser. A mandolinist and very capable drummer, Moser figured as much into the show as an onstage foil for Judd’s lengthy between song chats as an instrumentalist.

But “simpler” seldom translated in subtle or even gentle. At 51, Judd has lost little of the jackhammer potency of her vocal charge. That explains how familiar Christmas yarns like Joy to the World and Jingle Bells were transformed into hardened, almost guttural blues-based jams. The same held true for some of the non-holiday fare. Judd’s vocal grit didn’t so much toughen an encore cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as wrestle it to the ground.

Granted, such spunk has long been at the heart of Judd’s vocal style. The 1984 Judds hit Love is Alive and a solemn, stoic show-closing sing-a-long of Silent Night were the closest things to reserve reflected within the performance. The singer’s 1992 solo career breakthrough single No One Else on Earth better reflected the concert’s overall tone and temperament.

Such were the makings of this Simpler Christmas on a not so silent night.

big noise from wynonna

wynonna

wynonna judd.

With a career spanning three decades as one of country music’s most volcanic voices, Kentucky’s own Wynonna Judd has grown accustomed to having her way in the recording studio.

In short, she is an artist who, in the preparation of her music, is unaccustomed to be told no.

“Making a record is kind of like a blind date,” said Judd, who returns to home state turf this weekend for a performance at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “You’re so excited and there is such great anticipation.

“So I had been into the studio to make this music and I let the label hear it. They went, ‘Wynonna, we’ve never heard you sound better. But we’re bored.’”

Excuse me? The artist that sold millions of records in the ‘80s as part of the mother-daughter duo The Judds while becoming one of the leaders of a new traditionalist movement that commandeered country airwaves was now boring? The roaring vocalist that took on elements of soul, gospel and rock as her solo career commenced in the ‘90s was being given a thumbs down for her new music by her own record label?

“After 30 years of this love affair with the labels, it’s been up, down and all around, right? Still, they always said the same thing. But this time, it was, ‘We love your voice and the body of work. But this is too safe. It’s just too predictable.’

“I’ve never heard this before. But I hate to admit it. At our age, we can really get in a rut, whether it’s our marriage, our job or just life in general. We get on autopilot. And I’m no different. I think what I did was I went with how I was feeling, which was pretty casual. Maybe I was looking for that comfortable sweater to put on at the end of the day. But then it was like, ‘We don’t want a comfortable sweater.’ So there’s all that money and time down the drain, and I was just really frustrated. But I think artists have to get to a place where they become frustrated because after that came the good stuff.

The “good stuff” translates into loose and live sessions with Judd’s husband Cactus Moser (formerly of the ‘80s/’90s country band Highway 101) and a revised stylistic scope that won’t be viewed by anyone – from record label reps to her faithful fanbase – as routine, predictable or boring. A single from the as-yet-untitled recording, Something You Can’t Live Without, has been released through digital outlets.

“I’m not sleeping I’m so jazzed,” Judd said. “It’s like creative insomnia all over the place. The reason is we’re making the record live. We’re doing the vocals live at the same time as the music. We’re going, as they say, old school – when you get a band together and perform instead of trying to make everything perfect. We’re making the music perfectly imperfect. It’s live and it’s raw.

“Some people get so bogged down in the slick production part of recording that the music almost never becomes human. It’s a machine. I wanted this record to feel like a personal, hand-written note. So here we go. Cactus is making me get really uncomfortable in my process, and that’s really pushing me. It’s really uncomfortable at times but it was time to do things differently.”

Little of that is likely to matter, though, when Judd returns to Kentucky on Saturday. That’s when the Ashland native’s focus on record labels and stylistic expectations will shift to a considerably more homespun level of excitement.

“I’m not just saying this, but I really do feel like Miss America when I come back. I feel like I’m related to everybody. And if I’m not related to them, I’ve either lent them money or been to their house for a meal.

“It’s a very strange and wonderful thing. I get very overwhelmed. I get very emotional. But I also wouldn’t trade it for anything. I am so grateful that I have those roots. I’m grateful for the fans, too, because without them I would have to get a real job.”

Wynonna and The Big Noise perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $38-$75. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

critic’s pick 252: keith jarrett/charlie haden/paul motian: ‘hamburg ’72’

keith-jarrettHamburg ’72, a remarkable archival find from the vaults of ECM Records, begins innocently enough with a piano melody from Keith Jarrett that dances about with the quiet immediacy of his masterful solo improvisation recordings. Then as the rhythm section lightly falls into place, a lyrical stride emerges that recalls Jarrett’s long-running Standards Trio.

Such instances, however, serve as the proverbial calm before the storm. This isn’t a new work by the Standards Trio but a recording of a 42 year German radio broadcast at the NDR-Jazz Workshop with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian. Any pastoral suggestion is shattered by passages of free-style improvisation (with Jarrett on soprano saxophone), subtle Eastern instrumentation (with Jarrett on flute) and rich, churchy duets that place Haden in the driver’s seat (with Jarrett bashing away on tambourine). Best of all, the music winds up sounding as though it was recorded last week.

ECM chieftain Manfred Eicher began work remixing the analog sources of Hamburg ’72 in July – to be specific, the day after Haden’s death. That’s just the beginning of the coincidental timelines that run behind the scenes of this music. There is also the fact that this performance paralleled the 1972 release of Facing You, the solo piano record that began an alliance between Jarrett, Eicher and ECM that continues to this day. It also represents the trio’s only showing on the label, although it appeared several times on ECM albums augmented by saxophonist Dewey Redman as a Jarrett band often referred to as the American Quartet.

That leaves us with an invaluable timepiece of a recording. Jarrett reveals an already complete piano voice during the lovely, low stroll of Take Me Back (first released on the 1972 Columbia album Expectations and one of four Jarrett originals featured in this performance). But the tune quickly builds into a playful, rolling trade-off with Haden marked by frequent punctuations from the pianist on tambourine. It nicely approximates gospel as well as loose, uproarious swing.

The interplay builds to a 15 minute workout of Haden’s Song for Che which runs from a percussion accented solo by the composer full of elastic color to intermittent screams from Jarrett on soprano sax. Then it’s back to another merry piano outburst before returning to the same cricket-like chirping of bass and percussion that first distinguished the tune.

It’s tempting to view this music as a eulogy to Haden or, for that matter, Motian (who died in November 2011). But even though Jarrett remains the trio’s lone surviving torchbearer, the music of Hamburg ’72 is the product of a group spirit rich with a jazz urgency that is truly ageless.

Ian McLagan, 1945-2014

ian-maclagan

Ian McLagan

One had to do a double take Wednesday afternoon when word arrived that Ian McLagan had died from complications attributed to a massive stroke suffered on Tuesday.

Not the man they called Mac. Not the irrepressibly cheery keyboardist who personified everything fun about rock ‘n’ roll. Not the man who  toured the world with The Faces and The Rolling Stones with a smile on his face and a wicked taste for boogie-woogie at his fingertips. Not the man who was right here in Lexington for a two-night engagement a mere six weeks ago.

The latter was the real stunner. McLagan’s previous Lexington visits included two performances at Rupp Arena — one with the Stones in 1981 and the other alongside former Faces mate Rod Stewart in 1993. In late October, there was Mac,  onstage at the Lyric Theatre for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour and again the next evening for a late booking at Parlay Social.

A week earlier, I interviewed McLagan over the phone for an advance story on those shows and found him to be genuinely modest, upbeat and boundlessly enthusiastic about the music that was still very much the center of his life. He spoke of his love of the piano blues pioneered by Muddy Waters keyboardist Otis Spann, of the lessons in life and music learned by playing side by side in the Stones with piano great Ian Stewart (the newly released Hampton 1981 CD/DVD reveals both of them in action) and the prospect of getting all the surviving members of The Faces, including the previously reluctant Stewart, together for reunion concerts in 2015.

Mostly, though, McLagan seemed excited and more than a little surprised that fans young and old were still hungry to hear him play.

“I’m the luckiest guy I know because I love what I do, and I can still do it,” he told me. “People still come out just to hear the music, too. That’s a blessing, you know? What else am I going to do but play the piano and sing?”

When I met  McLagan briefly after the WoodSongs taping, he mentioned he had read my piece on him and was pleased that it “sounded like me.”

What Mac music will I be digging into tonight? The Faces’ swan-song studio record, 1973’s Ooh La La, will make the cut for sure. But so will United States, his most recent studio record. The latter isn’t the kind of big, barrelhouse work one might expect from McLagan. It is instead a more reflective, wistful record by a schooled elder who lived the rock ’n’ roll dream to the hilt and was now purposely downshifting with his chops, integrity and spirit intact.

How fortunate we are that Lexington got to share in one of the final chapters of such a remarkable rock ’n’ roll saga.

Ian McLagan was 69.

Bobby Keys, 1943-2014

bobby keys 2

Bobby Keys

The secret of any enduring art form – or any commercial enterprise, for that matter – is teamwork. Fashion that perhaps clichéd philosophy within a rock ’n’ roll context – in particular, the 50 year odyssey of The Rolling Stones – and you will find a band with pioneering, resourceful members but also a support team of expert players and producers. Aside from the great pianist Ian Stewart, who died in 1985, there was no more crucial sideman to the success of the Stones than tenor saxophonist Bobby Keys, who died yesterday at age 70.

Keys and the Stones were kindred spirits from different shores. Where the Stones were British ambassadors bred on American R&B, Keys was the real thing – a wildfire Texas sax ace who lived as uproariously as he played. The Stones would go on to record with a number of exemplary saxophonists over the decades. British vet Mel Collins was awarded the classic groove solo on Miss You. The legendary American jazz colossus Sonny Rollins played the poetic concluding solo on Waiting on a Friend. But the really filthy sax breaks that defined records made during the Stones’ golden era (1969-72) all belonged to Keys.

The psycho roots party breakdown distinguishing Rip This Joint? The boozy sing-a-long solo of Sweet Virginia? The simmering jam instigation during Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? The pressure cooker blast at the heart of Live With Me? Those were all diamond creations of Keys and integral components within the wonderfully debauched tenor of those songs.

And then there was Brown Sugar, a tune with such a perfectly crafted yet completely intuitive solo that it sounded like a composed segment of the song. Keys would play the solo note for note, tour after tour with the Stones until earlier this year when declining health forced the saxophonist to bow out of a series of Australian concerts by the band.

Keys’ dossier outside of the Stones was ridiculous. Among the giants he has played with: The Who, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Warren Zevon, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, John Hiatt, Donovan, Humble Pie and The Faces. But my favorite recording of Keys apart from the Stones remains a scalding concert record with fellow Texan Joe Ely called Live Chicago 1987 (which, perhaps fittingly, wasn’t released until 2009). Hearing Ely at his wildest with Keys ripping through Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, the epic Letter to L.A. and a roadhouse savvy Oh Boy (the classic by Buddy Holly, yet another Texas giant) is pure joy.

But for an immediate taste of Keys’ rock ‘n’ roll bravado, dig out the Stones’ still-extraordinary Exile on Main St. His playing smothers the band’s loosest, soul-marinated tunes like barbeque sauce – sauce smoked in Lone Star country, of course.

in performance: acoustic jam 2014

hunter hayes 2

hunter hayes performing at the opera house last night as part of acoustic jam 2014. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

“If you’re here tonight with someone you’re wildly in love with, let them know,” said Hunter Hayes, one of the 12 country artists showcased last night at the Opera House for the sold-out Acoustic Jam 2014.

That, of course, opened the floodgates for a sizeable, vocal segment of the female contingency on hand to hurl affections – well, verbal ones, at least – directly at the popular 23 year old singer as he launched into a poppish slice of romantic confession called Wanted. By the time the song was over, a marriage proposal was offered and accepted within the audience.

“Congratulations, Hunter,” said baritone voiced Josh Turner, another Acoustic Jam artist seated directly right of Hayes. “One of your fans is no longer single.”

Such was the mood that surrounded one of the most refreshing locally staged country music presentations in years. Such a distinction was due as much to the show’s design as anything else. The dozen artists performed in groups – or, dare we say it in the heart of Wildcat Country, platoons – of four with one-to-three backup players (usually guitarists) to assist. Aside from a few modestly utilized electric keyboards, the instrumentation lived up to the program’s name and operated within lean acoustic frameworks.

That meant all the production varnish applied to contemporary country recordings was stripped away. There was no autotuning, no lip synching and no arena pageantry. There also wasn’t a single performer that didn’t sound better as a result.

Each artist played three songs round-robin style. That made everyone, in essence, a co-billed act. Acoustic Jam was also a benefit concert, netting the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital $120,000.

The first wave centered mostly on new talent: the teen female duo Maddie & Tae, “silent” Sugarland partner Kristian Bush, singer Tyler Farr (in his third Lexington performance in 16 months) and The Voice champion Danielle Bradbery.

Farr was the artist that jump-started this set after a somewhat complacent opening with the wistful Whiskey in My Water. But Maddie & Tae later offered a surprisingly blunt ode about the roles of women in the Nashville work place (Girl in a Country Song) while Bush turned the Sugarland hit Baby Girl into a starkly paternal love song. Bradbery proved a capable but somewhat stymied vocalist during Heart of Dixie. She revealed abundant technical skill but little artistic identity.

Next up was a pack that included two top Central Kentucky country music exports, Montgomery Gentry and John Michael Montgomery, along with young buck stars Sam Hunt and Scotty McCreery.

The duo of Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry probably had to make the biggest adjustment to the acoustic setting, but the rockish, homey vibe of My Town lost nothing minus the voltage. John Michael, the elder Montgomery brother, wound up as a comparative traditionalist with his 2004 hit Letters From Home taking on a deeper, almost sage-like luster. McCreery was surprisingly confident onstage as he celebrated the casual, summery charm of Feelin’ It. Hunt was the distinctive one, though. A curious hybrid of vintage soul crooner and’90s alterative popster, he made his current single Take Your Time sound like a curious but appealing cross between Bobby Womack and Gin Blossoms.

Hayes, Turner, David Nail and Joe Nichols closed out the evening with what was by far the loosest of the three sets.

Nail was humbly proficient in delivering the understated cool of Red Light, Nichols was the open and obvious reveler during Hard to Be Cool and Hayes did his best to play unassuming heartthrob for I Want Crazy. But bettering them all was the solemn tradition stride Turner summoned for the masterful Long Black Train, a work of Johnny Cash-level spirituality, reflection and drama. Of the 36 songs offered by the 12 artists last night, Long Black Train was the one that most decidedly went the distance.

Click here to view Rich Copley’s Acoustic Jam 2014 photo gallery.

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