Archive for January, 2015

stevie wonder to bring ‘keys of life’ to louisville.

stevie wonder.

stevie wonder.

One of the most celebrated pop-soul sounds of any generation is heading to Kentucky. On March 27, Stevie Wonder will play the KFC Yum! Center for a very rare Bluegrass area concert appearance.

The show is one of 11 spring dates that extends Wonder’s 2014 Songs in the Key of Life Performance Tour. As the title suggests, the tour is built around a full concert performance of the singer’s multi-Grammy-winning 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life. But reviews of last year’s shows reveal the setlist also includes other celebrated Wonder classics, including Superstition, Living for the City and Higher Ground.

Tickets for the Louisville show go on sale at 10 a.m. Jan. 24 through www.livenation.com, www.ticketmaster.com, the KFC Yum! Center box office, all Ticketmaster outlets and phone at (800) 745-3000. Tickets will cost $36.50-$144.50.

Released in the fall of 1976, Songs in the Key of Life is widely considered the critical and commercial zenith of Wonder’s career, having been the last of four albums (1972’s Talking Book, 1973’s Inner Visions and 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale were the others) that modernized his popular Motown pop sound of the ‘60s to include a more urban-embracing urgency for the ‘70s. Still, it produced several huge pop hits, including Isn’t She Lovely, I Wish and As. The album also won four Grammys in 1977, including Album of the Year (where it beat out Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive, Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees, George Benson’s Breezin’ and Chicago’s Chicago X).

Wonder has infrequently played Louisville over the decades. He performed in Lexington at Rupp Arena only once, in September 1986.

in performance: jorma kaukonen/lowell levinger

jorma kaukonen.

jorma kaukonen.

Sitting side by side last night at the Lyric Theatre for the first 2015 taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Jorma Kaukonen and Lowell Levinger couldn’t help but be viewed as contemporaries of each other. Kaukonen was the folk-blues guitarist that helped light the psychedelic fuse of the Jefferson Airplane 50 years ago. Clevinger (“Banana” to his fans) was the bluegrass reared artist that served as lead guitarist for folk-rock favorites The Youngbloods up until their demise in 1973 (the same year the Airplane was grounded).

Both artists, however, returned to their primarily acoustic roots long ago. Last night, armed with only one instrument each and (save for one tune we will discuss in a moment) no accompanists, their well-schooled Americana pedigrees warmed up an otherwise blustery winter evening. Each had new recordings to promote that are still a month away from release, but their performances nonetheless possessed a welcome familiarity.

Kaukonen pulled four of his five tunes from his forthcoming Ain’t In No Hurry. While the set was novel only in the conspicuous absence of songs by one of the guitarist’s most frequented inspirations, the Rev. Gary Davis, the gospel-folk-blues measure of Kaukonen’s acoustic playing sounded largely unchanged since the ’70s.

The blues staples Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out and Brother Can You Spare a Dime possessed the leisurely sway of Hesitation Blues (another standard Kaukonen has essentially made his own over the decades). On the other hand, In My Dreams and Ain’t in No Hurry’s title tune (both new originals), quietly opted for an almost romantic glimpse of folkish fancy that recalled Kaukonen’s 1974 solo debut album, Quah.

The guitarist also stepped back in time for an encore version of Blind Blake’s Never Happen No More that retained all the lyrically hapless and musically greasy charm Hot Tuna draped the song in 45 years ago.

Levinger split his four songs between blues-reared reflections from the recent Down to the Roots album (Married to the Blues, Love is a Five Letter Word) and retooled favorites from an upcoming record of Youngbloods tunes (Get Together, Darkness Darkness). WoodSongs seemed a little overly determined to pump up Get Together as a reborn peace anthem by making it a collaborative performance that included Kaukonen, host Michael Johnathon and a small entourage of singers and instrumentalists. Well intended as the summit was, the end result smothered the tune’s inherent and enduring simplicity.

Far more appealing was Levinger’s playing on a 5 string tenor guitar shaped like a mandolin (and largely tuned like one). The resonating sound he conjured – a rustic mix of steel guitar and banjo – was wondrously rootsy indeed.

the elder jorma

jorma kaukonen.

jorma kaukonen.

For over a half century, Jorma Kaukonen has mastered the art of acting one’s age.

As a roots music enthusiast in his early 20s, he absorbed the songs and fingerstyle guitar inspirations of the Rev. Gary Davis as the country awakened to a’60s folk boom.

When that generation plugged their music in as the decade progressed, Kaukonen joined in as co-founder of San Francisco’s cornerstone psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane and, eventually, its still-active blues-based offshoot, Hot Tuna.

In recent decades, though, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer refocused on his initial folk and blues influences through more elemental lineups of Hot Tuna, his own expansive solo career and the guitar classes he oversees at his Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio.

Having turned 74 two days before Christmas, Kaukonen is openly embracing his elder musical persona with a new solo record called Ain’t in No Hurry. Due out Feb. 17, the album is a collection of new and old songs cut with new and old friends. But the end result is a musical portrait the guitarist views as being very up-to-the-minute.

“Everything I do tends to be reflected in terms of what is going on, more or less, in my life and where I am at that moment,” said Kaukonen, who will perform for the first 2015 taping of the WoodSong Old Time Radio Hour on Monday. “So for me, this record is the project of a 74 year old guy.”

Ain’t in No Hurry was produced by Larry Campbell, guitarist and collaborator for such greats as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm and many others, as well as a participant on many of Kaukonen’s most recent recordings.

“I’ve worked with Larry on a number of projects – both my solo records and with Hot Tuna as well as some stuff of his, too. Larry is a multi-instrumentalist, but he is also an adept and creative producer. As a producer, he goes inside the artist – in this case, me – and it’s like he’s known you all your artistic life. He doesn’t try to change you. He tries to make you sound like you. It’s like we’ve always been in a band together.”

Ain’t in No Hurry sports several new original songs that poetically hint at mortality (In My Dreams, Seasons in the Field) along with folk-blues staples that have been part of Kaukonen’s performance repertoire for as much as 50 years but are just now finding a place on one of his records (Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out).

The big surprise, though, is a reworking of a vintage Kaukonen tune, Bar Room Crystal Ball, that first appeared on the 1975 Hot Tuna album Yellow Fever. But unlike the heavy electric cast of the original version, the tune now takes on a lighter country air colored by Campbell’s pedel steel playing and Kaukonen’s scholarly fingerpicking. It also enlists help from Kaukonen’s longtime running buddy in Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane, bassist Jack Casady.

“A lot of people listen to our stuff, whether it was with Jefferson Airplane or Hot Tuna, and they tend to interpret things through an interesting filter,” Kaukonen said. “Sometimes they come up with meanings to lyrics I’ve written that just have me going, ‘What planet are these people from?’ And that’s not a criticism. I find, as an artist, if somebody likes your song, it doesn’t matter what they hear. As long as they like it, that’s okay. But Bar Room Crystal Ball was a very personal song done in a very bombastic way on Yellow Fever. As such, it was one song I always wanted to do so you could actually hear all the lyrics.

“You know, at some point, you just can’t avoid the phrase ‘at my age.’ Well, at my age, people ask me, ‘Do you ever think about retiring?’ And I always say, ‘So I can do what? Play the guitar more?’ The thing is I’m so fortunate that I’m still healthy enough to do this kind of stuff. The traveling isn’t fun. The glamour years of air travel are long gone. But whether it’s me and Jack or me with any of my buddies, when we hit the stage and start playing, it’s still as magical as it ever was.”

WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour featuring Jorma Kaukonen and Lowell “Banana” Levinger. 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third. Tickets: $10 public, $5 students. Call (859) 252-8888.

critic’s pick 256: leonard cohen, ‘live in dublin’

leoanrd cohen live in dublin“The present’s not that pleasant,” sings Leonard Cohen on Darkness, an unassuming and perhaps unintentional centerpiece tune to Live in Dublin. “Just a lot of things to do.”

As poetic and sleekly disturbing as ever, Cohen remains both the king and jester of his domain. A restless troubadour and distinguished elder who turned 79 just a few weeks after this performance was given in 2013, he has completely renewed himself over the past seven years as a concert artist after a prolonged absence from the stage. Live in Dublin is his latest and most vivid snapshot from the road – a three CD, 30 song account of a single Irish concert along with an accompanying DVD of the show.

Initially, one might ask if such a package was even necessary. Cohen issued a double-disc live recording in 2009 (Live in London) and a single disc companion in 2011 (Songs From the Road) that introduced his new performance guise. Live in Dublin replicates much of the repertoire from the earlier albums and utilizes essentially the same band. Even the blue-hued cover art from Live in Dublin seems purposely fashioned after Live in London.

So why the massive and seemingly redundant follow-up? Well, for starters, Live in Dublin augments the set list with songs from Cohen’s 2012 studio record, Old Ideas – arguably, his best set of new songs in three decades. It was from Old Ideas that Darkness came. Also from the record we have the bluesy prayer for repentance Amen (“I’m listening… I’m listening so hard that it hurts”) and the powerfully contemplative lullaby Come Healing that views mankind largely as a pack of universal bystanders (“none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace”).

Cohen reflected heavily about mortality on Old Ideas. That might make those songs seem removed from such early and outwardly intimate fare as Suzanne, Chelsea Hotel #2 or I’m Your Man, all of which are delivered with sagely subtlety on Live on Dublin. But since Cohen has adopted such a slight, sweeping but richly orchestrated sound from his touring band, boundaries between new and old music are blurred quite handsomely.

A beautiful case-in-point comes during the record’s third disc, which is devoted to the Irish concert’s encore tunes. There, the gentle Old Ideas scolding from God Going Home (“I’d love to speak with Leonard… he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”) is paired with the vengeful and earthy doomsday rumination First We Take Manhattan (“I’m coming to reward them”).

Of course, romance isn’t fully suppressed amid the turmoil. Cohen brings down the curtain on the three hour Live in Dublin with a cover of Save the Last Dance For Me. But amid the samba-like sway of his band and his own bullfrog whisper of a voice, one senses the song’s inclusion is tongue-in-cheek, a tune to whistle as civilization crumbles.

in performance: ute lemper and the lexington philharmonic orchestra

ute 3

ute lemper during a monday rehearsal with the lexington philharmonic. lexington herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

The slant of Ute Lemper’s remarkable performance last night with the Lexington Philharmonic at the Opera House was in many ways autobiographical. The first set celebrated the French chansons of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel so often tagged as cabaret songs. This is music the singer undoubtedly absorbed while living in Paris, if not earlier. The second was largely devoted to the Weimar works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill to which the German-born Lemper has long been a devoted revivalist.

When the show came down to essentials, though, the chanteuse was singing about two things – love and scoundrels. Given that many of the songs were sung in their native tongues, it was up to Lemper and the orchestra to unlock the music’s inherent sass and drama. To that end, this New Year’s Eve concert was nothing short of transportive.

While Lemper unleashed a wildly versed vocabulary in her singing – coy whispers, scolding bravura and, at times, gorgeous contralto – half the fun was watching her sell this material. A veteran stage actress, Lemper performed much of the program, especially the chansons, with a very natural theatricality – a wave of the arms, a clench of the fist, a flash of the eyes or, in the saucier moments, a discreet swivel of the hips. Too bad there couldn’t have been video screens to enlarge such modest embellishments to the upper decks of the Opera House.

Ah, but what of love and scoundrels? That’s where Lemper’s often astounding blend of tone, temperament and intuition came into play. The Friedrich Hollaender penned/Marlene Dietrich popularized Falling in Love Again (an unplanned addition to the program) and Norbert Schultze’s Lili Marleen were sung almost as lullabies by Lemper with only sparse piano accompaniment. But for the Brecht/Weill staple Surabaya Johnny, the Philharmonic acted as enambler as Lemper unloaded the song’s terse command in English (“Take the damn pipe out of your mouth, you swine”).

The autobiographical nature of the program also meant offering a few tastes of the many styles outside of the chansons and the Weimar that Lemper has regularly reached to throughout her career, including the sublime tango music of Astor Piazzolla (Marie de Buenos Aires) and the singer’s own stage background (the Chicago favorite All That Jazz, which closed the evening). Both displayed impressive stylistic reach on the part of the Philharmonic.

But perhaps the most succinct summit of love and scoundrels came during the popular Die Moritat von Mackie Messer from The Threepenny Opera. With a bowler and a mischievous smile as her only props, Lemper summoned a dance hall feel both foreign and familiar. What a profoundly fun way to get the last word in on 2014.

critic’s pick 256: james farm, ‘city folk’

james-farm-city-folkJames Farm is a part-time jazz collective boasting a swift melodic kick, meaty but understated improvisational prowess and a strong compositional sense that speaks strongly to the band’s often orderly sound.

If all that makes the all-star quartet seem safe, don’t fret. James Farm simply favors music that is less confrontational than the product of many like-minded jazz troupes. That provides the band’s sophomore album, City Folk, with an appealing accessibility – the kind that usually relies on fusion and/or R&B accents. City Folk dismisses both with 10 original compositions (three each by saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks and bassist Matt Penman with one by drummer Eric Harland).

Take Harland’s North Star, for example. The rhythm section plays with stately confidence over a melody that is strong enough to carry the tune with natural grace. But it’s also light enough for the bounce of Redman’s tenor sax lead and Penman’s limber bass lines to dance about. When Parks gently wrestles the melody away, Harland remains steadfast. The result is a song with the cohesion of a pop tune and the instrumental muscle of fusion. But the execution and intent is all straight ahead jazz.

With a 20-plus year recording career under his own name to his credit, Redman is the marquee name within the James Farm lineup. To be sure, his glowing tenor tone lights up the soft focus shuffle of City Folk’s title tune and the more percolating East Coast rumble of Mr. E (both are Redman compositions). But if there is a dominate voice, it belongs to Parks. A refreshingly diverse stylist, both as a lead voice and a rhythm player, the pianist is at the heart of City Folks’ easygoing flow.

On Aspirin, he punches out organic funk on Yamaha electric piano under Harland’s unhurried shuffle and Redman’s playful tenor that alternates between restless punctuation and lyrical warmth. Then he lightly colors Jury’s Out with simultaneous lead and melodic phrases to enhance a prevailing sense of cool (both tunes were written by Penman).

Mostly, though, City Folk is an album of feel and mood. Cut exactly a year ago in Brooklyn, one can only assume this music was a reaction of sorts to the dead-of-winter conditions surrounding the sessions. Though released in late October, the music’s resulting temperament is perhaps best appreciated as January takes hold. Listen to the subtle orchestration provided by, of all things, mellotron, during the Parks tune Otherwise and you sense the crafty melodic sweep of James Farm at work. It’s a sign of welcome and warmth, a mix that makes this unassuming jazz treat something of a winter getaway.

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