Archive for May, 2015

in performance : david torn

david torn.

david torn.

David Torn prefaced his solo guitar performance last night at The Monastery in Cincinnati with an eerie tale told with considerable jocularity.

The story dealt with a premonition so strong that it caused Torn and his wife to walk out of a hotel restaurant in Woodstock, NY for fear of an impending calamity. Later that evening, a murder was committed in the hotel.

A veteran of prog-related collaborations, film scores and guitar innovations for more than three decades, Torn told the story with such a wicked grin, almost like an aside, that you couldn’t doubt the authenticity. The same held true for the performance, Torn’s first ever concert in the region. For all the turbulent layers of manipulated sounds he created through an arsenal of pedals, knobs and electronic gadgetry, there was considerable animation at work. Talk about your premonitions.

Torn joked early that describing the onstage process of his playing was next to impossible. “Good luck if you’re hoping for an explanation.”

In essence, he simultaneously recorded and played. Certain riffs and melodic fragments became loops, although that process was used sparingly. More often, the recorded parts were processed electronically and regurgitated in a variety of ways.

In some instances, the sound returned in waves of choral like ambience that seemed to converse in call-and-response fashion with the live guitar playing. At other times, the sound was far more corrosive, tinkering with the very tonality and pitch of the music.

There were times when the electronic enhancements subsided to where an almost folkish lyricism peaked through. But one long improvisatory passage instead concluded with wildly oscillating guitar frenzy that coalesced into a blast that sounded, quite literally, like an explosion.

As a reference point for unsuspecting listeners at The Monastery (a renovated church now operating as a recording studio), Torn offered a bit of familiarity with the Johnny Nash reggae-pop classic I Can See Clearly Now. But his version was anything but obvious. Torn deconstructed the work, elongating and rewiring its sunny melody with the kind of stylistic curiosity one would expect from Bill Frisell. But Torn’s mechanics made it sound like an entire infantry was converging on the tune.

“I think of these technologies as instruments,” Torn said with another grin. “Until they break.”

in performance: hot rize

hot rize: nick forster, bryan sutton, tim o’brien and pete wernick.

hot rize: nick forster, bryan sutton, tim o’brien and pete wernick.

Well into a wonderfully schooled and tasteful two hour performance last night at the Lyric Theatre, Tim O’Brien referred to the concert credo Hot Rize has long worked by.

“We have to play one prison song, murder ballad or coal mine-caving-in tune or we lose our bluegrass license.”

With that, the champion band made good on their word and launched into Ninety Nine Years, a tune of incarceration and remorse set to an assured ensemble tempo, a potent vocal wail and instrumental passages, especially by O’Brien on mandolin and banjo great Pete Wernick, full of rhythmic depth and driving lyrical grace. It was enough to make you forget just how unrepentantly bleak the song was.

That, of course, is one of the great charms of bluegrass music, not to mention a component that sits at the balance of tradition and innovation that has long fueled Hot Rize.

Disbanded since 1990 save for sporadic reunion shows, Hot Rize hasn’t visited Lexington since a Festival of the Bluegrass date in the late ‘80s (although O’Brien, Wernick and guitarist Bryan Sutton have all played here several times on their own). But all it took last night was the show-opening Blue Night, the first song from the band’s first album in 1979, to re-establish ties. The song was a crash course that covered the quartet’s many performance virtues – namely, sterling group harmonies (in this case, by O’Brien, Wernick and electric bassist Nick Forster), string soloing of impassioned but unassuming dignity and the kind of understated authority that only comes from bands that have been around the block a few times.

In a way, Hot Rize is a cultural anomaly, having taken inspiration from its Colorado roots despite the fact none of its four members are natives of the area. But the love of the band’s adopted homeland informs many of its finer songs, especially Western Skies, one of seven tunes performed from When I’m Free, Hot Rize’s first studio recording in 24 years.

While the band can pick with the speed and ferocity of newer generation bluegrass troupes, some of the evening’s most absorbing music came from songs that were more relaxed in tempo and bittersweet in theme, like the title tune to 1987’s Untold Stories and O’Brien’s new Blue is Fallin’.

The mood lightened considerably for a mid-show set by Hot Rize’s country and swing alter ego incarnation as Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, which blended austere country classics such as Always Late With Your Kisses with interludes of comedic corn (like the plug for the faux-sponsoring Waldo’s Discount Donuts: “You bite it, you bought it”).

But the last words, curiously, went to Sutton who gathered the quartet around a single microphone for I Am the Road. How fitting that a show with such sagely musicianship would conclude with four confident voices locked in gospel kinship.

the hotwiring of hot rize

hot rize: pete wernick, nick forster, bryan sutton and tim o'brien.

hot rize: pete wernick, nick forster, bryan sutton and tim o’brien.

For over two decades, Hot Rize existed as a bluegrass band in limbo.

An acclaimed Colorado quartet that served as a conduit between string music tradition and the progressive variations that began to take hold of bluegrass in the late ‘70s, the quartet – Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster – amicably disbanded at the dawn of the ‘90s. But Hot Rize didn’t fully vanish.

Sporadic reunion shows affirmed the band’s legacy as its members pursued disparate solo careers. Even Sawtelle’s death from leukemia in 1996 didn’t end the Hot Rize saga.

But in 2014, things shifted. Hot Rize committed to cutting its first album of new songs in 24 years – its first recording, in fact, to feature all-star guitarist Bryan Sutton, an avid fan of the band as a kid, as a recruit.

“We overcame the biggest obstacle that we all felt,” Forster said. “And that was, ‘Can we make a new Hot Rize record? Can we do something without Charles, given the passage of time, given all the things we’re doing now, and make it feel like Hot Rize?’ And we proved to ourselves that we can. The fans are responding, and I think the record sounds like a Hot Rize record. That’s kind of a load off for us, a nice milestone.”

Next up was the prospect of performance. To support the resulting record When I’m Free, the fully reconstituted Hot Rize committed to several extended runs of touring, which will include its first Lexington performance since an appearance at the Festival of the Bluegrass nearly three decades ago.

“Once you get in to a more refined sense of connection and communication with each other, you go beyond just thinking about remembering the songs or remembering the parts or trying to recreate something,” Forster said. “Having lots of opportunities to play music together, especially with a whole bunch of new songs, really made for a very different experience. It was really the first time we were able to have that experience with Bryan in the band.

“Perhaps it’s just super subtle and it’s the kind of thing only I would notice. But it’s palpable. It really felt like we were really digging into a slightly deeper level of what it means to be in Hot Rize.”

For Forster, the 24 years between the decommission of Hot Rize from full time duty and the release of When I’m Free was spent in eTown, a public radio music and interview program he organized and continues to host out of Colorado. In fact, Hot Rize used eTown’s Boulder studio to record When I’m Free.

“I think eTown has really helped me understand the arc of a show and how to present it, how to connect it and how to engage an audience. I’ve always been the emcee in Hot Rize, too. That’s one of the reasons eTown exists.”

Forster isn’t sure what the future will hold for Hot Rize. The band agreed to a one year commitment for the making, promoting and touring of When I’m Free. That period will conclude this fall.

“I think we’re all a little overcommitted and starting to feel the pressure of maintaining multiple careers at the same time, so I think there will be a happy respite when we’re done. But I also think we’ve grown closer in a way, so my guess is there will be more recording, whether it’s another Hot Rize record or in some other configuration. It’s just really nice to be out playing music together again, especially with new material that’s fresh for us and fresh for our audience.

“It just makes it real again for us as a band. Whether we know it or are even acknowledging it, we’re infusing some really creative energy into this particular foursome.”

Hot Rize performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets: $38.50-$44.50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to

back to BoB

billy joe shaver kicks off BoB on june 9.

billy joe shaver kicks off BoB on june 9.

What would summertime be without a visit from our ol’ pal BoB?

While word on this year’s Best of Bluegrass festival has been long overdue, the wait will pay a substantial dividend. Organized and produced by the Lexington Area Music Alliance, BoB will again preface the Festival of the Bluegrass, as it has the last two years, and return for a second visit this fall ahead of the 2015 Breeder’s Cup.

This month’s three day Bob-fest, dubbed Lil’ BoB so as to differentiate the two events, kicks off June 9 with the return of Billy Joe Shaver to Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. While definitely not a bluegrass act, Shaver is a champion Texas songwriter and a long-heralded country/Americana stylist with strong cross generational appeal. For ticket info, call (859) 281-1116 or go to The Kentucky Hoss Cats will open.

The rest of Lil’ BoB emphasizes local and regional bluegrass. June 10 brings Custom Made Bluegrass to Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. The same evening Arthur Hancock and the Wooks with Kati Penn and Junior Williams of Newtown will perform a free show at Parlay Social.

On June 11, Canyon Collected headlines at Willie’s Locally Known while Shotgun Holler holds a CD release party at Parlay Social, 249 W. Short

For reservations and admission details on the Natasha’s shows, call (859) 259-2754 or go to. For the Parlay Social performances, call (859) 244-1932 or go to

That leads to the opening of the 42nd Festival of the Bluegrass, which runs June 11-14 at the Kentucky Horse Park (

But wait. There’s more BoB to go around. The event takes to the great outdoors this fall as a warm-up for the Breeder’s Cup.

Titled Big BoB, the fall installment brings in two white hot new generation national acts, Town Mountain and The Traveling McCourys, to a downtown stage at Courthouse Plaza on Oct. 28. Arthur Hancock and the Wooks will complete the bill.

critic’s pick 276 : jeff beck, ‘live + ‘

jeff beck live +It has been said the worth of an artist is measured by the company he keeps. Seldom has that credo been shattered with more bravado than with Jeff Beck.

At age 70, he remains a guitarist so wondrously and radically impulsive that it’s tough to imagine any band being able to keep up with him. That’s certainly true of the personnel backing him up on Live +, a new concert recording cut during a North American tour last August.

The players are all muscular in terms of chops and drive, especially formerly Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall who helps Beck assemble a repertoire that stretches back as far as his 1968 debut album Truth. But throughout Live +, Beck operates with a level of instinct that leaves his band mates in the dust.

Take the boogie grinder Going Down, which Beck originally cut on the Jeff Beck Group album in 1972. Hall sings like a hurricane throughout the tune, a testament to his ageless voice but perhaps not his sense of dynamics. While the full tilt tone of the singing eventually becomes static, Beck treats the tune as a lab experiment, playing with the piece’s blues-based rhythm by bending funky power chords and screaming punctuation in a way that more or less ignores Hall altogether.

The same holds true for a wild cover of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s You Know You Know. Composed over four decades ago by John McLaughlin as an ascending jam held together by a mantra-like melody, the piece becomes a playground for Beck. Bassist Rhonda Smith and Jonathan Joseph are generously afforded extended solos full of technical prowess but little sense of invention. Still, Beck has a field day by adding outer space hiccups and wiry bits of animation over the rhythm guitar of Nicolas Meier, luxuriating in the spaces McLaughlin wrote into the tune far more than the indulgences of his drummer and bassist.

The techno drive behind two new studio tracks, Tribal and My Tiled White Floor, are similarly unspectacular, yet Beck plays like a demon on both. But on the contemplative Where Were You and, of all things, a reading of Danny Boy, Beck downshifts to offer playing full of subtle grace and color.

That Beck’s band plays a failing game of catch-up is almost beside the point. Few outfits outside of the Jan Hammer Group in the mid’70s have proved a capable foil for the guitarist. What impresses most about Live + (and what ultimately recommends it) is the musicianship of an instrumentalist flexing not technique but instinct. Beck may be 70, but the playfulness he expresses on the recording sounds youthful and fearless.

in performance: willie watson

willie watson.

willie watson.

“I know they like to play banjos in tune in Kentucky,” remarked Willie Watson before launching into a brittle bit of 1920s, Georgia-born folk-blues called Kitty Puss last night at Natasha’s Bistro. “So I’m just trying to fit in.”

Striking a bond with the audience on hand proved a modest task. While many patrons were likely introduced to Watson through his tenure with the revisionist string band Old Crow Medicine Show, he proved an amiable solo artist who created a distinct performance persona for the delivery of folk staples popularized over the last century by the likes of Ma Rainey, Utah Phillips, Rev. Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie.

During this 80 minute unaccompanied acoustic program, Watson wasn’t interested in the idea of presenting such tunes as rustic museum pieces. His vocal delivery was bright, animated and immediate. On the show opening Take This Hammer, for instance, Watson sounded like Jimmie Rodgers with a monstrous vibrato. There were echoes of bluegrass-inspired high lonesome singing (which would flourish in a more thematic way on the hapless Mexican Cowboy that followed), but Watson’s clean and expressive wails were more akin to gospel.

Of course, rattling around in the folk attic sometimes means wrestling with songs that, by modern standards, seem decidedly non-PC. Watson was apologetic about the mildly misogynistic slant of James Alley Blues, which he defused by essentially playing it for laughs (or, at least, that’s how the audience seemed to take it). But on the far darker Rock Salt and Nails, Watson allowed an unease fueled by the song’s murderous starkness to surface.

That was one of several sobering tunes that quieted patrons that became chattier (especially between songs) as the show progressed. Equally effective in bringing quiet to the room was a beautifully expressive Tattle O’Day, a banjo infused take on The Cuckoo and a devilishly involving encore of See See Rider.

While half of the set was devoted to nine of the 10 tunes from Watson’s 2014 solo debut album Folk Singer, Vol. 1, the remainder highlighted, among other delights, the hilltop gospel of I Belong to the Band and the show closing glee of On the Road Again (the traditional tune refashioned by the Grateful Dead, not the Willie Nelson hit) that gave hope Vol. 2 is headed our way soon.

the blown up folk singer

willie watson.

willie watson.

A year ago at this time, Willie Watson was embarking on his most extensive solo tour since breaking ranks with Old Crow Medicine Show.

His mission? To establish himself as an artist apart from his former, famed band armed with a pack of vintage folk songs penned or previously interpreted by the likes of Leadbelly, Utah Phillips and Roscoe Holcomb. He fashioned 10 such unaccompanied tunes together on a Dave Rawlings-produced solo album called, aptly enough, Folk Singer, Vol. 1.

So as another summer commences, how well does the guitarist/banjoist feel his mission has gone?

“I think the record worked. The plan sort of worked. We just wanted to get me out there doing what I could do best. I just sing these songs. It’s such a simple sort of idea, but I think people have embraced it in the past year.

“There are much more spectacular concerts than what I do, but it’s having an impact on people. I appreciate that, for sure. A lot of people keep coming to the shows, so I keep doing it.”

And Folk Singer, Vol. 1? Does the record still stand up for him, as well?

“I put it on the other day for my daughter and I hated it,” Watson said. “Couldn’t bear it.”

Before you assume Watson is a complete defeatist, know he has felt the same way about every recorded work he has been involved with, from the banjo/fiddle driven albums he cut with Old Crow Medicine Show between 1998 and 2012 right up through Folk Singer, Vol.1, his debut solo album.

“It’s been that way with everything I’ve ever done. I put on those Old Crow records now and I can’t believe I was singing like that. I’m just very critical of myself. But, ultimately, what I think of the music is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. If that is the sound that’s making a lot of people happy, then so be it. But what I do is always changing. It’s always developing.”

Watson’s introduction to such folk staples as James Alley Blues, Rock Salt and Nails and Midnight Special came during his teen years.

“I was seventh grade when I first got into clawhammer banjo and old-time fiddle music,” he said. “It grew from there. I was already listening to Woody Guthrie by then. I had done the Bob (Dylan) thing. I had done the Neil Young thing. I knew I liked acoustic music. But I liked rock ‘n’ roll, too. I was really into Crazy Horse and the whole grunge thing before all that. So it sort of went on from there.”

“There is a common simplicity about this music and the way the chords work that draw people in. It feels friendly. It makes people feel comfortable. That’s all over the place today, too. That’s happening with Americana music now. It’s happening with Mumford & Sons and those kinds of bands that have taken this whole structure of music and blown it up.”

Old Crow Medicine Show was among the first new generation bands to breakthrough with such a “blown up” folk sound. But Watson said his decade-plus tenure with the band was also a vital training ground for the life of a modern day traveling musician.

“That band did really well right away,” Watson said. “We were in the right places at the right times. That’s where I learned everything about what it’s like to tour and be a working musician. We got hooked up with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch pretty soon after we moved to Nashville. They really showed us the ropes about how to make records.

“Then we just got out there and played music. We did that for over 10 years with a bunch of guys. We just worked the road and let the road work for us.”

Willie Watson performs at 8 tonight at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Tickets: $15.

Call (859) 259-2754 or got to

critic’s pick 275 : the kentucky headhunters and johnnie johnson, ‘meet me in bluesland’

ky headhunters + jjThe release of Meet Me in Bluesland is akin to the surfacing of sunken treasure. The second recorded collaboration between the pride of Metcalfe County, the Kentucky HeadHunters, and veteran Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson, the recording was cut in three days but shelved for 12 years. It has finally surfaced to further fortify the legacy of both acts.

The story behind Meet Me in Bluesland goes likes this. Johnson was just shy of 80 when he jammed with the Rolling Stones (on Honky Tonk Women, no less) at Houston’s Reliant Stadium in January 2003. Then he caught a flight to Glasgow to join the HeadHunters on their home turf. There were never concrete plans to release the recording sessions that resulted as an album. Even after Johnson’s death in 2005, the music remained unissued.

Given how joyous Johnson and the band sounded on their first album together, 1993’s That’ll Work, sheltering the recorded possibility of a follow-up is tough to fathom. Now that we hear the results of those sessions on Meet Me in Bluesland, the record’s late arrival seems indefensible.

That Johnson sounds so vibrant on these tracks – 10 collaborative originals along with a deliriously fun cover of the Berry classic Little Queenie – is hardly a surprise. Though public recognition of Johnson’s sublime boogie woogie playing came very late in his life and career, he plays with the HeadHunters like a bonafide star by blasting out of the starting guide with the giddy but self-effacing Stumblin’ (“let’s go stumblin’ ‘cause you know we can’t dance”). The fun doesn’t subside until the sly slide groove of Superman Blues brings the record to a close 43 minutes later.

The song also underscores the HeadHunters own musical ammo – specifically, the Southern soul-soaked playing of guitarist Greg Martin. Even on the HeadHunters’ more country leaning albums, Martin’s playing has always been a rootsy anchor. Here, even more than on That’ll Work, he sounds like a player unleashed, from his Elmore James via Duane Allman runs on Walking with the Wolf to the chunky, summery groove he establishes on Sometime.

But Meet Me in Bluesland is ultimately Johnson’s party. His relaxed yet still rollicking piano accents color the whole album, especially the cheery rumbles he adds to Fast Train, that sound straight out of the Berry staple Memphis, and his extended solo during Little Queenie that the Stones would have killed for when they recorded it decades ago.

The killer though, is She’s Got to Have It, a lean saga of romantic immediacy that includes Johnson’s last recorded vocal performance. It’s a sagely compliment to one of the year’s most welcome root-rock archival finds.

happy trails, dave

david letterman's final "late show" airs tonight.

david letterman’s final “late show” airs tonight.

So it has all come down to this. After 33 years of stupid pet tricks, Top 10 lists and flying pencils, David Letterman will host his very last Late Show tonight. In all ways, a television era – perhaps the last of its kind – will end when the program signs off around 12:35 tomorrow morning.

As someone who watches very little TV (the local news, Modern Family reruns, that’s about it), The Late Show with David Letterman was a broadcast oasis presided over by an Olympian smart ass. He took shots at everyone, especially himself, and seemed to love nothing more than when a guest he had previously skewered (Bill O’Reilly, Martha Stewart, Dr. Phil) took the humor as exactly that.

He could be merciless when he sensed a guest was being opportunistic. Ages ago, when Jane Seymour was promoting a coffee table book designed as “a guide to romantic living,” he asked how the actress would encourage the romantic side of a garbage collector. The interviewed nosedived from there.

But when he was in the presence of greatness, he recognized it. One of the very few times Letterman was obviously star struck came during his NBC years when he interviewed a frail but feisty Bette Davis. His sentiments were similarly humble whenever he spoke of mentoring figures like Johnny Carson.

Then there was the humor. Sometimes the jokes were deliciously off center (my favorite Top 10 list remains “The Top 10 Amish Spring Break Pranks”). Sometimes it was unapologetically juvenile, like the dropping of everything from paint cans to pumpkins from the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, Letterman’s Broadway home during his CBS years. Best of all, though, was the way he turned stage hands, interns, costume designers, carpenters, the deli owner next door and, for a time, his own mother into comics just by having them act like themselves.

To this date, nothing cracked me up more than a recurring bit where a pair of deadpan New York stage hands would read transcripts from Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show. On the other hand, nothing he aired was more unsentimentally touching than a program-long interview/performance with an ailing Warren Zevon done shortly before his death from lung cancer and the singer’s reciprocal comment that Letterman was “the best friend my music ever had.”

All of this came together over the past six weeks or so as Letterman neared retirement. A bit as recently as last week where he interviewed Tom Waits while being handcuffed to George Clooney deserves placement in Letterman’s personal hall of fame.

I got to see Letterman tape his programs a half-dozen times in New York over the years. I got to witness a skateboarding dog, exasperated offstage staffers recoiling as Joan Rivers spewed obscenities, The Pretenders in glorious performance and some sharp verbal jousting with Robert Downey, Jr. But it all came down to Dave doing what he did in his historic theatre, ending his pre-show greeting to the audience each time with the promise that “we’ll have you out of here in time for happy hour.”

So cheers, Dave. Thanks for the laughs, the music and the company. Broadway and television simply won’t be the same without you.

in performance: ross hammond

ross hammond.

ross hammond.

The soundscapes that kept the Morris Book Store open a little past closing hour earlier tonight were part of the Outside the Spotlight Series of jazz directed improvisational music performances. But in reality, it was tough to peg the music Ross Hammond had on display as jazz in any strict sense.

Granted, the Lexington-born guitarist has established himself as a potent electric player in a variety of collaborative jazz projects on the West Coast for many years. But here at home, Hammond travelled an altogether different route. Over the course of an hour, he assembled six instrumental pieces for unaccompanied 12 string acoustic guitar that seemed to defy genre classification.

The distinguishing factor for the selections was Hammond’s recent folk and spirituals album Flight. But the record essentially served as a blueprint for even newer (and newly revised) pieces built around the rhythmic flow established by the 12 string. The lyrical appeal and the tunes’ overall spaciousness suggested European inspiration. But in several instances, Hammond briefly colored the music with slide guitar, which provided his playing with accents of American primitive music in general and revered guitar stylist John Fahey in particular.

But Hammond’s performance style was not nearly as brittle as Fahey’s. Songs like How Old is Your Face? and How Does a Monkey Write a Song? (with titles and inspiration suggested by the guitarist’s daughter) sounded largely meditative with only the slightest of melodies growing out of the 12 string’s richly orchestrated flow.

The comparatively pensive feel of For Miep Gies, however, opened the lyricism up to where it felt more in line with the patient, internalized playing of the great ECM guitarist Ralph Towner.

Consider Fahey and Towner more as references within Hammond’s music as opposed to strict stylistic influences. During a nearly unrecognizable reading of This Little Light of Mine, the tone and flow of Hammond’s playing answered to no one, sounding less like a rural spiritual and more like a pastoral folk-jazz reverie. Like the rest of this intimate, unamplified and beautifully immediate performance, influences were strictly support players for a sound that was serenely Hammond’s own creation.

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