Archive for May, 2015

in performance: dr. john and the nite trippers

dr. john. photo by bruce weber.

dr. john. photo by bruce weber.

“Does anybody need a Doctor?”

That was the cue from the stage at the Lexington Opera House earlier tonight that ushered in Mac Rebennack, the vanguard New Orleans pianist and song stylist known better to audiences as Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and musical shaman Dr. John.

With that, the good doctor took a seat at the piano and offered a quick primer in his musical ancestry (Professor Longhair and Huey Smith were the most visible inspirations) by hammering out a medley of Iko Iko and Shoo Fly. The carnival had officially begun.

This was an evening of many surprises. To begin with, the concert was advertised as a tribute to Louis Armstrong, tying the evening into Rebennack’s 2014 Satchmo-themed album Ske-Dat-De-Dat. That wasn’t the case at all. In fact, the only tune offered from the record was a gospel heavy reading of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. Even then, Rebennack re-assigned vocal duties so he could color in the spiritual bliss on piano.

What the 100 minute show turned out to be was, if anything, considerably more special – a detailed glimpse into Rebennack’s early years as Dr. John that excavated tunes from six of the seven groundbreaking albums the pianist cut for Atco Records between 1968 and 1974.

Some of the material was familiar, like the 1973 hit Right Place Wrong Time, the only tune of the night where Rebennack switched from piano to a small portable keyboard to replicate the tune’s ultra-funky clavinet groove.

Others were rich in New Orleans tradition, like Big Chief (from 1972’s Gumbo) and Mardi Gras Day (from 1970’s Remedies) that unlocked the second line syncopation of drummer Herlin Riley and a highly efficient five-member band.

But the show also went deep into the psychedelic voodoo side of the Dr. John persona for tunes that have long been absent from Rebennack’s shows. Among the rarities were the title tune to 1971’s Babylon, where musical director Sarah Morrow wildly refashioned the song’s electronic incantation for trombone, and Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, where the 74 year old Rebennack sounded eerily like the young Crescent City medicine man that first conjured the tune in 1968.

That, friends, was just what the doctor ordered.

mac and satch

dr. john

dr. john

There is a tag Mac Rebennack – known the world over as New Orleans rock, funk and roots music patriarch Dr. John – loves to summon when his describing his music.

He uses it when referencing his band, his takes on the jazz gems popularized by Crescent City icon Louis Armstrong (which form the foundation of his current album and tour) and the entire gris-gris culture that sits at the heart of his stage persona.

The word is “slamming.” But under Rebennack’s soulful, unhurried New Orleans dialect, an accent so heavy one almost hears the humidity dripping from it, the word sounds positively incantatory.

“Slah-muhn.”

“I think everything is slamming,” said Rebennack, 74, the veteran pianist and six-time Grammy winner, who brings the Armstrong-themed songs of his 2014 album Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch album to the Opera House on Sunday. “I feel blessed about everything.”

For Rebennack, a love of Armstrong’s music was instilled almost at birth. Both musicians hailed from New Orleans’ famed Third Ward. But serious admiration began when the young Rebennack was introduced to Armstrong’s music at his father’s appliance store, which also sold records.

“My father’s shop was way out on Gentilly Road, which is far removed from the Third Ward,” Rebennack said. “Yeah, my pa played a lot of Louis’ records. He was considered traditional jazz, but I also heard bebop and a lot of the Afro-Cuban music. He had race records, too. That was rhythm and blues as well as blues. He had spiritual records and hillbilly records. Those were the kinds of records my father sold.”

Rebennack met Armstrong briefly in the late ‘60s as his own recording career as Dr. John was beginning and Armstrong’s was winding down. Both were clients of champion booker/manager Joe Glaser, whose client list had included Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.

“I was blessed to meet Louis Armstrong in Joe Glaser’s office, and that was just, well, a very spiritual thing,” Rebennack said. “We jaw-jerked about him sitting on this rock in Bucktown, right outside of the port of New Orleans. That’s when my pa’s shop was out there.

“This was across the street from Ralph Schultz’s Fresh Hardware store. Louis Armstrong was telling me how he was laughing so hard about what went on at Ralph’s store. Ralph could marry you. He could sell you break tag stickers (for automobiles). Whatever he did, he just made Louis laugh.”

On Ske-Dat-De-Dat, the pure joy of Armstrong is translated with a New Orleans groove that rings closer to King Oliver and Professor Longhair than to Satchmo himself. An all-star guest list that includes Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, Arturo Sandoval, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Blind Boys of Alabama help out, as do two notables that will be part of Rebennack’s Nite Trippers band on Sunday – trombonist and Ske-Dat-De-Dat producer/arranger Sarah Morrow and veteran New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley (an alumnus of Wynton Marsalis’ famed ‘90s septet who played the Opera House last fall with pianist Marcus Roberts).

“I’m really grateful to have a slamming band like this,” Rebennack said.

Of course, no one on the guest list upstages the mighty Dr. John. While the psychedelic shaman pageantry that dominated his concerts and recordings through the decades is largely held in check on Ske-Dat-De-Dat, his sense of Crescent City soul thrives in the way his piano work madly mingles with horns on Dippermouth Blues and in how his singing leads a conga line reimagining of When You’re Smiling to conclude the record.

That kind of soul and rhythm isn’t just a fixture of Armstrong’s music or even of New Orleans culture. For Dr. John, it’s a component of everyday life.

“I think that no matter what you go through in life, you got to roll. You got to roll like a big wheel in the Georgia cotton fields.”

Dr. John and the Nite Trippers perform at 7 p.m. May 17 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $85.50. Call: (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or got to ticketmaster.com

in performance: dave rempis, darren johnston and larry ochs

clockwise from left: dave rempis, larry ochs and darren johnston.

clockwise from left: dave rempis, larry ochs and darren johnston.

The Outside the Spotlight series has been in action long enough that one of the great secrets behind its finest performances has become a given – dynamics. And last night’s trio performance by Dave Rempis, Darren Johnston and Larry Ochs at Dixieland Gardens sported a truckload of it.

For the uninitiated, OTS shows are jazz by definition but are better defined by the level of free improvisation involved. Last night’s concert was devoted almost exclusively to it. But despite regular forays into pure abstraction, the trio’s two sets sported improvisations that were almost respiratory in design.

The music would simmer within a variety of subtleties – like the cyclical rounds of sound that began the evening and the moments of whispery intensity that distinguished the second set – before boiling over with pure ensemble combustion. Watching these extremes build, deconstruct and reassemble at a pace that often surprised even the three artists creating the music was a serious thrill.

The trio’s novel instrumentation – two saxophones and trumpet – often played into the show fascinating dynamics. Rempis, an OTS regular that has played Lexington in nearly a dozen different band settings, initiated the fun with punctuated bursts on alto saxophone that sounded almost like aquatic percussion. Enter Ochs on tenor saxophone and Johnston on trumpet and the music tensed up for sharp ensemble jabs. There were respites from the fury, but the performance’s moments of solace were merely set ups that were quickly shattered so the trio could work itself into another lather.

The music allowed the three players to each shift between two instruments. Rempis doubled on baritone sax (his weapon of choice for a fascinating solo excursion during the second set) while Ochs moonlighted on sopranino sax (an instrument of compact size and a sound that fortified the evening’s boldest group exchanges). Johnston stuck to trumpet but augmented it a variety of plungers and mutes that wildly varied its sound. Clanging a metal bowl against the horn also furthered the trio’s percussive vocabulary.

The extraordinary acoustics this completely unamplified performance received within the brick walls of Dixieland Gardens and the wonderfully spontaneous moments of pure quiet that peppered the concert as the artists plotted their next move added to the fun while extending the music’s sublime dynamics.

b.b. king, 1925-2015

b.b.  king performing in 1999. herald-leader staff photograph by mark cornelison.

b.b. king performing in 1999. herald-leader staff photograph by mark cornelison.

“Hard luck and trouble seem to be my middle name,” sang B.B. King nearly 45 years ago in a typically elegant slice of orchestrated blues called Chains and Things. The song was part of a brilliant stretch of recordings issued between 1965 and 1975 that defined a titan musical life that ended yesterday at age 89.

For the better part of his career, King was synonymous with the blues. It’s hard to imagine an artist so associated with a specific musical genre. Casual music fans that knew little or nothing of the blues still invariably knew of King. As a musical ambassador for the blues, his influence and inspiration remain limitless.

To musicians, especially guitarists, his early recordings were like college textbooks.

“I got to see him record when I was a youngster — maybe seven years old,” ZZ Top guitarist Bill Gibbons told me in a 2013 interview. “My dad had an ‘in’ at the studio in Houston where B.B. and company preferred to record. That experience made a tremendous impression on me and, obviously, it’s stayed on all these years. B.B. King is now in year 63 or 64 of his career, and I’ve only been at it for maybe 45 years, so there’s a whole lot of catching up to do.”

But King was also a profound rarity among roots music musicians in that he achieved far reaching commercial and crossover popularity. Much of that stemmed from The Thrill is Gone, another sleekly produced, string-enhanced serving of the blues. It became more than a signature tune for King. It served as an anthem for the times.

The despondency of the song was obvious. So the was the clean, lean tone of his guitar work. But the patiently paced, orchestrated arrangement suggested pure early ‘70s soul. Everyone picked up on it – pop audiences, R&B audiences, all audiences. All of a sudden, King and his music were everywhere, even on such mainstream television programs as The Tonight Show.

The song also set the mood for the rest of King’s career. There were a few underappreciated recording triumphs after that, including 1970’s brilliant Indianola Mississippi Seeds (which contained Chains and Things), 1973’s overlooked To Know You is To Love You and 1978’s Crusaders-collaboration Midnight Believer. Mostly though, King became the face of the blues, changing forever its legitimacy as a popular music form.

His concerts were like old school revues, bolstered by horns, the odd novelty tune (How Blues Can You Get) and a stage presence as bright as the blues were solemn. Lexington was fortunate to have gotten several performance glimpses of King in action through ‘80s sets at the long defunct Breeding’s downtown to yearly festivals at the Kentucky Horse Park during the mid ‘90s.

King turned 70 during one of the latter dates, but the charm of his performance persona was still luminous. For King, the blues was an invitation to life, a look at its most sobering realities but, ultimately, a celebration of its most lasting joys.

phoenix rising

the black cadillacs.

the black cadillacs.

One of summertime’s new concert traditions reconvenes tonight with the second season of WUKY-FM’s Phoenix Friday concert series.

After a strong inaugural season last year, the series of free monthly concerts at Phoenix Park, W. Main and S. Limestone, will again bring together established local artists with up-and-coming national acts.

Tonight’s performance features The Black Cadillacs, a rock troupe formed in Memphis by cousins Will Horton and Matthew Hyrka. Now operating out of Knoxville, the band has released a self-titled five-song EP produced by Wilco alumnus Ken Coomer. The Other Brothers and Larkin Poe round out the bill.

The music starts at 5:30 pm and should wrap up around 9:30. Food vendors will be on hand throughout the evening.

The summer’s other three Phoenix Fridays shows will include Lexington pop cello stylist Ben Sollee (who made his series debut last August in the midst of a monstrous thunderstorm) with Humming House and Twin Lamb on June 19, the Nashville indie rock outfit Kopecky (which releases its new Drug for the Modern Age album next week) with J.D. Ghent and The Wags on July 17 and a fourth concert teaming an as yet unannounced headliner with The Vespers and Coralee and the Townie on Aug. 21.

Showtimes for those performances will also be 5:30 pm.

For more information, call (859) 257-3221 or go to wuky.org.

keeping track of dave rempis

dave rempis. photo by jim newberry.

dave rempis. photo by jim newberry.

A little over two years ago, Chicago saxophonist and frequent guest of Lexington’s long running Outside the Spotlight Series Dave Rempis discovered the best way to chronicle and share his numerous improvisatory and free jazz projects was to do it himself.

Indie labels were fine. But even in that company, Rempis could only release a fraction of his prolific musical output. So Aerophonic Records was born, a label that has issued 10 recordings of Rempis related music, including 2014’s Spectral, the debut of a double saxophone/trumpet trio that performs for OTS tonight.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding to be able to put out a much broader pallet of things that I’m working on,” Rempis said. “I’m free to put out whatever I want that I feel has some artistic merit to it. Aside from that angle of things, the label continues the connections I’ve made with fans, with writers, with other people who are all part of the music on an ongoing basis.”

The Spectral trio teams Rempis with two San Francisco Bay Area artists, trumpeter Darren Johnston and ROVA Saxophone Quartet member Larry Ochs. The band presents a novel configuration – three horns and no rhythm section. But the music the three create is both grounded in its sense of organization and open enough to encourage the level of improvisatory intensity that has distinguished all of Rempis’ myriad performance projects.

“We make very clear decisions and really consider the longer term ramifications of what we’re doing over the course of a piece of music,” Rempis said. “Some of the bands I play with will do a 45 minute set of improvising, which I certainly love. The tunes with this trio tend to be a bit shorter, anywhere from the five to eight minute range and are a little more tightly focused at times.

“But one of the most challenging things about this group is its untraditional instrumentation. So your role as an instrumentalist and as a member of the band becomes an opportunity to redefine what you do on your instrument and how you fit into an ensemble since there isn’t a drummer or a bass player. It creates a lot of openings for you to make decisions as an improviser and instrumentalist about what other roles could to play.”

The Rempis/Johnston/Ochs Trio performs at 8 p.m. May 15 at Dixieland Gardens, 110 Luigart Ct. Admission is $5. Call (859) 257-4636.

critic’s pick 274: my morning jacket, ‘the waterfall’

waterfallLouisville’s My Morning Jacket has always been a band of seeming contradictions. It can wail with the bawdiest of arena rockers and then retreat into a Southern smoked psychedelic chill. Ditto for frontman Jim James, who can summon deep earthy moans when his songs call for it or sail into the vocal stratosphere with a soul-soaked falsetto when the music becomes less melodically restrictive.

Such a varied fabric is on rich display throughout MMJ’s new album The Waterfall. At its core, the 10 songs are soaked in varying degrees of heartbreak. Some strive to keep a brave face, others already show signs of renewal. But there is a tinge of sadness to all of them. Well, at least that’s the case lyrically. Musically, The Waterfall is a grab bag of pop-infused reflection alternately full of trippy orchestration, synth-pop simplicity and, yes, some quite entrancing rock ‘n’ roll.

“Roll the dice, set sail the ship and the doors will open on down the line,” James sings with a measure of hesitant hope on the album-opening Believe. While a hearty rockish affirmation breaks loose of a gurgling synthesizer intro, the song never evens out lyrically. It’s as if it finds solace in uncertainty (“Believe, believe, believe, nobody knows for sure”).

In Its Infancy (The Waterfall), however, turns kaleidoscopic. It rocks back and forth between an ominous downbeat passage anchored by guitar, Rhodes piano and a subtle scowl from James and a blast of summery pop bliss colored by a troupe of backup singers and an all-too brief steel guitar break from Carl Broemel. By the time the tune heads down the home stretch, the guitars and synths are flying as if it was 1974 all over again. The song then ends with the same moody rumination it began with.

The highlight of The Waterfall is probably Thin Line simply because of how boldly James plays with pop convention. He bends the titles from one of pop-soul’s greatest hits (Thin Line Between Love and Hate) and a retools it into a blackened verse of separation (“it’s a thin line between love and wasting my time”). As all this transpires, guitar lines morph from breezy pop orchestration into psychedelic deflation.

The seven-minute album-closer Only Memories Remain is about as lyrically and musically streamlined as MMJ gets on The Waterfall. A chronicle of love in the ruins, it balances hope and helplessness with a pop melody that builds to a near cinematic crescendo.

Okay, then. Bogie had As Time Goes By to brood to. Now James has Only Memories Remain. Both are romantic laments of unusual elegance fashioned for different times. It kind of makes you wonder, though, what Bogie would have been like if a trippy rock troupe like MMJ had his back.

in performance: jeff beck

jeff beck.

jeff beck.

Anyone doubting the power and playfulness Jeff Beck still yields on guitar at age 70 got an earful and then some last night at the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ Whitney Hall in Louisville.

Throughout a very briskly paced 95 minute set, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer approached tunes that shifted from fusion to techno to blues with the confidence and technique of a scholar but also the wonder and giddiness of a student in a lab experiment.

Take the show opening Loaded, a new tune that had Beck hammering out power chords and punctuated guitar squeals with oddly human vocal expression over a techno savvy backup groove. Later, for more muscular bite, he dipped back to 1989 for Big Block, a bulldozer of a tune with a monstrous ripple effect that Beck piloted over with guitar blasts full of playful immediacy.

As far the setlist went, there were large, important chunks of Beck’s repertoire that went missing. Champion ‘70s albums like Blow By Blow  and Wired were ignored completely. In their place, though, were curious covers of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1971 fusion fugue You Know You Know, which was built around a riff that repeated like a mantra save for the ragged variations added to keep the piece from sounding static, and an encore of the Celtic folk staple Danny Boy played as a county-esque reverie.

A little more problematic was Beck’s band, which included former Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall, bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer Jonathan Joseph. All were capable and technically proficient artists, especially Hall, whose singing sounded mightier than ever last night. But none could match the sense of instinct, playfulness and edge Beck still dispensed with ease. In short, they answered Beck’s inventiveness by playing things too safe.

The lone exception was co-guitarist Nicholas Meier, whose playing often remained in the background, providing tunes like Hammerhead with a propulsive rhythmic drive and his own composition Yemin with a lovely acoustic intro and efficient Spanish-flavored arrangement that Beck responded to with some of his most lyrical and relaxed soloing of the night.

in performance: chris stapleton

chris stapleton.

chris stapleton.

There is a quiet, unspoiled country solemnity to the music Kentucky’s own Chris Stapleton summons on his sublime debut album, Traveller. But earlier this afternoon, the Lexington native, who is currently one of the hippest breakthrough acts out of Nashville, trimmed his already frugal sound down to folkish essentials during a six-song in-store set at a packed CD Central.

Performing in a solo acoustic setting, the weathered detail of Stapleton’s songs gleamed with a narrative richness that unassumingly defied the Nashville norm. Take the set-opening title tune from Traveller, a tale of wanderlust both personal and painful. What you experienced in this kind of intimate performance arrangement was actually a sense of forwardness and faith. “Sure as my heart’s behind the pocket of my shirt,” Stapleton sang, “I’ll just keep rolling till I hit the dirt.”

There were two other distinct attributes to this 30 minute set, both emanating from the audience. Being a free show (on Mother’s Day, no less), the turnout was filled parents and their young children. Yet the crowd, even in this very non-traditional performance space, awarded Stapleton’s set with astonishing attentiveness and quiet.

The one sound you could detect from the audience was singing. People sang assuredly along with Stapleton on nearly every tune – an astonishing addition, considering Traveller has only been in stores for five days.

One could go on about the make-up of Traveller’s songs. But half the drive behind this quiet set was the vocal charge that came from the stage. The solo acoustic setting also empowered the simple rustic detail of Stapleton’s voice. It colored the stark narrative chill of When the Stars Come Out and Whiskey and You with conversational country ease but rose like a cloudburst during the unceremoniously defiant Fire Away.

The set serenely deflated with Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore. The title may suggest a loss of faith, but in fact the song dealt with the exact opposite. Again, the eulogy was delivered amid exquisite crowd quiet that enhanced the understated grace and severity of Stapleton’s words and voice to cement his place amid the finest, most powerfully authentic country talents of our day.

learning with les

les mccann. photo by martial trezzini-key.

les mccann. photo by martial trezzini-key.

The events surrounding today’s return of Lexington jazz legend Les McCann are rooted in education.

First, there will be the daytime commencement presentation of an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky, a belated honor for a jazz career that reached international proportions with the 1969 album Swiss Movement the keyboardist/vocalist cut with saxophonist Eddie Harris and its hit version of the activist anthem Compared to What.

In the evening, McCann will perform at the Lyric Theatre, just a few blocks away from his long ago home on Eastern Ave. The concert is designed to raise funds and awareness for the locally established arts school that bears his name.

For McCann, the degree and benefit are reflections of his devotion to a lifetime of learning.

“We all have the power,” said McCann, 79, by phone last week from his current home in Los Angeles. “It’s all within each one of us. It’s a simple word called creativity. We all are creative. We all have something special within us. We are unique. We all have a special talent, but everybody doesn’t know that. Life is learning. It’s about the lessons we learn to love each other more.

“The point I’m trying to make is that each one of us, even though we might not think we have anything creative to offer, just need to sit down, relax and open up to the part most of us never do and just listen to your heart. We always want to go with the head. The head is just another tool to use in life. It’s not the machine that drives the whole thing.”

Now in its second academic year of operating on a seasonal class schedule (including sessions during the spring, summer and winter breaks of other school systems), the Les McCann School for the Arts offers instruction in music, photography, theatre and other arts related fields at various Lexington community centers including the Lyric.

“Some instructors may only have two or three students in a class,” said Denise Brown, the school’s artistic director. “But what’s been so nice is the instructors have been able to work one on one with students and really mentor them and do a lot of hands on teaching. The students get so much out of that. That’s especially vital in the early stages of the school.”

As with two previous performances at the Lyric in as many years, McCann will perform alongside saxophonist Javon Jackson during tonight’s benefit for the school. The partnership was struck after McCann suffered a severe stroke onstage during a concert in Germany.

“When I got out of the hospital and came home, Javon was one of the first people to contact me,” McCann recalled. “He said, ‘I want you to be in my band.’ Now I couldn’t even touch a piano at the time. My fingers didn’t operate right. He said, ‘Then come anyway and just sing.’ So working with him has allowed me to get back into shape and get my touch back with the keyboard because I had lost all the feeling in my hands. The only thing I could feel was severe pain. It’s been like that, but lately it’s started to turn around. So Javon has been real special to me.”

“When I had my stroke, they told me I wouldn’t be playing no more and that was it. But I went into intense therapy. Since I never take no for an answer, I just knew that I had to work. So my message to everyone is to celebrate every day. Find something new and great about every moment of every day because there is so much there.”

Les McCann Juke Joint 2015 Fundraiser featuring Les McCann, Javon Jackson and the Tee Dee Young Band performs at 7 p.m. May 9 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets: $5-$50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.com.

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