Archive for September, 2015

critic’s pick 294: los lobos, ‘gates of gold’

los lobos gates of gold“There I go, like a leaf that’s blown away, so like a child that’s lost his way,” sings David Hidalgo against a shuffle both murky and merry on the new Los Lobos album Gates of Gold. “I keep on looking. It’s all I can do.”

That’s an especially revealing perspective – an elder with a childlike outlook feeling lost in the ages. You could say that sums up Los Lobos’ place in the pop world of today. Critically cherished but largely forgotten by the mainstream, the East Los Angeles band soldiers on after 40 years without any defections from its initial lineup. While its mix of Americana, psychedelia, Tex Mex and Mexicali soul isn’t exactly the formula of a marquee act, Los Lobos long ago forged such a blend into a roots-savvy sound of its own.

The thing is, Los Lobos’ recordings – the popular, the obscure and the recent – are all little gems. Take the band’s last studio set, 2010’s Tin Can Trust. It seemed to cause little more than a commercial ripple, yet it was an astounding record full of soulful, but world weary songs that sounded positively sagely.

Gates of Gold falls just shy of Tin Can Trust’s high water mark, but it is still a feast of a record. The music is both restless and rocking as it fleshes out the exhausted world view Hidalgo and drummer-turned-guitarist Louie Perez write about on the album opening Made to Break Your Heart. The song chugs along with a solemn, Santana-like groove before cracking open a compelling contradiction (“Don’t you know love is made to break your heart”).

When We Were Free follows to both deepen the wound (“We forgot that moment, that so precious moment, and let this world steal it from you and me”) and then serve as a balm with a soothing pop-soul sway that blows by in light, percussive waves.

Of course, the beauty of Los Lobos remains its balance. If Hidalgo and Perez are the band’s reticent fortune tellers, co-vocalist and guitarist Cesar Rosas is its pragmatist. His Mis-Treater Boogie Blues storms in like a blast of mid ‘70s ZZ Top. “Boogie” and “Blues” are the optimal terms, because the song isn’t much sunnier thematically than the rest of the album, but the electricity within the tune is celebratory and almost primal. Hildalgo and Perez siphon a bit of that immediacy for Too Small Heart for turmoil (“Too small heart called last night; didn’t say hello, said only goodbye”) as succinct as the tune’s roaring electric groove.

Want more? Try the antique country feel of Gates of Gold’s title tune, the lazy back porch blues of I Believed You So and the luscious cantina feel of the Spanish-sung La Tumba Sera El Final. It all makes for another golden sleeper of an album from the tireless Los Lobos.

chick corea and bela fleck: the power of two

bela fleck (left) and chick corea.

bela fleck (left) and chick corea.

You could say Bela Fleck met Chick Corea in Spain, although neither genre-bending, multi-Grammy winning instrumentalist was anywhere near the country at the time. Shoot, one of them wasn’t even aware the meeting even took place.

The introductions came when banjo journeyman Fleck was still in his teens. He heard the Corea composition Spain, a samba-rich jazz work that would become the pianist/keyboardist’s most recognized tune, in the ‘70s. Then Fleck experienced Corea at work with his seminal fusion troupe Return to Forever. For a budding banjoist already eager to stretch the five strings of his instrument to new stylistic terrain, this meeting from afar was nothing short of an artistic epiphany.

“I first heard Chick when I was 16 in jazz appreciation class,” said Fleck, 57, via email last week. He performs with Corea, 74, on Thursday at the EKU Center for the Arts. “His tune Spain was played and it changed my idea of what jazz was. The exciting rhythm and the intricate, fascinating lines invigorated my little banjo brain.

“When I heard him in person with Return to Forever, it was a life changing event. I immediately went home after that concert and started practicing the whole neck of my banjo in a new way. I was up most of the night.”

Fleck would go on to record Spain on his first solo album, 1979’s Crossing the Tracks. Corea would belatedly return the favor by guesting on Fleck 1995’s Tales from the Acoustic Planet as well with the latter’s famed banjo-fusion ensemble The Flecktones on 1996’s Live Art.

But the notion of touring and recording as an unaccompanied duo – just piano and banjo – didn’t surface until the 2007 album The Enchantment. Since then, both artists have juggled numerous collaborative projects. But roads still intersected on occasion, leading the two to Two, a double-disc concert recording pulled from performances Corea and Fleck have played together over the last eight years.

“The banjo is like a small piano without the big range,” Fleck said. “It’s a piano you can carry around with you. I do think that the tone I get from my banjo is similar to the piano sound, and that may be part of why they work so well together. Of course, Chick handles the low range, which I don’t have. But sometimes I walk bass lines up high, and it works well. Because I’m not always playing big chords, it can open up more space for Chick to do whatever he wants to.”

A one-time Lexingtonian in the mid ‘70s, Fleck has played with Corea only one time previously in the Bluegrass – at Louisville’s Brown Theatre in February 2008. What was striking about that performance wasn’t just the virtuosic playing and the sheer sense of invention that emerged from such an unlikely instrumental pairing. It was also the playfulness and egging on of musical ideas. You saw the practice at work as much through the locked eye contact the musicians maintained almost as much through the music itself.

“It is certainly a very intense experience. I have learned that if you are okay with looking directly into another musician’s eyes while playing, you can reach a different level musically. It helps us connect and to understand what each other is doing. It is a very exposed sort of thing to do. But I try to stay sharp, be responsive, and keep loose.

A lot gets packed into every second, so you have to get a flow going and ride the waves. It is an energy exchange.

“Playing with a musician like Chick, I must embrace the true jazz esthetic. I must trust in my ability to respond in real time to what I hear. There are no safety nets.”

Chick Corea and Bela Fleck perform at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets: $43-$65. Call: (859) 622-7469 or go to www.ekucenter.com.

critic’s pick 293: keith richards, ‘crosseyed heart’

keith richardsThere is something about hearing Keith Richards embrace the Leadbelly classic Goodnight Irene in the midst of his new Crosseyed Heart album that is as charming as it is unexpected. On first listen, you would think you were listening to 1990s-era Bob Dylan as the boozy, scratchy but obviously enchanted vocals envelop a parlor-style backdrop. But Keith being Keith, the whole thing still dances like a ballet in a brothel.

The folkish sway isn’t entirely indicative of Richards’ first solo album in over two decades. There are also snapshots of blues, reggae, jagged pop and, of course, the sort of loose but turbulent jams that have long been second nature to the guitarist who remains the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones.

In essence, Crosseyed Heart is less of a studio album as it is a block party. The album’s opening title tune is a slice of relaxed acoustic blues, the morning serenade of a reveler temporarily at rest. A few songs later, Richards starts flexing his electric cunning with a roving bit of party fun called Trouble (“Maybe trouble is your middle name”) that celebrates the Stones sound of decades past. That leads directly into Love Overdue, a fresh blast of horn driven reggae sunshine. By the time he reaches Suspicious, Richards is playing the crooner on a twilight hued meditation that can easily be pictured sung under a streetlight (or in a back alley). Then you run smack into Something for Nothing, a churning celebration you hear initially from a distance, as though the song was marching from down the street in your direction. But when it hits, the party hits full force with pure, rhythmic cheer. In a blindfold test, the tune could pass for a Stones song in a heartbeat.

Amazingly, all of that covers only the first half of Crosseyed Heart. What comes next is the album’s biggest curve ball, a duet with Norah Jones in Illusion. But Jones is in Richards’ junkyard here and adopts a woozy vocal counterpoint that is strangely complimentary. But the whopper is a clanging, rumbling rumination of a head-butting relationship on the skids titled Substantial Damage (“What are we doing together? You got the broom, I’ve got the feather”).

The same co-horts that formed the foundation of Richards ‘80s/’90s side project troupe, The X-pensive Winos – specifically drummer/co-producer Steve Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and, posthumously, saxophonist Bobby Keys – are back on board for the party. But Richards is the soulful, happily battered star here. He wears his crosseyed heart like a badge of honor, discovering warmth and cheers in the heart of rock ‘n’ roll darkness.

in performance: tipple

tipple: david watson, frode gjerstad and kevin norton.

tipple: david watson, frode gjerstad and kevin norton.

The call to arms for Tipple last night at the Farish Theater of the downtown Lexington Public Library was a simple tap on a gong. It was perhaps the most orderly thing about a performance that would quickly scatter and migrate to parts unknown. But it was also hard not to view this percussive prelude as a dinner bell of sorts because it signaled, in jazz terms, that vittles were waiting.

Tipple is the alliance of veteran Norwegian saxophonist and clarinetist Frode Gjerstad (a veteran of many locally produced concerts in the Outside the Spotlight series, of which this show was also part of), New Zealander-turned-New York guitarist David Watson and Brooklyn-born drummer/vibraphonist/percussionist Kevin Norton. Last night, the three sifted through solos and group exchanges during a 50 minute long improvisation which worked as a suite of ideas with continual shifts in temperament and instrumentation. A brief five-minute palette cleanser of a trio skirmish ended the set.

What flowed forth during that time was steeped in untitled, open improvisation that downplayed volume (although there were claps of dissonant thunder) to emphasize dynamics, tension and a little grace.

Gjerstad is a pro at this. Last night, his runs on clarinet and alto saxophone were like elongated chants – subtle in tone, studied in execution and, ultimately, confident in the way they were dispatched and placed within Tipple’s spacious and unhurried sound.

Watson stuck exclusively to guitar, leaving his other primary instrument, the Highland bagpipes, out of the Tipple mix. Toying with brittle riffs and broader colors of distortion, his guitar work intensified the overall trio sound and its natural and sometimes volcanic sense of invention. Watching him pick singular notes on one guitar while tapping another with a mallet to create percussive cool late in the performance was especially intriguing.

Norton proved to be Tipple’s ace-in-the-hole. Creating sounds icy and ominous on the vibraphone (with four mallets or, in select instances, a stringed bow), punctuating the trio’s terser strides on a drum kit or adding to its lighter ambience with delicate chatter on triangles mounted on a music stand, he kept Tipple in state of continual and unpredictable motion.

critic’s pick 292: randall bramblett, ‘devil music’

devil music“There’s a crack in my dreams where the truth slips through,” sings Randall Bramblett in the midst of his splendid new album Devil Music. Like so many of the under-the-radar records he has fashioned over the last four decades, the veteran Georgia songsmith sings of things imperfect. Not tragic, necessarily, and certainly not sentimental – just people and places, often with a poetic Southern grace, that sit outside of the trajectory of everyday life. View any of the outstanding releases he has put his name to and you are met with a sense of elegant unease. Shoot, even the title Devil Music suggests something dark yet involving.

While his solo albums have been amazingly consistent – especially the string of records he has released since 1998 – Devil Music ups the rhythmic charge a notch. These tunes are fueled by rugged, swampy grooves with fewer time outs for ballads. The resulting music is churchy and soulful, as on the opening Dead in the Water where Bramblett’s Hammond organ playing whips around the tune like a late October wind. That’s a neat trick, too, considering the guitar artillery mounted for the song. Squaring off are Davis Causey (Bramblett’s guitar sidekick since the ‘70s, including his stint with Chuck Leavell in Sea Level), Nick Johnson (the young guitar buck that has been an integral member of Bramblett’s touring band) and, in a dynamic cameo, Mark Knopfler.

Devil Music’s title tune, on the other hand, works off a more cross-generational feel. The music is all Muscle Shoals soul, right down to the blues laced lyrics (“Wolf cried all the way to Memphis, ‘cause his mama turned him, turned him away”). But the music is just as indebted to modern loops and syncopation, which makes this blast of righteous folklore sound anything but vintage.

The groove subsides late into the album for Ride. The attitude is blues (“There is a rock where my pillow used to be”), but the music is ripe with a mix of nocturnal jazz and the combustible soul so prevalent in much of Bramblett’s previous music. His mix of piano and Hammond sets the scene, but the vocals, a gentle and sagely reflection of the music it leads, sells the song.

There are numerous other treats, too, like the dirty swing of Reptile Pilot (which unleashes Bramblett on saxophone with Leavell sitting in on piano), the unsettling soul shuffle of Thing for You (“You’re in and out of trouble but you’re always on mind”) and the rolling, restless Southern R&B of Angel Child (“It’s so quiet, I hear my ‘frigerator running”) that triggers wiry guitar color from another top drawer guest, Derek Trucks.

Wrap all this up and you have a nasty little delicacy of an album from one of the most prolific and uncompromising Southern voices of our age.

in performance: los lobos

los lobos: cesar rosas, conrad lozano, louie perez, david hidalgo and steve berlin.

los lobos: cesar rosas, conrad lozano, louie perez, david hidalgo and steve berlin.

Catching Los Lobos on an off night is a rarity. But it initially looked as though Cincinnati would catch a glimpse of one last night when the veteran, no-frills East Los Angeles band performed at the Taft Theatre.

First of all, there was the unannounced and unexplained absence of Cesar Rosas, which meant a sizeable portion of the Lobos repertoire – including most of its Spanish-sung works – was vacated for the evening. Then there was the matter of sound – specifically, a hollow and echo-ey mix, along with frequent buzzing from guitar amps, which proved a distraction for the first half of the 95 minute performance.

But Los Lobos, even in a compromised setting, can best a performance by many rock acts. The pluses that outweighed the minuses last night included a preview of the band’s forthcoming Gates of Gold album, a sampling of older music that spanned three decades, several choice covers and, as always, highly inventive instrumental prowess.

Nearly all of those attributes came into play during the show-opening Dream in Blue, which moved from darkly textured guitar patterns from vocalist David Hidalgo into a flute solo from Steve Berlin that recalled vintage Traffic. Underscoring that inspiration was a snippet of the 1968 Steve Winwood/Traffic relic 40,000 Headmen that was inserted into the middle of the song’s lengthy and loose jam.

Even without Rosas, the repertoire shifted from the 1983 Tex Mex fiesta tune Let’s Say Goodnight (with Hidalgo on accordion) to the world-weary sway of Burn It Down from the overlooked 2010 Lobos album Tin Can Trust. The former was all roots-driven fun with broad grins plastered on the faces of bassist Conrad Lozano and touring drummer Bugs Gonzalez. The later song was stoic but soulful with sphinx-like facial expression from Hidalgo, Berlin and drummer-turned-guitarist Louie Perez.

The new music was right at home in the mix. The title tune from Gates of Gold boasted country-ish spiritual reflection set to a rugged guitar backdrop that brought early ‘70s Rolling Stones to mind. Later in the set, Made to Break Your Heart gave Hidalgo room to roam on guitar with jagged solos reminiscent of Neil Young.

There were more treats, as well, like the transformation of Kiko and the Lavender Moon into a psychedelic tango, the wigged out electric groove of Everybody Loves a Train and the pure blues majesty of the Freddie King/John Mayall/Derek and the Dominoes heartbreaker of Have You Ever Loved a Woman.

Not bad for a band on a perceived off night.

in performance: cortex

cortex: ola hoyer, thomas johansson, kristoffer alberts and gard nilssen.

cortex: ola hoyer, thomas johansson, kristoffer alberts, gard nilssen.

One isn’t inclined to pair the words “Nordic” and “intimacy” in any context. But last night at Mecca, the Norwegian jazz quartet Cortex offered an exquisitely intimate performance that made you peel back the years to not only another jazz era but to a different concert environment altogether.

Some of the appeal stemmed from the band’s accessibility. Part of what has become a very active autumn lineup in the Outside the Spotlight series, Cortex doesn’t center itself squarely on the kind of free improvisation usually associated with an OTS concert. While there were certainly segments of coarser, more open instrumental phrasing – usually from cornetist Thomas Johansson and alto/tenor saxophonist Kristoffer Alberts – there was also considerable grove, melody and composition at work within the hour long performance.

You heard all of it at work when bassist Ola Hoyer and drummer Gard Nilssen set the show in motion with a groove as elastic as it was cool. Both artists had their chance to get their hands dirty in more open ended adventures as the concert went on. But tunes like Fall, which the duo drove with steadfast authority, and Happy Go Lucky, which Nilssen punctuated with sharp, rifle shot blasts on the drumhead, luxuriated in their sense of melody.

Johansson and Alberts created dialogues of very similar structure, playing off each other within the sulky cool of Disturbance (with Alberts on alto sax) and the bright, boppish runs of Ahead (with the saxophonist switching to tenor).

The latter tune also referenced the great ‘60s records of Pharoah Sanders, the saxophonist who similarly blended spacious, unhurried groove with open ended improvisation – in essence, a balance of grace and fire.

Cortez, playing within the dimly (but comfortably) lit confines of Mecca, continually favored grace last night, whether it was the moment a luscious muted solo from Johansson melted into an equally gorgeous bass break from Hoyer that sounded like the basis of a chant, or the saucy, rockish groove the full band dug into at show’s end. Such were the delicious extremes within this Saturday night serving of Nordic intimacy.

in performance: john waite

john waite.

john waite.

Initially, it looked like a repeat performance last night at the Christ the King Oktoberfest when the rains railed down early into veteran pop vocalist John Waite’s headlining set. While similar conditions (no storms, just episodes of steady solid rain that transformed the faithful turnout into a pack of bopping umbrellas) shut down Friday’s set by the BoDeans after 35 minutes, Waite braved the environment and was rewarded. Around the time he offered a toughened up version of his first Top 20 single, 1982’s Change, the precipitation relented and the singer headed into the home stretch of a set that ably showcased close to four decades worth of material.

While Waite’s popularity centers primarily on a string of late ‘70s and ‘80s recordings, all of last night’s material – from vintage turns like Change to comparatively recent works like the 2011 power ballad If You Ever Get Lonely – shred any hint of nostalgia. Credit that to a keyboard-less backup trio that boasted Matchbox 20 guitarist Kyle Cook. The band streamlined the synth-savvy pop of Waite’s glory years and instead emphasized the leaner rock phrasing of his newer music.

The career-defining 1984 hit Missing You, offered late in the set, still possessed a crisp pop flair. Still, Waite didn’t seem to be coasting. Then again, at age 63, his vocal stamina hasn’t dipped since the ‘80s, so he still scaled the song’s soaring tenor verses with ease.

In fact, Waite seemed determined to showcase just how well preserved his vocal chops were by closing with a cover of the Led Zeppelin staple Whole Lotta Love. While the interpretation didn’t win him points for originality in terms of repertoire, a pop artist viewed by many as an ‘80s memory could do worse than capably tackle the shrieks and shouts of such a classic. As such, it was tough to view Waite last night as anything less than a rock star of ageless ability.

in performance: bodeans

Sam Hawksley, Kurt Neumann, Kenny Aronoff and Eric Holden of the BoDeans during last's night's rain-abbreviated set at Christ the King Oktoberfest.

Sam Hawksley, Kurt Neumann, Kenny Aronoff and Eric Holden of the BoDeans during last’s night’s rain-abbreviated set at Christ the King Oktoberfest. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

“I’m all for rockin’,” remarked Kurt Neumann as the BoDeans’ performance at the Christ the King Oktoberfest was halted last night due to rain. “I just don’t want to get electrocuted. I mean, I got kids.”

Such was the farewell as a forecast that had all but ensured falling temps and precipitation for the annual outdoor soiree came true. But it was a valiant try for Neumann and the latest quintet lineup of the veteran Midwestern band, even if what they were able to squeeze in was ultimately (though quite unintentionally) a teaser for the kind of Americana smarts the band has possessed, processed and fashioned into striking rock and pop adventures over the last three decades.

The first few tunes, undertaken with the rains at bay, stressed the strengths of the current BoDeans lineup – a troupe that regularly exerted rootsy ingenuity through the colors of guitarist Sam Hawksley, the accordion runs of Bukka Allen and tunes from the band’s new I Can’t Stop album that regularly suggested The Band.

But the celebrity of the evening, maybe even more than Neumann, was all-star drummer Kenny Aronoff. Exhibiting abundant muscular drive, technical precision and performance joy, Aronoff confirmed his status as of the true greats of rock percussion. Having him as part of the BoDeans as they played what amounted to a block party in the suburbs was a true coup for Oktoberfest. He was dressed for the occasion, too, wearing a Drum Center of Lexington t-shirt. Talk about a generous plug for the locals.

You quickly sensed Neumann and company were working at what is often termed “rain pace.” With the threat of a washout at hand, the band reshuffled its setlist so a pair of defintive (and vintage) BoDeans tunes could be squeezed in before the weather won out.

The first was Still the Night, a carnival like party tune with a touch of Tex Mex thrown in. Originally featured on the band’s 1986 debut album Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, this streamlined arrangement placed Neumann front and center (the original split vocal duties with co-founder Sammy Llanas, who left the band in 2011) but kept the song’s tropical groove intact.

The set shut down with Closer to Free, the BoDeans’ biggest commercial hit. The 1993 tune was similarly set to an affirmative, anthemic stride and a leaner, looser groove that had Neumann, Hawksley, Allen and bassist Eric Holden crouched together in line formation at the front of the stage, all but daring the rain to advance.

Unfortunately, advance it did. Despite a hint from Neumann that the band might return if conditions improved, this fine teaser of a rock show was complete. Let’s hope Neumann is already planning a Lexington return somewhere in the great indoors so the BoDeans, in the most complete performance sense, can go to town.

in performance: lady antebellum, hunter hayes and sam hunt

lady antebellum singers hillary scott, charles kelley performing last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

lady antebellum singers hillary scott, charles kelley and dave haywood performing last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

For all the laser effects, video projections and furlong-sized lighting grids that made Lady Antebellum’s stage performance last night at Rupp Arena, at least in appearance, reminiscent more of Pink Floyd than one of the hottest country acts in the country, charm and audience rapport surfaced in something almost ridiculously simple.

Half way through a 90 minute set, the Lady A troika of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood strolled out to a small stage at the other end of the Rupp floor, leaving their highly electric band and a small city of lighting and stage artillery to go it alone. With Haywood on acoustic guitar providing the only accompaniment, the group offered a brisk, unadorned trio of songs that covered, in roughly 12 minutes, considerable stylistic turf.

It started with One Great Mystery, a fine non-single track from Lady A’s most recent platinum album, 747, that allowed Scott to roar with subtle, studied authority. Then Kelley initiated a leisurely cover of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud that offered a bow to the kind of contemporary inspiration this country troupe is aligned to. The mini-set wrapped up with Dancin’ Away with My Heart, a massive 2011 hit for the group that last night balanced a requisite level of country sentimentality with an inviting and conversational vocal flow.

The rest of the show was fine, sporting a suitably energized and rockish flair that – unlike much of preceding sets by the young hitmakers Hunter Hayes and Sam Hunt – still maintained at least a suggestion of country sensibility, from the mash-up of meaty guitar riffs, hip hop vocal phrasing and electric country propulsion that drove Freestyle to the anthemic power ballad sway of American Honey.

But after hearing Lady A jettison all the frills – and sound more genuinely emotive in the process – one had to wonder if the rock star production values that are now standard operating procedure for arena country shows aren’t becoming a touch passé. For the headliner, the bright lights seemed a little dim compared to the brilliance of its acoustic intimacy.

hunter hayes during his opening set at rupp.

hunter hayes during his opening set at rupp.

Hayes offered a set of pure summery pop and relentless physicality during an unusually lengthy (about 65 minute) opening set. An accomplished instrumentalist (he performed last night on piano, guitar and mandolin) and vocalist with a cordial, though somewhat nasally tone, the newly 24 year old singer (his birthday was Wednesday) revealed an obvious love of stage performance. Sure the lip service during Invisible, well intentioned as it seemed, bordered on pandering. But the rich pop drive of Somebody’s Heartbreak, Storm Warning and the show-closing I Want Crazy offered a very honest performance thrill for the generous number of female 20-somethings within the crowd of 7,500. (Hayes later returned to play mandolin on Compass with Lady A.)

Hunt’s initial 30 minute set offered similar stamina. But his heavy reliance on sampled sounds and canned accompaniment was a disappointment, as were the fairly pedestrian vocal turns that made their way out of the mix. His 2014 hit Take Your Time remained an artful blend of R&B and country crooning. But House Party and the show-opening Raised On It were by-the-numbers Nashville pop-rockers that sounded uncomfortably weighty with all the processed sound. (Hunt also cameoed late in Lady A’s set during a lumbering cover of the Aerosmith staple Walk This Way, a set choice that was not complimentary to either act.)

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