Archive for October, 2015

the brand new ben rector

ben rector. photo by eric ryan anderson.

ben rector. photo by eric ryan Anderson.

By his own admission, Ben Rector is a pessimist.

You wouldn’t sense that by listening to his songs – reflective, subtle ruminations full of folk-fortified detail and pop laced accessibility. You wouldn’t know that by his fanbase, a devout following that sent his aptly titled Brand New album to No. 9 on the Billboard 200 charts in August during its first week of release. Similarly, you wouldn’t view a sold out performance at the House of Blues in Chicago last month or two more sellouts this weekend at the Ryman Auditorium in Rector’s current home base of Nashville as products of a downcast attitude.

It’s also hard to detect any clouds of doubt in conversation with the 28 year old songsmith. Much like his music, a chat with Rector reveals an artist of polite, exacting but quiet confidence. But he is also the first one to tell you he never fathomed his still-young career would trigger much appeal to, well, anyone.

“Anytime we’re taking a step forward, I’m always a little bit antsy,” said Rector, who makes his Lexington performance debut tonight at the Singletary Center for the Arts. “I’ve always been like, ‘I don’t know. Will however many thousand people in all of these cities come to see me?’ I mean, it’s crazy that they would, but it has gone well so far.”

A strong indie artist for the past five years, Rector has amassed impressive indie sales (over 250,000 albums and two million downloads) and chart visibility (his 2013 album, The Walking in Between, was a Top 20 hit). But there is a reason his sixth and newest studio release is titled Brand New. The rigors of non-stop touring coupled with self-imposed demands on songwriting and recording left the Tulsa native depleted after his Live in Denver set hit stores last year.

“In total honesty, I was tired. Things in my career so far have gone better than I ever thought they would. But it has also been pretty taxing because I’ve played a ton of shows and have made a few records in quick succession. That was just what I was used to. When I finished the last record cycle, I realized I was burned out. I knew I needed to rediscover why I loved music and get back to that.

“When I was in college, everything was new and everything felt vibrant. I was doing it because I loved it. More recently, I felt I had been squeezing some of the joy out of the writing and recording process. This is going to sound weird, but if my creative mindset was a garden, it didn’t feel like it was very fertile.”

Rector’s remedy involved making a recording he felt possessed the freshness and purpose of a debut work. In doing so, though, Brand New worked as a travelogue of his personal and professional life. Songs like The Men That Drive Me Places, a reserved, piano led work, contemplated exactly that – the people from other walks of life who chauffeured his touring adventures. Other tunes, including Paris, are more overtly romantic with a hushed pop bounce that brings such master songwriters as Paul Simon to mind.

“I really wanted to get back to a place where the music I was making felt like it was just jumping out of the speakers, like it was something infectious. But trying to recreate that kind of mind set was remarkably difficult. At some point, when you sit down at a piano or with a guitar, you’ve played everything you know how to play. It’s hard to find something that hits your ears and your mind as a new and inspiring thing.

“But instead of worrying about stuff so much – like maybe that the show isn’t good enough or the record isn’t good enough – I feel like I’m trying to soak up the good parts of everything that is happening because things are definitely at a stage that I never thought they would be. It would be a big loss not to look around and enjoy that.”

Ben Rector performs at 8 tonight at the Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall. Tickets: $25, $35. Call (859) 257-4929 or got to www.etix.com.

in performance: erb/baker/rosaly trio

erb/baker/rosaly trio: christoph erb, frank rosaly and jim baker.

erb/baker/rosaly trio: christoph erb, frank rosaly and jim baker.

There was a lesson to be learned here. The caliber of musicianship or even the assignment of musical duties within a skilled free improvisation group takes a distant back seat when Jim Baker is involved. He can’t help but command focus.

That’s no simple feat, either, especially when the trio for the Outside the Spotlight performance last night at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery sported Swiss tenor and soprano saxophonist Christoph Erb and Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly (both OTS mainstays). This was ostensibly Erb’s band, too. The evening’s two extended improvisations worked around his playing, which shifted from sturdy aphorisms boasting a surprisingly burley tone on soprano to more fragmented runs on tenor that regularly brought the music to a boil before it recoiled and reconfigured itself.

Likewise, Rosaly was continually resourceful with a series of percussive scrapes and tickles that propelled the music, but not in any conventionally rhythmic way. There were a few light passages on brushes, but much of Rosaly’s playing was reactionary with gongs, mallets and typewriter-like effects on snare coloring the musical spontaneity. Especially appealing was an instance when Rosaly held a lone cymbal just above the floor as though it were a 10 ton weight about to fall. The resulting effect was a modest clang, but the sheer anticipation in waiting for it to kiss the floor was the product of some keen musical cunning.

But it was impossible to subtract yourself from what Baker was doing. A veteran journeyman among Chicago improvisers who seldom tours, he weaved in and out of the half hour improv that opened the evening on piano. Sometimes his head was tilted just above the keys as if he were conducting a séance with the singular notes he peppered the music with. In other instances, his playing rose like a tide to meet the immediacy and playfulness of his bandmates.

But the second improv (clocking in at a mere 25 minutes) moved Baker over to an ARP synthesizer, an extinct, 1970s-era analog instrument that resembled a telephone switchboard. Baker approached the synth not as some tired cosmic orchestration device but a purely improvisatory tool. The hums, blurts and oscillating ambience he summoned was less a nod to a bygone era of electronic music and more an exponent of jazz urgency. In short, he employed an instrument truly from another age to make music very much of the moment.

in performance: lake street dive

lake street dive: bridget kearney, mike "mcduck" olson, rachael price and mike calabrese.

lake street dive: bridget kearney, mike “mcduck” olson, rachael price and mike calabrese.

Lake Street Dive wasted no time in establishing its credentials and making good on its much ballyhooed pop smarts last night before a packed and, eventually, sweltering house at Cosmic Charlie’s.

Instead of easing into the evening, the band – Rachael Price, Mike “McDuck” Olson, Bridget Kearney and Mike Calabrese – powered immediately into the ensemble vocal gusto of Stop Your Crying. While lead singer Price was the exuberant powerhouse fueling the fun, the group harmonies ripped through the chorus like a joyous storm of pure pop cheer.

Throughout the 90 minute performance, pop was the name of the game. Shades of vintage soul would regularly pour in during Price’s grittier moments while several songs placed guitarist Olson on trumpet and pushed the crisp, artful bass work of Kearney to the forefront, opening the band up to an astute jazz sensibility. But the game plan was structured around pop orchestration that utilized every musical resource the band had to offer.

First there were the songs – concise, articulate works abounding with melodic hooks and alert storylines (Rabid Animal, Elijah and Use Me Up) that allowed Price to soar with gleeful and gorgeously unforced strength. But there were also tunes with seemingly vintage soul-pop references that threw wondrous curve balls, like the way the new I Don’t Care About You juggled beefy power chords, bluesy refrains and a finger-popping, hullabaloo-like finale. Also breaking the mold was the way Bobby Tanqueray, already colored with an efficient backbeat from drummer Calabrese and a round of whistling from Olson that subbed for the studio version’s keyboard lines, weaved in and out a jazz-savvy cover of the Van Halen staple Jump with Olson playing the synth melody on trumpet.

Perhaps most arresting were the surprises within two tunes from the band’s 2014 breakthrough album Bad Self Portraits performed back-to-back late in the program. The first, Just Ask, was an affirmation that played out musically like a torch song, with Price and the group’s backing harmonies fueling the inherent pressure cooker soul of the melody. Seventeen followed with a chirpy groove that downshifted into a lusciously dirty grind.

There were fun covers, too – a jazzy take of the Annie Lennox hit Walking on Broken Glass and a similarly rootsy revision of Paul McCartney’s Wings classic Let Me Roll It. The band’s popular youtube version of the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back was served as a brief encore, a solemn cooldown for the giddy pop party that preceded it.

high diving act

lake street dive: mike “mcduck” olson. rachael price, bridget kearney and mike calabrese. photo by jarrod mccabe.

lake street dive: mike “mcduck” olson. rachael price, bridget kearney and mike calabrese. photo by jarrod mccabe.

You would think the members of Lake Street Dive would be a spent force by now. Ever since the release of its breakthrough 2014 album Bad Self Portraits, the Boston-bred pop troupe hit the road with the vigor of a youthful band enchanted with its first glimpse of success and a willingness to meet the promotional demands such popularity brings.

But Lake Street Dive wasn’t a new band. It had already spent a decade establishing its presence in and out of New England, often while juggling duties in other groups or in other forms of employment. So when Bad Self Portraits solidified a national buzz about the foursome – vocalist Rachael Price, bassist/vocalist Bridget Kearney, guitarist/trumpeter/keyboardist/vocalist Mike “McDuck” Olson and drummer/vocalist Mike Calabrese – the reward wasn’t so much stardom as another visit to the starting line of a continually expanding career.

“I’m sure that there are a lot of bands out there that have a few years like this,” Olson admitted. “But maybe they had them earlier in their career. They would say, ‘Wow. This is awfully exciting.’ Then as the grind settles in, they would probably tire. But we are accustomed to the grind. We’ve been playing together as a band for close to 12 years. We say 10 years. But I feel like we’ve been saying 10 years for a few years now. So we’re no strangers to the road, long story short.”

The charm behind Lake Street Dive sits in a love of all things pop. There are elements of jazz phrasing, especially in the band’s early work, and more than a hint of vintage soul. But everything boils down to a bold, summery pop sound. Price leads the fearless vocal charge, but all four members add to a musical make-up that runs from vintage Shirelles-style harmonizing (Stop Your Crying) to Kinks-like pop and rock (Bobby Tanqueray) to Little Feat-flavored groove (What About Me) to blue-hued, Jackie Wilson-style soul (Use Me Up).

“I learned guitar after we graduated from college (the New England Conservatory of Music),” Olson said. “Everyone else has been on their primary instruments for the lion’s share of their lives – not just adult lives, not just scholastic lives. Rachel has been singing since she was very small. Bridget was playing bass before she probably could have even reached the top of the instrument.

“Early on, when bass and trumpet were the melodic instruments in the band, we had a way more jazz oriented sound. As we’ve incorporated guitar more into the mix, my strengths turned to rhythmic, rock ‘n’ roll oriented playing. That has shaped the sound just by the very nature of its limitations.”

The catalyst for Lake Street Dive’s breakthrough didn’t just come from relentless road work or even a killer album. It was triggered by a variety of resources that flew both under the radar (a viral youtube video of the band performing The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back on a Brighton street corner) and in its audience’s face (television appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Colbert Report). Adding to the exposure was a spot on the T Bone Burnett-curated Another Day, Another Time concert at New York’s Town Hall, a tie in to the music he produced for the 2013 Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis.

“We’ve definitely seen returns from the television stuff that we did last year in a way that we never had before,” Olson said. “Hitting the road was always our bread and butter, and it was nice to see faces over and over again returning to the shows. But things like Letterman, Colbert, the Llewyn Davis show, youtube even, have propelled us into the next phase.”

A follow-up to Bad Self Portraits is scheduled in February. After its release, the touring will accelerate even further and Lake Street Dive will work like a new band again – one that’s been new a few times already.

“Not to get to all hippie and crunchy on you, but the band is a real gift and always has been,” Olson said. “Early on, we either played with other bands more regularly or had day jobs. So for a very long time, being able to tour with this band was more vacation than work. It was the creative impetus that kept everything else going.

“Yes, things have gotten more hectic in terms of schedule. But we have been able to maintain the sense that this is still very much what feeds us creatively and personally. The spark has that has kept us coming back, even when it wasn’t paying the bills and maybe wasn’t paying at all… we haven’t lost that.”

Lake Street Dive performs at 8 tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s. 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets: $20. Call: (859) 309-9499 or go to cosmic-charlies.com.

in performance: the avett brothers/jason isbell and the 400 unit

seth avett of the avett brothers performing last night at rupp arena. photos by paul hooper/rupp arena.

seth avett of the avett brothers performing last night at rupp arena. photos by paul hooper/rupp arena.

“It’s good to be onstage in a place where we can say ‘y’all’ and it’s not exotic,” remarked Seth Avett last night just before he and sibling Scott launched into the chamber-folk sway of Morning Song at Rupp Arena.

Such was the inviting hootenanny spirit that has long dominated the music of the Avett Brothers, a drive that was also in abundance for much for this near-two hour performance. The Avetts had little by way of new music to show off (the group, which was expanded to a seven-member lineup last night, is still touring behind 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion), but that mattered little to the modest but feverish crowd of 4,500. They happily followed familiar paths through the Byrds-meets-Nitty Gritty Dirt Band strut of 2012’s Down with the Shine, the pure pop strains of 2007’s Die Die Die and the cartoon car chase inspiration of the 2003 instrumental D Bag Rag that merrily de-evolved into a quartet of kazoos.

Not everything hit the mark. The enlarged lineup at times fell into routine arena rock excesses like the vacuous drum solo and derailed jam that splintered out of Slight Figure of Speech. But several

jason isbell.

jason isbell.

sparser, quieter moments countered such indulgences. Most of them surfaced late in the program during an acoustic set that trimmed the band to solo (Seth Avett’s contemplative reading of The Ballad of Love and Hate), duo (the brothers’ take on the evening’s biggest rarity, Sanguine) and trio (an update of Evan Dando’s All My Life with longtime bassist Bob Crawford) configurations.

Otherwise, this was essentially business as usual for the Avetts, whether that meant employing cello, violin and bowed bass in a unison drone to ease the band into the show-opening Bring Your Love to Me or the motormouth lyrics and giddy ensemble stomp that ignited Talk of Indolence.

While the Avetts utilized all their resources to maintain a musical status quo, Jason Isbell ripped through an hour-long opening set that served as a robust portrait of a performer in his very unassuming prime.

His songs reflected strong, hard-earned country sentiments but had nothing in common with today’s Nashville fare. The sly Muscle Shoals groove of the set-opening Palmetto Rose (one of five works pulled from the recent Something More Than Free album) quickly established Isbell’s new generation Southern stance, one that champions heritage while disowning tired myths. 24 Frames proved more worldly in its outlook but was more emotionally combustible (“like a pipe bomb ready to blow”) while Outfit, one of two songs pulled from his Drive-By Truckers days, remained a quintessentially uneasy generational anthem (“You want to be old after 42 years, keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears”).

But the material itself was only part of the fireworks. Fueled by a remarkably crisp sound mix, Isbell revealed a vocal charge of greater intensity and durability than at any of his previous Lexington visits (all of which were at clubs). Similarly, the newest lineup of his 400 Unit band, especially keyboardist Derry DeBorja, provided clean, efficient orchestration that effortlessly filled the cavernous Rupp.

Then as his set headed for home, Isbell stepped out on guitar for monstrous solos during Never Gonna Change (the other Truckers tune) and the uproarious snapshot of past life decadence Super 8. The resulting music possessed the swagger and electricity of vintage Tom Petty but ultimately rocked with a confidence Isbell could claim as his own.

the deliberate jason isbell

jason isbell. photo by david mcclister.

jason isbell. photo by david mcclister.

In describing the real life sagas behind Jason Isbell’s recent Something More Than Free album, one word keeps cropping up.

Loads of reviews have appropriated it to describe the narratives – some country and Americana in their roots-driven accessibility, others more folk-leaning in their storytelling detail – abounding on the record. In conversation ahead of his opening set performance for the Avett Brothers tonight at Rupp Arena, Isbell himself coins the term. But he employs it to assert not only the songwriting intent on Something More Than Free but his sense-of-purpose in performing that music onstage – even if that stage sits in the middle of a 23,000 seat venue like Rupp.

The word is “deliberate.”

“We use a maximum amount of dynamics whether we’re playing a theatre or an arena or an amphitheater or whatever. We just go out and play the best that we can.

“When I started out performing 15 years ago or so, it took some getting used to because we were playing a lot of bars and clubs and things like that. When we moved into bigger venues, we definitely had to be more deliberate about the way we performed and the way we played and sang. But as time goes on, we’ve gotten more used to that. I’ve discovered that approach works in the smaller places, too.”

In also works pretty well in his songs, like the ones on 2013’s Southeastern, which earned Isbell honors for Artist, Album and Song of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards. The record chronicled, among other personal topics, a life renewed by sobriety after years of alcohol-induced tumoil. Something More Than Free is comparatively lighter, even though its combustible stories of hope and family (led by The Life You Choose, If It Takes a Lifetime and the exquisite “pipe bomb ready to blow” meditation 24 Frames) are hardly portraits of sleek contentment.

“I just sit down to write a good set of songs to document where my life was at that point and then spend a lot of time editing it. I try to get every word as close to perfect as I possibly can. That’s been my approach every time. Now, I think a big shift happened before writing Southeastern. I got sober and had a lot more time in the day to do my work. That made a big difference, but that was the last real change in my approach. After that, I think it’s more about ignoring what you’ve done in the past and just putting the time in to do the best work you can.”

These days, Isbell’s inspirations are considerably sunnier than some of the spirits that roam about on his last two albums. He and fellow Americana songsmith Amanda Shires gave birth to daughter Mercy Rose Isbell on Sept. 1. (“I’ve been holding her in my lap here for the last five minutes or so. Her mom just came in and grabbed her.”) As bright as his world is this fall, father Isbell asserts that representing life on personal terms through song is a process as difficult as it is unavoidable.

“I don’t know how to gauge that, really, because I feel like it’s my job as much as anything else. That’s the root of the work that I’m doing. It’s not an easy thing to do and sometimes you just feel very bare and exposed. You have to focus on getting away from your own image of yourself and protecting how you want to appear to your audience. You have to stop protecting that and just start telling the truth.

“The best songs are the most honest songs. They are definitely the ones that have connected with the largest number of fans, too. The ones that are really important to me from a personal standpoint are the ones that translate the best. So I just try to keep challenging myself to open up to people.

“That can be as simple as forming relationships with people and not being so locked up inside yourself. You tell people the truth and everything will wind up being a lot easier.”

The Avett Brothers/Jason Isbell performs at 7:30 tonight at Rupp Arena. Tickets: $35-$59.50. Call: (800) 745-3000, (859) 233-3535 or got to www.ticketmaster.com.

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