Archive for November, 2015

in performance : storm large

storm large.

storm large.

After quickly professing her love for the Bluegrass, Storm Large greeted a Kentucky Theatre crowd last night by purposely pinching a nerve.

“Hear you have a new governor,” she said cheerfully. “How’s that going for you?”

When a collective audience groan greeted her query, the singer snapped to attention and made clear who was in charge for evening.

“Hey! There will no booing at the beginning of the show.”

Thus was set in motion a cabaret style performance of broadly re-imagined pop covers, acerbic yet reflective original tunes and a level of bawdy humor that often seemed traditional in a speakeasy kind of way. But most of all, there were the vocals – an arsenal of rich, robustly clear singing munitions that were alternately serene, romantic and rocking. Large’s voice was exactly that – huge and commanding with a range she glided up and down from with natural ease and a sense of dramatic flair that was theatrical in design but always emotively honest in delivery.

Large opened with a musical warning of sorts – a slice of unapologetic and strangely affirmative reflection titled Call Me Crazy. “Call me psycho,” she stated with jazz like intimacy. “Because I am.”

In a wild streak that typlified the program’s rollercoaster pace, Large followed with a pair of Cole Porter gems retooled for the modern age. I’ve Got You Under My Skin was goosed with an earthy defiance as well as a generous nod to Large’s rock ‘n’ roll roots while It’s Alright With Me became a jubilant bit of tambourine shaking fun with a vocal charge as animated as it was strikingly clear.

The song selection navigated through numerous stylistic waters throughout the rest of the 95 minute program from a decidedly non-diminutive version of the Grease classic Hopelessly Devoted to You (or, as the singer tagged it, “Grease meets Carrie”) to the after hours cocktail arrangement of the country murder ballad Long Black Veil to the wonderfully torchy treatment to the 1967 Jacques Brel by-way-of Dusty Springfield hit If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas).

Of course, Large was as much a raconteur as a powerhouse vocalist. A self-described “sailor mouthed” humorist, she offered ruminations on true romance (“If the cops weren’t called, you weren’t really into each other”) and the taboos of modern language. The latter helped set up 8 Miles Wide, a tune of anatomical pride “in the pants area” that countered any possibility of offense with operatic vocal blasts that made the humor all the more wicked.

another new morning for chris stapleton

chris stapleton at last night's CMA awards. photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP.

chris stapleton at last night’s CMA awards. photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP.

Like many Kentuckians, I’m all smiles today over the multiple wins by our own Chris Stapleton last night at the 49th Country Music Association Awards. But it’s not for perhaps obvious reasons.

Stapleton’s music runs against almost every commercial trend Nashville otherwise celebrated at the ceremony – so much so that victories for his highly traditional music in the album, new artist and male vocalist of the year categories are genuinely shocking for a genre that has turned its back so shamelessly on its past.

Maybe there are a few old souls left at the CMA that recall when country music wasn’t just another faceless form of poster boy pop (which is likely). Maybe Nashville is finally ready to return to its roots and get behind songs that are genuinely country in feel and narrative (which is highly unlikely). Maybe it’s all a fluke – meaning Stapleton has been picked out as a novelty by Nashville to promote a reflection of faith in tradition that will be purposely short lived (which is extremely likely).

None of this takes away from the grand night Stapleton had. Awards shows offer some of the best publicity – and, to many industry ears, validity – for an artist largely shunned by radio. To airwave kings like Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean, stylistic polar opposites of Stapleton, a CMA win translates into little more than bigger bragging rights. Given also the frequency of country awards programs, their impact on a career is usually just another notch in the proverbial belt.

But for Stapleton, still a new find for mainstream audiences despite years as an established songwriter, the impact of these wins will be considerable. What it means firstly is this morning many eager fans have woken up to what we knew here in Kentucky all along – that in a country world ruled by chart numbers, image and pop accessibility, Stapleton isn’t some contrived, corporate Nashville foot soldier. He’s a real deal singer and writer championing true country songcraft more than any commercially visible artist since Dwight Yoakam. That should make enthusiasts of all Kentucky grown music feel justifiably proud.

in performance: chris thile

chris thile. photo by danny-clinch.

chris thile. photo by danny-clinch.

On record, Chris Thile is an instrumental scholar whose mindblowing technique is matched only by his stylistic restlessness. Onstage, such a balance manifests in an exuberant, inexhaustible and likely well caffeinated manner that offsets his virtuosic turns with combustible vigor. Imagine Neil Patrick Harris – from the wiry body frame to the boundless physicality – but with bluegrass leanings and you have a respectable portrait of Thile in performance.

Usually Thile plays in a rotating number of duo and ensemble settings. Last night, however, he bounded onstage at Asbury University’s Hughes Auditorium in Wilmore with just his longstanding musical weapon of choice, the mandolin, as a sidekick. Exhibiting dizzying string runs on some tunes and remarkable technical clarity on others, Thile offered an intimate view of the classical, pop and improvisational regions his bluegrass-bred playing leads to. Additionally, the 100 minute concert was designed as a career overview that boasted works by the two bands he is most readily associated with – Nickel Creek (Jealous of the Moon) and Punch Brothers (My Oh My). There was also music from recordings cut by the all-star Goat Rodeo Sessions (Here and Heaven) and his underrated duo project with guitarist Michael Daves (Rabbit in the Log).

In its more purposely reckless moments, Thile seemed to delight in creating train wrecks, as was the case in what he tagged “the ill-advised mash-up” of Josh Ritter’s Another New World and the Nickel Creek favorite The Lighthouse’s Tale. What resulted devilishly shifted mood as much as style as Thile went back and forth from the arctic chill surrounding the former to the comparative folk comfort bolstering the latter.

But when Thile chose musical order, the results were stunning. During a 20 minute reassembly of Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, the novel lute-like precision of the playing (and, for that matter, the arrangement) all but reinvented the piece with all its alternating delicacy and fury intact.

Where else did the performance go? Well, Thile jumped head first into bluegrass with a suitably warp speed reading of Bill Monroe’s Mollie and Tenbrooks, served up a fun but self-effacing bit of grandstanding on the original Too Many Notes and even fashioned an impromptu ode early in the program to Wilmore that referenced the Ichthus festival, his teen years in Murray and a curious sense of bluegrass duality: “In Kentucky, two bluegrasses grow; one makes thoroughbreds, one was made by Monroe.”

The mad mandolin music dispensed throughout this performance may well have constituted a third variant.

storm’s-a-brewing

storm large. photo by laura domela.

storm large. photo by laura domela.

As she strolls through New York City, Storm Large is processing the contrasting imagery playing out before her as through it were an internal cinema, a panoramic set of snapshots flowing together with almost frightening continuity.

“Right now, I’m walking through Tompkins Square Park,” she reports. “There are these impossibly beautiful models walking their little gorgeous dogs by a bunch of homeless guys. There are these weird scenes where you hear 10 different languages on one block. It’s stimulating and it’s repulsive. It’s exciting and it’s erotic. I don’t know. I got ADD. My brain explodes with everything.”

If Large’s artistic psyche teeters on the point of continual eruption, so does her glorious music. Though nurtured on rock ‘n’ roll and a theatrical bawdiness as deliberate as it is unapologetic (one of her early bands was called Storm and her Dirty Mouth), the New England born, California raised and now Portland, Oregon residing singer became versed in a genre-free cabaret spirit cemented by an unexpected alliance with the globally inclined pop ensemble Pink Martini.

It comes as little surprise then that her newest album, Le Bonheur has Large covering such strange bedfellow artists as Cole Porter, Lou Reed, Rodgers & Hart, Randy Newman and Jacques Brel.

“It’s a sort of ADD punk rock cabaret,” Large said. “I grew up with so many different kinds of music. I identified with punk rockers and layabouts and the lowlife scum of New York, etc, etc. That was what I emotionally and artistically related to. But my voice and my music sensibilities ran the whole gambit of Patsy Cline to Mozart to hip-hop. It was all over the place.”

Curiously, Large’s musical express was nearly derailed before it ever gained national exposure for her powerfully distinctive name (which, by the way, is not an alias; she was born Susan Storm Large). Fed up with the music business in the late ‘90s, she moved from San Francisco to Portland with the notion of junking her career and becoming a chef.

“I was going to go to the culinary institute because I was so disenchanted with music,” she said. “I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to tour and I wanted to sing, but I didn’t care about being a rock star and I didn’t care about being famous. I wanted to get paid more than beer. I wanted to be able to pay my band, have a tour bus and actually function as a business. But the whole ‘90s thing in San Francisco was about ‘Oh, you’ve got to get signed, you’ve got to write a hit song.’ Every time I saw a record deal, it was awful. It was like, ‘We’re going to lend you $5 and you will owe us $5,000 and we own everything you do.’ I was just a singer, but that’s a (expletive) deal. So I was like, ‘You know what, this isn’t fun.’ I set out to learn another skill where I’m generating happiness for people.

“But I started bartending at this club called Dante’s. The owner, who was a friend of mine, said, ‘You know, I could really use some music on Wednesday nights. Could you maybe put something together?’ That was 15 years ago. Then it became fun again.”

In due course, the projects rolled in. There was national television exposure as a semi-finalist in the 2006 CBS reality/contest series Rockstar: Supernova (“A good business education that made me the most famous I’ve been. I don’t want to be that famous ever again.”). After that came a role in the Randy Newman musical Harps and Angels in 2010 (“As an artist, Randy has a very sharp, cynical tongue that can insult with the most venomous yet funny imagery. I would never want to see him mad.”). Then it was Martini time.

When the multi-lingual, cross-generational pop troupe Pink Martini searched for a temporary touring replacement for singer China Forbes, who was sidelined due to vocal cord surgery, Large was drafted.

“Storm is incredible,” said Pink Martini chieftain Thomas Lauderdale prior to the group’s 2011 concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts. “She’s very smart, too. She took classes so she could sing our French songs. By the end of two weeks she was conjugating and joking in French. That’s how smart she is.” Large, though, was initially reluctant to fill in.

“I told China, ‘No way. Your fans are going to hate my guts.’ China has got such a flawless, beautiful voice. I would never pretend to do what she does. But Thomas was such a wonderful teacher and wonderful curator of these beautiful ballads where you don’t technically need to be flawless. You just need to be emotionally honest about what it is you’re interpreting.

“It’s been the best musical education of my life being with Pink Martini. Thomas takes songs that really move him with melody, with beauty, with color and with stories. What I discovered was my strength of interpretation and my strength of emotional honesty through song.”

Storm Large performs at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Kentucky Theater, 214 E. Main. Tickets: $25, $35. Call (888) 718-4253 or got to showclix.com.

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