Archive for March, 2016

in performance: old crow medicine show/parker millsap

old crow medicine show. from left: morgan jahnig, critter fuqua, ketch secor,  chance mccoy, cory younts and kevin hayes.

old crow medicine show. from left: morgan jahnig, critter fuqua, ketch secor, chance mccoy, cory younts and kevin hayes.

What a difference a decade-plus makes.

When Old Crow Medicine Show last played Lexington, the band’s breakthrough was still fresh, as was its mix of bawdy string band traditionalism (one that veered more to speakeasy blues than bluegrass) and punkish performance spirit

Last night, at the onset of a two night engagement at the Singletary Center for the Arts, an older Old Crow opened with a vice-ridden escapade, Tell It To Me, cut from the same album (2004’s O.C.M.S.) the band was promoting when it played downtown at The Dame a full 12 years ago. This time, though, the song opened up. It was more tempered, more orchestrated (fleshed out by keyboards, drums and pedal steel guitar – all non-traditional colors but nonetheless welcome reflections of the band’s growth). While a touch of the wildness from the Dame date was absent, the tune’s spirit was never compromised. What followed was a 1 ¾ hour set that greatly expanded on its renegade roots sound without loosing site of it.

Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua – playing fiddle and banjo, respectively, although both juggled numerous instruments all evening – remained the focal and vocal focus of the group. Secor was the sharp witted frontman, Fuqua the more sparse spoken foil. But the ensemble sound was quickly revealed during Alabama High Test, with members rushing to various platforms on the stage to surround and egg on a particular player. Sometimes what resulted were atomic bluegrass bits like 8 Dogs 8 Banjos and a warp speed barn dance medley of Ol’ Molly Hare, Raise a Ruckus and a spry yarn from the band’s 2015 album Remedy with a title that, sadly, isn’t fit for family print.

There were also more country and Americana flavored detours peppered throughout the set that might have seemed timid to those used to Old Crow’s dance hall beginnings. But songs like Caroline, Sweet Amarillo and especially the Doc Watson tribute Doc’s Days came off as products of a band searching to expand. The resulting sounds often approached the daring early ‘70s music of Poco and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But when drummer Cory Younts took a break for some feverish clogging, followed briskly by dizzying runs on mandolin, or when Secor let loose on fiddle, the spirit of its self-proclaimed “hillbilly music” heritage returned to its former, stampeding glory.

The biggest surprises came when Secor, Fuqua, Younts and guitarist Chance McCoy gathered around a single microphone for Stealin’ and the sublime unity anthem I Hear Them All. Also of note was a profoundly faithful reading of Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic with show opener Parker Millsap leading the vocal parade.

Millsap’s 45 minute set was great fun – a mix of rustic acoustic blues and country blues performed with a trio. But it was his singing – a potent wail that often recalled a young Robert Plant – that gave tunes like Hands Up, The Very Last Day (the title tune to his just released third album) and Pining, along with covers of Hesitation Blues and You Gotta Move – a sound that was suitably rootsy in design and potently jagged and boisterous in delivery.

Old Crow Medicine Show and Parker Millsap perform again tonight at the Singletary Center for the Arts. The performance is sold out.

critic’s pick 319: andrew bird, ‘are you serious’

andrew bird are you serious“You may not know me but you feel my stare,” sings Andrew Bird near the onset of Are You Serious, his first album (minus assorted EPs, cover tune projects and instrumental musings) since 2012’s Break It Yourself. It’s an uneasy line in an equally agitated song called Roma Fade that breezes along with an effortless pop sway. Until that line arrives. Then the mood blacks out for a beat or two before resuming. It’s like getting shunted briefly through a tunnel during a summer drive.

The various stylistic guises of Bird don’t always flock together. He is part indie-pop star, part chamber-style vaudevillian (what with the whistling and pizzicato violin bits) and part cerebral instrumentalist. Are You Serious largely opts for Bird No. 1. It’s a far more raucous, loose and downright fun session than anything he has issued in a decade. But there is still that warble of unease – an almost playful paranoia – that bubbles under the surface.

You hear it in spades during Left Handed Kisses, the queasy duet with Fiona Apple (duel is more like it) that is offered as a total rethink on presumptive romantic connections by way of what the latter artist terms a “back handed love song.”

Valleys of the Young, on the other hand, ponders the youth (“you’re going on 64 driving down 65”) of colliding generations with a portrait of pop fancy that rages outside the song’s swirling psychedelic core with squalls of Sonic Youth-level guitar. It’s a tale of love and death with “hearts constantly breaking” and the guitar onslaught finally overtaking and puncturing the pop bliss. For a stylist of Bird’s usually reserved fortitude, the song is an all out rampage.

Slightly less intrusive is The New St. Jude, a more Dylan-esque escapade that bounces about like Graceland-era Paul Simon before settling into the solemnity of latter day Grateful Dead. Compared to the more extreme moments of Are You Serious, the tune is like a Sunday morning mimosa after an especially cagey Saturday night.

Initial reviews remark that Are Your Serious is a reflection and affirmation of Bird’s family life. Maybe so. The acoustic warmth and hope of Chemical Switches suggest as such with its stripped down make up of guitar and whistling. But the tune is essentially the eye in a hurricane of a record, one that doesn’t relent until the album closing Bellevue. There, the music melts into a looping melody spurred on by violin and fortified by a bright, free flowing groove before coming to rest on the words “I think I’ve found someone.”

Then again, concluding this turbulent session in a sea of seeming contentment and quiet with a song that shares its name with a famous New York public hospital suggests this love story comes with a bit of baggage – or at least some artillery to weather the storm with.

as the crow show flies

old crow medicine show. from left chance mccoy, cory younts, ketch secor, morgan jahnig and critter fuqua.

old crow medicine show. from left chance mccoy, cory younts, ketch secor, morgan jahnig and critter fuqua.

In the 18 years since he helped assemble Old Crow Medicine Show, Critter Fuqua has never felt like part of a scene.

He didn’t sense any belonging to a country contingency that had long forsaken the kind of roots-inspired string sounds the Crow crew embraced. But there was also no special kinship to the growing number of string bands that began to emerge in the wake of Old Crow’s breakthrough among a growing Americana fanbase with 2004’s O.C.M.S. album.

So with a 2015 Grammy win to its credit, a pair of concerts (one of which is sold out) that mark the band’s first Lexington performance stop in a over a decade and a generally refreshed perspective on recording and touring, just what camp does multi-instrumentalist Fuqua think Old Crow belongs to?

“I don’t know. We kind of do what we do and let the music do what it does. I never really felt a part of a scene. The funny thing is, I don’t really listen to any of the Americana stuff when I’m off the road. I don’t have my pulse on that scene. It just feels so insular when I’m with Old Crow because I’m just focused on what we’re doing. It’s hard to keep up with everything else because there are so many bands out now. I just keep up with what we’re doing. That’s all I can do.”

Like it or not, though, Fuqua, co-founding Old Crow fiddler Ketch Secor (the two met in the seventh grade) and the rest of the band lineup almost unintentionally became an establishment attraction in 2015 after picking up a Grammy for Best Folk Album – not country album or Americana, but folk – for its most recent recording, Remedy.

“Everybody is always like, ‘Yeah, awards don’t mean that much.’ Then when you get one, you’re like, ‘Yeah, awards are pretty cool.’ I mean, my attitude, really, was that it was great to be nominated. Then when you’re out there, you’re thinking, ‘Well, it was great to be here, and it’s great to be nominated.’ But then you’re kind of like, ‘Well, I’m sitting here. It would be nice to win.’ It’s weird how the whole scene gets you.

“Before, honestly, I never thought about Grammys. Ever. Then when you’re nominated, you’re like, ‘I deserve it.’ It kind of gets into your head. Personally, awards don’t mean that much. But when you’re nominated and you get into that world, you start getting effected by it. It’s strange.”

Remedy also marked a re-emergence for the band. After a grueling touring schedule that had grinded on with few breaks since the success of O.C.M.S., Old Crow went on hiatus in the late summer of 2011. But Fuqua had already bowed out of the band by then to kick a mounting alcohol addiction and to eventually attend college in Kerrville, Tx., where he studied English (“I’m fluent now,” he says).

“I left the band to get sober and didn’t go back because I was going to school. I kind of needed that break. But I think it was a necessary break for the band, too. It just happened.”

In the end, Remedy turned out to be just that – a brawl of an acoustic roots music record that assimilates vintage country, ragtime, Prohibition Era blues and elements of rock ‘n’ roll in spirit more than style. The inspirations still call out to the string music of eras past but with an immediacy that makes it sound like anything but a museum piece.

“The thing with this musical form – which is labeled, I guess, Americana now – is that back in the day, it used to be brand new. It lends itself to whatever is going on around you. It doesn’t have to be about dogs and fiddles and jugs of moonshine, although we sing about that stuff (all are covered vividly on Remedy). But this music really lends itself to collaboration with different sources. I guess people forget that country music can still be creative.”

Old Crow Medicine Show and Parker Milsap perform 8 p.m. March 30 and 31 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. The March 31 performance is sold out. Tickets for March 30 are $39.50 and $42. Call 859-257-4929 or go to

in performance: julian lage and chris eldridge

 julian lage and chris eldridge.

julian lage and chris eldridge.

The bill of fare offered last night by Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge was dubbed by the former as “acoustic guitar art songs.” What that translated into during a powerfully conversational duo performance at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville was a meeting ground between the jazz dexterity of Lage, the bluegrass abandon of Eldridge and the wealth of fertile stylistic ground that sat in between them.

Though deceptively simple and lean in design with the two guitarists playing without amplification save for a lone microphone, the 80 minute program was beautifully restless in execution.

Light melodies with shades of folk and pre-bluegrass country would open a tune with summery grace before darting off to break the sound barrier. In other instances, a more jazz like sensibility would interject itself with playful spontaneity, adding to the show’s highly intuitive feel. Such occurrences were commonplace within the tunes, changing the temperament of the music as regularly and readily at the tempo.

Take Mount Royal, for instance, one of several new, unrecorded instrumental compositions showcased during the performance. Its initial setting was pure Americana, a terrain of swiftly performed melodic lines by Eldridge full of folkish charm. But when Lage took the reins, the song seemed to elongate with a slower, more open lyricism. The moods passed back forth before splintering into short shards of percussive dissonance.

A similar stylistic joyride was also at the heart of At the Meeting House, an older composition from the duo’s 2013 EP disc Close to Picture that employed a kind of Americana fusion – one similar to the jazz/bluegrass hybrid playing of Tony Rice, but with a far more congenial feel – that highlighted the guitarists’ stylistic differences as well as the obvious dialogue that grew out of the resulting music.

Eldridge, who has performed in Kentucky several times over the past decade as a member of the new generation string band Punch Brothers, also revealed himself as a capable singer with a voice as light, unspoiled and adaptable as his playing, whether it was with a quietly sentimental reading of the Gershwin staple Someone to Watch Over Me, a spry stab at the gospel nugget Open Up the Window, Noah or a leisurely update of Jimmie Rodgers’ Any Old Time that sounded less like the country classicist and more like the wry folk reflection of Loudon Wainwright III. All three are featured on the duo’s fine 2014 album Avalon and further defined the scope of the modern “art song” as Lage and Eldridge view it

guitar pals

chris eldridge, left, and julian lage.

chris eldridge, left, and julian lage.

At the heart of a collaboration that unites two acclaimed guitarists from distinct and seemingly opposing musical communities sits a simple component.

It is flexible enough to find common ground between stylistic differences – jazz for one, bluegrass for the other. It is also durable enough for Julian Lage – recognized as a prodigy even before tenure with such jazz vets as Gary Burton, Fred Hersch and Jim Hall – and Chris “Critter” Eldridge, picker for the genre-hopping Punch Brothers with an extensive bluegrass pedigree, to find time to collaborate outside their own full and separate careers.

The unifying factor? Simple. Friendship.

“As long as Jules and I continue to have this wonderful relationship, which I totally anticipate being the case, I think there will also be reason to do this project,” said Eldridge. “That’s one thing I really value about what we’re doing. I take it really seriously as a musical project and I’m very proud of it – as proud as I am of anything else. But at the same time, it’s equally important to me because Jules is my good friend.”

“Probably the most important thing about this project is just the friendship,” Lage added. “It’s the desire just to work on stuff and feel as strong and supportive about it as possible. The music is pretty indicative of that. But I think is also goes into a personal realm. It’s something that I certainly cherish a lot, as I think Critter does.”

Lage and Eldridge came together when both were New Yorkers. Lage was invited to a Punch Brothers concert so as to discuss band a recording date with founder Chris Thile. Backstage, he met Eldridge. Then the guitars came out.

“So as two guitar players tend to do, I said, ‘Let’s play something while we’re waiting here,’ ” Lage recalled. “So it was such a neat connection that we left with – like, ‘We should do this again.’ Of course, our careers took to us to different things, so it wasn’t like we were able to jump back into it right away. But every few months we would revisit the idea again and say, ‘We should do a record.’ Then we would go away for six months or whatever. So eventually, Chris just said, ‘Look, are we going to do this or not? If we are, we’ve got to put it on the calendar and jump in.’ And that’s what we did.”

First up was an August 2013 recording titled Close to Picture, aptly self-described as “an EP of original music… and a fiddle tune.” As an introduction to the duo, the music fell somewhere between the more progressive side of Tony Rice’s early albums and the lighter, rootsier playing of pioneers like Norman Blake. In October 2014, a full debut album, Avalon, surfaced. Produced by Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids, the record largely eschews original material for a cornucopia of song traditions – Blake’s Ginseng Sullivan, the George and Ira Gershwin standard Someone to Watch Over Me (with Eldridge adding vocals), Jimmie Rodgers’ vintage country yarn Any Old Time and the traditional spiritual Open Up the Window, Noah. The sound is undeniably homey, though, as Pattengale chose to record the duo onstage at the 1920s-era Avalon Theatre (sans audience) in Easton, Maryland.

“Jules and I were exploring and trying to push ourselves, to see what two guitars could do together,” Eldridge said. “We were just trying stuff that we hadn’t necessarily tried before. Following the EP, we thought, ‘Great, our next record will build on that. Kenneth saw us play out at Wintergrass, an acoustic music festival out in Seattle a few years ago. He came to us and said, ‘I want to record you guys and I’ve got an idea. I just want to document what you do, because it’s cool and I think it would be worthy.’  I don’t think that we would have ever made that record if it hadn’t been for Kenneth.”

Added Lage: “There is a shared willingness, an extreme curiosity, that we share about the instrument, the architecture of this music and what it means for us to kind of define this music in a way that makes sense to us since we are the product of many great generations of musicians.

“We also just wanted to just acknowledge the guitar. The guitar has a rich lineage where it fits into so many kinds of music. That was a gateway for us. The voice on the guitar, it can be at home in so many places and so many scenarios. So definitely with Avalon, we took advantage of that. Then again, we’re guitar nerds, basically, at the end of the day.”

Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge perform at 8 tonight at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut in Danville. Tickets: $38, $49. Call: 877-448-7469, 859-236-4692 or go to

critic’s pick 318: various artists, ‘southern family’

Dave-Cobb-Southern-FamilyThe most telling credit on Southern Family is purposely downplayed. On the back cover – under a banner of all-star country and Americana artists that includes Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert and Brandy Clark – reads, in significantly smaller type, these words – “Produced by Dave Cobb.”

Casual listeners often show little concern over the role a producer plays in shaping whatever modern music they may embrace. But Cobb is, undeniably, the producer of the moment, the stylist whose introduction of Americana and roots-savvy sounds into the world of contemporary country stands practically as anarchy to a corporate Nashville sound so steadfast and insular in design.

Southern Family is a collection of 12 songs by 13 different artists that address such conflict by not addressing it. This is, in essence, a Cobb solo album patterned after the 1978 Civil War concept record White Mansions that similarly teamed a pack of country outlaws and traditionalists (Levon Helm, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings). On Southern Family, the theme is exactly that – fervent, heartfelt and, at times, sentimental portraits of familial love and culture. Nearly all the artists sing their own songs with Cobb as producer at Nashville’s RCA Studio A, the historic facility that is now his recording home.

Most of the artists rise to the theme of Southern Family without overstating it. Isbell’s God is a Working Man speaks crisply to his prideful roots, a blend of Southern storytelling and reverential country. But the women largely set the pace of the album. Lambert noticeably downshifts on Sweet By and By, adopting a quietly intense and vastly more contained country tone one seriously hopes will carry over into her future work. Morgane Stapleton gets top billing over one of Cobb’s star clients, husband Chris Stapleton, for a duet update of You Are My Sunshine that swaps the song’s innocence for a darker, swampy electricity. Topping them all is the brilliant Brandy Clark, whose I Cried is elegant, honest and un-coerced country heartbreak.

The only serious misfire go to the Zac Brown Band, whose Grandmas’s Garden overdoses on its own sentimental forwardness the way much of radio-tooled country does. Frankly, Cobb’s atypically heavyhanded production doesn’t help. Also, Anderson East’s Learning starts with an appealing Randall Brambett-style soulfulness but reaches for Otis Redding-level intensity and winds up sounding forced and falsely imitative.

But then there is Jamey Johnson, the ultra-stoic country stylist whose deep but never austere sense of familial solace on Mama’s House is as rustic and real as an oak tree. It is a lesson in devotion, but one told with a homegrown solemnity that isn’t being hawked like someone selling insurance, as so much of today country music is. The song underscores how Cobb keeps this music direct, reflective and very much in the family.

in performance: california guitar trio

california guitar trio: paul richards, hideyo moriya and bert lams.

california guitar trio: paul richards, hideyo moriya and bert lams.

A certain amount of hero worship goes into any California Guitar Trio show. Last night, at an ultra intimate, ultra sold out performance at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café in Frankfort, you heard it within the delicate precision and cyclical intensity of the group’s collective mentor, British guitarist Robert Fripp. That, along with versed classical-leaning technique, has long formed the basis of their remarkable playing. But the hero worship extended far beyond that to the myriad influences guitarists Paul Richards, Bert Lams and Hideyo Moriya assimilated, musical and otherwise, into their repertoire.

There was the way singular notes formed a bit-by-bit “circulation” construction of a Bach Prelude, a process that would inform much of the compositions within the 90 minute set. There was also the looped ambience Richards created first as an introduction, then as a backdrop for the gorgeous CGT original Punta Patri as well as the playful surf drive that fueled Walk Don’t Run near the beginning of the set and Misirlou as its final encore. And, yes, their remarkable acoustic makeover of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was again as crowd pleaser, as was its mash-up of the cowboy classic Ghost Riders in the Sky and The Doors’ Riders on the Storm (dubbed Ghost Riders on the Storm), the latter as much for the way the two tunes weaved in and around each other, as for the medley’s obvious audience friendly appeal.

But these were all traits the CGT has revealed before. While all were performed last night with ample vigor, the show was also a showcase for a bounty of new material and covers the group plans on recording this spring. The Pablo Neruda-inspired What Springs Does to Cherry Trees revolved around Fripp-flavored exchanges set to a richly animated yet still-delicate melody, while The Euphoria of Pure Joy possessed an almost orchestral feel within layers of wistful lyrical slices. A cover of The Beatles’ I Dig a Pony then emphasized rhythm and groove.

All of that came into play during the CGT’s take on Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk, which was introduced with a nod to the late keyboardist Keith Emerson (who began performing the piece back in the ‘60s with The Nice). But this version owed more to the shift between the tune’s dizzying melody, its refrains of swing and how the former cleverly overtook the latter. It was trio’s most inventive and thrillseeking bit of hero worship, by far.

critic’s pick 317: avishai cohen, ‘into the silence’

avashai cohenIt’s a perhaps an inevitability for a versed jazz trumpet player to draw comparisons to Miles Davis. You try to avoid the parallels, and yet there they are. So when Avishai Cohen opens his sublime new Into the Silence album with a slow, plaintive serenade on the muted horn over a hushed, brushed backdrop of after hours blues, the reference that emerges full blown is Miles at the height of his Kind of Blue period.

But Cohen is no jazz imitation. The tune in question, Into the Silence’s opening Life and Death opens out into a meditation. The lusciously understated and gloriously unhurried tone will recall Miles time and time again. But as the tune opens up, revealing a subtle yet robust spaciousness, the sound that initially seemed so familiar takes on almost prayer-like qualities, especially in the way it interacts with pianist Yonathan Avishai, a friend and musical colleague of Cohen’s for decades. The dissonance of his piano colors prove an invaluable foil throughout Into the Silence, creating contemplative chatter that adheres to the kind of relaxed, reflective spirit that sits at the heart of the album, but also upholds the striking ambience that defines the sound of ECM Records, the longstanding European label that now serves as Cohen’s recording home.

Into the Silence marks his first recording for the label under his own name, having debuted with ECM on saxophonist’s Mark Turner’s fine quartet record Lathe of Heaven in 2014.

The alliance of trumpet and piano gently drives the meditative fabric of Into the Silence. The record boasts a beautifully flexible rhythm section of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits (whose joint playing behind saxophonist Peter Brotzmann here at The Red Mile in 2009 remains one of the highlights in the Outside the Spotlight Series) and often enchanting soloing from tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry (especially during the free exchanges within Into the Silence’s wonderfully disassembled title composition). But the album ultimately comes down to a piano-trumpet affair.

For Behind the Broken Glass, Avashai’s piano introduction sets a pastoral framework that moves almost glacially behind Cohen’s spacious trumpet lead. McHenry eventually (and briefly) fleshes out the tune late in its run. But for its eight luxurious minutes, Broken Glass is very much a dual conversation.

Ditto for Dream Like a Child, a tune double the length of Broken Glass, but with the same arresting dynamics – piano rolls of open, unforced beauty and trumpet colors that both challenge and compliment the keys. Cohen and McHenry politely duke it out (and accelerate the tune’s plaintive thrust in the process) before the former wins out. But it’s that same piano/trumpet dialogue that closes the piece out, making Into the Silence an absorbing portrait of the ECM sound past and present.

in performance: vandaveer

vandavver: mark charles heidinger and rose guerin.

vandaveer: mark charles heidinger and rose guerin.

Apparently at home in being home, Mark Charles Heidinger – better known to the indie folk-pop faithful as Vandaveer – remarked that it would suit him fine to simply finish out his current tour right where he was.

“So just buy your tickets for Providence and New York,” he said last night during a sold out Sunday Sessions concert at the Downtown Arts Center. “We’ll meet right here.”

Heidinger – now based out of Louisville after a lengthy residency in the Washington, DC area – wasn’t just giving a nod to friends and family from his native Lexington. He cut Vandaveer’s newest album, The Wild Mercury, here and is currently touring with a band made up almost exclusively of familiar Lexington hands (guitarist J. Tom Hnatow, bassist Blake Cox and drummer Robby Cosenza). The homecoming feel, not surprisingly, was deep and pervasive.

Mostly, though, the intimate sit down environment of the program provided a splendid opportunity to showcase The Wild Mercury in a performance setting. Heidinger, longtime co-vocalist Rose Guerin and their Lexington brethren summoned 8 of the album’s 10 songs, playing heavily to their melodic pop strengths, the confessional folk nature of Heidinger’s narratives and instrumentation that was often sublimely executed.

The opening A Little Time Off Ahead enforced the pop side of the new Vandaveer music with a Beatle-esque lyrical stride and a sturdy wash of electric guitar from Hnatow. Vocally, the hooks and harmonies within the highly affirmative But Enough On That For Now (“Life is such a temporary thing… it is absolutely cruel and beautiful”) asserted the Vandaveer quintet’s nicely expanded, but powerfully efficient ensemble sound.

But for sheer invention, nothing topped Holding Patterns, which tagged Heidinger’s tale of a stalled and aged romance (“It feels like gambling, like going out on a limb, on a high wire, with clipped wings”) to Vandaveer’s most commanding instrumental accent, the pedal steel accompaniment of Hnatow. The latter’s solo seemed to echo far beyond the DAC’s walls before bringing the tune to slow, cinematic fade. It was a tough call as which – the vocals or the steel sounds – possessed a greater longing.

There were older Vandaveer nuggets, as well, including an eerily elegant Spite (again with Hantow’s pedal steel work as the prime orchestration) and a séance-like sing-a-long encore version of Dig Down Deep. But this night for Vandaveer was all about The Wild Mercury and making the newest songs and sounds of a proudly progressive folkie sound right at home.

riding the wild mercury

rose guerin and mark charles heidinger of vandaveer. photo by kurt gohde.

rose guerin and mark charles heidinger of vandaveer. photo by kurt gohde.

The initial idea for The Wild Mercury – the fifth and newest album by Lexington bred Mark Heidinger, better known as Louisville indie folk-pop stylist Vandaveer – was an idea that seemed curiously tame.

Specifically, the game plan called for some aural downsizing. Heidinger and Vandaveer mate Rose Guerin were to record a new batch of new, original tunes with minimal fuss and accompaniment. The planned makeup called for songs, harmonies, guitar and not much lot else.

Things quickly changed. Once Heidinger connected again with a crew of Lexington pals – producer Duane Lundy, longtime guitarist/collaborator J. Tom Hnatow and others – the sound and scope of what would become The Wild Mercury quickly expanded.

“I knew I had a batch of songs that I wanted to go in the studio with,” Heidinger said. “I thought, initially, given the thematic nature of the material, maybe this will become a stripped down, confessional type album – more of a singer-songwriter production.

“But I had a pre-production meeting or two with Duane and thought, ‘You know what? We should really go all in and do this as a band.’ We wanted to kind of find our way, sonically speaking, with the whole unit. So there was a lot of exploration in the studio where maybe with past records, we were working more in a sort of compartmental fashion and then pulling in pieces as we felt they were needed. With The Wild Mercury, there was much more collaborative, creative exploration in the studio.”

While Heidinger’s songs have long been the nucleus of Vandaveer’s music over the past decade – from its folkish intuition to its sometimes psychedelic reach – Guerin’s accompaniment has become a signature exponent of the group’s sound. Even in the expanded touring lineup – rounded out by guitarist/pedal steel ace Hnatow, bassist Blake Cox and drummer Robby Cosenza – Guerin’s singing shifts the temperament of the tunes from robustly soulful and to stark and ghostly.

“Rosie picks and chooses where she injects herself into the creative process,” Heidinger said. “She has very definitive ideas about vocal arrangements. I come from a pop background. Rosie comes from a storied folk family. That’s her reference point. There are times when I’m needing more of a pop harmony and she’s adamant about doing something that’s more in that folk vein. But Rosie has carte blanche when it comes to the sort of choral arrangement of vocals she brings to the table.

“We do a lot of vocal exploration where we’re just sitting together and it’s just the acoustic guitar and the two of us singing. She is just so innately good at harmonizing. She comes up with winding, melodic harmonies that are just world class.”

How all this translates into the music the Vandaveer quartet will bring to tonight’s second installment in the Sunday Sessions series (an evening that will also include an exhibit by Herald-Leader staff photographer Mark Cornelison) and subsequently, the furthering of what has already been considerable national attention for Heidinger’s songs, is difficult to forecast. He is well aware of what he terms the “new model” of the music business, so much so that The Wild Mercury retains Vandaveer’s indie profile by being the debut release for the Lexington-based WhiteSpace Records. Beyond that, Heidinger’s hope rests on his ability to be heard in any capacity, by any audience.

“There is a lot of complaining about the new music economy, about how it’s not fair and how it devalues music. Somehow, there is this idea that the old way of doing things was better and was inherently more fair. I think some of that is revisionism. I don’t know if a band in our position would have even come close to making a fifth record with the old economy and the old structure where if you didn’t sell a ton of your first record or a ton of your second record, there was no third record. So we if can carve out our own little niche and claw our way up our ladder leaning up against the giant wall of music, then I’m thrilled.

“We’re in our mid to late ‘30s and we’re making music ‘for a living.’ We’re finding a way to move forward. So it’s privilege more than anything. Of course I would like to be able to put this record in front of more people and perform it in front of more people onstage. But for that, you’ve got to put your head down and work. We’re fortunate in that we get to do that for as long as get to do it.”

Sunday Sessions featuring Vandaveer performs as part of the Sunday Sessions series at 6:30 tonight at the Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main. The performance is sold out.

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