Archive for July, 2016

in performance: wheels of soul tour featuring tedeschi-trucks band/los lobos/north mississippi all-stars

dereks trucks and susan tedeschi.

dereks trucks and susan tedeschi.

At the halfway point of last night’s Wheels of Soul summit at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati, an old adage – the one about a unison force being greater than the sum of its parts – was reborn. In the midst of a scorching and unassuming set by Los Lobos, out marched Susan Tedeschi, half of the evening’s headlining Tedeschi-Trucks Band. Initially, she sang harmony with Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo on “Burn It Down,” a taught but beautifully pensive rocker she cut with the band in 2010. That alone was a highlight, a showing of artistic kinship of co-billed artists working in solidarity. Then Tedeschi took the lead as the TTB’s three member vocal crew joined the Lobos team and served up a beautifully anthemic rendition of the Marvin Gaye soul classic “What’s Going On.” The results made for a performance home run on all levels. It underscored, in a frank and sad way, the song’s enduring topicality. But it was also a grand show of musical hands, a united front of two powerhouse acts crossing generations and creating a performance of big-hearted musical might.

All three Wheels of Soul acts – the North Mississippi All-Stars opened the evening – delivered sets of distinct, absorbing power. The All-Stars, especially frontman/guitarist Luther Dickinson, offered an expansive, maturing view of their famed “world boogie” sound. Los Lobos remained a pack of stonefaced maestros, dispensing with artful and articulate rock delicacies without seemingly breaking a sweat. Tedeschi-Trucks again asserted itself as a vital rock and soul revue, but with a slightly more streamlined sound and heavier reliance on late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock, soul and psychedelia.

But the moments where members of the three bands swapped cameos in each other’s sets offered the show’s biggest surprises and most genuine thrills.

Trucks and Dickinson traded guitar breaks during the All-Stars’ version of the Howlin’ Wolf blues nugget “I’m Leaving You (Commit a Crime)” that were refreshingly free of the usual clenched teeth, blues-rock angst and were instead utilized as layers in a colorful, rootsy fabric. Later, after the Gaye celebration, Lobos were backed by the Tedeschi-Trucks horn section for a set-closing “Mas y Mas” that rocked with rich, brassy urgency. Then Dickinson returned for a series of wild, sinewy guitar exchanges with Trucks during TTB’s set that fueled the big beat pop soul charge of “I Want More” before dissolving into instrumental ambience that quoted the Allman Brothers Band’s “Little Martha” (but sounded more like Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way”) before coming to rest with the gentle but torchy “Midnight in Harlem.”

Three bands on a single bill creating the rock and soul equivalent of a block party – midsummer Saturday nights seldom offer better.


in performance: lyle lovett and his large band

lyle lovett.

lyle lovett.

One of the factoids Lyle Lovett dispensed with last night during an Opera House performance of typically vast stylistic breadth with his Large Band referenced what was essentially the introduction of his recording career – specifically, the reality that his debut album was released 30 years ago this summer.
That info seemed to buoy the 2 ½ hour, 24 song performance. For anyone seeing the Texas song stylist for first time, and there seemed to be many, the variance of themes, sounds and emotive makeup in the music had to be bizarrely refreshing. A personal highlight, in fact, was watching a patron seated directly in front of me crack up at the Zen absurdity within one of Lovett’s most beloved tunes, “Here I Am” (“If it’s not too late, make it a cheeeeeeseburger”). But those who have championed Lovett’s stylistic distinction for most of those three decades likely discovered such idiosyncrasies have lost little of their charm. “If I Had a Boat” still possessed a gentle but askew folk familiarity, “She’s No Lady” remained a bemused portrait of domestic entrapment highlighted by the Large Band’s elegant swing and “North Dakota” stripped Lovett’s lyrical sentiment to its starkest, most bittersweet core.
In short, the whole affair was pretty much a win-win.
There were a few modifications to the Large Band’s game plan, the most obvious being the program’s pacing. The evening began and ended with full blown gospel that utilized the group’s 13 member roster augmented by 10 additional vocalists from the Cincinnati community choir Rameco Lattimore and TWC. Vintage gospel has long been one of the many stylistic wellsprings Lovett dips into during his Large Band outings. But the show-opening jubilation of “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord” revealed Lovett to be exactly that – a servant to a massive sound propelled by an in sync battalion of singers and instrumentalists.
From there, the show enlisted a number of dramatic musical spirits. Some were earthbound. Others, like the late Lone Star songsmith Guy Clark, who died in May, were not. Lovett reminisced at length about Clark’s influence during the program, but it was astonishing to hear how much emotive clarity and economy the two artists shared. Emphasizing such kinship was the placement of Clark’s wistful “Step Inside This House” next to Lovett’s “North Dakota.” Both were simple, quiet mood pieces with lovely poetic construction presented as the Large Band slowly pared itself down (eight members on the former song, seven on the later).
The other dominate presence, outside of Lovett himself, was singer Francine Reed – a mainstay of the Large Band for much of its history. With an expressive vibrato steeped in vintage R&B and blues, Reed’s was an animated foil for Lovett’s more askew romantic tunes (“What Do You Do,” being the most obvious). But she also rode shotgun to the ensemble swing of “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” beefed up the gospel reverence of the encore hymn “Pass Me Not” and renewed her role as crowd darling on the Ida Cox gem “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” a blast of soul and sass that has been her featured tune during Large Band shows for many years – one that has lost none of it abundant gusto.
But it was with “Closing Time” that Lovett brought the show full circle. The only offering from that debut record, the tune was performed as an after hours exhale, a neon-soaked snapshot of Lone Star country in a state a grace and exhaustion. Lovett wore the tune last night like a sheriff’s badge, a symbol of resolute authority. Thirty years on, Lovett may still be closing up the honky tonks. But as this immensely engaging performance revealed, the barroom doors to styles, sounds and stories too big for even Texas to contain, remained invitingly open.

in performance: colvin & earle

colvin & earle: shawn colvin (left) and steve earle. photo by alexandra valenti.

colvin & earle: shawn colvin (left) and steve earle. photo by alexandra valenti.

In setting the tone for their duo performance earlier tonight at the Lexington Opera House, Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle went right for the holy grail of harmony rich folk-pop by opening with “Wake Up Little Susie.” Of course, the veteran songsmiths – billed officially as Colvin & Earle for this tour as well as a recent Buddy Miller-produced album – revealed little of the playful exactness of the Everly Brothers, who popularized the tune nearly 60 years ago. Colvin and Earle have decades of hard touring and songs than run from the topically tormented to the emotionally stark to fortify their reputations. Instead, “Susie” was an effective and elemental blueprint of what was to come – namely, two artists singing the vast portion of the evening’s 20 song, 100 minute set in unison. There was ample harmony, to be sure – albeit one of a more grizzled variety. But the singing spoke remarkably well to the program’s simple makeup as well as to the pair’s catalog of restless and often harrowing songs.

Colvin was more dominant in the overall sound mix, which was a plus. Her vocals, largely unblemished by age, conveyed clarity, delicacy and, when called for – as in the duo sneer of “You’re Right (I’m Wrong),” one of the original tunes from the “Colvin & Earle” album, which was performed in its entirety – sobering authority. Earle remained the gruffer one, still is possession of a humid Texas drawl that managed to masque itself during some of the evening’s more engaging cover tunes (including a leisurely take on the ‘60s folk/pop gem “You Were On My Mind”) while unapologetically letting itself spill during the coarser harmony lines of the Rolling Stones classic “Ruby Tuesday.”

As much as the singing was spotlighted, it was still the songs – the originals, specifically – that quietly ignited the performance. Two of the newer “Colvin & Earle” tunes that closed the set underscored that. “Tell Moses” professed faith by leap frogging from Jerusalem to Selma, Ala. to Ferguson, Mo. with a sing-a-long chorus of hope (“water is wide, milk and honey on the other side”) for each locale. Just as emotive was “You’re Still Gone,” a story of death and loss co-penned by both artists and Julie Miller that let its sorrow speak with profound but unsentimental grace.

There were a few works pulled from the pair’s respective solo careers that were sung separately (Colvin’s murderous “Sunny Came Home” and Earle’s celebratory “The Galway Girl”). But their histories collided on the latter’s “Someday,” a tune Colvin cut for her “Cover Girl” album in 1994. Earle introduced the tune by recounting his early career success and subsequent descent to addiction (described only as time in “a very dark place”). His lone points of comfort during those days came “when I learned Emmylou Harris cut ‘Guitar Town’ and Shawn Colvin cut ‘Someday.’” With that, the two raised their somewhat battle weary voices for the evening’s most unified and commanding wake-up call.


in performance: the earls of leicester

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales. Photo by Anthony Scarlati.

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales. Photo by Anthony Scarlati.

One of the most revealing traits of any musical pioneer is the ability to not only recognize the right time to acknowledge artistic roots, but when to embrace them wholeheartedly. During a nine song set earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, dobro great (and one-time Lexingtonian) Jerry Douglas did just that by reviving the crystalline bluegrass tradition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs with the all-star tribute troupe The Earls of Leicester. The band might be cheekily titled, but its musical command of a string music sound that has largely evaporated from today’s bluegrass landscape was executed with scholarly vigor, authority and taste.

The band boasted a repertoire devoted exclusively to the groundbreaking grass Flatt & Scruggs explored for nearly two decades with their Foggy Mountain Boys before splitting in 1969. Flatt’s congenial and conversational vocal style was taken up by veteran Nashville songwriter Shawn Camp, who tempered the high tenor leads of songs like “Big Black Train” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (the first two tunes on the Earls’ Grammy-winning, self-titled 2014 album) with a sense of gospel-esque cool. Several other members, most notably mandolinist Jeff White, joined in to create three and sometimes four part harmonies during the set. But Camp’s affable singing was the easygoing catalyst that ignited much of the performance.

Douglas, banjoist Charlie Cushman and fiddler Johnny Warren (son of Foggy Mountain stringman Paul Warren), dispatched brisk, intricate solos that rang through “Down the Road” (one of the three tunes pulled from the new Earls album “Rattle & Roar”) and the set opening “Earl’s Breakdown.” But none of their breaks lingered. The Earls were all about economy and clarity, which underscored the band’s overall efficiency.

There was an undeniable sense of history to the program (Douglas, Cushman and Warren were all playing the very instruments that had clocked time with Flatt & Scruggs) as well as subtle pageantry (JD Crowe was an unannounced guest for an interview segment, but did not perform while Steve Earle, in town for a Tuesday concert with Shawn Colvin at the Opera House, was part of the audience). But as the encore strains of “Old Salty Dog Blues” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” closed the show, it was the quiet sense of revival that was most arresting. Douglas and the Earls didn’t treat the Flatt & Scruggs legacy as a museum piece. They made the music sing with a regal vitality that was authoritative, animated and appealingly immediate.


revitalizing the flatt and scruggs legacy

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Barry Bales, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas, Shawn Camp, Jeff White and Johnny Warren. Photo by Anthony Scarlati

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Barry Bales, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas, Shawn Camp, Jeff White and Johnny Warren. Photo by Anthony Scarlati

The Earls of Leicester initially intended on a short reign. Assembled by one of bluegrass music’s most respected journeymen, Jerry Douglas, the band was organized as a performing tribute to the string music tradition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Then Douglas was going to return to the other multitude of artistic commitments vying for his time.

“I thought we would put out a record, everybody would be amused and we would have gotten it out of our systems,” Douglas said. “It would be, ‘Okay. We’ve done it. We’ve done our part to re-educate the audience, our audience, to what Flatt & Scruggs meant to the genre. Then we’ll let it go.’ But it just caught fire. I mean, I’ve never really seen anything like it.”

To begin with, the Earls’ self-titled 2015 album won a Grammy Award, bringing Douglas’ total trophy count to 14 over a 32 year period. Eight have come from his ongoing role as dobroist for Alison Krauss and Union Station. But what Douglas experienced was a complete audience reawakening to the harmony singing and instrumental innovations of the Flatt & Scruggs band.

Several ties to those sounds within the Earls proved unavoidable. Earls fiddler Johnny Warren is the son of Paul Warren, who played fiddle with Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys for 15 years. Similarly, dobro innovator Josh Graves (also a key Flatt & Scruggs collaborator) was a major formative influence and longtime friend of Douglas. But the vintage inspirations went far beyond the musicians currently channeling them.

“Young kids come up to me and go, ‘We’ve never heard anything like this before. What is this?’ They don’t recognize it. They don’t hear that. Even Alison. Her start with this was J.D. Crowe and the New South, and I was in that band (during the group’s storied mid’70s residency in Lexington and the recording of its heralded, self-titled 1975 album). But Flatt & Scruggs was what I came up on.

“They kind of disappeared after that. I mean, I even got away from it just by following the path of becoming a musician and then having all these other influences come into my playing. I saw that sound leaving bluegrass music, too. That was really the reason for doing the Earls in the first place. Then everybody just loved it so much, there was such a demand for it, that there was no way we could stop. We’re still the only band out there doing just that. That’s all we do when we play. We do Flatt & Scruggs tunes as close to the way they did them as possible.”

The Earls’ newly released second album, “Rattle & Roar,” deepens the exploration into the Flatts & Scruggs catalog. While there are several chestnuts, like the Scruggs banjo classic “Flint Hill Special,” there are also obscurities, like Roy Acuff’s “Steel Guitar Blues” that became a major discovery for Douglas.

“Flatt & Scruggs never recorded it,” he said. “I got it off of a live show at the Ashgrove in Los Angeles. Josh played it out there – he encored with it, actually – and the crowd just went nuts. Then he had to play it again. It was like his ‘Bluegrass Breakdown’ (the famed instrumental Scruggs wrote and cut with Bill Monroe in 1949). The first time Earl played on the (Grand Ole) Opry, he had to play that song five times. But ‘Steel Guitar Blues’ was one of those songs that they never recorded. It was something they had laying around, an extra arrow in their quiver. We just listened to it, copied it and recorded it. I took it on out a little farther than Josh did and embellished it a bit. We do that. We embellish a little, but not enough to go out of character, really.

“For me, it is like an out of body experience to stand up there and hear what these guys do. I’ve had great, exhilarating moments with wonderful musicians, but this is something that goes way deep inside of me, to where I came from. To hear it manifest itself every night is so wonderful. There is no feeling like it.”

The Earls of Leicester perform at 6:45 p.m. July 25 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio. Tickets: $20. Call 859-280-2218 or go to

the duo purpose of colvin & earle

Colvin & Earle: Shawn Colvin (left) and Steve Earle. Photo by Alexandra Valenti.

Colvin & Earle: Steve Earle (left) and Shawn Colvin. Photo by Alexandra Valenti.

Pinpointing how Colvin & Earle became a formal artistic enterprise is tricky. The veteran songwriters have been admirers of each other’s music for decades, even to the point of Shawn Colvin recording a version of Steve Earle’s forlorn “Someday” on her “Cover Girl” album in 1994. But the comparatively recent decision to tour as a duo, which resulted in the June release of the aptly named “Colvin & Earle” album, was, as Colvin outlines, a two-fold process.

“It was my idea to put some shows together and do a little tour with Steve,” she said. “I was enjoying putting packages together where you would get together with an artist and no one would open or close. The show would be together. We would be together onstage the entire show, swapping songs, singing and playing on each other’s songs, telling stories and so on. It just sounded like something fun. Audiences really like that kind of thing, too. We would have kind of a package deal, two for the price of one.

“Then once we got into it, Steve felt that there was something really special going on and that we ought to make a record. So that was Steve’s idea, where it was my idea to pair us in the first place and do some concerts.”

To say “Colvin & Earle” is a collection of duets homogenizes what the two have intended. Duets, in today’s modern music context, usually translates into a cut-and-paste manner of recording with artists in different studios in different cities at different times. “Colvin & Earle” offers nine of its ten songs as full collaborations with both artists singing in unison throughout. Only one song, “The Way That We Do,” separates them within verses.

“We thought we could pull it off,” Colvin said of the approach. “We loved the way our voices blended and just thought, ‘Let’s don’t have it where you sing most of the verses and I’ll sing on the choruses, then we’ll switch it up.’ That was deliberate and it worked.”

Similarly, five out of the six original tunes on the album were jointly written. The other, the finale song “You’re Still Gone,” began with an idea passed along years ago by fellow songsmith Julie Miller that Colvin, and later Earle, added to.

“The approach was kind of similar for all the songs. It nearly always started with a musical idea from one of the two of us and the lyrics would develop from there. We just sat in a room and pounded them out.”

The remaining tunes were covers. Colvin suggested the blues/soul warhorse “Tobacco Road” and Emmylou Harris’ “Raise the Dead.” Earle brought in the Rolling Stones classic “Ruby Tuesday” and the 1964 Ian & Sylvia folk nugget (and 1965 pop hit by We Five) “You Were On My Mind.”

“They were just fun to sing,” Colvin remarked. “That was it. Steve’s term for it was ‘fantasy camp.’ I mean, who doesn’t want to sing ‘Ruby Tuesday?’ It’s not really a duet, but that was one of the things that was fun about doing these covers. We knew we wanted to sing together throughout the entirety of the songs, so I think that makes them a little bit different.”

While “Colvin & Earle” was recorded with a rustic ensemble immediacy courtesy of ace producer and guitarist Buddy Miller, the duo’s current shows jettison band support altogether. That allows Colvin & Earle to be strictly the product of Colvin and Earle.

“We go into our own catalogs a little bit so we can give the people what they want to hear. But we do stay onstage together the whole time and play everything on each other’s stuff that isn’t on the record. We perform the whole record as well, so it’s just the two of us.

“You know, we wrote and even recorded with the idea, with the feeling of necessity, that we could pull this off with just two instruments and two voices. That was really important to us, because that’s how we started when we did the shows together that jump started this whole thing. I feel like we accomplished that.”

Colvin & Earle perform at 7:30 p.m. July 26 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $55.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to

critic’s pick: bruce hornsby, ‘rehab reunion’

bruce hornsbyThe two particulars separating “Rehab Reunion” from most every other record made by Bruce Hornsby is the unexpected absence of one sound and the dominance of another.

What you don’t hear is piano – not one note. That’s quite a shift for a stylist like Hornsby, who has developed not just a virtuosic voice for the instrument within his pop lexicon but an exact and animated compositional sense for where it makes the most vibrant emotional statement. What takes its place? The dulcimer. Seriously, the dulcimer, the stringed agent of rural folk music, an instrument that would seem to be light years away from the wistful and wondrous arrangements Hornsby has long employed as musical playgrounds.

But the most stunning aspect to the highly listenable “Rehab Reunion” is that you really don’t sense a change of stylistic course for Hornsby and his longrunning Noisemakers band, bolstered here by fine guest shots from Justin Vernon and Mavis Staples. Sure, the dulcimer rides along the record’s nine songs primarily as a rhythmic device. But if you suspect there is some gaping void left by the absence of piano, think again. Hornsby’s songs are just as complete in their sense of orchestral and emotive beauty. Some of that comes from co-hort J.T. Thomas on organ, whose runs beautifully flesh out these tunes. His playing especially underscores the sunny wanderlust of “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.” with a cool ingenuity that recalls The Band’s Garth Hudson. Hearing him alongside the string serenades of Hornsby and mandolinist Ross Holmes is a genuine delight as is the song’s playful Floridian storyline of being fatherly knighted as “Don Juan Schula.”

Hornsby’s lineage to the Grateful Dead isn’t ignored, either. Throughout “Rehab Reunion,” the bright, clipped guitar sound of Gibb Droll accents the songs with an air that can’t help but recall the floating melodic drive of Jerry Garcia.

Most of all, though, is how steadfast Hornsby’s pop command remains. He is a clever wordsmith throughout the album, be it through the character studies within the title song to “Rehab Reunion” (the most thematically intriguing tune of its kind since Warren Zevon’s “Detox Mansion”) or the out-of-nowhere odes to the art of restaurant gratuity (“Tipping”) and a certain European writer not normally celebrated within pop circles (“Hey Kafka”). But it’s the music that grabs you most – a wide open sound that references jazz and folk as much as its does pop and jam band intent.

This isn’t the first time Hornsby has taken to the dulcimer on a record. It began popping up sparingly nearly two decades ago. On “Rehab Reunion,” its role may seem dominant, but Hornsby invites it in as readily as he does all the musical input from the Noisemakers. All are guests at this vibrant pop party and all are made to feel especially welcome.

saturday at forecastle

ruth "mama bear" ward performing this afternoon at forecastle. all photos by rich copley.

ruth “mama bear” ward performing this afternoon at forecastle. all photos by rich copley.

1:42 p.m.: LOUISVILLE – “How are you fine people in Kentuckiana doing this afternoon?”

That was the greeting Pokey LaFarge gave as Forecastle’s main entertainment (on the aptly christened Mast Stage, no less) got cranking this afternoon. With the storm threats of the previous evening at bay and a blast of mid-July sun beating down, the answer from the audience was openly affirmative.

Forecastle’s secondary Boom Stage actually got underway first with the mother-and-son Americana duo of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear and its brief serving of folk blues infused by son Madisen’s ringing falsetto and matriarch Ruth’s rugged, rootsy harmony. A lean duet version of “Modern Day Mystery” opened the set, but the band quickly grew into a full quartet to incorporate meaty elements of juke joint R&B, blues, ragtime-drenched folk and more.

LaFarge similarly mined vintage sources for a more revue-oriented, dance hall-derived set that allowed his animated tenor singing to serve as ringmaster for the gospel soul swing of ‘Something in the Water’ while the castanet clicking, clarinet moaning stride of “Goodbye, Barcelona” solidified the slow broil of the Waterfront Park environment. But it was the suitably border town feel of the Warren Zevon classic ‘Carmelita’ that best suited Forecastle’s summertime, riverside feel.

sarah jarosz at forecastle.

sarah jarosz at forecastle.

4:08 p.m.: Bridging multiple folk generations was Sarah Jarosz. Her all-too-brief Boom Stage set with guitarist Jedd Hughes and bassist Jeff Picker began with the banjo-led clarity of “Annabelle Lee” and sifted through the years to the fragile, autumnal reflection of “Built Up from Bones’ before reaching the gorgeous, atmospheric glow of the new “Green Lights.” To show she had not forsaken her roots, Jarosz delivered Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” as an affirmation of lovely poetic ambience.

Austin song stylist Shakey Graves placed less emphasis on dynamics and more on course immediacy. While he traveled down an acoustic sideroad early on with “Word of Mouth” (offset by an introductory claim of being “the first person to tell you the wrong thing to do”), Graves specialty was summoning waves of one-man-band electric guitar frenzy delivered with hootenanny style glee. Though appealing thanks to its raggedly spontaneous intent, the set ultimately fell victim to its own senses of weighty static and indulgence.

6:11 p.m.: By the time Something Corporate/Jack’s Mannequin songster Andrew McMahon (under his newest performance moniker of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness) took the stage around 4:30, the audience sized at Forecastle had doubled. A tireless McMahon responded with the anthemic and chirpy piano based pop of “High Dive” and more. Despite his limitless onstage energy, though, the sheer brightness of McMahon’s melodic drive didn’t offer much variance, making his set’s sea of good vibes sound a touch stagnant.

The Arcs, the psychedelic soul leaning side project of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, delivered a carnival sound anchored by the sharp R&B grooves instigated by the band’s twin guitar/twin drum charge. “Velvet Ditch” started the fun, but by the time the all female Mariachi Flor de Toloache joined in, the sound became a swirling, orchestral mix of soul chants, fuzzy guitar and orchestral might that shifted from the very Black Keys-esque “Pistol Made of Bones” to a fascinating, neo-fusion makeover of the forgotten Motown hit “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” Highlight set of the day so far.

dr. dog bassist and vocalist toby leaman taking a turn on guitar.

dr. dog bassist and vocalist toby leaman taking a turn on guitar.

8:09 p.m.: If The Arcs opened up a psychedelic soul vortex, Dr. Dog took the reins and sent the festival down a psychedelic pop alleyway. The pop element was key here. While all kinds of trippy, proggish turns surfaced in the Philly band’s evening set, there was also a melodic precision where the pop elements took over. Bassist/guitarist/vocalist Toby Leaman led the more spacious, exact and often patient melodies of “Cuckoo” and especially “Bring My Baby Back while the ensemble push behind “Be the Void” settled into fascinating keyboard and percusssion chatter before surrendering to silence and, after a few bewildering moments for the audience, a volcanic coda that affirmed the song’s – and the band’s – panoramic pop vision.

The Los Angeles troupe Local Natives delivered a considering more elemental and yet still appealing pop sound with a decidedly ’80s slant that owed to bands like U2 in its chiming, riff-fortified sound. It was a good natured set with layers of bright, atmospheric harmonies and a few surprises – like the guitar outbursts that erupted out of the new “Past Lives.”

brittany howard and alabama shakes conclude the saturday lineup.

brittany howard and alabama shakes concluded the saturday lineup.

10:36 p.m.: The Boom Stage’s Saturday bill ended rather unceremoniously with the self-described “livetronica” duo Big Gigantic. Playing sax and drums over set-in-stone pop-soul beats, grooves and even vocals, Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken were ringmasters for this party platform. The crowd loved it and danced along fervently. But given the makeup, someone could have hired a rudimentary DJ and produced the same effect.

The headliner, though, did not disappoint. The only act of the day to take the stage in darkness, Alabama Shakes designed an earthshaking kaleidoscope of soul sounds that used the piercing falsetto of Brittany Howard and the resulting “Future People” as its commanding greeting. From there, the set was all atomic testimony, from the locomotive gospel-soul of “Always Alright” to the vocal coo and lurch of “Miss You.” It was nothing for the Shakes to shift from R&B chill to grudge match intensity that let the love and fury of Howard’s singing run loose. But the killer was Heartbreaker, a take-no-prisoners torch song that began with Howard lit alone onstage amid waves of purple and blue. What she summoned from there was churchy in its conviction and full tilt monster soul in its patient, potent delivery.

the fleeting mortality of freakwater

FReakwater: Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin. Photo by Edward Neary.

Freakwater: Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin. Photo by Edward Neary.

Within an Americana-leaning indie community, Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin have been charter members. Collectively known, along with longtime bass cohort Dave Gay, as Freakwater, the two songsmiths have a mastered a country tradition ripe with brittle purity. We’re not talking country in any radio-friendly sense of the term, but a rarified yet flexible form that prides in itself in unassuming, harmony-rich folk foundations and occasional variations that shoot down dark electric sideroads.

Since 1989, Freakwater has been a basement dweller of sorts with alt-country contingencies. Bean, from Chicago, and Irwin, from Louisville, often play with other bands (Bean, most prominently, with Eleventh Dream Day) and as solo acts. When the mood strikes, Freakwater performs. But the mood hits far more seldom these days when it comes to making records. Hence, the February release of Scheherazade, the first new Freakwater studio album in over a decade and its debut for the heralded Chicago label Bloodshot. So what took so long for the fires of Freakwater to light up in the recording studio again?

“I don’t know,” Irwin said. “Our fleeting mortality, maybe? It just seemed like the right thing to do. I know the people in Louisville that I keep playing with, played shows and have done solo things with are really incredible musicians. It just seems like a really great time in Louisville. I don’t know what’s going on in Lexington. But right now there’s just a ton of talented younger musicians here that are really cooperative. They want to work hard on other people’s records even if they don’t get paid for it. I get a real community feel for it right now.”

So with members of Morgan Geer’s Drunken Prayer (which opens Freakwater’s concert tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s), Murder By Death and Louisville’s Jaye Jayle helping out, Scheherazade became a new entry in the Freakwater catalogue that varies little from the rustic country roots-sound Irwin and Bean have championed for over 25 years.

“Growing up in Kentucky, you’re naturally exposed to a lot of bluegrass music and a lot of country music – especially Top 40 country music from the ‘70s and ‘80s that we either liked or hated,” Irwin said. “Growing up, my parents listened to Pete Seeger records and the Clancy Brothers and just the kind of folk music that was always going on around us. My father always used to torture the family with bagpipe records, especially by the Royal Scots Dragoons. That was one of the only common musical elements my dad and I shared. But I was really loving Woody Guthrie records and classic country music.”

Along with a love of folk of vintage folk and country came fascination with punk aesthetics. You hear it especially on Scheherazade in the ragged, Neil Young-esque Falls of Sleep. Mostly, though, Freakwater embraces the renegade sentiments within the songs of country forefathers as much as any sonic trait.

“There are obvious connections between Hank Williams and Johnny Rotten,” Irwin said. “The great thing to me about punk rock – and I think what made it so great for people in my age group – was you could just go ahead and play it and sing it. You didn’t come from a time where you had to particularly know how to play an instrument or anything. That didn’t really matter because you weren’t really inhibited. Maybe everybody is like that. Maybe they’re all like a little bit delusional about what they’re actually doing.”

One thing Irwin is certain about, though, is the timetable Freakwater has chosen to make music. If it takes a decade between albums to maintain the band’s love of harmony and songcraft, so be it. Irwin and Bean are in no hurry. They never have been.

“We don’t really have a plan,” Irwin said. “If we had a plan, we wouldn’t still be playing together. That’s one of the things Janet and I are pretty confident about. If we actually had a goal, we would have failed to achieve it and we would have stopped playing.

“When we started playing together, if we said, ‘We have to be on the Grand Ole Opry by spring of next year,’ that never would have happened. If we had a plan like that, we would have been really disappointed and bitter. So we’re just enjoying what we’re doing. We’re always playing. Even when we’re not putting out records, we’re playing live shows. That’s just a more vital element to what we do than making a record.”

Freakwater and Morgan Geer’s Drunken Prayer perform at 10 p.m. July 15 at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Admission: $10, $12. Call: 859-309-9499 or go to

dr. dog days

Dr. Dog. From left: Dimitri Manos, Scott McMicken, Eric Slick, Frank McElroy, Toby Leaman, Zach Miller.

Dr. Dog. From left: Dimitri Manos, Scott McMicken, Eric Slick, Frank McElroy, Toby Leaman, Zach Miller.

Pennsylvania may be the land Dr. Dog hails from, but seldom does the longstanding psychedelic pop-and-more troupe stay away long from Louisville. Bassist, guitarist and co-vocalist Toby Leaman, in fact, figures the band plays Derbytown once every 16 months or so. The relationship was cemented in 2007 with a visit to Louisville Slugger Field.

“I remember that show,” Leaman recalled. “I think we sang the national anthem that night. The impetus for that was that the Phillies had asked us to sing the national anthem back home the next week. So, we were like, ‘Let’s practice. Nobody ever gets to practice the national anthem at a baseball field.’ And we just happened to be at a baseball field.”

The band’s ongoing fondness for Louisville will be displayed twice this weekend, courtesy of the Forecastle festival. Dr. Dog performs a midnight show tonight at Headliners Music Hall then heads to the main Forecastle digs in Waterfront Park on Saturday as part of a hearty day-long bill that includes Alabama Shakes, The Arcs, Sarah Jarosz and Pokey LaFarge, among others.

For Leaman and his bandmates – guitarists Scott McMicken and Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, drummer Eric Slick and percussionist Dimitri Manos – the Forecastle engagement isn’t just a way of deepening an already solid Louisville fanbase. It will also help introduce Dr. Dog’s refreshingly animated pop to prospective fans, especially on Saturday, that journeyed to the festival to hear a different act.

“We’ve always been kind of a slow burn of a band,” Leaman said. “The good thing is we’ve never really taken a step back. Not a lot of bands can say that. For the past 12 years of being on the road, we’ve just gotten bigger. But we’ve never gotten big, so there’s that. If I knew how to crack into the next bracket without feeling like we were losing a piece of ourselves, that would be valuable information to have. But we’ve always had a pretty humble mentality about our band. We’ve never really chased trends or anything like that. We’ve never been cool on any level whatsoever.

“That probably speaks to the fact that we’ve never had a hit single, a big video, placement in a movie or something that really pushes the ball forward really quickly. But when you’ve been doing it for as long as we have, you’re just happy you’re still around and that you’re still growing. That, in and off itself, is a minor miracle.”

The charm of Dr. Dog’s music is on display throughout The Psychedelic Swamp, the band’s newest album – a record comprised, oddly enough, of some of its oldest songs.

The first version of the sci-fi friendly concept album was cut with demo-like sensibility in 2001. But when Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company inquired about creating a stage project with Dr. Dog, the album was recut and essentially reborn with sounds that recall everyone from The Beach Boys to My Morning Jacket.

“They almost felt like cover songs in a lot of ways,” Leaman said of retooling the music from The Psychedelic Swamp. “The idea was, ‘Okay, this is what the song sounded like then but it doesn’t have to sound anything like that now.’ I don’t think any of the lyrics really changed, but some of the songs changed completely along with the instrumentation.”

“The original recordings were just done on a little keyboard, a drum machine, a delay pedal and an acoustic guitar. They didn’t have a full band or anything like that. So that part was kind of fun. We’re just covering ourselves with songs we’ve been detached from for so long that they felt more or less like other people’s songs.”

Summing up all the sounds and details that go into those songs is another matter. A preview story by Donna Cope on the Sloss Festival in Birmingham, Ala., which Dr. Dog will play after Forecastle on Sunday, tagged the band as a “label-defying, multi-hyphenated, indie-psychedelic-rock-folk-basement-Americana-touring band.” Just trying looking for that bin at Wal-Mart.

“We don’t really think about labels too much. I mean, sometimes they can be helpful, like when you look at a band and think, ‘Okay, here’s a band that plays ska music.’ That’s helpful. But when I read a little descriptor of what a band is in a handbill at a festival and it’s all a bunch of hyphens, well…. If that’s actually helpful, I’m all for it. But if it’s just laziness, a way of thinking about something that isn’t necessarily accurate, it’s not helping at all.”

Dr. Dog performs at 11:59 p.m. July 15 as part of Forecastle Late Night at Headliners Music Hall, 1386 Lexington Rd. in Louisville. Tickets are $30. Call 502-584-8088 or go to The band then plat 6:30 p.m. July 16 as part of Forecastle on the Boom Stage at Waterfront Park, 300 East River Rd. in Louisville. Tickets: $79.50, $189.50. Call 800-745-3000 or go to

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