Archive for April, 2017

in performance: jason isbell and the 400 unit/william tyler

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, from left: Jimbo Hart, Derry deBorja, Sadler Vaden, Jason Isbell and Chad Gamble. Photo by Danny Clinch.

There is nothing unusual in a national performer namedropping a regionally friendly reference to gain favor from the audience he happens to be playing to on a given evening. Jason Isbell didn’t really need that kind of ceremony last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. The very human narrative of his songs, their broad stylistic appeal and the effortlessly forthright manner in which they were placed on display more than heartened the sold out crowd. But Isbell, an Alabama native now residing in Nashville, still had a neighborly whopper of a yarn to share. While no amount of detail here would do it justice, the story dealt with meeting Kentucky native Wynonna Judd in a state of sobering flamboyance and then recounting the tale to an unsuspecting (and disbelieving) Supercuts barber in Richmond yesterday afternoon.

The saga was a detailed and curious interlude during a performance that roared very efficiently for 1 ¾ hours, from the opening electric rumble of “Go It Alone” to the full tilt encore finale of “Super 8.” The framework was very much rock ‘n’ roll, but with considerable dynamics and dimension, like the Cajun accents that offset the wayward characterizations of “Codeine,” the breezy but bittersweet lyrical momentum of “Alabama Pines” and the comparatively blunt jams that circulated through “Never Gonna Change,” one of three tunes pulled from Isbell’s more reckless days with Drive-By Truckers.

But the sentiments and, quite often, sensibility of Isbell’s tunes – especially recent ones from his “Southwestern” and “Something More Than Free” albums, which accounted for over half of the setlist last night – fell closer to country. Specifically, they hinted not so much at an embrace of rural heritage, but the fear of losing it. You heard it echo within the descending power chords of “Outfit” (another Truckers favorite) and in the more summery makeup of “If It Takes a Lifetime.” “I got too far from my raising,” he sang in the latter amid one of the evening’s gentler country melodies before a more personal sense of salvation took over.

In terms of performance, the entire blend was delivered with considerable clarity. Some vocal passages were blurred, especially at the start and conclusion of the performance. That was a modest annoyance, perhaps, as live rock shows go, but noticeable nonetheless because of the very complete sense of storytelling that runs through Isbell’s songs. But there were also times when you couldn’t help but follow the concert in purely musical terms, as when Isbell’s jolting slide guitar solo ignited “Decoration Day” or a stark acoustic intro set up the hurricane strength intensity of the vocal lead that fortified “Cover Me Up.”

Most telling of all was “Hope the High Road,” a cross between a Jackson Browne confessional and a vintage blast of John Mellencamp-style, Americana imbued rock. The song was one of two preview works off of Isbell’s new “The Nashville Sound” album, due out in June. The joke, of course, was that for all of the program’s inherent country inspiration, what resulted was far too earnest in design and intent to be mistaken for anything that has been spewing out of Nashville of late. Maybe what we heard last night in Richmond was a serious step in redefining that sound. Here’s hoping.

Guitarist William Tyler opened the evening with an inviting 45 minute set of trio-based instrumental music. While a few turns on acoustic guitar (including “Kingdom of Jones”) reflected a sense of Americana primitive that wasn’t far removed from the playing of such folk journeymen as John Fahey, a selection of electric compositions emphasized rhythm in arpeggio-like phrasings that bordered on minimalism. Then again, the set closing “The Great Unwind” began with Celtic-flavored solemnity before warping against a slight-of-hand groove that was more in line with the music of modernists like Bill Frisell. It nicely completed an intriguing, inviting preface to Isbell’s more expansive Americana joyride.

 

allan holdsworth, 1946-2017

allan holdsworth,

What defines greatness in a rock guitarist? Is it speed? Intensity? Histronics? Is it an elemental understanding and construction of a groove? Is it a combination fashioned to cultivate an image or simply convey an emotion?

For Allan Holdsworth, who died on Saturday at the age of 70, none of that was entirely the case. For this veteran British prog and fusion stylist, his decades-long career was about developing a voice of his own for an instrument that superseded all the clichéd rock star profiles many guitarists subscribed to. Holdsworth could play with the speed and potency that everyday guitar heroes viewed as virtues. But by the time he was gigging with the pioneering prog band Soft Machine as far back 1974, Holdsworth had developed a voice that was uncompromisingly distinct– one that continually stretched tone and technique through winding lyrical phrases that always packed a strong emotive jolt without ever sounding forced.

For the remainder of the ‘70s, Holdsworth cultivated that voice as a hired gun guitarist for, in quick succession, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Jean-Luc Ponty, UK and Bruford. Though he continued with a prolific career of his own during the ‘80s that highlighted the MIDI-controlled synthaxe, it was Holdsworth’s collaborative sets with the latter two artists that, for me, defined the beauty of his playing.

On UK’s 1978 self-titled album, his solos were astounding not because of flash or indulgence, but for the opposite. They were vignettes of concise, complete construction that yielded a sense of exquisitely contained drama. His solo during “In the Dead of Night” stands as an ideal example. With Bruford 1979’s album “One of a Kind,” one of the era’s most tastefully crafted prog albums, his work served as a consistently complimentary color to the playing of drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Dave Stewart and bassist Jeff Berlin.

The last decade produced little by way of new music, although the 2002 concert album “All Night Wrong” stands as a wonderful trio band primer on the tone, power and expression that provided Holdsworth’s guitar voice such a rich musical vocabulary.

“Allan Holdsworth’s unique contribution to the electric guitar is unquantifiable,” said fellow guitar pioneer Steve Vai in a Facebook post yesterday, “I remember him saying to me once that his goal was to create a catalog of music that was undiluted. Well, that he did.”

in performance: peter evans septet

Peter Evans Septet, from left: Levy Lorenzo, Peter Evans, Jim Black, Tom Blancarte, Mazz Swift, Ron Stabinsky and Sam Pluta.

“Start living.” That was the advice Peter Evans gave at the onset of his Outside the Spotlight performance earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Depending of your perspective, such a preface could be seen a sign of assuredness or an invitation to arrogance. Perhaps fittingly, the music the New York trumpeter unveiled in the 80 minute program that followed was a bit of both.

To begin with, the entire concert consisted of one extended, untitled (or, at least, unannounced) piece that balanced composed sections with improvisational passages that ebbed and flowed with the sometimes weighty involvement of the former approach and the more intriguing spaciousness of the latter.

The primary exponents introduced early in the set were electronics – the kinds of oscillating, neo-industrial colors that gave the performance a seething pulse at some points and a more intrusive, robotic feel at others that flew in the face of the more organic improvisations. That two of the septet players were devoted to these designs – Levy Lorenzo (who doubled on percussion) and Sam Pluta with a keyboardist, Rob Stabinsky, who regularly dabbled on synths – might suggest textures of sounds were in the making. But with few exceptions, the electronics had a largely leaden feel.

In direct contrast was violinist Mazz Swift, bassist Tom Blancarte and, to a lesser extent, Evans himself, whose collective sounds morphed more readily as the work flirted between dissonance and groove. Swift was masterful at this, blending unobtrusively with the electronics but also creating an appealing harmony with Blancarte when the latter played with a bow.

It was especially interesting hearing Evans in this kind of setting, as the sounds he summoned on trumpet and piccolo trumpet (often in quick succession) seldom sought out the horns’ expected tonal range, favoring percussive punctures and breathy scratches just as often. But as the piece began to wind down, Evans let loose and soloed off a groove established by Swift, Blancarte and Lorenzo (on, of all things, triangle), largely shedding the cold electronic stagnation that often loaded down the septet for music that was lighter and more approachable, but no less adventurous.

After the many lulls, builds and deconstructions, the piece came to no apparent conclusion and stopped cold.

“We hoped we helped you,” Evans offered as a parting message, ending the evening in a manner just as offsetting as the one that started it.

 

j. geils, 1946-2017

J. Geils in 2011. Photo by Scott Legato / Getty Images.

The first time I heard the J. Geils Band was during those early ‘70s late night performance programs on TV – “Midnight Special,” “In Concert” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” to be exact. While it wasn’t the first champion roadhouse rock band to roll across the screen, it was one of the first – for me, at least – to have so many components of rock ‘n’ roll, in its most live and celebratory form, make sense when slammed together.

There was the outrageous frontman in Peter Wolf (a hotwired Boston hybrid of Mick Jagger and James Brown), a band with a tireless rhythm section bolstered by two monster soloists and a musical palette that took blues, R&B and juke joint influences from decades past and fashioned them into a roaring sound of its own. The results countered music cooked up by all the faux boogie-men of the era with a sense of combustible soul that quickly ignited in a performance setting.

Geils, who died yesterday at the age of 71, wasn’t even the focal point of the band that bore his name. That was undeniably Wolf. Geils wasn’t a showoff as a guitarist, either. As a rhythm player, he propelled a roots-savvy sound and the undeniable party atmosphere it triggered. As a soloist, he was always commanding in his playing. On several seminal ‘70s albums, especially 1973’s “Bloodshot” and “Ladies Invited” and 1974’s “Nightmares… and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle,” his playing was often the second half of a one-two punch initiated by the band’s other principal instrumentalist, harmonica ace Magic Dick. The last songs on each of those albums, “Give It To Me” (a 1973 hit built around an unlikely reggae groove), “Chimes” (a blast of funereal cool) and “Gettin’ Out” (one of the meanest sounding and most overlooked tunes the J. Geils Band ever cut), respectively, were diverse examples of how resourceful the group was. In short, the Geils crew could do battle with the most outrageous rockers of the era, but it also boasted the charisma, depth and drive to be something far greater.

Of course, stardom took hold of the band during the early ‘80s with the albums “Love Stinks” and “Freeze Frame.” Fun as both were, neither possessed the roots abandon of records Geils and company cut a decade earlier. Curiously, the next most appealing era of the guitarist’s career came in the ‘90s when he and Magic Dick toured in a jazz, blues and swing unit called Bluestime that purposely downplayed his rock roots but not the roots itself.

“We had a lot of fun and a fair amount of success in the old days, but I had gotten a little tired of it,” Geils told me in an interview prior to a Bluestime show at the Kentucky Horse Park in 1995. “I just want to make it clear that we’re not some rockers trying to capitalize on the blues boom. Any serious jazz or blues guy will tell you the same thing, that music like this is a lifelong journey. The more you learn, the more you learn how much you don’t know yet.”

in performance: california guitar trio

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

“You are about to witness a very strange thing,” remarked Paul Richards as he, Bert Lams and Hideyo Moriya – collectively known as the California Guitar Trio – were about to embark on a journey down what was being promised as an unexpected musical offramp.

But little about the CGT could be considered an expectation – not the unassuming stage demeanor that offset a wildly versed and versatile technical command and certainly not the instrumental makeup of three acoustic guitars that last night at a packed but still intimate performance at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café in Frankfort mixed slyly subtle original works with tunes popularized by The Beatles, The Ventures, Ennio Morricone, The Shadows, J. S. Bach, Dave Brubeck and more. Not even the trio’s seemingly non-descript moniker revealed much. Though the CGT formed in California in 1991, its members hail from Utah, Belgium and Japan.

So what constituted “strange” in Richards’ estimation? Try the realization of the CGT taking on country music. But what unfolded wasn’t country by any contemporary definition. Instead, the resulting “Buckaroo” – the Bob Morris instrumental that became a huge 1965 hit for Buck Owens – stretched its vintage Bakersfield feel to approach jazz and swing. As with everything the CGT served up during its 90 minute program, the rendition was harmonically and compositionally complete without any semblance of a traditional rhythm section present as aid.

The stylistic moods would shift regularly, from Moriya’s spacious and gorgeously contemplative title tune off the trio’s new “Komorebi” album to a take on the 1962 Shadows’ surf hit “Wonderful Land” (complete with the choreographed “Shadow walk” that took the three even further away from their often stoic stage stance). But the CGT’s internal chemistry revealed itself time and time again, whether it was in the way Richards, Lams and Moriya effortlessly juggled lead melodies during original compositions like “The Marsh” and “Cherry Trees,” the manner in which the Bach “Prelude Circulation” was passed from one player to another a single note at a time or the blending of Astor Piazzolla tango inspirations with the modern minimalism of Philip Glass on the ultra clever mash-up “Glass Tango.”

But there were also remarkable dynamics at work. The evening’s most moving moment was also one of its quietest – a pastoral delivery of “Spiritual,” a Josh Haden work recorded by his late father, the great jazz bassist Charlie Haden. Working off a Lams solo that bowed briefly to the blues, the song moved with a slow, cyclical feel peppered by melodic phrases that sounded like chimes and/or chants. What emerged was a piece of subtle, sonic beauty that completely hushed the audience, especially as the tune concluded with an eerily natural sounding fadeout. It was a blissful gem of a moment slipped within a performance full of reserved and, yes, “strange” brilliance.

 

paul o’neill, 1956-2017

Paul O’Neill of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. (Jim Cooper, File AP Photo)

With the Trans-Siberian Orchestra becoming a near annual performance staple at Rupp Arena, so came frequent opportunities to interview Paul O’Neill. He wasn’t one of the ensemble’s principal performers. As far as I knew, he was never even at any of TSO’s Rupp appearances. O’Neill was instead the CEO of TSO, the sole brain trust of what had become a consistently strong selling touring act that merged metal, ‘70s-era prog and pure arena rock pageantry.

These were educational experiences, to say the least. An interview with O’Neill was largely a one-sided affair. A journalist’s question was essentially a point of ignition. Once asked, O’Neill would speak effortlessly, endlessly and informatively for the rest of the allotted time – and often beyond. He wasn’t being rude or inattentive to his interviewer. O’Neill simply knew the story he wanted to tell, whether it dealt with specifics about a particular TSO album or, with greater relish, his whole concept for TSO – a band he thought of in terms that were always large – large in personnel, large in audience attendance and especially large in terms of presentation.

“I wanted a band that could do anything, a band that could take the best of all the great acts that I worshipped – bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Queen – and have a marriage of classical and rock,” he told me in a 2009 interview. “I wanted to give a third dimension to the music.”

I’ll put my cards on the table here. I always thought of TSO as a glorified Spinal Tap. Their shows were exercises in quite purposeful excess that no review (or reviewer) could adequately describe. But as with bands like Kiss, whose shows TSO seemed to most closely emulate, fans were beyond devout. For them, what mattered was spectacle – something O’Neill’s TSO army always delivered, along with a serving of holiday sentiment that was as huge as the band’s overall presence.

It was hard not to enjoy the ride as O’Neill held court during interviews, offering outrageous stories like this 2009 yarn detailing how a TSO concert literally sucked the electric life out of The Meadowlands in New Jersey.

“About 15 minutes into the show, the stage goes dark. The production manager comes running over and goes, ‘Paul, we just blew the circuit breaker for the Meadowlands. I thought, ‘Really? Cool.’ It was one of the high points of my life.”

Or this tale, from a 2014 interview, when O’Neill recounted what triggered the inspiration for TSO’s double-platinum album “The Christmas Attic.”

“Well, the statute of limitations ran out on this a long time ago, so it’s okay to talk about. I think the technical term for it is breaking and entering.”

O’Neill died unexpectedly today at the age of 61. But there is no question that his vision for the TSO will remain larger than rock ‘n’ life for years to come.

“Ultimately, TSO is like any other living thing,” O’Neill told me in 2012. “It’s just that it’s musically driven as opposed to celebrity driven.”


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