Archive for May, 2017

in performance: roger waters

roger waters.

There is no irony lost in Roger Waters titling his current tour “Us and Them.” Sure, the name was appropriated from perhaps the most poetically elegiac tune he created for Pink Floyd. But the program he staged last night at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville took that theme quite literally with a stream of songs pitting besieged underdogs against the establishment – specifically, the political powers that be – and the division they have injected into everyday social order.

Us and Them? Us against Them was more like it. But, at heart, this was business as usual for Waters. At 73, his view of the world – well, actually, just of the people running it – is crustier than ever. Witness, for instance, the way he resurrected a piece like “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” from Pink Floyd’s forgotten 1977 descent into the social abyss “Animals.” Always one for spectacle, the tune let the trademark Floyd-ian balloon pig sail around the arena with x’s for eyes and a photo of our current President slapped on its side bearing the caption quote, “I won!” Back on the stage, Waters and his nine-member band hammered away at the tune’s dense, unrelenting jam while still more pictures of our commander-in-chief were shown on a massive video screen behind him with the word “charade” stamped over them.

Many cheered, a noticeable number booed. In short, the rock ‘n’ roll arena proved to be as divided as the political one.

More internally designed – and, frankly, more emotively moving – was “The Last Refugee,” the best of several previews offered from Waters’ new “Is This the Life We Really Want?” album (due out on Friday). Shown against a video dominated by images of a refugee living in squalor and an elegant flamenco dancer engaged in the same body movement, the song’s sense of loss and longing became beautifully eloquent. Outside of a still-arresting acoustic delivery of the masterful Pink Floyd eulogy “Wish You Were Here,” “The Last Refugee” was easily the most subdued moment in a performance that cared little for modesty.

In terms of repertoire, Waters drew from two distinct periods – the 1970s, for a slew of very faithful interpretations of Pink Floyd’s most commercially familiar hits, and the present, via the “Is This the Life We Really Want?” music. Nothing from any of Waters’ previous solo works was offered.

The band proved to be immensely capable – a good thing, too, as Waters’ musical role in his own shows seems to be shrinking. Guitarist Jonathan Wilson handled all the vocal duties on the Floyd tunes originally recorded by David Gilmour while Dave Kilminster delivered impressive recreations of Gilmour’s guitar leads and solos. Multi instrumentalist Jon Carin again gets the vote for Waters’ onstage VIP, fortifying keyboard fabrics throughout the new and old material and nicely tackling the volatile lap steel guitar lead on the oldest tune of the night, the still-fearsome 1971 instrumental “One of These Days.” Even the bulk of the bass duties, usually Waters’ instrumental domain, were handled Gus Seyffert.

Music from the benchmark Floyd albums “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall” kept audience members with a taste for troubled nostalgia happy. But, frankly, the “Is This the Life We Really Want?” tunes were as intriguing as anything else in the show. You would be hard pressed, for example, to find a more quintessential Waters reflection than the new “Déjà Vu,” where the evening’s headliner, in a voice that seemed to wear its weathered tone like a badge of honor, pondered being God in one verse and a drone in the next. Such is the burden of an artist still fashionably in league with uneasy times.

 

in performance: jim lauderdale

jim lauderdale.

If you weren’t familiar with his reputation as an esteemed Americana journeyman or the astonishing volume and variety of the music he has issued, you might have been surprised at the performance transformation Jim Lauderdale exhibited last night at Willie’s Locally Known.

When the solo acoustic performance began, Lauderdale was an almost meekish song stylist who allowed the show opening “Three Way Conversation” to speak for itself. Sure, his rustic vocal holler provided the 1994 tune with suitable color. But the sense of unforced Nashville tradition within its construction defined the kind of stylistic assurance that sits at the heart of Lauderdale’s music.

Fast forward to the closing encore of “Hole in My Head,” the product of a longstanding partnership with fellow Americana chieftain Buddy Miller where the mood was dramatically looser. There was no band playing behind Lauderdale, but the music’s rockish feel reflected an ensemble feel all the same.

What came between those songs were, amazingly, 34 other works spanning over 25 years that reflected the full artistic and stylistic breadth of Lauderdale’s career. So effortlessly comprehensive was the resulting performance that you hardly noticed it took over 2 ½ hours to complete. During the run, Lauderdale didn’t even as much as change guitars. By the time it concluded, the songsmith looked like he could have run the whole marathon again.

Lauderdale regularly revealed himself as a masterful but plain speaking writer whose tunes were often as robust as his singing. Such an attribute was underscored by “I Love You More,” one of three works offered from the upcoming “London Southern” album. Sung at an almost glacial pace, Lauderdale created a sense of orchestral longing that could have been fashioned in the 1960s.

On the flip side was “Old Time Angels,” a spin on traditional Appalachian murder ballads that allowed the spirits of such storied victims as Pretty Polly, Little Maggie and the like to plot retributions against their assassins. Dark as the premise was, Lauderdale maintained a delivery that was animated to the point of being playful.

The rest of the far-reaching repertoire boasted songs Lauderdale co-wrote with such diverse allies as Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, British counterparts Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe and Nashville pros like Miller and Melba Montgomery.

There was a wealth of material covering recent albums that included the bluegrass inspired Hunter collaboration “Black Roses” and the country leaning “This Changes Everything” that seemed very much part of Lauderdale’s agenda. But there were also audience calls for more vintage country fare Lauderdale cut throughout the ‘90s, including the title tunes to 1991’s “Planet of Love” and 1999’s “Onward Through It All” albums. Neither was planned for the evening’s setlist yet both reflected as much confidence and command as the songs that were.

Also not part of the game plan was a set closing cover of Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider,” a late addition to the performance played in honor of the Southern rock forefather whose death was announced earlier in the day. Lauderdale had to reference a lyric sheet at times, but his vocals regularly reached ghostly high notes within the song to make it sound as emotive and worldly as all the far reaching originals he knew by heart.

gregg allman, 1947-2017

gregg allman.

For all the twisted, jingoistic turns Southern rock took over the past four decades, there is no mistaking the fact the genre began with the Allman Brothers Band. And as the name so aptly inferred, that band began with two voices – the guitar lead of Duane Allman and the singing of younger sibling Gregg Allman.

Listen to the Allmans’ first three albums and you will experience a thrilling hybrid that summoned the blues, Southern R&B, a touch of organic psychedelia, jazz and gospel. Southern rock hadn’t descended into the stars-and-bars waving party parody that would eventually mesh with a highly marketable brand of commercial country music in the 1980s. It was instead a junction where the roots music innovations of the South merged. But all Southern rock – every last note, in fact – came in the wake of what the Allmans designed on 1969’s “The Allman Brothers Band,” 1970’s “Idlewild South” and 1971’s genre defining “The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East.”

Then, of course, the Allmans story went South in a whole different way. Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley died in separate motorcycle crashes in nearly the same location, leaving only one Allman at the helm. Then stardom hit with all the excesses the ‘70s could muster. Gregg Allman soaked them all up, too. His celebrity status skyrocked even as his indulgences nearly killed him. The Allmans struggled on through breakups and reunions, bad blood and new blood. But by then, the band had largely become a mere protégé, one of many, to a music it had earlier spearheaded.

That’s not to say there weren’t fine recordings in the years to come. Both the band’s “Brothers and Sisters” and Gregg’s solo debut record “Laid Back” (released within months of each other during the second half of 1973) steered the Allman sound away from the guitar innovations Duane had pursued into a more steamlined but still soulful variation while 1979’s “Enlightened Rogues,” 1988’s “Seven Turns” and 2003’s “Hittin’ the Note” encapsulated the merits of three successive versions of the band. None of them, though, matched the seemingly effortless sense of adventure offered on those early Allmans records.

The announcement of Gregg Allman’s death today at age 69, sadly, isn’t surprising. It seems the singer has been cheating death for the better part of his career through a bounty of typical rock ‘n’ roll vices to a bout of Hepatitis C that led to a liver transplant to numerous maladies that interrupted a still active career in recent years.

Allman played Danville and Lexington as recently as last year with a capable revue-style program, but he looked and sounded frail, a walking testament to self-inflicted ravages.

It’s an easy estimation to say that an artist’s early work is oftentimes his or her best. But in Allman’s case, it really was. Soak in any of the recordings he was part of up through the end of 1973 and you will be witness to the voice of a generation and a genre at the peak of its stylistic strength.

“I say prayers of thanks every day,” Gregg told me in an interview prior to the Danville concert. “I’m a very blessed and fortunate person, I really am. I’ve had a beautiful life.”

 

jim lauderdale hits a new lowe

jim lauderdale.

Perhaps one of the least likely stylistic destinations for a songsmith so celebrated in Americana and country circles as Jim Lauderdale would be British pop. After all, over the past three decades, his songs – many possessing a strong, traditional country air – have been recorded by George Strait, Vince Gill and Kentucky’s own Patty Loveless, among many others. He has also collaborated on full album projects with the likes of bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley and Americana chieftain Buddy Miller.

But dig deep into Lauderdale’s very deep satchel of musical influences and you will discover a love for the kind of pop songcraft that began, not surprisingly, with The Beatles and runs through to the comparatively modern British musings of Nick Lowe. The former inspiration more than once fuels tunes from Lauderdale’s upcoming “London Southern” album, but it’s Lowe’s crew – specifically, his producer and several longtime band members – that help realize the album’s broader musical scope.

“Really, a lot of this record is heavily Beatles influenced,” said Lauderdale, who returns to Lexington for a solo concert tonight at Willie’s Locally Known. “That’s especially true of the early Beatles (as evidenced by the hullabaloo spirit of such “London Southern” songs as “No Right Way to Be Wrong”). That was kind of where I was coming from in a lot of ways with this. It was a combination of going back to their roots and going back to my roots. The Beatles were part of my roots since I was, like, six, having seen them on Ed Sullivan first. So a lot of that stuff has been in my system for years. They were so influenced by American music and we were so influenced by them back.”

That explains how the opening tune to “London Southern” better reflects the spirit of vintage George Jones than British pop. By the time “Only So Much Time” cues up, though, the country sound turns more progressive, as if it were an outtake from Bob Dylan’s classic 1969 country-inspired album, “Nashville Skyline.” One of the key elements to this cross-continental sound is the subtle keyboard orchestration of Geraint Watkins, a long time member of Lowe’s band.

“Geraint Watkins is a real master,” Lauderdale said. “That’s all him and Neil (Brockbank, veteran Lowe producer). A lot of that stuff we just had to trust and let it be different from the other records I’ve made. Sometimes it was hard for me to let go and not second guess things. But I’m glad I let them do what they wanted to do and needed to do.”

With several members of Lowe’s band and production team on hand for “London Southern,” one has to wonder why Lowe himself wasn’t part of the party.

“Originally, Nick was going to co-produce the record,” Lauderdale said. “The problem was that he really needed the songs several weeks in advance and I didn’t have them. And I totally understand. The way I make records when I co-produce is so chaotic.  For better or for worse, I have a habit of writing under tremendous pressure. That’s just the way it sometimes turns out. But he’s of the school, logically and understandably, of needing songs in advance to plan things out and to think about doing parts, instead of just working off the cuff.”

Once completed, another query surfaced for “London Southern” – namely, finding the right time to release it. An insanely prolific artist, Lauderdale recorded the album almost three years ago, releasing a total of six other recordings in its wake. Among them were bluegrass projects, a solo acoustic record, a country album, collaborative works with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and the North Mississippi All-Stars and more. That truckload of music may have delayed the release of “London Southern,” but it never lessened the feeling of artistic camaraderie and exploration Lauderdale experienced working with his British allies.

“I felt like we had a connection,” he said. “I was slightly nervous about working with this new group. I wasn’t nervous that they wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, and if they would like the material. But I think that we had a connection musically because we really shared the influences.”

Jim Lauderdale performs at 9 tonight at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Dr. Tickets: $17. Call 859-281-1116 or go to willieslocallyknown.com.

critic’s pick: los straitjackets, ‘what’s so funny about peace, love and los straitjackets’

Transforming the songs of a master pop composer into an arsenal of instrumentals might seem like career suicide, right? After all, Nick Lowe has been, for decades, one of rock music’s most cunning and articulate lyricists. So who in their right performance minds would discard his words when fashioning a Lowe tribute record? Why, Los Straitjackets, the masked men of instrumental rock ‘n’ roll, of course.

What is so arresting in listening to “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets” is how the record celebrates all the other brilliant distinctions of Lowe’s songs – specifically, their wonderful melodic design and efficient sense of songcraft.

There is kinship to consider, too. Lowe and Los Straitjackets are currently label mates on the indie Yep Roc Records and have undertaken collaborative holiday tours over the past three years. But the bond goes far deeper on “What’s So Funny.” Los Straitjackets’ last few albums have tempered their familiar twang, surf and retro-related sound into broader musical platforms. Within the stylistic depth of Lowe’s melodies, they have been provided prime rocket fuel to carry on with that journey.

Then again, Lowe’s recent music has mellowed considerably since his power pop beginnings in the 1970s. As such, some of the most attractive moments of “What’s So Funny” come from the songsmith’s newer albums. On “Checkout Time” (from Lowe’s 2011 gem “The Old Magic”), Los Straitjackets summon a percolating blend of bossa nova percussion, guitar twang and prime pop wistfulness.

Similarly, “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” (from the way-underrated 2001 Lowe album “The Convincer”) breezes along with guitar harmony from Eddie Angel, Danny Amis and Greg Townson to provide an easy but pronounced glow to the tune’s already lovely lyrical charm. Then on “You Inspire Me,” the pace slows to a gentle nocturnal crawl that sounds like it was fashioned in the early ‘60s even though Lowe penned the tune in 1998.

The album has a ball with vintage Lowe music, too. His 1984 nugget “Half a Boy and Half a Man” retains the song’s inherent celebratory feel while the rootsy joyride abandon of the album closing “Heart of the City” shifts Los Straitjackets into prime rockish overdrive.

Place it all these treats together and you have a prime platter to ignite the summer with.

in performance: george thorogood and the destroyers

george thorogood.

After he and the rest of his road schooled Destroyers band had ripped through the boogie-centric bounce of “Get a Haircut,” George Thorogood took a moment to flash the electric grin that has become as synonymous with his live shows as his slide-savvy guitar work and bask in the fevered response a crowd assembled earlier tonight at the Lexington Opera House was awarding him.

Amid the ovation, one crowd patron began shouting out song requests with a hint of agitation that suggested it was time for the music to proceed. Thorogood would have none of it. Remarkably fit and tirelessly jubilant at age 67, he knew the moment was his.

“It took me 40 years to get up here, partner,” Thorogood replied to the fan. “I’m going to enjoy every sweet second of this.”

As well as should. But the 90 performance, which never faltered from its thundering, smartly paced and potently rhythmic flight pattern, was no indulgence. Thorogood has long been a disciple of the blues and boogie pioneers that came before him, having fashioned several of their staples into streamlined, loud-and-proud rock ‘n’ roll party pieces for a younger and – let’s just go ahead and say it – whiter generation. That explains how a jump blues gem like Rudy Toombs’ “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” first popularized by Amos Wilburn in the 1950s and more famously by John Lee Hooker in the 1960s was essentially appropriated by Thorogood in the 1970s. Tonight, it was still a boogie tune at heart. But the carnival-like rock spirit the guitarist continues to invigorate the song with has lost none of its immediacy or accessible cheer.

Ditto for Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” and Elmore James’ “Madison Blues,” two very different roots music treasures Thorogood all but made his own four decades ago as celebratory showcases of untrendy, forthright performance machismo.

Mostly, though, a Thorogood show is about groove. As guitar heavy as tonight’s program was, the electricity summoned was very elemental. Songs were constructed around riffs, hooks and a level of rhythmic propulsion that prided itself on being uncomplicated. Sometimes the groove was so inherent in the song that Thorogood and the Destroyers simply hitched a ride to the obvious melodic gusto. Case in point: the insatiable beat behind the Bo Diddley classic “Who Do You Love?” that was piloted largely by longstanding Destroyers drummer Jeff Simon. Other tunes, like Mickey Bones’ “Twenty Dollar Gig,” the only work Thorogood put down his guitar for, yielded a more ensemble-generated drive.

Thorogood, of course, played the role of party host as readily as he did that of groove merchant. Early in the show, he joked how the Destroyers were all out on bail for the evening. Near evening’s end, he remarked how a talk with “management” during the encore break resulted in the Opera House’s performance curfew being lifted.

Nice try, George. That comment prompted a glance at the watch, which read 9:02. Youthful as the show was in spirit, it turned out there was one inevitability of age even rock ‘n’ roll couldn’t mask.

 

critic’s pick: chick corea, ‘the musician’

Now this is what you call a birthday celebration.

On a new triple CD/single Blu-Ray disc concert album “The Musician,” jazz colossus Chick Corea whittles down recordings from a nearly two month residency last fall at the Blue Note in New York. Planned in conjunction with his 75th birthday, the tenure placed the veteran keyboardist and composer in 15 different group configurations –  piano duos, jazz trios, fusion ensembles, flamenco groups and more. Most featured celebrated jazz names from multiple generations, although the broadly playful spirit of Corea’s musicianship – predominantly on piano – clearly fuels the birthday bash.

“The Musician” presents 10 of those settings and the results are continually fascinating. For those whose familiarity with Corea is limited to his fusion adventures, “The Musician” regularly offers colorful, though often tempered interplay. A realigned, acoustic version of the ‘70s Return to Forever quartet (with Frank Gambale in for Al DiMeola) darts through “Captain Marvel” and “Light as a Feather” with boppish, streamlined glee while a retooled Five Peace Band turns up the electricity for two very different exchanges with guitar giant John McLaughlin, the volcanic “Spirit Rides” and the comparatively modest but gorgeously textured “Special Beings.” The 80s era Elektric Band reunites for “Ritual” and “Silver Temple” to ignite Corea’s mightest array of plugged-in sounds, especially on Rhodes-style electric piano, although the warp speed percussion blitz of drummer Dave Weckl tends to overpower both tunes.

Those preferring Corea strictly on piano can indulge in generous duets with Marcus Roberts (on a riotously fragmented “Caravan”) and Herbie Hancock (on an ominous, slow-brewing “Cantaloupe Island” that sounds like it has spent the last few years soaking in the New Orleans sun with a freshly adopted Professor Longhair accent). The non-piano duo settings team Corea with vocalist Bobby McFerrin, on the former’s signature tune “Spain,” much of which is devoted to a wordless improvisational meditation, and vibraphonist Gary Burton, on “Overture” and “Your Eyes Speak to Me.” The latter tunes quietly stray into chamber territory with help from the Harlem String Quartet.

Traditionalists should welcome a lovely trio reading of “I Hear a Rhapsody” with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Brian Blade while an all-star quintet spotlighting trumpeter Wallace Roney salutes Corea mentor (and one time employer) Miles Davis on an insightful 22 minute version of  “If I Were a Bell.”

The highlight, though, comes from a pair of songs cut with the least known support team of the lot, the aptly named Flamenco Heart. The group provides a framework of guitar, percussion and reeds that allows the Spanish inspiration so clearly at the heart of Corea’s music to lightly but profoundly soar. The collaboration is the crowning touch in this expansive, celebratory overview of a restless jazz titan whose music truly knows no bounds.

in performance: darrell scott

darrell scott. photo by jim mcguire

Darrell Scott walked onstage last night at Willie’s Locally Known with zero sense of ceremony. Performing without a band, he strapped on an electric guitar and casually test drove a few licks with a sensibility far jazzier than what we might expect out of such a championed Americana stylist. Then the tune veered into swing and the groove, still decidedly jazzy, became more fluid. The packed house slowly began to realize Scott wasn’t soundchecking and curtailed their chatter. What resulted was a summery invitation called “Head South,” the first tune from the first album (1997’s “Aloha From Nashville”) released by the Eastern Kentucky native.

But any seasonal sentiment darkened with the two songs that followed – a stirring and still harrowing “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” steeped in sturdy blues and empowered by the startlingly natural guitar play that distinguished the rest of the two hour concert, and a considerably more reflective “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The latter served as a dual eulogy for Texas songsmith and longtime friend Guy Clark, who died a year ago Wednesday, and Chris Cornell, who Scott shared a recording session with. He died two days ago.

All that came just within the first 20 minutes of the performance.

The rest of the evening was devoted to a loose-fitting array of songs with vivid folk and storytelling imagery colored by extended, intricate exhibitions on electric and acoustic guitar that enforced the fact Scott remains as potent an instrumentalist as he is a songwriter.

Several of his compositions possessed a gorgeous simplicity, but perhaps none more so than the title tune to 2010’s “A Crooked Road” album. Dressed with a melody that initially suggested The Beatles’ “Blackbird” (“if you steal, steal from the best”), the tune quickly revealed a more markedly wistful lyricism that gently supported the worldly but affirmative feel of the narrative (“I see the straight and narrow when I walk a crooked road”).

From the other side of the road came a ghostly reading of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man,” where Scott’s voice would rise like an incantatory yodel and then fade like the “old train rollin’ down the line” depicted in the song’s opening verse.

Scott turned to fretless banjo for the finale version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” summoning a light, antique feel that merged the performance’s generations of sounds and style into a sing-a-long full of back porch intimacy.

 

chris cornell, 1964-2017

chris cornell.

Long before the rock mainstream co-opted the term “grunge” as a fashionable means to market a punk/metal-ish collective of artists pouring out of the Northwest, there was Soundgarden. The band was one of the formative voices of its generation, one empowered with garage rock smarts, youthful gusto and unapologetically brazen immediacy. At the center of that cyclone was Chris Cornell.

Cornell’s death on Tuesday is disturbing on a number of levels, not the least of which was its ruling this afternoon as a suicide by hanging. He was 52, an elder in rock ‘n’ roll terms, yet what a terribly premature age to leave the world with. But there was also the image, perhaps a naïve one to those of us outside the inner workings of an artist, that all seemed well – enviable, even – with his career. He managed the impossible by balancing performance lives as a solo artist as well as with a reconstituted Soundgarden, which regrouped in 2010 after a 13 year split.

Then again, how can an audience member even begin to comprehend what plays out in the mind of an artist they adulate, especially during that performer’s offstage life? That’s ultimately what makes Cornell’s passing so disheartening.

I first saw Cornell sometime in the late 1980s – best guess is 1989 – when Soundgarden played the long gone Short St. rock club The Wrocklage (Shakespeare & Co. now occupies that building). Memories are scattered of that performance, mostly because I knew so little of the band at the time. But I was in the minority. With the beginnings of an indie rock revolution already taking hold, word on the band has already spread. I just hadn’t gotten the memo. Outside of Son Volt’s 1995 debut at The Wrocklage, I have never been in a club so packed with patrons as I was at the Soundgarden show. But Son Volt was a folk act compared to Cornell and company. What I do remember was how his voice – that atomic, operatic voice – seemed to rip the room right off the floorboards.

Flash forward to May 2007, almost a decade ago to the week. Cornell was a solo act playing the Louisville Palace one day after the release of “Carry On,” his first album following the breakup of Audioslave, the Los Angeles band he fronted with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

This was the evening that stuck with me. While Cornell was promoting new music, the two hour performance was essentially a career overview covering Soundgarden tunes, Audioslave music and even a few songs from Temple of the Dog, the famed but short lived early ‘90s Seattle band that also boasted several members of the soon-to-be-formed Pearl Jam.

And as an unassuming nod to his star status, Cornell also performed “You Know My Name,” the theme song he wrote and recorded for the first James Bond film of the Daniel Craig era (and one of the finest Bond movies overall), “Casino Royale,” which had become an international hit the previous fall.

Cornell established his credentials at the onset of the evening, tearing into the show-opening “Spoonman” – the lead single from Soundgarden’s 1994 breakthrough album, “Superunknown.” Hearing him blast away on the songs affirmed how much the enduring Seattle bands of that era (Pearl Jam included) owed to Cornell’s intensity as well as to his honest, even good natured stage demeanor.

This wasn’t some staged presentation of rock/metal rage. The music was triumphant and real. It may have come from a different, darker generation, but it addressed the same restlessness that fueled every rock ‘n’ roll generation before and since.

in performance: peter rowan/john jorgenson bluegrass band (j2b2)

peter rowan. photo by ronald rietman

Given the thematic distances separating Peter Rowan and the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band (J2B2) on their newest recordings, one might assume the only thing their co-billed appearances earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour had in common would have been an arsenal of stringed instruments. In the end, though, one inherently shared sound brought both acts together.
Any supposed distance was suggested by the songs Rowan shared from his new “My Aloha” album, a record that explores links between Hawaiian and American roots music. If his performances had adhered more to the Honolulu recording sessions with noted native artists that made up the album, then, yes, this would have been an evening of contrasts. But as Rowan performed either by himself or with members of J2B2 as accompanists, what you heard was far more in line with the bluegrass-bred Americana music Rowan has cultivated for decades.
Sure, one of the newer tunes, “My Aloha (Appalachian Mountain Home)” reached out from one shore to another in its storyline to become possibly the only song ever written to reference Mother Maybelle Carter and Queen Lili’uokalani side by side. Similarly, “My Blue Hula Girl,” aided by J2B2 guitarist Patrick Sauber, sported a high, spirited Rowan vocal that suggested the yodeling that has frequented his more Americana inclined songs through the years.

john jorgenson. photo by piper ferguson.

Jorgenson’s crew, aided by veteran West Coast songsmith (and the bandleader’s one-time co-hort in the Desert Rose Band) Herb Pedersen, covered all the bluegrass essentials, from the three part harmonies that drove “Beautiful Sound” to the brisk instrumental sparring during “Ridin’ on the L&N” (with guitarist Jorgenson playing predominantly on mandolin). But other tunes – Paul Craft’s “Midnight Flyer,” the Emmylou Harris/Guy Clark eulogy “Bang the Drum Slowly” and even Pedersen’s oft-covered, road weary weeper “Wait a Minute” steered J2B2 closer to a very natural, folk-fueled country blend.
With all the promotional focus on new albums, it was a treat to hear Rowan toss in two of his signature tunes, “Panama Red” and “Midnight Moonlight,” as full collaborations with J2B2. Rowan could have sleepwalked through both works if he chose to and still won over the crowd. But whether it was the fresh instrumental fire Jorgensen’s crew triggered or Rowan’s own ageless performance vigor, both songs reflected a sense of onstage camaraderie that no stylistic or thematic demarcation could dilute.

The John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band (J2B2) performs again on May 9 at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, 235 W. Broadway in Frankfort (7 p.m., $25).

 

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