Archive for May, 2017

in performance: roughhousing

jack wright of roughhousing.

About the only hint of definition Jack Wright offered prior to last night’s Outside the Spotlight performance by Roughhousing at Broomwagon Bikes + Coffee was that the group was equally at home spelling its name with either one word or two. Beyond that, the free jazz trio was presented as a blank canvas that was soon painted with color and noise over two Derby evening sets played against the storefront’s windows, outside of which a spectacular post-rain sunset offered artful décor all its own.

A veteran saxophonist and improviser from Philadelphia, Wright was perhaps the most accessible voice within Roughhousing. With acoustic bassist Evan Lipson (who was also with Wright at his last OTS concert, an April 2015 date with the trio Wrest) and guitarist Zachary Darrup coercing a vocabulary of abstract and essentially unnatural sounds out of their instruments by slapping them, punching them and inserting all manner of devices over and under their strings, Wright sat quite placidly in the center conjuring more patient musicality from soprano and, eventually, alto saxophone. As each set was entirely improvised, any lyrical or even compositional sensibility was absent. But his tone was remarkably inviting all the same. There were a few dissonant honks and corrosive whispers, but mostly the reed music sounded like a fractured mantra with rolls of notes that bounced about briefly before being recalled, reshaped and sent on their way again. Wright varied his tone on occasion by playing the open bell of the sax against his leg. But the meditative feel of his playing never wavered.

Lispon, though a far more aggressive player, often seemed to play in tandem with Wright, especially through elongated, bowed lines that oddly complimented the alto sax passages near the end of the first set. In contrast, Darrup seemed in his own universe, using the guitar more as a percussive device. His ideas for coloring the trio’s soundscapes were discarded almost as quickly as they were triggered. Add to that a constant tinkering with the amplifier and what resulted sounded tentative and often intrusive – an uncertain electric jolt to a more naturally uneasy acoustic exchange that probably would have worked equally well, if not better, had guitar been jettisoned altogether.

 

chris stapleton’s round 2 ignites on ‘vol. 1’

chris stapleton.

At the half-way point of his sublime sophomore album “From a Room: Volume 1,” Chris Stapleton attempts to rattle the cage of a relationship – in all likelihood, a marriage – long steeped in domestic purgatory. During a sobering tune called “Either Way,” both parties keep up appearances to the outside world but live a wholly separated existence, talking only “when the monthly bills are due.” Then, as the song reaches its chorus, the stark denouement is reached. “You can go, you can stay,” Stapleton sings in that now familiar, soul-inscribed country voice. “I won’t love you either way.”

Now, here’s the kicker. Even if another Nashville songwriter could have designed a song of similarly unsentimental torment, they would have weighed it down with strings and other obvious anthemic devices to make sure it was a weeper of cinematic proportions. What Stapleton and producer Dave Cobb do is let the song essentially sing itself. All you hear is Stapleton’s singing, which packs the potency of a cyclone, and a lone acoustic guitar. In short, the song is left to bleed before your ears with raw, uncompromising urgency.

“Either Way” also serves as a crossroads for “From a Room: Volume 1.” It’s a line of demarcation separating music of unvarnished country tradition from sounds that soar into heavier soul and R&B terrain, territory the Lexington-born, Paintsville-raised artist is as versed in as the Nashville lexicon that earned him a glowing reputation as a songwriter and, more recently, performer.

The country material is pretty comprehensive in tone and thematic intent. The opening “Broken Halos” turns country outlaw references inside out to become a coarse affirmation that preaches patience. “Don’t go looking for the reasons, don’t go asking Jesus why,” Stapleton sings in a mood as contemplative as it is pleading. “When I’m meant to know the answers, they’ll belong to the by and by.”

A cover of the 1982 Willie Nelson hit “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” (the album’s only non-original tune) blows in like a desert wind, arid but comforting, before “Up to No Good Livin’ strikes up a forlorn waltz as it unravels the saga of a reveler (“People call me the Picasso of painting the town”) and his hard won redemption.

But the latter half of “From a Room, Volume 1” turns the lights way down. “I Was Wrong” is all after hours blues – dangerous, electric and refreshing ragged – while “Without Your Love” settles into deeper, darker and more quietly desperate terrain. After a slight reprieve for the hapless recreation of “Them Stems” the record reaches rock bottom with the closing “Death Row,” a prisoner’s unapologetic self-eulogy that seeks understanding more than forgiveness against a slow, doomsday groove. Don’t wait for this one on country radio.

Released two years to the day from when the Grammy-winning debut album “Traveler” hit stores to slowly but very surely introduce Stapleton to the masses, ‘From a Room: Volume 1” reflects a very unforced assuredness as it travels two very different paths. One winds around the country traditions at the heart of Stapleton’s songwriting. The other, which utilizes that earthshaking voice, takes him decidedly away from them. It also leaves you hanging, like any good story will, for where such a journey will take him once “Volume 2” rolls our way later this year.

critic’s pick: preservation hall jazz band, ‘so it is’

Give a blindfold listen to the first two tunes on “So It Is” and the act that comes to mind will likely not be the one making the music – the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, purveyor of the most vintage traditions of New Orleans music.

What ignites the album-opening title track is the upright bass of current PHJB chieftain Ben Jaffe, who co-produced “So It Is” with TV on the Radio’s David Sitek and co-wrote all of the record’s seven compositions. That’s the first clue – acoustic bass, not the usual PHJB underpinning of tuba. Then the song loosens into a late night groove propelled by pianist Kyle Roussel that revels in the kind of boppish, lanky cool one might expect out of New York. But all this is a set up for “Santiago,” a work that explodes into an immediate and quite natural Afro-Cuban groove with Roussel, Jaffe and 84 year old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel (who penned the work with Jaffe). There, the secret of “So It Is” reveals itself. Sure, you can detect hints of New Orleans second line drives throughout the album and a touch of Jelly Roll Morton within Roussell’s jovial playing. But that undercurrent of Dixieland swing that distinguished the PHJB up until the last decade? Forget that. The present day lineup is out to conquer the world – or, at least, the stylistic turf of a prominent regional neighbor.

That’s not to say “So It Is” is in any way a sellout. What unfolds is a rugged, organic sound with a strongly boppish approach to ensemble groove and soloing that utilizes the band’s Crescent City heritage as a launch pad rather than a backdrop.

“La Malanga” perhaps best showcases this decidedly non-revivalist approach with a robust bass, piano and percussion attack that propels the PHJB’s four member horn team with a fearsome ensemble bounce. The rampage, in turn, splinters into criss-crossing exchanges that require a monstrous piano break from Roussel to disperse. Prior to that, “Innocence” tempers the album’s tone but not the sentiment with a lush Cuban groove where Roussel jangles away on Wurlitzer.

The journey ends up back in New Orleans with “Mad.” The song’s hand-clapping, brass happy groove fuels the fun with a “gang vocal” spree (the album’s only non-instrumental passage) that will be bouncing around your brain after just one listen. Guaranteed. The tune is like a welcome home party for a conquering hero of a band that saw the sights, absorbed the inspirations and took them back to Crescent City to mix in the musical gumbo that has always been brewing in the backyard.

(The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been added to the late night lineup at Forecastle in Louisville. It will play a midnight concert on July 15 aboard the Belle of Louisville. For more info, go to forecastlefest.com.)

elizabeth cook doesn’t hold back

elizabeth cook.

Elizabeth Cook has never been one to hold back – not in the frank tales she revealed of her life and family during numerous appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” not in the homey yarns she spun on her Sirius XM morning radio show “Apron Strings” and especially not on her soul-baring 2016 album “Exodus of Venus.”

A critically lauded country music renegade who is right at home channeling a subversive rock or folk inspiration if the spirit hits, Cook sees no point in hiding any personal truth, dark or otherwise, from anyone willing to give her songs a listen.

“I’m very forthcoming musically,” said Cook, who returns to town for a solo concert Thursday at The Burl. “That’s kind of the whole point. I just don’t see where I’m doing any service with my artistry if I’m holding back. We’re all here to comfort each other through our experiences and gain a deeper understanding. I mean, it’s sort of my job.”

Cook takes her work quite seriously on “Exodus of Venus,” an album cut in the aftermath of myriad personal hurdles – divorce, the deaths of family members, a family home burning down and a stint in rehab. The effects of each are worn like battle scars in a parade of proud, coarse electric songs whose titles do little to mask their sentiments – “Slow Pain,” “Straightjacket Love,” “Dyin’” and “Methadone Blues” – before the album concludes with a meditation of pure country anguish, “Tabitha Tuder’s Mama” that recalls, vocally and stylistically, Emmylou Harris’s finest work.

“If I’m any good at this, it’s because what I do is instinctive and it’s instinctive because I’m going down a rabbit hole for myself. Hopefully, that becomes relatable on the other side to other people. It’s absolutely and totally cathartic. I listen to it and I’m surprised by it. I found a lot of it to also be prophetic in things that played out since those songs were written and recorded. So it’s, first and foremost, self-serving.”

“Exodus of Venus” serves as a dynamic addition to a career that has clocked literally hundreds of performances on the Grand Ole Opry, collaborations with such Americana heroes as John Prine, Jason Isbell and Steve Earle and a 2012 trio performance here in Lexington with Midnight Oil mainstay Bones Hilman as her bassist (a show notable for, among other things, concluding not with a perhaps expected classic country cover but a lullaby-like reading of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”).

But it was Letterman that proved one of Cook’s greatest supporters. Taken by unvarnished and very human stories about, among other subjects, her moonshine running father and his eventual incarceration, the comedian and talk host invited Cook back on “The Late Show” numerous times prior to his retirement in 2015.

“That was really cool and encouraging, but also very surprising to me,” Cook said. “It was very out of the blue. I was pretty shocked, especially at first. I couldn’t understand why I being put in that position of being asked questions and stuff. But I later became very humbled by it and, I guess, flattered by his attention about how he felt connected to me when he listened to me on the radio. I really think he wanted to introduce me to a wider audience.”

When asked about the influences that went into her country-conscious songs, Cook doesn’t point to a specific artist or recording. Her gateway into the world of songwriting and performance began at home.

“I had grown up with my mother and father being musical, watching them having a band and seeing how music was just a way of life for them and probably their greatest comfort and outlet for joy and solace. I think, by tradition, it became all that to me, too.

“So when I had an opportunity to start mining out what I would be doing for a living in that direction, it wasn’t so much that I saw the Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’ like Tom Petty did. I didn’t have that type of moment. For me, it was about coming up in an environment that was saturated by people directly around me making music all the time.”

Elizabeth Cook, Darrin Bradbury and Maggie Lander perform at 8 p.m. May 4 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets: $12. Call 859-447-8166 or go to burlky.ticketfly.com.

col. bruce hampton, 1947-2017

col. bruce hampton.

Familiar with the term “old soul,” the common tag for a personality that might be worldlier than one’s youthful appearance would suggest? Well, Col. Bruce Hampton was the antithesis of that. Oh, he was worldly, alright, right from the early ‘70s when roamed the road with his Zappa-esque Hampton Grease Band. But the career we know the guitarist, bandleader and cosmic raconteur best for placed him in the company of a succession of players that were often a full generation younger. Hampton may have looked like everyone’s dad – portly, mustached, graying – but he possessed the same jovial, inquisitive and playful demeanor of the artists he made music with. That made him not just an unlikely hero of jam band audiences beginning in the early ‘90s, but a journeyman that gave little regard to the age discrepancy between himself and his band mates.

The ‘90s records and seemingly endless tours Hampton clocked with the Aquarium Rescue Unit by and large introduced him to an audience far larger and more loyal than the cultish pockets of fans that took to his music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Hampton’s new generation groove sounds would shift considerably as the decade progressed, taking on strides of jazz, funk and fusion with succeeding bands like the Fiji Mariners and, my favorite, the Codetalkers. The latter, which played Lexington several times at the long-since demolished Dame, had Hampton and his band dressed in suits and ties (although the Col. always still looked appropriately untucked) and boasted a monster guitarist named Bobby Lee Rodgers who played his instrument through the same type of Leslie cabinet used by organ players.

“Usually, I let them go for about five or seven years,” Hampton told me in a December 1996 interview about the frequency with which he formed and dissolved bands. “Sometimes, it’s process that just happens. But that’s fine. I like to build things up and then tear them down. After all, square one is always a challenge for me.”

Whatever the band, audiences loved the music, yet no one seemed to dig it more than Hampton himself. On one hand, he seemed like an aging hippie. But in truth, he was an ageless one who fed off the youthful zeal of his fans and fellow musicians just as much as they looked to him for journeys down continually new musical paths.

Hampton’s exit, sudden and shocking as it was, seemed a strangely fitting final chapter to such an artistically freewheeling existence and career. The subject of an all-star tribute concert last night at Atlanta’s Fox Theater honoring his 70th birthday, Hampton collapsed onstage during the encore and subsequently died. A horrifying experience, no doubt for the audience and artist gathered for the occasion. But, with all the respect in the world intended, what a way for a musician to go.

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