Archive for June, 2017

critic’s pick: neil young, ‘decade’

Why should we give much concern to the re-release of an anthology? Well, when it is as valuable a representation as “Decade” is to the critical and commercial heyday of Neil Young, a celebration is unavoidable.

Upon its initial release 40 years ago, “Decade” was designed less as a conventional greatest hits set and more like the sort of retrospective blueprint adopted for detailed boxed sets that are now commonplace milestones for veteran artists. Even Young, who decided on the song selection, viewed “Decade” as the summation of a chapter, rather than a career.

In listening to “Decade” again in 2017, the record presents an astonishing sense of history that simply couldn’t be appreciated upon its initial release. Much of the reason stems from how uneven Young’s music has been since then. There were certainly triumphs that post-dated “Decade” (in particular, the Crazy Horse summits “Rust Never Sleeps” and “Ragged Glory”) and there is no denying how wildly prolific and stylistically adventurous he has always been as an artist. But the decade chronicled on “Decade,” without question, represents Young’s glory years – a period of psychedelic pop expression, Laurel Canyon folk reflection and garage rock rampaging that wildly predated the punk and grunge movements. Similarly, those adventures play out here through songs with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. To explore that music again on “Decade” is to retrace one of the most creative eras in the evolution of modern pop.

The striking points of Young’s early years are represented though unobvious songs like “Expecting to Fly” (officially a Buffalo Springfield track, even though Young is the only band member playing on it) and “The Old Laughing Lady” (from Young’s 1969’s self-titled debut solo album). Both remain gorgeously surreal portraits that let their folk preferences warp into the epic orchestration that ran rampant during the “Pet Sounds”/”Sgt. Pepper” era. They sound less like Southern California folk than they do the Moody Blues.

Subsequent years would offer folk tunes of homespun candor and simplicity (“Sugar Mountain”), electric statements of stunning topicality (“Ohio”) and extraordinary mergers of the two (“Walk On” and “For the Turnstiles,” both from Young’s most underrated album, 1974’s “On the Beach”).

“Decade” stops slightly short of being a complete chronicle of that time. Young’s lost 1973 live masterpiece, “Time Fades Away,” is again ignored. Likewise, the 10 year period represented here means excluding the two classics that closed out the ‘70s, “Comes a Time” and “Rust Never Sleeps.”

But with three hours of essential listening packed onto two discs and selling for a mere $15 (a vinyl reissue, which surfaced back in the spring, costs a bit more), the resurrection of “Decade” serves as the restoration of a pop legacy.

Want to know why Neil Young is so revered? Here’s the primer that tells almost the whole the story.

in performance: bruce hornsby and the noisemakers

bruce hornsby.

After paring his signature hit “The Way It Is” down to a solo piano reflection accented lightly by mandolin, guitar and the increasingly playful backdrop of his full Noisemakers band, Bruce Hornsby surveyed the crowd at the Lexington Opera House and offered, without apology, a summation of the program’s performance philosophy.

“This is not the kind of show you can wind your watch to.”

The insinuation was that the music Hornsby and company summoned for over 2 ¼ hours favored spontaneity over ensemble tightness. In truth, the show generously dispensed both. At times, the musical clarity and technical precision was remarkably cohesive, whether it was through Hornsby’s own virtuosic runs on piano (the stylistic breath of which suggested everyone from Charles Ives to Jelly Roll Morton) to the razor sharp fills of Noisemaker drummer Sonny Emory. But the band regularly took tremendous chances, whether it was through song selection (as in the way Hornsby not only pulled out the 1995 swing-savvy nugget “Spider Fingers” on a lark the instant an audience member called for it, but the ease with which the tune to bleed into the more countrified “The Dreaded Spoon”) or in myriad instrumental passages, particularly the ones where Hornsby’s piano runs were orchestrated by the animated, Garth Hudson-like keyboard colors of J.T. Thomas.

In short, Hornby’s concert was made up equally of finesse and surprise. Well, that, and a rather remarkable catalog of songs. The performance’s first six selections, excluding a show opening instrumental mix of lyricism and dissonance that set the mischievous tone Hornsby adopted for the entire evening, all came from different albums. Some, like “Sneaking Up on Boo Radley” (from 1998’s “Spirit Trail”) established a boppish rumble that led quite unexpectedly into a fervent cover of the late Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.” Others, like “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.” (from 2016’s Rehab Reunion”) shifted the instrumentation altogether by placing Hornsby on dulcimer and Emory on washboard for music with a homier design but a feel just as playful as the rest of the set.

There were surprises, as well, as shown to by two very different relics from the 1996 soundtrack to “Tin Cup” – the Cajun-flavored “Big Stick” (with Hornsby playing jubilantly on accordion) and the gospel-esque ballad “Nobody There But Me.”

Closing the show out was what Hornsby termed “one of the five songs” from his catalog audiences recognized, “Mandolin Rain.” But even then, Hornsby was too artistically restless to play the whole tune straight. In began with the melodic appeal and general melancholy that made the song a massive radio hit 30 years ago. But at its conclusion, he shifted the music into a minor key variation that stripped away the pop veneer to reveal the work’s inherent sadness in stark, almost ghostly detail. It was the greatest noise the Noisemakers made all night, even though it played out with an eerie, sobering hush.


bring on the noise

bruce hornsby. photo by megan holmes.

He had led an all-star jazz trio, taken turns at bluegrass and collaborated with some of the most honored names in rock and pop. Shoot, the guy was even a member of the Grateful Dead.

But when it comes to the regal, piano-based music he makes on his own, Bruce Hornsby favors a setting where he can make serious noise. Hence, the Noisemakers, a band of diversely versed pop strategists that can match Hornsby’s virtuosic musicianship, play with a fearsome ensemble tightness and yet remain open to whatever spontaneous turns and jams that might emerge.

The Noisemakers – keyboardist J.T. Thomas, guitarist/mandolinist Doug Derryberry, saxophonist Bobby Read, bassist J.V. Collier and drummer Sonny Emory – are also the players that bring the multi-Grammy winning Hornsby back to Lexington for a Tuesday concert at the Opera House.

“The members of the Noisemakers are veterans, like me, of so many different types of gigs, from lounge gigs, frat parties with ropes to separate the dancers from the band, wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, J-Lo, Was Not Was, biker bars, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mumford and Sons, Gladys Knight, Holiday Inns, Captain Beefheart, Brandi Carlile, on and on and on.

“They are very adept at moving from one style to another at the blink of an eye or wave of a hand – in this case, my hand. They watch me closely because they know I’m restless and often looking for something new to do within a song’s performance. Also, I try to ‘entertain the band’- to keep it loose, free and improvisational every night. This approach keeps it always fresh.”

Hornsby emerged as an expert pop songsmith when the singles “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain” and “The Valley Road” made him a rock radio regular beginning in 1986. But his career has since traveled numerous stylistic paths his airwave-friendly music might not have forecasted, including two albums with Kentucky-born country/bluegrass giant Ricky Skaggs and an instrumental jazz record with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Jazz music, bluegrass music and lots of my own music have one thing in common- they’ve all been about virtuosity on the instrument. My style comes from a combination of these disparate stylistic elements and is often described as ‘Bill Evans meets the Hymnal, with some blues thrown in.’”

In 1991, Hornsby met up with one of his foremost musical inspirations, Leon Russell, to produce a comeback record for the elder artist titled ‘Anything Can Happen.’ But scan most any Hornsby record and you will likely find a song (like “Another Day” from 1990’s “A Night on the Town”) where the jubilant spirit of Russell, who died in November, beams.

“I thought I could do a pretty solid Leon imitation on the piano until I started working with him closely on the ‘Anything Can Happen’ record,” Hornsby said. “I saw that it was way deeper than I had thought. It was beautiful to actually be able to learn literally at the feet of the gospel/rock ‘n’ roll master. We were good friends for years, and I spoke at his memorial service in Tulsa last November. I’ll always miss him, very much like Garcia.”

“Garcia,” of course, was Jerry Garcia, the late guitarist of the Grateful Dead, which enlisted Hornsby as a touring member during the ‘90s. The connection was re-established in 2015 when he was asked to play as part of the Dead for a run of career-concluding concerts. The performances were chronicled on the concert CD/DVD, “Fare Thee Well.”

“The finality of these ‘last Dead concerts’ gave me a different sense of what was happening. I tried to savor certain special moments while they were happening, moments when things would really jell musically and the crowd would respond in that amazing Deadhead fashion. The ‘Fare Thee Well’ concerts were an unforgettable experience for me – such a great time playing with my old Dead cousins.”

Up next for Hornsby will be the completion of music for Spike Lee’s Netflix series based on his first movie, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (his ninth project with the filmmaker) and a record of new songs composed for orchestra.

“(It) may be the most original thing I’ve done,” Hornsby said of the latter project. “Or it may not be. But at the very least it’s surely the most dissonant and harmonically adventurous music I’ve made. So yes, I’m in a very fertile, creative place with regard to new music and musical areas to explore.”

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers perform at 7:30 p.m. June 27 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $75.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to

critic’s pick: steve earle and the dukes, ‘so you wanna be an outlaw’

In a modest paraphrasing of the title tune from his newest album, Steve Earle confesses a casual truth one expects his own career taught him long ago. “If you wannabe an outlaw,” he sings with a drawl that seems to drag on to an adjacent county, “you can never go home.”

Oddly enough, home is exactly where Earle winds up on “So You Wannabe an Outlaw.” In a career that has seen the veteran songsmith explore politically fueled protest songs, hip-hop flavored folk, blues, bluegrass, duet music with Shawn Colvin and more, Earle has come home to the hardest country sound he has committed to a record since the ‘80s. Fittingly, it also puts him back on a major label (Warner Bros.) for the first time in two decades and re-teams him with producer Richard Bennett, the guitarist and Nashville studio pro that helped oversee (and perform on) Earle’s breakthrough 1986 album “Guitar Town.”

“So You Wannabe an Outlaw” actually reaches back further to the famed Outlaw country movement that predated “Guitar Town.” Specifically, it celebrates the prime hero of that era, Waylon Jennings, who, like Earle, hailed from Texas but never lost sight of his Lone Star roots as his commercial notoriety in Nashville grew. How fitting that Jennings’ running buddy and fellow Outlaw legend Willie Nelson turns up for some rough hewn harmonizing with Earle on the new album’s title cut.

Lyrically, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw” is as restlessly poetic and plain speaking as any other Earle record. “News from Colorado” and “If Mama Coulda Seen Me,” however, turn the tables on traditional family yarns. The former plays out like a Springsteen song with family becoming the source of unyielding misfortune. It is spelled out and repeated in the song’s chorus like a sullen mantra (“The news from Colorado’s never good”). The latter, though, is all Merle Haggard as it imagines a dead mother’s grief at her son’s incarceration (“If mama coulda seen me in these chains, she’s be fit to be tied”).

But it’s musically that Earle’s inner Outlaw really emerges with help from a Dukes lineup that includes mainstays The Mastersons (Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore) and new hands (pedal steel guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson). Together, they galvanize a frightening portrait of Earle’s early ‘90s recklessness (“Fixin’ to Die”) and a boozy honky tonk romp with post-Outlaw star Miranda Lambert (“This is How It Ends”).

Crowning it all, though, is “The Girl on the Mountain,” a yarn of devastating heartbreak set against a sparse and unstelled musical backdrop – proof that the rambling restlessness of the tradition revisited here never knows when to be at ease. That’s the lesson Earle leaves for us – providing you want to be an Outlaw, that is.

in performance: U2/onerepublic

U2 performing Friday in Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. From left, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., Bono and Adam Clayton. Photo by Adam Creech.

LOUISVILLE – What an astonishing sight it was to witness a pack of renowned artists, performers with an already mammoth profile, dwarfed by their own work.

That occurred, in very literal fashion, last night as the members U2 stood at attention on the stage of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, their silhouetted figures mere miniatures beside the towering image representing the Irish band’s most enduring recording – a Joshua Tree.

The 11 songs making up the 1987 album “The Joshua Tree” served as a centerpiece in every sense of the term for U2’s first Kentucky concert in 16 years and its first Louisville show since 1982. Songs predating the album opened the concert, hits covering a 18 year stretch that followed the record concluded it. But at the two hour show’s thematic and musical core were the muscular, topically driven and still remarkably vital songs from “The Joshua Tree” that cemented U2’s megastardom three decades ago. Was it nostalgic? To a degree. The first three songs on “The Joshua Tree” were its biggest hits – “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You.” But by the time band got to the second half of the album (“Welcome to Side Two,” singer/frontman Bono proclaimed), the audience was faced with far less recognizable material. Within that segment, though, were some of the evening’s true gems, including a triumphant “One Tree Hill,” a brutally acidic “Exit” (the most fearsome rocker of the night) and a ghostly “Mothers of the Disappeared” performed as a prayer.

The transition of opening songs from 1983’s “War” and 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire” into the suite that made up “The Joshua Tree” was quite striking, as well. The concert began with a suitably anthemic “Sunday Bloody Sunday” played from a modest sized stage assembled in the middle of the stadium field, the kind of set up most large arena and stadium productions employ as a mid-show diversion. From there, the emancipatory “Bad” revealed the internal workings of a band accustomed to pageantry working in a refreshingly sparse, lean and elemental setting.

As U2’s most powerful affirmation “Pride (in the Name of Love)” poured fourth, the concert utilized a visual element as cinematic as the band’s music with the text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech illuminated on a video screen large enough to fill the stadium’s entire end zone. Watching that bleed into the churchy keyboard hum and chiming guitars of “Where the Streets Have No Name” was, frankly, quite chilling.

The encore section turned away from the inner snapshots of America dominating “The Joshua Tree” in favor of more universally human reflection. “Miss Sarajevo” was renamed “Miss Syria” and included the recorded vocal accompaniment of the late Luciano Pavarotti from the original recording with a new visual backdrop – a commissioned film shot at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. In the same vein, “Ultraviolet” sounded as affirmative and enchanted as ever but found a new topical life as a dedication to women activists. “Beautiful Day,” however, stayed put as a straightforward pop reflection of a simpler peace.

Now, how much as age altered U2? A little. You didn’t notice it much from guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. They continued to play with strongly efficient, heavily rhythmic and thoroughly unassuming propulsion. That was especially true of The Edge, who continued to favor patterns of shimmering, stuttering guitar runs over grandstanding solos. Even the times he dug into dirtier turf, as on “Exit” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” his playing maintained a sense of orchestral order.

You noticed the years slightly more with Bono. He didn’t reach into the vocal stratosphere or display the athletic bravado of past tours. But he was no elder slouch, either, rocking amicably with the looser tumble of “Trip Through Your Wires” while commanding U2’s overall activist involvement with the eternally hopeful “One.”

One of the show’s more curious but wonderfully complimentary nods to age came during “Red Hill Mining Town,” which boasted the band’s patient live recitation on half of the gargantuan video screen with the recorded support of a pokerfaced Salvation Army brass band on the other. The result was a performance of sagely resilience anchored by very earthy soul.

There was another grand, but totally unexpected, special effect that distinguished the concert. Once “Where the Streets Have No Name” settled into its percolating groove, accompanied by the stunning visual of a desert road shown from a behind-the-windshield perspective, a huge jet airliner soared over the stadium, seemingly within spitting distance, on its way to a landing at nearby Louisville International Airport. Guess the skies didn’t have a name last night, either.

The Colorado band OneRepublic opened the evening with an inviting 50 minute set that drew on the vocal charge of Ryan Tedder and the instrumental color of bassist/cellist Brent Kutzie for songs like “Love Runs Out,” “Stop and Stare” and “Counting Stars.” The resulting music was delivered with crisp instrumentation and ample performance vigor. It was also indistinguishable from the work of a dozen other acts that took their cue from the alt-pop aftermath of ‘90s grunge.

critic’s pick: jason isbell and the 400 unit, ‘the nashville sound’

In titling his newest album “The Nashville Sound,” Jason Isbell has presented us with a puzzler. The record, the first co-billed to his long running 400 Unit band in five years, has about as much in common with Nashville musical practices as a Godzilla movie. But over the last decade, Isbell has stationed himself as one of the most concise, literate and honestly emotive Southern songwriters of his generation. Does the fact he works out of a corporate metropolis known for its assembly line construction of shopworn sentiment suggest a new age for the Nashville artist is at hand? That’s the head scratcher.

We’ll leave such expectations to the future, though. For now, let it be known “The Nashville Sound” is not a country record, although its songs certainly frame a level of country sentiment most 9-to-5 Nashville songwriters are light years removed from. Nor is the record any kind of formulaic throwback to yesteryear when the likes of Billy Sherrill, Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins spearheaded regal Music City sounds all their own.

No, “The Nashville Sound,” is more of the same candid, articulate songwriting that began to define Isbell’s songwriting while he was still playing with the upstart Southern band Drive-By Truckers.

News releases and even interviews for the record infer a return to a louder, more elemental sound that had been lightened somewhat so Isbell’s two recent solo albums – 2013’s “Southwestern” and 2015’s “Something More Than Free” – could expand into more Americana friendly waters. That’s not exactly the case here, though “The Nashville Sound” has its high volume moments, like when wheezing buzzsaw guitars introduce and expound on the downward generational spiral within “Cumberland Cap,” which sounds likes less like Drive-By Truckers and more “Document”-era R.E.M. There is also the electric roll of “Anxiety,” where power chords bash against a restless heart (and brain) before subsiding like an electric sea chantey.

Much of “The Nashville Sound,” however, tucks its discontent and uncertainty inside comparatively relaxed melodic homesteads that would have sounded right at home on “Southeastern” or “Something More Than Free.”

The opening “Last of My Kind” takes it cue from John Prine, a master as masking inner turmoil in sunny, folk friendly atmospherics. Also like Prine, Isbell’s wordplay is deceptively simple with an accessibility as conversational and it is confessional. “Can’t see the stars for the neon lights,” he sings, channeling the mood of a smalltown loner lost in the cold, dismissive expanse of metropolitan life.

Similarly, “If We Were Vampires” and “Molotov,” despite their garish titles, reflect cautionary tales of great vulnerability expressed through a hushed acoustic arrangement (the former) and a roots-savvy sway that sounds like it was borrowed from Tom Petty or Los Lobos.

An epic summer listen, “The Nashville Sound” is an immensely appealing new chapter in Isbell’s Americana reign. But is it truly a forecast of things to come in Music City? We can only hope.

the rock and soul of nikki hill: “a rebellious way to get in people’s faces”

nikki hill.

When one views at all the varied inspirations, stylistic expressions and performance experiences that have bolstered her career, it would be natural to consider Nikki Hill as a living artistic contradiction.

She learned to perform in the church but has never viewed herself as especially religious, revering the Cramps and AC/DC as highly as gospel. She found favor with the traditions of R&B and soul, but has proven to anyone who has seen her perform – including the crowds that have caught her numerous Lexington shows over the past two years – that the North Carolina reared, New Orleans based singer is a rocker at heart. And while she is very much a child of the South, the music on her recent ‘Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists’ album is less tied to specific genres or geography. It’s rural Alabama juke joint soul one minute and Detroit-worthy rock ‘n’ roll the next.

“I never entertained being a singer, let alone a front person,” said Hill, who returns to Central Kentucky as part of Well Crafted – Brews + Bands on Saturday. “I loved the idea of being a part of a group that could make people feel the way that all those bands I’ve seen over the years have made me feel, and maybe even record music that other people would be interested in hearing.

“Little Richard and Otis Redding and The Cramps are probably the ones that stand out where I would catch myself thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ The images and playing of Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Barbara Lynn also showed me women that I felt were more representative and identifiable for me. Seeing and hearing them play made it seem like a true possibility for a woman like me and a different and more rebellious way to get in people’s faces.”

Music began for Hill, as it did with so many R&B, soul and even rock-based artists from the South, in church. But singing in the choir didn’t necessarily mean she bought into being part of the congregation. Still, the urgency and immediacy of gospel opened a door to the potency of a live performance.

“I have never been religious, but I could never deny the power of the music on the audience, the way it felt so much like a performance and the energy that it built within the room.

“I was so drawn to people that were openly angry and expressive and passionate. I felt like I was so quiet, so I was drawn to others singing and playing out their pain. I had never really seen or heard that until seeking it out on my own in rock ‘n’ roll and blues. All these artists I loved, especially in the soul and R&B/rock ‘n’ roll vein, mostly grew up in the church, as well. I knew there was a tie to it. I could hear in the music the old call and response style, the attitude, the passionate execution of the songs. The more I listened and the more I got into researching the influences of my favorite artists, I was able to see how much all the styles of roots music were really tied together.”

Perhaps that’s why Hill balances the R&B authority of LaVern Baker or early Aretha Franklin with the collar-grabbing guitar rock command of the MC5. But working as an independent artist without major label help means having to get her music out the old-fashioned way – through lots and lots of road work.

“Do we always have packed rooms? No. Are we able to get into every venue/festival that we want to play? Hell, no. There are ups and downs to it, but I think if it wasn’t paying off, I wouldn’t still be touring and able to make records.

“I’m just facing it head on because that’s all I know. Plus, there is no need for me to ever act like I chose an easy way. It all boils down to the fact that I’m a black Southern woman playing rock ‘n’ roll in 2017. It’s confusing. It’s unidentifiable. It’s unfamiliar. It’s unmarketable. It’s not popular. But it’s me and I’m making a living at it.”

Nikki Hill performs at 4:30 p.m. as part of Well Crafted – Brews + Bands at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Rd. in Harrodsburg. Admission: $25. Gates open at 11 a.m. Call 859-734-5411 or go to

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, final day

ron thomason of dry branch fire squad.

The Sunday morning gospel show that traditionally closes the Festival of the Bluegrass has always been a happy curiosity. As everything else in the Kentucky Horse Park that served as base camp over the previous three days is being quickly disassembled, the final music is moved under a small tent at the far end of the field, providing an intimate footnote to the rest of the event.

This morning, as has been the case over much of the past decade, the session was presided over by the Dry Branch Fire Squad in what was its 39th appearance in the Festival’s 44 year history. Little about the band has changed, other than its personnel, although vocalist, raconteur and spiritual/social commentator Ron Thomason remains at the helm with longtime banjoist/dobroist Tom Boyd still on board as first lieutenant. Fortunately, Dry Branch’s sound hasn’t shifted much, either. Though its can properly be tagged a gospel group despite frequent forays into secular folk songs, the thrust is on old-time music – specifically, a style based around pre-bluegrass country spirituals.

This morning’s set sounded rustic without seeming outdated, just as the spiritual messages were conveyed with humor and tolerance instead of the insufferable audience pandering that has become a frequent manner of practice for many gospel-minded country and bluegrass ensembles.

As such, tunes like “50 Miles of Elbow Room” and “Hide You in the Blood” reflected a antique immediacy and technical blemish or two that rightly recalled the very formative spiritual string music of the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers, groups that recorded both songs, respectively, 80 years ago.

Another happy constant was Thomason’s Will Rogers-esque humor, a genuine anti-thesis of gospel fearmongering. Subscribing to a practice of “taking hate out of my heart,” he flashed a wary smile when referencing the current political climate. “The times,” Thomason remarked, “are trying again.”

Once the hour long set wrapped up a few minutes after the noon hour with “Going Up the Mountain,” the Festival was officially over. Back on the grounds, the main performance stage was already gone as buses, vendors and campers filtered out of the Horse Park. But it was comforting to know Thomason and Dry Branch were atop the mountain, dispensing string band solace that was undeterred by the times.


in performance: rhiannon giddens

rhiannon giddens.

Just prior to letting loose the a cappella intro that kicked off “Waterboy” last night at the KCD Theater in Louisville, Rhiannon Giddens stretched out her arms, folded her hands in and bowed her head. She looked like she about to inhale a hurricane. The ritual must have worked because she exhaled a gale force vocal lead full of righteous soul, sensuous groove and a tone of astonishing and commanding clarity. Just as it was when she performed it at the Lexington Opera House two years ago, Giddens made “Waterboy” her own – a neat trick considering folk empress Odetta managed the same thing with the tune nearly 50 year earlier.

Giddens did that regularly last night with a band that boasted Americana stylist Dirk Powell and her Carolina Chocolate Drops mate Hubby Jenkins, who, between them, colored in the program on guitar, fiddle, accordion, banjo, bones and more. Over the course of two immensely engaging sets, the team allowed works written or popularized by Patsy Cline, Ethel Waters, the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and more to receive a glorious makeover. Giddens possessed such a potent and wildly pure voice, that each work, regardless of its genre or background, was instilled with a wholly natural sense of vigor.

You heard it in the Staples’ revivalistic social anthem “Freedom Highway,” the epic Cline country heartbreak hit “She’s Got You” and, perhaps most tellingly, Franklin’s 1967 soul gem “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which Giddens sang with a sense of cool, serene defiance.

But this was a more sobering show than the 2016 Opera House outing, mostly because of its focus on original songs of slavery, history and visions of freedom that made up 2017’s “Freedom Highway” album. Some, like “At the Purchaser’s Option,” prompted by a Civil War-era advertisement for a female slave that included an option for the sale of her child, maintained a iron will resilience that flew in the face of the tune’s immovable oppression. Others, including “We Could Fly,” envisioned an escape to freedom that was beautifully, but sadly, presented as folklore.

Rounding out the concert was the banjo-riddled instrumental “Following the North Star,” a Powell-led medley of Cajun tunes built around “Diamanche Apres-Midi” and a show closing cover of Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head,” which embraced the evening with perhaps the most uplifting message of all: “There’s music in the air.”

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, second day

michael cleveland. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

Usually when dealing with a roster of artists akin to the lineup of schooled string music stylists that highlighted the Friday lineup at the Festival of the Bluegrass, reaching a consensus as to which act had the strongest showing isn’t easy. In an event like this, there exists is a given symmetry, if not outright predictability, among the performers. Some may vary their styles slightly, but what frequently emerges is a similar mix of lightning pace picking, familial vocal harmonies and homespun sentiment.
Last night was different, though. All the artists taking the stage at the Kentucky Horse Park were engaging and proficient, yet there one undeniable titan among them. His name was Michael Cleveland.

During a late evening set with his band Flamekeeper, the fiddler covered all the requisites concerning technique, tradition and tone. But Cleveland proved to be such a versed player that he regularly expanded on the usual bluegrass diet of speed and flash. During “I Knew Her Yesterday,” an original instrumental from his splendid new “Fiddler’s Dream” album, he threw a curve ball by embracing a slower lyricism chilled with an engaging sense of honky tonk swing. Better still was a deconstruction of “Jerusalem Ridge” (one of several Bill Monroe classics within the set) performed as a spacious, astute but still playful duet with mandolinist Nathan Livers. The playing revived the tune’s inherent Celtic inspiration for a musicality that was remarkably worldly. Later, during an encore exhibition where he was left alone onstage, Cleveland summoned accents that sounded almost Eastern European in nature before landing with grace and vigor alongside Flamekeeper’s more overtly grassy camaraderie. In short, this was one of the great instrumental displays the Festival has seen in recent memory.

russell moore.

The rest of the bill was appealing, though occasionally perfunctory. Headliners Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out have not lost a step with its leader still full of a vocal bravado aged nicely by gospel and high lonesome soul (as on the chain gang requiem “Moundsville Pen”). Similarly, IIIrd Tyme Out alum Steve Dilling and his band Sideline balanced vocal might with jams that embraced the blues as well as Carolina-inclined ballads (the gentle title tune to the 2016 album “Colors and Crossroads”).

jr williams and kati penn of newtown.

Two Kentucky-bred bands held their own on such a lofty bill. Newtown revealed additional maturity in its development of a steadfast ensemble sound with rich and often appealingly dark folk undertones (the transformation of Tyler Childers’ “The Crows and the Jakes” into Aoife O’Donovan-style Americana with help from Kati Penn’s soft focus vocals) while Hammertowne

hammertowne mandolinist chaston carroll,

heavily favored bluegrass tradition, even though some of its material was welcomed from outside sources (including a surprisingly giddy version of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”).

But this evening belonged to Cleveland and an instrumental charge fortified by taste, ingenuity and a sterling sense of musical adventure.


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