Archive for August, 2017

in performance: the robert cray band

robert cray.

After opening his performance last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort with an overlooked 2001 gem called “Anytime” that was full of blues/soul authority but little undue fanfare, Robert Cray shielded his eyes and asked the tech crew to soften the spotlight that was squarely centered on him.

“I’ve got nowhere to hide,” the guitarist remarked.

That was a telling phrase. On the surface, it spoke to the genial and retiring nature Cray has long maintained onstage, an attribute the entire 100 minute performance also adhered to. Time and time again, Cray made blues and soul traditions work as a single platform. His guitarwork and vocals were so at home with each other that there was no need to exert the sort of tortured artist effect many purveyors of these styles summon to establish performance credibility. Last night, Cray dished out one epic guitar break after another, from the neo-psychedelic drive established on the original “You Had My Heart” (one of four tunes played from the new “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm” album) to the chestnut “Phone Booth (which dated back to 1983’s “Bad Influence”) that let a light, limber groove bust out into a hearty ensemble jam. Ditto for the singing, where Cray’s ageless tenor (and occasional falsetto) undercut the rhumba-esque rhythm of “Will You Think of Me” (from 1995’s “Some Rainy Morning”) one moment and ignited the full summery R&B bounce of “You Move Me” (from 2014’s underrated “In My Soul”) a few songs later. During one remarkable instance, “It Doesn’t Show” (off of 2005’s “Twenty), Cray’s instrumental and vocal blend created a call-and-response dialogue within the tune’s slower sense of soul-savvy cool.

Aside from all the far corners of his career such a setlist took him to (which covered nearly a dozen different albums spanning 34 years), what remained Cray’s primary artistic strength was his ability to embrace the soul and blues accents of his music so naturally. Admittedly, he’s not the biggest risk taker. The songs from “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm” (so named because the record was cut not his usual band but a team of veteran Memphis session players at the famed Royal Studio) could have passed for any number of the soul-fused works from throughout the guitarist’s career that peppered last night’s show. On the other hand, Cray delivery was so confident and schooled that the repertoire never remotely sounded stoic or stale.

That was especially true when two tunes near the end of the show managed to shake up the soul foundation a bit. One was the set-closing “You Must Believe in Yourself” (from “Hi Rhythm”) which triggered the Cray band’s most immediate and propulsive rhythmic drive of the night. The other, an encore finale of “Time Makes Two” (off of 2003’s “Time Will Tell”), ended the show with a soul-blues manifesto fortified by the mallet drumming of Terence Clark, the deep pocket bass of Richard Cousins and the orchestral keyboard backdrops of Dover Weinberg, all of which set up and supported Cray’s most dramatic guitar excursion of the show.

Yep, there was nowhere for Cray to hide, alright. But when the music flowed so efficiently and exactly, why would he even want to?

 

in performance: dave rawlings machine

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Photo by Henry Diltz.

“We’ve got a bunch of new songs to rehearse for you tonight,” remarked David Rawlings last night at the Brown Theatre in Louisville. Perhaps he felt this was an necessary admission, as this was the first night of a month long tour for the Dave Rawlings Machine, the first show since the release of his new “Poor David’s Almanack” album, and, as a result, the first time onstage for much of the record’s material.

Truth to tell, the looseness that permeated the program seemed entirely natural. Rawlings, partner Gillian Welch and the rest of the Machine, possessed an easygoing command of their repertoire – whether it was through the Dylan-esque songs played from his first two albums (“A Friend of a Friend” and “Nashville Obsolete”) or the more old world folk fortitude of the “Almanck” material. As such, there was a quiet, loose introspection to some of the more delicate tunes (the parlor-ready “Lindsey Button” from the new record) and a jamboree flavored drive to feistier works (“To Be Young” from “A Friend of a Friend”).

Though he was all smiles throughout the concert, Rawlings proved a keen guitarist capable of whipping up a quick-picking frenzy on songs like “Ruby.” But he also designed less obvious patterns that supplemented the roots-directed turns in the “Almanack” tunes – in particular, the sleepy guitar line that wound its way into “Yup,” a slow poke-paced saga of an old woman’s whimsical defeat of the devil.

There was plenty of fire power in the rest of the Machine ranks, too. Old Crow Medicine Show alum Willie Watson was the evening’s utility man, playing guitar, fiddle, banjo and – “as of a few hours ago,” as Rawlings put it – bongos. He also previewed a rustic take on the gospel/blues chestnut “Samson and Delilah” that will appear on his next album. Likewise Brittany Haas added all manner of muscular solos and lyrical runs throughout the show on fiddle.

Then there was Welch, a perhaps bigger marquee name than Rawlings, who was content to play co-pilot for much of the program, adding earnest harmonies to “Midnight Train” (the most infectious and immediate of the eight songs played from “Almanack”) and a set closing cover Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately.” She briefly took the wheel for a pair of regally reserved nuggets from her 2003 album “Soul Journey” – “Back in Time” and “Look at Miss Ohio.”

The evening’s highlight, though, clearly belonged to Rawlings. In the midst of an understatedly solemn performance of the “A Friend of a Friend” gem “I Hear Them All,” he took a rapid, dramatic turn into “This Land is Your Land” complete with the infamous “No Trespassing” verse.

If ever there was a time for such an iconic folk statement to be reinstated into the modern music lexicon, it’s now. If ever there was a more unassuming but fitting artist to oversee such reclamation, it’s Rawlings.

 

robert cray gets the royal treatment

robert cray at royal studio in memphis. photo by ronnie booze

When you’re a Grammy winning bluesman that has rubbed shoulders and shared songs with the rock and soul elite for over three decades, what territories are left to be won? For Robert Cray, such turf revealed itself in Memphis at the famed recording studio with a sense of legend and prestige that is embodied in its name.

Royal.

Under the direction of producer Willie Mitchell, such R&B giants as Solomon Burke, Bobby Blue Bland and Ann Peebles and recorded some of their most cherished music at Royal. This was also where Al Green cut his vanguard ‘70s hits for the Hi Records label. But rock ‘n’ rollers found a home there, too, with John Mayer, My Morning Jacket and Rod Stewart having also made music at Royal.

Even though Mitchell died in 2010, the studio never slowed down. In fact, two members of the its famed Hi Rhythm Section, organist Charles Hodges and his bassist brother Leroy Hodges, still record there with Mitchell’s family overseeing ongoing operation of Royal. The mix of history and ongoing vitality prompted drummer/producer Steve Jordan to suggest Royal Studios for his newest recording project with Cray.

“While we knew we were going to do another record together, Steve and I had different ideas of what we wanted to do. Then all of a sudden, he sent me an email saying, ‘I got it. ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm.’ We’ll record at Royal. So I’m like, ‘Okay. Fantastic.’

“From the moment when you walk in at Royal, you see pictures of Willie Mitchell, you see pictures of Al Green, you see pictures of people like Ann Peebles and you just go, ‘This is where the magic was made.’ It puts you in that mood, plus you’re playing with the same players that made that music. It was great.”

The resulting record – titled, as promised, ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm’ – may have employed the Hodges brothers, their keyboardist cousin Archie “Hubbie” Turner and Jordan – in place of the longstanding Robert Cray Band, but the vintage-flavored music they created played out as naturally as it did on many of the guitarist’s previous albums. The mix of soul and blues remains unchanged. “The stories with both are the same,” Cray said. “It’s just that the delivery is a little bit different.” But the repertoire is made more expansive with songs by Bill Withers (the churchy, orchestral album opener “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”), The 5 Royales (the two part soul scorcher “I’m With You,” the conclusion of which lets Cray loose on a jubilant guitar solo) and a trio of original tunes that fit in easily with the record’s retro feel (“Just How Low,” “You Had My Heart” and “The Way We Are”).

But among the highlights are two songs by Tony Joe White (“Aspen, Colorado” and “Don’t Steal My Love”) that feature the esteemed Louisiana guitarist and song stylist sitting in.

“He is just the coolest cat in the world,” Cray said of White. “He’s so casual and nonchalant, but he really wanted to be at the sessions. It was great for us to have had the opportunity to work with Tony Joe. He’s so cool.”

One of the many greats to have recorded at Royal was Chuck Berry. The rock forefather, who died a month before ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm’ was released in April, figured prominently in the guitarist’d career. Cray and Jordan were among the artists featured in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 concert documentary celebrating Berry’s music, ‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ The guest list included Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Walsh and an artist especially intrigued by the new blues music Cray was just starting to get noticed for – Keith Richards.

“You see, ‘Strong Persuader’ (Cray’s Grammy winning 1986 breakthrough album) hadn’t even been released yet when we did these shows. So we had our meeting in Keith’s hotel room and there is this cassette player on the mantle. I looked at it and saw a tape in there with the handwritten title ‘Strong Persuader.’ I said, ‘Where did you get this?’ Keith went, ‘I’m a Rolling Stone. I’ve got everything.’ That broke the ice.

“I was the new kid on the block back then. I could do no wrong. Chuck was like, ‘Robert, let’s have coffee.’ He was the nicest man in the world to me.”

The Robert Cray Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets: $40-$65. Call 502-352-7469 or go to grandtheatrefrankfort.org.

in performance: chick corea electric band/bela fleck and the flecktones

bela fleck and chick corea.

This may have just been my favorite sound of the summer – an acoustic duet last night at the PNC Pavilion between pianist Chick Corea and banjo star Bela Fleck complimented by the usual seasonal chorus of crickets and other harmonious outdoor varmints.

Here’s the thing, though. While the two have toured as acoustic duo several times, this playful duet of grassy mischief, classically inclined skirmishes and jazzy spontaneity titled “Juno” (after Fleck’s son, who bounded onstage earlier in the performance) was a brief dessert following a full two course evening featuring the musicians’ separate, amplified bands.

Fleck’s longrunning Flecktones, an ensemble that continues to use the banjoist’s bluegrass and new grass experiments of the early ‘80s as a collective springboard for a contemporary sound that reaches deep into jazz fusion and funk, opened the evening. Working with its original lineup (Fleck, pianist/harmonica stylist Howard Levy, bassist Victor Wooten and percussionist Future Man), the quartet opened with an unassuming but spacious reading of “Big Country,” which stretched a light, Celtic flavored melody over a foundation rooted in Wooten’s fretless, 5-string bass work.

While Fleck was the leader, the Flecktones remained a democracy onstage, as shown in the way the ensemble drive of “Blu-Bop” briefly decelerated into a blues interlude before getting tossed back into the fast lane. But Fleck did offer the set’s most quietly emotive moment, a solo banjo variation of “Wichita Lineman” performed as a tribute to country colossus Glen Campbell, who died last week.

Corea, at age 76, fronted another reunion of his ‘80s/early ‘90s fusion troupe, unceremoniously dubbed the Elektric Band. Age has been kind to this outfit, though. Likewise performing with its original lineup (Corea, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Dave Weckl, guitarist Frank Gambale and saxophonist Eric Marienthal), the group revealed a matured ensemble drive that was, frankly, more intriguing than the considerable stage time it devoted to individual solos. Cases in point: the elegant band rattle of “Trance Dance” that placed Corea on Rhodes-style keyboards instead the acoustic piano lead established on the tune’s original version from 1988’s “Eye of the Beholder” album. Equally arresting was the hearty swing and trio interplay created between the bandleader, Patitucci and Weckl during Jimmy Heath’s “CTA.”

A finale encore of “The Message” brought both bands together for a jam emceed by Wooten that was essentially a tradeoff of solos. Some sounded unexpectedly complimentary (like a Levy harmonica break that played off an alto sax run by Marienthal), but the vibe is what sold the party, the pairing of one band led by a jazz fusion giant with another fronted by one of his most learned disciples. There was much rejoicing.

 

glen campbell, 1936-2017

A March 1970 photo of singer Glen Campbell. (AP Photo/fls).

My first lasting memory of Glen Campbell was on television. There, on Sunday evenings during the turbulent summer of 1968 where ‘The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour” usually aired, was a seasonal replacement variety series called “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.” It was safer than the Smothers show, to be sure, and made very sure it capitalized on the country geniality Campbell wore proudly and naturally throughout his career.

Being 10 years old, I knew nothing of the accomplishments Campbell had already chalked up – his reputation as a master guitar picker, his agility as a song interpreter and especially the unexpected roles he had already been called upon to play (like replacing a ravaged Brian Wilson on tour with the Beach Boys). What I viewed on TV was an entertainer, pure and simple.

That’s likely what most of America saw, too – an artist merging country and pop in a way no one before or, in my estimation, after, ever did. Sure, Johnny Cash took to the airwaves with a more seriously music-driven and artistically savvy TV show a year later. But Campbell was a country artist the country could bank on at a time when social and political turmoil was even more inescapable than it is now.

After a few years passed and a sense of personal appreciation for popular music heightened, Campbell’s gifts began to reveal themselves. That meant, of course, dissecting three of his most familiar hits – “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Galveston.” All three were masterfully crafted, from Jimmy Webb’s compositional detail to the exquisitely orchestrated arrangements that made the songs sound cinematic to the unforced emotive vocal drama Campbell brought to the music.

For my money, Campbell only came close to rekindling the elegance of those songs once. That was with his almost conversational 1977 version of Allen Toussaint’s sublime “Southern Nights.” Toussaint made the sound like a meditation. Campbell streamlined it in a way any keen minded country artist would. I still favor Toussaint’s treatment. But Campbell’s version was inescapably accessible, plus it but a put a few well-earned royalty checks in Toussaint’s mailbox. There’s another gold star in Campbell’s favor.

I parted way with his music after that, which was when Campbell’s celebrity status became tabloid fodder. And while I can appreciate the public fight he put up against the cruelties of Alzheimer’s in his final years, I questioned the choice of family and promoters in having him perform in such an unavoidably diminished and compromised condition.

I glanced back last night at a review I wrote of Campbell’s November 2012 concert at the Opera House, when his illness was noticeably advancing. This was the opening paragraph: “A patron beside me Tuesday night as we were leaving the Opera House summed up the Glen Campbell performance that had just ended with a remark that was more like a sigh of relief than an exaltation of praise – ‘Well, that wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.’”

That wasn’t the parting shot I suspect anyone wanted. Best instead to remember Campbell for the Good Time Hours, the era when the Wichita Lineman was still very much on the line.

in performance: graham nash

graham nash.

In prefacing a version of perhaps his most famously trippy song “Cathedral” last night at the Opera House, Graham Nash detailed a journey to Stonehenge during the early 1970s unapologetically fueled by the intake of LSD. The crowd, abundantly populated by patrons of a likewise vintage, laughed along as if the veteran songsmith was telling a joke. He wasn’t.

“Hey, I’m not advocating anything,” Nash said of the recreational indulgences of his youth. Such was the degree of nostalgia behind this two hour program. The feel was underscored further when Nash delivered the tune with an earthy, full blown drama constructed around only the slide guitar accompaniment and harmony vocals of Shane Fontayne, his own piano stride and a vocal lead that soared with the kind of high tenor detail one might not readily expect out of a 75 year old rock/folk journeyman.

But vitality was prevalent throughout the concert. Granted, the show-opening “Bus Stop,” the evening’s only nod to Nash’s mid ‘60s Brit pop tenure with The Hollies, may have sounded a touch light and tentative. But a sense of tenacity soon revealed itself in both the narrative vigor within such reflective new songs as “Myself at Last,” (a gentle but affirming ballad with Nash and Fontayne on acoustic guitars) as well as in the ageless vehemence of “Immigration Man,” a 1972 favorite written in the aftermath of Nash’s long ago tribulations at the Canadian border that still sound uncomfortably current.

The repertoire ran the course of favorites and obscurities from every permutation of the famed CSNY quartet that helped define Nash’s popularity over four decades ago. There were tunes from early solo albums (1971’s “I Used to Be a King,” dubbed as the evening’s “first breakup song”); duo records with David Crosby (the completely unexpected excavation of 1976’s plaintive “Taken at All”); the early Crosby, (Stephen) Stills and Nash era (light, summery readings of “Marrakesh Express” and “Lady of the Island”); and the full embattled collective of Crosby, Stills, Nash & (Neil) Young (the still emotive sing-a-long of domestic bliss, “Our House”).

Fontayne proved a very resourceful foil for the journey, adding a keen electric jolt to the best of the newer works from Nash’s 2016 album “This Path Tonight” (in particular, the Levon Helm tribute “Back Home”), building an airy but resilient acoustic foundation under Nash’s high end harmonies during a cover of the Beatles classic “Blackbird” and designing a suitably country-esque guitar dressing for the finale of “Teach Your Children” that respectfully mimicked the pedal steel lead Jerry Garcia designed on the song’s original 1970 version.

Age-defying vocals? Songs new and old that still serve as testaments to a rock giant’s continued artistic worth? A mix of performance ease and artistic urgency? Now there’s a mix worth advocating.

 


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