in performance: moontower music festival

Jake Cinninger of Umphrey’s McGee performing last night at the Moontower Music Festival in Masterson Station Park. All photos by Rich Copley/Lexington Herald-Leader.

Just after 11 last night at Masterson Station Park, a crescent moon hung near the horizon. Mammoth in size and orange in hue, it was perhaps a fitting conclusion to the Moontower Music Festival, which was in its closing moments. But if the image was slightly faint to the eye, it wasn’t because the nearby lights of downtown Lexington were bearing down on it. Rather, it was the blinding stage illumination that lit up the headlining set by Umphrey’s McGee. Imagine the moon was setting on a space age Las Vegas.

The display painted the larger of Moontower’s side-by-side stages with visuals that were as bright, complex and changeable as the songs. From the opening title tune to 2014’s “Similar Skin” album onward, UM constructed a performance built around a series of surprisingly elemental riffs. At times, it began with a lilting reggae rhythm. In other instances, a chunkier and more metal-savvy chord set the tune up. Inevitably, though, what resulted would explode into shards of prog and fusion-style fancy. That meant a jam formula based far more around composition that music forged during the looser, roots-driven days of the Grateful Dead.

A jam erupting out of “Higgins,” for instance, unfolded like a pop glossary of the past three decades with a Van Halen-flavored guitar lick here and a cooler jazz retreat there triggered by drummer Kris Myers and sustained by flourishes of Rhodes-flavored keyboards by Joel Cummins.

“Deeper,” on the other hand, lightened the mood (but not the light show) for a party groove that bordered on funk before hardening into tough, prog-ish guitar and percussion fills that recalled a few of the longer, less commercially driven works of Phil Collins-era Genesis.

Probably the most striking excursion of the set was “Make It Right,” which worked off of riffs and solos hammered out by guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger that worked at an almost respiratory pace. The tune would toughen and accelerate before easing back into more conventional pop song form. But as was the case with much of UM’s performance, the retreat was a ploy. A different groove or breakdown was waiting around the next lyrical corner.

Here are some of the other hits, misses and draws that marked the rest of yesterday’s Moontower Music Festival.

Ronnie McCoury,

+ The Travelin’ McCourys: Arguably the best performance of the day, this set expanded on the bluegrass tradition that distinguishes the group’s alter ego incarnation as the majority of the Del McCoury Band. That meant moving into outlaw country (fiddler Jason Carter’s take on the Waylon Jennings hit “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”) and complete pop reinvention (mandolinist Ronnie McCoury’s lead on a grassy makeover of Nick Lowe’s “I Live on a Battlefield”). Hit.

+ Cherub: In a word – insulting. The Nashville duo of Jordan Kelley and Jason Huber has designed decent enough dance tracks in the studio. Onstage at Moontower, though, the music was all pre-set, pre-recorded or pre-programmed with the artists adding superfluous bits of guitar, bass and percussion and, in general, acting like self-absorbed adolescents. Perhaps fittingly, the gear shut down at one point, leaving the two with a dead stage for nearly five minutes. Miss.

Tyler Childers.

+ Tyler Childers: One can only suppose the Moontower schedule was mapped out without any sense the Eastern Kentucky songsmith and one time Lexingtonian would become a summer sensation with a nationally distributed album (“Purgatory”). How else do you explain cramming the honky tonk ingenuity of songs like “Swear to God” and the ensemble reinvention of Charlie Daniels’ “Trudy” into a 45 minute set in the early afternoon? Hit.

+ Benjamin Booker: It was hard to tell if Booker was having a bad night or if his disjointed performance signaled bigger problems. He possessed a distinctive sound that used retro soul inspiration at the basis for a series of well constructed rock songs like “Wicked Waters” and “Believe.” But the singer let himself get derailed by “guitar issues” and a generally haphazard performance pace. Miss.

+ Todd Snider and the Eastside Bulldogs: Just when you think you’ve had your fill of Snider’s stoner folk songs, out he comes fronting an eight member band with an old school, rock-soul attitude that sounded like a cross between T. Rex and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. The whole riotous mix ignited songs new (“Way and Means”) and old (“Play a Train Song”) alike. Hit.

Big Sam Williams.

+ Big Sam’s Funky Nation: New Orleans trombonist Big Sam Williams is on to something with a fusion of Crescent City street soul and retro funk, and certainly this set had plenty of energy and verve to make the formula work. What it didn’t have was the material. Williams mines ‘80s pop-funk so hard that the set quickly slipped into a predictable rut. One could see the closing cover of the P-Funk staple “Give Up the Funk” coming as soon at the set began. Draw.

+ The Record Company: There was much to enjoy about this Los Angeles trio, especially in the way it threw a rootsy curve ball by way of harmonica and slide-savvy guitar solos from Chris Vos. But the set had a lot of static moments, too. When you have to resort to an electric bass solo four songs into a 45 minute set, then your show is in need of a tune up. Draw.


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