Archive for September, 2017

in performance: noam pikelny

noam pikelny. photo by justin camerer.

Noam Pikelny had his performance philosophy whittled down to an efficient credo that he proudly shared with his audience last night at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville.

“Nobody cares if you play new music when you have no hits.”

With that, the Punch Brother mainstay presented a project of zero commercial familiarity – a solo banjo concert. Well, it was almost one. The sparsely adorned Weisiger stage also included three guitars of various lineage – a six string acoustic (utilized during a intimately rustic version of “The Wreck of the Old 97”), a Telecaster (plucked with tastefully vintage country electricity on “My Tears Don’t Show”) and an oddly shaped 1928 plectrum guitar (whose four strings provided the Josh Ritter murder ballad mash-up “Folk Bloodbath” and the Pikelny original “The Great Falls” with a hybrid voice echoing steel guitar as well as banjo).

Everything else, though, was Pikelny, his whispery, old world baritone of a singing voice (which he tagged as “funerary”) and solo banjo tunes that were embracing bluegrass tradition one moment and gleefully fleeing from all expectations associated with it the next.

The show opening “Waveland,” for instance, unfolded with hummingbird like speed, lightness and agility while “Sugar Maple” operated with more patiently paced momentum, equal delicacy and a dash of folkish fancy. Even the most deep seeded songs of bluegrass ancestry went through multiple stylistic rebirths, as with a medley of three tunes (“Mississippi Waltz,” “Ashland Breakdown” and “Jerusalem Ridge”) from 2013’s “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” – a record that offered banjo reconstructions of fiddler Baker’s original variations of mandolinist (and longtime employer) Monroe’s compositions. Baker made Monroe’s music often swing with jazz-like flexibility. While Pikelny’s versions last night restored some of the bluegrass luster, the solo setting (unlike the record’s quintet lineup) also revealed a starkness more clearly approximating the blues.

One could go on at length about the scholarly technique and sense of invention Pikelny put on very unassuming display. Half the magic of last night’s show, though, was the way the music was presented. Pikelny’s possessed a wry but engaging sense of humor which heightened the accessibility level of a concert that could have easily, for all of its honorable artistic intent, seemed foreign or even abstract to unsuspecting listeners. Instead, a set closing cover of Roger Miller’s “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll be a Long Time Gone)” came with purposely indecipherable instructions for an equally improbable sing-a-long of a warp speed chorus. “Oh, this is going to be good,” he said in anticipation of the vocal train wreck to come. The banjoist also shared a hysterical account of a Grand Ole Opry performance centering on the potential mispronunciation of his name by host Roy Clark. Instead, the country veteran introduced champion fiddler (and Pikelny’s duet partner) Stuart Duncan as Cisco Kid actor Duncan Renaldo.

Best of all was a hapless explanation of how Pikelny’s moonlighting projects from Punch Brothers have involved successively smaller ensembles, resulting in his current unaccompanied performance status. He then joked the only logical follow-up would be “an avant garde evening of silence.”

“Get your tickets now. That one will be over in the big hall.”

in performance: blessed union of souls

Blessid Union of Souls. From left, Chris Arduser, David Lessing, Eliot Sloan, Brian Lovely and Dave Ramos.

“It’s a beautiful night for a show,” admitted Eliot Sloan a few songs into Blessid Union of Souls’ sleek and exuberant headlining set last night at the Christ the King Oktoberfest. No argument. With the rains of the week having dissipated and the beer gardens and bingo tents doing especially brisk business, the Cincinnati band settled into a 90 minute set focused squarely on the soul bravado of Sloan’s singing and his band’s efficient brand of power pop and retro-hued rock.

“Retro” was the operative but perhaps not obvious word for the performance. Blessid Union of Souls’ popularity can be traced to a pair of ‘90s radio hits – “I Believe” and “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me for Me)” – from the Blessid Union of Souls’ first and third albums (1994’s “Home” and 1999’s “Walking Off the Buzz”). That era of commercial pop – defined by songs strong on sentiment, affirmation and frequent bursts of hook-heavy melodies – largely spoke to the base of operations Sloan and company operated from for much of the 90 minute set.

The show opening “Oh Virginia,” for instance, let Sloan’s tireless stage demeanor sell those traits through bursts of crisp, churchy sounding pop. Admittedly, the singer had help by way of two veterans of the Cincy pop wars – drummer Chris Arduser and guitarist Brian Lovely – who injected the tune, as well as the music that followed, with a strong, efficient drive.

So resolute was Blessid Union of Souls’ devotion to ‘90s pop that even the set’s plentiful of level cover tunes reflecting a jukebox level of familiarity (meaning hits by U2, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, The Beatles and more) largely wound up sounding like post grunge radio fare. It was all efficiently executed, but a little, well, safe sounding.

This devotion to pop past’s also extended to the band’s treatment of its own songs, even to the point of sandwiching “Hey Leonardo” in the middle of a cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

It was all good natured, enough. Sloan consistently sounded strong and it was great having an ace like Arduser back on Lexington soil again. His explosive rhythmic turns on “Girl I’ve Been Telling You About,” in fact, were the highlight of the show. But after a closing cover of “Pride (in the Name of Love),” the crowd enthusiasm didn’t dissipate. That’s because the bingo tent has just crowned another winner.

Church bingo and rock ‘n’ roll. After all these years of Oktoberfest, that’s a combo platter that still astounds.


in performance: blind boys of alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left: Joey Williams, Ben Moore, Jimmy Carter, Ricky McKinnie and Paul Beasley.

The sagely jubilance of the Blind Boys of Alabama was placed on full display within the opening minutes of their performance earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Opening with a version of the 1970 Norman Greenbaum rock radio staple “Spirit in the Sky,” the group’s four-man front line sat stoically in matching tan suits and shades. One by one, they stood with only singer Ricky McKennie remaining seated and silent as the song’s sense of Southern fried salvation was conjured. Then, at the midway point, McKennie surrendered to the music by standing and swaying like a sudden convert to a brand of traditional gospel channeled through some very secular electricity. If you came to the theatre with any Monday blues, they were immediately washed away by this inviting blast of Sunday morning soul.

This was pretty much business as usual for the Blind Boys, but that didn’t make the eight songs performed for the WoodSongs taping seem any less striking. As always, it wasn’t just the group’s immovable sense of faith that fueled its sense of scholarly performance fervency, but the agelessly subtle vigor with which they delivered it.

Co-founder Jimmy Carter again personified that attitude. At age 85, he delivered the remarkably candid and autobiographically inclined title song to the Blind Boys’ new “Almost Home” album, a tune fashioned by the great contemporary Southern songsmith Randall Bramblett out of interviews with Carter and the group’s largely retired co-founder Clarence Fountain. It grew out of stark piano accompaniment with a storyline born out personal blues but ignited by faith.

Similarly, the John Leventhal/Marc Cohn composition “God Knows Everything” began with the elder vocal reflections of Ben Moore but eventually wound its way through to the more youthful falsetto of Paul Beasley for a serving of blues-gospel rooted in soulful grace and reserve.

Covers of “People Get Ready,” “Down by the Riverside” (performed as an encore with 15 year old Lexington singer Makayla Brown) and the group’s signature realignment of “Amazing Grace” set to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun” played more to the stylistic sense of adventure that initiated the Blind Boys global following and Grammy-winning popularity back in 2001. But the attitude didn’t blink last night. Carter and company may have basked in gospel’s confident assuredness, but the audience was very much part of the service. There was plenty of glow to go around.

troy gentry, 1967-2007

montgomery gentry in 2014: eddie montgomery (left) and troy gentry.

You can rewind and review his career. You can reminisce about his formative years, the pre-celebrity era, spent in Lexington. You can even admire the combination of performance stamina and mainstream popularity that kept the band that bore his name popular for close to two decades. But when the parting is so sudden and tragic, the impact of the exit winds up being what – for the moment, at least – sticks with you.

That was the feeling that hit when I got a call late yesterday afternoon that started with the three words you don’t want to hear in lieu of hello.

“Have you heard…”

That’s when the news began to quickly spread about the New Jersey helicopter crash that took the life of Troy Gentry, the Lexington born half of Montgomery Gentry. Gentry had long ago relocated to Nashville, but for most any Lexington country music fan, he will always be a local hero. It was here that he played weekends at the Austin City Saloon with siblings John Michael and Eddie Montgomery. When John Michael’s career took off in the early 1990s, Gentry reteamed with Eddie and forged a duo act through steady gigging at the Tates Creek Centre nightspot known as The Grapevine. By 1998, Montgomery Gentry was formed, signed and on its way to stardom.

At the height of the duo’s commercial popularity, around the time its third and fourth albums – 2002’s “My Town” and 2004’s “You Do Your Thing” – were nearing platinum status, Montgomery Gentry became a regular at Rupp Arena. One could only imagine the sense of accomplishment that must have come from singing the hit title tune to “My Town” in the big house of their hometown first at a show opener for Kenny Chesney and then as headliner for several New Year’s Eve performances.

Blending Southern rock inspiration with ample country bravado, Montgomery Gentry relished its role as a leading Central Kentuckv voice for contemporary country music. While the hits began to get sparser in recent years and the returns to their hometown became less frequent, the two never lost their popularity as a national touring act or as a local success saga.

“Playing the clubs then, you had The Greg Austin Band, Doug Breeding, Larry Redmon,” Gentry said told me in a 2014 interview of his early club dates with the Montgomery brothers. “Lexington was booming with live music. On the weekends you weren’t working or in between breaks on nights that you were, you would try and zip over to one of the other clubs and check out some of the other music.

“Then John Michael was discovered. But what was really fascinating was the fact that Eddie and I kept playing together. We were fortunate enough that we had something unique and different that Nashville heard about. So it’s pretty cool that we all played together in one band, split up and still make a career out of doing what we love to do.”

labor day at willie’s: doin’ for houston benefit

Have no plans for Labor Day? Then spend the afternoon and evening at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Dr. where a healthy roster of local and regional artists will gather and perform as part of “Doin’ for Houston: A Hurricane Harvey Relief Concert.” The program title tells you everything you need to know about its cause. In short, it’s a grand show of affection and desire to help on the part of the Lexington music community for those coping with the aftermath of one of the most destructive natural disasters in recent memory.

There is no cover charge for the show, but contributions will be accepted. Those donations, along with proceeds from a silent auction and a portion of select food and drink proceeds for the day, will go to benefit the Houston Food Bank.

Here’s the massive lineup.

1:30 p.m.: Chelsea Nolan
2:00 p.m.: Ben Lacy and Bob Bryant
2:30 p.m.: Kevin Holm-Hudson
3:00 p.m.: Bob Shirley
3:30 p.m.: The Compass Roses
4;00 p.m.: Michael Johnathon
4:30 p.m.: Derek Feldman
5:00 p.m.: Emory Joseph, Bob Bryant, Steve DiMartino
5:45 p.m.: RC and The NightShades
6:30 p.m.: George Molton
7:00 p.m.: The Barrows
7:30 p.m.: Southern Biscuit
8:00 p.m.: Warren Byrom
8:30 p.m.: Warren Byrom and Melissa Jackson
9:00 p.m.: Art Mize
9:30 p.m.: Derek Spencer
10:00 p.m.: Danny Dean and The Homewreckers
A concluding jam session will continue until closing time. For more information, call 859-281-1116 or go to


walter becker, 1950-2017

steely dan: donald fagen (left) and walter becker.

The rule of thumb with most great alliances is that there is usually a member of equal, if not higher ranking than the other participants known as the silent partner. The others may serve as the face of the operation, but the silent partner is often the architect, the bank roller or the engine driver. Or all three.

In the great jazz-pop enterprise known as Steely Dan, Walter Becker was the silent partner. Donald Fagen may have been the face of this popular but immensely aloof band. He served as its vocalist, keyboardist and, when the operation went live (which it didn’t for much of its lifespan), frontman. Becker would remain purposely out of the spotlight on guitar or bass knowing his contribution to the music at hand was already complete.

Becker, whose death at age 67 was announced this morning without details or fanfare on his website, was largely viewed as a 50-50 associate with Fagen in the music Steely Dan conjured. Its songs were always credited to the two players, giving the assumption that everything – the askew hipster lyrics, the generous pop slant and an even more devout jazz sensibility that increased with every album the band made between 1972 and 1980 – was a product of mutual consent. We’ll never know to what degree who designed what in the mix. Steely Dan was always as much a band of mystery as it was a purveyor of jazz-pop expression. That it ceased to be a touring quintet in the mid ‘70s and rode out the rest of the decade as a revolving studio collective of which Becker and Fagen were the chieftains only added to the mystique. But it will forever be part of Steely Dan’s fortune that Becker’s role, as deceptively passive as it might have seemed, was touted as prominently as Fagen’s. It was the essence of a classic partnership, and in the pop world, the Steely Dan alliance was as championed as they came.

I freely admit many years passed where I simply couldn’t listen to the band’s records anymore. Steely Dan had become such an overexposed fixture on rock radio (and sometimes beyond) that listener burnout had set in. But earlier this summer, for whatever reason, I dug out the seven initial records Becker and Fagen cut as Steely Dan. Their music sounded beautifully new – and, in many instances, exquisitely weird – all over again. Of course, Becker, wasn’t an obvious presence on the songs themselves. He may have contributed bass or an occasional guitar solo (or, in the case of the title tune to 1980’s “Gaucho” album, both), but his input came in the composition and arrangement process, the assimilation of all those rich jazz references (the wildly dynamic tenor sax and drum battle between Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd on “Aja,” the more tender hearted alto sax solo from Phil Woods on “Doctor Wu” and the masterfully crafted guitar solos Larry Carlton contributed to “Kid Charlemagne” and my very favorite Steely Dan work, “Third World Man”) and the often darkly opaque narratives that would have killed off any lesser pop force.

In Steely Dan, Becker was in the cockpit right alongside Fagen, flying some of the most glorious genre-bending missions the pop world has ever experienced. Happy trails, gaucho.

in performance: red, white and boom – night two

sam hunt performing last night for red, white and boom at whitaker bank ballpark. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

Sam Hunt remarked near the halfway point of his headlining set for Red, White and Boom’s second evening stay at Whitaker Bank Ballpark last night that his Georgia youth was so specific to country music that he “couldn’t have told you the difference between Nirvana and Madonna.”

Inner reply to that: Swell. Another Nashville star with blinders on to the rest of the world. But that didn’t turn out to be the case. After dismissing his band, Hunt settled into a solo acoustic segment that exhibited where detours developed within his influences. He performed snippets of four cover tunes, one each by Alan Jackson (“Don’t Rock the Jukebox”), Travis Tritt (“Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares”), Usher (“Nice and Slow”) and R. Kelly (“Ignition”). The country/R&B connection might not seem surprising to fans introduced to Hunt through his 2014 hit “Take Your Time,” a smoky mash-up of crooning indebted to both genres that was served up with fitting reserve near the end of the 75 minute set. But Hunt didn’t just use the medley as exposition. He backed it up with a wish that the 15,000-plus country fans assembled before him last night be accepting of diversity and strive to be more “culturally integrated.”

Those are two words you aren’t likely to hear together often in any context at a contemporary country concert. They were perhaps even more unexpected given how conventionally cosmopolitan Hunt’s set was up to that point. It relied heavily on a radio-friendly pop sound during the show opening “Leave the Light On,” the domestically themed romp “House Party” and especially his newest dance-directed hit “Body Like a Back Road.” But the message was clear and welcomed. May country artists and audiences alike heed it.

Curiously, the generation Hunt spoke of also made up all of last night’s Red, White and Boom lineup, which is the same roster the singer has been on the road with this summer for his 15 in a 30 Tour (the title references a chorus lyric from “Body Like a Back Road”). Each is an essentially young artist whose respective sets were built around the music of a single album.

ryan follese.

Lead off singer Ryan Follese, who came to country right out of frontman duties for the Nashville pop troupe Hot Chelle Rae (its biggest hit, “Tonight Tonight,” closed the singer’s 35 minute set) possessed a clean, expressive but largely antiseptic voice that dressed songs from a new self-titled debut album. Tunes like “Wilder,” “Roots” and “Put a Label on It” catered nicely to the crisp contours of Follese’s singing, but there was little to distinguish this material or even this performance from the work of numerous similarly designed country-pop merchants.

chris janson.

The exact opposite held true for Chris Janson, a Missouri born songwriter with a lit-fuse level of performance energy and immediacy that ignited his set at once during the opening “Redneck Life” and its credo-like chorus (“I didn’t choose the redneck life, the redneck life chose me”). While one could admire the gusto in such sentiments and execution, Janson didn’t impress much as a vocalist. Maybe it was because he could never stop talking before, after or during songs like “Fix a Drink,” “Everybody” and “Name on It” (which, along with “Redneck Life,” appear on the forthcoming “Everybody” album, due out on Sept. 22). He talked about himself, his wife, his faith, his mood, his stage moves, his somewhat flat ability to tell a joke and more. Maybe focusing some of that stamina on his singing might help.

maren morris.

That left a 45 minute by Maren Morris. Though the Texas songsmith played last year’s Red, White & Boom as a relative unknown, her return last night as an established star revealed little artistic growth. Morris again possessed a pleasing, serviceable vocal profile that reflected a wealth of pop inspirations dating back to the ‘90s. She earned considerable audience reception for her hit “My Church” in the process. But Morris’ set again revolved tightly around her 2016 album “Hero” – so much so that she performed all of the album’s 11 songs (the best being the pop-soul flavored “I Wish I Was”) along with “Greener Pastures” (a more traditionally flavored original tune cut last year by Brothers Osborne) and an attractive but hardly revelatory cover of the John Prince staple “Angel from Montgomery.” All in all, it was a nice summation of the year that made Morris a celebrity. But with a repertoire that was essentially a rerun, it was made one curious as what new music she has in development. Perhaps that was the point.


in performance: chamber music festival of lexington, mainstage concert II

matt ulery.

As last night’s sold out second mainstage concert of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington got down to its main event at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, two musical factions faced each other, seemingly ready for friendly fire. Seated on one side was a string quartet that included the festival’s artistic director Nathan Cole. Standing on the other was the jazz trio Triptych that included composer-in-residence Matt Ulery and artist-in-residence Zach Brock. What resulted was a summit in the form of an extended work from Ulery titled “Become Giant.” And, well, it did.

The composition’s world premiere, the centerpiece event of the festival, was indeed huge in scope – an 11 part, 40 minute assimilation of jazz flexibility and, at times, groove, with the more composed (as in structure, not temperament) design of the strings. At times, the two ensembles stayed true to their respective stylistic bases. At others, they merged almost without notice. They also took turns working as the dominant voicing and, in effect, a backup unit.

The switch-hitter in this set-up was Brock, who gamely bled into the pizzicato chatter that became a theme of sorts for the quartet. But he also helmed longer solo passages, including one striking occasion when he briefly played unaccompanied, that luxuriated in improvisation. There were also snapshots of unexpected symmetry within the groups – specifically, when Ulery, on double bass, and cellist Priscilla Lee locked into an almost bluesy line where both players set bows aside and plucked strings in unison for a rubbery, percussive feel.

Even with Ulery and Brock playing such pivotal roles, the musician driving “Become Giant” was Triptych drummer Jon Deitemyer. As the only non-string player in a combined group of six, he deftly guided the tune though hints of samba-like sway, boppish cool and whispery punctuation to the strings’ sometimes minimalist turns.

In introducing the piece, Ulery told the audience he was reluctant to explain its 11 part construction (“In case anyone was going to count until it’s over”) or overall intent. “We just want to go ahead and play it.” And that they did, in brisk animated fashion, offering a jazz-classical blend restless enough to alter its course at a moment’s notice yet cohesive enough to stand as an engaging and singular music statement.

The first half of the program presented Brock in purely classical mode. He joined Lee, violinist Akiko Tarumoto and violist Burchard Tang for Hayden’s String Quartet No. 4 (“Sunrise”) which glowed in its more pastoral passages as well as through accelerated ensemble gallops.

But the most dramatic performance of the evening belonged to pianist Alessio Bax, who skippered the remarkable dynamics within Faure’s Piano Quartet #2 in G Minor, Opus 45. From the tossed sea sensibility immediately conjured for the opening Allegro movement to the similarly sudden conclusion to the third Adagio non troppo movement that triggered an audible audience gasp a few rows behind me, this was perhaps the most fully realized and openly emotive performance so far in the festival.

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