Archive for November, 2017

in performance: henry butler

Henry Butler. Photo by David Richmond.

At several points during his scholarly soulful solo performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville, Henry Butler discussed his driving and prospective piloting prowess with the audience. At one point, he even suggested he might someday move to Kentucky to start a taxi service for inebriated revelers. His reasoning? That drunk customers would neither know nor care he was blind.

Such self-effacing remarks were part of the demeanor for this veteran New Orleans pianist and song stylist, but they were also a collective reflection of something more demonstrative – that the blindness Butler has dealt with since infancy has in no way hindered a performance career that has stretched on for nearly a half century or a level of musicianship that still sounded exact and playful during this 75 minute concert.

Butler’s repertoire through the decades has been far reaching, but the bulk of this performance stayed close to home with roughly half of the program focused on works from, or inspired by, three of his famed New Orleans piano brethren – James Booker, Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint.

From Booker, he developed a left hand stride that syncopated “Les Près Des James” (a Butler penned tribute to Booker) and “Booker Time” with an effervescence that could viewed as a precursor to piano boogie woogie. From one time mentor Longhair, he offered a wild exercise in rhythm within “Tipitina” that employed deceptively nonsense lyrics (“Tipitina, oola malla walla dalla”) to enforce the tune’s immensely animated feel. “If you’re looking for meaning in these lyrics,” Butler said, “chill out.” Finally, from the mighty Toussaint, Booker exacted songcraft in the form of the pop/blues staple “Working in a Coal Mine.”

But there were also moments when Butler, and the striking profile he cast as his long spidery fingers hit the keys, let the music open enough to stroll away from Crescent City. That’s what happened in the show-opening original “Samba C,” which sounded like Chick Corea had his sense of jazz glee been rooted in the South. You also heard it as staples like “In My Solitude” and “Rock Island Line” took sudden dashes in and around their familiar melodies.

The most telling summation of all these traits, however, coalesced in an encore cover of the 1973 Billy Preston hit “Will it Go ‘Round in Circles.” It began as a slow, mournful and wholly unrecognizable blues with Butler’s usually buoyant singing held to a mere whisper. Then the music stopped, shifted gears and re-emerged as the party piece Preston always envisioned it as, but with a proud New Orleans accent Butler can proudly claim as his own.

Such a mash-up exemplified the studious but mischievous adventures that result when Butler takes the wheel.

in performance: st. paul and the broken bones

 

Paul Janeway leads the soul music charge of St. Paul and the Broken Bones last night at the Opera House. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

As last night’s pop-soul parade by St. Paul and the Broken Bones headed for home at the Opera House, singer and frontman Paul Janeway discovered one of the more novel ways to exit and then re-enter the stage. In the midst of the anthemic “Broken Bones and Pocket Change,” the singer, having jettisoned his gold-and-glitter shoes, hit the stage floor and crawled under the drum riser. After a few neatly dispensed verses sung, in effect, in absentia, Janeway rolled back into view, wrapping himself in a stage mat along the way. And there you had one of the more curious concert snapshots in recent memory – an artist belting out a tune with sturdy high tenor detail but looking like he had been swallowed by a roll of carpet.

Admittedly, that was perhaps the most extreme moment in a 100 minute performance that marked the return of the celebrated Alabama band that played some of its first road gigs in Lexington at the old Willie’s Locally Known on North Broadway. But Janeway was an altogether different singer in this return visit, the first of a two night engagement at the Opera House (tonight’s second show is sold out). Gone were the throatier, raspier tones that surfaced when he would exert his voice. On display instead was a richer, cleaner and far more expressive set of pipes that Janeway immediately put to use on the show-opening “Crumbling Light Posts, Pt. 1,” an ambient, but gospel-hued meditation where his vocals rose from a confident high tenor to a very Prince-ly falsetto.

While Janeway and company revisited a few choice favorites from their 2014 debut album “Half the City” (including a buoyant “Grass is Greener,” which emphasized the extent to which the Alabama-bred Broken Bones’ ensemble sound is stylistically rooted in Memphis soul), the performance gave heavy preference to the 2016 sophomore record “Sea of Noise,” a denser, darker work from which the band played 11 compositions.

Among the highlights were the cool, big beat crooner “Brain Matter” (which, oddly enough, used an abridged cover of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” as an intro), the organically funkified “Flow with It (You Got Me Feeling Like)” and the sunnier “Tears in the Diamond.” The latter showcased the most detectable current inspiration in Janeway’s singing, Al Green.

Even with the Broken Bones’ history in Lexington, it is understandable to be wary of an all-white soul band from the South. But Janeway and company were no imitators of an often co-opted musical tradition. The set-closing “Sanctify” and the show-closing encore of “Burning Rome,” both wonderfully paced slow soul pieces, amply borrowed from rockish accents supplied by guitarist Browan Lollar and the vintage R&B orchestration of a three-man horn team.

The results could also be viewed as a vindication of sorts. In a week where Alabama has taken a beating in the headlines for the doings of an altogether different representative, Janeway can be viewed as something of a cultural hero. Come to think of it, he might just be the kind of write-in candidate his home state needs. Everyone says we need new voices in Washington. Well, Alabama, here’s your chance to send one.

in performance: “the gift of a golden voice” – the leonard cohen tribute concert

leonard cohen.

Derek Spencer couldn’t help but comment on the “rowdiness” of the capacity crowd before him at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd for last night’s Leonard Cohen tribute concert titled “The Gift of a Golden Voice.” The joke, of course, is that the audience had greeted the Beattyville native – and all of the baker’s dozen of acts gathered for the event – with attentive quiet. Cohen’s music demanded nothing less.

A joint endeavor between First Presbyterian Church’s Music for Mission series and the ongoing lineup of Soulful Space concerts presented at Good Shepherd, the program was a rich and stylistically far reaching overview of the songs and poetry of the Canadian songsmith who died a year ago this week.

Is a church – any church – a proper setting for Cohen’s songs? Judging at least by the music chosen for this program, one would have to answer in the affirmative. Some of his works chosen were overtly religious, like the title tune to his final album, “You Want it Darker” – a requiem of sorts performed with meditative unrest by Doc Feldman, but countered by stunning high end harmonies of Hebrew verse (and a chorus translated from Hebrew) by Art Shechet. Others, like “The Land of Plenty,” also from “You Want It Darker” and performed with stately assurance by Marilyn Robie and the chamber-folk flavored ensemble Nevi’im, cast religious imagery in less obtainable and more topically sobering terms (“For the millions in a prison that wealth has set apart, for the Christ who has not risen from the caverns of the heart”).

Mostly, though, “The Gift of a Golden Voice” charmed in simpler ways – namely, in how the program showcased how wildly adaptable Cohen music can be. Last night there was a chilled, solo electric version of the classic “Suzanne” from Colin Fleming, a striking “Amen” from Four Leonards (and a Fifth) that grew from Cowboy Junkies-like cool to a roaring blues manifesto and a very intriguing take on “Anthem” by JoAnna James that unlocked the deceptively hushed tone of her singing with a playful string arrangement that eventually relaxed so one of Cohen’s most radiant lyrics could be placed front and center (“There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light get in”).

The only times the program was thrown off balance was when an artist devised an arrangement or delivery that placed their voice above Cohen’s. The Paper Moon Jazz Trio conjured a lively sense of blues based swing that, while technically impressive, proved an ill fit for the uneasy grace inherent to  “Bird on a Wire.” But on “Everybody Knows,” the group’s sense of sleek sass floated along quite naturally with the song’s whimsical doomsday vision (“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed; everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost”).

The evening concluded with a collaborative version of “Hallelujah” – a proclamation not just of faith, but of humanity and lost souls. Hearing the audience sing the tune’s single word title chorus in such a serene setting was undeniably moving. There must have been a crack somewhere in the Good Shepherd walls as the song played out because an ample supply of light found it way in from the cold November night.

in performance: brockowitz (zach brock and phil markowitz)

Phil Markowitz.

Sometimes a title says it all. In the midst of an absorbing duo concert with Lexington-born, New York-based violinist Zach Brock, pianist Phil Markowitz introduced a piece as a kind of “wacky scherzo.” True to form, the tune’s devilish timing fueled music that grew out of playful instrumental dialogues and brief melodic outbursts (usually by Markowitz) before traveling down the harmonic equivalent of a dark alley.

The tune’s title? “Schizo Scherzo.”

Zach Brock.

Truth to tell, the tune’s mischievous spirit dominated the entire 90 minute concert last night at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacobs Niles Gallery and Center for American Music. Over the course of 10 pieces, Brock and Markowitz, who tour under the joint moniker of Brockowitz, engaged in musical conversations that purposely ran off course. The Markowitz original “Ethers,” for instance, may have had been introduced by a light, sly piano solo from its composer, but the work’s overall modernist design often tensed and relaxed with frequent conversational turns by both players. The intriguing thing was, though, that their exchanges weren’t always reactionary. Brock’s entrance on the tune was quiet yet disarming, but in no time, lyrical phrases were just as apt to be met with a hint of dissonance as they were a harmonic phrase that was more expected or complimentary.

Throughout the program, tempos, temperaments and sometimes the very tones of both instruments shifted without provocation. Then again, there were times Brock and Markowitz embraced tradition. The set began and ended with the Duke Ellington standards “Come Sunday” and “In a Sentimental Mood” that respectfully addressed their mutually gorgeous melody lines while deviating into numerous sideroads of blues joy.

Perhaps the most revealing work of the night was Brock’s treatment of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” It wasn’t because the tune has been commonly associated with John Jacob Niles, who the venue at hand was named for (a coincidence, according to the violinist). Instead, the arrangement underscored the varied temperament of the concert with runs that were alternately atmospheric and sunny that consistently illuminated the tune’s rustic folk heritage. It was living proof, that when it came to determining the mixtures of moods distinguishing these two remarkable players, one man’s soulful was another man’s schizo.

in performance: justin moore/dylan scott/ashley mcbryde

Justin Moore onstage last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

The chink in country music’s seemingly indestructible armor was exposed last night at Rupp Arena. Traditionally, a can’t miss hit when it comes to packing in huge crowds, the genre revealed perhaps its only commercial weakness in a triple bill performance headlined by Justin Moore – the fact it was booked on a weeknight. The result was a turnout estimated at barely 3,000. That’s proverbial chicken feed compared to what touring country shows usually rake in locally.

It was also a shame. Moore, one of the few young traditionalists on the arena circuit, turned in a refreshingly direct performance that was no-frills in all ways except for the Pink Floyd-ian lighting effects. His unassuming vocals proved flexible enough to fuel the electric drive of “Backwoods” before later easing into the very natural honky charm of “Kinda Don’t Care” (the title tune to Moore’s most recent album). Even when his program veered into modernistic fare – “Somebody Else Will,” for instance – Moore looked and sounded remarkably at ease.

At the risk of seeming jingoistic, part of Moore’s resourcefulness came from his band, which was bolstered by a pair of home state natives – lead guitarist Roger Coleman (of Pike County) and keyboardist Kory Caudill (of Prestonsburg). Props to Moore for showcasing both in a playful instrumental skirmish that capped off “Kinda Don’t Care.”

Dylan Scott.

Dylan Scott preceded Moore with a comparatively standardized set assisted by a somewhat unusual backing band design – a power trio limited to just guitar, bass and drums.

The Georgia-born singer’s material didn’t score bonus points for originality, from the set-opening “My Town” (not the Montgomery Gentry hit) to the closing “My Girl” (not the Temptations classic). Most of the fare was pop to an almost 1980s-ish degree, which Scott injected with considerable physicality, efficient though hardly remarkable vocals, and a torrent of between-song banter that touched upon what we must assume to be subjects indicative of modern country-pop – specifically, WalMart and Eminem.

Ashley McBride.

Frankly, the most engaging surprise of the evening was show-opener Ashley McBryde, whose thematically far-reaching six-song set examined small town life with weathered picture post card imagery (“Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”) that sometimes morphed into unapologetically dark portraits (as in “Leroy,” which outlined the kind of country cooking that comes not from a kitchen stove, but a meth lab).

Admittedly, this bill didn’t possess the kind of marquee power that many past Rupp shows have, which likely added to the sparse turnout. Regardless, it was a revealing glimpse of three very different artists in a genre too often ruled by stylistic sameness.

in performance: ben folds/tall heights

Ben Folds.

Try this for a novel Halloween encounter. Imagine being at the Opera House around 10:15 last night when a stagehand in a skeleton costume led the audience in a countdown that culminated in a battalion of paper airplanes showering the stage.

Much like the entirety of Ben Folds’ immensely entertaining performance, the resulting effect wasn’t really in keeping with the standard creepiness of the day. Instead, it represented the zenith of a concert that prided itself on audience involvement.

For two hour-long sets, Folds dug into expertly crafted tunes from throughout his career while accompanying himself with piano rolls that reflected, at various intervals, classical mischief, Southern-flavored barrelhouse bravado and, above all, richly versed pop lyricism. But all of that was a collective backdrop for an astonishing artist-audience rapport that was established almost from the instant Folds began the evening with the unassuming pop sway of the title tune to his 2015 album, “So There.”

For the remainder of the first set, Folds fleshed out songs with a piano vocabulary often built around ham fisted slams with his left hand that recalled more than once the very early records of Elton John. In some instances, the songs were allowed to stand on their own, as in the tale of a teen banished to the company of his intoxicated elders in “Uncle Walter.” In others, Folds served as conductor, briefly teaching multiple harmony parts for the audience to sing alongside him, as in the deceptively animated “Bastard.” Then there were the songs the audience knew so well they added remarkably complete backing vocals and responses without being prompted, as on “Landed.” Through it all, Folds proved a merry headmaster whose tireless performance profile was part vaudeville cheerleader and part indie rock upstart.

The curious mix of the two guises hit a crescendo with the set-closing “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” where Folds left the piano to play a drum solo on a kit that was quickly assembled around him by stagehands as he played.

The second set was where the paper airplanes came in. Each one that landed onstage contained a song request from an audience member, an extension of the set’s purposeful spontaneity. Folds didn’t have to stretch much, though, as none of the picks were particularly obscure. But the resulting repertoire presented an even greater sense of dynamics and stylistic breadth than the first set.

The choices ranged from the fragile love song “Luckiest” (one of six tunes performed during both sets from Folds’ 2001 album “Rockin’ the Suburbs”) to the percussive piano romp “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” that leaned heavily on rock ‘n’ roll basics. There was also a tune Folds made up on the spot about attending a horse sale in Lexington with William Shatner that used an unintelligible audience remark shouted from the Opera House balcony as a chorus.

The Boston trio Tall Heights opened the evening (and returned to sing with Folds on the lovely “Still Fighting It”) with a distinctive pop blend built around cello, acoustic guitar, drums and considerable humor. The members also displayed an original sense of Halloween spirit. All three dressed up as Folds for the evening.


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