Archive for January, 2018

grammy post mortem 2018

U2 performing by the Hudson River during last night’s Grammy Awards telecast. Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images.

The young celebs dressed up and relished stardom, but with U2 singing on the Hudson, Emmylou Harris eulogizing Tom Petty with Chris Stapleton and Patti LuPone again showing Broadway who’s boss, last night Grammy Awards ceremony largely belonged to the vets.

Our annual Grammy post mortem focuses, with only a few exceptions, on the broadcast’s parade of live performances. Frankly, outside of Stapleton’s win for Best Country Album, none of the actual awards really mattered. Here’s what I experienced from the couch:

+ Kendrick Lamar: The show opening “XXX” sported a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by U2 and askew commentary by Dave Chappelle for an unsettling snapshot of the times. Far more moving, though, was Lamar’s acceptance speech later in the program for winning Best Rap Album – a gleeful acknowledgement of inspiration over material reward.

+ Lady Gaga: A stoic, sobering reading of “Joanne” and “Million Reasons” with producer/guitarist Mark Ronson as prime accompanist.

+ Tony Bennett and John Legend: From the presenters’ podium, the cross generational singers celebrated with a verse of “New York, New York” before presenting Best Rap/Sung performance to Lamar and Rihanna for “Loyalty.”

+ Little Big Town: The Taylor Swift-penned “Better Man” is a fairly routine country-pop confection, but vocalist Karen Fairchild made the tune her own.

+ Best New Artist: Alessia Cara won out of the dullest pack of nominees for this category in decades.

+ Jon Batiste and Gary Clark Jr.: The duo gave the Grammys some serious schooling in the essentials by honoring Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in a medley of “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Maybellene

+ Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee: The monster Latin hit “Despacito” became a dance party bathed in pink and blue neon. Bored me silly, but fans that streamed the song 10 million times last year undoubtedly hold a different opinion.

+ Childish Gambino: The hit “Terrified” worked nicely as a slice of after hours R&B led by Gambino and JD McCrary doing battle in the vocal stratosphere.

+ Pink: A simple, dressed-down delivery of “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” that properly placed the operatic clarity of Pink’s singing front and center.

+ James Corden, Sting and Shaggy: The three teamed for a New York version of Car Pool Karaoke only to be ridiculed by everyone in the subway. “Whose stupid idea was this?” muttered Sting, eyeing Grammy host Corden. Hysterical.

+ Bruno Mars and Cardi B: Pity anyone who shares the stage with the tireless Mr. Mars. All the finesse in this athletic take on “Finesse” belonged to him alone.

+ Sting and Shaggy: A reggae-fied “Englishman in New York” nicely celebrated the Grammys’ return to the Big Apple with Shaggy’s “Don’t Make Me Wait” as a somewhat ragged bonus.

+ Rihanna, DJ Khaled, Bryson Tiller: In presenting the generic party piece “Wild Thoughts,” DJ Khaled proved himself the most intrusive and disposable performer of the night.

+ Best Country Album: Chris Stapleton’s “From a Room, Vol. 1” was the only sensible choice, but that didn’t mean the Grammys could have muffed it and awarded Kenny Chesney instead. To everyone’s great fortune, that didn’t happen. Kentucky country ruled.

+ Maren Morris, Eric Church and Brothers Osborne: A country alliance paying tribute to those who died in concert shootings/bombings in Las Vegas and Manchester. Very well intentioned, but the vocal blend was a train wreck. So this is what Nashville sounds like without autotuning? Yikes.

+ Kesha: An affirmation of identity and independence laced with thunderous retribution, “Praying” was brought to potent, elegiac life with the sisterly help of an all-star chorus.

+ U2 : Performing “Get Out of Your Own Way” by the Hudson River with the Statue of Liberty towering over them, the Irish band, bundled in winter garb like they were 35 years ago for the “New Year’s Day” video, championed the Dreamers. Still relevant after all these years.

+ Elton John and Miley Cyrus: A gruff, cross generational performance of one of Sir Elton’s greatest works, “Tiny Dancer.” Serviceable.

+ Patti LuPone: Here’s your freakin’ Grammy moment – LuPone, at 68, belting out “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” with a vigor, grace and drama that should have dropped the jaws of every other performer at Madison Square Garden last night. Poor Ben Platt. The “Dear Evan Hansen” star’s take on “Somewhere,” the first part of a Broadway tribute, was dwarfed.

+ Sza: Not getting it. A perfunctory performance of “Broken Clocks,” which was already an unremarkable pop-soul exercise to begin with.

+ Record of the Year: Bruno Mars for ‘24 K Magic.’ We’re now three hours into the ceremony, so forgive me for being underwhelmed.

+ Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris: Two solid-as-oak country spirits singing Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” to preface the “In Memoriam” tribute. Two guitars, two voices. Nothing else needed.

+ Logic: His suicide prevention prayer “1-800-273-8255” came out of “In Memoriam” as a photo of Chester Bennington loomed over a stark stage. Point made.

+ Album of the Year: Bruno Mars again for ‘24 K Magic.’ A gracious acceptance, a powerhouse artist, a big so-what of a win. And at three hours and 34 minutes, that’s a wrap.

in performance: anteloper/josh berman

josh berman.

Outside the Spotlight quietly celebrated its 15th anniversary last night with a double bill performance at the Farish Theatre that showcased two disparate – and, at times, almost conflicting – versions of the improvisational music scope that has long been the thrust of the concert series.

First up was a sublime solo cornet set by Josh Abrams. For roughly 45 minutes, the Chicago instrumentalist and composer offered a striking sampler of tunes (most of which came from his 2015 album “A Dance and a Hop”) that underscored a fascinating balance between blues and bop related compositional lines and free improvisation. Distinguishing works like “Hang Ups” and “Time” was a rich, lyrical tone that often darkened and expanded as it stretched into appealing, atmospheric registers before softening as resulting phrases splintered upon re-entry.

There were times Berman added punctured honks of airy resonance and an instance where a small, thin sheet of metal was held to the bell of the horn to create a rippling, percussive effect. Mostly though, what was most arresting was the subtle immediacy of the performance. Berman was clearly working without any preconceived playbook of solos and ideas. His improvisations, though assured, were wonderfully complete and spontaneous reactions to the tunes’ fully composed sections. The audience responded with a level of studious quiet so sustained that the mere taps of Berman’s fingers on the horn could be heard as he played.

A second set by trumpeter Jaimie Branch and Jason Nazary – billed collectively as Anteloper – was considerably more problematic as both artists doubled on analog electronics that weighed down their performance almost from the onset.

Branch is a gifted improviser on the horn, but with the exception of a few brief instances late in the duo’s hour-long set, she offered only fractured trumpet phrases repeated over the electronics with minimal variance. Ditto for Nazary, whose workmanlike playing revolved around succesive rhythms that gave little insight into any kind of soloing demeanor. There was an allure to some of the more sinuously textured moments the two created. But with a single, uncredited piece taking up the entire hour, the electronic ambience of the music became burdensome and static.

in performance: alan jackson/lauren alaina

Alan Jackson performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

“I’ve come here to play you some real country music.”

Those were the rather comforting words Alan Jackson used to greet a crowd of 9,500 last night at Rupp Arena. But the veteran Georgia-born hitmaker didn’t exactly have to stretch his stylistic reputation to keep his promise. The just-shy-of-two hour set offered a confident, no frills and, at times, astonishingly laid back grab bag of ballads, shuffles and non-threatening party pieces. All were set to the lead of unassuming and conversational tenor vocals that have aged quite nicely over the nearly three decades Jackson has been sending songs up the charts. Ditto for his band, the Strayhorns, a troupe of quiet instrumental scholars with remarkable picking skills and an even a greater sense of taste in knowing when and when not to show them off.

What distinguished the performance from the dozen or so other times Jackson has played Rupp since his debut there as an opening act for Randy Travis in 1991 (all subsequent visits have been as a headliner) was how much the country music environment has shifted around him. With the touring retirement of George Strait, Jackson is now the genre’s reigning elder traditionalist. But the crown hardly sits heavy on him. From the assured swagger of the show-opening “Gone Country” to the sit-down solemnity of “Here in the Real World” to the easygoing sentimentalism of “Remember When,” Jackson dispensed songs with simple, unaffected candor and a host of between song stories that came across convincingly as back porch confessions of sorts.

Sometimes the music heated up, as in a nicely electric take of “Summertime Blues” keenly timed to counter winter doldrums. In other instances, it moved with pure honky tonk flair, as typified by the still sterling drive of “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.” Curiously, one of the biggest delights was a brand new tune, a sagely bit of reflection titled “The Older I Get” that Jackson performed for the first time last night. In less practiced hands, the song would have been dowsed in angst-heavy pathos. Jackson, however, performed it with a cool but very knowing assertiveness, making the work a striking new snapshot in his real world country canon.

Lauren Alaina opened last night’s Rupp show.

From stylistic standpoint, show opener Lauren Alaina sounded like she came from another galaxy. The 23 year old singer understandably favored a far more contemporary slant to her songs, most of which she wrote or co-wrote. Musically, a frequent coupling of electric banjo and loop-style percussion grooves underscored her songs. But what drove everything was a turbo-charge vocal wail that rather cleanly ignited songs like “Georgia Peaches,” “Next Boyfriend” and the self-image anthem “Road Less Taken.” The latter threw the career of this one-time “American Idol” runner up into overdrive last year.

But the show stopper was “Three,” a reflection of childhood aspirations dashed and realized. More specifically, it was Alaina’s honestly emotive introduction to the tune that sparked the set. The audience nicely kept her in check, however. Prior to shedding a few tears, she explained she had recently learned to play piano for when she performed the song. That triggered a good natured and very audible wisecrack from the audience – “So don’t screw it up.” That defused the drama, sent the singer into a fit of laughter and cemented a rather arresting moment within a very earnest set.

summer’s coming: forecastle announces initial 2018 lineup

What better way to inject some warmth into the teen temps of a winter day than to dream of summer. This morning’s announcement of the preliminary lineup for the 2018 Forecastle lineup did just that with Chris Stapleton, Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse headlining the charge.

Forecastle has always offered an impressive and diverse make-up of music through the years, one that often gets augmented by announcements of appealing support acts in the months leading up to the festival (which, this summer, runs July 13 through 15). But it’s tough to recall a lineup that was this strong right out of the starting gate.

Sure, many of the artists have extensive performance histories in Louisville – including Kentucky country/soul traditionalist Chris Stapleton (who played a show on Forecastle’s stomping ground at Waterfront Park last fall) and Arcade Fire (who played there in 2007, ironically with one of last year’s Forecastle headliners, LCD Soundsystem, as an opener). But when the first name on the bill after the row of headliners is Jason Isbell (who played the Louisville Palace as recently as December), you know your roster is packing dynamite.

Scan just a little further and you will find country upstart Margo Price (who plays a sold out show of her own on Saturday at Headliners Music Hall). Then you have Forecastle returnees like The War on Drugs, Jenny Lewis and Louisville’s own Houndmouth fortifying the fun.

Outside of the Louisville connections, it will be interesting to see (especially since the actual performance schedule hasn’t been released) if two pairs of acts that have collaborated on past projects will cross paths during their Forecastle stays. Specifically, we’re referring to Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, who released the way cool duo album “Lotta Sea Lice” in October, along with Punch Brothers and I’m With Her, the progressive string troupes that spent last summer together on the American Acoustic tour.

Add in T-Pain, Father John Misty, Lucero, (Dan) Tyminski and about three dozen other already confirmed acts and you have the makings of one of the hottest Forecastles ever. That new alone should add a little July to your January.

Tickets go on sale for Forecastle at 10 a.m. Jan. 19 through and


in performance: the lexington philharmonic with byron stripling

byron stripling.

The Lexington Philharmonic spent the final hours of 2017 in glorious disguise. With a guest conductor, a heavily altered instrumental design and an exclusively non-classical program, it operated very much as a jazz orchestra. Given the “Jazz Night” theme promoted for last night’s Opera House performance, that was to be somewhat expected. But instead of a standard pops-style presentation, this was a complete, evening-only makeover.

First off, musical director Scott Terrell yielded the conductor’s podium to Ohio jazzman Byron Stripling, whose boisterous spirit set the mood for the evening the moment he walked onstage. But by juggling duties as vocalist and trumpeter (the first with an operatic, deep and exact tenor; the second with similarly precise and expressive tonality), as well as serving as emcee and, to an extent, raconteur, Stripling’s time at the podium turned out to be somewhat limited.

But this was a very different Philharmonic in operation. By deemphasizing percussion and much of the woodwinds outside of saxophones, the orchestra was dominated by strings and brass with the further unorthodox addition of a piano-bass-drums rhythm section to propel a very purposeful sense of swing. While that obviously changed the entire musical fabric of the orchestra, it didn’t compromise the program’s abundant joy and luster.

Though Stripling, Miche Braden and tap dancer Ted Louis Levy traded off vocal duties, one of the evening’s highlights was when the jazz orchestration was let loose on its own to explore to the gorgeous dynamics within Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” With so much of the performance devoted to Jeff Tyzik-arranged swing classics immortalized by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, hearing the Ellington chestnut’s more subtle beauty nicely showcased the range of the realigned Philharmonic.

Stripling, Braden and Levy all had numerous standout moments. Stripling effortlessly channeled the blues-packed drive of the Calloway signature tune “Minnie the Moocher” while Braden offered a more regal sense of sass with the help of a hearty also saxophone solo from veteran Lexington jazzman Miles Osland (who played an integral part in the Philharmonic’s jazz transformation throughout the program) on the Bessie Smith/Billie Holiday popularized “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” Levy’s deft tap work also ignited a highly animated take on the Depression Era pick-me-up “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile.”

The vaudeville-style antics and attitude adopted between songs by the three guest artists wore thin at times, but that’s a minor quibble. The jazz age fun summoned by a performance that clearly took the Philharmonic way outside its comfort zone was largely shatterproof. Here’s hoping for another such detour before the next New Year is ushered in.

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