Archive for February, 2018

in performance: the robert cray band

Robert Cray.

During a very brief tuning break between songs last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, Robert Cray plucked out a chord, took a beat to appraise his work and gave a quick summation of the discovered sound.

“Yeah.”

Then another chord and another slightly more demonstrative judgment.

“Yeah.”

Finally, a more developed lick emerged, full of the tone and lyrical clarity he seemed to be searching for. A louder verdict was reached.

“Yeah.”

A man of few words but many musical expressions – that’s our Cray. As one of the most dependable live acts on the blues and soul circuit, the Grammy winning guitarist and vocalist, along with his long-running band, wasn’t exactly full of surprises. Last night’s 90 minute concert possessed more of the same blues inspired R&B that has long defined both his vocal and guitar work for the last three-plus decades. But Cray was in no way going through roots-informed motions during the show. His playing was clean and precise but never antiseptic or stale in a way so many blues/soul artists can sound after a lifetime on the road.

For instance, during “Two Steps from the End” (the tune the “yeah, yeah, yeahs” led into), Cray’s soloing settled into an almost sinister cool that played off of the equally serene B3 organ orchestration of Dover Weinberg. But on “Move a Mountain” (a wonderful deep track pulled from 1990’s “Midnight Stroll” album), the guitar drive grew more muscular to sustain the tune’s punctuated drive. Then on “You Have My Heart” (one of six tunes performed from 2017’s “Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm,” his newest recording) and “Right Next Door” (a hit off of 1986’s career-making “Strong Persuader”), the guitar sound dipped low, bringing the full band to a luscious, organic fade.

There were similar dynamics to Cray’s singing, which has never received its proper due through the years. On the show opening “I Shiver,’ the 64 year artist effortlessly reached a crisp, high soul tenor. For “I Don’t Care,” he sailed just as readily into a ringing falsetto. The latter was one of several songs (“Fix This” and “Sadder Days” were others) possessing titles and lyrics that suggested a trip to the deeper abyss of the blues. But the music surrounding them was positively sunny, both in Cray’s jubilant guitar leads and the summery soul cast of his vocals.

Guess you really can’t judge a song by its title. Take “Phone Booth,” a 1983 Cray gem served up as one of two encore tunes (the mighty blues opus “Time Makes Two” was the other). The song’s desperate protagonist may have been calling from a phone booth, but none of the familiar fare the real Cray was dispensing last night was being phoned in.

in performance: the earls of leicester/early james and the latest

The Earls of Leicester, from left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales.

During the closing moments of the Earls of Leicester’s sublime bluegrass summit last night the Opera House, banjoist Charlie Cushman stepped to the front microphone to offer a stunning bit of trivia. He stated it was 49 years ago to the evening that bluegrass forefathers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, whose music largely forms the repertoire for the Earls (hence the band name), ended their pioneering musical alliance.

But the six member ensemble, under the direction of dobro colossus and one-time Lexingtonian Jerry Douglas, has made a mission out of rekindling audience interest in Flatt & Scruggs music by recording and performing it with a deftness both artful and playful. Last night, that legacy leapt to vibrant life with the opening strains of “Salty Dog Blues” and didn’t subside until Douglas reprised the famously mad bluegrass dash melody of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on dobro after Cushman had set the tune’s mischievous spirit in motion.

In its most immediate terms, the approach the Earls took to the Flatt & Scruggs catalog was a presentation of scholarly taste. Douglas has long been known as an instrumental thrillseeker. But the musicians surrounding him were no less versed, especially fiddler Johnny Warren, a direct link to Flatt & Scruggs’ famed Foggy Mountain Boys band (where his father, Paul Warren, also played fiddle).

Similarly, Cushman was regularly in the driver’s seat, propelling the jubilant group charge of “Will You Be Lonesome, Too?” while navigating the tricky tuning shifts of “Earl’s Breakdown” with giddy assurance. Then there was guitarist Shawn Camp, whose vocal work underscored the cheer and soulfulness of Flatt & Scruggs’ music, even during devout gospel numbers like “Get in Line Brother.”

But none of this meant the Earls treated the performance as some kind of academic exercise. While the compositional efficiency of  these tunes precluded the sort of monster soloing Douglas reaches for with his more progressive minded projects, a luxurious glimpse was nonetheless revealed when he honored the great Josh Graves, the Foggy Mountain Boys’ dobro ace (and one of Douglas’ prime influences) during the instrumental turns of “Spanish Two Step.”

But perhaps the most moving and purposeful moment came when Douglas, Camp, Warren and mandolinist Jeff White stood around a single mic to sing “Reunion in Heaven,” a Flatt & Scruggs gospel song that dates back to the early 1950s. The Earls sang the tune in December at the funeral of mandolinist Curly Seckler, the last surviving member of the Foggy Mountain Boys. Douglas and his mates did more here that merely offer a tribute. They utilized the bluegrass tradition that defines the Earls’ very existence to provide such extraordinary vintage music with a whole new sense of purpose and place.

A bonus to last night’s program was an opening set that introduced a fine acoustic guitar and upright bass duo from Birmingham, Ala. called Early James and the Latest. The modus operandi here was pure blues – ghostly, rapturous, meditative blues (as shown by the set-opening “Dig to China”) along with merrier, rag-inspired juke joint works (typified by “Taste of Sin” and “Gravy Train”). Both extremes were fleshed out with wiry and often eerie authority through the vocals of guitarist James and orchestrated by the subtle but very complete bass support of Adrian Marmolejos. Keep an eye and ear out for these guys.

just like sister ray said

The Lexington musicians of Sister Ray. Clockwise from left, Robby Cosenza, Sam McWilliams, Willie Eames, Scott Whiddon, Tim Welch and Kim Conlee. Photo by Matt Goins.

Scott Whiddon figures maybe 10 to 15,000 people, in total, saw the Velvet Underground perform, an estimate given credence by the sluggish sales the New York band posted for the four studio albums it released between 1967 and 1970.

But the Velvets – Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and (following Cale’s dismissal) Doug Yule – were cultural icons of the rock underground during its day and an overwhelming artistic inspiration to successive generations of bands that followed in its wake. So it’s hardly surprising the Velvets’ influence also reaches to Lexington.

For the third time in as many years, Whiddon, bassist from the local indie pop troupe Palisades, and a like minded crew of musical pals (guitarist/vocalist Tim Welch, guitarist Willie Eames, drummer Robby Cosenza, keyboardist/vocalist Kim Conlee and violinist Sam McWilliams) will offer their own takes on Velvets music – from the psychedelic street sounds of their 1967 Andy Warhol-produced debut (“The Velvet Underground and Nico”) to the raw experimental grind of their 1968 follow-up (“White Light/White Heat”) to the comparatively relaxed and almost poppish stride of their first post-Cale record (1969’s “The Velvet Underground”) to the more streamlined electric charge of what became Reed’s last album before departing for a solo career (1970’s “Loaded”).

The six will perform as Sister Ray on Saturday at the Green Lantern. The band’s name comes from the title to the cacophonous, lo-fi 18 minute riot of a song that concludes “White Light/White Heat.”

“I remember being 13 or 14 years old and spending the weekend at a friend’s house,” Whiddon said. “Their older brother came home from college with one of the compilation albums by the Velvets, one that focused mostly on the first record. It was tremendous. It was one of the first steps where those songs got into the DNA of how I thought about the world.

“From the Velvets, you can follow a path to a lot of noise bands, you can follow it to R.E.M., you can follow it to Yo La Tengo.”

As is always the case with any local act, the challenge of mounting a Sister Ray performance centers largely on logistics. All of the members juggle duties in other bands (in many instances, several other bands) as well as family responsibilities and assorted day job demands. But that doesn’t prevent the yearly Sister Ray outings from maintaining a familial feel or diminish the band’s devotion to the Velvets’ music.

“One of the things that just makes me smile is how musicians of this caliber, whenever we do this sort of thing, are willing to make the time and effort to take part,” Whiddon said. “The first thing is that. Then there is the fun part, of course. We get to play songs that we love that perhaps made a mark at some point in our lives when we were falling in love with music.

“But you also have to live up to all of that. You know you want to play really, really well and you want to honor that tradition. So it’s always fun, but it’s also a question of presenting this music to people who also love those records.”

Sister Ray: An Evening of Music by the Velvet Underground performs with DJ sets by Matthew Clarke tonight, Feb. 17, at 9:30 at the Green Lantern, 497 W. 3rd. Admission: $8.

in performance: rudresh mahanthappa with the osland/dailey jazztet

rudresh mahanthappa. photo by ethan levitas

It began more like a séance than a jazz concert. With the rhythm section of Lexington’s Osland/Dailey Jazztet playing under him last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts Recital Hall, Rudresh Mahanthappa played an Eastern-infused wail in a register so low and open, one had to do a double take to confirm it was indeed coming out of an alto saxophone. The tune, “Bird Calls #1,” was the leadoff piece from a 2015 album (“Bird Calls”) Mahanthappa cut of original music based on composed and improvised melodies by Charlie Parker. But what surfaced here seemed more like something from the church of John Coltrane. Then the music collapsed into “On the DL,” which took a lyrical nod from Parker’s “Donna Lee” but accelerated at such a treacherous gallop that Mahanthappa’s dizzying solos soared past you like mile markers on a highway. What resulted was a muscular jazz sound that was an aural thrill ride, full of warp speed solos undercut by muscular, though often unexpected senses of swing.

A globally acclaimed jazz bandleader, educator and instrumentalist (he was named Alto Saxophonist of the Year in Downbeat magazine’s International Critics’ Poll six out of the last seven years), Mahanthappa used much of the 90 minute performance with the Osland/Dailey Jazztet as his band to redress the music of “Bird Calls.” In fact, six of the set’s nine tunes were pulled from the album. On the record, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill was the second horn player and Mahanthappa’s primary musical foil. Last night, University of Kentucky jazz pro Miles Osland, a second alto sax man, co-piloted the fun. Despite the mirroring instrumentation, there were remarkable contrasts revealed within the playing, from the criss-crossing solos within “Chillin’” to the artful tempo shifts during “Maybe Later “ that keenly accelerated the swing as the tune concluded.

Perhaps the most curious tradeoff took place during one the evening’s few journeys outside of “Bird Calls.” For the 2010 piece “Playing with Stones,” bassist Danny Cecil used an extended bass solo rich in texture and expression that enhanced the composition’s ominous ambience before Mahanthappa and pianist Raleigh Dailey played solos off each other.

A sumptuous ballad, “My Sweetest,” along with a playful, punctuated outro snippet titled “Man, Thanks for Coming” (which returned the repertoire to “Bird Calls” with references to Parker’s “Anthropology”) wound the set down with the former favoring a slice of ensemble reflection that faded into a playfully aggressive solo from Mahanthappa and the latter exhibiting a brief but potent reprise of the rhythmic twists and animated turns that colored so much of this enchanting performance.

headhunting through the years

The Kentucky Headhunters: Doug Phelps, Greg Martin, Fred Young and Richard Young. Photo by Joe McNally.

As he discusses the current and future doings of the Kentucky Headhunters, Richard Young tosses out a factoid that very much plays into the Metcalfe County band’s considerable past.

It deals directly with longevity – specifically the realization that guitarist Young, sibling drummer Fred Young and guitarist Greg Martin – have been making music together for 50 years. That chunk of time takes the alliance that began touring in the Glasgow region as Itchy Brother through the official formation of the Headhunters and its electric mix of blues, boogie and modern country in 1986. That’s when bassist/vocalist Doug Phelps signed up, making him, with a mere 32 year tenure, minus a brief mid ‘90s split, the youngster of the band.

“I’ve seen all four of us sit in with different people at jam sessions,” Young said. “So all of us individually, we’re pretty good. But, boy, when you put the four of us together, it’s a powerful thing that just seems to make people happy. It’s really good music.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think the band plays great. But there’s just this kind of happiness that happens when we’re together that transcends to the audience. It’s just a fun band. I mean, you can tell none of us has any kind of hang ups about ourselves. It’s always been about the band.”

Here’s a recap for any Kentuckian new to the Headhunters. Once the Itchy Brother era ended, the Headhunters blasted onto charts in 1989 with a solid one-two punch via a very rocking cover of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” and the original tune “Dumas Walker.” That combo earned a truckload of awards, including a Grammy.

But changes quickly took hold. Phelps, along with his lead vocalist brother Ricky Lee Phelps, exited as the band expanded its musical scope to emphasize inspirations that have long played into their music – namely, blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. Two albums with longtime Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson (1993’s “That’ll Work” and 2015’s posthumously released “Meet Me in Bluesland”) typified the growth. Doug Phelps rejoined the Headhunters in 1996.

“We’re so proud of what we achieved in those early years,” Young said. “That was a great foundation, but it was just a part of what the band was. Now, we’re really open and can do anything. It’s not really about country, rock, blues, jazz, rockabilly or anything. It’s about the Headhunters and how we’ve evolved over the years. You know, we’ve got the same bag of tricks we had in 1990. We carry those with us as well as the ones we’ve created lately. So it’s a very, very good place to be for us right now.”

Recent Headhunters activities have centered on the 2016 album “On Safari,” although the big news for the band has been a renewed willingness to tour overseas. Young resisted such travels in the past due to a fear of flying. Convincing him to make the journey for British and European shows in recent years was son John Fred Young, drummer for Black Stone Cherry, the rock troupe whose global popularity has been considerable.

“Black Stone Cherry twisted my arm after 34 years of not flying, so I got on an airplane to go over to Europe. When the Headhunters were Itchy Brother, we would go back and forth to New York and it just terrified me. John Fred said, ‘Daddy, this is ridiculous. You guys would have a whole new audience over in Europe just waiting for you. You’re going to get your butt on an airplane and you’re going to go over. We’ll even set up the shows for you.’ So all of a sudden, I’m a world traveler.”

Young said the immediate future for the Headhunters includes a live album, a possible studio record of blues-oriented music and, as always, a wealth of touring. The band performs Saturday at the Manchester Music Hall with Martin slipping into town tonight to play with his side project band, The Barren County Stumblers, at Lynagh’s Irish Pub.

“We’ve been so blessed to be able to do everything we’ve ever wanted to do,” Young said. “What’s great about that is we’ve found out some of the hardcore blues people will check out a few of our country songs from the early days while we’re turning country music fans onto the blues. It gives you a special worth that you’re not only out making a living doing exactly what you want to do, but that people are also taking to it. I guess you could call the Headhunters a musical education program.”

The Kentucky Headhunters, Those Guyz and Dustin Collins perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $20-$60. Call: 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com/event/the-kentucky-headhunters.

meshing cultures, bands and generations, rudresh mahanthappa redefines jazz

rudresh mahanthappa. photo by ethan levitas.

With each recording he cuts and every band he take to a stage with, Rudresh Mahanthappa reveals different views of a musical persona that can best be described as globally expansive.

In 2015, the composer, educator and bandleader  – as well as Alto Saxophonist of the Year, as voted on by Downbeat Magazine’s International Critic’s Poll six out of the last seven years – channeled, dissected and reassimilated the music of Charlie Parker into an audacious album called “Bird Calls.” Last fall, Mahanthappa followed with “Agrima,” a stylistic turnaround that meshed jazz, Indian classical music and electronics. As he prepares for his Kentucky debut on Saturday, Mahanthappa discussed plans for a future project that involves a straight ahead jazz trio of sax, bass and drums fashioned after Sonny Rollins’s classic 1958 album, “A Night at the Village Vanguard.”

“Look at my discography and you will see every album is different,” Mahanthappa said. “Almost every album has a completely different band, so I’m always trying to shake things up for myself and change the vehicle as much as I can. My musical personality stays the same, I guess, but different scenarios bring different things out of me.”

Mahanthappa’s personal history is as culturally rich and varied as his music. Born in Italy to Indian parents, he grew up in Boulder, Colorado, initially absorbing the pop sounds of Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn on the radio before cutting his teeth in area jazz and even Dixieland bands.

“I knew every track with a saxophone solo that was being played on Top 40 radio, whether it was Men at Work or Supertramp or the sax solos on (Bruce) Springsteen records. I learned them all. That was my first kind of ear training, trying to learn by holding my mono tape recorder up to the radio so I could learn the saxophone solos.

“The players in the Boulder bands were all twice my age but they took me in. I was butchering Charlie Parker solos, but people gave me a chance. Those experiences were really important. It was the welcoming aspect that really mattered. I felt like I belonged someplace. Not that I didn’t belong in my family. It was just a way to really be a musician with other musicians.”

Curiously, Mahanthappa’s exploration of his Indian heritage came much later in his decidedly American upbringing.

“The elements of Indian music came from a place of trying to engage my ancestry in a way that was really meaningful. I don’t speak my parents’ language. I didn’t grow up around any other Indian families. Beyond the limits of my immediate household, I was figuring out how to create an Indian-American culture on my own and with my brothers. For me, in particular, music was the most effective way of describing that, defining that and communicating that. I feel a lot of the music I play is a by-product of me getting to know myself.”

Today, Mahanthappa’s heralded career is balanced with duties as the head of jazz studies at Princeton University. That ties in to his performance on Saturday at the Singletary Center, where he will team with University of Kentucky jazz pros Miles Osland and Raleigh Dailey in their Jazztet.

“It’s nice to go to these places I’ve never been before and play with the locals who have developed a real scene in their part of the country. I think it’s very important to the relevance of this music to engage as many of the communities as possible and not just show up to do the gig and take off. There’s a lot more to it than that.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa performs with the Osland/Dailey Jazztet at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Singletary Center for the Arts Recital Hall, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $13 public, free in advance to University of Kentucky students. Call 859-257-4929 or go to etix.com.


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