Archive for March, 2018

in performance: gangstagrass

Gangstagrass, from left: Rench, Dolio the Sleuth, R-Son, Dan Whitener and Landry McMeans. Photo by Benjamin Smith

“I love it when you guys are down with the program,” remarked Gangstagrass guitarist and chieftain Rench as cultures deliriously clashed last night at Willie’s Locally Known.

The program, in this instance, was a musical mission that has been viewed over the past decade as a mash-up of bluegrass and hip-hop. The one hour, 45 minute performance revealed, however, that summation to be slightly inaccurate.

The very handmade musical fabric supplied by Rench, Dan Whitener and Landry McMeans on acoustic guitar, banjo and dobro respectively was more reflective of pre-bluegrass country music, especially works that generously emphasized their Appalachian ancestry, than what we have come to accept as bluegrass. Tempos were rougher, darker and slower than the string music brought forth in the post-Bill Monroe age. The approach could have almost been accepted as folk were it not for the looped beats that continually grooved under the tunes, from the show opening “I Go Hard” to the closing cover of the roots-music staple “Darlin’Cory (Dig a Hole in the Meadow)”.

That set-up made it easier to emcees R-Son and Dolio the Sleuth to bring the hip hop element to the evening. While deciphering their rhymes was often difficult given the show’s muddy sound mix, what resulted were songs where the three instrumentalists established the music’s traditionally minded accents through narratives the emcees would then mirror with more contemporary slants. Even the most familiar fare, such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” was presented with a wild duality, interspersing vintage verses sung by the instrumentalists with modern rhymes based off those words by the emcees. The formula didn’t shift dramatically for original fare, either, like “Bound to Ride,” “Keep Talking” and the new “Nowhere to Run.”

The most elaborate example of this cross-generational song swapping came when Gangstagrass let its popular “Justified’ theme song “Long Hard Times to Come” bleed into a vigorous update of “Hard Times Come Again No More,” the folk-blues affirmation penned by Stephen Foster. The two songs, bolstered by McMeans’ amplified dobro runs that mimicked electric slide guitar, the emcees’ tireless performance drive and the unwavering confidence the full band displayed in making such disparate styles sound natural and unified showed how Gangstagrass was getting with its own program just as readily as its audience was.

in performance: california guitar trio

California Guitar Trio: Hideyo Moriya, Paul Richards and Bert Lams.

To recognize the scholarly technique and stylistic dexterity of the California Guitar Trio when appraising one of its concerts isn’t exactly detective work. The ensemble has stressed both traits with unassuming ease throughout its 27 year history, so much so that such a design has allowed the music it fashions for three acoustic guitars to remain both accessible and adventurous. In short, the game plan has long been standard operating procedure. The music and musicianship within it, however, remains anything but.

The CGT’s annual visit to the Kentucky Coffeetree Café last night in Frankfort, one of the most intimate venues the group plays on a regular basis, offered an especially well-rounded repertoire that embraced the familiar but emphasized the new.

The four selections that opened the 90 minute performance made for a refresher course of the band: a faithful cover of “Classical Gas,” the surf staple “Walk Don’t Run,” the Argentine folk-inspired original “Chacarera” and the slide blues-meet-Western mash-up “Train to Lamy Suite.” Collectively, all have made frequent rounds in CGT shows through the years. Last night, though, they provided a crash course in the textures, techniques and sheer stylistic cunning the band was capable of. For all their familiarity to CGT die-hards, the tunes all sounded fresh and immediate.

There were also less obvious entries, like the beautiful “Euphoria,” a relatively recent entry from CGT member Paul Richards that revolved around a light, spacious group melody that quickly dived into deeper, layered colors. While not exactly an obscurity, Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” returned after an extended absence from the CGT repertoire, but still boasted a richly percussive drive.

It was also a blast to hear two career-spanning originals by fellow CGT co-founder Hideyo Moriya played back to back – 1993’s “Kan-Non Power” (which strongly summoned the influence of group mentor Robert Fripp both in its percolating arpeggios and the long, sustained mock-electric sounds Richards created with pedal effects) and “Komorebi” (the title tune to the CGT’s 2017 album, which sported a considerably lighter, more openly atmospheric makeup).

Four new entries were also added to the CGT catalog last night – a beautifully fragile arrangement of Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” by the late Collin Landinguin, a jubilant take on the Ventures’ surf classic “Diamond Head,” a loose but extremely fun stab at the Beatles’ “Get Back” and a wonderfully textured work by Buenos Aires guitarist Alex Anthony Faide entitled “Where It Goes, We Go.”

Then it was back to CGT essentials to close the show with guitarist Bert Lams helping co-pilot the mix of cinematic ambience and drama within “Punta Patri” and an encore cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that underscored the sense of combustible fun that still sits at the heart of the trio’s immensely inventive and inviting music.

in performance: miranda lambert/jon pardi/the steel woods

Miranda Lambert and her band performing last night at Rupp Arena. Photo by Matt Goins.

Miranda Lambert divulged the game plan for her Rupp Arena return last night within the opening minutes of a vibrant, inviting and thematically far reaching performance. In that short space of time, she sang a storyline of homespun sensibility, one that was perhaps country in design but very worldly in its narrative scope – a trait that would play out in varying ways over the next hour and 45 minutes.

Curiously, the song in question wasn’t one of her own hits, but rather a cover of a 40 year old gem penned by one of America’s most revered and reflective songwriters, John Prine. The tune was “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round.” While Prine sang it originally (and still does today) with a hapless, wide-eyed reserve, Lambert plugged the tune in and turned it into an Americana carnival packing a searing electric jolt that was also a forecast what was to unfold.

What the Rupp crowd of 13,500 witnessed was, in essence, a kind of artistic duality. For die-hard fans, there were tunes full of rockish defiance that established Lambert’s musical reputation more than a decade ago – songs like “Kerosene” (which shot out of “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round” like a bottle rocket) and “Gunpowder and Lead.” Lambert’s voice, while hardly the epitome of country gumption, possessed a rockish might that, once detonated, sailed into upper registers to give these early tunes a properly anthemic authority.

But a considerable chunk of the show was devoted to newer music – specifically, a half dozen fine entries from 2016’s “The Weight of These Wings” album. Among the most expressive was “Vice,” a heartbreak tune cast in layers of elegiac cool but born out of an environment “where the numb meets the lonely.” Equally arresting was “Tin Man,” which echoed similar despondency (“Take it from me, darling, you don’t want a heart”) but without the orchestrated aid of Lambert’s eight member band. She instead performed the song alone with fitting but informal grace on acoustic guitar.

The crowd pleaser, though, came when Lambert welcomed Ashley Monroe and Martin County native (as well as one time Lexingtonian) Angaleena Presley onstage for an impromptu Pistol Annies outing. Though limited to a scant two songs (“Hell on Heels” and “Takin’ Pills”), the trio fully embraced and celebrated the electric independence of Lambert’s early music. It was, in essence, the diesel fuel that very much made her world go ‘round.

The evening’s two show openers – Jon Pardi and The Steel Woods were remote footnotes amid Lambert’s pageantry. While Pardi displayed an honest immediacy in his performance energy, songs like “Cowboy Hat” and “Head Over Boots” still came off as the sort of numskull Bro Country product that sounded like it was written in a corporate board room with an early afternoon deadline. The show-opening Steel Woods fared better by recalling Chris Stapleton during his Southern rocking Jompson Brothers days. Hats off, also, to Woods guitarist Jason Cope, who provided “Straw in the Wind” and a set opening cover of the 1982 John Anderson hit “Wild and Blue” with inventive, electric atmosphere.

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