Archive for April, 2018

in performance: brantley gilbert/aaron lewis/josh phillips

Brantley Gilbert performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

Within the first few bars of the show-opening “My Kinda Party,” Brantley Gilbert placed all of his performance cards squarely in view of the 5,550 fans he pulled into Rupp Arena last night.

On the upside, his stage demeanor seemed energetic, good natured and immensely audience friendly – especially the latter, as those he happily slapped hands with along a walkway that ran down the arena floor can attest to.

Also in the plus column was a knowing sense of the contemporary country market that has made Gilbert a significant star over the past decade. That meant an efficiently staged show with the usual Spinal Tap-ish pyrotechnics, video screens and, most of all, an impressively flexible band whose role in fleshing out the variety of styles that gradually unraveled during the 90 minute set – the hip-hop cool of “Dirt Road Anthem,” the metal-esque crunch of “It’s About to Get Dirty” and radio-friendly country-pop of “More Than Miles” – proved continually pivotal.

The takeaway from last night’s concert that was more disconcerting was how weak a vocalist Gilbert was. Maybe he was ill. Maybe it was spring allergies. But from the onset of the show, Gilbert’s singing was a coarse, internalized mumble. He would bark out occasional exclamations to trigger audience involvement, but there was little within initial electric party pieces like “Country Must Be Country Wide” and “My Baby’s Guns N’ Roses” to suggest any kind of sustained vocal drive.

When the pace chilled and the volume settled for tunes like “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” and brief acoustic revisions of “Them Boys” and “My Kind of Crazy,” a modest level of fluidity and detail was detectable in the singing. On more discernable crowd favorites, though – “Small Town Throwdown,” for instance – the audience took over some of the vocal load.

This may have indeed been his kind of party, but Gilbert’s surprisingly lax vocal command definitely took the fire out of the celebration.

That wasn’t the only curiosity to the evening. Preceding Gilbert was an hour-long, chain smoking set by Staind vocalist Aaron Lewis. That’s the right, the same Aaron Lewis who powered such post-grunge anthems as “Right Here” and “It’s Been Awhile,” both of which he played. But Lewis wasn’t as much of a fish-out-of-water artist last night as one might suppose. His country material often revealed serious honky tonk volition as well as subtle but determined narrative digs, all of which were on display in an industry swipe called “That Ain’t Country.” The set-opening “Country Boy,” on the other hand, was all dark, swampy contemplation akin to the late ‘70s records of Hank Williams, Jr.

Sure, there was requisite jingoistic plundering and pandering (Lewis began his set by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), but for the most part, there was an uncompromising solemnity and soulfulness to his performance that was quite arresting.

The evening began with a 20 minute solo acoustic set by North Carolina newcomer Josh Phillips. The singer racked up bonus points for playing without a band in an arena setting, but little was offered to distinguish his songs from the same thematic blather that permeates country radio today. When you have to turn your show-opening song – in this case, “Tonight Ain’t the Day” into a medley with a cover of “Highway to Hell,” you’re not exactly displaying unshakeable confidence in your work.

in performance: eagles

Joe Walsh performing with the Eagles last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Alex Slitz.

Anyone curious about how in tune a retooled Eagles lineup would be with the times had their understandable concerns settled within the opening moments of the band’s very inviting 2 ½ hour concert last night at Rupp Arena.

With zero fanfare, a six member team – the lone original, the two mainstay members, a pair of new recruits and a key auxiliary player – lined up across the front of the stage to sing “Seven Bridges Road,” the Steve Young tune that was exclusive to the 1980 album “Eagles Live,” a record many assumed would serve as the band’s swansong work.

As the performance progressed, the five principle members would juggle lead vocal duties. Here, however, all were one – a resilient, harmonic front line of age, youth and no small level of musical acumen. As the voices were raised, the results sounded more like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young than the Southern California country-rock hybrid the Eagles claimed ownership of during the ‘70s. For a band used to the higher reaches of mega-stardom, this was an effectively subtle, even unassuming opening.

Much of the first half of the single-set, 27 song performance was spent establishing the identities of the new members and fortifying the legacies of the returning vets. Curiously, it was Joe Walsh who spoke to the crowd of 11,000 first (with a typically aloof “Good morning”) before introducing Deacon Frey, son of the late Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey. The young vocalist quickly took the reins of “Take It Easy” by doing just that. His delivery, though distinctly different than that of his father, was confident, convincing and, as was much of the entire concert, refreshingly unforced. The younger Frey’s delivery later in the show of “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” though, reflected an almost ghostly similarity to his father’s singing.

The other “new guy” was Vince Gill, the veteran country guitarist, vocalist and (thanks to a brief stay during his bluegrass days of the ‘70s) former Lexingtonian. Gill took to the Eagles catalog – specifically, other songs originally sung by father Frey – with maximum ease, although his still potent high-tenor voice had more in common with band bassist Timothy B. Schmit’s singing. Gill took assured but respectful ownership of everything from the rocking “Heartache Tonight” to the surprise inclusion of Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” (a tune cut for what arguably remains the Eagles’ best album, 1974’s “On the Border”). But the stunner was his treatment of “Take It to the Limit,” the regal lament co-written and sung by original Eagles bassist Randy Meisner but appropriated after his departure from the band by the elder Frey. Gill’s version, aided by choral-like harmonies from the other players, was a singular highlight of the performance.

Schmit, seated for the duration of the show with a booted right foot elevated on a platform due to a hotel room fall, was the only member whose singing revealed some wear, especially during a frail sounding “I Can’t Tell You Why.” His later delivery of the “Hell Freezes Over” single “Love Will Keep Us Alive” sounded richer.

Walsh, ever the guitar dynamo, elevated the energy level several notches whenever he took the spotlight, from vintage James Gang fare (a dynamic “Walk Away” bolstered by a five man horn section), solo career hits (the still haplessly baffoon-ish “Life’s Been Good”) and perhaps his best known Eagles tune, the darkly hopeful “In the City.” Walsh drove much of the performance simply a guitarist, whether through his own slide solos or healthy sparring with Steuart Smith, a touring member of the Eagles since 2001 and a major front line presence last night on guitar and harmonies.

That left Don Henley, the last of the original Eagles, who appeared visibly at ease with all manners of business conducted by his band’s realigned lineup. Watching him trade key harmonies with Frey and Gill revealed an almost patriarchal spirit, one that extended into the music itself. At 70 (the same age as Walsh and Schmit), his vocals revealed impressive clarity and range, from the ringing falsetto produced for “One of These Nights” to the rockish command that fortified “Victim of Love” to the quieter, folk-savvy turns within “Best of My Love.”

Nothing, though, beat the title tune to “Desperado,” the genre defining album that celebrates its 45th anniversary next week. Backed by a string quintet and the Eagles’ front line offensive, the song sounded as robustly weary and worn as it did in 1973. But there was also a sagely aspect to last night’s show-closing version, as if Henley was taking the song’s own advice to heart and letting the audience show a little love before the band called it quits. The song proved an absorbing survivor statement, one that spoke equally to the Eagles’ potent history as well as to the abundant vitality and purpose it still possesses today.

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don henley on the 2018 eagles: “we wanted everybody to be all in”

The Eagles, from left: Joe Walsh, Vince Gill, Deacon Frey, Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit. Photo by George Holz.

At the onset of the Eagles’ last Rupp Arena concert, frontmen and lone mainstay members Glenn Frey and Don Henley entered from opposite sides of the stages.

Longtime fans might have viewed this as a coming together of two figurehead performers who helped define a ‘70s Southern California rock community, one that would also dictate the direction of a country music generation decades later. But audiences also knew the Eagles carried a fair amount of in-house baggage over the years full of aggravated relationships that dissolved the band seemingly for good in 1980. The split, in fact, appeared so permanent that the title of a 1994 comeback album half-jokingly referenced the long-held prospect of a reunion – “Hell Freezes Over.”
Yet, here on a late July evening in 2015, with the Eagles long since re-solidified as sagely and resiliently popular touring attraction, Frey and Henley opened the show without accompaniment, singing one of the few songs in a 2 ½ program that was not a hit – a decidedly nostalgic folk reverie from the 1973 Eagles album “Desperado” called “Saturday Night.” It opened the third to last performance of a tour that began two years earlier. It was also the third to last performance Frey would give with the band.

“The guy played through pain for several years,” said Henley during a phone interview last month. “He hid it very well. I could see it in his fingers. His rheumatoid arthritis made his fingers swollen and bent. It was difficult for him many years. But like an old football player, he would get himself taped up and go out there on the field and play the game, so he hid it very well. But he was very uncomfortable for a long time.”

In January 2016, Frey died at the age of 67. In addition to rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis, he had also developed pneumonia the preceding fall. His death placed the often tenuous future of the Eagles again in question. Did Henley, now the lone original member, sense this was the Eagles’ final bow?

“I didn’t sense it, no. As we always say, the Eagles were breaking up from the day the Eagles got together. It was a constant, ongoing thing. But in the past decade or two, we had gotten into the habit of making a reassessment every January. We would stop touring, usually, in October and then go home for the holiday season. Then when January rolled around, we would all get on the phone together to reassess and see if everybody was willing to go on or not, because we were very conscious of everybody’s enthusiasm or lack thereof. We wanted everybody to be all in, so to speak, before we decided to continue.

“We always want to be able to deliver a quality show, a show that is up to the standards that the fans expect. When we feel we can no longer do that, then we’ll hang it up. So when that tour you were speaking about ended, we just thought we would take a two or three month break, then we would probably tour some more the following year. Then the tragedy happened in October. That’s really when Glenn fell ill. That’s when the pneumonia struck. So you never know what’s going to happen in this life. It’s full of unexpected events.”

With its Tuesday return to Rupp Arena, the Eagles boast two new members in Frey’s absence. The first is the late singer’s son, Deacon Frey, whose stage experience prior to joining was largely limited to benefit shows with his dad. But for Henley, his involvement was essential for the Eagles to continue.

“Deacon carries his father’s torch. He carries his father’s spirit. It blows my mind sometimes when I’m sitting at the drums and I’m looking at the back of his head. His hair looks just like his dad’s did in 1974. It’s like déjà vu. We’re all like uncles to him, so it very much has a feeling of family. Having Deacon in the band is really the only way it made sense to me. It’s the only thing that, to me, would make it ethically alright to carry this on. And if he hadn’t been able to do it, I don’t know if we would be out there again this year.

“His first show with us was at Dodger Stadium, so that’s a pretty big leap for a young man. And he did it. He amazed all of us with his composure. But, of course, it’s still an emotional thing for him. Deacon is dealing with it, but he still has moments of emotional upheaval when he remembers his dad. But we all surround him with love and support.”

The other new recruit is distinguished country veteran Vince Gill, a prolific singer, guitarist and hitmaker, as well as part of the Nashville generation that found considerable inspiration in the country-esque verses and harmonies that drove early Eagles favorites like “Take It Easy,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

“Vince, of course, is just a natural fit,” Henley said. “After we decided to put Deacon in the band, Vince was the other obvious choice to come in. He adds years of experience and he’s an extraordinary singer, an extraordinary guitarist and a great songwriter, plus he’s having a really good time out here with us.”

Deacon Frey and Gill join Henley and the two other permanent Eagles – Joe Walsh (who joined in 1975) and Timothy B. Schmit (who joined in 1977). Will their flight continue after touring concludes this fall?  Henley said that call will be made at a later time. Until then, he intends to journey on with a storied band whose entire lifespan has defied rock ‘n’ roll odds.

“We are all acutely aware of what an extraordinary run we’ve had and how this band has had almost as many lives as a cat. We’re aware of that every day and every night. That gives us an edge, energy and will to continue, because we know how unusual our career has been and we know how fortunate we are.”

The Eagles perform at 7 p.m. April 10 at Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine. Tickets: $49.50-$229.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to rupparena.com.

in performance: so percussion and the university of kentucky percussion ensemble

So Percussion, from left: Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Jason Treuting and Adam Sliwinski. Photo by Evan Monroe Chapman.

By the time So Percussion concluded its centerpiece suite “Amid the Noise” earlier tonight at the Singletary Center for the Arts, everyone was part of the act.

The four members of the troupe – including the work’s composer, Jason Treuting – led the way after spending the previous 45 minutes scattering themselves among dozens of percussive instruments assembled around the stage. So were members of the University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble, who sat out of sight on the stage floor when not called upon, but rose to action with no small amount of drama when the music’s textures and orchestration needed their input. So, for that matter, was the audience, which was succinctly conducted by So member Josh Quillen to add a choral-like coda to the piece and, fittingly enough, the evening.

So Percussion and the UK Percussion Ensemble played separately during the program’s first half. So tackled Bryce Dessner’s “Music for Wood and Strings” predominantly on devices they termed “chordsticks” – lap steel-shaped instruments with two sets of four criss-crossing strings played with bows and pencils (“No. 2 pencils,” as Treuting emphasized during an introduction). The resulting sounds mimicked a hammer dulcimer with Quillen’s tuning adjusted to create bass like patterns that often led the work.

The UK group took on Sergio Assad’s “Asphalt Junge” with help from guitarists Dieter Hennings (a guest from the UK faculty) and Andrew Zohn. Together with the ensemble’s variety of mallet percussion colors on marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel, the tune weaved in and out of samba rhythms and more open-ended fragments of melodic grace.

But “Amid the Noise” was the showstopper. Augmented by other faculty and alumni players on cello, accordion and guitar, as well as the participation of ensemble director James Campbell, the full onstage brigade numbered roughly two dozen players. But the suite was all about dynamics, from the mallet cool initiated by Treuting, to a section where all four So members played a single piano (two on strings, one on keys and one tapping out sounds on the frame) before the music melted into another choral section. Treuting manned a drum kit as the piece drew to a close, intensifying the tune’s drive while never deviating from its contemplative and ultimately triumphant spirit.


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