Archive for May, 2018

in performance: triptych

Triptych. From left, Matt Ulery, Zach Brock and Jon Deitemyer.

The definition of a triptych is an alliance of three artistic parts linked for a common purpose or vision. That explains perhaps how any jazz trio operates, but it is understandably true for Triptych, the band Lexington violinist Zach Brock has designed with bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Jon Deitemyer. Of course, there is a common, unified voice at work here. But judging by its late set last night at Tee Dee’s Lounge, there is nothing obvious about the music that voice constructs.

In other words, Triptych doesn’t operate as a standard bop-inspired jazz unit, although there were fragments of that sound within the trio’s expansive musical vocabulary. Overall, though, Triptych sounded more restless than that.

For the Ulery tune “Cavendish,” that meant utilizing a skittish, mischievous melody that would regularly shift tempos and rhythms the way a vintage Dave Brubeck composition might. On Brock’s “Cryface,” a tune that took its unlikely inspiration from the facial contortions actress Claire Danes summoned to express strife on the TV series “Homeland,” it meant juggling an accessible, almost fusion-esque melody with improvisational passages that included a largely free intro from Brock and, later, playful sparring between the violinist and Ulery.

An almost impromptu cover of Clifford Brown’s “Sandu,” however, began with a touch of indecision – as in, an extended onstage conference between the three players as to what tune was actually going to be played. The piece’s attractive blues sway eventually settled in, but not before some engaging instrumental free-for-alls gave the formulating rhythms a brutish, almost Monk-ish feel.

What was arguably the highlight in a continually engaging set was Deitemyer’s “Cheyenne,” a work that dialed back the ensemble sound for more wistful, lyrical glides colored by Brock’s pizzicato plucking on violin and the subtle blues fabric Ulery and Deitemyer created as a duo.

Triptych heads into the studio next week to cut the original tunes from this set, the concluding performance in the inaugural season of the Origins Jazz Series. It will be interesting to hear how such an arsenal of rhythmic ideas will transfer to the more ordered documentation of a recording. My bet is the music will still rock the joint.

in performance: mavis staples

Mavis Staples.

Mavis Staples isn’t one for letting an opportunity pass her by.

During one of the few moments where she was able to catch her breath during a show rich with revivalistic vigor last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the Grammy-winning gospel/soul vocalist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee gave the audience a gentle verbal nudge to the merchandise table, knowing that Mother’s Day was just a few hours away.

“Y’all can shop for mama right here.”

Judging by the often rapturous sounds that surrounded the 80 minute performance, however, Staples had no need to hawk anything to do with her music. If you didn’t sense the soul and spirit in a show like this, then, brother, you are lost.

The concert was divided between classics Staples sang with her esteemed family band The Staple Singers decades ago and works from her solo career – specifically, tunes from several recent Jeff Tweedy-produced albums.

In short order, though, it was almost beside the point where the material originated. In Staples’ hands, everything became a source of ageless, gospel-esque joy. At 78, she recognizes the limits of her still-potent vocal range, which gave a sagely but soulful cast to Staples Singers classics like “Come Go With Me,” a contemporary affirmation like Benjamin Booker’s “Take Us Back,” Tweedy’s more ominous “Who Told You That” and, in the setlist’s wildest extreme, Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” whose underlying spiritual cast became bluntly obvious within Staples’ rueful delivery.

But the clear highlight was “Freedom Highway,” the Staples Singers tune that served as an anthem of sorts during the civil rights movement. It was hard to tell which was more chilling – Staples’ ageless vocal might that roared regally over the lean groove of an instrumental trio and two backup vocalists or the story and subsequent tent revival testimony she summoned after the song’s completion. In plain speaking detail, she described not only how she and her father and siblings were jailed for their participation in the era-defining Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery, but her family’s way of coping with the crisis.

“We’d go to jail, get out and start all over again.” Amen to that.

in performance: todd rundgren’s utopia

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. From left, Todd Rundgren, Willie Wilcox and Kasim Sulton. Photo by Danny O’Connor.

Three songs into a tireless performance with his band Utopia last night at Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre, Todd Rundgren congratulated the audience for surviving what he called “The Blizzard.” In strictly non- meteorological terms, he was referring to the program’s first half hour of music, a set that revisited his prog days of roughly 45 years ago.

It was a stunning segment, too – a triad consisting of “Utopia Theme” (which stretched on for a good 15 minutes through layers of synthesized and percussive frenzy as well as Rundgren’s scholarly power chords and soloing on guitar), an edited instrumental version of “The Ikon” and the anthemic “Another Life.” This was as complex and daring a set of tunes as Rundgren, in his 50 years as a touring artist, has ever presented onstage. The fact that he approached the works, both vocally and instrumentally with such ageless vigor (he turns 70 next month) was something of a triumph and marked, right from the onset, this performance as a winner.

It was a challenging winner, mind you, especially for those who know Rundgren only through his smattering of pop hits that reached rock radio during the ‘70s. But it was a winner notwithstanding.

Just as Rundgren is a stylist with multiple profiles, so is Utopia – a band that, outside from a few brief reunion runs, has been dormant since 1986. In its initial guise, billed as “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia,” it was a thrillseeking prog-pop brigade that extended the synthesized rock its leader paraded on one of many creative zeniths – 1973’s “A Wizard, A True Star” album. But the later band, billed simply as Utopia, was a more democratically inclined quartet that shed the complexities of the former lineup in favor of straight up power pop. This tour unites the latter lineup of Rundgren, bassist/vocalist Kasim Sulton and drummer/vocalist Willie Wilcox with new recruit Gil Assaya serving as an 11th hour replacement on keyboards for Ralph Schuckett (who was sidelined due to health reasons).

But here’s the curious part. This Utopia lineup is the first to extensively explore the repertoire of both bands. As such, after “The Blizzard” medley settled, so did the band into an array of simpler pop fare that shuffled vocals duties between Rundgren, Sulton and Wilcox. In the end, this Utopian gang covered tunes from nine of the band’s ten albums (1980’s “Deface the Music” was the only exclusion).

That meant tackling a fair amount of obscurities, like 1977’s “Communion with the Sun,” which was essentially a bridge between Utopia’s prog and pop camps, as well as intriguing covers that were staples of the earlier Utopia’s mid ‘70s shows (The Move’s “Do Ya” and, oddly enough, the “West Side Story” affirmation “Something’s Coming”).

It was all efficiently and energetically performed. Sulton and Wilcox held up their vocal ends easily on “Set Me Free” and “Princess of the Universe,” respectively, while rookie Assaya proved an expert pinch hitter, neatly executing the near symphonic keyboard lines created by Shuckett and Roger Powell but appearing very much at ease alongside the Utopian vets.

In the end, though, this was Rundgren’s show and not just because the band reverted back to its “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia” billing for this tour. As a guitarist, his playing remains remarkably urgent, whether it was through the elemental riffs he rifled out during “Hammer in My Heart” or the soaring (but way too brief) solo coda applied to “Just One Victory” that concluded the performance. And as referenced earlier, his vocals revealed remarkably little wear from the years. They were still buoyant enough to make a pop confection like “Love is the Answer” sound rich and purposeful and aggressive enough to propel the most elemental of rock offerings, such as the joyous, post-punk flavored “Love in Action.”

It was, in short, a program that offered the best of two Utopias – dual images of a band that remains an integral ambassador from Rundgren’s spacious pop cosmos.

in performance: steve earle and the dukes

Steve Earle.

After winding up the anthemic, pop-savvy sway of “Waiting for You” earlier tonight at Renfro Valley, Steve Earle shook his head, beamed a grin and offered a remark that was tantamount to an apology.

“It was the ‘80s.”

Why the self effacement for one of his own works let alone one of his performances? It might have been that the long forgotten song was one of the 10 compositions that made up “Copperhead Road,” Earle’s 1988 breakthrough album. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the record’s release, he devoted the first half of the concert to a complete performance of the album. That meant digging into the lesser known nuggets – the “chick tunes,” as Earle dismissively described them. But with the electric flexibility possessed by the current lineup of his longrunning Dukes band, Earle turned an exercise in nostalgic appeal into an expansive overview of how his storied career began connecting with a major audiences outside the country spectrum.

The five tunes constituting the album’s first side were, as Earle suggested, stronger. It offered haunting remembrances of Reagan-ism in the country carny yarn “Snake Oil” along with grim glimpses of a country just coming to grips with the post-Vietnam era. The popular title tune, which began the album and tonight’s performance, connected as much for its drug-smuggling danger element as for its more desperate, but humanistic profile of a Vietnam vet on the edge. More effective, though, was the less obvious “Johnny Come Lately,” with its Celtic mandolin/accordion jig delivery.

Earle offered insightful stories to go with the tunes, as well, including a reference to Irish upstarts The Pogues (which played on the recorded version of “Johnny Come Lately”). Color me skeptical, but my guess is this was the one and only time the band will ever get a shout out on a Renfro Valley stage. Another story, oddly enough, explained how the Oak Ridge Boys were the Nashville force largely responsible for getting Earle the recording contract that created career defining albums like “Copperhead Road.”

The rest of the program steered closer to the present with a setlist that boasted the similarly jig-worthy “The Galway Girl,” a heavily traditional country duet with Eleanor Whitmore of the The Mastersons (who served as members of The Dukes as well as the show’s fine opening act) on “I’m Still in Love With You” and a quartet of tunes from last years “So You Wannabe An Outlaw.” The latter concluded with the brooding electric doomsday call of “Fixin’ to Die,” which, in turn, bled into an equally foreboding, but highly faithful cover of “Hey Joe.”

Funny. Such a dark conclusion to the concert brought Earle and the Dukes back to the mean streets they know so well. Three decades on, they still can’t stay away from Copperhead Road.

for rick baldwin

Rick Baldwin. Photo by Jonathan Lewis.

Bass players have a perhaps stereotypical reputation for being unobtrusive in a performance setting. They’re known for leaving the spotlight to the singers and soloists and relishing their chosen role of establishing and fortifying a groove.

That’s largely what Rick Baldwin adhered to throughout his career in Lexington music venues and quite often beyond. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was the soulful bass presence for the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars and subsequent bands led by All-Stars guitarist Nick Stump. More recently, he played with the folk quartet TDH4 with Reel World String Band mainstays Bev Futrell and Karen Jones.

Baldwin died today of a heart attack, but had been hospitalized recently with pneumonia. He was 63.

“Ricky was my roommate on the road for 20 years or more,” Stump said. “He was the kindest, gentlest man I ever knew in my life. He was so gracious. In all of the time we played music together, we never had one cross word. I don’t think he had cross words with anyone in the band, and that’s a rarity in this business. I wanted to punch out every one of the other guys at one time or another. But with Ricky, I think the worst thing he ever did to me was give me pizza.”

A lifelong Lexingtonian, Baldwin had experienced a series of health issues during his life, including a two decade-plus battle with multiple sclerosis. Stump organized a benefit at The Dame in 2005 for Baldwin to offset mounting medical bills. At the time, the MS had attacked his optic nerves causing blindness.

“Ray Charles managed to make music his whole life,” Baldwin told me prior to the benefit. “Why should I be complaining?

“I know I’m not the only person in this boat. There are millions of people out there in horrible shape who feel like they’re alone in this world. When I get my vision back, I’ve got a lot of thank-you letters to write.”

Baldwin’s other medical issues included high blood pressure. Stump recalled instances – unintentionally humorous ones, in retrospect – where Baldwin’s passion for making music shot far higher than his blood pressure.

“I can remember one time where his blood pressure was out of control down in Johnson City (Tenn.). We knew a nurse there, so we called her. She said, ‘Well, give him a half-shot of whiskey every time his blood pressure shoots up. I sat there all night giving him whiskey.

“Ricky cared more about playing music and being with the band than he did about anything.”

in performance: foo fighters/the struts

Dave Grohl performing with Foo Fighters last night at Rupp Arena. Photo by Matt Goins.

“Sorry we’re late. My bad.”

That was the succinct apology Dave Grohl offered over 14,000 patrons near the midway point of Foo Fighters’ tireless and exuberant 2 ½ hour performance last night at Rupp Arena.

The tardiness, of course, was a nearly seven month postponement of the concert due to a family emergency. But Grohl and company more than made up for lost time with a show built around rock ‘n’ roll essentials – specifically, punkish immediacy, arena rock expansiveness and a hefty dose of good humor.

It’s easy with the kind of amiable profile possessed by the current six-member lineup of Foo Fighters to overlook just how in charge of the proceedings Grohl really is. The concert began with a live, offstage guitar squall before he entered alone with a mad dash around the front lip of the stage. This continued as the other members were still getting situated. Even when everything coalesced into the furious grind of “Run,” from the Foos’ most recent album “Concrete and Gold,” you sensed the rest of the band was still getting into the groove that Grohl was already running away with.

That was largely how the bulk of the program played out. Only longtime Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins, at times, was allowed the kind of room to roam that Grohl luxuriated in. Indeed, some of the concert’s strongest moments revolved around numerous exchanges between the two players, from the rumbling jam that grew out of “Rope” to the sparring that surfaced from the impressive group dynamics of “My Hero” to a duel that capped off a playfully riotous “Breakout.”

Mostly, though, Grohl and the Foos established themselves as a band of the moment. The recorded versions of the songs offered last night proved to be mere blueprints of what ignited onstage. The anthemic “Walk,” one of two tunes pulled from 2011’s “Wasting Light” album, was built largely around elemental riffs. But the front line guitar team of Grohl, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear gave such a basic fabric a huge, spacious framework. “The Pretender,” however, was just loose enough in construction for the band to take their time and peel back its post grunge exterior so more rootsy intimations could flourish.

Aside from an extended drum feature from Hawkins, this wasn’t a program that flaunted instrumental solos. Grohl was obviously more taken with mood, namely the kind of jovial spirit summoned from rock ‘n’ roll basics, than technique. Sure, he could scream and hammer out the riffs with ample energy. But he was obviously after the fun element too, an aspect that boiled over late in the program during a set of covers that included snippets of the “Grease” hit “You’re the One That I Want,” a version of the Van Halen staple “Jump” played to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and a respectful take on the Queen/David Bowie classic “Under Pressure.” The latter sent Grohl to the drum kit and left vocal chores to Hawkins and Luke Spiller, whose opening set with the Brit band The Struts was consumed with early ‘70s glam rock. Imagine the forgotten band Slade had Freddie Mercury been hired as singer. That was the vibe.

As a footnote to the evening, Grohl also revealed the cause of the family emergency that prompted the concert’s postponement from last fall – an illness that sidelined his mother. He didn’t elaborate.

“There’s only one thing I love more than the Foo Fighters,” he told the crowd. “And that’s my mama.”

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