Archive for October, 2018

in performance: noam pikelny and stuart duncan

noam pikelny (left) and stuart duncan.

“We walked all the way from Nashville,” remarked Noam Pikelny as he and Stuart Duncan entered The Burl last night with their instruments – at least, the ones not already awaiting them onstage – still packed in cases as if they were carting around luggage. But the two quickly made themselves at home with their first banjo/fiddle duet concert in Lexington and their first collaborative show of any kind in two years.

The resulting display of sterling acoustic music prided itself in genre juggling. Bluegrass may have sat the heart of their playing, especially in the instrumental runs that distinguished the show-opening medley of “Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” and “Mason’s Apron.” But even there, the two peeled any grassy intent back to a sense of traditional Celtic fancy.

Another medley paired the Shetland fiddle inspirations of “Laird O’Drumblair” with the more New Grass flavored Pikelny original “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer.” The merger was so playfully but deftly executed that the two tunes sounded like they grew up around the block from each other.

From there, the banjo/fiddle combination appropriated music previously excavated by John Hartford, Merle Haggard, Tommy Jarrell and, perhaps expectedly, Bill Monroe. But for all of the sense of tradition that surrounded the music of the latter, Pikelny and Duncan chose a decidedly unobvious route to travel – namely one that took them to works interpreted four decades ago by the maverick Monroe fiddler Kenny Baker. But the arrangements, by Pikelny, of “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” and “Wheel Hoss” transposed much of the fiddle charm of Baker’s versions to banjo. Still, the resulting dialogue with fiddler Duncan gave both players ample room to survey the compositional depth of Monroe’s music as well as the invention within Baker’s playing.

Mostly, though, the performance was a relaxed acoustic evening with a pair of unassuming virtuosos. Banjoist Pikelny makes his way to the region every few years, either with his day-job band Punch Brothers or his solo work. Duncan, however, almost never performs in Central Kentucky in such an intimate setting. Worth the walk from Nashville? Absolutely. What’s a bit of lost shoe leather when the music was this fine?

 

in performance: brandon seabrook trio/quin kirchner quartet

Quin Kirchner.

Just a few songs into his set last night at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery, Brandon Seabrook shared a story of a chance encounter at a gas station with saxophonist and vanguard free jazz ambassador Anthony Braxton.

“It was like meeting the Pope,” the guitarist said.

Given their respective performance fields, that’s understandable. The level of immediacy and abstraction favored by guitarist Seabrook, cellist Daniel Levin and bassist Henry Fraser would have probably pleased Braxton, an artist a generation removed from Seabrook, to no end. Stylistically, though the rhythmic shards and brittle electric riffs better resembled the more experimental music of Marc Ribot. In other words, the Brooklyn-based Seabrook employed pace, rhythmic displacement, pedal-induced echo effects and ensemble phrases that often became stuttering arpeggios to fuel the tunes from his new “Convulsionaries” albums. The album’s six compositions constituted the entirety of the Seabrook Trio’s set.

The selling point to such purposeful disharmony, though, was watching how visibly involved Seabrook was as he tore through the jagged edges of “Crux Accumulator” and the set-opening “Bovicidal.” These were not easy avenues to navigate for timid ears. But if the resulting music wasn’t immediately accessible, it became, thanks to Seabook’s very outward performance demeanor, quite inviting.

This Outside the Spotlight performance was a double-bill closed by out by the Quin Kirchner Quintet, which was reduced to a four-piece unit following the single-evening recruitment of trombonist Nick Broste by pop maverick Bonnie Prince Billy.

That hardly cut into the orchestrated colors Chicago drummer Kirchner created. Operating with the novel front line instrumentation of tenor saxophonist Nate Lepine and bass clarinetist Jason Stein, the group often recalled the late ‘60s recordings of Pharoah Sanders in the way percussion and winds created dense and almost danceable grooves.

The nods to the past weren’t coincidental. The bulk of the set was devoted to works by such cross generational stylists as Kelan Phil Cohran (a sleek reading of “Sahara” assuredly piloted by bassist Matt Ulery but initiated by Kirchner on what seemed to be an amplified kalimba), Andrew Hill and Charles Mingus (a regally rhythmic mash-up of “Limbo” and “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive Ass Slippers”) and Paul Motian (whose “Mumbo Jumbo” became a showcase for Lepine and Stein but ultimately a set-up piece for the only drum solo of the evening).

The curiosity in Kirchner’s set was the occasional use of sampled effects and electronics, most notably on the piano mimicry that introduced the original “Together We Can Explore the Furthest Beyond” (which screamed Sanders just in its title). But such augmentation was modestly utilized to enhance rather than puncture the group’s rich and retro feel.

in performance: thomas rhett/brett young/midland

Thomas Rhett. Photo by John Shearer.

Within the space of about 15 minutes last night at Rupp Arena, Thomas Rhett offered up two songs, both metaphorical nods to fashionable attire that, whether intentional or not, spoke to the stylistic preferences of his modern minded, but quite appealing performance.

The first was “T-Shirt,” a blast of hook-heavy pop largely devoid of country sentiment save for its almost requisite thematic promiscuity. The garment in question, of course, is admired most when it’s being worn by someone other than its owner.

The other was a pert cover of “Suit and Tie,” a tune that was also paraded at Rupp two weeks earlier by its originator, Justin Timberlake. Last night, though, it possessed a pop formality that served as a coda to the 2013 Rhett party piece “Make Me Wanna.”

It was an intriguing dichotomy. Rhett, donning a t-shirt onstage like the one detailed in the former tune while embracing a country-less pop exuberance the Timberlake song strived for.

A suit-and-tie guy in a t-shirt world – that was essentially the profile Rhett adopted for his Rupp debut.

One could dismiss such an identity crisis as the by-product of just another country crossover wannabe were it not for the fact that Rhett navigated the pop highways and boulevards of his music with such assuredness that it was hard not getting swept up in the fun, whether it was through the broad dance-pop assertions within “Gimme Some of That,” the summery bounce bolstering the title tune to his 2017 album “Life Changes” or the lighter and abundantly radio-savvy feel of “Star of the Show.”

Add to that an audience-friendly demeanor that seemed quite genuine and generous and you had a rather winning pop presentation, even if its design seemed more indicative of, say, Los Angeles, than Nashville.

Speaking of Southern California, that was the pre-Nashville homeland of Brett Young, who preceded Rhett at Rupp last night. He operated from the same stylistic plateau as the headliner, but appeared nowhere near as comfortable onstage. In fact, it’s a safe bet, judging by his often stiff and choreographed movements, Young is likely very new to this kind of performance setting.

That was underscored by the fact that the singer seemed most relaxed when he sat down to sing the hit ballads “Mercy” and “In Case You Didn’t Know.” The very youngish Rupp crowd of 11,000 (an impressive turnout for a “country” show on a Thursday night) didn’t mind, though, as they awarded Young with a kind of American Idol-level zeal.

In all honesty, the hit of the evening was opening act Midland, an Austin, Tx. trio (augmented by a guitarist and drummer) whose members dressed like they stepped out of 1971 and sounded like they stepped out of 1981.

A little bit retro, a little Lone Star honky tonk and largely unassuming in their presentation of tunes like “Check Cashin’ Country” (song title of the year there, folks) and “Burn Out,” Midland mainstays Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson and Cameron Duddy made the most daring statement of the evening – that it was cool to actually sound like a country band.


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