Archive for November, 2018

in performance: john hiatt

John Hiatt. Photo by David McClister.

John Hiatt’s finest music always seems to center around family – his adoration of it, his curiosity towards it and, in some cases, his unabashed escape from it.

On Tuesday night before a modest sized turnout at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, Hiatt recounted how his first visit to his hosting city came as a teen fleeing his Indianapolis homestead to sleep in an abandoned downtown building that was “cold as (expletive).” That single-evening truancy sent him back to the family and, presumably, planted at least some of the seeds for his songs.

Though this solo acoustic performance was among Hiatt’s final tour dates promoting his 23rd studio album “The Eclipse Sessions,” the family theme resurfaced in the revival of an astonishing 1990 composition, “Seven Little Indians.” A largely autobiographical tale that outlined Hiatt’s childhood as the second youngest of seven children entertained by their storytelling father through an incantatory tale draped in Native American imagery. Spoken and recited and much as it was sung, Hiatt served the tune up as a childhood remembrance told from a decidedly adult (and subsequently parental) perspective.

The newer tunes from “The Eclipse Sessions” were perhaps less familial but no less fascinating, from the disenchanting Nashville portrait “All the Way to the River” to the plain speaking (and almost apologetic) spiritual confessional “Poor Imitation of God.” In both cases, the darker turns of the lyrics were matched by the low, often whispery tones of Hiatt’s singing.

At 66, there are mild signs of age in Hiatt’s performance profile. Aside from the more sobering nature of his songs, his voice is slightly thinner and his general persona less animated than in years past. None of that was distracting, however. In fact, age brought a sage-like demeanor to tunes like “Crossing Muddy Waters” as well as vintage fare that included “Is Anybody There?” and “Feels Like Rain.” Even the formerly whimsical rocker “Perfectly Good Guitar” took upon an air of scholarly sadness in this unaccompanied setting.

That’s not to say Hiatt didn’t get into party mode when he chose to. The evening’s most ribald entry had to be “Memphis in the Meantime,” a saga of down home decadence that has, over its three decade-plus history, always referenced a currently en vogue country artist and their unwillingness to “ever record this song.” When the song first appeared in 1987, the artist in question was Ronnie Milsap. On Tuesday, it was Blake Shelton.

The tune didn’t stray far from home, ether. It was first featured on the album that essentially broke Hiatt as a solo artist. Its title? “Bring the Family.”

in performance: bob dylan and his band

Bob Dylan.

Go away from my window; leave at your own chosen speed.”

That famous lyric, the lead off to “It Ain’t Me Babe,” comes from a staple of Bob Dylan’s catalog and performance repertoire. The song popped up No. 2 in the batting order of the master songsmith’s otherworldly sold out performance at the EKU Center for the Arts on Sunday evening, serving as – depending on your perspective – a greeting or a warning of what was to come. That’s because Dylan, 77, has long taken his songs at his own emotive, lyrical and rhythmic speed. Such asymmetry explains why some tunes sounded like crooners, other like pop carousels and more than a few like vehicles for, unfathomably, surf inspiration.

Seated at a piano for nearly the entire 1 ¾ hour concert (he quit playing guitar onstage years ago) with a functional four member band that was mostly backlit to make their music even more atmospheric, Dylan presented a set list rich with classics as well as comparatively newer works (meaning songs cut in this century). As we have come to expect from a Dylan show, every song sported drastically altered arrangements that often shifted the music’s entire rhythmic structure. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” as a crooner? “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an encore lullaby? “When I Paint My Masterpiece” as a dizzying meditation? Those were the altered portraits Dylan put on display with varying shades of his death rattle vocals as a tour guide along with piano work that purposely blotched the musical canvases like spilt ink.

The newer works obviously intrigued Dylan more than the hits. As such, several presented some startling surprises, including an incantatory “Scarlet Town,” the first of four tunes pulled from 2012’s “Tempest” and the only complete song Dylan sang without using the piano as protective armor. Equally arresting was “Cry A While” from 2001’s “Love and Theft,” which was transformed into an electric hullabaloo of sorts thanks to guitarist Charlie Sexton’s Dick Dale-like guitar riffs (seriously, this arrangement had “Rumble” written all over it).

Also, if you were especially attentive and could make out actual words from Dylan’s corrosive singing, you could catch him toying with his own lyrics. A change I detected popped up in the set-closing “Gotta Serve Somebody” (“Maybe you’re hallucinating, you think you’ve seen a ghost”).

Curiously, it was the evening’s lone cover tune, which closed the evening, that served as the most faithful entry in the program to the song’s original incarnation. On a slow, somber version of James Brown’s immortal “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” Dylan focused his singing in a manner that approximated the clarity of his recent standards albums. Fiddler and BR549 alum Donnie Herron even provided a startling one-man take execution of the original’s potently elegant string arrangement.

How does such a song fit into one of the most socially timeless catalogues in popular music? Who’s to say? Then again, Dylan debuted the cover on Nov. 7 – the day after the election. In Georgia. For a program so thoroughly rooted in the Dylan mystique, this nightcap was a startling return to earth.

in performance: “the joni mitchell tribute: both sides now”

Joni MItchell attending a tribute concert on Wednesday in Los Angeles, one of several worldwide concerts this week honoring her 75th birthday. Photo by Vivian Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Cente.

On paper, staging a Lexington-based tribute performance to the music of Joni Mitchell would seem a logical second act for the artists and organizers that presented immensely popular and well organized programs of Leonard Cohen songs last year and last spring. Both artists have musical legacies that extend back to the 1960s, both have had their works interpreted by countless disciples representing myriad genres and both have evoked a sense of lyrical and poetic adoration from successive generations. Mitchell even trumps Cohen for timeliness (this year, at least), as Friday’s “The Joni Mitchell Tribute: Both Sides Now” at First Presbyterian Church came in tandem with a wave of international celebrations honoring the songstress’ 75th birthday earlier this week.

But stylistically, Mitchell has proven a greater thrillseeker than Cohen. To that degree, such variance was showcased at Friday’s showcase to an effect that was sometimes thrilling, sometimes lopsided, sometimes both.

Those taken with songs fashioned from Mitchell’s earliest recordings as a folk princess of Laurel Canyon had plenty to luxuriate in, beginning with a crystalline reading of “Cactus Tree” (from Mitchell’s 1968 debut album “Song to a Seagull”) by Louisville folk stylist Julia Purcell, whose expressive soprano best approximated Mitchell’s multi-octave singing. Several other artists, though, nicely shifted the vocal temperament to their own range, be it through two stirring solo piano accompaniments by Beth Scherfee (“For Free”) and Melissa Snow-Groves (a more classically inclined “Blue”) or the beautiful mother/daughter harmonies of Diane Timmons and Claire Rose during The Partisans’ take on the 1969 “Clouds” obscurity “Songs to Aging Children Come.”

The program’s attempts to follow Mitchell’s music as it morphed into more progressive shades of fusion, world beat and jazz were impressive in their daring but more problematic in execution. Kevin Holm-Hudson and Jim Gleason get bonus points for the evening’s biggest gambles, even if the resulting sound and mix buried their vocals. Holm-Hudson assembled a team of 14 percussionists (including local innovators Tripp Bratton and Dave Farris) to recreate the Drummers of Burundi’s incantatory beat on “The Jungle Line,” while Gleason delved into the “Mingus” era swing of “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.” There were also some audacious interpretive choices, including Doc Feldman’s transformations of the spacious “Refuge of the Roads” and “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” into denser, Grateful Dead-style excursions.

But the biggest delight came near the program’s end with chamber-like transformations by Nevi’im of “Amelia” and Mitchell’s brilliant 1982 mash-up of the original “Chinese Café” with the pop classic “Unchained Melody.” Aided by pianist Raleigh Dailey, cellist Benjamin Karp and violinist Margie Karp, the vocals of Marilyn Robie and Kim D’Amato played out with patient, poetic grace in a setting that was distinctive yet profoundly respectful of Mitchell’s stylistic and lyrical genius.


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