Archive for December, 2018

in performance: jason isbell

Jason .Isbell. Photo by Erika Goldring.

“We promise we don’t have any Christmas songs for you tonight,” remarked Jason Isbell prior to the kickoff of a sold out, two hour-plus acoustic performance Saturday at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. “We don’t have anything against Christmas songs. We’re just tired of them.”

With that, Isbell, guitarist Sadler Vaden and violinist (and wife) Amanda Shires dug into “24 Frames,” a panoramic country snapshot that underscored a poetic yet unsettled rural narrative. It exemplified the often restless nature of Isbell’s best songs, an attribute that has helped them take on massive electric personas when played by his full 400 Unit band (of which Vaden and Shires are members). Without a rhythm section or rockish amplification, the song’s appeal and potency were in no way compromised. The melodic flow of the tune may have been lighter, but its lyrical urgency was still luminous.

That’s how the rest of the 20-song set played out, as well. Some of the more Americana-inclined tunes from Isbell’s catalog, especially the whopping seven songs pulled from his 2013 breakthrough album “Southeastern,” seemed a natural fit for the acoustic trio. Especially arresting was the lonesome highway imagery conjured during “Traveling Alone,” where Shires’ violin colors offered a ghostly ambience.

But Isbell didn’t shy away from giving his more aggressive works a trim, as well. Topping that list was “Outfit,” a fan favorite from the songsmith’s past artistic life as a member of Drive-By Truckers. A story of tough fatherly love, the song is usually an electric monster in the hands of the 400 Unit. On Saturday, it fell again to Shires to do some of compensatory heavy lifting by replacing the searing power chords that drove the band version with thinner but suitably tense runs on the violin.

Ultimately, though, it was the plain speaking nature of the songs, along with Isbell’s steadfast delivery of them, that fueled the performance. A case in point: “Tupelo,” a work from 2017’s “The Nashville Sound” album that neatly summarized its sense of uneasy escape within a lean chorus lyric (“There ain’t no one from here that will follow me there”).

Unlike his shows with the 400 Unit, Isbell was loose and chatty between songs on Saturday, spinning yarns of devotion and denouncement. His topics included Bruce Springsteen, harmonica solos, composing songs while stranded at a muddy German festival and the as-yet unrealized concept of queso streaming.

Everything became quite orderly, however, when Isbell performed “Cover Me Up,” a song audience members began shouting for from the onset of the concert. The composition was essentially written for Shires, who usually performs her own music with her own band. Having Mrs. Isbell onstage singing harmony during a composition that wasn’t so much a love song as a tale of redemption was undeniably electric. This may have been an acoustic performance by design and intent, but at this moment, sparks flew generously.

in performance: the bad plus

The Bad Plus. From left: Dave King, Orrin Evans and Reid Anderson.

According to one of the producers of the Origins Jazz Series, the only problem in presenting the acclaimed jazz trio The Bad Plus in concert Sunday night at the Lexington Children’s Theatre were assumptions from unfamiliar patrons that the performance was going to somehow be a jazz program for children.

Sorry, kids. You were more than welcome to stay up and join the fun, but this was very much an evening of grown up jazz, a courageous and immensely listenable 90 minute set that delighted in deconstructing the standard design of the piano trio and, to a lesser extent, the very structure of The Bad Plus itself.

The show opening “Seams” set the evening’s battle plan quietly in motion by beginning with a slow, pastoral pattern from Orrin Evans. The pianist replaced Bad Plus co-founder Ethan Iverson at the onset of 2018. The contrasts between the two players were immediately placed on display. The “Seams” intro established a sense of dynamics the trio didn’t always choose to enforce in the past. Yes, Evans lacked a smidge of the wildness of his predecessor. Frankly, though, the earthy grace and general playfulness he brought to the performance, as suggested by the way his intro gradually brought bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King (the band’s other founding members) into the tune before letting the whole ensemble feel gently implode, more than compensated.

These quieter moments were quite striking, whether they came during the equally reserved sway of “Kerosene II” or the more ominous melodic flow of “Hurricane Birds.” But “Safe Passage” had the new Bad Plus offering a blast of vibrant ensemble energy punctuated by bright staccato stabs on piano from Evans and a percussive rumble from King that seemed to play tug of war with the melody. After three-and-a-half exuberant minutes, the tune said its peace and unceremoniously concluded.

All of these compositions came from the band’s newest album, “Never Stop II” and were penned by Anderson. But the cross-generational lexicon of The Bad Plus that won the Minneapolis band such a devout following with college-aged audiences (and largely filled LCT on Sunday) was addressed in very moving terms at the end of the evening with a cover of “Flim.”

The song, in its original form, was a relative obscurity pulled from a 1997 EP by Aphex Twin. But The Bad Plus made the tune its own on the 2003 breakthrough album, “These are the Vistas.” Evans remained faithful to the lyrical fancy of the “Vistas” arrangement, playing it almost as a children’s lullaby (what a coincidence, given the setting) with King adding a coda on a small, percussive wind-up toy.

But it was the lyrical innocence at the heart of the performance that was so gently overwhelming. It was a slice of welcoming comfort signally The Bad Plus had grown older but not entirely up.

in performance: alabama/ricky skaggs and kentucky thunder/the kentucky headhunters

Ricky Skaggs.

“It’s bluegrass time,” proclaimed Ricky Skaggs on Friday night at Rupp Arena, affirming not only his status as patriarch of the string music sound that has been the Lawrence County native’s lifelong calling, but also the home court advantage he and the co-billed Kentucky Headhunters held over headliner Alabama.

It would be easy to go all jingoistic and root for Skaggs’ current career resurgence, largely triggered by his recent induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the electric blues-country matrix of the Metcalfe County-rooted Headhunters simply because they are neighbors of sorts. But such favoritism wasn’t needed. The country-pop vets of Alabama were on very shaky performance ground last night and proved no match for the Kentucky acts they invited onto the bill.

For starters, only two of the four members that made Alabama a yearly sellout attraction at Rupp during the early ‘80s were on hand. Drummer Mark Herndon was not invited to take part in the extended reunions that followed Alabama’s initial disbanding in 2004, while co-founding guitarist Jeff Cook, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2017, is absent from the band’s current tour. That meant the Alabama lineup that performed with such ease as a four and five piece unit three decades ago was paired down to a duo backed by six support players.

What was left on Friday simply wasn’t a surefooted performance enterprise. Lead vocalist Randy Owen looked and sounded noticeably tired (he referenced having the flu during some between song banter). He presented relaxed and whispery readings of ballads like “Feels So Right” and “Lady Down on Love,” but ended most songs with reprises where he simply let the audience sing the chorus. Curiously, it was bassist Teddy Gentry – essentially, a silent partner during the band’s ‘80s heyday – that seemed to keep things together by taking on much of the stage chat and band interaction.

Interestingly enough, the song that seemed to finally pull the band together was a spirited reading of the pop-inflected title tune to 1983’s “The Closer You Get” album, a work penned by Central Kentucky songsmith and longtime Exile skipper J.P. Pennington. In many ways, that cemented the Kentucky presence that began to take hold at the onset of the evening.

During a brief, half-hour opening set, the Headhunters did what they have always done naturally – establish a rural country voice for heavily electric music that owed greatly to blues and blues-rock. Most modern country acts, in spot-checking their influences, don’t go much deeper than Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Headhunters referenced blue guitar giant Freddie King by way of a suitably soulful take on the chestnut “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” with guitarist Greg Martin ably channeling the song’s ageless blues muse. Ditto for the Chuck Berrry-style makeover of “Oh, Lonesome Me” and the band’s hit reading of “Walk Softly On This Heart of Mine” that owed more to “Honky Tonk Women” era Rolling Stones than it did to the song’s originator, bluegrass forefather Bill Monroe.

Speaking of bluegrass, that’s where Skaggs came in. Having been part of a neo-traditionalist movement in the mid ‘80s that helped dethrone bands like Alabama from country hierarchy, he now seems quite comfortable in his role as a scholarly string band elder.

Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder ensemble was more of a battalion than a band, armed with three guitarists, a monster fiddler (Mike Barnett) and a rhythmic command that was as strong as oak. That provided a very solid base of operations for nuggets like “How Mountain Girls Can Love” and “Black Eyed Suzie,” which bookended the 40 minute set, as well as bluegrass-modified arrangements of such vintage Skaggs country hits as “Highway 40 Blues” and a brief gospel segment highlighted by the homey testimony of Red Smiley’s “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer.”

Nothing, though, matched the impact of watching the Rupp crowd of 7,500 on its feet, singing along with the chorus to the Monroe-penned standard “Uncle Pen” and then have Skaggs tear through the song’s melody on mandolin with warp speed accuracy. It was a brilliantly executed (and received) tribute from a Kentucky legend now in the midst of a hearty career renaissance to another Bluegrass inspiration that more than once made his presence known during this Rupp summit.

in performance: brand x

Brand X: Chris Clark, Scott Weinberger, Kenny Grohowski, Percy Jones and John Goodsall.

The term Brand X has long been the tag affixed to almost any form of faceless competition, a purposely inferior black sheep entity that all marketable commodities are contrasted to – favorably, one hopes.

Those qualities aren’t totally lost of the band Brand X, which was born at the height of the fusion era with a hearty enough pedigree in prog music to make it an orphan of sorts to the jazz world. It didn’t matter that the ensemble’s founding drummer was Phil Collins, who was just starting to take the reigns of Genesis in the wake of Peter Gabriel’s departure when Brand X recorded its debut album, “Unorthodox Behaviour,” in the fall of 1975. During the five year period that followed, when Brand X recorded all of its key studio albums, the band was an anomaly that earned mostly cultish followings but little lasting respect from the jazz community.

On Thursday evening at Ludlow Garage in Cincinnati, where a reconstituted Brand X made it first regional concert appearance in four decades, it was tough to determine if audiences had fully dialed into its work as the venue boasted more than a few empty seats. The band’s repertoire hasn’t been updated (no compositions post 1980 were played). Neither has its sound, which remained a proudly prog-ish offshoot of fusion. What has changed is the band’s sharpness and agility. With two founding members – guitarist John Goodsall and fretless bassist Percy Jones – manning a crew fleshed out by a trio of younger players (drummer Kenny Grohowski looked to be a full generation removed from the elders), this current Brand X lineup displayed a level of technical precision, physical drive and performance dynamics the older groups, even the ones with Collins, couldn’t match.

Credit much of that the orchestrations of keyboardist Chris Clark, the wildly rubbery sound Jones created on bass and the variety of power chords, sinewy solo lyricism and vibrant musical colors Goodsall continually added to the two set performance. Grohowski and percussionist Scott Weinberger nicely propelled the resulting ensemble sound but also teamed for a brief, boisterous percussive dialogue during the extended, suite-like “The Ghost of Mayfield Lodge.”

In terms of specifics, all of this translated into a blend of interactive playfulness and Latin-esque expression that broadly recalled the music of Chick Corea during “Disco Suicide” and the mad dashes between tropical accents and warp speed melody lines that bolstered “Not Good Enough, See Me.”

But it was during the “Unorthodox Behaviour” favorite “Born Ugly” that all of Brand X’s tricks, new and vintage, coalesced. Jones began the tune with a plump bass line that triggered a mounting funk attack. But half way through, the tune radically shifted course, allowing a recurring keyboard riff by Clark to temper the tune and frame some of Goodsall’s most patient and expressive guitar work of the evening.

Will any of this signal a wider, more generous audience in the future for Brand X? Hard to say. But it was undeniably inspiring to hear such complex, uncompromising and, quite often, uncategorizable music being played by a cross-generational band with even more ingenuity and spirit than when it was first created.




in performance: richard thompson electric trio

Richard Thompson.

Four songs into a tireless two hour Wednesday performance at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville, Richard Thompson asked a favor of the elders in the audience.

“Keep living,” the veteran British guitarist and songsmith requested. “We need your demographic to keep rolling for a few more years.”

Such a remark might suggest Thompson, 69, was viewing himself as unfashionable to the pop mainstream, which he probably is. Then again, as this astonishing performance asserted, his music’s balance of British folk tradition and vintage American rock ‘n’ roll vigor has never made for charttopping material. It has been always too alert, too human and, as often was the case Wednesday evening, too combustible for most commercial tastes.

Fronting his trio of longtime drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk with occasional rhythm guitar support from Bobby Eichorn, Thompson remained an artist of his own time during this predominantly electric outing. That meant rolling out new tunes from his “13 Rivers” album that shifted from the jittery introspection of the show-opening “Bones of Gilead” to the percussive Celtic-flavored foreboding of “The Storm Won’t Come,” which demonstrated both the efficiency of his trio and stylistic adaptability of his guitar work.

Thompson, of course, is a properly heralded instrumentalist. But on Wednesday, it wasn’t the sheer drive and drama of his playing that astounded (although the extended guitar rampage that ignited the forgotten 1988 gem “Can’t Win” rightly earned an ovation). Equally intriguing were the short electric blasts that punctuated the “13 Rivers” tune “Her Love Was Meant For Me.” Hearing Thompson dispense his performance smarts in such contained but potent outbursts was one of the program’s many delights.

Some of the songs strayed into yesteryear in ways both artful and playful, as on “Guitar Heroes” (from 2015’s “Still” album), a self-deprecating slice of fan worship that allowed Thompson to mimic such inspirational guitar forefathers as Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry and Hank Marvin. Others were rooted in a more restless sense of nostalgia, such as the jazzy and acoustic “They Tore the Hippodrome Down.” Then there were the two songs pulled from the deepest corners of Thompson’s own past – specifically, a pair of 50 year old works he penned for Fairport Convention, “Meet on the Ledge” and the impossibly obscure “Tale in Hard Time.”
The show ended with the evening’s lone cover, a rumbling reading of the 1966 Sorrows single “Take a Heart.” Despite its history as a slice of vintage Brit pop, Thompson’s reading worked as an ominous duel with Jerome, whose percussion fills proved a cunning foil for the guitarist’s varied electric adventures throughout the evening.

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