Archive for February, 2019

in performance: dierks bentley/jon pardi/tenille townes/hot country knights

Dierks Bentley. Photo by Jim Wright.

Perhaps the most concise way of summarizing Dierks Bentley’s return concert to Rupp Arena on Thursday evening is by viewing it as a set of before and after portraits.

The “before” image was the least telling of the two. It came at the stroke of 7 p.m. when the country star donned a mullet wig, ‘80s style shades and a bit of an amateur hour/lounge lizard stage persona. Here, Bentley transformed himself into the hapless Doug Douglasson, lead singer of a cover band called Hot Country Knights with a repertoire that stuck to ‘90s era country hits like Travis Tritt’s “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and Sawyer Brown’s “Some Girls Do.”

What transpired was fun and very purposeful deconstruction with Bentley… er, Douglasson… and pals squabbling for the spotlight and high-stepping through some imploding chorus line choreography. It was half Louvin Brothers and half Marx Brothers, but mostly an intriguing (and quite rare) glimpse of a country celebrity willing to let loose and poke fun at himself.

The “after” shot arrived at 9:30 when Bentley, sans the hijinks and costuming, got down to business with an energetic set that emphasized the anthemic and affirmative lyrical bent of his last five albums.

The show-opening “Burning Man” set the mood with layers of syncopated ensemble might, a tasteful vocal roar from Bentley and orchestral guitar color from Brownsville native Ben Helson that would regularly propel much of the program’s drive.

At times, Bentley and his band allowed the lyrical sway of his narratives to trigger some of the show’s more intriguing instrumental passages, as with the brief but arresting bluegrass-esque breakdown that concluded “The Mountain.” In other instances, the lyrics triggered conversational turns in Bentley’s singing, especially during the back-to-back affirmations “Living” (his newest single) and “Riser.”

That’s not to say these “after” images didn’t loosen things up at times. “Am I Only One,” in fact, was sung with Bentley walking the length of the arena floor, slapping hands with some of the 5,200 fans on hand, while enroute to a second stage late into the show. The party material didn’t slide into country convention, save for “Somewhere on a Beach,” a weirdly conciliatory nod to Kenny Chesney-like pop. Other than that, the mullet-wearing class clown and the affirmative yet assertive country star managed an impressive balancing act.

Sandwiched between Bentley’s sets were performances by California singer Jon Pardi and Canadian newcomer Tenille Townes.

Pardi had a rough night. His performance was fine – a strong slab of electric honky tonk tunes (“Night Shift,” “Paycheck” and the new “Heartache Medicine”) highlighted by an assured, if not entirely distinctive vocal command. Musically, it was a more focused and traditionally accented outing than Pardi’s opening set for Miranda Lambert a year ago at Rupp. But onstage sound problems, which did not seem evident from the audience, got the better of the singer, causing him to tear out his ear monitors, blast the set as “probably the worst performance of the tour” (an estimation he later rescinded and apologized for) and even halt his show momentarily.

Townes took to Rupp with a big beat and even bigger bell bottoms for the electric “White Horse.” Her brief set reflected a voice that sounded more the product of ‘90s alternative pop than contemporary country (think Blind Melon had it come from Nashville). But the mix was appealing nonetheless, from the good-natured cheer of “I’m Gonna Find You” and “Where You Are” to the cautious professions of faith revealed within the eulogy of “Jersey on the Wall.” “If I ever get to heaven,” Townes sang in the latter tune, “I got a long list of questions.”

grammy post mortem 2019

Alicia Keys and Michelle Obama at the Grammy Awards, Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Unlike the Grammy Awards, we know how to keep a lid on things. We have limited our annual post mortem of the three-and-a-half plus hour televised carnival to 10 vital takeaways. Here is what it all boiled down to for The Musical Box.

+ Michelle Obama may just have been biggest pop star of the night. As part of an entourage that included Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett Smith and show host Alicia Keys, the former first lady barely got five words out on a reflection of Motown music before the crowd went wild, sending the Grammys’ assertion of female star power into the stratosphere.

+ After Camila Cabello began the ceremony with a multi-story dance-pop block party version of “Havana,” Kacey Musgraves brought the Grammys back to earth with a stunning and sparse reading of “Rainbows” accompanied only by piano that proved a complete antithesis of the usual Grammy glitz. The mood didn’t last. The show quickly shifted to a performance of Janelle Monae’s Prince-meets-Kraftwerk blowout of “Make Me Feel.”

+ Non-rapping rapper Post Malone continued to confound as a song stylist, opening with a solo acoustic reading of “Stay” before turning to the dance-pop groove of “Rockstar” as he seemed to wander through the illuminated bowels of the Staples Center. He eventually resurfaced to jam with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with Anthony Keidis looking a lot like that creepy actor from “Manos, Hands of Fate”) on “Dark Necessities.” Though a sloppy summit with no one coming off as a Caruso, it was nonetheless a fun genre-bashing mash up.

+ Anna Kendrick introduced a salute to Dolly Parton that included the Divine Ms. Dolly singing Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” with Maren Morris and Miley Cyrus (with the lyric about “getting high” glaringly whited out), a capable duet exchange with Cyrus on “Jolene” and an anthemic take on “Red Shoes” with Little Big Town where Parton’s vocals agelessly soared. The highlight, though, was watching Kacey Musgraves make musical mincemeat out of an ill-prepared/ill-matched Katy Perry during “Here You Come Again” before Parton joined in to take full ownership of her own tribute.

+ Sure, it would have great to have Kentucky’s own Chris Stapleton walk off with Country Album of the Year for the third time, but you will get no argument from me in handing the trophy over to the great Kacey Musgraves for the second time. In an age where country has shamelessly strayed further than ever from its homegrown roots, Musgraves, for “Golden Hour,” now rejoins a list of Grammy winning country album winners that includes Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Sturgill Simpson. The Album of the Year win was the real surprise, especially to Musgraves. It didn’t take a lip reader to decipher her on-camera reaction: “What? What? What?”

+ Alicia Keys was already in the running for Coolest Grammy Host Ever, but she fully earned the title with an ambitious performance overview that used the dual piano playing of the late (and shamefully blacklisted) Hazel Scott as an inspiration. From there, she offered a hit parade that went from Scott Joplin to Roberta Flack to Nat King Cole to Lauryn Hill to Jay Z and more. Effortless and stunning.

+ Who would have expected the most to-the-bone assessment of the music business and the Grammys themselves to come from Drake? After winning Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan,” he delivered an eloquent but pointed dismissal of awards and high profile accolades. “If you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown, if there are people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain and the snow, spending hard earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this. You’ve already won.” The Grammys responded by immediately cutting to a commercial.

+ Introduced by her nine year old grandson, Diana Ross remained a way-larger-than-life presence during a medley of two songs that spanned nearly 25 years of her post-Supremes solo career – “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch.” It was hardly a spotless vocal exhibition and the run of motivational banter that wound up with the singer wishing herself a happy birthday (she turns 75 next month) grew tiresome. But you expected subtlety from the still uproarious Ms. Ross?

+ Hard to fully grasp Lady Gaga’s performance of “Shallow.” It’s a killer song that lit the rock and soul fuse of “A Star is Born.” Here, she backed up the song’s potency with a vocal command few could have imagined when her career began to gain traction nearly a decade ago. So why all the histrionics and posing in a performance that, visually, bordered on the cliched? In a perhaps unanticipated manner, what you saw wasn’t necessarily what you got. Then again, that’s always been the way with Gaga?

+ Also choosing to de-glam from the Grammys was Brandi Carlile. She let the potency of “The Joke” speak through the lean drive of her band and projections of the song’s chorus lyrics onto a screen behind her. But the key to this prayer for marginalized souls was that voice – that booming, clear vocal bravado that Carlile sent to the moon and back by the song’s conclusion. In recent pop history, only k.d. lang has displayed anything that can match it. Carlile may have even outdistanced her.

in performance: steep canyon rangers/eric bolander

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left, Nicky Sanders, Barrett Smith, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Mike Ashworth and Graham Sharp. Photo by Sandlin Gaither.

It was with no small degree of irony that the Steep Canyon Rangers began their highly engaging performance last night at Manchester Music Hall with their two newest members going it alone – namely, drummer Mike Ashworth and bassist Barrett Smith. The rhythm section initiated a subtle groove that brought the rest of the Grammy winning North Carolina bluegrass troupe to the stage, turning the resulting momentum into the rhythmic sway of “Stand and Deliver.”

Wait a minute. Bluegrass bands have rhythm sections? Well sure, just not normally ones anchored by drums, as was the case with the continually evolving Rangers. Over the course of a one hour, 45-minute set, Ashworth didn’t simply embellish the grassy textures that more expected string instrumentation gave to tunes like “As I Go” and the encore finale of “The Speed We’re Traveling.” He also set up a driving jam (quickly commandeered by mandolinist Mike Guggino) during “Let Me Out of This Town,” provided Fairport Convention-esque Celtic propulsion under fiddler Nicky Sanders on “Take the Wheel” (where Smith took a guest turn on lead vocals) and dug in for a drum solo underscored by mandolin that eventually enlisted all of the Rangers for a giddy percussion romp.

While Ashworth’s prominence (augmented by his solid harmony singing throughout the performance) represented the biggest stylistic leap the Rangers have taken since their last Lexington visit in 2014, the rest of the show relied on essentials, like the juggling of lead vocal duties between guitarist Woody Platt and banjoist/songsmith Graham Sharp. Platt was at home with the easy country lyricism of “When She Was Mine” and a nicely relaxed cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” while Sharp employed more conversationally smoky vocal colors for “Simple at Me.”

All of these elements converged during the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love” that placed the train whistle fiddling of Sanders, the joint vocals of Platt and Sharp and some wild ensemble dynamics that gave the music an almost respiratory rhythm within a single bluegrass statement that both bowed to tradition and dashed madly away from it.

Local hero Eric Bolander opened the evening with a very appealing 50-minute trio set that utilized cellist Seth Murphy and drummer/harmony vocalist Ben Caldwell for an Americana mix that placed restless folk confessions within Southern fried frameworks. What resulted were songs like “The Road, “Fly” and the new “Montgomery Hill” that were rustic, rootsy and often elegant.

the modern tales of steep canyon rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left: Michael Ashworth, Graham Sharp, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Nicky Sanders and Barrett Smith. Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither.

During the recording of their most recent album, “Out in the Open,” the Steep Canyon Rangers played around a single microphone in much the same way a traditional bluegrass band would have 50 or 60 years ago.

That might not seem like earth shattering news save for the fact the Grammy winning North Carolina sextet – lead vocalist/guitarist Woody Platt, banjoist/vocalist Graham Sharp, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, bassist Barrett Smith and percussionist Michael Ashworth – isn’t exactly what one would call traditional. It encompasses an Americana blend that reaches generously but respectfully outside the bluegrass norm. The string band instrumentation is scholarly and confident enough to still be viewed as bluegrass, but the songs – many of which are penned from within the band – possess an almost vintage folk and country inspiration that harkens back to such songwriting stylists as Gene Clark and Vern Gosdin. The Rangers’ appeal, however, has proven inviting enough to forge an unlikely alliance with comedian/actor Steve Martin that has served as a second career of sorts over the past decade.

“We grew up in an area where there was a lot of mountain music and old-time music,” said Platt, who will perform with the Rangers on Saturday at Manchester Music Hall. “I don’t think any of us really absorbed a ton of that or got really focused on it until we were in college, but it was around. There was a square dance every Thursday night right across the street from our house with a bluegrass band, but each member of our band comes from a non-bluegrass background, meaning saxophone players, choir singers and drummers.

“We were sort of a melting pot of influences and I think that comes through in our music. There was a time when we dove into traditional bluegrass head first. Now we’ve been around and have evolved naturally so everybody’s other musical interests and influences are creeping into our version of what I still like to call bluegrass.”

Making the traditional approach to recording the decidedly non-traditional “Out in the Open” all the more curious was the band’s choice of producer – Joe Henry. In addition to his own immensely atmospheric recordings, the veteran song stylist has produced records for such far-ranging artists as Rodney Crowell, Hugh Laurie, Ani DiFranco, Bettye LaVette, Joan Baez, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.

“We walked into the studio and there’s this guy immaculately dressed with this sharp hat on,” Platt said. “He just immediately set the vibe for a cool, laid back but kind of spiritual approach to making a record. It was never overbearing. He taught us a lot about how he viewed recording. It’s hard to explain until you experience making a record with Joe how impactful he can be without being overly pushy. There was such an easy way about him that really set the mood.”

Cementing the Rangers’ appeal outside of bluegrass circles has been the ongoing partnership with Martin, which has included numerous recordings and performances in front of amphitheater and arena audiences that might have otherwise never heard the band – or, for that matter, bluegrass music.

“I think all bands hope for a break in their careers,” Platt said. “What that may be is a certain song, a certain show or a certain collaboration with a different artist. I never saw one of the biggest breaks we would have coming from a movie star/comedian. It’s kind of bizarre, but it was natural from day one. We played one little jam with Steve and 10 years later we’ve never stopped talking about music.

“People may have gone to see Steve who weren’t bluegrass fans. They were just fans of his career and him. Then all of a sudden, he’s playing bluegrass with the Rangers. We’ve seen that help us when we’ve gone back to those markets. People have come to our shows and said, ‘I saw you with Steve.’ So that’s been a really great thing. Also, just working with Steve and watching him work a crowd and play a big show. That’s given us a ton of great stage experience that we’ve been able to carry into our shows.”

Ahead for the Rangers in 2019 will be a retrospective album of material re-recorded with the Asheville Symphony, continued work on a record of new music and ongoing stage work with Martin and fellow comedian Martin Short.

“There is potential when you’re getting close to the end of your second decade as a band to sit back and coast. I feel we’re more focused now than we’ve ever been. It’s an exciting time for the Rangers.”

Steep Canyon Rangers perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $21-$36. Call 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com.


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