Archive for June, 2019

in performance: tim easton

Tim Easton. Photo by Michael Weintrob.

“Hope the windows are up,” remarked Tim Easton as his splendid solo acoustic performance drew to a close Wednesday evening with the rains hammering down around The Burl

Sure, the week’s abundant precipitation prompted such concerns. But the evening storm was just one of the intentional accents of ambience that added to Easton’s remarkable corral of songs – works with conversive, country-esque invitation but bolstered by a highly literary human elements that played out with zero affectation.

Other examples? Well, a siren flew past as the introductory guitar strains of “Black Dog” opened the evening. Later, a roll of thunder greeted the Texas-inspired “On My Way.” Best of all, a passing train set up “All the Pretty Girls Leave Town,” which Easton had already placed within a suitably rustic framework by using a snippet of the Doc Watson-popularized “More Pretty Girls Than One” as an intro.

But the elements only enhanced an expert sense of songcraft that was already there. Easton spun songs like campfire sagas, even though the topicality of the themes varied greatly. He detailed the domestic wreckage at the heart of  “New Year’s Day” (not to be confused with a different tune of the same name that highlighted a fine solo opening set by local hero Maggie Lander) without undue sentiment in its delivery or inordinate blame to his departed partner in the song’s storyline. From an entirely different plateau came the show-closing “Don’t Spectate, Participate” a quiet but very assured call to the voting polls and, ultimately, to civil involvement.

Both tunes came from Easton’s new folk album “Exposition,” which was released last week.

None of this should surprise those familiar to Easton’s music. Now based in Nashville, but formerly with residences in California, New York, Ohio and abroad, he has been playing Lexington venues for over two decades. Wednesday’s repertoire mirrored that alliance with songs that ran from music off his 1998 debut album “Special 20” through a generous sampling of entries from his three most recent recordings – 2016’s “American Fork” (the beautifully crafted Americana reverie “Burning Star”), 2018’s “Paco and the Melodic Poloraids” (the rootsy flatpicking vehicle “Old New Straitsville Blues”) and the four tunes picked from “Exposition.”

Of course, the obvious audience favorite remained “Lexington Jail” (from 2003’s “Break Your Mother’s heart”). The song chronicled the aftermath of an ill-fated celebration foiled by “local constables” following a Lexington concert by Wilco in 1997.

“When they let me go, I just stood with my hands to the sky,” sang Easton. “I’ll be in Tennessee tomorrow, or maybe just lay down and die.”

bruce springsteen’s cinematic highway songs

Bruce Springsteen. Photo by Danny Clinch.

There is something in the folkloric imagery of the highway that has always fascinated Bruce Springsteen, from the electric restlessness bursting out of songs from “Born to Run” and “Darkness of the Edge Town” to starker, darker snapshots from “Devils & Dust” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that blur time references but not the turbulence that sits in the pits of their very human stories.

Springsteen’s new “Western Stars” may be his ultimate road record, a sweeping travelogue that drifts far from Asbury Park and even further from the rougher badlands that inhabited perhaps his finest album, 1982’s “Nebraska.” The journey this time is different. Released three months shy of his 70th birthday, this is neither the celebratory rock ‘n’ roll of Springsteen’s E Street Band music or the brittle acoustic sideroads visited on previous solo records. This is sunshine seen through clouds, songs rich with a majestic unease that are told with little that approximates rockish familiarity and more with string and orchestral settings that color the songs with a cinematic vastness that typifies their narratives.

From the surface, what you hear is more Bacharach than “Backstreets.”

When one of the new record’s concluding tracks, “Hello Sunshine,” was released as a preview single in late April, what we sensed was a melody that breezed along with a decades-old wistfulness. What immediately came to find was Harry Nilsson’s hit 1969 version of “Everybody’s Talkin.” There is a similarity in the approach to other arrangements throughout “Western Stars” with “Sleepy Joe’s Café” standing as the only hint of an E Street throwback.

The journeying begins the second the album starts. “Thumb stuck out as I go,” Springsteen sings over light guitar and banjo as the aptly titled “Hitch Hikin’” gathers steam. Then strings roll in like passing clouds. Not storm clouds – not yet, anyway. They simply color the canvas. The lyrics introduce us to a corral of good-natured visitors – an expecting couple, a trucker and a “gearhead in a souped up ‘72” – that oblige the protagonist with a ride. The travels from there are vast but uncertain.

On “Tucson Train,” the album turns the typical Springsteen scenario of escape on its ear. Instead of bolting from a Jersey-area smalltown, what is left behind is “Frisco” and a freight train full of emotional baggage. “We fought hard over nothin’, we fought till nothin’ remained,” Springsteen sings. “I’ve carried that nothin’ for a long time.” Still, every repeat chorus carries a hope of reconciliation that ends with three words of promise, referencing both the train and who is on it – “Here she comes.”

From there, “Western Stars’ cruises through stories of regret, want and hope – things that have fueled Springsteen’s music for generations. It’s just that the spaciousness of these unexpected arrangements enhance those themes with a new luminescence, as in the luxurious title tune, the epic “There Goes My Miracle” (whose title is augmented by two simple words of doomed finality – “… walking away”) and the equally despondent romantic requiem “Stones.”

The travels close in the middle of nowhere – specifically, the quiet abandonment of “Moonlight Motel,” where the battlements of a hideaway (“She was boarded up and gone like an old summer song”) mirror a life equally forsaken. But as Springsteen all-but-whispers the lyrics over acoustic guitar and muted strings that ring like distant lightning, the story seems more eloquent than sad.

It’s the parting shot in a pack of postcards detailing a journey of time and distance. They are the conversations of a master storyteller spinning a yarn of a perhaps different color, yet you recognize the voice at once. It’s The Boss sounding as comforting and compelling as ever.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass

NewTown: Jr Williams, Kati Penn, Travis Anderson and Mitchell Cannon.

It doesn’t matter how glorious the music becomes or how blissful the outdoor setting might be. Being a patron at a music festival in the rain can be an exercise in misery.

Given Friday’s near ceaseless showers, some compromises became necessary for a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park for the Festival of the Bluegrass.

That meant a later than usual arrival time (apologies to evening opener Turning Ground) and an earlier than expected departure (sorry, headliner IIIrd Tyme Out). But the climate control also brought about an unanticipated opportunity to view exclusively two 80 minute sets by a pair of Kentucky acts that made braving the elements worthwhile.

When Dave Adkins took to the stage around 7:45 p.m., the rains were subdued but steady, so the Elkhorn City singer faced an uphill battle. Full of country boy vigor and a deep tenor vocal command that sported a gutbucket bottom end, the singer presented himself as something of a vintage country jukebox.

His 18-song set may have been bluegrass in its instrumental design. But the repertoire went reeling through vintage country eras beginning with an animated take on the 1965 Harlan Howard-penned Lefty Frizzell hit “(She’s) Gone, Gone, Gone.” It quickly worked backward. The hit parade then hit the ‘50s (Roy Acuff’s “Once More”) and even the ‘40s (Bill Monroe’s take on the gospel confessional “Cryin’ Holy Unto the Lord”).

But the lead inspiration in Adkins’ set was clearly Merle Haggard. Adkins went to the well for three late ‘60s Hag staples – “Sing Me Back Home,” “Today I Started Loving You Again” and, best of all, the giddiest take on “The Fugitive” you’re likely to hear without electric instrumentation.

There were a few instances where Adkins’ sheer jubilance got the better of him, making his booming vocals seem a touch overcooked. But his good-natured performance demeanor and expansive understanding of making vintage country songs thrive in a traditional bluegrass setting nicely compensated.

The rains subsided when NewTown followed with a radically different jukebox strategy. Like Adkins, the band – fronted by Lexington-based fiddler Kati Penn and husband, banjoist and co-vocalist Jr Williams – didn’t favor original material. But NewTown’s collective ear for outside music has proven especially keen in establishing its considerable stylistic, instrumental and vocal dexterity. Curiously, the source material came largely from a team of contemporary writers led by Lawrence County Americana sensation Tyler Childers for a sound that often possessed a traditional air. And by traditional, we mean music that it bypassed bluegrass’ regional roots in favor of the music’s overseas ancestry.

There were numerous instances Friday evening when Penn’s fiddle lines exhibited an antique and almost Celtic flavor. There were even more song examples (Martin Gilmore’s “Laura Lee” being one) where ancient imagery boldly upheld the rustic instrumentation. No wonder NewTown’s most recent album was titled “Old World.”

The defining moments of the 16-song set came early when Penn and Williams guided NewTown through three masterful Childers tunes intercut with a sublime take on the late Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” (one of the more human snapshots of Ireland offered by an American songsmith). The brewing destitution in the aptly titled “Hard Times,” sung with chilling candor by Williams, was quickly established by a Childers-penned checklist at the song’s onset (“I bought a house at the mouth of the holler, a ring at the pawn shop and a crib for the kid”). Then came the Clark tune, followed by Penn’s dizzying take on “The Crows and the Jakes” and the sobering, ancient tones of “Harlan Road” (which served as the title tune to a 2016 NewTown album)

Fortifying all this was an ensemble sound that revealed itself though taught, efficient instrumental breaks until “Gonna Take a Train” allowed all five band members extended solos that veered outside bluegrass convention into more jazz-like fields of improvisation.

It was a splendid outing by a Kentucky band that sounds more engaging and adventurous every year at the Festival of the Bluegrass.

With that, we bid adieu for the evening. Good thing, too. Within minutes of Newtown’s stage exit, the skies opened again.

dr. john, 1941-2019

Dr. John (Mac Rebennack).

It was in the early 1970s, on that great televised seminar of contemporary music known as “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” that I was introduced to Dr. John.

Initially, he was a name among many – one of those artists a pre-teen kid was supposed to know about if he was serious about his devotion to rock ‘n’ roll. Well, here Dr. John was, making a house call to my living room TV dressed in layers of scarves and necklaces, tossing glitter in the air, playing piano like a rock-funk renegade and singing like the voodoo shaman he very much envisioned himself to be. In another month or two, Dr. John, born Mac Rebennack, would be all over rock radio with a blast of New Orleans funk called “Right Place, Wrong Time” and again a few months later with the vastly sunnier follow-up “Such a Night.”

The album those singles came from, 1973’s “In the Right Place,” was my first Dr. John record purchase. But what it became was a passport to the city of New Orleans and the world of music it contained. This wasn’t the Dixieland/Al Hirt jazz my father’s generation viewed New Orleans music to be or even the Jelly Roll Morton-schooled ragtime and swing that serious jazzers considered as the defining voices of Crescent City music. No, Dr. John was different. His music was darker, thicker and, in every purposeful way, trippier – hence the addendum to his performance moniker: The Night Tripper. As such, “In the Right Place” was a new-generation New Orleans summit that featured the city’s premier song stylist Allen Toussaint as producer and co-keyboardist and its coolest funk troupe, The Meters, as the record’s primary band. It was outrageous – an 11-song road map through the more subterranean, voodoo-infested avenues of Crescent City funk that sounded unlike anything I had heard.

But the enduring magic of Dr. John, who died Thursday at the age of 77, was how vast his musical reach was. In subsequent decades, he would cut albums of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong compositions, pop standards and solo piano meditations while gigging with everyone from The Band (he sang an uproarious “Such a Night” for “The Last Waltz”) to Art Blakey.

Still, nothing satisfied more than when Rebennack was in full Dr. John mode, whether it was though the seven Atco albums cut between 1968 and 1974 that shifted from heavily psychedelic variations on New Orleans funk (the 1968 debut “Gris-Gris”) to scholarly nods to Crescent City forefathers like Professor Longhair and Huey Smith (1972’s “Gumbo”) or forgotten later albums like “City Lights” (1978), “Creole Moon” (2001) and the Dan Auerbach-produced “Locked Down” (2012).

I got to interview Dr. John twice ahead of Lexington concerts in 2009 and 2015. His mood was strikingly different during the conversations, although his demeanor was consistently polite.

The 2009 interview came four years after Hurricane Katrina and the floods that erupted in its aftermath had forever changed the face of his homeland. Infuriated that the rest of the country had mistakenly thought New Orleans had magically healed itself from the wreckage, Rebennack released an album called “City That Care Forgot” that embraced the resilience of those who continued to work through the devastation of Katrina.

“Let’s put it this way,” he told me in 2009. “I ain’t giving up. We’re a people of a good spirit. These are people I trust with my life. They’re resilient.”

His tone was lighter in 2015, when the New Orleans inspiration that created such a variety of depth and color in his music, seemed almost redemptive in its intensity, as was his optimism at still being able to perform in his early 70s. The word he used repeatedly to describe his touring band, his audience reception and his entire sense of performance vigor was “slammin’.”

“I think that no matter what you go through in life, you got to roll,” he said in 2015. “You got to roll like a big wheel in the Georgia cotton fields.”

in performance: paul mccartney

Paul McCartney performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Alex Slitz.

Paul McCartney had the sold-out audience of 19,000 before him sized up pretty well as his tireless and irrepressibly fun concert headed into the home stretch Saturday evening at Rupp Arena.

Noting that performances of his Beatles classics usually triggered “a galaxy of stars” through the glow of cell phones from eager fans while the delivery of new songs amounted, in terms of expectation and interest, to “a black hole,” he unapologetically launched into “Fuh You,” the third of three tunes from his 2018 album “Egypt Station.”

Maybe the audience showed a sliver of sympathy for the seemingly orphaned tune or perhaps they were taken by the its bright pop melodicism which sounded like the direct descendent of a Beatles gem. Regardless, the cell phones came out and lit up Rupp like a Christmas tree.

My guess is something different – specifically, that the Rupp crowd took Sir Paul’s bait and illuminated the tune after the rock icon’s none-too-subtle hint.

The moment was one of many highlights in an evening that was, from beginning to end, a marvel. But it proved especially insightful in explaining what made the performance so special. It underscored how the concert, for all its unavoidably nostalgic lure, didn’t stay buried in the past. Oh sure, the better part of the program – a stunning setlist of 37 songs delivered in a 2 ¾ hour performance with no intermission – went heavy on Beatles favorites as well as popular relics from McCartney’s ‘70s albums with Wings. But there were also surprises. Lots of them.

For starters, there was “Letting Go,” a gritty, hook heavy slice of forgotten rock ‘n’ roll from Wings’ 1975 album “Venus and Mars” that ushered in a three-man horn section. The trio entered not from backstage, but down the lower arena stairs and played the entire tune in the lap of the audience.

Later came “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a similarly gritty (and overlooked) mid-tempo rocker from the Beatles’ 1970 swansong album “Let It Be” that still reveals an earthiness in tempo and groove. It was also cool to hear guitarists Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson, along with drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. (who proved a powerhouse player, vocalist and all-around spirit for the entire performance) taking over the refrain originally sung by John Lennon.

Equally unexpected was “Queenie Eye,” a comparatively recent entry off of McCartney’s 2013 solo album “New” that, like “Fuh You,” was delivered with a keenly retro sense of fun spearheaded by the headliner’s natural sense of playfulness.

As for McCartney directly, he remains something of a wonder onstage. Two weeks shy of his 77th birthday, he looked fit, sang with surprisingly unblemished gusto (yes, a few cracks of age appeared, but nothing more than what most rock singers half his age reveal in performance) and flowed with the program’s length and drive as it were a casual stroll. A testament to his stamina was the encore segment, which had him ripping through a reserved but still immediate version of “Helter Skelter,” one of the Beatles’ most savagely electric works, after navigating a full 2 ½ hour set. McCartney didn’t look even remotely winded afterward either.

Undoubtedly the biggest audience expectation of the evening was how such a master song stylist would do justice to one of the most honored song catalogues in rock and pop history. To that end, McCartney didn’t disappoint, from the show opening glee of “A Hard Day’s Night” to an eloquent solo reading of “Blackbird” to a lean and effectively rootsy “Love Me Do.”

Curiously, the most poignant moment of the performance didn’t even involve one of McCartney’s own songs. Instead it was a take on late bandmate George Harrison’s “Something.” It began with an almost ragtime-ish feel on solo ukulele (a favored instrument of Harrison’s) before McCartney and the full band slowed the song to its familiar ensemble arrangement as a parade of video screen photos featuring the two Beatles, ending with a series of them laughing together in a studio, illustrated the memorial.

The concert concluded as it began with, coyly enough, the “Abbey Road” non-hit coda tune “The End.” A recorded snippet of the song brought McCartney to the stage. A full performance version sent the audience home with its lone verse reading like a time-honored mantra.

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Those are words that defy age and trends to enforce a sense of pop affirmation McCartney’s program overflowed with.

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