Archive for August, 2019

in performance: railbird, day two

Tyler Childers performing Sunday evening at Keeneland as part of Railbird. Herald-Leader staff photo by Ryan Hermens.

“Man, it’s good to be here today,” Tyler Childers remarked as the inaugural Railbird festival headed down the home stretch on Sunday evening.

For the Lawrence County native, now a national sensation thanks to a sense of songcraft and performance command rooted in a narrative-rich yet vintage flavored brand of country music, what was at hand was essentially a homecoming. It was also the zenith of a major music event that gave every indication over the weekend of becoming an annual happening.

Despite the hero status now afforded him, Childers hasn’t altered his sound or song sensibility much. The Railbird set offered giddy tunes that capitalized on clever, unspoiled storytelling (“Country Squire”), darker rural sagas that read like ghost stories in their sense of very human drama (“Creeker,” “House Fire”) and parables with generous nods to his Bluegrass heritage (“Redneck Romeo”). Toss in a white-hot band featuring fellow Kentuckian Jesse Wells (“Jack of all trades, master of most,” as described by Childers) and the world class homecoming was complete.

Woe be to anyone who had follow Childers on such an occasion. On Sunday, that duty fell to headliner Hozier, an Irish vocalist and song stylist who held his own by transforming tunes that existed as contained pop/folk reveries on recordings (“What Would I,” “Dinner and Diatribes,” “Nina Cried Power”) and expanded them into massive, choral sounding explorations onstage. It was suitably anthemic Railbird finale.

The evening was ushered in with an intriguing set from Gary Clark Jr. A guitar slinger with an honest, robust intensity, he has evolved into a resourceful soul stylist. Several heroes came to mind while watching him play, but none so vividly as Curtis Mayfield. Part of that came from the topicality of “Feed the Babies,” “Got to Get Up” and other works from his new “This Land” album. But there was also the convincing soul falsetto Clark regularly utilized to more exactly recall Mayfield’s spirit. Then again, the dub groove he sunk into for “Feelin’ Like a Million” was pretty cool, too.

Watching Paul Janeway lead St. Paul and the Broken Bones during the heart of a hot August afternoon dressed in a shiny, layered choir robe was like experiencing heat stroke in motion. But Janeway was in no way compromised as he summoned a soul manifesto that shifted from the Atlantic-era R&B of “Grass is Greener” to the ‘70s wah-wah pop-soul of “Convex” to a modestly apocalyptic sermon draped in unabashed disco titled “GotItBad” (“We are just bruised fruit falling from the tree; God is a gambler who can’t set us free”).

Before that was a scorched, woozy and essentially by-rote set from Lucinda Williams that unfolded like a hangover. Never one for spit and polish, Williams didn’t mind beating up on her material. Some stung succinctly on impact (“Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Guitar Strings” and “Unsuffer Me”) while others rocked the great outdoors proudly (“Honey Bee,” Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”).

Then there was the sleeper act of the day – Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins performing collectively as I’m With Her. Their hour-long, early afternoon set was full of wintry folk delicacy (“Call My Name” and “See You Around”) that eventually succumbed to a cover gallery highlighting the trio’s far-reaching influences (Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt,” Bill Monroe’s “Toy Heart” and Joni Mitchell’s “Carey”).

“Thank you,” O’Donovan told the Railbird audience, “for getting sunburn in the name of music.”

in performance: railbird, day one

Brandi Carlile performing Saturday at Railbird. Herald-Leader staff photo by Ryan Hermens.

“I’m kind of jealous being on my side of the stage and not out there,” confessed Brandi Carlile to an eager and receptive crowd as the Railbird festival’s inaugural day at Keeneland approached dusk on Saturday. But by the time her performance concluded some 75 minutes later, it was clear the crowd was quite happy with her being right where she was.

In fact, the women essentially took the day with Carlile proving herself an artist capable of just about anything. She delivered a bold electric greeting by way of the show-opening “Hold Out Your Hand,” turned “The Story” from a chamber-like meditation to a rockish stampede and sent her singing to every corner of Keeneland with “The Joke.”

Curiously, the two defining moments of Carlile’s performance didn’t even involve her own material. Late into the set, she piggybacked a bring-you-to-tears cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with an atomic reading of Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” for a crash course in folk-to-rock dynamics. That she appeared to be having a blast during all of this made the set all the sweeter.

Earlier in the day, Mavis Staples, who turned 80 last month, stayed true to form by using roots driven funk, rock and blues to serve the fervency of her gospel heritage. That explained how the gritty, liturgical might of her voice fueled the deliciously nasty but spiritually comanding groove behind new tunes like “Change” while recasting Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” into funky, righteous anthems.

From a different generational plain altogether was 15 year old Grace VanderWaal, whose early evening set showcased an eager-to-please scrapbook of pop sketches, from the electronica spiked “Ur So Beautiful’ to the ukulele-led “Escape My Mind” to the quirky power pop slant of “Talk Good.” Taylor Swift was perhaps an inevitable comparison. Luckily, VanderWaal recalled the megastar’s stylistic breadth without the Olympian sense of self-involvement.

This wasn’t to say the guys didn’t have their say. The headlining Raconteurs served up, by far, the day’s most gloriously jagged rock journey, a trip built on piercing vocal wails, layers of guitar distortion and feedback and plenty of direct electric immediacy during the high voltage dirge “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying) and the comparatively cooler “You Don’t Understand Me.”

Other highlights from Railbird Day One came courtesy of Billy Strings’ blast of warp speed bluegrass within a literal run-through of the Johnny Horton classic “Ole Slew Foot,” Ian Noe’s blend of Pink Floyd-ian jams with Byrds-like jangle and especially Robert Earl Keen’s transformation of the Keeneland field into prime Lone Star honky tonk turf via “Amarillo Highway” and the vastly darker “Sinner Man.”

Leave it Old Crow Medicine Show to upstage almost everyone on the bill. In fact, the one artist it couldn’t beat out was invited onstage to help finish the band’s riotous string music-and-more bacchanal.

“We’re honky tonkin’ on a Saturday night, straight off Versailles Road,” remarked Old Crow fiddler and co-founder Ketch Secor after whipping up the furiously fun “Dixie Avenue.” But wilder times were to come. Against a brilliant August sunset, the band dipped into what it termed “stoner gospel” by singing a harmony-rich “I Hope I’m Stoned (When Jesus Takes Me Home).” Then Secor and company brought out Carlile, whose set had concluded only minutes earlier, to help sing the band’s signature hit “Wagon Wheel,” lead an appealingly desperate reading of Dolly Parton’s immortal “Jolene” and share in a unison version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that made sure the Railbird crowd got a spirited taste of Sunday morning to go with its Saturday night.

 

in performance: john mayall

John Mayall and band. From left: Carolyn Wonderland, Greg Rzab, John Mayall and Jay Davenport. Photo by David Gomez.

At first, John Mayall was all business on Monday evening, introducing “One Life to Live” before a sold out Grand Theatre audience in Frankfort by recalling his military service in Korea. But a wider survivalist instinct won out. Performing at age 85 with unblemished authority and enthusiasm, the bluesman referenced the title as a kind of life credo, adding as an aside, “Glad it worked out.”

For nearly two hours, Mayall sailed through a repertoire that spanned his entire 55 year recording career as something of a blues sage. His vocals sounded remarkably consistent with albums he made decades ago, his keyboard work (delegated between a portable Roland for piano sounds and a similarly compact Hammond for, you guessed it, organ accents) still possessed a natural and flexible sense of animation (shifting from blues to jazz to New Orleans inspired funk), his guitarwork reflected a brittle lightness that mimicked piano tonality and his trademark instrument, the harmonica, yielded giddy, rootsy and conversational expression.

All have been elements that made Mayall a blues pioneer from the ‘60s onward. There may have been a little less menace to his musicianship during the performance than in years past, a shift that seemed to be dictated more by choice than age. Still, Mayall presented the past and present eras of his mammoth catalog as if they were the product of a singular, spirited artistic mind.

The newer material made fine use of his long running rhythm section of bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, whether they were orchestrating the second line groove to “Gimme Some of That Gumbo” or the sinewy shuffle of “Don’t Tempt Me.” Both were pulled from Mayall’s 2017 album “Talk About That.”

The catalyst to the group, outside of Mayall’s own leads, was the enlistment of Austin, Tx. guitarist Carolyn Wonderland. An immensely tasteful player who opted for precise but boldly complete phrasing over indulgent solos, Wonderland proved a resourceful foil to Mayall all evening. She was also a potent vocalist, injecting Mayall’s 1969 anthem “The Laws Must Change” with gospel-esque fervor.

Then there were the wonderful instances where all four players performed with a unison voice that was as inviting as it was disarming. Mayall teased about the 1988 tune “Dream About the Blues” being a slow blues, which, technically, it was. But the band, especially Wonderland, detonated the song as a volcanic slow burn full of rugged and rockish intensity.

Mayall saved his biggest treat for last by using “Chicago Line” as a vehicle for a harmonica spree full of soulful zeal. This has been one of the bandleader’s cornerstone compositions through the years. It served a highlight of his 1965 debut album (“John Mayall Plays John Mayall”) and was reprised in slightly spruced form as the title tune to a 1988 recording that largely reignited Mayall’s career (the concert featured four songs from the record). Monday night’s version adhered more to the ’65 arrangement – vital, playful and curious in its sense of stylistic and melodic wonder. Much like Mayall himself.

father knows best

John Mayall. Photo by David Gomez.

All you need to understand the musical legacy forged by John Mayall is a fresh listen to three of his earliest albums, all of which were cut over a half-century ago.

In the fall of 1967, the long-revered “Father of British Blues” issued an album titled “Crusade” featuring a teenaged Mick Taylor on the guitar. Less than two years later, Taylor would defect to the Rolling Stones and remain a member through what many consider the band’s most creative recording era.

Earlier that year, Mayall released “A Hard Road,” which introduced guitarist Peter Green to the world. Before 1967 was done, Green, Mayall drummer Mick Fleetwood and, eventually, band bassist John McVie would form the core of a new group called Fleetwood Mac.

Back up to 1966 and you have the album that forever changed the blues world, “Blues Breakers.” Handling principle guitar duties was a young Eric Clapton. Just after the record’s release, Clapton left Mayall to rock civilization with the power trio Cream.

Those are the familiar yet still-ridiculously impressive first chapters in a career that has never looked back. Today, at age 85, Mayall continues to perform over 100 concerts a year while maintaining a remarkably prolific recording run that has seen the release of over 70 albums (excluding numerous anthologies). Through it all, his brand of the blues has been revolutionary, from the choice of instrumentation (highlighted by Mayall’s distinctive drummer-less bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s) to a sensibility that has attracted world class instrumentalists, especially in the guitar category.

So what does the artist whose initial albums launched the careers of three of England’s most celebrated guitar heroes look for when forming a band?

“I just enjoy people’s originality, regardless of what instrument they’re playing,” said Mayall, who makes a rare regional appearance this week for a sold-out performance at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. “That’s always something I’m looking for. I’m thrilled to play with different people that I admire. The main thing musicians should aim for, especially the new musicians on the scene, is something of your own, something original, rather than maybe copying somebody else.”

Curiously, Mayall took a fresh approach to that philosophy on his newest album, “Nobody Told Me.” Rather that seek out an underdog guitarist to joining his long-running trio featuring bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, Mayall sought more familiar names. But instead of enlisting specific players, he sent out a casting call-like invitation to artists that might be interested in working with him.

Accepting the offer – and, subsequently, appearing on “Nobody Told Me” – was a varied company of all-star players, several of which were not readily associated with blues music. They included pop/prog maestro Todd Rundgren, E Street lieutenant Steve Van Zandt and Rush mainstay Alex Lifeson. Augmenting the crew were contemporary blues stylists Joe Bonamassa, Larry McCray and the Texas guitarist currently touring with the Mayall trio, Carolyn Wonderland.

“That was the theme,” Mayall said. “So I put the word out that I wanted to try different guitar players as guests. That they aren’t all known as blues players was one of the nice things about not actually sending out for specific people. Those are the ones who came through, so I was delighted. I was very interested to see what they were doing.”

The casting call approach is the latest chapter for an artist who capitalized on an early ’60s blues scene in England that history has regularly overlooked in favor of a well-documented British fascination with American R&B.

“There was a change in what people were listening to at the time,” Mayall recalled. “Prior to the blues invasion, if you want to call it that, the roost had been ruled by trad jazz bands led by people like Chris Barber and Humphrey Lyttelton. It was time for a change. (Blues artists/bandleaders) Alexis Corner and Cyril Davies put the whole thing together and gave people a taste of what electric blues was all about. It happened very quickly at a time when people were ready for something new.”

“The music has always been at a good place for me since then because we have the total freedom to play what we want. People have always accepted that with me, too, which is a very good indication of the awareness to what we’re doing. The records, they are all personal expressions about what I was thinking about at a particular time. They serve as documentation of my life.”

John Mayall performs at 7:30 pm. Aug. 5 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. The performance is sold out. For info, go to grandtheatrefrankfort.org.


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