Archive for November, 2019

in performance: ben monder

Ben Monder. Photo by John Rogers

After an extended opening medley of “My One and Only Love” and “Dreamsville” that offered dual images of his guitar profile, Ben Monder mumbled a cordial greeting to the crowd gathered Friday evening at the Friends Meeting House on Price Ave. for the Origins Jazz Series. It was next to impossible to discern what was said, so the follow-up remark seemed a little curious.
“That was a joke.”
Mild laughter.
“I’ll be here all night.”
Slightly more pronounced laughter.
“Well, for about another 30 minutes.”
While the New York guitarist’s future as a comedian may be in doubt, his considerable ability to create a gallery full of sound portraits during the 70-minute solo electric performance was asserted. The opening medley, performed as separate interpretations on his fine 2019 album “Day After Day,” set the pace for a program whose melodic intensity continually mounted. “My One and Only Love,” however, came across like an intimate conversation with single, piano-like notes that established a chiming balance of atmospherics and melody.
For much of the evening, such duality would be called upon. Monder would regularly employ a modest array of pedal effects to establish his sound, although they were mostly used for tonal effect. There was no looping and noticeable delay gimmickry. The textured sound he would create for the program seemed quite organic.
Things intensified slightly as Monder took on Ralph Towner’s “Anthem.” While it was thrilling just to hear a work by the almost exclusively acoustic catalogue of the great Towner transferred to an electric setting, Monder struck a fascinating balance between his layered sound and the tune’s moody countenance. For instance, at the heart of the composition sat a brief, but ominous melody reminiscent of a chant. Monder used it as an anchor for an interpretation that employed more distorted guitar voices, courtesy of the pedals, to establish his own sense of ambience.
The warmer, cyclical set up of another standard, “Never Let Me Go,” reflected orchestration constructed around a series of agile, rolling chords repeated in almost mantra-like fashion. That helped set up an eventual finale where Monder gave in fully to his darker ambient impulses. The soundscape opened with a mounting electric edge, suggestive of the storm to come. When it arrived, Monder indulged in an exquisite torrent of sound – a massive electric wash that flooded the room in waves. The results mirrored remarkably the sonic imagery from the title tune to “Day After Day.”
Monder mentioned the segment was inspired by Zen poetry. The music’s initial darkness might have disputed that estimation, but the eventual electric envelopment of the finale did indeed suggest a choral spaciousness – an aural sky where shards of light continually found their way safely to those below.

in performance: elvis costello and the imposters

Elvis Costello. Photo by Stephen Done.

When a four-decade career has weathered numerous shifts and detours through the pop universe, an audience can become understandably fractured. The problem with that? Fashioning a concert program that appeals to as much of that far-reaching fanbase as possible. Elvis Costello made all that look ridiculously easy Sunday evening at the Louisville Palace with a fun, vital and immensely electric performance alongside with his long-running Imposters band. It was part garage-rock brawl, part pop-soul manifesto and part post-punk carnival.

Fancy the favorites? The Imposters covered just about every lasting hit in the Costello catalog, from a playful “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes” and to a prayer-like concert finale of “Alison” that morphed into the 1968 Supremes/Temptations hit “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” The most beguiling of the classics, though, remained “Watching the Detectives.” Costello hotwired it with a subtle but pronounced urgency over the dub-like atmospherics of keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas (holdovers from the singer’s Attractions band of the ‘70s and ‘80s) and a visual backdrop of vintage film noir posters (including “Kansas City Confidential” AND “New York Confidential,” no less).

Looking for obscurities? Ah, this is where the show really got interesting. Costello spent roughly half of the concert rummaging through the more distant chapters of his songbook. The excavation began at the onset of the evening with the show-opening “Strict Time” (from 1981’s exquisite “Trust” album) that was delivered with a punctuated, Bo Diddley-inspired groove. Later, the show downshifted with Costello at the piano for Allen Toussaint’s stately “The Greatest Love” (a bonus track from the 2006 Costello/Toussaint collaboration “The River in Reverse”). The biggest surprise, though, had to be “Next Time ‘Round,” a dark hullabaloo off of 1986’s “Blood and Chocolate” full of ragged melodic hooks, glorious vocal support from Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee and an ensemble Imposters sound that framed the song’s Brit-pop accent with punkish immediacy.

Want a song from the present day? For all of the time tripping, Costello stayed current. There were a pair of tunes from 2018’s “Look Now” – a pared down reading of “Suspect My Tears” that replaced the studio version’s lush orchestration with a leaner neo-soul sheen, and the more outwardly Motown-ish “Mr. and Mrs. Hush” with its jubilantly defiant chorus chant of “Are you ready?” There were also intriguing previews of a musical Costello is basing around the 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd” highlighted by the snake-oil spiritualism of “Blood and Hot Sauce” (“Keep your hand on the Bible and your finger on the trigger”).

For all of his considerable rock ‘n’ roll persona, Costello often revealed himself as a traditionally minded stage entertainer, whether it was through occasional vaudeville-esque wisecracking (“I have the face of a priest. He wants it back.”) or letting a wildly fervent “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” slip briefly into the calmer romantic breeze of the “West Side Story” serenade “Somewhere.”

Such is the odyssey of a pop journeyman mindful of his musical past and future but still very much at home in his performance skin of the moment.

in performance: the allman betts band

From left, Berry Duane Oakley, Devon Allman and Duane Betts of the Allman Betts Band.

The recorded intro to Monday evening’s very involving performance by the Allman Betts Band at Frankfort’s Grand Theatre was as telling as it was familiar. It was the classic 1972 version of “Little Martha,” a cornerstone tune of the Allman Brothers Band, the ensemble that in many ways served as a template for the younger group about to walk onstage.

But the piece refined that sense of place and purpose, as it was an unaccompanied acoustic guitar duet between Duane Allman and Dicky Betts, the uncle and father, respectively, of the two guitarists at the helm of this current troupe, Devon Allman and Duane Betts. As the live adventures of the Allman Betts Band unfolded over the next 1 ¾ hours, the inevitable lineage to the Allman Brothers Band was both embraced and built upon. The echoes of the past were often very purposeful but so was the establishment of a separate and distinct Southern voice. Where the fathers’ band was rooted in the blues, much of the sons’ ensemble took its cue from Muscle Shoals soul. But regularly, the generational differences nicely converged.

The show opening “All Night,” for instance, was bathed in an entirely different Southern aura – namely, the power chords and celebratory rock intent of Tom Petty. That inspiration would echo more profoundly near the end of the evening with a cover of Petty’s “Southern Accent,” a tale of weather-beaten cultural identity that differs greatly from the usual fist-pumping anthems associated with conventional Southern rock. Performed with a percussion-less arrangement of vocals, keyboards and guitar, Petty’s tune became something of a cautionary meditation.

Both songs featured Allman, who looked, acted, and sang nothing like his late father, Gregg Allman. The younger artist was more jovial and outgoing, possessing a deeper, less blues-savvy voice. That helped works like “All Gone” and “Down by the River” fortify the soul-savvy foundation of the newer band’s sound.

Betts, on the other hand, is a dead ringer for dad. He sang with his father’s high Southern tenor and played guitar with a knowing progressive phrasing that propelled a very faithful reading of the Dickey Betts instrumental staple “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” as well the best of the newer group’s material, namely an extended work called “Autumn Breeze.” The latter revealed a relaxed, orchestral groove that his guitarwork, along with the colorful slide guitar contributions of Johnny Stachela, glided over with studied grace.

The family ties didn’t end there. Playing bass was Berry Duane Oakley, son of founding Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley. Although he honored his father by singing lead on the John Lee Hooker boogie gem “Dimples” (a tune his dad regularly performed with the Allman Brothers), the younger Oakley was content to play the role of lieutenant in the Allman Betts brigade. He added joyous, rolling bass lines to new works like “Good Ol’ Days” and a patient, practiced foundation to a rendition of “Purple Rain” that layered the Prince hit, as well as the other dozen compositions making up this spirited performance, with a coating of honest Southern solemnity.

in performance: the avett brothers

The Avett Brothers: Joe Kwon, Bob Crawford, Scott Avett and Seth Avett.

“I am a breathing time machine,” sang Scott Avett at the halfway point of an immensely affirmative performance by the Avett Brothers at Rupp Arena on Saturday evening. “I’ll take you all for a ride.”

That he did, along with guitarist/sibling Seth Avett, longtime bassist Bob Crawford and five other resourceful players, by tearing through a suitcase full of folk-rock inspirations and storylines that shifted from the delicate to the morose to the political. The combination mixed folk revival fervor with an organic performance design rooted in vintage indie pop and a dash of jam band glee. That meant the music that surfaced for the crowd of 5,000 was as fun as it was appealingly unvarnished.

The “time machine” brother Scott sang of in “Laundry Room” didn’t allude to any lasting sense of folk tradition. The Avetts didn’t come off as a throwback act. Any trace of traditionalism was fleeting, like the bluegrass accents that initiated “Denouncing November Blue (Uneasy Writer)” earlier in the evening. Instead, the Avetts preferred mashing up generations as well as stylistic influences, which is why many of the songs in the two-hour program possessed an intriguing sense of contrasting and, at times, conflicting dynamics.

“Laundry Room,” for instance, began with quiet, folkish reflection before exploding into a rambunctious ensemble hoedown. Similarly, “Bleeding White,” one of several tunes pulled from the Avetts’ new “Closer Than Together” album, shifted away from folk intention entirely and plugged into some of the show’s choicest electric stamina.

Sometimes the imagery turned dark, as in “Satan Pulls the Strings,” but the drive of the full seven-member ensemble – a troupe that augmented the core trio of Avett, Avett and Crawford with strings, keyboards and drums – dispelled any true spirit of menace. The groove was too hearty for that.

As intriguing as the give and take of the ensemble dynamics were, some of the evening’s most arresting moments came when the Avetts trimmed the band back to its trio foundation or less. The show-opening “Shame” let the modest blend of the brothers’ banjo/guitar dialogue ease the evening in before the full band charge took over. Later, the trio took to a single microphone at the end of a short walkway that extended into the audience to create a similar sense of intimacy with “I Wish I Was.”

Not everything worked, at least from a compositional standpoint. Seth Avett’s “We Americans,” another “Closer Than Together” song, was a well-meaning but overreaching socio-political discourse that didn’t possess the musical ingenuity to match its lofty narrative intent.

But for the most part, the band dynamics commanded the evening, as in the way the summery “At the Beach” prefaced the anthemic “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise” and the manner in which a merry encore cover of the Bob Wills staple “Stay a Little Longer” (the show’s only obvious traditional concession) set up the more plaintive finale of “No Hard Feelings.”

It should be also noted that this performance may have a set a record for early evening completion of a Rupp concert. With no opening act on the bill and no intermission to indulge in, the Avetts delivered their full 23 song show and sent the crowd home before 10 o’clock. The start of a new arena show concept? If anyone is asking, my vote is a yea.

 


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