Archive for January, 2020

grammy post mortem 2020

Gary Clark Jr. performing at the 62nd Grammy Awards on Sunday. Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/ AP.

What’s the real worth of this year’s Grammy Awards when Central Kentucky’s lone hope for a win loses out before the evening ceremony even begins? That was the question facing local audiences Sunday when word arrived that Lawrence County native Tyler Childers lost out to country colossus Willie Nelson for Best Country Solo Performance.

Beyond that, the Grammys had to contend with the sudden, sobering reality that it was unfolding in “the house that Koby built” – specifically, the Staples Center, where Kobe Bryant established an NBA dynasty with the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant and his 13 year old daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash earlier in the day, a tragedy that rocked the Grammys far harder than most of the performances.

There was a glimmer of love for Kentucky rock ‘n’ roll, however. The Bowling Green-bred Cage the Elephant’s “Social Cues” took honors for Best Rock Album, a win also announced prior to the telecast.

Here’s our annual Grammy Post Mortem of all the televised grandstanding, self-promotion and occasional performance sparks that ruled CBS on Sunday night.

+ Lizzo: “Cuz I Love You,” “Truth Hurts.” “Tonight is for Koby,” the breakout artist of 2019 shouted before belting her songs out over a sea of strings. The medley boasted a ballet interlude that allowed for, what else, a costume change.

+ Alicia Keys: “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” “We never in a million years thought we would have to start the show like this,” said the ceremony’s host, a multi-Grammy winning artist, again referencing Bryant’s death. Her response was an understated a capella tune aided by the group that made the song a hit, Boyz II Men. Simple and emotively effective.

+ Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani: “Nobody But You.” Back to business as usual. Standard Grammy fare with the usual manufactured pathos.

+ The Jonas Brothers: “What a Man’s Gotta Do.” A featherweight tune dressed up and weighed down with dancers, horns and unremarkable harmonies.

+ Tyler the Creator with Charlie Wilson and Boyz II Men: “Earfquake” and “New Magic Wand.” Visually impressive meshing of ultra-modern beats and old school soul, complete a stage full of wigged-out Tyler clones.

+ Usher, Sheila E and FKA Twigs: “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss.” How very telling that one of the highlights in a ceremony honoring today’s pop music comes from a glance back at a previous generation. That aside, Usher nailed the vocal and physical stamina necessary to ignite a medley of Prince hits from the ‘80s.

+ Camila Cabello: “First Man.” Sentimental overdose as the Cuban-American singer serenaded her tearful father. Shameless but effective.

+ Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile: “Bring My Flowers Now.” A no-frills performance of a song penned by the two cross-generational artists with Tucker’s weathered, world weary vocals front and center.

+ Arianna Grande: “Imagine,” “My Favorite Things,” “7 Rings,” “Thank U, Next.” A song of hope and a classic tale of innocence led to Grande singing in fluffy lingerie with a pack a similarly attired dancers on two stages – the second being a bedroom. A mash-up of tired dance-pop theatrics and the evening’s silliest choreography.

+ Billie Eilish: “When the Party’s Over.” Backed by brother Finneas, the 18-year old pop celeb offered a moody, surprisingly tender ballad before her clean sweep of the Grammys’ top trophies for Album, Record and Song of the Year and Best New Artist.

+ Aerosmith and RUN-DMC: “Living on the Edge,” “Walk This Way.”  An energetic rekindling of the genre busting alliance both groups assembled three decades ago. Watching Flavor Flav dancing in the audience, though, was the highlight.

+ Lil Nas X: “Old Town Road.” A country/hip-hop hybrid performed with an extensive guest list that included Kentucky’s own Billy Ray Cyrus. Impressive as a cultural mash-up. Pretty pedestrian, however, as a pop document.

+ Demi Lovato: “Anyone.” A stark, if somewhat overblown confessional, penned just before the former teen star’s hospitalization for what was widely reported as a drug overdose.

+ John Legend, Kirk Franklin, DJ Khaled, Roddy Rich, Meek Mill and YG: “Higher.” A massive tribute to West Coast rapper Nipsey Hussle who was fatally shot last year. Leave it to Legend, together with a recorded clip of Russell, on the Khaled song “Higher,” to make the medley his own.

+ Rosalia: “Juro Que,” “Malamente.” In a refreshing diversion from Latin music’s usual dissent into faceless dance-pop, Rosalia modernized tradition by setting her singing to flamenco rhythms.

+ Alicia Keys and Brittany Howard: “Underdog.” Staged initially as a simple acoustic affirmation, the performance faded into a generic, glossy pop-soul ritual.

+ H.E.R.: “Sometimes.” A good intentioned but ultimately unremarkable pop meditation that broke through its shopworn gloss only when H.E.R. briefly erupted on guitar.

+ Bonnie Raitt: “Angel from Montgomery.” A criminally abbreviated slice of solo acoustic grace and soul honoring Lifetime Achievement Award winner John Prine. At least the sagely Prine, seated in the crowd, was given a standing ovation.

+ Gary Clark Jr. and The Roots: “This Land.” Perhaps the most honestly urgent performance of the night. A slab of raucous psychedelia that slugged the specter of racism right in the kisser.

+ Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band: In a long overdue change of mood, the In Memoriam segment was sent off not with a musical dirge but with a blast of brassy carnival soul indicative of the New Orleans spirit.

+ Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Joshua Bell, Ben Platt, The War and Treaty, Lee Curreri, Gary Clark Jr, Misty Copeland, Debbie Allen Dance Company, Common, Lang Lang: “I Sing the Body Electric.” A rare all-star collaboration that worked, blending music, dance and hip hop. The performance, dedicated to music education, honored retiring Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich

in performance: steep canyon rangers

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

Leave it to the Steep Canyon Rangers to actually apologize to a Saturday night club crowd because they asked for a bit of silence during one of the quieter segments of its program.
That happened at Manchester Music Hall when the Grammy-winning bluegrass-and-more troupe trimmed its ranks and instrumentation for a few subtle passages played and harmonized around a single microphone. Most of the crowd readily complied while those at the bar near the back end of the cavernous room were oblivious and kept chatting. Such is life when you march to your own tune in a performance combat zone.
This was an intriguing moment for other reasons, as well. Playing around a lone mic is standard practice for a traditional bluegrass troupe. The Rangers’ music, however, is not dictated by historical protocol. Then again, the North Carolina band’s collective method of modernization didn’t travel an expected path, either.
The practice adopted by many contemporary bluegrass outfits is to approach songs with the accessibility and, ultimately, predictability of pop-informed country. That results in a lighter shade of a genre that is pretty weightless to begin with. The two-hour show favored music, much of which was penned by banjoist Graham Sharp, that steered clear of modern bluegrass sheen and sunshine to focus on meatier melodies and often darker themes.
“Stand and Deliver,” with Sharp’s sobering vocal lead, boasted a lyricism that grew out of a dub-style reggae groove propelled by drummer Mike Ashworth and mandolinist Mike Guggino. For the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love,” a banjo melody from Sharp repeated almost as if it was on a loop, triggering vocal blends with guitarist Woody Platt that led to a lengthy ensemble jam. Then there was “Monumental Fool,” a heartbreak tune turned inward with another instrumental excursion that ended with the entire band on the drum riser fueling a percussive groove.
Yes, that right – a drum riser. At a bluegrass performance. But this was bluegrass rewritten to the Rangers specifications and fortified by a setlist that included, along with the mentioned examples, loads of new tunes. Slap all of this together and you had an evening of dynamics and invention that none of the Rangers needed to apologize for.

in performance: fabio mittino and bert lams

Bert Lams (left) and Fabio Mittino,

It seemed fitting that Fabio Mittino and Bert Lams had driven 18 hours – from Hartford, Conn., to be exact – in order to play the Kentucky Coffee Tree Café in Frankfort on Wednesday evening. That’s because the program they designed for two acoustic guitars had done a bit of traveling of its own.

For roughly 75 minutes, the duo explored the music of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. The former was a philosopher and mystic of Greek and Armenian ancestry who gathered tunes during late 19th and early 20th century travels throughout the Far East. He then dictated them for transcription, often through oral recitation, to the latter, a Russian composer and one of Gurdjieff’s most trusted protégés.

So, in a nutshell, the evening was a bit of a travelogue. What Mittino and Lams translated that into was a series of brief instrumental pieces averaging about two minutes in length that possessed the exactness and elegance of classical music, the emotive accessibility of folk and liturgical works and a modest but pronounced exotic air that came from a variety of Eastern accents.

During the concert-opening “Movement 13,” a lead from Mittino danced about with the delicacy of a ballet, yet at its core sat a melody of simple, bittersweet beauty. Similarly, “Mamasha” revolved around a sense of classical grace Mittino rightly compared to Chopin.

While the entire program was focused on Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music, save for a lone Mittino original titled “Shining Road” that had the guitarist juggling dual melodies simultaneously, there was still considerable variety. For “Tibetan Masked Dance,” Lams let loose with a vigorous, repeated riff that could have passed for surf music while the entire piece possessed the spry animation (and propulsion) of a mazurka. “Round Dance in G” later slowed the pace of Mittino’s more rugged rhythmic phrasing while Lams’ lead summoned a buoyant dance melody that quickly said its peace before receding so that the composition could stop on a dime.

The most fascinating aspect to this seemingly forgotten music, though, were the roots it revealed to the works of a slightly more familiar culture. There was no mistaking the Eastern inspiration within “Armenian Song.” But as the tune’s relaxed but stately melody unfolded, one could detect how such an exotic sound was connected to classical and especially folk works from more Western regions of Europe. Who knows? Maybe Bach possessed a smidge of Armenian blood we didn’t know about.

Regardless, catching a ride with Mittino and Lams through the far off lands once travelled by Gurdjieff without leaving the ultra-intimate setting of the Coffee Tree Café made for an exquisite vacation from the dead-of-winter doldrums.

in performance: delvon lamarr organ trio

Delvon Lamarr. Photo by Jan Scheffner Photography.

You sensed early Sunday evening at The Burl that Delvon Lamarr and Jimmy James would have been more than content to spend their two-hour performance trading riffs and melodic fragments from whatever vintage tune popped into their brains and, eventually, fingertips.

That was how much of the show played out for the mainstay members of the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. The set was framed by their animated instrumentation and interaction – Lamarr on B3 organ and James on guitar with Steven Sandifer, the latest in a succession of drummers, rounding out the lineup. From there, the music revealed a devotion to a groove owing equally to late ‘60s/early ‘70s era jazz and soul. But the trio’s resulting music was perhaps better viewed as summit of expectation and surprise.

The expectation part was revealed during playful sparring between the two mainstay members that turned the show into something of a groove-centric jukebox. Before launching into the sunny expanse of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” (a soul staple the Lamarr Trio has essentially made own over the last two years), licks from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” were introduced as a sort of multi-genre, cross-generational warm up.

Later, during an update of the vastly more obscure “Top Going Down, Bottom Going Up” (a mid ‘70s single for Georgia R&B star Nathan Bartell), Lamarr and Jones spent a good 20 minutes letting the jukebox rock as the tune receded into the more layered, orchestrated colors of the B3. The two then traded licks from melodies by the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Gnarls Barkley, Survivor, The Temptations, The Beatles, Biz Markie, Bob Marley and, perhaps most improbably, Dolly Parton (by way of a snippet from the chorus to “Jolene,” which the crowd largely unrecognized).

Finally, with a show-closing take on Tyrone Davis’ unjustly unheralded 1968 hit “Can I Change My Mind,” the organ-guitar tradeoff squeezed in riffs from Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and Rush. Fittingly, James was wearing a Rush t-shirt for the show, a likely tribute to the Canadian band’s drummer Neal Peart, who died last week.

Needless to say, this wasn’t the kind of vocabulary one would expect from a band seemingly devoted to the soul-pop grooves generated decades ago by the likes of Lonnie Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. But such tinkering with tradition seemed to be at the heart of the fun, especially onstage, for the trio. Watching Lamarr and James break into smiles as the jams erupted, whether they were through the medley-laden tunes or stand-alone delights like the new Meters-meets-James Brown groove-a-thon “Chicken Leg” or the solid soul shuffle “Fo’ Sho’,” uncorked a level of performance immediacy that rivaled the most fervent of rock shows.

James, however, took all of that a step further. During the greasy-grooved “Buttered Popcorn” and the equally rambunctious “The Dirty,” the guitarist seemingly cut ties with the trio’s soul serenading by turning his amp up and letting a series of brash, electric solos turn the music into blasts of pure psychedelia. Jimi Hendrix was an obvious reference point for this kind of stylistic detour, but the soul foundation still at the heart of James’ playing better brought to mind the great Parliament/Funkadelic guitar giant Eddie Hazel.

“I could do this all night,” James remarked earlier in the concert as the swapping of riffs and melodies with Lamarr began. Given the sparks triggered between the two as the night progressed, few in the audience would have minded if he did.

in performance: the lexington philharmonic with byron stripling

Byron Stripling.

In offering a New Year’s Eve performance at the Opera House thematically more than stylistically centered on the music of New Orleans, the Lexington Philharmonic largely bequeathed the evening to Columbus jazz artist Byron Stripling. As such, the orchestra maintained a distant presence in a program centered almost exclusively on Stripling’s animated profile as vocalist, raconteur, trumpeter and occasional conductor. But by the evening’s end, it was his second-in-command – and by that we don’t mean the first violinist – that stole the show.

First things first. The Philharmonic knew what it was in for by enlisting Stripling as guest conductor (one of the few leading the orchestra’s concerts this season not vying for the job of its next music director). Having served in the role as recently as 2017 for another New Year’s Eve performance centered on Cotton Club-era jazz, he proved an engaging, audience-friendly entertainer and a fine fit for a pops concert.

Juggling multiple roles with conducting consuming the least of his stage time, Stripling revealed a sharp, vibrant tone on trumpet indicative of his idol Louis Armstrong but a vocal and emcee flair more in line with a reveler like Cab Calloway.

All of that suited the evening’s repertoire neatly, whether it was through tunes readily associated with Crescent City, as in a regal reading of “Basin Street Blues” and its subsequent call-and-response vocals with the audience, or works with a comparatively tenuous New Orleans link, as in a somewhat overly tidy version of the blues standard “I Got My Mojo Working.”

Throughout most of this, the Philharmonic’s presence was modest, a product largely of arrangements that called for little more than rudimentary string and brass accompaniment. A few intriguing exceptions were “St. James Infirmary” and “St. Louis Blues,” where the orchestra’s summery grace provided the music with a “Porgy and Bess” level of elegance.

The bulk of the program instead placed emphasis on leaner workouts with a jazz trio featuring two of Stripling’s Columbus co-horts, pianist/B3 organist Bobby Floyd and drummer Rich Thompson, along with Lexington bassist Eli Uttal-Veroff. There was much to enjoy in their work, especially in an inventive Afro-Cuban remake of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Bobby Floyd.

While the trio’s work left the Philharmonic with little to do but sit and watch for a considerable portion of the concert, it gave voice to the evening’s ace-in-the-hole – keyboardist Floyd. Aside from the churchy soulfulness he provided the full company performances and frequent sparring bouts with Stripling, the evening’s highlights came when Floyd was left alone.

In the first set, that translated to a robust version of Scott Joplin’s “Maple City Rag” on solo piano that was as authentic in its grasp of New Orleans’ musical spirit as anything in the concert. The second set allowed him to transform something as unlikely as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” into a pastoral blend of gospel and ragtime on piano before the rest of the combo and, eventually, the orchestra joined in.

The most magical moment, though, was saved for show’s closing moments. Having offered a suitable level of sass on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Stripling ushered the Philharmonic offstage and then left himself, leaving Floyd to wail away with a singular gospel-soul jam accompanied only by Thompson. As retiring a presence onstage as Stripling was extroverted, Floyd flashed a shy smile to the audience upon the jam’s completion and exited the stage as the house lights came up. The show, for all intents and purposes, was in his pocket as he departed.


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