Archive for February, 2020

in performance: sturgill simpson/tyler childers

Sturgill Simpson, left, and Tyler Childers played separate sets before a sold out crowd of 16,000 at Rupp Arena on Friday evening. Photos by Estill Robinson.

The significance of their Friday evening at Rupp Arena was not lost on Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers. Before a sold out crowd of nearly 16,000, the two Eastern Kentucky born country-and-way-more stylists devoted much of what little stage time they allotted for talking to the occasion at hand – namely, reactions to their mutual debut at the grand poobah of Lexington venues.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” Simpson remarked before his immensely electric two-hour set got underway. Actually, he dutifully pinned an expletive at the end of that quote, but you get the gist of the excitement level. Simpson commented later, in the middle of a show opening segment build around all 10 songs from his recent, rock/synth-infused album “Sound & Fury,” that Lexington was where he learned to play music, learned to lead a band and met his wife.

That was about it for the chat. Fronting a four-member band with himself handling all guitar duties and, as a result, the bulk of the set’s instrumental soloing, Simpson was out to further deconstruct an image he has seemingly despised – that of country outlaw. The collective wrecking ball to that reputation was “Sound & Fury,” a song cycle of restless narratives that more than once addressed the folly of stardom and its warped influence on personal freedom.

Thematically, the angst hit the boiling point with “Mercury in Retrograde,” an unflinching snapshot of pop star intrusion (“They all just come on in, asking me what all my songs mean, wonderin’ if they’re all about them”). But it was the sonic charge of “Sound & Fury” that packed a far greater wallop.

Throughout, the new music balanced aggressive, though occasionally static, guitar grooves with wails of analog synthesizer, giving this segment of the show a sound that was simultaneously modern and retro. The one country element that couldn’t displaced, though, were Simpson’s vocals. It was easy to escape expectations and cut loose on guitar during the predominantly instrumental show opener “Ronin.” But as soon as the singing ignited “Remember to Breathe” and “Sing Along,” that deep, unalterable country tenor reawakened.

The result? Music that sounded like a cross between T. Rex and Kraftwerk with Waylon Jennings as frontman. Crazily enough, the meshing worked. The rest of Simpson’s show was devoted mostly to rocked up, de-brass-ified works from 2016’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” that presented a modestly sleeker level of dynamics than the “Sound & Fury” material. A case in point: the way a lengthy, jagged guitar jam during “Brace for Impact” bled into the cooler, soul-savvy waters of Simpson’s take on When in Rome’s “The Promise.”

Childers seemed vastly more relaxed with the Rupp crowd but no less enchanted by the turnout, especially since the Lawrence County native was still playing club shows in Lexington as recently as two years ago.

His spoken remarks, all of which came after an industrious and inviting 75-minute set, referenced the bars and venues “within walking distance, well, stumbling distance” of Rupp, with Al’s Bar receiving the only specific shout out.

Where Simpson’s show seemed to purposely sideswipe expectations, Childers’ set welcomed them openly. To set the mood, the songsmith used one of his warmest and most popular compositions, “All Your’n,” adorned by vocals that recalled the similarly emotive and unadorned singing of Roger McGuinn on the Byrds’ final records, to open the evening. From there, the repertoire shifted between material from his two breakthrough albums, 2017’s “Purgatory” and 2019’s “Country Squire” (recordings co-produced by Simpson).

From the former came an accelerated reading of “I Swear (to God)” that solidified Childers’ bond with the audience through playful call-and-response verses as well as the instrumental might of Morehead multi-instrumentalist Jesse Wells (here on fiddle), an ace-in-the-hole performer all evening long. From the latter came the vastly darker “House Fire,” which was introduced by a session of round-robin band solos before Childers took the wheel for some seriously chilly storytelling.

There were several delights, though, that dodged the two albums, including a neo-funk informed “Trudy” (a 1970 Charlie Daniels chestnut that has been part of Childers’ shows for years) and “Tulsa Turnaround” (a 1971 relic first cut by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition sporting a backbeat-savvy backdrop that tossed the set onto slightly more psychedelic turf).

But the highlight was saved for last. With his band dismissed for the evening, Childers closed with a solo acoustic reading of “Nose on the Grindstone,” another longtime concert staple he has yet to put on a record. It’s a sobering saga of a coal miner’s son being taught the dangers of rural poverty and the consciousness required to navigate – and eventually escape – them.

“Keep in mind that a man’s just as good as his word,” Childers sang with stark solemnity.” “It takes twice as long to build bridges you burn.”

Wise words, indeed, to close a rich Kentucky homecoming.

in performance: raul midon and lionel loueke

Raul Midon (left) and Lionel Loueke.

Just before handing over the stage to the co-billed Raul Midon at the Singletary Center for the Arts on Saturday evening, Lionel Loueke offered a friendly warning.
“He’s going to freak you out.”
Well, he wasn’t kidding. The resourcefulness of the New Mexico-born Ridon was quickly revealed in a vocal command that shifted from a high soul falsetto to a punctuated scat that mimicked a trumpet. Then came instrumental fireworks that allowed him to synchronize acoustic guitar and percussion with eerie harmonic clarity.
But native West African native Loueke (he was born in Benin) was no straggler, keeping pace with a lone 7-string electric guitar that implemented a series of bending, flexible rhythms that echoed his homeland. But he was equally comfortable slapping out bass and lead lines in several tunes by one of his principal influences (and employers), Herbie Hancock.
This is what unfolded in an immensely distinctive 90-minute performance at the Singletary’s intimate Recital Hall. On their own, which is how they played for the bulk of the concert, both sounded like self-contained combos.
Loueke’s initial set, especially, introduced a light but authoritative electric guitar voice full of worldly lyricism that he illuminated with whispery vocals propelled by clicks and punctuation made with his mouth and tongue. Such design was introduced on the show-opening “Bennie’s Tune,” although it would be utilized throughout the concert.
When Loueke turned to a pair of fusion pieces pioneered by Hancock during the ‘70s (“Hang Up Your Hang Ups”) and ‘80s (the genre-busting “Rockit”), though, the mood and moves turned to Americanized funk that the guitarist produced with the integration of bass patterns and percussive colors generated by slapping and tapping the strings. Curiously, the other Hancock entry, “Driftin’,” dated back to the pre-fusion year of 1962 and was draped with the same world music sway that distinguished Loueke’s original material.
Midon’s set shifted the focus away from West Africa into waters of bossa nova (“I Love the Afternoon”) and, more fleetingly, flamenco (“God’s Dream”). But on more robust pop/soul originals like “Pedal to the Metal,” “Bad Ass and Blind” and an extended take of “State of Mind,” Midon’s one man band intentions took over. His vocal charge playfully mutated into the trumpet mimicry while his leads on acoustic guitar intensified, especially when Midon mixed in simultaneous percussion on bongos.
If there was a drawback to the performance, it was that the two only occasionally played together. The few times they did, however, were sublime. The best instance closed the show, with Midon and Loueke tempering the tone in their playing for a lovingly patient reading of “My One and Only Love.” It was a stately display of two seemingly disparate stylists communicating with a keen and common tongue.

in performance: luke combs/ashley mcbryde

Luke Combs playing to a sold out crowd of 16,000 at Rupp Arena on Friday evening. Photo by Estill Robinson.

It was at the midway point of Luke Combs’ sold out performance Friday evening that the pieces of this rather unexpected country music superstar saga came together. They didn’t necessarily fit together, mind you. But given how the explanations for Combs’ meteoric commercial ascension, especially within the last year, are like parts of a jigsaw puzzle, it was at least insightful to have the pieces in full view.

First up was the song at hand, a mid-set tune called “She Got the Best of Me.” With the help of a capable, seven-member band, over half of which was devoted to guitarists, Combs offered a country breakup story seemingly devoid of traditional design. It was instead an assured slice of sentimentalism performed with a clean pop sheen, a melody propelled by a mid-tempo current and lyrics of polite despondency that the crowd of 16,000 sang back to Combs with conciliatory respect.

Two more pieces of the puzzle dealt with expectation and relatability. That Combs’ entire show was rooted in a country-pop sound that was largely rootless made him neither a stylistic maverick nor a corporate prop. Normally, contemporary trappings are gussied up in a high-tech show where every movement, every audience interaction and every bit of between-song banter is choreographed. The Friday concert was none of that.

It played out on a largely bare stage backed by three huge video screens serving as the only luxury items. When Combs spoke to the crowd, he sounded reserved, almost shy, especially when introducing “Dear Today,” a kind of inner monologue where a present day persona fearful of losing its identity converses with the future. It began as a solo acoustic snapshot by Combs before the rest of the band joined in, making it an affirmation more in line with the rest of the program’s pop-friendly fare.

As for the relatability issue, all you had to do what look at the guy. Dressed in what looked like black work clothes and the requisite mesh hat (in this case, one bearing the logo of a sunglasses manufacturer), Combs looked more like someone who would have bought a ticket to a Rupp country show rather than an artist headlining one. Similarly, his songs embraced a bounty of expected country themes. That culminated late in the performance with “Lovin’ On You,” which was essentially a checklist referencing fishing, whiskey, boots, trucks (by brand name), beer (by brand name) and cigarettes (by brand name). It also possessed the remarkable ability to fashion all of that into a love song.

As a singer, Combs largely mirrored his material. He displayed hints of a rugged tenor that clicked into gear as soon at the show-opening “When It Rains It Pours” commenced, retaining a capable, conversational tone for the entire concert. But like so much of material, the vocals were merely serviceable. There was little offered to distinguish anything other than the moment at hand. Despite Combs’ immense popularity, the bulk of this performance isn’t destined for any record books other than those devoted to ticket sales.

Ashley McBryde at Rupp. Photo by Estill Robinson.

Far more enriching was a solid 45-minute opening set by Ashley McBryde. In her third Rupp outing in just over two years (each as a show opener), the Arkansas-born song stylist fashioned songs and storylines that largely bypassed the more expected freeways Combs’ music travelled in favor of back roads full of dark rural imagery.

Among the highlights, each distinguished with a rich vocal vibrancy, were “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” a brittle snapshot of life with a meth addict for a neighbor, and a riotously rocking preview tune from McBryde’s forthcoming “Never Will” album called “Martha Devine” that uncorked some especially dirty (and murderous) family secrets. “Honor thy father, honor thy mother,” the lyrics went. “But the Bible doesn’t say a damn thing about your daddy’s lover.”

Okay, country radio. Play that.

in performance: kiss/david lee roth

Kiss co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley performing Thursday evening at Rupp Arena. Photo by Estill Robinson.

Let’s go reeling through the years with Kiss, shall we?

The logical liftoff point is the here and now with 2020 serving as the midway point of the latest farewell tour by the relentlessly popular pop-metal band, a trek that will stretch well into next year. It stopped at Rupp Arena on Thursday evening before a crowd of 8,200, resulting in a typically flamboyant performance that saw founding members Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, along with show opener David Lee Roth, having perhaps lost a step or two in terms of vocal stamina. But all three have long favored performance vigor and attitude over singing precision. On those former fronts, they were as audience engaging as ever.

Next, let’s zip back to 1977. That marked the second year of Rupp’s existence and the first in what would become nine concert visits through the decades by Kiss. This was the era that defined the band’s glammed up, pyro heavy carnival design on record and onstage. Not surprisingly, the band went right to this golden age at the show’s onset by entering the stage – or, more exactly, being lowered to it on separate platforms – to the tune of “Detroit Rock City” and an immediate follow-up of the celebratory “Shout It Out Loud” (both from 1976’s megahit album “Destroyer”).

Kiss didn’t stay locked in the most distant corner of its past, though. With fellow original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss having long ago severed ties with the band, Stanley and Simmons were free to explore less obvious works, primarily from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, that were cut with different players. Among the highlights from what had been an abandoned era were 1984’s “Heaven’s on Fire” and 1985’s “Tears Are Falling,” a pair of more poppish entries for the MTV generation that have aged well in this program thanks to the electric jolt of Tommy Thayer, Kiss’ guitarist since 2002.

Finally, let’s set the way-back machine to, say, 1917. No, Kiss hasn’t been around that long. But the amount on onstage artillery the band continues to pack onstage – the flames and pyro-triggered sonic booms, in particular – rivalled what was blowing up around the Hindenburg Line in Sam Mendes’ current epic war film. Only the laser extravaganza that Kiss regularly implemented to give a sense of live action neon to the show would been out of place in the movie.

The concert, in essence, was a comic book come to life. Neither Stanley, 68, nor Simmons, 70, have (or have had) the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Caruso-esque vocal chops. Still, their leads – Stanley on another ‘80s nugget, “Lick It Up” and Simmons on his (fake) blood spitting anthem “God of Thunder” – were serviceable enough to color a rock pageant that, against all odds, sounded ageless.

David Lee Roth at Rupp. Photo by Estill Robinson.

In a rocket paced, 45-minute opening set, Roth essentially mirrored the drive of Kiss’ show, but without the makeup, pyro and set pieces.

Backed by an industrious five member band, three of which supplied very functional backup vocals, Roth, 65, ripped through a set of 11 songs, eight of which were pulled from his storied late ‘70s-to-mid ‘80s tenure as frontman for Van Halen. His voice didn’t reflect the dexterity of those glory days and his range was exhibited more through frequent shouts and screams than his actual singing. But Roth still commands every ounce of the swagger that defined his performance persona during the Van Halen heyday, whether he was riding the power-chord heavy “Runnin’ with the Devil” (with guitarist Al Estrada ably navigating the Eddie Van Halen playbook of licks and solos) or swinging and strutting to his hit solo career medley of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”

Just watching the guy flash a grin big and electric enough to have been seen from Mars revealed a perhaps underappreciated show business paradigm – namely, that age is no match for attitude.

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