celebrating the sound of linda’s voice

Linda Ronstadt.

There is a moment near the end of the fine new documentary “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” that triggers an unexpected rush of poignancy. It comes as a sobering tribute from Emmylou Harris pans to an outdoor image of the present-day Ronstadt, her singing voice silenced by Parkinson’s Disease, glancing calmly with an obvious radiance still in her eyes.

After that is a performance of such subtle, heartwarming grace that it is best to omit the details for those who haven’t seen the film. It’s a fitting epilogue to a chronicle of an artistic career largely uncompromised by commercial intrusion and undeterred by the usual rock star tailspins. It is a musical life honorably celebrated.

Directed by the Academy Award-winning duo of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “The Sound of My Voice” serves as a scrapbook of the Ronstadt saga, from her days singing with her siblings as a teenager in Arizona to a California move that eventually made her one the most popular female pop artists of her generation. Of course, she was also restless enough with her sense of celebrity to forsake rock ‘n’ roll to sing opera, songbook-era standards, country music, pop duets with Aaron Neville and, most unexpectedly, traditional Mexican folk songs (mining a tradition inherited from her father).

Ronstadt’s career had no great scandals, no crippling addictions to battle and, generally, none of the self-inflicted excesses that stars of her level contend with. Even a suggested skirmish with drugs was halted before her career suffered. Her obstacles instead came from holding fast to a hearty level of genre-hopping she was continually warned would torpedo her career and being in the novel position of a female rock star in a ‘70s music industry run by men.

A generous and well-placed lineup of friends, family and accomplices offer commentary as the story unfolds with Ronstadt herself serving as occasional narrator. Especially insightful are comments from John David Souther, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Dolly Parton and Don Henley. There is also a wealth of vintage clips, only a portion of which are devoted to performances. A highlight includes Ronstadt nudging a tongue-tied Neville during a Grammy acceptance speech to thank his wife.

One of the more moving remembrances comes from Kevin Kline, who confesses to having had only a cursory knowledge of Ronstadt’s music prior to working with her on Broadway in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” He recalls being stunned by what he heard in early rehearsals. “When I heard her voice, it was just … gorgeous, musical, celestial yet earthy. Something so pure, it just made me cry.”

We don’t learn anything alarmingly new about Ronstadt in “The Sound of My Voice,” especially since she views her life and career, right up through her current existence with Parkinson’s, in remarkably unsentimental terms. But having all the elements of her career reassembled cleanly in one program with a cast of famous friends serving as tour guides makes the film immensely watchable. It is the story of a voice that, despite all of the commercial zeniths and its current state of Parkinson’s-induced silence, lived to sing. Ronstadt explains the sense of purpose and passion for why all singing voices feel that need at the film’s onset, before the party at hand even begins.

“They sing so that coming generations won’t forget what the current generation endured or dreamed or delighted in.”

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is currently playing at the Kentucky Theatre.

 

in performance: orrin evans trio

Orrin Evans. Photo by John Abbott.

It was understandable that the Orrin Evans Trio’s brief but exuberant performance at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center on Friday evening arrived with a set of comparison standards.

Pianist Evans played here as recently as December as the newest member of The Bad Plus, the Minneapolis collective with a genre and generation busting blueprint for what a piano trio should sound like. His return visit this weekend, which kicked off the third season of the Origins Jazz Series (the Bad Plus date was also an Origins booking) had Evans fronting his own trio, one rounded out by fellow Philadelphians Alex Claffy on bass and the very inventive Chris Beck on drums. So anyone who caught The Bad Plus over the winter might have been looking for stylistic or compositional similarities with Evans’ group. After all, piano trios all sound alike, right?

Not even remotely. While both groups operated within an exclusively acoustic framework, The Bad Plus utilized a more modernistic approach of slicing its sense of swing into ribbons that, once reassembled, often possessed a pacing more akin to hip hop and even techno than jazz. On Friday, however, Evans grabbed trio basics by the throat and took giddy delight in pumping them full of modal mischief and pure physicality.

Throughout a surprisingly short program that barely clocked in at over an hour, Evans was something of a prizefighter taking on long bouts of rhythmic drive built around a thick, percussive sound that fell somewhere between fun and furious. Heavy, punching runs by the left hand were embellished by Beck, whose sense of performance stamina was every bit as animated as the spirit fueling Evans’ playing. Bassist Claffy served as mediator, offering discreet, durable rhythmic support. His solos, on the other hand, were wildly imaginative, operating as lyrically vibrant and balanced compositions all on their own.

The inspiration that popped to mind regularly during the concert was McCoy Tyner, a pianist whose rich tone, modal daring and physical deftness collectively served as a template for Evans’ joyrides on piano.

There were plenty of dynamics, as well. The band shifted into ballad mode halfway through the set, allowing Evans and Beck to open their playing up with a greater sense of delicacy and reflection. Such an instance, however, underscored the program’s only real flaw – a sound mix that placed Evans underneath Beck’s propulsive drive, robbing the audience of some of the program’s more subtle piano detail.

Still, this was a fine outing, a whirlwind of jazz might and joy that burned bright and fast.

orrin evans takes the trio spotlight.

Orrin Evans.

A lot was at stake when The Bad Plus took to the stage of Lexington Children’s Theatre in December.

For the locally organized Origins Jazz Series, it was the marquee booking of its second season and one of its highest profile concert presentations to date.

For the band, it was a new beginning – the debut Kentucky performance with the first ever personnel change in its 18-year history. Out, as of the beginning of 2018, was pianist and co-founder Ethan Iverson. In was a longtime friend of the band, Orrin Evans.

For Evans, it was something of a crossroads situation. To national audiences, he was a “new” artist, despite a recording and touring career than was already two decades old. While he was the new recruit in The Bad Plus, he had no plans to leave behind his own ensembles – a variety of duo, trio and big band configurations.

The story ended well. The Lexington concert was a sellout and Evans was a hit, even ending the performance by embracing the childlike interpretation of Aphex Twin’s “Flim,” which had long been a signature tune of The Bad Plus before he joined.

A question lingered, however. How does a veteran pianist accustomed to calling the creative shots in his own career adjust to a democratic role in a band with such an established history and fanbase that was changing its lineup for the first time?

The answer will come, in part, this weekend, when Evans returns to Lexington to kick off the third season of the Origin Jazz Series with a performance under his own name.

“I’m figuring all this out everyday,” Evans said by phone last weekend from New York prior to a performance at the Jazz Standard that teamed his trio with guitarist and former Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks. “Playing with The Bad Plus is definitely something I enjoy doing, but just like anything else, it’s a matter of finding a way to make it feed your soul continually.

“I’ve been blessed to do whatever I’ve wanted to do the past 20 years of my career, which has not always been financially easy. I’ve been able to play with the people I’ve wanted to play with. When you add working in an established band, it does change things. You have to be respectful. There is a lot to get used to. But when we’re out there, it’s a beautiful thing.

“I have to be honest, though, if somebody had told me three years ago that I was going to be in The Bad Plus, I would have laughed straight up in their face. I would have laughed because I never thought it would be something that I would do, and not for a reason that I would dislike it. There was none of that. It’s just that this was an established band with an established lineup, so I think the lineup change was as shocking to me as it was to everybody else.”

Growing up in a fertile musical environment in Philadelphia, Evans confessed that the piano trio format – one that both The Bad Plus and the band he is bringing to Lexington this weekend adhere to – was never a favored musical setting as he established his own musical voice.

“I just needed to find what that sound was for me. It was the sound of freedom – freedom from the stereotypes of what is supposed to happen in the trio, in what the bass player’s role is supposed to be and the what the drummer’s role is supposed to be. Once you let that go, you do what you do and play music. The possibilities are then infinite.”

While working with his own groups, as well as The Bad Plus, has provided Evans the opportunity to perform in major metropolitan locales throughout the country and in Europe, he cherishes the opportunity to perform in cities like Lexington that aren’t exclusively known for their jazz preferences.

“To go to Lexington or any other smaller town to share this music is always great because it presents a new audience. When we pulled into the airport in Lexington in December, I remember thinking, ‘It is beautiful here.’

“There were also some other things to see there for the first time. I remember walking and seeing a sign telling about where slaves were once sold, so you’re dealing with that, too. That’s a part of the history. It’s true. It is what it is. But being able to go and spread my music in some of the places where I wasn’t even allowed at one time is a great feeling.”

Orrin Evans Trio performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center,  141 E. Main, as part of the Origins Jazz Series. Tickets: $25. online: originsjazz.org.

in performance: steve earle and the dukes

Steve Earle. Photo by Tom Bejgrowicz.

“Pork.” That was Guy Clark’s last word before his passing in 2016 to longtime friend and protégé Steve Earle. The latter relayed the confession during a performance Saturday evening at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center that called heavily upon Clark’s masterful songs and spirit.

The farewell, as it turned out, referenced the prime ingredient of a catered barbeque feast delivered to Clark’s quarters following cancer treatments. A Texas native who migrated to Nashville, as Earle did, the thought of pork being favored over beef as a base for barbeque was apparently abhorrent. No doubt, Clark would have looked far more favorably on the heavily reverent tributes Earle gave to his music and memory.

The basis for Earle’s current tour, of which Renfro Valley was the final stop, was a 2019 album called simply “Guy” that offered takes on a series of thematically and stylistically varied songs from throughout Clark’s career. Earle and his long running Dukes band performed 11 of the album’s 16 tunes during the two hour show, from the familiar (“L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train”) to the comparatively overlooked (“The Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint”), as well as from the whimsical (“Rita Ballou,” which was decked out with proper Texas dance hall charm) to the very stark and dark (a chilling solo acoustic reading of “The Last Gunfighter Ballad”).

Perhaps the most absorbing was a 1981 Clark delight titled “New Cut Road,” which dealt with a family of revelers bound for Texas from their native Kentucky because they felt the later was too populated. The delivery was a mash-up of bluegrass, Cajun and even Celtic accents led by the husband and wife team of fiddler Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson. The two also opened the evening with a fine set of original material as The Mastersons highlighted by a striking call for social empathy titled “In the Name of God.”

Earle eased the performance away from Clark’s songs to his own work several times, but not from his mentor’s spirit. He offered the antique, war-worn snapshot “Mercenary Song” because it was a Clark favorite and “Fort Worth Blues,” a stoic tribute to mutual friend Townes Van Zandt, because Clark recorded it in 1999. Earle termed the occasion of Clark cutting one of his songs instead of the other way around as “the greatest accomplishment in this work I do.”

A brisk run through music from several recent Earle albums – the unexpectedly jazzy “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me” (from 2015’s “Terraplane”), the eerily topical “That All You Got?” (a tune from 2013’s “The Low Highway” penned for a post-Katrina New Orleans but stoked with new urgency given the impending arrival of Hurricane Dorian) and the metal-esque country requiem “Fixin’ to Die” (from 2017’s “So You Wannabe an Outlaw”) – brought the show down the home stretch. But it was back to Clarksville for the finale of “Old Friends,” a solemn affirmation of alliance that underscored the humanity of Clark’s writing and the devout fellowship of one of his most prized disciples.

The lone gripe about the performance: a sound mix that regularly buried Earle’s vocals. Admittedly, at age 64, some the firepower to his singing has decreased while the Dukes’ instrumental potency has remained constant. Regardless, a more capably balanced mix would have helped. Every word of these songs, whether they came from the pens of Clark or Earle, needs to ring loud and clear.

rocking the grass, finland style

Steve ‘N’ Seagulls. From left: Matias Haavisto (Herman), Janne Tuovinen (Jamppa), Tomi Tajakka (Remmel), Juha Salonen (Skubu) and Viljam Hänninen (Hiltunen).

Take a guess as to which sensation you might feel upon introduction to the music of Steve ’n’ Seagulls. Is it joy? Maybe reflection? Unrest? Trepidation? All around musical bliss?

Try displacement.

Imagine a hard rock classic like AC/DC’s “Thunderstuck,” but in the place of Angus Young’s dizzying electric guitar arpeggios, you have the same riffs replicated on banjo. Instead of metal-encrusted power chords and death rattle vocals, you have a sound falling somewhere bluegrass and polka. Finally, there’s the geographical displacement. Instead of an Aussie take on American rock ‘n’ roll, you have Appalachian-inspired, roots-savvy licks devised from deep in the heart of… Finland?

Believe it. Steve ‘n’ Seagulls’ 2014 video for “Thunderstruck” began the exportation of one of Finland’s great musical curiosities to the world. Now, after three albums, five years and countless tours that have taken the band to over 20 countries, the genre-mashing quintet is back in the heart of the Bluegrass.

“A lot of times, people seem to be surprised with our live act,” said Steve ‘N’ Seagulls vocalist, frontman, guitarist and balalaika ace Tomi “Remmel” Tajakka by phone last week from his home in Iisalmi, Finland. “A lot of people usually come see us after seeing our videos online. In the videos, the whole thing is really small and sketchy. But when we’re playing live, there is more, let’s say, energy, more of a variety of sound. People have been really surprised with the fact that we can transport them to so many different places live, if you know what I mean.”

A novelty, you say? Not when you hear the band in action. On “Grainsville,” its third and most recent album, Steve ‘n’ Seagulls give acoustic driven makeovers to a battalion of hard rock chestnuts by Van Halen (“Panama”), ZZ Top (“Give Me All Your Lovin’”), Pantera (“I’m Broken”), Pearl Jam (“Alive”) and The Beastie Boys (“Sabotage”). The temperament borders on punk at times while the music leans to bluegrass. Still, it’s the mix of instrumental prowess and stylistic cunning that wins fans over.

“Through the years, the sound and the style of the band has refined itself,” Tajakka said. “But it seems to come out pretty naturally because we come from slightly different musical backgrounds. Some of us have played more traditional music, some of us have played more modern music – acoustic, electric and heavy metal, punk, Finnish dance music, choir music. For us, it’s pretty natural to mix different styles together. Of course, there are up sides and down sides to it, meaning that writing original songs for a band that mixes a lot of different styles is kind of hard because you don’t have a specific context in which to write in. But it all feels really natural. It still feels that way after quite a few years.”

So where did this sound come from? Did Tajakka spend his youth soaking up Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers records? Not exactly.

“I grew up listening to my dad’s records and CDs at first, so there was a lot of stuff from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s and late ‘70s. I grew up with (Jimi) Hendrix, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, a lot of British bands like Deep Purple, but also some of the folkier stuff and country music.

“At some point, I really started getting into heavy metal – bands like Metallica, Pantera, stuff like that. In the early ‘90s, Music Television (MTV) really kicked in here in Finland. That changed the game for us. We were teenagers who now had unlimited access to music videos and different kinds of programs like ‘Headbangers’ Ball,” which had mainly metal music. Then suddenly grunge kicked in. So I guess we grew up as pretty usual ‘90s kids who really liked music. It was an awesome time to be a teenager interested in music. It felt like there was a ton of new music pouring in all the time.”

A few of the artists whose music Steve ‘N’ Seagulls rewired, including The Offspring’s Dexter Holland and the late Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul, have given the band a thumbs-up for their efforts through the years. That has helped provide enough impetus to push ahead with a fourth album, which it plans to record in early 2020, and even more videos for internet consumption.

“Making the videos is always a lot of fun,” Tajakka said. “We usually get together at our accordion player’s home farm, light up the barbeque and start working. Those are fun days.”

Steve ’n’ Seagulls performs at 8 p.m. Aug. 29 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets: $18. Call 859-447-8166 or go to theburlky.com.

in performance: crave lexington (sunday)

Sometimes it takes an event like Crave Lexington to underscore the vitality of Lexington-made music. Presented out of the clubs, under a very tolerable late August sun and within a festival setting not built exclusively around music, the second day of Crave was devoted to a WRFL-FM sponsored (and presumably curated) roster of Central Kentucky performers. Amid an atmosphere rich with the aroma of assorted eateries and an audience that boasted a healthy number of children, including a youth appearing to be 6 or 7 years old wearing a Ramones t-shirt, the locals did their hometown proud.

Letters of Acceptance, which placed the Lexington rhythm section of Scott Whiddon and Tim Welch under the leads of Louisville guitarist/songsmiths Clint Newman and John Harlan Norris (the only real “out-of-towners” on the Sunday Crave bill), opened the festival just after the noon hour with a set of durable power pop. The reference point seemed pinned to the late ‘80s with an accessible but neatly textured ensemble jangle that fueled “Blackberry Winter” and “Weighted Ground.”

The sound expanded somewhat for Bear Medicine, the longstanding Lexington troupe that built neo-psychedelic soundscapes around the folk meditations of vocalist Joshua Wright. Sometimes the results were suitably summery, as in the violin, cello and keyboard colors that fleshed out “Blue Operator.” Other instances, like “Terra Firma,” outlined their lyricism in more quietly pensive terms.

The eight-member Blind Corn Liquor Pickers stuck to its proven menu of bluegrass instrumentation bolstered by a healthy wallop of electric spitfire. The Pickers let the grass grow under the loose, jamboree shuffle of the set-opening “Moonshine” while the more spaciously rugged “Great Unknown” put the acoustics very much in service of rock ‘n’ roll. Especially appealing were covers of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” recast with the Pickers’ electric grass ingenuity.

Crave was a homecoming of sorts for Coralee and Townies, especially since its leader now lives and works in Nashville. The music’s no frills honky tonk command was led by Coralee’s still-effortlessly potent singing and the guitar/pedal steel drive of Fred Sexton. That allowed the set, highlighted by the introspective country soul of “When You Don’t Matter Much” and the churchy grind of “Keep to Myself,” to showcase the Townies in still-vital performance form.

Ending the day was Joslyn and the Sweet Compression and a groove rooted in a horn driven, guitar fortified makeup that recalled Tower of Power and the assured soul/funk vocal charge of Joslyn Hampton. What resulted ran from the sleek ‘70s soul groove of “What Did You Think Was Gonna Happen?” and “Love on the Double” to an ultra-fun cover of the Funkadelic staple “Cosmic Slop” that erupted out of a Bo Diddley beat to make the set as functional as it was funky.

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.

 

old crow flies with railbird

Old Crow Medicine Show. From left: Charlie Worsham, Cory Younts, Critter Fuqua, Ketch Secor, Joe Andrews and Morgan Jahnig. Photo by Crackerfarm.

With many eyes and even more ears ready for the launch of Railbird, expectations are understandably high. Count Ketch Secor among those eagerly awaiting the arrival of the two-day music festival at Keeneland. As fiddler, harmonica ace, vocalist and co-founder of Old Crow Medicine Show, which will close out Saturday’s lineup on the Elkhorn Stage (one of four stages the event will be utilizing), he is as curious as anyone as to how Railbird will unfold. A longtime Virginian, Secor is familiar with Keeneland, with Lexington and with the musical and equine histories of Kentucky.

In other words, he is as versed as a performer can be with a Central Kentucky music summit prior to its initial take-off.

“This is one of the most exciting festivals that we’ll do all summer long,” Secor said. “It means just that much more to this band that it’s taking place in the Bluegrass State. Keeneland is a really neat spot for it, too. I’ve been there on many of the occasions that I’ve gotten to take part in the horse racing community in Lexington. I’m just excited to see it branch out into rock ‘n’ roll. I think that the horse business and the music business have a lot of commonalities.”

Railbird isn’t the only activity that has Secor psyched as the summer begins to wind down. He is serving as a consultant and featured interviewee for the Ken Burns documentary series, “Country Music.” He will be featured prominently in the opening episode, “The Rub,” which traces the beginnings of the music through 1933. It will air on PBS on Sept. 15.

Less than a week later, Old Crow Medicine Show will release “Live at the Ryman,” a high-energy concert album of the band’s vintage string sound enforced by evolutionary touches of percussion and piano. The repertoire runs from Old Crow’s best known songs (“Tell It To Me,” “Wagon Wheel”) to classic country fare (a duet of the Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn hit “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” done as a feisty duet between Secor and country renegade Margo Price).

The Burns documentary especially thrills Secor, who has long been fascinated with filmmaker’s work.

“I watched ‘The Civil War’ (a 1990 documentary series by Burns) when I was 12 years old and it totally changed my life. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. It was like Ken Burns was giving me a tour of my own back yard. He was showing me these amazing and oftentimes tragic narratives of what happened. Ken Burns really brought history alive for me.

“So flash forward and here I am in this band where I’ve taken a particularly preservationist kind of route to music. I’ve learned a whole about the music of East Kentucky, about shape note singers and banjo pickers and all kinds of things time might forget, but I won’t. I’m just really excited being a fan with this wonderful opportunity to work among the preservers.”

“Live at the Ryman,” on the other hand, is more than a mere concert record chronicling the growth of Old Crow Medicine Show over the past 21 years. It is a post card from a cherished venue long dubbed the “Mother Church” of country music. The band has played there, in various capacities, over 40 times including eight consecutive New Year’s Eve performances. A ninth awaits in December.

“It’s really a country music dream come true to feel like we finally got the keys to the Mother Church,” Secor said. “It was Hank Williams’ hall. It was (African-American country and blues artist) DeFord Bailey’s hallowed hall. It belongs to every performer who strutted their stuff across that stage.

“When you’re playing the Ryman, you’re playing the South’s most beloved concert hall. So to be in a band that has been able to make it a place where we’ve played 40 times and counting is a really special accomplishment. But it comes with a responsibility and a kind of stewardship. It takes knowing your history to be able to be given a gift like that.”

But the business at hand for Secor and the rest of Old Crow Medicine Show this weekend is Railbird and a return to Lexington. Local audiences were introduced to the band through a concert at the long-since-demolished Dame over 15 years ago with David Rawlings (who produced the band’s breakthrough “O.C.M.S.” album in 2004 as well as its 2006 follow-up “Big Iron World”) and folk empress Gillian Welch sitting in as surprise guests.

“There was the gig you’re talking about, the one at The Dame, and the time we went up to Renfro Valley. They had us lodged up there for a week and a half and let the tape roll as we recorded all this great music from ethnomusicologist John Lahr (released on “John Lair’s Renfro Valley: In the Valley Where Time Stood Still” in 2001). These opportunities were really special back in those days. There was nothing quite like them.”

Old Crow Medicine Show performs at 8:15 p.m. Aug. 10 as part of Railbird at Keeneland, 4201 Versailles Rd. Tickets: $90-$895 at railbird.com.

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.

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