Archive for an appreciation

b.b. king, 1925-2015

b.b.  king performing in 1999. herald-leader staff photograph by mark cornelison.

b.b. king performing in 1999. herald-leader staff photograph by mark cornelison.

“Hard luck and trouble seem to be my middle name,” sang B.B. King nearly 45 years ago in a typically elegant slice of orchestrated blues called Chains and Things. The song was part of a brilliant stretch of recordings issued between 1965 and 1975 that defined a titan musical life that ended yesterday at age 89.

For the better part of his career, King was synonymous with the blues. It’s hard to imagine an artist so associated with a specific musical genre. Casual music fans that knew little or nothing of the blues still invariably knew of King. As a musical ambassador for the blues, his influence and inspiration remain limitless.

To musicians, especially guitarists, his early recordings were like college textbooks.

“I got to see him record when I was a youngster — maybe seven years old,” ZZ Top guitarist Bill Gibbons told me in a 2013 interview. “My dad had an ‘in’ at the studio in Houston where B.B. and company preferred to record. That experience made a tremendous impression on me and, obviously, it’s stayed on all these years. B.B. King is now in year 63 or 64 of his career, and I’ve only been at it for maybe 45 years, so there’s a whole lot of catching up to do.”

But King was also a profound rarity among roots music musicians in that he achieved far reaching commercial and crossover popularity. Much of that stemmed from The Thrill is Gone, another sleekly produced, string-enhanced serving of the blues. It became more than a signature tune for King. It served as an anthem for the times.

The despondency of the song was obvious. So the was the clean, lean tone of his guitar work. But the patiently paced, orchestrated arrangement suggested pure early ‘70s soul. Everyone picked up on it – pop audiences, R&B audiences, all audiences. All of a sudden, King and his music were everywhere, even on such mainstream television programs as The Tonight Show.

The song also set the mood for the rest of King’s career. There were a few underappreciated recording triumphs after that, including 1970’s brilliant Indianola Mississippi Seeds (which contained Chains and Things), 1973’s overlooked To Know You is To Love You and 1978’s Crusaders-collaboration Midnight Believer. Mostly though, King became the face of the blues, changing forever its legitimacy as a popular music form.

His concerts were like old school revues, bolstered by horns, the odd novelty tune (How Blues Can You Get) and a stage presence as bright as the blues were solemn. Lexington was fortunate to have gotten several performance glimpses of King in action through ‘80s sets at the long defunct Breeding’s downtown to yearly festivals at the Kentucky Horse Park during the mid ‘90s.

King turned 70 during one of the latter dates, but the charm of his performance persona was still luminous. For King, the blues was an invitation to life, a look at its most sobering realities but, ultimately, a celebration of its most lasting joys.

john renbourn, 1944-2015

john renbourn.

john renbourn.

John Renbourn was a guitarist of many worlds. Though rightly championed as a vanguard member of the British folk movement during the 1960s, he was a quietly restless journeyman that expanded the roles of jazz, blues, Eastern music and even shades of Baroque within a decidedly folk context.

As a result, his recordings were always rich and stylistically varied while his concerts, especially acoustic sessions done solo or as collaborations with pals from the seminal folk troupe Pentangle, were deceptively unassuming affairs.

During the ‘90s and ‘00s, when he performed as close as Newport and Covington with Pentangle mates Bert Jansch and Jacqui McShee, he presented no airs. He possessed enough technique and stylistic dexterity to teach a master class on guitar history. But his delivery was always relaxed and conversational, a blend of folk traditions laced with the casual improvisational command of a jazz scholar.

Renbourn died on March 26 at the age of 70 in Scotland from a heart attack. He was scheduled to perform in concert that evening.

He leaves behind an extraordinary catalogue of music, from mid ‘60s duet albums with Jansch (who died in 2011) to groundbreaking blends of folk, blues and jazz cut with Pentangle during a wildly prolific run between 1968 and 1973 to a host of exemplary projects under his own name that shifted from the Renaissance flavor of 1970’s Lady and the Unicorn to the world music slant of 1981’s Grammy nominated Live in America.

Especially recommended are the extraordinary 1966 folk/blues set Jack Orion (with Jansch), Pentangle’s breathtaking half live/half studio 1968 opus Sweet Child and 1971’s folk-refined Faro Annie. The latter remains, arguably, Renbourn’s finest solo record.

A burly man with an impish smile and an audience-friendly demeanor, Renbourn was never so outward with his talent that he could be considered a celebrity, especially since his career largely bypassed rock ‘n’ roll. But make no mistake. Last week, a guitar giant left us.

the matriarch of the festival

jean cornett outside her midway home in 2002. herald-leader staff photo by frank anderson.

jean cornett outside her midway home in 2002. herald-leader staff photo by frank anderson.

Jean Cornett was one of those life forces you never thought would leave us. Though she had bowed out a few years ago from official duties with the Festival of the Bluegrass, the landmark Lexington music festival she co-founded with husband Bob over four decades ago, her presence was never absent after retirement. She greeted patrons and performers last summer like family, which given the frequency of repeat appearances evident on both sides of the festival stage, seemed perfectly natural. It was truly like she had never left.

But retire? Jean? Maybe in some remote way that could be possible. But separating her spirit from the festival by such a simple and inevitable act was impossible. No single individual, musician or otherwise, did more to foster and further the visibility of bluegrass music in Central Kentucky than Jean Cornett. To take that a step further, no one has presented it (or represented it, for that matter) with more homespun dignity, either.

I had annual conversations with Jean around Festival time for probably 25 years. Sometimes they were quick and to the point phone calls. Sometimes they were afternoon-long talks at her Midway home. There was at least one instance where we stood in the pouring rain a few days before the Festival opened, undeterred by the conditions at hand. She and her family weathered storms, oppressive heat, blackouts, brownouts and pretty much every obstacle nature and man could devise to present a music festival built upon string music tradition and innovation. Mostly, though, it was an event completely familial in design – whether it was with the children and grandchildren that followed her lead in the producing the event, the acts (specifically, the Seldom Scene) that would return year after year or the clans and fans that viewed the Festival as a rite of summer every year.

This is the magnificent gift Jean has given Lexington.

 “The Festival is a great source of pleasure for us,” she told me in 2009. “Every year – many times every year – we have old friends come over and introduce a new member of their family. And that new member often is a grandchild that is beginning to learn bluegrass much as the grandparent learned bluegrass at the Festival thirty-odd years ago. This makes us proud.”

edgar froese, 1944-2015

edgar froese.

edgar froese.

If you appreciate electronic music in any of its permutations, then you owe a debt of thanks to Edgar Froese.

The pioneering keyboardist, guitarist and composer, who died last week at age 70 from a pulmonary embolism in Vienna, spent the last 48 years at the helm of Tangerine Dream. The German ensemble helped redefine the use of synthesizers in contemporary music by initially crafting an orchestrated keyboard sound of its own and then adhering it to the times.

Members came and went – roughly 20 players in all, including the keyboardist’s son Jerome Froese – with the elder Froese remaining the band’s only mainstay member.

Initially, though, Tangerine Dream was viewed as a by-product of the German-born, industrial-tinged progressive music known as krautrock. But it was in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that Froese’s finest works were created – 1974’s majestically serene Phaedra, 1975’s wildly tense soundtrack to Sorcerer, 1981’s sleek but darkly percolating Exit and 1985’s globally inspired Le Parc.

A personal favorite remains 1988’s Livemiles, a pairing of two 20 minute concert suites that stand as some of the most exact, emotive and exquisitely textured music the band ever created. It also marked the end of an era. From that point on, Tangerine Dream became a streamlined enterprise that catered more to the beats, grooves and rhythmic designs that would be fleshed out further by a new generation of artists that ushered in ambient, trance and a wholly redefined electronic soundscape. That music, however, aimed less for the mind and imagination and more for the dance floor.

So would there be a Daft Punk today without the music Froese devoted nearly five decades to? Possibly. But its sense of modern pop pageantry would be far less captivating without the synthesized roads first paved by one of electronic music’s foremost dreamers.

joe cocker, 1944-2014

joe-cocker-4de2787b10559[1]

joe cocker.

For the longest time, I thought Cry Me a River was a Joe Cocker song. More than that, I was convinced the tune my dad cherished as an Ella Fitzgerald classic was written to be played as a boozy, barrelhouse rocker with a soul-scabbed voice like Cocker’s out front. Cocker just had that way with songs.

After all, this was the Englishman that turned the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends into a psychedelic soul free-for-all at Woodstock by eschewing pop references in favor of scorched R&B. He also turned the Box Tops hit The Letter into earth rumbling soul carnival at the dawn of the ‘70s. And when Cocker turned sweet, as he did in his most prized radio hit, 1974’s You Are So Beautiful, he sounded like was on the losing end of a prizefight – bloodied, beaten up yet so soulful you could just sob.

Of course, Cocker underscored the coarse texture of his singing with a lifestyle that was equally ragged. By the mid ‘70s, you couldn’t tell if he was entranced onstage by the music he was making or simply inebriated. Unfortunately, rock bottom was played out in public when John Belushi popularized a drunken, buffoonish impersonation of him during the second season of Saturday Night Live. The comic even performed it in front of Cocker when the singer was a guest on the program in 1976. It was beyond painful to watch.

“I got on a downward spiral after You Are So Beautiful,” Cocker told me in an interview ahead of his 2000 Rupp Arena performance with Tina Turner. “I was still making music, but I just had a bad attitude about life. I used to wake up and start drinking beer at 10 in the morning. I lived in a cloud. 

“Kids in Germany and a few other places would still come to see me even when I was stoned out of my mind and forgetting the words to songs. Then it dawned on me. The realization hit that I should give these kids something back. I knew I had to give a good performance. So slowly and surely, I got better.”

That translated into an ‘80s renaissance that included Cocker’s biggest hit (1982’s Up Where We Belong), one of his best albums (1982’s Sheffield Steel) and a renewed reputation internationally as a concert performer that lasted right up until his death yesterday at age 70 from lung cancer. That also meant getting the last laugh as Cocker outlived Belushi by some 33 years.

“It fascinates people just what happened in the ’70s,” Cocker said in our interview. “To be honest, that whole period bemuses myself.”

Ian McLagan, 1945-2014

ian-maclagan

Ian McLagan

One had to do a double take Wednesday afternoon when word arrived that Ian McLagan had died from complications attributed to a massive stroke suffered on Tuesday.

Not the man they called Mac. Not the irrepressibly cheery keyboardist who personified everything fun about rock ‘n’ roll. Not the man who  toured the world with The Faces and The Rolling Stones with a smile on his face and a wicked taste for boogie-woogie at his fingertips. Not the man who was right here in Lexington for a two-night engagement a mere six weeks ago.

The latter was the real stunner. McLagan’s previous Lexington visits included two performances at Rupp Arena — one with the Stones in 1981 and the other alongside former Faces mate Rod Stewart in 1993. In late October, there was Mac,  onstage at the Lyric Theatre for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour and again the next evening for a late booking at Parlay Social.

A week earlier, I interviewed McLagan over the phone for an advance story on those shows and found him to be genuinely modest, upbeat and boundlessly enthusiastic about the music that was still very much the center of his life. He spoke of his love of the piano blues pioneered by Muddy Waters keyboardist Otis Spann, of the lessons in life and music learned by playing side by side in the Stones with piano great Ian Stewart (the newly released Hampton 1981 CD/DVD reveals both of them in action) and the prospect of getting all the surviving members of The Faces, including the previously reluctant Stewart, together for reunion concerts in 2015.

Mostly, though, McLagan seemed excited and more than a little surprised that fans young and old were still hungry to hear him play.

“I’m the luckiest guy I know because I love what I do, and I can still do it,” he told me. “People still come out just to hear the music, too. That’s a blessing, you know? What else am I going to do but play the piano and sing?”

When I met  McLagan briefly after the WoodSongs taping, he mentioned he had read my piece on him and was pleased that it “sounded like me.”

What Mac music will I be digging into tonight? The Faces’ swan-song studio record, 1973’s Ooh La La, will make the cut for sure. But so will United States, his most recent studio record. The latter isn’t the kind of big, barrelhouse work one might expect from McLagan. It is instead a more reflective, wistful record by a schooled elder who lived the rock ’n’ roll dream to the hilt and was now purposely downshifting with his chops, integrity and spirit intact.

How fortunate we are that Lexington got to share in one of the final chapters of such a remarkable rock ’n’ roll saga.

Ian McLagan was 69.

Bobby Keys, 1943-2014

bobby keys 2

Bobby Keys

The secret of any enduring art form – or any commercial enterprise, for that matter – is teamwork. Fashion that perhaps clichéd philosophy within a rock ’n’ roll context – in particular, the 50 year odyssey of The Rolling Stones – and you will find a band with pioneering, resourceful members but also a support team of expert players and producers. Aside from the great pianist Ian Stewart, who died in 1985, there was no more crucial sideman to the success of the Stones than tenor saxophonist Bobby Keys, who died yesterday at age 70.

Keys and the Stones were kindred spirits from different shores. Where the Stones were British ambassadors bred on American R&B, Keys was the real thing – a wildfire Texas sax ace who lived as uproariously as he played. The Stones would go on to record with a number of exemplary saxophonists over the decades. British vet Mel Collins was awarded the classic groove solo on Miss You. The legendary American jazz colossus Sonny Rollins played the poetic concluding solo on Waiting on a Friend. But the really filthy sax breaks that defined records made during the Stones’ golden era (1969-72) all belonged to Keys.

The psycho roots party breakdown distinguishing Rip This Joint? The boozy sing-a-long solo of Sweet Virginia? The simmering jam instigation during Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? The pressure cooker blast at the heart of Live With Me? Those were all diamond creations of Keys and integral components within the wonderfully debauched tenor of those songs.

And then there was Brown Sugar, a tune with such a perfectly crafted yet completely intuitive solo that it sounded like a composed segment of the song. Keys would play the solo note for note, tour after tour with the Stones until earlier this year when declining health forced the saxophonist to bow out of a series of Australian concerts by the band.

Keys’ dossier outside of the Stones was ridiculous. Among the giants he has played with: The Who, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Warren Zevon, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, John Hiatt, Donovan, Humble Pie and The Faces. But my favorite recording of Keys apart from the Stones remains a scalding concert record with fellow Texan Joe Ely called Live Chicago 1987 (which, perhaps fittingly, wasn’t released until 2009). Hearing Ely at his wildest with Keys ripping through Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, the epic Letter to L.A. and a roadhouse savvy Oh Boy (the classic by Buddy Holly, yet another Texas giant) is pure joy.

But for an immediate taste of Keys’ rock ‘n’ roll bravado, dig out the Stones’ still-extraordinary Exile on Main St. His playing smothers the band’s loosest, soul-marinated tunes like barbeque sauce – sauce smoked in Lone Star country, of course.

Jack Bruce, 1943-2012

jack bruce 2

Jack Bruce

For a bassist best known for the three tumultuous years he scorched the rock and roll world with Cream, Jack Bruce sure got around.

He played jazz. He played blues. He was a master collaborator and a headstrong bandleader. He was also, if we bought into the hedonistic tales of his 2010 autobiography Composing Himself, a complete maniac prone to a level of self-abuse that should have claimed his life a generation or two ago.

The Scottish born Bruce was a composer, a potent singer and, above all, an absolutely soaring electric bassist. He was, in short, the consummate rock artist at a time in pop history when artistic discovery was everywhere.

He died Saturday at the age of 71 and left a library of music so stylistically far reaching that whittling it down to even a few highlights is impossible. But let’s try anyway.

From the Cream days, I’ll take 1968’s mighty Wheels of Fire over everything else the band did, even the psychedelic studio masterwork Disraeli Gears. A double album divided evenly between studio and concert recordings, this was the sound of Cream unleashed – a volcanic blues mutation that knew no boundaries.

But there was so much more. Bruce’s first three solo records were all classics. 1969’s Songs for a Tailor showed off his songcraft, 1970’s Things We Like echoed the thunderous jazz extremes Bruce briefly explored in Tony Williams’ Lifetime and 1971’s Harmony Row radically reinvented Cream’s power trio design.

There were scores of other delights, as well, including his recordings with guitarist Robin Trower, the 2012 self-titled album from fusion supergroup Spectrum Road and the fine 2014 solo work Silver Rails.

But the record I reached for last night though was a sleeper, a 1974 solo session called Out of the Storm. It was cut on American shores during the aftermath of the short-lived West, Bruce & Lang trio (which teamed the bassist with two thirds of Mountain). It was a true FM classic, a mix of prog and jazz drenched melodies iced by some of the most otherworldly singing Bruce ever committed to a recording.

I saw Bruce play only once. He played a December 1989 concert at Bogart’s in Cincinnati with Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Unwilling to play anything but old Cream material, Baker sat out the entire first half of the show. But Bruce, who was promoting another underappreciated gem of an album (A Question of Time) carried on with unflinching joy and confidence. In a way, his performance stance approximated that magnificent sound he summoned from the bass. Both were bold, distinct and fearless.

jay flippin, 1946-2014

jay+flippen

jay flippin. photo by sally horowitz.

One the many tributes to Jay Flippin that flooded Facebook yesterday as word of his death from liver cancer at age 68 began to spread included a photo of the veteran Morehead pianist, composer, educator and bandleader wearing a tee shirt that bore this simple but remarkably telling credo: “Works well with others.”

Ask anybody who knew him, collaborated with him or simply watched him perform and you understood how those four words seemed to embody a boundless spirit. My recognition of that came through watching him perform, usually in small groups with local jazz pals. He had technical chops and stylistic dexterity like no one’s business. While those traits help explain his recorded legacy and the truckload of awards that went with it, the real spark of watching Flippin in performance was the obvious love he displayed for music and his ability to share that with others.

The smiles that broke out on his face as he played and the jovial camaraderie he showed his bandmates were always dealbreakers. It was simply impossible not to get caught up in the pure cheer of his performance demeanor. While I never got to see him play as a church organist or sit in as he instructed his students, I can only imagine the senses of joy, eagerness and invitation abounded there as well.

I met Flippin just once. Curiously, it wasn’t at a performance, but purely by chance following a medical procedure for his cancer treatment. We recognized one another at once and shared a laugh about such social coincidence.

That was perhaps Flippin’s greatest gift. In performance, he could swing and orchestrate like the master he was. But face to face, he was an instant friend whose love of music was exceeded only by his love of life.

johnny winter, 1944-2014

johnny-winter

johnny winter.

At the height of his powers, which was on just about any record issued under his name between 1968 and 1986, Johnny Winter was one the most potent and unrelenting blues stylists to roar out of Texas.

A wiry figure from Beaumont born with albinism, Winter could not have looked less like a bluesman. But once unleashed in performance, his guitar work and singing became something of a perfect storm. Sure, there were instances where he bowed more directly to the blues (as in his 1968 debut album The Progressive Blues Experiment and 1977’s return-to-the-roots primer Nothin’ But the Blues). But Winter’s appeal was built around a sound that shunted blues tradition through the guitar-dominate sounds of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. His jams were tireless blasts of boogie-driven rock that favored drive and groove over subtlety. Winter’s singing was the same – a tough-knuckled howl that seemed to egg on the intensity of his playing.

But Winter, who died yesterday at the age of 70 while on tour in Switzerland, was also a product of his time. He found his place in an age of psychedelia, a situation cemented by a career defining performance at Woodstock. The freshness of the music he fashioned during that era was captured on the first two entries in a near flawless stream of recordings for Columbia – 1969’s Johnny Winter and 1970’s Second Winter.

There were extraordinary highs, like a late ‘70s alliance with Muddy Waters that resulted in three sublime Winter-produced recordings for the blues master, as well as near fatal lows that included an early ‘70s addiction to heroin. And as with any great artist whose career has prevailed through both extremes, there have bee numerous recording triumphs that have never received their just critical due, including 1974’s Saints and Sinners (his most stylistic diverse rock-dominate set with a deliciously nasty version of the Rolling Stones’ Stray Cat Blues), 1980’s Raising Cain (a primal blues adieu to Columbia), 1985’s Serious Business (arguably the finest of three albums Winter cut for the famed blues label Alligator) and 1991’s Let Me In (a looser, blues dominate session Pointblank/Charisma).

“I remember making records when I was a teenager – maybe 16 or 17 years old,” Winter told me in a January 1992 interview. “I thought at the time, ‘I wonder what these are going to sound like to me when I’m 50 or 60. I had an awareness even then that I was making a record for the future.”

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