Archive for in performance

in performance: bobby mcferrin

bobby mcferrin

bobby mcferrin.

As his performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville headed into the home stretch, Bobby McFerrin took the roots driven mix of gospel, blues and jazz references that formed the basis of the program and lit a fuse to it.

The tune was 25:15, a blues incantation adapted out of the Book of Psalms that stands as a modest Americana mood piece on McFerrin’s recent spirityouall album. Last night, though, the song was a monster. Possessing an almost respiratory flexibility, it locked the vocalist and an immensely versed band – one that included veteran jazz keyboard ace Gil Goldstein and pop/folk multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield – into tumultuous unison. The resulting torrent rose and deflated over and over under a single, repeated lyric until McFerrin’s four-octave voice became a stratospheric wail. It was what you could call serious – if not downright frightening – testimony.

The tune’s intensity was a shock only because the rest of the performance was so unassuming with McFerrin proving a cordial host that summoned decidedly lighter spirits during a reggae-fied revision of Swing Low, the non-spirityouall inclusion of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home, a sing-a-long version of Whole World that allowed four very capable audience patrons to sing the chorus on their own and a slightly darker original, Woe, that spoke to most any time of social hardship.

As usual, McFerrin was something of an alchemist onstage. His voice was regularly used as all-purpose instrumental tool throughout the program. It veered into rounds of traditional scat singing and expanded into layered sounds that mimicked bass and percussion patterns, the latter having been a trait of his live shows for decades.

Not surprisingly, such a sense of discovery possessed a hefty dose of playfulness, whether McFerrin was greeting an invited audience member by impersonating John Wayne or asking a stage hand to bring him a sweater to shake off an onstage chill by singing the request.

But on 25:15, the gospel took over and the ensemble’s vocal and instrumental symmetry skyrocketed. It was a reminder that while sometimes the spirit might move you, there are also instances when it may give you a good hearty shove instead.

in performance: booker t. jones


booker t. jones

Far be it for anyone to suggest that a pop-soul pioneer such as Booker T. Jones should limit the stylistic scope of his music. Having become so identifiable with a distinctive instrument like the Hammond B3 organ over the past five decades has to have made him eager to take a stab at a new sound. Trouble is, stretching out isn’t really Jones’ forte. His performance last night at the new Mercury Ballroom in Louisville underscored that fact.

When the two hour-plus performance addressed the earliest and most recent chapters of his career – specifically, his gloriously cool instrumental soul music with Booker T. and the MGs in the ‘60s and a trio of fine comeback albums that began with 2009’s Potato Hole – the evening was a pure delight.

Looking far younger than his age (69), Jones remains the epitome of taste behind the keys of the B3. Much of that comes from creating clean, soulful grooves out of relatively simple melodies. His classic Green Onions, which was dispensed with six songs into the show, stood as an obvious example. But so did Jones’ 1968 arrangement of Dominic Frontiere’s theme to the Spaghetti Western Hang ‘Em High, which made use of a single melody repeated with a different B3 texture and shading but without any alteration of tempo.

Along the same lines was the show opening Harlem House (from 2011’s The Road to Memphis, the second installment in the comeback trilogy), which let the melody expand and swell as the tune proceeded with Jones’ neatly orchestrated solo. Ditto for a luscious cover of The Rascals’ Groovin’ (fashioned after the MGs’ 1967 version) that basked in silky, lyrical warmth.

But as the performance led to a brief and unanticipated intermission, Jones left the B3 to play guitar and add vocals to an array of cover tunes that became steadily more formulaic. Jones is a capable but unremarkable rhythm guitarist and singer, judging by last night’s performance. Some of the covers he interpreted related directly to his career, like the Albert King blues favorite Born Under a Bad Sign, which Jones co-wrote and recorded. Others didn’t at all, like a sluggish, static take on Purple Rain. The covers parade was especially ill-timed, too. With Thunder Over Louisville starting just a few blocks away, the audience began to thin. By the time Jones returned to the B3, as much as one-third of the crowd had bailed on the show.

What a shame. Jones has fashioned a masterful, profoundly recognizable sound over the years and a fine recording catalogue to go with it. While he has every right artistically to stray from those sounds and songs, most of his detours last night were lessons in selling himself short.

In performance: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band


Bruce Springsteen. Photo from Shore Media

“Are you ready to go home?”

That was the question posed by Bruce Springsteen, 64 and still full of rock ’n’ roll fervor, as his performance Wednesday night at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati hit the three-hour mark. The Boss certainly had every right to think everyone was. He and his battalion-sized E Street Band (18 members, but without the services of longtime guitarist Steve Van Zandt) had already hammered out a show full of the stamina and urgency that would have landed lesser artists in the ER. But there were still two songs to go before Springsteen called it a night. Both were covers bearing the emotive and stylistic duality that also distinguished the original material that drove this exhilarating but exhaustive performance.

The first was the Isley Brothers soul staple Shout, which the E Streeters injected with the same summery joy that pervaded Springsteen’s Waiting on a Sunny Day and Hungry Heart earlier in the evening. Then the band was dismissed leaving The Boss onstage with a pump organ to close with a mantra-like version of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream, a song Springsteen has made his own over the last decade. It revealed a meditative ambience that fueled the darker, more topical immediacy of his the original American Skin (41 Shots) during the show’s second hour.

One of the many fascinations of a Springsteen concert remains the ability of these extremes to sit so naturally next to each other. For example, Roy Bittan’s clear but quietly dramatic piano lines propelled the dark parable Lost in the Flood (a gem from Springsteen’s debut 1973 album Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and one of the night’s biggest surprises) but didn’t miss a beat as The Boss followed with the romantic epic Because the Night. Ditto for how the heartland anthem The Promised Land set up a New Orleans street parade version of Pay Me My Money Down that sent nearly all of the E Street Band’s auxiliary members (including a vocal trio and quintet of horns) to the front of the stage.

Of course, none of this properly sums up Springsteen’s still-outrageous command as a physical performer (shown by his crowd surfing journey from half-court on the arena floor early in the evening), raconteur/street preacher (an odd but hysterical story about automatic toilets that prefaced a seriously gospel-esque Spirit in the Night) and sobering protest singer (an electrified The Ghost of Tom Joad with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, a recent E Street draftee).

So, no. Even at the end of this 3¼-hour celebration – which opened with the brass and percussion rumble of High Hopes and included no intermission or encores – no one was ready to go home. Mind you, everyone – audience and artist – appeared wiped out as the clock hit 11. But that’s what great rock ’n’ roll does. It continues to nourish your consciousness long after your body tells you to split.

in performance: dublin guitar quartet

dublin guitar quartet 2

dublin guitar quartet:pat brunnock, michael o’toole, tomas o’durcain,brian bolger.

The breadth of the repertoire running through last night’s performance by the Dublin Guitar Quartet at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville suggested something of a global sprint. The concert touched upon composers from Estonia, Hungary, Cuba and the United States. Curiously, the purely Irish entries by guitarist David Flynn (a DGQ alum) and the instrumental rock troupe The Redneck Manifesto proved to be the least indigenous sounding items in the program.

What this technically dazzling but sometimes stylistically stymied performance wound up emphasizing wasn’t so much a set of geographical references, though. Instead, it better approximated a study in how contemporary classical structures – especially minimalist and post-minimalist designs that explored interlocking, cyclical melodies and the often astonishing harmonies they created – transferred to an acoustic guitar group.

Two fine examples were a pair of abridged Philip Glass string quartets – two movements from Company and another three from the sublime (and, given its absence of mention in the program notes, unplanned) Mishima. Both wonderfully captured the haunting lyrical splendor Glass weaves out of sparse, repetitive melodic variations. The quartet discovered the works’ subtle drama, too – right down to the light counterpoint that seemed to make the music float in mid air.

The Redneck Manifesto’s brief Soundscapes Over Landscapes was less intricate but just as musically involving. The quartet let the tune unravel in sheets of melodic fancy before acoustic power chords and the closing percussive slaps by three of the group’s four players on the bases of their instruments summoned the piece’s rockish but curiously non Irish sounding foundation.

From another world entirely came Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, a three part composition for 12 guitars performed last on solo electric guitar by the DGQ’s Pat Brunnock and a well orchestrated tape of accompanists. As a technical exercise, it was astonishing with Brunnock working in and around a symphony of clipped, stuttering melodies. So deft was his execution that during the first half of the 15 minute piece distinguishing the live music from the recorded accompaniment was almost impossible. That created some icy stagnancy until the criss-crossing melodies finally grew together, as they did in the more organically presented Glass pieces, allowing harmony to win out.

in performance: ballister


ballister: paal nilssen-love, fred lonberg-holm and dave rempis. photo by lasse marhaug.

It began in a state of willful chaos and ended with a beat of golden silence. Everything in between played out last night like a heated family conversation by the free jazz trio Ballister at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacob Niles Center for Traditional Music.

A turbulent ebb and flow fortified the 75 minute set’s three untitled improvisations created by saxophonist Dave Rempis, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The first started like a clasp of thunder with the three stepping briskly into a fractured, high volume brawl that placed Rempis’ scorched alto lead at its center. Built around all that was the deconstructed chamber backdrop Lonberg-Holm designed by tapping out notes on the neck of the cello with his left hand while his right simultaneously added more sustained rage with a bow. Subsequent solos would formulate a hint of a sustained melody before Lonberg-Holm let the music mutate with assorted pedal effects.

One had to be a traffic cop to monitor all the changes that followed – like Rempis’ switch to baritone sax and an ensuing, elemental, groove executed on brushes by Nilssen-Love that slowly built itself into a furious boil. Whispery sax/drums dialogue, a percussion solo on cymbals played by mallets, two more sax changes (back to alto and then on to tenor) and a full-tilt trio rampage brought the 35 minute improv to a conclusion that was as unsettled as the opening.

The second improv downshifted the set’s drive, but only slightly. Its introduction returned Nilssen-Love to mallet percussion that faded to a quiet rumble even as bowed cello lines percolated under his playing. Rempis’ baritone sax squall later led into another trio skirmish before a clean swipe on the cello strings by Lonberg-Holm brought the improv to a finish that seemed to surprise and delight his bandmates.

An overall quieter chat dominated the final improv of the evening. A rustle of percussion devices that included a half-empty water bottle and an alto sax solo that beautifully opened into a fully functioning wail highlighted the music’s unusually harmonious flow.  Then everything evaporated into a momentary coda of silence that was as breathtaking as all of the fascinating interplay that preceded it.

in performance: scott miller

scott miller

scott miller.

You had to feel for Scott Miller. His fine acoustic performance last night at Willie’s Locally Known was shifted to an early evening start time to accommodate the late tipoff of the Kentucky/ Louisville NCAA game. But that meant the longtime songsmith, who spent all of his professional career in Knoxville before relocating to his Virginia family farm three years ago, had be onstage as his beloved Tennessee Vols were going down for an Elite Eight placement to Michigan. Miller took it all with a wry wit that was often turned inward, that was until he eulogized his team’s impending loss with a solemn finale of Tennessee Waltz. What a hapless, heartfelt and strangely complimentary pairing it was with Miller earnestly singing the classic county lyrics about losing a sweetheart as his team bowed out for the season.

The rest of the performance was no less absorbing. Miller remains, some 18 years after his Lexington debut with the Knoxville quartet The V-Roys a masterful storyteller – one that weaves words with Dylan-esque rhythm and specificity as his narratives become darkly personal. An exquisite example surfaced last night with How Am I Ever Going to Be Me?, a tune that questioned identity, faith and salvation.

Equally sobering and Dylan-drenched was Lo Siento Spanishburg West Virginia, a tale of rural decay that provided a modest whimsical spin on folk tradition (“old times there are Oxycontin”).

Both are relatively recent tunes for Miller that favored folkish outlines over the rockish template used for many of his V-Roys and early solo career songs. It was a setting nicely enhanced during the 90 minute set by bassist/accompanist Bryn Davies, last seen locally as a band member to Peter Rowan and Tony Rice. Whether supplementing the subtle groove to Sin in Indiana, adding a lovely bowed bass accent to Is There Room on the Cross for Me? or providing playful, percussive slaps to Freedom’s a Stranger, Davies proved a resourceful and often elegant orchestrator for Miller’s music.

As has been the case with several crowded weekend shows at Willie’s, there was an abundance of idle audience chatter that signaled a disconnect (or perhaps disrespect) among some patrons. But when the performance hushed for the Civil War remembrance Highland County Boy at encore time, the only crowd noise was the unprompted shuffling of ensemble feet that simulated the march of war-beaten soldiers as well as the tune’s percussive heartbeat.

critic’s pick 330: glenn kotche, ‘adventureland’

glenn kotcheLeave it to a precocious percussive talent like Glenn Kotche to deconstruct and retool two suites into a new hour-long recording titled Adventureland – an album that is, in essence, another suite.

Even by the usual daring but playful standards of the longtime Wilco drummer and University of Kentucky graduate, Adventureland is just that. Though it celebrates Kotche’s compositions for ensembles as much (if not more) than his actual playing, it still beautifully represents one of contemporary music’s most distinctive percussion voices.

Here are the primary inhabitants of Adventureland. First up is a seven movement suite for string quartet and drumkit, Anomaly, which was commissioned by (and presented here as a collaboration with) the famed Kronos Quartet. Then we add The Haunted, a five-movement piece for two pianos and percussionists.

But here is where the scrambling begins. The movements to Anomaly are presented sequentially. The running order of The Haunted is completely reworked (the movements are presented in a sequence of 5-4-1-3-2). Then everything is meshed together with two additional works – one featuring Boston’s Gamelan Galak Tika, the other teaming Kronos with Chicago’s eighth blackbird.

Perhaps such cut-and-paste assembly of the pieces was intended by Kotche as an observational detour so that the music could be appreciated on its own terms rather than as an assemblage of works featuring a variety of musical participants.

But then how would we explain the album-opening Anomaly, Mvt. 1, which takes Kronos out of the equation so electronics can voice the string and percussion parts? Then there is Dance, the finale movement of The Haunted (which, again, is served as the introductory section on Adventureland), which boasts sharp, clipped dialogue between pianists Lisa Kaplan and Yvonne Lam and the mallet-savvy percussion of Matthew Duvall and Doug Perkins. Kotche is listed as playing only “additional percussion,” yet The Haunted’s immensely animated tone is a signature mark of his compositions.

A similar giddiness pervades Gamelan’s gongs and Balinese percussion on the minimalistic The Traveling Turtle. But it’s on Anomaly, Mvt. 4 that Kotche’s instrumental voice is as prominent as his compositional profile. As the Kronos strings build from a playful pizzicato intro into more strident chamber passages, Kotche’s drumming enters and soon works into a rockish lather that wonderfully matches the drama of the strings before reaching a coda of meditative cool.

Don’t let the stylistic variety of the pieces and their shuffled sequencing become a bother. In Adventureland, it’s best to discard the road maps and enjoy the ride.

in performance: pablo ziegler quartet with stefon harris

pablo ziegler 1

pablo ziegler.

Nearly every piece performed last night by the Pablo Ziegler Quartet at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville played out like a suite. A central theme or mood would introduce most tunes. But from then on, the music was like a car chase, bounding around numerous shifts in tempo and temperament – some of which were quite abrupt – before arriving home again. It was then that you appreciated how exhilarating the journey was.

Ziegler is widely seen today as the torchbearer of “nuevo tango,” the jazz-like, small combo variation of tango music formulated decades ago by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Ziegler served as Piazzolla’s pianist for over decade. Such insight manifested last night in a program split evenly between original compositions and works by Piazzolla.

The sharp, clipped but beautifully exact melodies of Piazzolla were echoed in the spare, mischievous playing of Hector del Curto on bandoneon, the Argentine version of the button accordion that was also the composer’s signature instrument. But that was only part of the fun. With the help of American vibraphonist Stefon Harris, a guest for roughly 2/3 of the concert, Ziegler used the bandoneon colors as guideposts for tunes that were in constant emotive motion.

During the Ziegler composition Bajo Caro, the ensemble mood became almost elegiac before left hand piano rolls opened out into a gleeful lyrical stride. The music became more fragmented on Piazzolla’s Chin Chin through band skirmishes that included a brief four mallet run on the vibes from Harris that affirmed the tune’s inherent cool along with sleek, punctuated rhythm by Ziegler, bassist Pedro Giraudo and guitarist Claudio Ragazzi.

At the core of these exchanges was a sense of playfulness that triggered the giddy melodic jabs of La Rayuela. Such instances recalled the animated piano/vibes duets of Chick Corea and Gary Burton as much the great Piazzolla.

There were other stylistic joyrides, as well, including the classically inclined Fuga Y Misterio and the darker, more spacious Blues Porteno. But it was Buenos Aires Report that best displayed the template for all of the genre-jumping – a boldly colored, effortlessly executed piano blast that balanced Piazzolla’s compositional elegance and Ziegler’s boundless musical ingenuity.

in performance: crosby, stills and nash

csn 3

crosby,stills and nash: david crosby, stephen stills, graham nash. photo by eleanor stills.

It’s easy to dismiss Crosby, Stills and Nash in the 21st century as the product of a bygone pop era – a trio of 70-something, Woodstock-born journeymen still singing idealist protest songs in a way that makes its members seem forever long in the tooth.

Such a notion even seemed welcome last night during the nearly three-hour, sold out performance CSN staged at the Louisville Palace. The second song out of the gate (following Stephen Stills’ solemn, aptly themed Carry On) was Graham Nash’s Chicago, a diatribe rooted in the 1968 Democratic National Convention with its battle cry chorus of “we can change the world.”

A never-say-die reflection of political revolution? Perhaps. But while the bulk of CSN’s performance was devoted to late ‘60s and ‘70s songs (Stills’ Southern Cross was the only tune representing the ‘80s and ‘90s), what was revealed was a broader time capsule repertoire where the most evocative moments addressed the cultural climate of its day as much or more than the era’s political unrest.

A beautiful case in point was another Nash composition, the classic Our House, a 1970 love song that again unfolded with such wide-eyed innocence that it triggered the evening’s most hearty sing-a-long and ovation. Ditto for David Crosby’s Guinevere, a more fanciful romantic remembrance from CSN’s 1969 debut album where the two part harmonies between the songwriter and Nash (which fueled much of the evening’s vocal charm) sounded suitably golden.

Sure, there were instances where CSN turned pointedly political, such as the “thank you in advance” Stills offered the audience in hopes of ousting Mitch McConnell in this fall’s senatorial election or the far sterner sentiments Crosby and Nash summoned during a brief a capella reading of What Are Their Names?, a would-be encounter with the powers-that-be. Pulled from Crosby’s 1971 debut album If I Could Only Remember My Name, the tune was the evening’s biggest surprise entry.

While such a repertoire suggested a folkie agenda, CSN remained very much an electric outfit last night with a five member band built around the keyboard orchestration of James Raymond (Crosby’s son) as a backdrop and Stills’ immensely resourceful guitarwork, alternating with colors and leads from co-guitarist Shane Fontayne, leading the charge. Of particular interest were a pair of relaxed, fluid solos Stills provided his Buffalo Springfield classic Bluebird and Crosby’s Deja Vu that possessed an almost jazz-like feel.

The program wasn’t wholly rooted in the past, either. Two songs from Crosby’s fine new Croz album – Radio and What’s Broken – echoed varying senses of salvation within melodies that were simultaneously assured and restless. Stills reprised the similarly haunting Don’t Want Lies from last year’s sessions with The Rides while Nash beat everyone in terms of turnaround with a piano-based love song, Here For You, that was composed as recently as last week.

But the encore of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, the Woodstock anthem that had the coarse throated Stills still hitting the high notes, proved clearly where allegiances within the audience stood. While the new music was consistently engaging, it was through a past where the sightseeing wasn’t always warm and fuzzy that crowd felt most at home. To that end, CSN proved an especially accommodating tour guide.

in performance: bela fleck and abigail washburn

bela and abigail 2a

bela fleck and abigail washburn.

Near the end of a two-set, two-banjo performance last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, Abigail Washburn thanked the crowd for allowing her a few hours of quality time with husband Bela Fleck. Such are the sacrifices of the modern day family band, where a quiet night on the town winds up playing out onstage.

Curiously enough, there was a charming and very casual intimacy at the heart of the performance, where the married banjoists sans rhythm section allowed the broad differences in their playing styles to support and compliment each other.

On paper, that might seem like quite the task. Washburn displayed an elemental, largely traditional sound built around rhythmic, clawhammer-style patterns but with a major global twist. She sang three songs in Chinese, using the music’s often exotic drama as a passport out of the rural stigma that still dogs the banjo.

Former Lexingtonian Fleck, on the other hand, has never operated within the banjo’s stylistic norm. Throughout last night’s program, he shot off riffs of dazzling speed and agility, displayed an improvisational intuition that was endlessly imaginative (but was never overplayed) and wrapped it all up with performance style that was consistently playful.

During a solo segment where he showed off the gorgeous, meaty tone of the baritone banjo, he bobbed his head back and forth to a childlike melody with a subtle but decidedly wicked grin on his face. Later, during the set-closing acoustic revamp of his Flecktones tune New South Africa, one of the tunes where Washburn said she felt brave enough to venture into “his territory,” the riffs flew by like gusts of winter wind. Fleck, as always, made such Olympian string sounds seem like second nature.

But there was also a wonderful stylistic simpatico to the show, from the effortless melodic harmony the couple’s divergent banjo styles discovered during the Washburn original Bring Me My Queen to a duet encore reading of His Eye is On the Sparrow with Fleck on banjo and Washburn working exclusively as a vocalist. It was the simplest of of gospel-fused joys – a spiritual that was truly spirited.

Leave it to the mighty banjo, along with the family stamp from two of the instrument’s foremost ambassadors, to make the heavens rain with a distinctly different kind of string music.   

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