Archive for in performance

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.


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.

in performance: george winston/andrew bird

George Winston. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

If the WoodSongs Old-Time Hour succeeds in nothing as it edges closer to its 1000th broadcast this fall, it has produced what will likely be the year’s most improbable but engaging double bill. On Monday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the weekly live music show offered a program divided equally between Grammy winning solo pianist George Winston and indie-rock songsmith Andrew Bird – two artists that navigate seemingly disparate musical trajectories.

Winston’s reputation extends back to his early ‘80s albums for Windham Hill and the blanket genre tag of New Age. Now at 70, the Winston of today hasn’t changed much – certainly not in the influences he relishes. The perception of his musicianship, though, has evolved dramatically. If your introduction to Winston’s playing was his set opening performance of “Pixie,” then your resulting estimation of his playing wasn’t that of some stereotypically plaintive instrumentalist, an unfairly misleading tag that has dogged much of the original Windham Hall roster, but rather that of a schooled musicologist. Embracing the jovial stride of New Orleans piano pioneer James Booker, Winston tackled the tune’s rich harmonics, especially within its rampant boogie woogie-esque strolls, through an exhibition of stoic stamina. The tempo never strayed, but neither did the music’s unrelenting rhythm and drive.

Winston was born in Michigan, grew up in Montana, studied in Florida and has long resided in California yet his WoodSongs set suggested none of those regions. In honoring another longstanding inspiration, jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, Winston headed back to New Orleans. On “It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown,” his playing adhered to a sunny, sweet lyricism that retained Guaraldi’s animated spirit but still rocked with a Southern buoyancy that echoed the Booker piece

For balance, Winston turned to a pair of immortal hits popularized by pop-soul maestro Sam Cooke – “A Change is Gonna Come” and “You Send Me.” The former, the only tune featured from Winston’s new “Restless Wind” album (a record he seemed almost hesitant to promote), the pianist stayed in the South, enhancing the song’s gospel foundation with leisurely, efficient grace. The latter placed Winston on seven string acoustic guitar and an arrangement that essentially detuned the song’s melody for a brittle, music box charm that borrowed generously from the Hawaiian slack key sound he has long championed.

Andrew Bird. Photo by Amanda Demme.

Bird’s set flipped the proverbial coin altogether for a quartet of works from his fine, immodestly titled new album “My Finest Work Yet.” Operating with his full five- member band, but in an exclusively acoustic setting, Bird emerged as a pop stylist of an indeterminate era. The opening “Sisyphus,” for example, mirrored a tempered but topical narrative colored by one of Bird’s two trademark musical voices – his own whistling.

But it was “Bloodless,” which sent the song stylist to violin for the rest of the program, that cut to the heart of Bird’s long-distinctive sound as well as the core of the new album’s contemporary perspective. Through subtle use of looping, he conjured the effect of a string quartet that played off the piano colors of pianist Tyler Chester and Bird’s long (and longing-filled) lines on violin. The groove all this played against mirrored a sense jazz and blues-informed cool that was a marked contrast to the song’s storyline of political fearmongering (“They are profiting from your worry”).

“Olympians” and an encore version of “Manifest” further underscored the strengths of Bird and his band. These shifted from the bandleader’s clean and, at times, booming vocal leads to the efficient harmonies he created with guitarist Madison Cunningham and bassist Alan Hampton around a single microphone.

The worlds of these two stylists remained separate, though, during the program. Outside of a brief instance when Bird nodded in appreciation as he sat behind Winston during the relentless piano rolls of “Pixie,” there was no interaction. The universes they traveled proved fascinating, but their passages were clearly booked separately.

in performance: john paul white

John Paul White. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

Near the end of a brisk 70-minute performance Thursday evening at Manchester Music Hall, John Paul White gave a time-out to the expert band that had helped him so thoroughly shed stylistic expectations among audience members as to what kind of show they were encountering. After inviting the crowd to huddle around the front of the stage, he summoned a solo, unamplified reading of “The Once and Future Queen,” a folk reverie whose sad sentiment was perhaps the only thing about the concert that could have been forecasted. Genuinely surprised when a sizeable chunk of the audience, largely the female contingency, sang the chorus back to him (the tune isn’t exactly what you would call a hit), White glided along with an acoustic, elegiac grace as the hushed vocal ambience transformed the tune into something of a séance.

So what made the rest of evening so daring and unexpected? Well, for starters, the Alabama songsmith, who has won multiple Grammys for his work with the folk/Americana duo The Civil Wars, acted as if that band never existed. All of its material was shunned in favor of music cut after the group dissolved in 2014. What that translated into was a set that ran through nine of the ten tunes from White’s new “The Hurting Kind” album (“You Lost Me” was the only exclusion), three works from 2016’s “Beulah” (of which “The Once and Future Queen” was the standout) and a brittle reading of “Simple Song” from the 2016 Dave Cobb curated concept album “Southern Family.”

But it wasn’t the absence of Civil Wars songs that distinguished the evening, but rather the design and intent of the compositions he abandoned them for. The music from “The Hurting Kind” took its cue from country songs as they existed 45 to 50 years ago, an age when composers like Harlan Howard, producer/arrangers like Billy Sherrill and artists like Jim Reeves and Charlie Rich gave the Nashville sound an epic, cinematic, quality.

Playing with audience expectations so severely is a major risk, but White’s payoff proved considerable. He established his card-carrying credentials for such a vintage sound with the show opening “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” and “My Dreams Have All Come True,” which summoned the spirit, as well as an impressive share of the vocal reach, of Roy Orbison.

Then on “Heart Like a Kite” and the title tune to “The Hurting Kind,” he called on the emotive efficiency of violinist Kimi Samson, pedal steel guitarist Todd Beene (last seen in Lexington with Lucero) and former Drive-By Truckers bassist Shona Tucker, all of whom took simple, descending riffs and ignited them with vivid Western color.

As a composer, White locked into his influences in even more unexpected ways. Hence, the disturbingly beautiful “James,” which was modeled after Glen Campbell, but more for its narrative link to the artist’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease in the final stages of his life and career than for the stylistic depth of the country star’s heyday music (although the opening line “Wichita Lineman” served as this song’s coda).

How do you sum all this up? How about with an out-of-nowhere cover of the 1974 Electric Light Orchestra hit “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” that fit into the retro country journey in terms of poignancy, instrumental might and vocal drama quite convincingly. In fact, this encore version sounded as if it has been a Nashville staple from its inception.

With all that working so effectively in White’s favor, it was no wonder his heralded music with The Civil Wars now seems like, dare we say it, history.

in performance: jimmie vaughan

Jimmie Vaughan.

“I’m still a kid having fun,” remarked Jimmie Vaughan near the end of an eight-song set Monday evening for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Judging by his easygoing stage demeanor, an efficient and very flexible use of a seven member band and an intuitive performance sensibility that had him playing for the sake of the set’s champion blues-reared tunes over his own instrumental chops, the Texas guitarist, 68, made good on his words. In short, Vaughan very much appeared to having a blast.

Though long viewed exclusively as a Lone Star blues stylist, Vaughan regularly took offramps away from Texas and, for that matter, away from the blues. Louisiana, in fact, figured just as prominently, whether it was through the percussive Crescent City makeover given to a merry sing-a-long version of the Bruce Chanel staple “Hey! Baby,” the bayou ramble that undercut Huey P. Meaux ‘s “Just a Game” or the giddy  rumble of  “So Glad,” a chestnut penned by two champion New Orleans stylists – Dave Bartholomew (who died last week at the age of 100) and Fats Domino.

Similarly, jazz regularly saddled up alongside Vaughan’s blues urges. Slide Hampton’s “Frame for the Blues” became one of the evening’s few instances where the guitarist strayed from playing alongside a melody line in favor of an extended solo full of electric jabs that served as a tasty contrast to the band’s sleeker rhythmic support. Then on the evening-closing “Hold It,” the two styles seemed fully harmonious. It was blues in terms of expression but very much jazz in execution.

Aiding in this exploration was a troupe of instrumentalists that essentially served as two bands in one to exhibit works pulled almost exclusively from Vaughan’s two newest albums. The full seven-man roster, bolstered by a two-member horn team, was used to full effect on five tunes from 2019’s “Baby, Please Come Home,” especially the Lloyd Price penned title piece that embraced an expansive, elemental ensemble groove. But for two songs off of 2017’s “Live at C-Boy’s,” Vaughan scaled the group down to an organ/drums/guitar trio that brought B3 ace Mike Flanigan’s chilled, churchy playing to the forefront.

There was also a substantial surprise slipped into the repertoire of recently recorded covers. It was a darkly meditative and seemingly impromptu reading of “Six Strings Down,” which Vaughan wrote 25 years ago as a remembrance of his celebrated younger brother, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Played as a thumb picking eulogy on solo Stratocaster, the song was a subtle but solemn reality check, a sobering contrast to the evening’s more outward jubilance.

“Lord, they called another blues-stringer back home,” Vaughan said. “For all the evening’s stylistic thrillseeking, this was the moment where the blues truly hit home.

in performance: tim easton

Tim Easton. Photo by Michael Weintrob.

“Hope the windows are up,” remarked Tim Easton as his splendid solo acoustic performance drew to a close Wednesday evening with the rains hammering down around The Burl

Sure, the week’s abundant precipitation prompted such concerns. But the evening storm was just one of the intentional accents of ambience that added to Easton’s remarkable corral of songs – works with conversive, country-esque invitation but bolstered by a highly literary human elements that played out with zero affectation.

Other examples? Well, a siren flew past as the introductory guitar strains of “Black Dog” opened the evening. Later, a roll of thunder greeted the Texas-inspired “On My Way.” Best of all, a passing train set up “All the Pretty Girls Leave Town,” which Easton had already placed within a suitably rustic framework by using a snippet of the Doc Watson-popularized “More Pretty Girls Than One” as an intro.

But the elements only enhanced an expert sense of songcraft that was already there. Easton spun songs like campfire sagas, even though the topicality of the themes varied greatly. He detailed the domestic wreckage at the heart of  “New Year’s Day” (not to be confused with a different tune of the same name that highlighted a fine solo opening set by local hero Maggie Lander) without undue sentiment in its delivery or inordinate blame to his departed partner in the song’s storyline. From an entirely different plateau came the show-closing “Don’t Spectate, Participate” a quiet but very assured call to the voting polls and, ultimately, to civil involvement.

Both tunes came from Easton’s new folk album “Exposition,” which was released last week.

None of this should surprise those familiar to Easton’s music. Now based in Nashville, but formerly with residences in California, New York, Ohio and abroad, he has been playing Lexington venues for over two decades. Wednesday’s repertoire mirrored that alliance with songs that ran from music off his 1998 debut album “Special 20” through a generous sampling of entries from his three most recent recordings – 2016’s “American Fork” (the beautifully crafted Americana reverie “Burning Star”), 2018’s “Paco and the Melodic Poloraids” (the rootsy flatpicking vehicle “Old New Straitsville Blues”) and the four tunes picked from “Exposition.”

Of course, the obvious audience favorite remained “Lexington Jail” (from 2003’s “Break Your Mother’s heart”). The song chronicled the aftermath of an ill-fated celebration foiled by “local constables” following a Lexington concert by Wilco in 1997.

“When they let me go, I just stood with my hands to the sky,” sang Easton. “I’ll be in Tennessee tomorrow, or maybe just lay down and die.”

in performance: festival of the bluegrass

NewTown: Jr Williams, Kati Penn, Travis Anderson and Mitchell Cannon.

It doesn’t matter how glorious the music becomes or how blissful the outdoor setting might be. Being a patron at a music festival in the rain can be an exercise in misery.

Given Friday’s near ceaseless showers, some compromises became necessary for a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park for the Festival of the Bluegrass.

That meant a later than usual arrival time (apologies to evening opener Turning Ground) and an earlier than expected departure (sorry, headliner IIIrd Tyme Out). But the climate control also brought about an unanticipated opportunity to view exclusively two 80 minute sets by a pair of Kentucky acts that made braving the elements worthwhile.

When Dave Adkins took to the stage around 7:45 p.m., the rains were subdued but steady, so the Elkhorn City singer faced an uphill battle. Full of country boy vigor and a deep tenor vocal command that sported a gutbucket bottom end, the singer presented himself as something of a vintage country jukebox.

His 18-song set may have been bluegrass in its instrumental design. But the repertoire went reeling through vintage country eras beginning with an animated take on the 1965 Harlan Howard-penned Lefty Frizzell hit “(She’s) Gone, Gone, Gone.” It quickly worked backward. The hit parade then hit the ‘50s (Roy Acuff’s “Once More”) and even the ‘40s (Bill Monroe’s take on the gospel confessional “Cryin’ Holy Unto the Lord”).

But the lead inspiration in Adkins’ set was clearly Merle Haggard. Adkins went to the well for three late ‘60s Hag staples – “Sing Me Back Home,” “Today I Started Loving You Again” and, best of all, the giddiest take on “The Fugitive” you’re likely to hear without electric instrumentation.

There were a few instances where Adkins’ sheer jubilance got the better of him, making his booming vocals seem a touch overcooked. But his good-natured performance demeanor and expansive understanding of making vintage country songs thrive in a traditional bluegrass setting nicely compensated.

The rains subsided when NewTown followed with a radically different jukebox strategy. Like Adkins, the band – fronted by Lexington-based fiddler Kati Penn and husband, banjoist and co-vocalist Jr Williams – didn’t favor original material. But NewTown’s collective ear for outside music has proven especially keen in establishing its considerable stylistic, instrumental and vocal dexterity. Curiously, the source material came largely from a team of contemporary writers led by Lawrence County Americana sensation Tyler Childers for a sound that often possessed a traditional air. And by traditional, we mean music that it bypassed bluegrass’ regional roots in favor of the music’s overseas ancestry.

There were numerous instances Friday evening when Penn’s fiddle lines exhibited an antique and almost Celtic flavor. There were even more song examples (Martin Gilmore’s “Laura Lee” being one) where ancient imagery boldly upheld the rustic instrumentation. No wonder NewTown’s most recent album was titled “Old World.”

The defining moments of the 16-song set came early when Penn and Williams guided NewTown through three masterful Childers tunes intercut with a sublime take on the late Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” (one of the more human snapshots of Ireland offered by an American songsmith). The brewing destitution in the aptly titled “Hard Times,” sung with chilling candor by Williams, was quickly established by a Childers-penned checklist at the song’s onset (“I bought a house at the mouth of the holler, a ring at the pawn shop and a crib for the kid”). Then came the Clark tune, followed by Penn’s dizzying take on “The Crows and the Jakes” and the sobering, ancient tones of “Harlan Road” (which served as the title tune to a 2016 NewTown album)

Fortifying all this was an ensemble sound that revealed itself though taught, efficient instrumental breaks until “Gonna Take a Train” allowed all five band members extended solos that veered outside bluegrass convention into more jazz-like fields of improvisation.

It was a splendid outing by a Kentucky band that sounds more engaging and adventurous every year at the Festival of the Bluegrass.

With that, we bid adieu for the evening. Good thing, too. Within minutes of Newtown’s stage exit, the skies opened again.

in performance: todd rundgren

Todd Rundgren. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith.

Todd Rundgren may be one of the very few pop/rock stylists with an extensive artistic career for whom the concept of a retrospective concert program is a novelty. Even the greatest survivors of the 1960s still touring with an ounce of performance credibility and drive tend to favor the familiar. Rundgren, ever the experimentalist, only sporadically looks to the past onstage. In recent years, his concerts have favored evenings full of new music, from the garage rock essentials explored on the 2008 album “Arena” (which he played in its entirely on a subsequent tour) to a 2013 repertoire that discarded his more accessible music for the electronica saturated songs from the completely divergent “State.”

So it was a curiosity that Rundgren, 70, reverted to a somewhat more audience friendly format on Wednesday evening at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati. The evening flipped the philosophy of recent tours by forsaking new material to focus on his extensive back catalogue of pop, soul, rock and prog delicacies. As the current tour is a tie-in promotion to his recently published autobiography “The Individualist” (which was also the title to a his sublime 1995 solo album), Rundgren interspersed the early portion of the program with stories and anecdotes from his 50-plus year career (including a labeling of the clavinet as “a sissy hybrid of keyboard and guitar”). The summation, he jokingly but accurately stated, was a concert presentation that was “all about me.”

For longstanding as well as novice fans, all this translated into Nirvana. Having a band full of longtime pals (Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton, Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes and Tubes drummer Prairie Prince) at his side and his own durable level of stage stamina at his disposal, this was a program that seemingly couldn’t miss. Sure enough, it didn’t.

You don’t appreciate the sense of efficient pop songcraft that has always been a Rundgren trademark until you hear him perform three of his earliest and most popular singles – “Hello It’s Me,” “We Got to Get You a Woman” and “I Saw the Light” – in quick succession as he did near the show’s onset. But you also have to understand the eccentricities of the many stylistic offramps Rundgren’s shows have traveled through the years to realize just how rare such an obvious grouping of songs in his concerts can be. As an audience icebreaker, the tunes proved endearing. As an insight to the career story Rundgren was telling, they were pivotal.

While hearing the hits appeased the masses, it was the many comparative obscurities Rundgren uncorked that painted a fuller, more uncompromising career portrait. Perhaps none were more unexpected that “Fair Warning,” a blast of Philly soul laced with psychedelia, and “Eastern Intrigue,” an aptly named intercontinental slice of pop spiritualism, that nicely blurred the lines between abstract and accessible. Both tunes were pulled from one of Rundgren’s most overlooked albums, 1975’s “Initiation.”

There was also ample rock ‘n’ roll that showed off some still-vital guitar musicianship (“Black Maria,” “Black and White”), a stunning a cappella pronouncement sung with Sulton and co-guitarist Jesse Gress (“Honest Work”) and a neatly orchestrated affirmation that was perhaps the evening’s most lovely and complete pop presentation (“Kindness”).

All in all, a retrospective evening that was fun enough for to satisfy an audience’s basic appetite and, hopefully, the greater creative need of the pop individualist at the helm. It was, as Rundgren states at the end of his autobiography, a “balance between what I wanted to say and what I would be expected to reveal.”

in performance: paul mccartney

Paul McCartney performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Alex Slitz.

Paul McCartney had the sold-out audience of 19,000 before him sized up pretty well as his tireless and irrepressibly fun concert headed into the home stretch Saturday evening at Rupp Arena.

Noting that performances of his Beatles classics usually triggered “a galaxy of stars” through the glow of cell phones from eager fans while the delivery of new songs amounted, in terms of expectation and interest, to “a black hole,” he unapologetically launched into “Fuh You,” the third of three tunes from his 2018 album “Egypt Station.”

Maybe the audience showed a sliver of sympathy for the seemingly orphaned tune or perhaps they were taken by the its bright pop melodicism which sounded like the direct descendent of a Beatles gem. Regardless, the cell phones came out and lit up Rupp like a Christmas tree.

My guess is something different – specifically, that the Rupp crowd took Sir Paul’s bait and illuminated the tune after the rock icon’s none-too-subtle hint.

The moment was one of many highlights in an evening that was, from beginning to end, a marvel. But it proved especially insightful in explaining what made the performance so special. It underscored how the concert, for all its unavoidably nostalgic lure, didn’t stay buried in the past. Oh sure, the better part of the program – a stunning setlist of 37 songs delivered in a 2 ¾ hour performance with no intermission – went heavy on Beatles favorites as well as popular relics from McCartney’s ‘70s albums with Wings. But there were also surprises. Lots of them.

For starters, there was “Letting Go,” a gritty, hook heavy slice of forgotten rock ‘n’ roll from Wings’ 1975 album “Venus and Mars” that ushered in a three-man horn section. The trio entered not from backstage, but down the lower arena stairs and played the entire tune in the lap of the audience.

Later came “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a similarly gritty (and overlooked) mid-tempo rocker from the Beatles’ 1970 swansong album “Let It Be” that still reveals an earthiness in tempo and groove. It was also cool to hear guitarists Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson, along with drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr. (who proved a powerhouse player, vocalist and all-around spirit for the entire performance) taking over the refrain originally sung by John Lennon.

Equally unexpected was “Queenie Eye,” a comparatively recent entry off of McCartney’s 2013 solo album “New” that, like “Fuh You,” was delivered with a keenly retro sense of fun spearheaded by the headliner’s natural sense of playfulness.

As for McCartney directly, he remains something of a wonder onstage. Two weeks shy of his 77th birthday, he looked fit, sang with surprisingly unblemished gusto (yes, a few cracks of age appeared, but nothing more than what most rock singers half his age reveal in performance) and flowed with the program’s length and drive as it were a casual stroll. A testament to his stamina was the encore segment, which had him ripping through a reserved but still immediate version of “Helter Skelter,” one of the Beatles’ most savagely electric works, after navigating a full 2 ½ hour set. McCartney didn’t look even remotely winded afterward either.

Undoubtedly the biggest audience expectation of the evening was how such a master song stylist would do justice to one of the most honored song catalogues in rock and pop history. To that end, McCartney didn’t disappoint, from the show opening glee of “A Hard Day’s Night” to an eloquent solo reading of “Blackbird” to a lean and effectively rootsy “Love Me Do.”

Curiously, the most poignant moment of the performance didn’t even involve one of McCartney’s own songs. Instead it was a take on late bandmate George Harrison’s “Something.” It began with an almost ragtime-ish feel on solo ukulele (a favored instrument of Harrison’s) before McCartney and the full band slowed the song to its familiar ensemble arrangement as a parade of video screen photos featuring the two Beatles, ending with a series of them laughing together in a studio, illustrated the memorial.

The concert concluded as it began with, coyly enough, the “Abbey Road” non-hit coda tune “The End.” A recorded snippet of the song brought McCartney to the stage. A full performance version sent the audience home with its lone verse reading like a time-honored mantra.

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Those are words that defy age and trends to enforce a sense of pop affirmation McCartney’s program overflowed with.

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