Archive for in performance

in performance: frode gjerstad trio with steve swell

frode gjerstad 2

frode gjerstad.

The music sounded inconspicuous enough at first with Frode Gjerstad and Steve Swell squaring off in a light but lovingly fussy dialogue on alto saxophone and trombone, respectively. But the whispery exchange proved to be a prelude of sorts for the melee to come – specifically, an improvisational suite that tested the stamina as well as the musical resources of Gjestad and his all Norwegian trio along with veteran New Jersey bandleader and improviser Swell. The collective results, which clocked in at just under an hour, made up the bulk of last night’s vigorous but surprisingly intimate Outside the Spotlight performance at Mecca.

Gjerstad and Swell are pros at this kind of mischief and last night was no exception. Their playing either complimented the performance cunning of the other or fed into the immediacy of the entire ensemble. Part of the latter involved finding a foil among the other two players. In drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, Gjerstad and Swell had an accomplice that was physically and intuitively tireless. A veteran of many OTS shows over the last 12 years, Nilssen-Love proved again to be a monster player. He summoned a percussive firestorm of speed and agility under Gjerstad’s fragments of bop and blues on alto sax early into the suite. But Nilssen-Love was just as resourceful during a playful duet where Gjerstad switched to clarinet.

Swell was as fascinating to watch as he was to listen to. Early into the extended improv, he arched his back and tilted the trombone so low that it nearly swept the floor, all while summoning a squall line of short, brassy outbursts. But he also found room for a more guttural exchange during a brief duet with bassist Jon Rue Strom.

But the there were also several instances where all four players exploded into improvisational glee simultaneously. While all seemed to speak for themselves, their ferocious playing also enforced an ensemble spirit that remained vital even as the music began to splinter into solo and duo passages.

Similarly, the evening’s second and final improv – a five minute reverie dubbed “a little goodnight song” by Gjerstad – was as slow, spacious and intimate as the initial centerpiece suite was a lesson in exhaustive jazz dynamics.

in performance: diego garcia/bear medicine

diego garcia 2

diego garcia.

How much you bought into last night’s performance by Diego Garcia depends on how deeply you view popular music as a means of pure of romantic expression, or at least as an intention of that expression.

A Detroit native of Argentine parents, Garcia engaged in songs drawn largely from two albums that explored the aftermath of love as obsessively fueled heartbreak (2011’s Laura) and in stages of reconciliation and rebirth (2013’s Paradise). What that boiled down was music that danced a fine line between sentimentality and self pity.

Given his parentage, it wasn’t surprising to hear elements of Spanish balladry surface during the performance, from the whispery nature of Garcia’s singing during the set-opening Roses and Wine (which recalled the summery vocals of Josh Rouse) to the purposely confessional nature of songs like Separate Lives.

While there was no denying the emotive impact of Garcia’s compositions, it was the lead guitar work of accompanist and Buenos Aires native Zeke Zima that carried the evening. From the flamenco-like flourishes during a cover of the Kinks’ Strange Effect to the bossa nova rhythms that dressed Donde Estas to the crisp, pop-flavored melody that drove Garcia’s most affirmative tune She Dances (an ode to his daughter), Zima’s playing was as unassuming and exact as Garcia’s songs were obvious in their need to express vulnerability.

Frankly, the 40 minute opening set by Lexington’s own Bear Medicine was as engaging as anything offered by the headliners. There also, though, the narratives got a little skittish, especially during the burrowing bugs saga Infestation. But there was so much stylistically to be thrilled by, including folk accents drawn around flute, cello, keyboards, guitar and drums that were alternately rockish and reserved. All of those sounds and ideas came into play during the mammoth instrumental Big Chief.

Bear Medicine cellist Seth Murphy also supplied keen and presumably unrehearsed support for two songs during Garcia’s hour long set – Nothing to Hide and You Were Never There.

It was also cool to again experience a performance in the Singletary’s upstairs recital hall – a vastly more intimate space the main 1,500 seat concert hall. Given the folkish foundation of both acts and the especially conversational tone of Garcia’s set, the recital hall proved a fine fit for the night.

in performance: jason marsalis vibes quartet

jason marsalis 1

jason marsalis.

The most immediately arresting aspect of last night’s performance by Jason Marsalis at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College was the profoundly cool sound he summoned from the instrument before him. Known through area concerts over the past two decades as a drummer (including a 2005 show on this very stage), the youngest sibling of New Orleans’ famed Marsalis family favored the vibraphone and the melodically lustrous but sonically reserved tone it conjured.

On the opening bars of Blues Can Be Abstract, Too, the vibraphone’s notes hung liked chilled colors in the air that grew more expansive when Marsalis chose to add pedal induced sustain. The tune served as a beautiful introduction not only to the instrument but to what the bandleader chose to do with it.

Fronting what he aptly calls his Vibes Quartet, Marsalis flirted with jazz tradition and tried out more than a few progressive ideas. But that hardly translated into the big band majesty Lionel Ham\pton brought to the instrument from the 1930s onward or the scholarly combo improvisations defined a generation later by Gary Burton. Aside from a few fleeting passages where Burton’s innovations in playing the vibes with four mallets instead of the usual two surfaced, Marsalis followed his own muses, including a few from his native New Orleans.

On Blues for Now, one of eight com positions performed from the Vibes Quartet’s second and newest album, The 21st Century Trad Band, a rugged Marsalis solo on the vibes led into a tight trio run instigated by pianist Austin Johnson. The music became noticeably more playful during the checklist of conflicting grooves that set the stage for The Man with Two Left Feet and its jovial percussive breakdown from drummer David Porter. And for pure Southern melody, nothing beat the curiously titled 18th Letter of Silence where a sunny vibes stride by Marsalis quickly served as a contrast to the dynamics of his rhythm section. Johnson got the lion’s share of the solo spotlight but Potter and bassist Will Goble drove the tune.

Ultim ately, it was the show-closing title composition to The 21st Century Trad Band that defined the performance with a mash-up of familiar melodies (When the Saints Go Marching In was the most detectable), twisted bits of swing and some furious syncopation. The elements may have been rooted in the past but the end results brought the music into the here and now with the tonal splendor of the vibes leading the charge.

in performance: gov’t mule


gov’t mule: matt abts, danny louis, warren haynes and jorgen carlsson .

As an unrelenting Gov’t Mule performance slipped past the 2½ hour mark last night at the Opera House, guitarist and band chieftain Warren Haynes decided to check in with the tireless audience before him.

“Are you still with us, Kentucky?”

It was a fair question. The crowd most decidedly was, although the Mule had already put patrons through the paces. The first set in the veteran jam band’s first Lexington concert in over 15 years opened with the guitar drenched ‘60s gospel of the Staple Singers’ Hammer and Nails, tore through the rugged (and, briefly, reggae-fied) original Banks of the Deep End and later eased into the old school soul of the Ray Charles classic I Believe to My Soul (goosed by Haynes’ hearty power chords) before hitting intermission with Kind of Bird, the 1990 instrumental from Haynes’ early days in the Allman Brothers Band. The latter last night sounded more than swing-worthy even as the guitarist worked in quotes from another Allmans classic (Les Brers in A Minor) and keyboardist Danny Louis took a mischievous turn on trombone.

But Haynes must have known the crowd still had his back. His audience reality check fell in the middle of a second set stretch that offered, in reverse order, a remarkable capsule summation of Gov’t Mule’s recorded history.

First up was Captured, a blast of psychedelic cool from 2013’s Shout album. Then Haynes rewound the repertoire for Mule, a swampy groove excursion from the band’s self-titled 1995 debut album. Last night’s version was far more expansive sounding than the original, though, with a lengthy clavinet-style jam from Louis. Such playfulness underscored a stylistic variance that made the trio lineup that first cut the tune sound positively streamlined in comparison.

Finally, there was another blast from Haynes’ pre-Mule days, Soulshine. Served as an encore, last night’s version was probably the most concise performance of the night. The preceding acres of grooves, solos and guitar-led jams all sounded splendid. But it was also cool to this hear this Haynes gem, with its sparkling Southern soul guitar lead, thriving without all the heavy artillery. In a night dominated by fearsome instrumental interplay, Soulshine was a spring-like coda, a sunny shelter away from the rest of the storm the Mule kicked up.

in performance: lucinda williams

lucinda 2

lucinda williams.

It seemed only fitting, being Sunday and all, that Lucinda Williams wound up her tough as oak performance last night at the Opera House with the tabernacle-infused fun of Get Right With God. Admittedly, the snake handling and bed of nails imagery Williams sang of may not have fit everyone’s idea of sermonizing. But there was no doubting the fervor the singer and her extraordinary band had been working up to over the previous two hours.

It started with the deceptively deadpan affirmation of Blessed, worked its way through five tunes from her new double-album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, hit full throttle with a double barrel blast of Change the Locks and Joy and tagged up with the blues before meeting up with the Lord.

Hallelujah to that. Pacing, it turns out, is just one of things Williams masters in concert. Luckily, she also possessed an arsenal of powerfully plain speaking songs that allowed her to work up to such a fuss with authority.

The childhood snapshot Cars Wheels on a Gravel Road and the boozy epitaph Drunken Angel defined the early stages of the show with understated melodies and grooves balanced by devastating narratives. By the time the Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone material kicked in, temperament went a little more hand in hand with tempo, especially on the sin-busting rocker Cold Day in Hell. “You thought you could make it to heaven,” Williams sang with droll confidence. “But, honey, heaven done closed the door.”

As the music intensified, so did the resourceful playing of Williams’ band – guitarist Stuart Mathis (on loan from The Wallflowers), bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton. It was especially to fun watching Norton at work. Think rock drummers are only defined by flashy solos? Not this guy. Norton continually defined grooves and then toyed with them, whether it was the cool drive flowing under People Talkin’ or the rockish might he hammered into the set-closing roots rock parade of Honey Bee.

And what would this Sunday service be without the blues? For that, Williams offered a surprise encore reading of the early Allman Brothers Band classic It’s Not My Cross to Bear, a song that eluded to serious testifying but was grounded in the kind of earthy urgency that fueled all of this fine, fascinating performance.

in performance: dave mason’s traffic jam


dave mason.

“Not everybody in England sounds like the Gecko,” remarked Dave Mason last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort after a member of the sold out audience asked why the veteran Brit rocker spoke with little discernible accent.

The short answer was this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer hails from Worcester, near the Welsh border, where dialects are less defined than in heavily rural regions of the country. But there is also the none-too-small matter of Mason having spent the better part of the last four decades in California.

During the course of two specifically themed sets designed to form a sort of musical autobiography of the veteran songsmith, vocalist and guitarist, Mason let the pop-rock pasts from both sides of the pond play off each other.

From his late teen years in England as a co-founder of Traffic, Mason delved into a blend psychedelic-based but often prog-leaning excursions like the darkly hued Forty Thousand Headmen (which opened the show), the comparatively roots savvy You Can All Join In, the guitar-dominate party piece Pearly Queen and perhaps Mason’s recognizable composition of the era, Feelin’ Alright. All four tunes came from Traffic’s self-titled 1968 sophomore album.

The songs all sounded remarkably fresh, with Mason’s singing, buried though it often was in the sound mix, reflecting rich detail and confidence. But Mason has long had a curious history with this music. While You Can All Join In and Feelin’ Alright are his own works, the rest of the Traffic material was penned by band mainstays Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. Two, in fact, (Rock and Roll Stew and a bluesy revamp of The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys) were recorded by Traffic four years after Mason’s initial departure.

A little more to the point was a second set devoted primarily to Mason’s California-bound solo career. Much of that, in turn, focused on his extraordinary 1970 solo album, Alone Together. The Traffic set was fun, but the Alone Together songs offered the evening’s most satisfying and complete performances, especially a riveting Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave, where Mason’s guitar soloing strengths, which had been held in reserve up to that point, were given room to roam.

How Do I Get to Heaven, a tribute tune to Capaldi (who died in 2005) from Mason’s new Future’s Past album was another highlight. It linked this pow-wow with the past to Mason’s still-vital here-and-now.

in performance: joe ely and joel guzman

joe ely 1

joe ely.

Among the stories Joe Ely told last night before a capacity crowd at Natasha’s was a yarn about his musical tutelage in West Texas. It dealt with weekend gigs outside Lubbock with early bandmates Jesse Taylor and Lloyd Maines that gradually grew from audiences of 25 to about 100. That was before a local preacher gave a Sunday morning sermon about the sins of Saturday night, mentioning Ely’s name “about seven or eight times” as an example. Convinced he would have to move his band out of town, the champion songsmith and roots rocker decided to finished his commitment of remaining performances, only to find a crowd of 800 awaiting him the following Saturday.

“I sent the preacher two tickets to our next show,” Ely said. “It was a ‘thank you’ for the free advertising.”

Last night, the fervor was perhaps less obvious with Ely, now 67, resetting his high-strung rock ‘n’ roll to an acoustic duo setting with accordionist Joel Guzman. But that simply offered a more intimate setting for the musical stories he has penned over a four decade recording career as well as several prime choices from a few of his Lone Star pals.

The show opening Run Little Pony (an original tune from 2000’s Streets of Sin album), set a blues narrative in motion of a hapless blue collar-ite who blows his track earnings on celebration only to wind up behind bars. “Ain’t got a brain in my head,” Ely sang with dry cunning. “Guess I never will.”

The song also introduced the remarkable support Guzman provided the 1 ¾ hour performance. Though his stage demeanor was reserved, Guzman’s playing was continually joyous as he provided Ely’s everything from orchestral color to rockish punctuation to, in the show’s finest moments, a rich Tex Mex accent.

All of those aspects alternately came into play during I Had My Hopes Up High, the first song from Ely’s self-titled 1977 debut album. A cheerful roots rock performance piece in decades past, Guzman helped this new acoustic version find its own unique footing.

Ely also gave plenty of stage time to tunes by his bandmates in the long running Texas troika The Flatlanders. From the pen of Butch Hancock came the lonesome wail of Boxcars with a spirited jam initiated by Guzman. The other Flatlander, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, was recognized with a light, luscious reading of the plaintive Tonight I’m Gonna Go Downtown. But perhaps Ely’s greatest Texas cover belonged to an elegant but still conversational version of the great Billy Joe Shaver affirmation Live Forever.

Tom Russell’s brilliantly constructed Gailo del Cielo (the most honestly heartbreaking song about a fighting rooster referencing Poncho Villa that you will ever hear) wound the evening down along with Randy Banks’ show-closing Where is My Love.
Ely remarked he first heard Russell’s version of the former blasting from a jukebox in Norway. How fortunate the song, along with all of Ely’s Texas treats, found their way to Lexington last night in such vital, regal and revealing form.

in performance: garth brooks/trisha yearwood


garth brooks performing at rupp arena on friday. he played a total of four concerts there this weekend. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

“You better slow things down,” said Garth Brooks last night to the third of the four Rupp Arena audiences he played to this weekend. “Some of you are a little older than the last time we were here.”

At 52, age seemed to be no impediment to the country star with his initial Saturday show clocking in at 2 ¼ hours. While he appeared understandably but unapologetically winded after several songs, the brisk pace of the performance, his vocal might and, most of all, a stage persona fortified by an almost childlike giddiness never wavered.

What was his answer to slowing things down? Try a jubilant version of the 1993 motormouth hit Ain’t Goin’ Down (Till the Sun Comes Up). It wasn’t until the solo acoustic reading of 1990’s Unanswered Prayers, where the audience essentially sang the song back to him, that Brooks allowed himself anything resembling a breather.

The apparent differences between this outing and Friday’s shows were minute. In terms of the setlist, the only adjustments came from allowing Trisha Yearwood a slightly longer cameo set in the middle of the concert (one that gave her time to fit in Georgia Rain and She’s in Love With the Boy), while Brooks saved Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old) and the Kenny Chesney-friendly Two Pina Coladas for the end of the show. He also snuck in acoustic revisions of Alabama Clay and The Change as encores.

What was different was the audience tally. Box office estimates for Friday were 19,000 for the first performance and 14,000 for the late show. As expected, last night’s numbers were higher – 21,000 for the early concert and 20,000 for the second.

Through it all, Brooks served as much as a cheerleader of his show as he did as the star, ripping through the more traditional country flavored Rodeo and The Beaches of Cheyenne with the same vigor he gave to his hit covers of Billy Joel’s Shameless and especially Aerosmith’s The Fever.

It was also great to see Leitchfield fiddler Jimmy Mattingly back onstage with Brooks (since his last Rupp show with the singer in 1998, he co-founded the popular bluegrass band The Grascals). A strong instrumental presence for the entire concert, Mattingly was the Cajun-inspired catalyst for the festive encore of Callin’ Baton Rouge.

The only real misstep was the show’s contrived Terminator-esque opening, which was set to the bland title tune from Brooks’ forthcoming Man Against Machine album. For a production seemingly steeped in performance humility (the singer at one point admitted the acoustic guitar he played was mostly a prop to “hide my gut”), the Matrix-style hijinx just seemed silly.

Luckily, by the time Brooks and band were knee deep in the honky tonk charm of Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House two songs later, the machines of the future were at bay as the country comfort of Brooks’ mega-popular past moved in to stay.

in performance: leo kottke

Leo Color

leo kottke.

Simply put, there is no m usical presence today as instrumentally virtuosic yet as unassumingly distinctive as Leo Kottke.

Last night at the Clifton Center in Louisville, he placed all manner of wiry m ischief on display through unaccompanied performances on 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars along with a collection of wonderfully askew between-song stories. Of course, that is hardly a revolutionary gam e plan for Kottke. He has designed his solo concerts in pretty m uch the same way for over four decades. But his shows today, and last night’s was no exception, still possess a danger elem ent that make his guitar abilities all the more arresting.

As always, Kottke operated without a setlist, but used a well-worn favorite from the early ‘70s, Pamela Brown, as a show opener. The tune possessed a harder, more punctuated sound here than in recent years. In fact, the rumbling introduction on 12 string made you think he was about to soar into another catalog staple, Vaseline Machine Gun (which, ironically, turned up as an encore). Kottke’s conversational baritone singing, which took on a sagely sense of cunning, cooled the guitar fury but not after the tune had taken a whole new stylistic life.

From another stylistic environment altogether cam e a comparatively newer work, 2004’s Gewerbegebiet (“the most beautiful word in the Germ an language”) that unveiled a pastiche of contrasting tempos – a light, spacious intro that melted into a darker, almost percussive midsection before concluding with a ballet of vibrant instrumental harm onies.

For sheer melodic beauty, though, nothing beat the blues nugget Corrina, Corrina, which Kottke long ago made his own through an almost-pop inspired arrangement that sounded like it could have easily skipped off into the instrumental classic Sleepwalk had the guitarist been so inclined.

As always, Kottke’s askew storytelling was as original as his playing. During the course of the 90 minute show, the guitarist discussed two major regrets from his days in the Navy (not being able to tolerate torpedo fuel as a beverage and not mastering the art of shooting light bulbs tossed from submarines with a machine gun), his opinion of the Clifton Center’s lighting (“Can we get it any darker in here? I can see m ore than I really want to”) and the apparent widespread reluctance, especially from orchestras, to embrace major third intervals (“My m ission in life is to drill the m ajor third into your head and out of mine”).

Such were the rum inations of the modern day guitar virtuoso, still as wonderfully restless with as life as he is with m usic.

(Note: Kottke’s Clifton Center perform ance was reviewed in lieu of his Tuesday concert here at the Lyric Theatre so The Musical Box could report back on Paul McCartney’s show the same night at Louisville’s KFC Yum ! Center.)

in performance: paul mccartney


paul mccartey performing last night at the kfc yum! center in louisville. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

“We’ve been waiting for you, Paul,” shouted an eager fan to Paul McCartney early into his marathon concert last night at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.

“Hey, I’ve been waiting for you, pal,” replied the one time Beatle and lasting pop icon. In a way, McCartney wasn’t kidding. This was his first show ever in Louisville and only his second in Kentucky (the first being a February 1990 stop at Rupp Arena). Given he has been playing shows on North American soil for over a half century, it was perhaps understandable that expectations for artist and audience alike were high. But McCartney offered quite the icebreaker for bringing both parties together. He served up a tireless three hour, 39 song performance that began with the Beatles classic Eight Days a Week and ended just after 11:30 with the Golden Slumbers medley from Abbey Road. In between there were hits and album tracks from his ‘70s recordings with Wings and a generous sampling of solo material, which together encompassed some 43 years worth of recordings outside of the Beatles.

The big joy of it all was that McCartney, an elder pop statesman at age 72, made it all look remarkably easy. A lot of that had to do with the fact he appeared vocally and physically fit. Sure, there were a few cracks and blemishes in his singing to remind you he is not the 20-something Beatle of yore. But there were far more instances – the Band on the Run rocker Let Me Roll It, a joyous and semi-acoustic We Can Work It Out and the 2013 tune Queenie Eye (one of four songs pulled from the album New, which, ironically, is now a year old) – that were rich with vocal stamina and intent.

But show’s other primary attribute was its design. For the last 12 years, McCartney has worked with the same four member band (which has now lasted longer than The Beatles and Wings) with concert programs rooted in simplicity. Yes, he still rolls out the pyrotechnics for Live and Let Die and afterwards feigns deafness from the commotion they cause. But the majority of the program wasn’t fussy or excessive at all. In fact, some of its most fascinating moments were also its quietest, from a lovely and faithful reading of And I Love Her, complete with woodblocks and hand percussion, and a solo version of Blackbird that was full of stark grace.

How much nostalgia played into one’s appreciation of the concert probably depended on their age. The 2012 song My Valentine was presented along a split screen video of Natalie Portman and Johnny Deep interpreting the lyrics in sign language. That was about as concessionary to modern times as the show got. The rest of the program used the Beatles’ still-brilliant catalog as its backbone. When those songs commenced, it was pretty much impossible to not go reeling through the years, whether it was with the backdrop of clips from A Hard Day’s Night that were shown as the band played All My Loving early into the performance or the especially moving montage of George Harrison photos shown when McCartney covered one of his late bandmate’s most popular songs (Something) on one of his favored instruments (ukulele).

You could go on about the rarities (the Sgt. Pepper gem Lovely Rita), the total surprises (Pepper’s Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, which was originally sung by John Lennon) and all the expected classics that you hoped would still pack an emotive punch and did (Hey Jude, Back in the U.S.S.R. and the always devastating Eleanor Rigby).

All in all, it was an exhilarating, exhaustive pop joyride, not to mention a grand effort by one of rock music’s most endearing and defining artists in getting back to the Kentucky roots he probably never knew he had.

Take a look at Mark Cornelison’s photo gallery from last night’s concert here.

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