Archive for in performance

in performance: jacob wick

Jacob Wick.

Jacob Wick.

As Outside the Spotlight performances go, tonight’s solo trumpet outing by Jacob Wick at the Homegrown Press studio was way, way outside the norm – even for a concert series that prides itself on predominantly improvisational musical adventures.

The set was only 30 minutes in duration but was something of a Herculean effort. During that time, the Mexico City-based Wick (a veteran of past OTS shows with Jason Ajemian’s band The High Life and the industrious trio Tres Hongos) played a single improvisation piece based around a hushed, cyclical and punctuated motif that was less a manner of musical expression and more an extension of breathing. Initially, it was repeated like a mantra with sudden but subtle bursts interrupting the monologue the way a cough would when one is talking. But the overall flow of what came out of the horn was never interrupted.

At about the 12 minute mark, there was brief – as in extremely brief – instance where the see-saw expression approached the expected musical tone of the horn. Then it subsided into a run of static, but incantatory sound. In some instances, it formed disassembled bits of auditory accents. In others, Wick warped the trumpet’s voice into a mesh of flatulent, scorched and eventually corrosive voices.

How musical all this was, even to ears practiced in the more free form playing of OTS concerts, is a tough call. There was, however, enough of a meditative feel to the improv that commanded one’s attention throughout. But there was no debating what an astonishing technical display this was. Whatever breathing technique Wick employed gave the illusion that he was playing this minimalist-style experiment without stopping – without even a discernible or prolonged exhale, for that matter – for half an hour. It wasn’t a gimmick. It wasn’t some freakish trick. But it wasn’t like any other musical exhibition I’ve witnessed of late, either.

A footnote: through the years, OTS shows have seldom settled on a single performance home for any extended period of time (the current Mecca studio being a possible exception), preferring instead a rotating lineup of available venues. This was its first outing at the Homegrown Press studio on North Limestone. The vast array of paintings that surrounded the small stage created a dialogue with Wick that existed quite separately from the music, one where visual art and live performance existed in a mutually complementary setting. Here’s hoping OTS lands there again in the future.


in performance: phoenix friday finale

Anthony D'Amato headlined the final Phoenix Friday concert of the summer earlier tonight at Phoenix Park.

Anthony D’Amato headlined the final Phoenix Friday concert of the summer earlier tonight at Phoenix Park.

One was a local favorite, the second a Nashville song stylist with a regional connection and the third a Jersey boy who couldn’t count Mother Nature among his fans. That was the bill earlier tonight for the fifth and final installment of WUKY’s Phoenix Friday series of free concerts at Phoenix Park. Actually, it was an encore of sorts as the series was initially slated to wrap up a four show run in August.

Up first was Lexington’s own Justin Wells, the guitar force behind the now disbanded Fifth on the Floor (“We made a pittance but we had a blast”). Wells channeled the electric drive of his former band into a solo acoustic set that boiled over with boisterous blues intensity (“Going Down Grinnin’”), wary country sensibility (“The Highway Less Taken”) and tough love road stories (“The Dogs”). There was also a very dark makeover of Dire Straits’ “So Far Away” that was not for the skittish. “There will be a lot of happy songs after my set,” Wells said almost apologetically.

Nashville song stylist and one time Frankfort dweller Derik Hultquist followed with a set that could indeed be termed happier. But it was more of a stylistic detour than anything else, with songs pulled mostly from his new “Southern Iron” album that employed a backup quartet to flesh out music drenched in heavily atmospheric pop. Hultquist’s high and hushed vocals distinguished songs like “One Horse Town,” “Garden of Roses” and “Devil’s in the Details.” But the primarily ingredient to this mood music was actually guitarist Steve Page, whose layers of ambience added hearty doses of chill to Hultquist’s cinematic pop.

Headliner Anthony D’Amato whittled Hultquist’s broader pop soundscapes down to leaner, rootsier and more narrative heavy songs that reflected the traditions of his native New Jersey. Tagging Bruce Springsteen might seem like an overly easy comparison, but there was more than a passing nod to the Jersey cool of the Boss’ early records in “Good and Ready” and a show of lean rock ‘n’ roll smarts within the smart riffs that propelled “Rain on a Strange Roof” and the loose jamboree shuffle underscoring the show opening “Was a Time.” But “Ballad of the Undecided” brought the show to an abrupt close. Actually, the beginnings of an evening storm did. The rain quickly dispersed the crowd, leaving a bemused D’Amato, who was clearly just getting warmed up, with a premature shutdown.


in performance: bela fleck and chris thile

Bela Fleck (left) and Chris Thile performing last night at the Opera House. Herald-Leader photo by Tom Eblen.

Bela Fleck (left) and Chris Thile performing last night at the Opera House. Herald-Leader photo by Tom Eblen.

“Why don’t you just grow up?”

Those were the words a bemused Bela Fleck offered Chris Thile three songs into a wildly adventurous performance of banjo/mandolin duets last night at the Lexington Opera House. The remark was a kind of playful chiding from a string music elder to an eager disciple. It came after Thile heaped praise on Fleck’s genre-busting 1995 album “Tales from the Acoustic Planet,” a record the former championed “when I was 15.”

The age crack aside, the comment followed a blistering reading of the “Acoustic Planet” leadoff tune “Up and Running,” where the two traded rhythmic jabs both playful and pensive, juggled warp speed solos of astonishing precision and shifted the string music patterns from more stereotypical bluegrass surroundings to something more akin to jazz and swing.

The entire make-up of the 2 ¼ hour performance (excluding intermission) followed a similar flight pattern, using the more jazz-like variant of bluegrass often dubbed new grass as a template. The show opening “Riddles in the Dark” (from a 2001 Thile solo album, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” that boasted Fleck and many of the banjoist’s new grass contemporaries as guests) embraced the form with joint rhythms that began with the spry acoustic expression of bluegrass but quickly deviated into string music dashes of maniacal speed and intensity.

But, again, decades-old new grass was only the template. The music the two explored cruised across numerous stylistic terrains and down multiple avenues of their respective careers.

A second set performance of “Cheeseballs in Cowtown” (another “Acoustic Planet” gem) possessed a country swagger within the melody that the two repeatedly ripped open and jury-rigged with the kind of dizzying interplay that wouldn’t have been out of place on a vintage cartoon soundtrack. “This is the Song (Good Luck),” the closing tune to Thile’s 2010 album with Punch Brothers “Antifogmatic,” was a discourse in dynamics with the music slowed to a folkish cool before evaporating completely (but briefly) so only the mandolinist’s whispery singing remained. Best of all was “Metric Lips,” a Grammy nominated Fleck tune from his ‘80s tenure with New Grass Revival that worked off an initial mandolin groove before spinning off into jig-like runs and jazz-friendly improvising.

There were several new and unrecorded tunes that seemed to purposely shove the two into even more technically demanding turf although “The Ghosts of Industry” downshifted with a lighter tone and temperament before splintering into showers of sparse, brittle notes from both players and even brief free-form runs.

It should also be noted that contrasting but complimentary performance stances were at work onstage. Fleck, 58, exhibited a largely stoic stage presence while Thile, 35, seemed positively elastic, bobbing almost every joint in his lanky frame, even while seated. Capping it all off was the kind of spontaneous (make that scattered) between-song banter that ensured this program of astonishing acoustic music was hardly a slick, perfunctory affair. That was underscored by another Fleck remark that came before the two paid their traditional bluegrass dues with an encore cover of Bill Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow” and after a piece of Thile’s ear monitor fell to the stage floor.

“Was that part of your brain?”


in performance: gin blossoms

Gin Blossoms: Jesse Valenzuela, Robin Wilson, Bill Leen and Scotty Johnson.

Gin Blossoms: Jesse Valenzuela, Robin Wilson, Bill Leen, Scotty Johnson.

“Okay, now play the other one.”
Trust me on this, that’s not the kind of audience response any band wants. But that was a remark overheard last night at the Christ the King Oktoberfest as the Gin Blossoms wrapped up “Allison Road,” one of the jangly pop confections that defined the band’s commercial heyday nearly 25 years ago.
Now, there were two primary ways one could interpret that remark – three if you counted the abundance of Oktoberfest beer, which seemed to intensify the crowd chat level at this free performance. But alcohol among concert patrons seldom offers much by way of artistic insight into a show, so we’re really back to two.
The first explanation might have been that the Gin Blossoms had only a modest library of recognizable hits to begin with, which is partially true. Outside of music from the career defining 1992 album “New Miserable Experience” (which contained “Allison Road”), there was little in the performance that would have been recognizable to anyone but the most ardent of Gin Blossoms fans. The opening “Follow You Down,” which was pulled from 1996’s “Congratulations, I’m Sorry” came close, but the sound was so awful at the show’s start (horrible bass distortion, a buried vocal mix and volume that dropped dramatically once you walked more than 100 feet from the stage) that it’s a wonder anyone deciphered anything.
The comment’s other possible meaning could have been a reference to the fact the songs within the Gin Blossoms catalog tended to sound the same. Robin Wilson’s vocals were clear and exact (providing you were able to worm your way close enough to the stage to where the band didn’t sound like it was playing underwater) and the melodic hooks within the material were plentiful. As such, tunes from the Gin Blossoms’ most recent album, 2010’s “No Chocolate Cake,” didn’t sound at all removed from the “New Miserable Experience” fare. A few of the (comparatively) newer songs, like “Dead or Alive on the 405,” allowed guitarist Scotty Johnson to modestly toughen the sound.
The former reason was likely what the well-lubricated patron intended. But “the other one” actually turned out to be a triumvirate of ‘90s hits that took the show down the home stretch. “Found Out About You,” “Til I Hear It From You” (a 1995 soundtrack single) and the moderately less wistful “Hey Jealousy” defined the sort of mid tempo, highly melodic pop that served as the blueprints for the rest of the set – the rest, that is, save for workmanlike but unremarkable covers of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Tupelo Honey” that bookended the hit parade. That’s when you knew the Gin Blossoms had fully played their hand.

in performance: eric church/kacey musgraves/cam/maren morris

Kacey Musgraves and her luminous band performing for Red, White and Boom last night at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Kacey Musgraves and her luminous band performing for Red, White and Boom last night at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

We still have all of the fall and a hefty chunk of winter to go in 2016, but the year’s defining country concert moment may well have revealed itself last night as the Red, White and Boom Festival began its weekend-long run at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. It came when Kacey Musgraves, flanked by a stage filled with neon cacti and band members with literal suits of lights, eased into a version of “Crazy” that turned the familiar tune into an uneasy, cowgirl lament colored by harmonica and the star-of-the-moment’s subdued but eerily arresting vocals.

But hold your horses, buckaroos. We’re not talking about that Patsy Cline hit. No, this was the 2006 Gnarls Barkley single of the same name, a soul-brewed confession that Musgraves turned into what could only be described as a whole other kind of crazy.

Not country enough for country, you say? Please. Musgraves shelled out country cunning by the barrelful last night. It’s just that much of it was beautifully askew. Want songs of domestic togetherness? There was the Musgraves original “Family is Family,” a dinner plate full of in-house dysfunction. Want back porch philosophy? There was “Biscuits,” a kitchen table answer to existentialism (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”). Want honest-to-goodness country music curve balls? Then you should have heard how a declaration of independence like “Step Off” melted into the light summery reggae strut of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” There was also the set closing cover of “These Boots Are Made For Walking” that was initially delivered like an elegant country death threat before blowing up into a hullabaloo. Naturally, Musgraves’ own boots lit up for the occasion. They were even brighter than her band members’ suits.

Eric Church during his headlining set for Red, White and Boom.

Eric Church during his headlining set for Red, White and Boom.

Headliner Eric Church kept the party going with a differently festive intent. In what he claimed was his final concert of 2016 (don’t worry, he has already announced a major 2017 trek starting in January where he will be one of the first arena-level country acts to tour without an opening act), the singer and songsmith went very electric. His set boasted a huge sound that ran from metal-esque thunder and precision to anthemic, heartland inspired rock ‘n’ roll. Interestingly enough, Church’s songs retained a pronounced country element, whether it was through the Rolling Stones-style honky tonk drive of “Drink in My Hand,” the way his band coated the country picking of “Cold One” in iron-coated riffs or the folkish deflation that dominated the storytelling singing of “Give Me Back My Hometown.”

But Church was also in a nostalgic mood, reflecting on an initial visit to Red, White and Boom a decade ago before launching into the title tune of his debut “Sinners Like Me” album. Similarly, he sifted through a grab bag of oldies at the onset of the show (“The Outsiders,” “Country Music Jesus,” “How ‘Bout You” and the aforementioned “Sinners Like Me”) before setting into the sparse, country-folk tinged title tune to 2015’s “Mr. Misunderstood.”

The whole repertoire – new tunes, old tunes, fiercely rocking electric fare and more elemental country works – were performed with ample gusto and, more importantly, a relaxed sense of joy. It was the work statement of a star artist luxuriating more than ever in the artistic freedom his music has accorded him.

Maren Morris.

Maren Morris.

The program began with late afternoon/early evening sets from Cam and Maren Morris, which meant three of the bill’s four featured acts were women. Take that, bro country. But both performances seemed incomplete. Morris came across as an astute song stylist, but an often unremarkable singer who really didn’t show much by way of dynamics or range until “Once” and “Second Wind” cracked the set open.



Cam, formerly the West Coast folk-pop artist Camaron Ochs, was the exact opposite – an artist with a commanding vocal presence but a largely shopworn selection of songs that didn’t really stray from formulaic and at times pandering country-pop (one tune, “Fireball Whiskey,” encouraged the audience to “be your drunken self”) until “Burning House” meshed in more streamlined country sentiments to close the set.


in performance: friends & neighbors

Friends & Neighbors. From left: Andrew Roligheten, Oscar Gronberg. Jon Rune Strom, Thomas Johansson and Tollef Ostvang.

Friends & Neighbors. From left: Andrew Roligheten, Oscar Gronberg. Jon Rune Strom, Thomas Johansson and Tollef Ostvang.

On paper, one might expect a pack of jazz improvisers from the Nordic regions to be just the thing to cool down yet another balmy August evening. To be sure, some of the hour-long Outside the Spotlight performance by the Norwegian/Swedish quintet Friends & Neighbors earlier tonight at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacob Niles Gallery offered a semblance of a chill factor. But the band’s charm ultimately couldn’t be climate controlled. For every hushed, contemplative exchange within the front line of tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Andre Roligheten and trumpeter Thomas Johansson, there were eruptions within the rhythm section, blasts of free and fractured improvisation and the construction of melodies that would bounce about briefly before being dismantled and reassembled.

Touring behind its just released third album “What’s Wrong?,” Friends & Neighbors proved to be a pack of keenly diverse musical personalities that luxuriated in working off of and against one another. Double bassist Jon Rune Strom, for example, regularly played with pressure cooker-like intensity (save for a brief instance where he colored dialogue between Roligheten and Johansson with sinuous bowed playing) while pianist Oscar Gronberg was giddily animated, be it through rough and rumble free exchanges (during “Mozart,” among other tunes) or sustained rolls within the new album’s title composition that were played only with his left hand and a mischievous grin. Drummer Tollef Ostvang was the utility man, complimenting the restless and often deconstructed melodies with the light accents of a gong one moment and brush-on-snare static the next. The looser improv sections let Ostvang intensify his drive.

The show opening “Fool Pay” introduced many of these colors and strategies with a spry, Zappa like horn melody that would state itself, dissolve into dissonance and then re-emerge with all kinds of fragmented rumbles and beats working around it. But it was “Melting Snow,” as its title suggested, that presented the greatest sense of cool. Even then, though, Roligheten couldn’t help but disturb the solace with assorted pops and squeals on bass clarinet. Such touches enforced the fact that even during its most wintry moments, Friends & Neighbors was still prone to starting a fire or two.

in performance: moontower music festival

Patterson Hood, left, and Mike Cooley lead Drive-By Truckers' set last night at Masterson Station Park for the Moontower Music Festival. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Patterson Hood, left, and Mike Cooley lead Drive-By Truckers’ set last night at Masterson Station Park for the Moontower Music Festival. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

The last rays of a fabulous late August sunset had just slipped away as Mike Cooley launched into “Made Up English Oceans,” kicking off a muscular co-headlining set by Drive-By Truckers for the Moontower Music Festival last night at Masterson Station Park. Alternating songs, as has always been the case with the band, with fellow guitarist and vocalist Patterson Hood, Cooley set into motion a performance that crammed assorted tales of Southern solemnity and unrest into an atypically brief hour long session. While Truckers shows are usually twice that length or more, the band wasted not a moment in showcasing their sagas of the new South and the very old sentiments that inhabit them.

Hood quickly countered “English Oceans” with a Clash-like revision of “The Righteous Path,” a portrait of sobering Southern pride (“I got a couple of big secrets I’d kill to keep hid”) before Cooley answered again with “Ramon Casiano,” a wild tale of militia men self-appointed as makeshift (and somewhat shifty) border patrol officers.

There were just a few words of greeting from Hood and a song or two that decelerated the set’s highly electric charge into more folk derived but equally restless reflection, like “The Guns of Umpqua” (one of several tunes, like “Casiano,” previewed from the Truckers’ forthcoming “American Band” album). But the set’s emotive turbulence was always in play, reaching a zenith with the show-closing “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” and its torrential guitar storm from Hood and Truckers utility man Jay Gonzalez. Then, as if with the snap of the fingers, the set was over.

Andy Hull, center, performing with Manchester Orchestra.

Andy Hull, center, performing with Manchester Orchestra.

Manchester Orchestra closed out Moontower with a sound that huge, exact and more than a little temperamental. Frontman Andy Hull actually began the set by mock-crooning the chorus of the Neil Diamond classic “Sweet Caroline,” which was part of a very odd mash-up of music played DJ-style between acts. The song could not have been less Manchester-like, despite the clarity of Hull’s high tenor vocals. But after a moment, the band’s bludgeoning sound came barreling out in the form of “Pride,” placing Manchester’s high decibel angst in motion.

As musically tight as the set was, Hull and company seemed especially loose onstage, whether it was through a curious interlude tune about baseball celeb Barry Bonds or Hull’s joking claim that the new album the band was about to begin recording sessions for was going to be “hip hop oriented.”

Those antics aside, Manchester played like a bulldozer with a massive arc of sound that propelled tunes like “Pensacola,” “Pale Black Eye” and “Everything to Nothing.” What was remarkable was how ordered the music was. This wasn’t something sloppy post punk free for all or metal head brawl, but a set of downcast rock ruminations that were as potent as they were precise.

Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, center, performing with Orleans Avenue.

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, center, performing with Orleans Avenue.

Troy Andrews, known professionally as Trombone Shorty, preceded the two headline acts with an hour of heavy rock-infused funk. While Andrews is a new generation musical ambassador of New Orleans, little of his set seemed rooted in Crescent City tradition. Instead, he opted for a highly physical crossover sound that drew upon more mainstream soul sources, like the James Brown medley of “Lose My Mind” and “Keep It Funky.”

The real magic, though, came when Andrews simply let things roll on trumpet and, of course, trombone. Original tunes like “The Craziest Things” didn’t always fan the abundant musical flames of his band, Orleans Avenue. But when the focus shifted to instrumentals, Andrews and his two-man saxophone team engaged in furious, syncopated exchanges that turned the musical gumbo at hand into a proud groove sound that was distinctly their own.

in performance: joe walsh

joe walsh.

joe walsh.

Joe Walsh is such a paradox. Always has been. But in the 46 very odd years since his first recordings, you would think his rock ‘n’ roll image and the considerable ingenuity of his talent would have discovered a finer balance. Judging by his performance last night at the Louisville Palace, such was not the case.
The good news is that he sounded great, which is probably all that matters. Backed by a 10 member band that included two keyboardists, four backing vocalists and a few stellar West Coast names (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, drummers Joe Vitale and Chad Cromwell), he set about showcasing the hearty endurance of his career within the show’s first two songs – “Walk Away” (his 1971 hit with the James Gang) and “Analog Man” (the title tune to a 2012 solo album, his most recent recording). His voice was strong and expressive while his guitarwork was bold enough to lead the troupe through extended and engaging instrumental breaks during many tunes. Most notable among the latter was the James Gang relic “The Bomber,” which sailed through elongated psychedelic passages that touched trippingly on Ravel’s “Bolero” and the comforting melody of Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate Into the Wind” before resettling into the central tune’s crashing intro riff.
All of that effortlessly enforced the fact that Walsh, at age 68, is still a rock force of scholarly ability. So why, after all these years, does he still feel compelled to maintain the dimwitted stoner schtick between songs? When not playing, he rambled, often unintelligibly, about assorted misadventures and general forgetfulness. Decades ago, that seemed like a comic act designed for the Cheech & Chong generation. Last night, it just came across as juvenile put on, as if playing the fool was a base audience expectation.
Hopefully, anyone who bought into the spiel was equally enticed by the guitar roughhousing and prog-ish orchestration that highlighted obscurities like 1972’s “Mother Says” or the ensemble charge and clear-headed vocal command built within more established fare like “In the City” and especially “Turn to Stone.’ Those are instances that truly defined Walsh’s greatness, not the class clown antics that now serve him like a proverbial ball and chain.

in performance: dirty dozen brass band/chico fellini

Kirk Joseph (left) and Efrem Towns performed for Crave Lexington last night at Masterson Station Park.  Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Kirk Joseph (left) and Efrem Towns performed for Crave Lexington last night at Masterson Station Park. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Crave Lexington couldn’t have chosen two more disparate acts to close out its first day at Masterson Station Park. Playing into sunset last night was New Orleans’ famed Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a favorite among local audiences that inches further away from its homeland heritage with every visit. Then gears shifted dramatically as Lexington’s own Chico Fellini mixed power pop, post punk, glam, psychedelia and more in its first formal stage outing in nearly five years.

The Dirty Dozen’s set was all sloppy fun that was far more concerned with retro funk and soul than native Crescent City grooves. Operating without tenor sax man Kevin Harris, which trimmed the band to a scant six members (The Dirty Half-Dozen?), the band placed the heavy lifting on trumpeter/flugelhornist Efrem Towns (who, in his more rambunctious moments, played both instruments simultaneously), baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis and trumpeter Gregory Davis.

The latter, on the band’s splendid Columbia albums of the’80s and ‘90s, was a prolific composer, fashioning often complex rhythms that expanded New Orleans jazz traditions. Last night’s show, though, was a loose – as in extremely loose – array of soul covers (“Superstition”), rootsy rumbles (“Lil’ Liza Jane”) and assorted jam vehicles that probably didn’t challenge the band the way Davis’ music did in the old days. “Use Your Brain,” delivered late in the night, was an exception and nicely approximated the joy and invention of vintage Dirty Dozen workouts. But even when rocking away in pure party mode, the Dirty Dozen offered an abundantly spirited soundtrack for a late summer Saturday night.

Emily Hagihara and Chris Dennison of Chico Fellini.

Emily Hagihara and Chris Dennison of Chico Fellini.

Despite its extended hiatus, Chico Fellini has lost none of its fighting form. The quartet played last night with a urgency and tightness that befitted a band that has never lost favor with (or interest in) stage work. Vocalist Chris Dennison still sang with remarkable drama and range, guitarist Duane Lundy continued to pilot tunes with efficient hooks and extended solos laden with psychedelia and even blues, Emily Hagihara remained the utility expert juggling duties on bass and percussion while regularly serving as a vocalist of regal beauty and drummer Brandon Judd kept all of the set pumping with a vitality that regularly revealed a preference for a playful backbeat.

The band’s original tunes, specifically “Electrolyte” (which highlighted Hagihara’s percussive colors) and “Hot” (where Dennison’s giddy range reflected the mood swings of a young David Byrne) were delivered with impressive clarity and drive. A selection of covers – the Iggy Pop/Kate Pierson convection “Candy” and, more robustly, a full tilt delivery of the David Bowie/Queen classic “Under Pressure,” rounded out Chico’s accomplished return to active service.


in performance: “the promised land”

tpl-postcardPossibly the greatest everyman charm of Bruce Springsteen’s songs has been the ability, in wholly rock ‘n’ roll terms, to seize a moment in motion. During the ‘70s, it embraced a mix of youthful zeal and restlessness. In the ‘80s, darker realities and a sense of desperate nostalgia came into play as adulthood intruded. Since then, his compositional scope has grown worldly and more world weary, a celebration of dreams attained and shattered.

Last night’s “world premiere educational workshop presentation” at the Singletary Center for the Arts of “The Promised Land” by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre strived to construct a narrative that links at least some of Springsteen’s songs and themes within a modern stage musical format. That’s a risky proposition, since Springsteen songs are so known and revered. Despite a bounty of youthful cheer and intent, little in this work-in-progress production illuminated its source material or conveyed a storyline that was even remotely in line with the exactness of Springsteen’s works.

There were numerous production issues – erratic singing voices and very unsteady acting that rendered a considerable portion of the first act unintelligible, as well as staging that seemed to dictate that, for maximum drama, actors must stand in stoic, chorus line fashion when singing. There were some nice exceptions – specifically, the female leads Ashley Jackson and Susanna White as well as some commanding second act singing from Darian Sanders that struck a character balance between acting and vocalizing largely lacking in the rest of the cast.

But the real problems with ‘The Promised Land’ were with design. The book by Adam Max and Alex Wyatt was a lightweight and, frankly, contrived vehicle full of sometimes astonishingly clichéd lines (“What are the neighbors going to say?”) that did little more than dumb down songs of scholarly completeness and detail. “Dancing in the Dark” muted and sung as a lullaby? “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” as a fight song for firemen? “Born to Run” as a combination hissy fit and self-help exercise for a disgruntled writer?

The production got especially problematic when it incorporated 9/11 late into the second act in order to utilize some of Springsteen’s sobering and very specific works from “The Rising” (the closest the show came to modern entries as much of the music relied on ‘70s and ‘80s Springsteen songs). Granted, it is next to impossible not to be moved by the severity of the occasion and its lasting sense of loss and tragedy. But “The Promised Land” seemed to pump the setting for cheaply earned, sentimentally provoked response.

That, in essence, is the problem facing anyone attempting to shoehorn songs of such human detail into a conventional stage musical setting. Springsteen’s music possesses more genuine energy (something the entire show achingly lacked), purpose and depth than anything this very pedestrian storyline brought to it.

Someday, perhaps, a production will surface that can properly compliment such astounding music. For all its good intentions and youthful spirit, last night was not that day and “The Promised Land” was not that production.

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