Archive for in performance

in performance: the fauntleroys

FauntleroysByJeffFasano

The Faunterloys : Nicholas Tremulis, Alejandro Escovedo, Ivan Julian and Linda Pitmon. Photo by Jeff Fasano.

Perhaps the most telling moments of last night’s performance by The Fauntleroys at Willie’s Locally Known came during the two cover tunes it cooked up for an encore.

The first, Elvis Costello’s post-punk pop anthem Pump It Up was so untested that the band’s resident celebrity, Alejandro Escovedo, sang the verses from a lyric sheet – and that was only after the members went rifling through stacks and satchels in search of said lyrics. The other was The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog, a tune Escovedo has been playing long enough on his own that he can practically lay ownership to it.

There you had it. One tune was ultra tentative, the other second nature. Yet both reflected rock ‘n’ roll in its most joyously elemental form. In other words, the resulting music was as much the expression of four friends sharing a love of proto-punk and pop tradition as it was a declaration of high art (although there was a bit of that at work, too).

The more formal aspects of The Fauntleroys – Escovedo (who played bass), guitarists Nicholas Tremulis (who has led numerous rock ensembles out of Chicago) and Ivan Julian (a one-time bandmate of Lexington-born punk purebred Richard Hell and a veteran of the ‘60s pop troupe The Foundations before that), and drummer Linda Pitmon (last seen in Lexington as part of the all-star Baseball Project) – were quickly put on display by the six songs performed from its newly released debut EP disc Below The Pink Pony.

The best of the lot was Julian’s (This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song, a John Cale-meets-Mazzy Star-like pop incantation that expertly utilized Pitmon as a support vocalist. The most curious entry was the EP’s lone cover, a Tremulis-led take on the Incredible String Band’s Chinese White that underscored obvious accents of psychedelia within The Fauntleroys’ post-punk drive – accents that Tremulis and Julian further enhanced with scattered layers of guitar orchestration.

Escovedo went off the menu for his show-stealer – a riveting obscure original called The Man From Japan that was initially cut for his Real Animal album. An intense, mid-tempo rocker, the tune played readily off of Pitmon’s hearty grooves, Tremulis’ glossary of rhythm guitar chatter and a sense of band immediacy that remained vital right up to the song’s jagged and beautifully abrupt ending.

in performance: chris thile and edgar meyer

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chris thile (left) and edgar meyer.

How telling, really, can a song title be? In the case of the wonderfully crafted concert by Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, the answer would have to be a resounding “not much.” Given the largely genre-less nature of their repertoire, naming a composition seemed as debilitating as restricting the resulting music to a specific style or mood.

But that’s not to say there wasn’t fun to be had with the whole titling process. When introducing I’ll Remember For You, a piece of warm, wintry intimacy, a reference was made to the tune’s presence on the duo’s new Bass & Mandolin album, a record named for the instruments Meyer and Thile have long held virtuosic command over. The joke, however, was that I’ll Remember For You diverted the two to piano and guitar, respectively.

Then there was Tuesday, a piece filled with dizzying string runs, bits of freer exchanges that allowed the players to stylistically butt heads before opening out into more lyrical dialogue and a captivating double bass coda from Meyer. Thile noted the irony in playing a piece called Tuesday on a Wednesday night. Meyer added that both evenings are essentially the same, making the Tuesday title seem “a little more reminiscent.”

Finally, there was a new work built around a feathery blues/jazz exchange that broke off into grassy mandolin dashes and emotive bowed bass colors before the tune’s full lyrical thrust accelerated like a locomotive. Thile let the Norton Center shout out title suggestions after the music concluded. The winning entry – for the night, at least – was Land Dolphin.

Such onstage mischief with titles also pointed the way to an inherent performance playfulness in the bass/mandolin (and more) music of Meyer and Thile.

Sometimes, such animation was subtle, as in the show opening Why Only One? There, the music began with a mandolin melody that danced about like a ballet before bowed bass stepped like a fussy parent to give earthy punctuation to the dialogue

But on This is the Pig, the music became almost slapstick with a giddy barnyard groove that bloomed into the kind of friendly musical fire than only develops when such askew kindred spirits collide.

in performance: turtle island quartet with nellie mckay

tiq plus nellie

turtle island quartet plus one: mateusz smoczynski, david balakrishnan, nellie mckay, mark summer and benjamin von gutzeit.

“Nothing says ‘Jamaica’ like a string quartet,” remarked a giddy Nellie McKay last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort before diving into a reggae uprising called Carribean Time.

Perhaps not. Then again, when the ensemble by your side is the Turtle Island Quartet, a troupe that came across equally last night as a chamber, swing and world music troupe, such stylistic non-sequiturs seemed almost routine. Over the course of two 45 minute sets, these two already multi-directional acts matched wits to create a program full of wildly disparate pop fusion.

For Turtle Island, the instrumentation of a traditional string quartet became an open playing field full of bright jazz expression, as in the show opening Windspan, a tune penned by Yellowjackets saxophonist Bob Mintzer. Similarly arresting was the lighter swing of John Carisi’s Israel, where cellist Mark Summer plucked his instrument with the solemnity and groove of a double bass. But the quartet’s main attraction was violinist David Balakrishnan’s Guruvayoor, where an Eastern-leaning drone sprang to life as a vibrant dance piece that balanced chamber and Celtic accents. All three tunes are featured on TIQ’s upcoming album Confetti Man

McKay was the pop scholar – a song stylist capable of bracing original work, as shown by two very different second set affirmations, Beneath the Underdog and Mother of Pearl. The skies opened after that with McKay channeling the likes of Loretta Lynn (the hapless maternal anthem One’s on the Way) and Billie Holiday (through a lullaby-like reading Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans).

When the co-billed artists played together the boundaries were blurred even further and the traditions grew more askew. McKay didn’t prove to be a technically dazzling singer, but the strong emotive sway of her vocals and the general cabaret-like demeanor of her delivery were heightened considerably by the quartet’s support, whether it was through the dance hall tipsiness of Kurt Weill’s Alabama Song, another beautifully elegiac nod to Holiday with I Cover the Waterfront and the playful Marlene Dietrich vamping during Black Market.

But on the show closing cover of I Remember You, McKay’s vocal and piano work seemed to emerge like a frail spirit from the shadows of the strings before disappearing back into them with a sense of subtle but elegant mystery.

in performance: the fixx

TheFixx_PressPhoto3

the fixx: dan k. brown, jamie west-oram, cy curnin, adam woods and rupert greenall.

“Prepare to be mesmerized,” said Cy Curnin early into an unexpectedly complete and vital sounding performance by The Fixx last night at the Christ the King Oktoberfest.

Normally, such a remark could be chalked up to standard rock star boasting made even more idle by the fact the veteran British pop band has been out of the commercial limelight for close to three decades. But on multiple levels, Curnin proved he and the Fixx have earned bragging rights.

The bottom line: Curnin was physically and vocally fit, the band (operating with the same lineup that became an MTV hit in the ‘80s) played with vigor and mature purpose and the sound mix was refreshingly crisp, especially for an Oktoberfest show. Add in a repertoire that balanced ‘80s radio hits (Saved by Zero, One Thing Leads to Another), deep catalog obscurities (1983’s Running, 1988’s Subterranean) and a healthy quartet of tunes from its best album in 25 years (2012’s Beautiful Friction) and you had a show that way outdistanced the usual oldies act entertainment billed for a community festival.

The sound was the real stunner, partly because the first third of the previous night’s Oktoberfest performance by the Smithereens sounded like the band was playing on a different block. But here the balance was astonishingly clean, offering decisive balance between the array of keyboard orchestrations by Rupert Greenall and the library of rhythm phrases by guitarist Jamie West-Oram. Hearing the two’s playing form a trance-like backdrop behind Curnin’s conversational vocals during the title tune to Beautiful Friction underscored the fact that the Fixx entered the into the program last night as a band that viewed its entire sound and song catalog as being completely of the moment.

Of course, it was very much the band’s ‘80s hit parade that kept Oktoberfest packed last night. Even there, surprises surfaced. Stand or Fall, the 1982 single that largely introduced The Fixx to America, was a kaleidoscope of clean guitar, keyboard and vocal colors while the encore finale of Secret Separation weaved in the chorus of the Tina Turner hit Better Be Good to Me (the 1984 single featured Curnin and West-Oram) to cap a performance that was as much an affirmation as it was pop history lesson.

in performance: the smithereens

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the smithereens: jim babjak, severo jornacion, dennis diken and pat dinizio.

After 34 years together, The Smithereens still wear intentions and inspirations openly. Once a tepid sound mix was readjusted last night at their Christ the King Oktoberfest performance that initially had the band sounding like it was playing a few blocks away, you got to hear exactly how openly.

The better portion of the New Jersey quartet’s 1 ¾ hour set was centered on very elemental tunes established by clever guitar hooks and adjoining pop melodies, as on the 1986 breakthrough hit Behind the Wall of Sleep (which, curiously, opened the performance) and the comparatively forgotten 1994 gem Miles from Nowhere.

From there, singer/guitarist Pat DiNizio, guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken (all founding Smithereens members) and Kenny Howes (filling in for bassist Severo Jornacion) fleshed out the music with a wealth of pop references. Some were generalized, like the power pop drive that fortified the Babjak tune One Look at You (from Smithereens 2011). Other songs with a modestly greater level of urgency and/or melancholy, like 1989’s Blue Period, possessed the sort of post-punk pop that would have been right at home on an early Elvis Costello album.

Then there were the instances where The Smithereens’ pop influences were unapologetically exact. Between 2007 and 2009, the band recorded entire album-length tributes to The Beatles and The Who. Understandably, those cornerstone acts were referenced repeatedly last night.

For example, a sometimes surf-style cover of The Who’s Tommy instrumental Sparks was placed side-by-side with one of The Smithereens’ most overlooked hook-heavy hits, House We Used to Live In from one of its most underappreciated albums (1988’s Green Thoughts). That medley led into a pair of highly faithful Beatles covers – a pop-centric reading of Please Please Me and a poetically melancholy It’s Only Love.

The show passed by other pop outposts, as well, including the dark, Doors-like bass groove that propelled Blood and Roses and the snippets of Free’s All Right Now and The Who’s Behind Blues Eyes that goosed the show-closing A Girl Like You. Such a mash-up brought an entire pop universe to the doorstep of a tried and tested Jersey band with a rock ‘n’ roll heart the size of Texas.

in performance: jason aldean/florida georgia line/tyler farr

jason-aldean2

jason aldean.

Jason Aldean did everything he could to play the role of tough guy last night at Rupp Arena. In fact, during a miniscule pause that let the singer catch his breath after a show-opening one-two punch of Hicktown and My Kinda Party, the Georgia singer seemed to adopt the gruffest speaking voice he could muster and warned the sellout crowd of 18,500 it “better start drinking.”

Sorry, Jason – no sale. The hitmaker possessed way too much unadorned congeniality – in other words, stage appeal – to come across as a bruiser. That held true for Aldean’s singing, too. Despite the heavily contemporary sway of the concert’s presentation, and of his music overall, he revealed a very natural sense of vocal phrasing. That proved especially flattering for songs like The Truth, where Aldean summoned a mountain tenor reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam. Ditto for more electric jaunts such as Amarillo Sky and Fly Over States, where the conversational turns in his singing turned delicately desperate.

Perhaps Aldean felt inclined to obligingly man up to the music given everything that led up to his set. The evening opened with ultra modern sets by Florida Georgia Line and Tyler Farr, acts that teamed for a sellout show of their own a year ago at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.

Containing Florida Georgia Line to a 45 minute meant singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley had to streamline their performance a bit. But such economy suited FGL well. Without the extraneous small talk and posturing, the duo plowed through hip hop-flavored hits like It’z Just What We Do, This is How We Roll and the show-closing career-making hit Cruise.

Of course, one can argue till sunup about the FGL’s reliance on drum loops, pseudo-rapping and last night’s distracting practice of timing nearly all of the nine songs performed to music videos that played out on a huge screen behind the band. Personally, the whole design seemed a bit fraudulent to be called country music. Then again, there was no way to discount the youthful drive Hubbard and Kelley conjured and how readily the crowd took to it.

Farr went for the looped grooves, too. And the tough guy image. And the party posse feel. But he came off as a fairly uninvolving singer with a perhaps understandable stylistic identity crisis. Hits like Whiskey in My Water and A Guy Walks into a Bar, and to a lesser extent, the oddly solemn Redneck Crazy, played well to the audience. Overall, though, there was little to distinguish Farr from a dozen other country-pop stylists on the airwaves.

The build-up to Aldean’s set was also peppered by an onstage DJ who spinned short-attention-span snippets of classics by such country greats as AC/DC, Journey and Def Leppard. No wonder the star of the show felt he had to play rock star for a bit, even when hammering out the electric verses to his hero worship hit Johnny Cash.

Oh, yes. Did we mention the six – count ‘em, six – tiers of lights that served as a backdrop during Aldean’s set? All that mammoth artillery couldn’t help but make the singer seem miniaturized for much of the night. That tended to dwarf innocent hits like Big Green Tractor, too. It had to have been hard appearing country humble when your stage resembled a summer home for Kiss.

in performance: marcus roberts trio

marcus robert review pic

marcus roberts.

Anyone hoping for a serious test drive of the Lexington Opera House’s prized Steinway Grand following its $50,000-plus restoration got a very serious wish answered near the conclusion of last night’s performance by the Marcus Roberts Trio.

During the closing moments of It’s Only a Paper Moon, pianist Roberts briefly decommissioned his two very capable bandmates – bassist Rodney Jackson and drummer Herlin Riley – and took the reins for a piano solo that served as a sort of multiple chorus. It began as a sort of barrelhouse brawl, a sunny blast of ragtime that purposely stuttered and morphed into sleek stride playing before veering into the blues. The excursion was perhaps two minutes long and served as Roberts’ only unaccompanied playing of the night. Still, it was an instance splendid enough to make you think the Opera House got its money’s worth out of Roberts as well as the restoration.

The rest of the evening was equally remarkable with an assured repertoire highlighted by compositions from Thelonious Monk, George Gershwin, Ahmad Jamal, Roberts’ (and Riley’s) one time employer, Wynton Marsalis, and Roberts himself. But it was the trio’s playful interplay and scholarly stylistic reach, along with a performance confidence that regularly allowed the three players to take all kinds of chances, that drove the two hour concert.

Blind since childhood, Roberts possesses an expansive stylistic vocabulary but chose to reveal his strengths gradually at the Opera House. For his show opening take on Monk’s Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are, his playing was surprisingly subtle with most of the modal high jinx being left to Jackson and Riley. But the distinctly Southern slant of his playing didn’t need flash. Its quiet examination of harmony was seemingly a warm up for the revision of Gershwin’s The Man I Love that followed. The tune’s inherent torchiness was replaced by brisk ensemble swing and a tempo that approximated a car chase.

Roberts and company regularly toyed with tempos throughout the evening. Much of such thrillseeking was instigated by Riley, who fattened up Monk’s Blues Five Spot with a clever, syncopated groove that possessed a country roots quality. Similarly, he supplied Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So with an Afro-Cuban shuffle that opened out into regal trio swing.

Jackson was perhaps the craftiest player of the three. He introduced entire melodies of songs (Billy Boy and Marsalis’ Down Home with Homey, in particular) on acoustic bass while supplying a trio of engaging solos around Roberts’ jubilant playing on Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away From Me.

The ultimate charm of Roberts’ playing revolved around its continual sense of surprise. For the Ellington-esque original The Arrival (the first song from the pianist’s 1988 debut album The Truth is Spoken Here), rolling left hand patterns formed fleeting but animated harmonies with Jackson’s bass support while the piano leads during East of the Sun (West of the Moon), all relaxed and light on the surface, revealed streaks of gorgeous mischievousness.

Capping it all off was an arrangement of Cherokee that tossed about intriguing dialogues between bass and drums with colorful piano rolls and arpeggios. But in an instance of pure cunning, Roberts let the melody conclude the song in a burst of percussive thunder. Much like the rest of the performance, the outburst was dramatic in design and execution but purely playful in intent.

in performance: the black keys/cage the elephant

black keys

the black keys: patrick carney and dan auerbach. photo by danny clinch.

In many ways, The Black Keys performance last night at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville was an anti-arena rock show.

No, it wasn’t an evening of revolt. It’s just that group mainstays Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney largely ignored the big league rock trick bag for much of the musically combustible 90 minute performance.

Okay, maybe there were a few trappings, like the 16 or so video screens that bobbed above the stage broadcasting live digitized mutations of the show below. It was as if there was a Super 8 movie of the concert being shown as a backdrop to the real thing.

Outside of that, there were no real production gimmicks, no musical baggage (although the duo was capably augmented by bassist Richard Swift and keyboardist/guitarist John Wood) and little of the standard rock ‘n’ roll self-promotion (the Keys dipped into its hit 2014 album Turn Blue only four times).

Don’t discern from all this that the show was at all uninvolving. Yes, Auerbach and Carney don’t act like rock stars onstage. A casual step onto a stage monitor by Auerbach was as physically dramatic as the performance got. But what the Keys did was simply play tunes – concise, rock solid, fuzzed out, blues-centric songs overflowing with sumptuous hooks and riffs – with confident, unimposing immediacy.

The Clash-style rhythms of the show-opening Dead and Gone typlified the approach. It was vocally leaner than the choral-charged studio version on 2011’s El Camino album. But that simply allowed Auerbach to fill up the space more on guitar, striking a keen balance between the tune’s R&B foundation and the band’s thick, ragged live sound.

Gotta Get Away, on the other hand, remained every bit the party piece it started as on Turn Blue, right down to the hyena-like cackle Auerbach summoned on lap steel guitar.

Strange Times (from 2008’s Attack and Release) seemed to pare the Keys already contained sound down even further into fat, chunky chords that emphasized Carney’s steadfast playing. But the way the tune’s chorus opened out into Beatles-like psychedelia underscored the little surprises the band employed just when you thought you had its sound agenda pegged.

There was also no denying the fun that ignited when the music surrendered completely to its pop urges, as on Tighten Up, Fever and the set-closing Lonely Boy. But when Auerbach and Carney dug deep into the darker boogiefest of Your Touch, which was inserted into the hit parade just before Lonely Boy, you saw the same, primal band connection that sparked club shows the Keys played in the region a decade ago as an unaccompanied duo. The room was certainly bigger last night. But the sound at work was as massive and unadorned as ever.

Bowling Green’s Cage the Elephant gave the impression it was born to play arenas during a 40 minute opening set with lead singer Matthew Shultz providing much of the fireworks.

Whether hurling himself around the stage during Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked or adding a furious soul falsetto to the one of the year’s great pop sleeper tunes Spiderhead, Shultz helmed the Kentucky band’s tireless performance drive and increasingly scholarly sense of pop smarts.

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in performance: lyle lovett and his large band

lyle lovett 2

lyle lovett.

Who else but Lyle Lovett could open a concert by singing with pokerfaced candor the following lyric: “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.”

The words, of course, belong to the classic Tammy Wynette hit Stand By Your Man, which the famed Texas songsmith used to initiate an immensely satisfying 2 ½ performance with his Large Band last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond.

Sure, given the sardonic twists that often surfaced in his own songs, the deployment of such a recognized cover tune as a show opener might have seemed like a joke. But it worked to categorize and define all the industrious music that followed in the program.

For starters, there was the tune’s allegiance to traditional country – a genre the performance would return to frequently, albeit in more Lone Star leaning terms with songs like Cowboy Man, Give Back My Heart and Long Tall Texan. The heightened liveliness of all three songs was indicative of the show’s expansive country reach.

Then came the variation of Billy Sherrill’s epic original arrangement to Stand By Your Man, which was filtered through the stylistic clearinghouse sound of Lovett’s 13-member Large Band. As the evening progressed, the huge ensemble – fortified by a four-man horn section, two subtle but industrious guitarists (three if you count pedal steel ace Buck Reid) and the return after a four year hiatus of vocalist and onstage foil Francine Reed – would morph into a soul-jazz orchestra that shifted from the cocktail cool of I Know You Know to the two-stepping swing of That’s Right (You’re Not from Texas).

Finally, there was the simple fact that no singer, male or female, can convincingly pull off Stand By Your Man without serious vocal chops. To that end, Lovett might seem an unlikely candidate, especially given the quiet but vividly dark detail he gave to a series of devastating ballads – specifically, God Will, Nobody Knows Me, L.A. County and North Dakota, all of which were performed in succession half way through the concert. But on the Wynette cover, Lovett let loose with a bold, rich and immaculate voice that sounded as big as Texas itself.

in performance: the blasters

The Blasters

The Blasters: Keith Wyatt, Bill Bateman, Phil Alvin and John Bazz.

“This one goes out to me,” said Phil Alvin last night at Willie’s Locally Known as The Blasters tore into the somewhat fatalistic 1985 tune Trouble Bound.

The remark was a form of self-deprecating commentary regarding the ragged condition of Alvin’s usually soaring tenor voice. But the song, like the rest of the 90 minute set, was far from the wreckage the singer seemed to think it was.

Yes, the high end of Alvin’s range was, as he described, “pretty beat up” – a reality that probably would not have been so obvious had the bulk of the Blasters’ roots driven, ultra-elemental rock ‘n’ roll not called on a fair amount of vocal acrobatics that Alvin wasn’t willing to back off from. So tunes like Precious Memories (pulled from 2005’s 4-11-44 album) and the jittery I’m Shakin’ (from The Blasters’ seminal, self-titled 1981 breakthrough record) put Alvin through some pretty rough turns.

Others with more a moderate vocal range, like the show opening American Music and a very Little Sister-ish Border Radio, let Alvin’s deeper register do the heavy lifting and sounded quite fine.

The West Coast-bred post punk roots music of The Blasters, which began leaning more toward rockabilly following the 1986 defection of the singer’s brother (and the band’s principal songwriter and guitarist) Dave Alvin, doesn’t revolve entirely around the vocal leads – at least, it didn’t last night. The founding rhythm section of bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman, along with guitarist Keith Wyatt, supplied rhythmic support that was clean, soulful and remarkably agile. That translated into solid-as-oak support for Alvin during swiftly paced tunes like Rock and Roll Will Stand and Long White Cadillac, which the band still plays at about twice the tempo of Dwight Yoakam’s hit cover version.

It was on more mid-tempo rockers, though, that the exactness of the band’s rhythmic drive really became a thing of beauty. A wonderful case in point: another 1985 gem, Dark Night, whic wrangled with the swampy ingenuity of a vintage Creedence Clearwater Revival song (Feelin’ Blue came to mind) before locking in for a big beat groove with Alvin that let The Blasters solemnly blast off.

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