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in performance: leo kottke

Leo Color

leo kottke.

Simply put, there is no m usical presence today as instrum entally virtuosic yet as unassum ingly distinctive as Leo Kottke.

Last night at the Clifton Center in Louisville, he placed all m anner of wiry m ischief on display through unaccom panied perform ances 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 sam e way for over four decades. But his shows today, and last night’s was no exception, still possess a danger elem ent that m ake his guitar abilities all the m ore arresting.

As always, Kottke operated without a setlist, but used a well-worn favorite from the early ‘70s, Pam ela Brown, as a show opener. The tune possessed a harder, m ore punctuated sound here than in recent years. In fact, the rum bling introduction on 12 string m ade you think he was about 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 environm ent altogether cam e a com paratively newer work, 2004’s Gewerbegebiet (“the m ost beautiful word in the Germ an language”) that unveiled a pastiche of contrasting tem pos – a light, spacious intro that m elted into a darker, alm ost percussive m idsection before concluding with a ballet of vibrant instrumental harm onies.

For sheer m elodic beauty, though, nothing beat the blues nugget Corrina, Corrina, which Kottke long ago m ade his own through an alm ost-pop inspired arrangem ent that sounded like it could have easily skipped off into the instrum ental 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 m inute show, the guitarist discussed two m ajor regrets from his days in the Navy (not being able to tolerate torpedo fuel as a beverage and not m astering the art of shooting light bulbs tossed from subm arines with a m achine 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 em brace m ajor third chords (“My m ission in life is to drill the m ajor third into your head and out of m ine”).

Such were the rum inations of the m odern 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 sam e night at Louisville’s KFC Yum ! Center.)

in performance: paul mccartney

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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.

in performance: ian mclagan/janiva magness

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ian mclagan.

Ian McLagan has always been a crafty devil. As far back as his early ‘70s albums with The Faces, the pianist was dishing out the bawdiest of boogie woogie breaks one minute and constructing a serene pop melody line the next.

The repertoire McLagan favored for last night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre was vastly lighter and considerably more reflective. Still, that same mix of fire and beauty was present. The humble pop meditation Shalalala, one of three tunes performed from his recent United States album, was a wonderful case in point. The song was a stately affirmation aided by bassist Jon Notarthomas. Then as the music modestly drew to a close, the left hand rumbles started and a hint of barrelhouse mischief revealed itself before subsiding without overstaying its welcome.

At 69, what McLagan may have lost in terms of recklessness he has gained in pure performance taste. Enforcing that notion was another United States tune, I’m Your Baby Now. McLagan and Notarthomas colored the song with an arrangement that functioned like a pressure cooker in that the groove within the melody line was repeated with a simmering intensity the duo purposely did not allow to boil over.

Curiously, the biggest nostalgia moment came with a 2008 tune called An Innocent Man. But it wasn’t McLagan’s spirited keyboard work that peeled back the years. It was instead a warm, disarming vocal performance that recalled the hapless singing of his late Faces bandmate, Ronnie Lane.

janiva magess

janiva magess.

Detroit blues-soul diva Janiva Magness, a veteran of several previous WoodSongs shows, shared the bill last night with singing that was as commanding and concise as McLagan’s keyboard playing.

Promoting her first album of self-penned songs (hence the title – Original), Magness nicely meshed with the smokey r&b groove of Let Me Breathe, the torchy stride of When You Were My King and the rockish cool that fueled I Need a Man.

Magness clearly possessed the vocal pipes that could have turned any of those tunes into shriekfests. But her phrasing (and, again like McLagan’s playing, taste) never allowed such grandstanding to ignite.

Ian McLagan and Jon Notarthomas perform again on Oct. 28 at Parlay Social 257 W. Short. (8 p.m.; $15, $20). Call (859) 244-1932.

in performance: the fauntleroys

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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