Archive for in performance

in performance: chick corea electric band/bela fleck and the flecktones

bela fleck and chick corea.

This may have just been my favorite sound of the summer – an acoustic duet last night at the PNC Pavilion between pianist Chick Corea and banjo star Bela Fleck complimented by the usual seasonal chorus of crickets and other harmonious outdoor varmints.

Here’s the thing, though. While the two have toured as acoustic duo several times, this playful duet of grassy mischief, classically inclined skirmishes and jazzy spontaneity titled “Juno” (after Fleck’s son, who bounded onstage earlier in the performance) was a brief dessert following a full two course evening featuring the musicians’ separate, amplified bands.

Fleck’s longrunning Flecktones, an ensemble that continues to use the banjoist’s bluegrass and new grass experiments of the early ‘80s as a collective springboard for a contemporary sound that reaches deep into jazz fusion and funk, opened the evening. Working with its original lineup (Fleck, pianist/harmonica stylist Howard Levy, bassist Victor Wooten and percussionist Future Man), the quartet opened with an unassuming but spacious reading of “Big Country,” which stretched a light, Celtic flavored melody over a foundation rooted in Wooten’s fretless, 5-string bass work.

While Fleck was the leader, the Flecktones remained a democracy onstage, as shown in the way the ensemble drive of “Blu-Bop” briefly decelerated into a blues interlude before getting tossed back into the fast lane. But Fleck did offer the set’s most quietly emotive moment, a solo banjo variation of “Wichita Lineman” performed as a tribute to country colossus Glen Campbell, who died last week.

Corea, at age 76, fronted another reunion of his ‘80s/early ‘90s fusion troupe, unceremoniously dubbed the Elektric Band. Age has been kind to this outfit, though. Likewise performing with its original lineup (Corea, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Dave Weckl, guitarist Frank Gambale and saxophonist Eric Marienthal), the group revealed a matured ensemble drive that was, frankly, more intriguing than the considerable stage time it devoted to individual solos. Cases in point: the elegant band rattle of “Trance Dance” that placed Corea on Rhodes-style keyboards instead the acoustic piano lead established on the tune’s original version from 1988’s “Eye of the Beholder” album. Equally arresting was the hearty swing and trio interplay created between the bandleader, Patitucci and Weckl during Jimmy Heath’s “CTA.”

A finale encore of “The Message” brought both bands together for a jam emceed by Wooten that was essentially a tradeoff of solos. Some sounded unexpectedly complimentary (like a Levy harmonica break that played off an alto sax run by Marienthal), but the vibe is what sold the party, the pairing of one band led by a jazz fusion giant with another fronted by one of his most learned disciples. There was much rejoicing.

 

in performance: graham nash

graham nash.

In prefacing a version of perhaps his most famously trippy song “Cathedral” last night at the Opera House, Graham Nash detailed a journey to Stonehenge during the early 1970s unapologetically fueled by the intake of LSD. The crowd, abundantly populated by patrons of a likewise vintage, laughed along as if the veteran songsmith was telling a joke. He wasn’t.

“Hey, I’m not advocating anything,” Nash said of the recreational indulgences of his youth. Such was the degree of nostalgia behind this two hour program. The feel was underscored further when Nash delivered the tune with an earthy, full blown drama constructed around only the slide guitar accompaniment and harmony vocals of Shane Fontayne, his own piano stride and a vocal lead that soared with the kind of high tenor detail one might not readily expect out of a 75 year old rock/folk journeyman.

But vitality was prevalent throughout the concert. Granted, the show-opening “Bus Stop,” the evening’s only nod to Nash’s mid ‘60s Brit pop tenure with The Hollies, may have sounded a touch light and tentative. But a sense of tenacity soon revealed itself in both the narrative vigor within such reflective new songs as “Myself at Last,” (a gentle but affirming ballad with Nash and Fontayne on acoustic guitars) as well as in the ageless vehemence of “Immigration Man,” a 1972 favorite written in the aftermath of Nash’s long ago tribulations at the Canadian border that still sound uncomfortably current.

The repertoire ran the course of favorites and obscurities from every permutation of the famed CSNY quartet that helped define Nash’s popularity over four decades ago. There were tunes from early solo albums (1971’s “I Used to Be a King,” dubbed as the evening’s “first breakup song”); duo records with David Crosby (the completely unexpected excavation of 1976’s plaintive “Taken at All”); the early Crosby, (Stephen) Stills and Nash era (light, summery readings of “Marrakesh Express” and “Lady of the Island”); and the full embattled collective of Crosby, Stills, Nash & (Neil) Young (the still emotive sing-a-long of domestic bliss, “Our House”).

Fontayne proved a very resourceful foil for the journey, adding a keen electric jolt to the best of the newer works from Nash’s 2016 album “This Path Tonight” (in particular, the Levon Helm tribute “Back Home”), building an airy but resilient acoustic foundation under Nash’s high end harmonies during a cover of the Beatles classic “Blackbird” and designing a suitably country-esque guitar dressing for the finale of “Teach Your Children” that respectfully mimicked the pedal steel lead Jerry Garcia designed on the song’s original 1970 version.

Age-defying vocals? Songs new and old that still serve as testaments to a rock giant’s continued artistic worth? A mix of performance ease and artistic urgency? Now there’s a mix worth advocating.

 

in performance: roger mcguinn

roger mcguinn.

It’s a good bet the patrons that packed the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center earlier tonight to hear Roger McGuinn perform had nostalgia in mind. To that end, the featured artist for the 900th taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour did not disappoint. But McGuinn’s sense of nostalgia differed somewhat from what many in the audience likely envisioned.

Instead of relying on his esteemed history as guitarist, mainstay member and principal composer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame troupe The Byrds, McGuinn took a journey into a deeper and more personal past. As has been his mission for the past two decades, he devoted much of his nine song set to traditional folk songs, the kind that inspired him long before The Byrds took flight. But instead of a late 1950s/early 1960s student of music passed down by the likes of Bob Gibson and others, McGuinn is now an elder scholar and preservationist, having recorded numerous volumes of traditional songs in an effort to keep the form alive.

Likewise, pop audiences may musically identify with McGuinn through the 12 string electric Richenbacker guitar sound that helped define the rock, psychedelic and, eventually, country paths The Byrds followed. Tonight, though, he brought songs like “Well, Well, Well,” a lightning paced “Rock Island Line” and a variety of sea shanties highlighted by “Leave Her, Johnny” to life on a unique 7 string acoustic guitar that proved very serviceable as a rhythmic device as well as, in the few times the music called for it (a suitably blues-driven “St James Infirmary,” being one), a distinctive lead instrument.

As a vocalist, McGuinn can’t help but show his years. His higher register has become more reedy and frail – an inevitability, one supposes, of age (he turned 75 earlier this month). But the traditional material wasn’t always in need of spit and polish. “The Preacher and the Bear,” for instance, seemed to thrive with a tone that was conversationally whimsical with instrumentation (in this case, 5 string banjo) and credibly rustic with the singing.

Outside of the new original composition “Edge of Water,” which was largely indistinguishable from the traditional shanties in the set, McGuinn exited his folk turf only twice. In both cases, it was to acknowledge briefly the legacy of The Byrds with involving, warm-hearted readings of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “My Back Pages.”

The latter, one of many Bob Dylan songs popularized by the band, seemed quite telling of the present day McGuinn, especially in a chorus that viewed age and maturity in purely figurative terms. “I was so much older then,” the chorus went. “I’m younger than that now.”

 

in performance: wheels of soul tour featuring tedeschi trucks band, the wood brothers and hot tuna

the husband and wife guitar team of derek trucks and susan tedeschi. photo by stuart levine.

The annual Wheels of Soul Tour, the multi-act bill assembled and headlined by the Tedeschi Trucks Band, again lived up to it still-young reputation as one of the summer’s more appealing concert attractions last night at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati. Now in its third year, the tour has established a reputation not only as a versed showcase for old school Americana and soul but for its largely familial design. This year’s lineup, featuring Hot Tuna and the Wood Brothers with TTB again at the head of the table, was a tad more streamlined without as much crossover involvement that made its two previous incarnations so memorable. But every sweaty note delivered in the near 90 degree temps was still a delight.

The evening-opening Hot Tuna was largely treated with sage-like respect by the two other bands, mostly because founding members Jorma Kaukonen, 76, and Jack Casady, 73, have been a touring team since the first days of the Jefferson Airplane in the mid 1960s. Kaukonen wasted no time in reaching back to that legacy by opening the 45 minute set with “Trial by Fire” from the Airplane’s 1972 swansong record “Long John Silver.” The tune reintroduced Kaukonen’s unassuming but very potent profile as an electric guitarist (most of his regional concerts in recent years have featured him in predominantly acoustic settings). Backed by Casady’s bass work, which regularly stepped out of the shadows to provide remarkably instinctive counterpoint to the set’s blues and boogie focus, and the efficient drive of current Tuna drummer Justin Guip, Kaukonen gave resourceful power trio treatment to obscurities like 1979’s wistful “Roads & Roads &” and well as the blues chestnut “Come Back Baby” the latter of which the guitarist still breathes honest, electric intensity into after 50 years of playing it.

The Wood Brothers – guitarist/vocalist Oliver, bassist Chris and percussionist/unofficial sibling Jano Rix – followed with a flexible trio set of what it called simply “American” music. That translated into the roots directed pop of the set opening “I Got Loaded” and “Shoofly Pie” that had Rix slapping out beats on the guitar-like shuitar, the merry New Orleans-flavored soul funk jam “One More Day” that sent Chris Wood (who had surgery as recently as last fall for an intestinal blockage) flying about the stage in a slippery dervish of a dance and a cover of The Band’s “Ophelia” that encapsulated Oliver Wood’s high tenor singing as well as the trio’s knowing Americana feel. But the highlight came when “mentors” (Oliver’s description) Kaukonen and Casady returned for the Rev. Gary Davis classic “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” The tune has been a Hot Tuna staple since the band’s beginnings in 1969, but last night it was presented as an appealingly ragged cross-generational jam session between the two bands.

The headlining Tedeschi Trucks Band sounded a bit more streamlined than in recent years. There wasn’t as much risk taking, the instrumental passages were briefer and the band solos were in somewhat shorter supply. Much of that can be explained to the absence of TTB mainstay Kofi Burbridge, who is off the road this summer recuperating from heart surgery. Carey Frank filled in capably on keyboards but without Burbridge’s abundant sense of invention. That said, there was a lot to enjoy in this 100 minute set. Three opening tunes from 2016’s “Let Me Get By” album (“I Want More,” “Right on Time” and “Don’t Know What It Means”) stressed all of the TTB’s strengths: the soul revue orchestration provided by a total of six singers and horn players, the band’s jubilant rhythm section (which included two drummers), Truck’s scholarly guitar sound (which ran from jazz to blues to elemental R&B riffing to Eastern improvisation) and, crowning it all, Tedeschi’s homey, soul-scratched singing. For the record, Tedeschi also reeducated the audience on her own worldly guitar abilities at several points.

The TTB’s fondness for vintage rock compositions again balanced out the original works. Two of the covers enlisted the evening’s other acts. The full Wood Brothers trio joined in on Paul McCartney’s Wings-era gem “Let Me Roll It” while Kaukonen and Casady again summoned the spirit of Jefferson Airplane by reaching back for 1967’s “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds.” That one was a portrait of contrasts. Kaukonen and Trucks studiously exchanged solos laced with ample psychedelia while Casady seemed to having a field day anchoring the groove and reaffirming his past with the TTB’s youthful, large scale gusto.

in performance: nicole atkins/joselyn and the sweet compression

nicole atkins.

The second of two reviews of performances held Thursday evening, June 20:

“May my path be lit up by the bridges that I’ve burned.”

That very revealing line surfaced near the end of Nicole Atkins’ hour long pop odyssey last night at The Burl. It hailed from “A Dream Without Pain,” a tune that not so coincidentally concludes the Jersey-bred songstress’ new “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” album, which hits stores today. Like many of Atkins’ best compositions, the narrative outlined an empowerment that comes with a hefty price tag. The same was true for the torchier Jersey requiem “Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t),” the more epically scaled “A Little Crazy” (where the cocktail of empowerment and pathos led to a grand vocal unleashing of Atkins’ inner Orbison) and the stately assertions of “Listen Up.”

All of these songs hailed from “Goodnight Rhonda Lee,” as did much of the hour long set. While the audience turnout was meager, Atkins’ readings of these personality portraits, along with the glossary of pop melodies packaged with them (like the elegant “cha cha cha” strut of the record’s title tune), were inviting and arresting. A seemingly good natured performer, she seemed unfazed by the lean attendance, choosing to ignite vocals of varying intensity with a natural ease and clarity. That was also true for older works like the soul drenched “Cry Cry Cry” and the buoyantly desperate pop confection “Maybe Tonight.”

Atkins augmented her broadly American-sounding original material with a pair of curious European covers from 1972 – Can’s “Vitamin C” (a healthy blast of psychedelia that sounded anything but retro) and David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” which ended the set with suitably continental splendor.

Complimenting this very appealing show was a stellar opening set by Joslyn and the Sweet Compression, a Lexington unit centered around the fearless vocals of Joslyn Hampton and a five member band bearing the same instrumental make-up as a vintage R&B revue, right down to the two-man horn team. But original tunes like “If I Break It Down” and “Sunday Driver,” along with covers of vintage gems like Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop,” opened a groove bag that touched on soul, blues, reggae-fied rhythm, funk and more. A fine, e engaging showcase by one of our own.

in performance: sam bush band

sam bush.

The first of two reviews of from performances held Thursday evening, June 20:

By this point, the home state heritage sitting at the heart of Sam Bush’s music is pretty much impossible to conceal. For his appearance last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, such Kentucky bred charm was on unavoidable display. You heard it during the nine-song set in “Bowling Green,” a new tale of farmers and fiddlers named after Bush’s hometown, as well as in “This Heart of Mine,” a 1975 classic resurrected from his early years with New Grass Revival and a prototype tune for the modern string music Bush has helped pioneer through ensuing decades.

But what was so intriguing about this WoodSongs taping, where Bush was the only guest, was how natural the blend of tradition and progression sounded. Much of that came from an expert band that included the ultra tasteful banjo support of Scott Vestal and equally resourceful guitar work and harmony singing from Stephen Mougin. Ultimately, though, the catalyst for this program was Bush himself – a still-outgoing and personable presence whose love of stage performance remained obvious. Watching him deftly switch from mandolin to fiddle to slide mandolin, all while shifting styles and musical temperaments with each tune, was where the magic came in.

For the opening “Play By Your Own Rules,” his mandolin runs became a collective call to arms for his band which then neatly dispatched myriad string music colors with Vestal doing much of the heavy lifting. The aforementioned “Bowling Green” let Bush’s fiddle lead establish a more dramatically traditional air while “I Just Wanna Feel Something” offered perhaps the evening’s most dramatic departure from the string music norm – a groove constructed around very credible blues and funk.

The highlight, though, was when Bush circled back to the sound he is perhaps best known for. On the instrumental “Greenbrier” (which, like all of the previously mentioned songs save “This Heart of Mine,” hailed from Bush’s 2016 album “Storyman”), a darting, dancing mandolin lead led the band through the kind of jazz and groove-directed drive that essentially reinvented bluegrass over 35 years ago. Last night, it was also the sound of a musical titan returning home.

 

in performance: bruce hornsby and the noisemakers

bruce hornsby.

After paring his signature hit “The Way It Is” down to a solo piano reflection accented lightly by mandolin, guitar and the increasingly playful backdrop of his full Noisemakers band, Bruce Hornsby surveyed the crowd at the Lexington Opera House and offered, without apology, a summation of the program’s performance philosophy.

“This is not the kind of show you can wind your watch to.”

The insinuation was that the music Hornsby and company summoned for over 2 ¼ hours favored spontaneity over ensemble tightness. In truth, the show generously dispensed both. At times, the musical clarity and technical precision was remarkably cohesive, whether it was through Hornsby’s own virtuosic runs on piano (the stylistic breath of which suggested everyone from Charles Ives to Jelly Roll Morton) to the razor sharp fills of Noisemaker drummer Sonny Emory. But the band regularly took tremendous chances, whether it was through song selection (as in the way Hornsby not only pulled out the 1995 swing-savvy nugget “Spider Fingers” on a lark the instant an audience member called for it, but the ease with which the tune to bleed into the more countrified “The Dreaded Spoon”) or in myriad instrumental passages, particularly the ones where Hornsby’s piano runs were orchestrated by the animated, Garth Hudson-like keyboard colors of J.T. Thomas.

In short, Hornby’s concert was made up equally of finesse and surprise. Well, that, and a rather remarkable catalog of songs. The performance’s first six selections, excluding a show opening instrumental mix of lyricism and dissonance that set the mischievous tone Hornsby adopted for the entire evening, all came from different albums. Some, like “Sneaking Up on Boo Radley” (from 1998’s “Spirit Trail”) established a boppish rumble that led quite unexpectedly into a fervent cover of the late Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.” Others, like “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.” (from 2016’s Rehab Reunion”) shifted the instrumentation altogether by placing Hornsby on dulcimer and Emory on washboard for music with a homier design but a feel just as playful as the rest of the set.

There were surprises, as well, as shown to by two very different relics from the 1996 soundtrack to “Tin Cup” – the Cajun-flavored “Big Stick” (with Hornsby playing jubilantly on accordion) and the gospel-esque ballad “Nobody There But Me.”

Closing the show out was what Hornsby termed “one of the five songs” from his catalog audiences recognized, “Mandolin Rain.” But even then, Hornsby was too artistically restless to play the whole tune straight. In began with the melodic appeal and general melancholy that made the song a massive radio hit 30 years ago. But at its conclusion, he shifted the music into a minor key variation that stripped away the pop veneer to reveal the work’s inherent sadness in stark, almost ghostly detail. It was the greatest noise the Noisemakers made all night, even though it played out with an eerie, sobering hush.

 

in performance: U2/onerepublic

U2 performing Friday in Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. From left, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., Bono and Adam Clayton. Photo by Adam Creech.

LOUISVILLE – What an astonishing sight it was to witness a pack of renowned artists, performers with an already mammoth profile, dwarfed by their own work.

That occurred, in very literal fashion, last night as the members U2 stood at attention on the stage of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, their silhouetted figures mere miniatures beside the towering image representing the Irish band’s most enduring recording – a Joshua Tree.

The 11 songs making up the 1987 album “The Joshua Tree” served as a centerpiece in every sense of the term for U2’s first Kentucky concert in 16 years and its first Louisville show since 1982. Songs predating the album opened the concert, hits covering a 18 year stretch that followed the record concluded it. But at the two hour show’s thematic and musical core were the muscular, topically driven and still remarkably vital songs from “The Joshua Tree” that cemented U2’s megastardom three decades ago. Was it nostalgic? To a degree. The first three songs on “The Joshua Tree” were its biggest hits – “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You.” But by the time band got to the second half of the album (“Welcome to Side Two,” singer/frontman Bono proclaimed), the audience was faced with far less recognizable material. Within that segment, though, were some of the evening’s true gems, including a triumphant “One Tree Hill,” a brutally acidic “Exit” (the most fearsome rocker of the night) and a ghostly “Mothers of the Disappeared” performed as a prayer.

The transition of opening songs from 1983’s “War” and 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire” into the suite that made up “The Joshua Tree” was quite striking, as well. The concert began with a suitably anthemic “Sunday Bloody Sunday” played from a modest sized stage assembled in the middle of the stadium field, the kind of set up most large arena and stadium productions employ as a mid-show diversion. From there, the emancipatory “Bad” revealed the internal workings of a band accustomed to pageantry working in a refreshingly sparse, lean and elemental setting.

As U2’s most powerful affirmation “Pride (in the Name of Love)” poured fourth, the concert utilized a visual element as cinematic as the band’s music with the text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech illuminated on a video screen large enough to fill the stadium’s entire end zone. Watching that bleed into the churchy keyboard hum and chiming guitars of “Where the Streets Have No Name” was, frankly, quite chilling.

The encore section turned away from the inner snapshots of America dominating “The Joshua Tree” in favor of more universally human reflection. “Miss Sarajevo” was renamed “Miss Syria” and included the recorded vocal accompaniment of the late Luciano Pavarotti from the original recording with a new visual backdrop – a commissioned film shot at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. In the same vein, “Ultraviolet” sounded as affirmative and enchanted as ever but found a new topical life as a dedication to women activists. “Beautiful Day,” however, stayed put as a straightforward pop reflection of a simpler peace.

Now, how much as age altered U2? A little. You didn’t notice it much from guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. They continued to play with strongly efficient, heavily rhythmic and thoroughly unassuming propulsion. That was especially true of The Edge, who continued to favor patterns of shimmering, stuttering guitar runs over grandstanding solos. Even the times he dug into dirtier turf, as on “Exit” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” his playing maintained a sense of orchestral order.

You noticed the years slightly more with Bono. He didn’t reach into the vocal stratosphere or display the athletic bravado of past tours. But he was no elder slouch, either, rocking amicably with the looser tumble of “Trip Through Your Wires” while commanding U2’s overall activist involvement with the eternally hopeful “One.”

One of the show’s more curious but wonderfully complimentary nods to age came during “Red Hill Mining Town,” which boasted the band’s patient live recitation on half of the gargantuan video screen with the recorded support of a pokerfaced Salvation Army brass band on the other. The result was a performance of sagely resilience anchored by very earthy soul.

There was another grand, but totally unexpected, special effect that distinguished the concert. Once “Where the Streets Have No Name” settled into its percolating groove, accompanied by the stunning visual of a desert road shown from a behind-the-windshield perspective, a huge jet airliner soared over the stadium, seemingly within spitting distance, on its way to a landing at nearby Louisville International Airport. Guess the skies didn’t have a name last night, either.

The Colorado band OneRepublic opened the evening with an inviting 50 minute set that drew on the vocal charge of Ryan Tedder and the instrumental color of bassist/cellist Brent Kutzie for songs like “Love Runs Out,” “Stop and Stare” and “Counting Stars.” The resulting music was delivered with crisp instrumentation and ample performance vigor. It was also indistinguishable from the work of a dozen other acts that took their cue from the alt-pop aftermath of ‘90s grunge.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, final day

ron thomason of dry branch fire squad.

The Sunday morning gospel show that traditionally closes the Festival of the Bluegrass has always been a happy curiosity. As everything else in the Kentucky Horse Park that served as base camp over the previous three days is being quickly disassembled, the final music is moved under a small tent at the far end of the field, providing an intimate footnote to the rest of the event.

This morning, as has been the case over much of the past decade, the session was presided over by the Dry Branch Fire Squad in what was its 39th appearance in the Festival’s 44 year history. Little about the band has changed, other than its personnel, although vocalist, raconteur and spiritual/social commentator Ron Thomason remains at the helm with longtime banjoist/dobroist Tom Boyd still on board as first lieutenant. Fortunately, Dry Branch’s sound hasn’t shifted much, either. Though its can properly be tagged a gospel group despite frequent forays into secular folk songs, the thrust is on old-time music – specifically, a style based around pre-bluegrass country spirituals.

This morning’s set sounded rustic without seeming outdated, just as the spiritual messages were conveyed with humor and tolerance instead of the insufferable audience pandering that has become a frequent manner of practice for many gospel-minded country and bluegrass ensembles.

As such, tunes like “50 Miles of Elbow Room” and “Hide You in the Blood” reflected a antique immediacy and technical blemish or two that rightly recalled the very formative spiritual string music of the Carter Family and the Monroe Brothers, groups that recorded both songs, respectively, 80 years ago.

Another happy constant was Thomason’s Will Rogers-esque humor, a genuine anti-thesis of gospel fearmongering. Subscribing to a practice of “taking hate out of my heart,” he flashed a wary smile when referencing the current political climate. “The times,” Thomason remarked, “are trying again.”

Once the hour long set wrapped up a few minutes after the noon hour with “Going Up the Mountain,” the Festival was officially over. Back on the grounds, the main performance stage was already gone as buses, vendors and campers filtered out of the Horse Park. But it was comforting to know Thomason and Dry Branch were atop the mountain, dispensing string band solace that was undeterred by the times.

 

in performance: rhiannon giddens

rhiannon giddens.

Just prior to letting loose the a cappella intro that kicked off “Waterboy” last night at the KCD Theater in Louisville, Rhiannon Giddens stretched out her arms, folded her hands in and bowed her head. She looked like she about to inhale a hurricane. The ritual must have worked because she exhaled a gale force vocal lead full of righteous soul, sensuous groove and a tone of astonishing and commanding clarity. Just as it was when she performed it at the Lexington Opera House two years ago, Giddens made “Waterboy” her own – a neat trick considering folk empress Odetta managed the same thing with the tune nearly 50 year earlier.

Giddens did that regularly last night with a band that boasted Americana stylist Dirk Powell and her Carolina Chocolate Drops mate Hubby Jenkins, who, between them, colored in the program on guitar, fiddle, accordion, banjo, bones and more. Over the course of two immensely engaging sets, the team allowed works written or popularized by Patsy Cline, Ethel Waters, the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and more to receive a glorious makeover. Giddens possessed such a potent and wildly pure voice, that each work, regardless of its genre or background, was instilled with a wholly natural sense of vigor.

You heard it in the Staples’ revivalistic social anthem “Freedom Highway,” the epic Cline country heartbreak hit “She’s Got You” and, perhaps most tellingly, Franklin’s 1967 soul gem “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which Giddens sang with a sense of cool, serene defiance.

But this was a more sobering show than the 2016 Opera House outing, mostly because of its focus on original songs of slavery, history and visions of freedom that made up 2017’s “Freedom Highway” album. Some, like “At the Purchaser’s Option,” prompted by a Civil War-era advertisement for a female slave that included an option for the sale of her child, maintained a iron will resilience that flew in the face of the tune’s immovable oppression. Others, including “We Could Fly,” envisioned an escape to freedom that was beautifully, but sadly, presented as folklore.

Rounding out the concert was the banjo-riddled instrumental “Following the North Star,” a Powell-led medley of Cajun tunes built around “Diamanche Apres-Midi” and a show closing cover of Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head,” which embraced the evening with perhaps the most uplifting message of all: “There’s music in the air.”

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