Archive for in performance

in performance: easel


michael zerang.

The charm as well as the challenge of the new free jazz trio Easel seems to stem from its ability to negotiate sound – not necessarily music, but a vocabulary of sound – through a series of disconnecting improvisations.

When Easel succeeded last night during its 70 minute Outside the Spotlight performance at the Rasdall Gallery of the University of Kentucky Student Center, it presented aural vignettes of startling mood and color. When it didn’t, it sounded like a band in limbo tossing out found sounds in hopes of a connection that often sat just beyond its grasp.

Sitting centerstage last night, literally and figuratively, was drummer Michael Zerang. His roots with OTS stem back to the 2002 concert by the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet that essentially launched the series, although he has been only an occasional returnee since then.

Last night, Zerang’s playing was something of a tease as he coerced long elastic sounds from the snare with his hands and later with a variety mallets and sticks. During the first of three untitled improvisations that made up the program, his percussive experiments matched the similarly exploratory sounds of Swiss reed player Christoph Erb (on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) and frequent OTS guest Fred Lonberg-Holm (on amplified cello and guitar).

Their playing – at least, initially, purposely strayed from the tonal possibilities of their instruments. In its darker and more disparate moments, the music sounded like a tune-up – a scattering of ideas that would only briefly merge. One very intriguing point came when Zerang and Lonberg-Holm created a plaintive dialogue that sounded like the distant cries of birds. In other words, out of seeming disarray and fracture came wholly unexpected flashes of harmony.

The sounds flowed from there. During the second improv, Erb placed a bottle of water into the bell of his saxophone and shook the instrument as if it were a percussive device while Zerang used two small cables to create a vibrating hum on his drumhead – an odd acoustic sound that mimicked an electric one.

The third improv, though disappointingly short, was the pay off with the three players discarding the sound safaris in favor a suggestion of melody that brought their respective instrumentation together. The result served as an almost pastoral coda to a program that seemed to luxuriate in its own restlessness.

in performance: the kentucky headhunters

ketucky headhunters 2

the kentucky headhunters.

“Don’t you lie to me, you damn hillbillies,” said Richard Young of the Kentucky HeadHunters when asking for a show of hands this afternoon in the parking lot of CD Central of those who had ever enjoyed wine of, shall we say, modest and economical vintage. The song that triggered the inquiry was a tasty bit of blues-basted fun called Boone’s Farm Boogie and the occasion was a brief afternoon set at CD Central that served as both a celebration of Record Store Day and a warm-up to a full length headlining show at the Frankfort Convention Center.

Of course, Young’s outburst was purposely playful and the term “hillbilly,” in this instance, was one of mutual endearment. As the pride of Metcalfe County, the HeadHunters remain unspoiled ambassadors of rural country gusto, the kind of party music that owes more to vintage blues, boogie and juke joint R&B than anything remotely Nashvillle oriented. Similarly, Young’s vocal growl during Boone’s Farm Boogie recalled blues groove giant Slim Harpo more any vintage country stylist.

It was a short but merry set, one that didn’t strip the band’s sound down to the sort of unplugged setting one might expect at a record store engagement. The set opening Dixie Lullaby sported a lean but loose electric sound that fell between T. Rex-style crunch and groove and Wet Willie-inspired Southern soul while the punctuated Bo Diddley rhythms during My Daddy Was a Milkman were so prevalent that the HeadHunters tossed in the celebratory chorus from Hey! Bo Diddley as a bonus.

Still boasting four of the five members responsible for the HeadHunters’ Grammy winning debut album Pickin’ on Nashville, the band continually enhanced its well spring of roots music sources. At the musical helm were drummer Fred Young, who shifted from efficient blues-soul fills to grooves that regularly suggested swing, and guitarist Greg Martin, whose solo during the Freddie King blues classic Have You Ever Loved a Woman sailed from subtle, elegant lyricism into a rootsy tirade. Countering all that was the singing of bassist Doug Phelps, who ignited the blues backdrops on the HeadHunters’ signature hit Dumas Walker with a vocal lead as cordial and bright as the brilliant spring sky the band played under.

in performance: bobby mcferrin

bobby mcferrin

bobby mcferrin.

As his performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville headed into the home stretch, Bobby McFerrin took the roots driven mix of gospel, blues and jazz references that formed the basis of the program and lit a fuse to it.

The tune was 25:15, a blues incantation adapted out of the Book of Psalms that stands as a modest Americana mood piece on McFerrin’s recent spirityouall album. Last night, though, the song was a monster. Possessing an almost respiratory flexibility, it locked the vocalist and an immensely versed band – one that included veteran jazz keyboard ace Gil Goldstein and pop/folk multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield – into tumultuous unison. The resulting torrent rose and deflated over and over under a single, repeated lyric until McFerrin’s four-octave voice became a stratospheric wail. It was what you could call serious – if not downright frightening – testimony.

The tune’s intensity was a shock only because the rest of the performance was so unassuming with McFerrin proving a cordial host that summoned decidedly lighter spirits during a reggae-fied revision of Swing Low, the non-spirityouall inclusion of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home, a sing-a-long version of Whole World that allowed four very capable audience patrons to sing the chorus on their own and a slightly darker original, Woe, that spoke to most any time of social hardship.

As usual, McFerrin was something of an alchemist onstage. His voice was regularly used as all-purpose instrumental tool throughout the program. It veered into rounds of traditional scat singing and expanded into layered sounds that mimicked bass and percussion patterns, the latter having been a trait of his live shows for decades.

Not surprisingly, such a sense of discovery possessed a hefty dose of playfulness, whether McFerrin was greeting an invited audience member by impersonating John Wayne or asking a stage hand to bring him a sweater to shake off an onstage chill by singing the request.

But on 25:15, the gospel took over and the ensemble’s vocal and instrumental symmetry skyrocketed. It was a reminder that while sometimes the spirit might move you, there are also instances when it may give you a good hearty shove instead.

in performance: booker t. jones


booker t. jones

Far be it for anyone to suggest that a pop-soul pioneer such as Booker T. Jones should limit the stylistic scope of his music. Having become so identifiable with a distinctive instrument like the Hammond B3 organ over the past five decades has to have made him eager to take a stab at a new sound. Trouble is, stretching out isn’t really Jones’ forte. His performance last night at the new Mercury Ballroom in Louisville underscored that fact.

When the two hour-plus performance addressed the earliest and most recent chapters of his career – specifically, his gloriously cool instrumental soul music with Booker T. and the MGs in the ‘60s and a trio of fine comeback albums that began with 2009’s Potato Hole – the evening was a pure delight.

Looking far younger than his age (69), Jones remains the epitome of taste behind the keys of the B3. Much of that comes from creating clean, soulful grooves out of relatively simple melodies. His classic Green Onions, which was dispensed with six songs into the show, stood as an obvious example. But so did Jones’ 1968 arrangement of Dominic Frontiere’s theme to the Spaghetti Western Hang ‘Em High, which made use of a single melody repeated with a different B3 texture and shading but without any alteration of tempo.

Along the same lines was the show opening Harlem House (from 2011’s The Road to Memphis, the second installment in the comeback trilogy), which let the melody expand and swell as the tune proceeded with Jones’ neatly orchestrated solo. Ditto for a luscious cover of The Rascals’ Groovin’ (fashioned after the MGs’ 1967 version) that basked in silky, lyrical warmth.

But as the performance led to a brief and unanticipated intermission, Jones left the B3 to play guitar and add vocals to an array of cover tunes that became steadily more formulaic. Jones is a capable but unremarkable rhythm guitarist and singer, judging by last night’s performance. Some of the covers he interpreted related directly to his career, like the Albert King blues favorite Born Under a Bad Sign, which Jones co-wrote and recorded. Others didn’t at all, like a sluggish, static take on Purple Rain. The covers parade was especially ill-timed, too. With Thunder Over Louisville starting just a few blocks away, the audience began to thin. By the time Jones returned to the B3, as much as one-third of the crowd had bailed on the show.

What a shame. Jones has fashioned a masterful, profoundly recognizable sound over the years and a fine recording catalogue to go with it. While he has every right artistically to stray from those sounds and songs, most of his detours last night were lessons in selling himself short.

In performance: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band


Bruce Springsteen. Photo from Shore Media

“Are you ready to go home?”

That was the question posed by Bruce Springsteen, 64 and still full of rock ’n’ roll fervor, as his performance Wednesday night at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati hit the three-hour mark. The Boss certainly had every right to think everyone was. He and his battalion-sized E Street Band (18 members, but without the services of longtime guitarist Steve Van Zandt) had already hammered out a show full of the stamina and urgency that would have landed lesser artists in the ER. But there were still two songs to go before Springsteen called it a night. Both were covers bearing the emotive and stylistic duality that also distinguished the original material that drove this exhilarating but exhaustive performance.

The first was the Isley Brothers soul staple Shout, which the E Streeters injected with the same summery joy that pervaded Springsteen’s Waiting on a Sunny Day and Hungry Heart earlier in the evening. Then the band was dismissed leaving The Boss onstage with a pump organ to close with a mantra-like version of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream, a song Springsteen has made his own over the last decade. It revealed a meditative ambience that fueled the darker, more topical immediacy of his the original American Skin (41 Shots) during the show’s second hour.

One of the many fascinations of a Springsteen concert remains the ability of these extremes to sit so naturally next to each other. For example, Roy Bittan’s clear but quietly dramatic piano lines propelled the dark parable Lost in the Flood (a gem from Springsteen’s debut 1973 album Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and one of the night’s biggest surprises) but didn’t miss a beat as The Boss followed with the romantic epic Because the Night. Ditto for how the heartland anthem The Promised Land set up a New Orleans street parade version of Pay Me My Money Down that sent nearly all of the E Street Band’s auxiliary members (including a vocal trio and quintet of horns) to the front of the stage.

Of course, none of this properly sums up Springsteen’s still-outrageous command as a physical performer (shown by his crowd surfing journey from half-court on the arena floor early in the evening), raconteur/street preacher (an odd but hysterical story about automatic toilets that prefaced a seriously gospel-esque Spirit in the Night) and sobering protest singer (an electrified The Ghost of Tom Joad with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, a recent E Street draftee).

So, no. Even at the end of this 3¼-hour celebration – which opened with the brass and percussion rumble of High Hopes and included no intermission or encores – no one was ready to go home. Mind you, everyone – audience and artist – appeared wiped out as the clock hit 11. But that’s what great rock ’n’ roll does. It continues to nourish your consciousness long after your body tells you to split.

in performance: dublin guitar quartet

dublin guitar quartet 2

dublin guitar quartet:pat brunnock, michael o’toole, tomas o’durcain,brian bolger.

The breadth of the repertoire running through last night’s performance by the Dublin Guitar Quartet at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville suggested something of a global sprint. The concert touched upon composers from Estonia, Hungary, Cuba and the United States. Curiously, the purely Irish entries by guitarist David Flynn (a DGQ alum) and the instrumental rock troupe The Redneck Manifesto proved to be the least indigenous sounding items in the program.

What this technically dazzling but sometimes stylistically stymied performance wound up emphasizing wasn’t so much a set of geographical references, though. Instead, it better approximated a study in how contemporary classical structures – especially minimalist and post-minimalist designs that explored interlocking, cyclical melodies and the often astonishing harmonies they created – transferred to an acoustic guitar group.

Two fine examples were a pair of abridged Philip Glass string quartets – two movements from Company and another three from the sublime (and, given its absence of mention in the program notes, unplanned) Mishima. Both wonderfully captured the haunting lyrical splendor Glass weaves out of sparse, repetitive melodic variations. The quartet discovered the works’ subtle drama, too – right down to the light counterpoint that seemed to make the music float in mid air.

The Redneck Manifesto’s brief Soundscapes Over Landscapes was less intricate but just as musically involving. The quartet let the tune unravel in sheets of melodic fancy before acoustic power chords and the closing percussive slaps by three of the group’s four players on the bases of their instruments summoned the piece’s rockish but curiously non Irish sounding foundation.

From another world entirely came Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, a three part composition for 12 guitars performed last on solo electric guitar by the DGQ’s Pat Brunnock and a well orchestrated tape of accompanists. As a technical exercise, it was astonishing with Brunnock working in and around a symphony of clipped, stuttering melodies. So deft was his execution that during the first half of the 15 minute piece distinguishing the live music from the recorded accompaniment was almost impossible. That created some icy stagnancy until the criss-crossing melodies finally grew together, as they did in the more organically presented Glass pieces, allowing harmony to win out.

in performance: ballister


ballister: paal nilssen-love, fred lonberg-holm and dave rempis. photo by lasse marhaug.

It began in a state of willful chaos and ended with a beat of golden silence. Everything in between played out last night like a heated family conversation by the free jazz trio Ballister at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacob Niles Center for Traditional Music.

A turbulent ebb and flow fortified the 75 minute set’s three untitled improvisations created by saxophonist Dave Rempis, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The first started like a clasp of thunder with the three stepping briskly into a fractured, high volume brawl that placed Rempis’ scorched alto lead at its center. Built around all that was the deconstructed chamber backdrop Lonberg-Holm designed by tapping out notes on the neck of the cello with his left hand while his right simultaneously added more sustained rage with a bow. Subsequent solos would formulate a hint of a sustained melody before Lonberg-Holm let the music mutate with assorted pedal effects.

One had to be a traffic cop to monitor all the changes that followed – like Rempis’ switch to baritone sax and an ensuing, elemental, groove executed on brushes by Nilssen-Love that slowly built itself into a furious boil. Whispery sax/drums dialogue, a percussion solo on cymbals played by mallets, two more sax changes (back to alto and then on to tenor) and a full-tilt trio rampage brought the 35 minute improv to a conclusion that was as unsettled as the opening.

The second improv downshifted the set’s drive, but only slightly. Its introduction returned Nilssen-Love to mallet percussion that faded to a quiet rumble even as bowed cello lines percolated under his playing. Rempis’ baritone sax squall later led into another trio skirmish before a clean swipe on the cello strings by Lonberg-Holm brought the improv to a finish that seemed to surprise and delight his bandmates.

An overall quieter chat dominated the final improv of the evening. A rustle of percussion devices that included a half-empty water bottle and an alto sax solo that beautifully opened into a fully functioning wail highlighted the music’s unusually harmonious flow.  Then everything evaporated into a momentary coda of silence that was as breathtaking as all of the fascinating interplay that preceded it.

in performance: scott miller

scott miller

scott miller.

You had to feel for Scott Miller. His fine acoustic performance last night at Willie’s Locally Known was shifted to an early evening start time to accommodate the late tipoff of the Kentucky/ Louisville NCAA game. But that meant the longtime songsmith, who spent all of his professional career in Knoxville before relocating to his Virginia family farm three years ago, had be onstage as his beloved Tennessee Vols were going down for an Elite Eight placement to Michigan. Miller took it all with a wry wit that was often turned inward, that was until he eulogized his team’s impending loss with a solemn finale of Tennessee Waltz. What a hapless, heartfelt and strangely complimentary pairing it was with Miller earnestly singing the classic county lyrics about losing a sweetheart as his team bowed out for the season.

The rest of the performance was no less absorbing. Miller remains, some 18 years after his Lexington debut with the Knoxville quartet The V-Roys a masterful storyteller – one that weaves words with Dylan-esque rhythm and specificity as his narratives become darkly personal. An exquisite example surfaced last night with How Am I Ever Going to Be Me?, a tune that questioned identity, faith and salvation.

Equally sobering and Dylan-drenched was Lo Siento Spanishburg West Virginia, a tale of rural decay that provided a modest whimsical spin on folk tradition (“old times there are Oxycontin”).

Both are relatively recent tunes for Miller that favored folkish outlines over the rockish template used for many of his V-Roys and early solo career songs. It was a setting nicely enhanced during the 90 minute set by bassist/accompanist Bryn Davies, last seen locally as a band member to Peter Rowan and Tony Rice. Whether supplementing the subtle groove to Sin in Indiana, adding a lovely bowed bass accent to Is There Room on the Cross for Me? or providing playful, percussive slaps to Freedom’s a Stranger, Davies proved a resourceful and often elegant orchestrator for Miller’s music.

As has been the case with several crowded weekend shows at Willie’s, there was an abundance of idle audience chatter that signaled a disconnect (or perhaps disrespect) among some patrons. But when the performance hushed for the Civil War remembrance Highland County Boy at encore time, the only crowd noise was the unprompted shuffling of ensemble feet that simulated the march of war-beaten soldiers as well as the tune’s percussive heartbeat.

critic’s pick 330: glenn kotche, ‘adventureland’

glenn kotcheLeave it to a precocious percussive talent like Glenn Kotche to deconstruct and retool two suites into a new hour-long recording titled Adventureland – an album that is, in essence, another suite.

Even by the usual daring but playful standards of the longtime Wilco drummer and University of Kentucky graduate, Adventureland is just that. Though it celebrates Kotche’s compositions for ensembles as much (if not more) than his actual playing, it still beautifully represents one of contemporary music’s most distinctive percussion voices.

Here are the primary inhabitants of Adventureland. First up is a seven movement suite for string quartet and drumkit, Anomaly, which was commissioned by (and presented here as a collaboration with) the famed Kronos Quartet. Then we add The Haunted, a five-movement piece for two pianos and percussionists.

But here is where the scrambling begins. The movements to Anomaly are presented sequentially. The running order of The Haunted is completely reworked (the movements are presented in a sequence of 5-4-1-3-2). Then everything is meshed together with two additional works – one featuring Boston’s Gamelan Galak Tika, the other teaming Kronos with Chicago’s eighth blackbird.

Perhaps such cut-and-paste assembly of the pieces was intended by Kotche as an observational detour so that the music could be appreciated on its own terms rather than as an assemblage of works featuring a variety of musical participants.

But then how would we explain the album-opening Anomaly, Mvt. 1, which takes Kronos out of the equation so electronics can voice the string and percussion parts? Then there is Dance, the finale movement of The Haunted (which, again, is served as the introductory section on Adventureland), which boasts sharp, clipped dialogue between pianists Lisa Kaplan and Yvonne Lam and the mallet-savvy percussion of Matthew Duvall and Doug Perkins. Kotche is listed as playing only “additional percussion,” yet The Haunted’s immensely animated tone is a signature mark of his compositions.

A similar giddiness pervades Gamelan’s gongs and Balinese percussion on the minimalistic The Traveling Turtle. But it’s on Anomaly, Mvt. 4 that Kotche’s instrumental voice is as prominent as his compositional profile. As the Kronos strings build from a playful pizzicato intro into more strident chamber passages, Kotche’s drumming enters and soon works into a rockish lather that wonderfully matches the drama of the strings before reaching a coda of meditative cool.

Don’t let the stylistic variety of the pieces and their shuffled sequencing become a bother. In Adventureland, it’s best to discard the road maps and enjoy the ride.

in performance: pablo ziegler quartet with stefon harris

pablo ziegler 1

pablo ziegler.

Nearly every piece performed last night by the Pablo Ziegler Quartet at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville played out like a suite. A central theme or mood would introduce most tunes. But from then on, the music was like a car chase, bounding around numerous shifts in tempo and temperament – some of which were quite abrupt – before arriving home again. It was then that you appreciated how exhilarating the journey was.

Ziegler is widely seen today as the torchbearer of “nuevo tango,” the jazz-like, small combo variation of tango music formulated decades ago by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Ziegler served as Piazzolla’s pianist for over decade. Such insight manifested last night in a program split evenly between original compositions and works by Piazzolla.

The sharp, clipped but beautifully exact melodies of Piazzolla were echoed in the spare, mischievous playing of Hector del Curto on bandoneon, the Argentine version of the button accordion that was also the composer’s signature instrument. But that was only part of the fun. With the help of American vibraphonist Stefon Harris, a guest for roughly 2/3 of the concert, Ziegler used the bandoneon colors as guideposts for tunes that were in constant emotive motion.

During the Ziegler composition Bajo Caro, the ensemble mood became almost elegiac before left hand piano rolls opened out into a gleeful lyrical stride. The music became more fragmented on Piazzolla’s Chin Chin through band skirmishes that included a brief four mallet run on the vibes from Harris that affirmed the tune’s inherent cool along with sleek, punctuated rhythm by Ziegler, bassist Pedro Giraudo and guitarist Claudio Ragazzi.

At the core of these exchanges was a sense of playfulness that triggered the giddy melodic jabs of La Rayuela. Such instances recalled the animated piano/vibes duets of Chick Corea and Gary Burton as much the great Piazzolla.

There were other stylistic joyrides, as well, including the classically inclined Fuga Y Misterio and the darker, more spacious Blues Porteno. But it was Buenos Aires Report that best displayed the template for all of the genre-jumping – a boldly colored, effortlessly executed piano blast that balanced Piazzolla’s compositional elegance and Ziegler’s boundless musical ingenuity.

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