Archive for in performance

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

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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.

in performance: the black keys/cage the elephant

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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

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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.

in performance: the fairfield four

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the fairfield four: bobbye sherrell, larrice byrd sr., joe thompson and levert allison. photo by lee olsen.

“I believe we’re in the right place,” remarked tenor singer Bobbye Sherrell at the midway point of the Fairfield Four’s regal program of a capella gospel last night at Willie’s Locally Known.

On a number of fronts, Sherrell’s estimation of the evening hit the bullseye. For starters, the singing and sermonizing that surrounded this largely traditional set of hymns and spirituals made for inviting sanctuary from the storms that tore through Lexington throughout the evening. Such a setting wasn’t lost on baritone singer Larrice Byrd, Sr., who couldn’t help but reference the downpour outside before launching into the joyous ensemble testimony of Noah.

There was also the matter of the setting. The vocal quartet’s last Lexington shows were decade-old appearances at Rupp Arena and the Kentucky Theatre. The intimacy afforded this performance, especially tenor singer Levert Allison’s churchy audience interaction during Four and Twenty Elders and the booming bass singing of Joe Thompson at the onset of That’s Enough seemed to delight the audience, which awarded the 90 minute set with lasting, attentive quiet. The Fairfield singers seemed equally pleased with the venue, too – even to the point of sending an “amen” to the kitchen staff at Willie’s.

Then again, you almost sensed that any place was the right place for the Fairfield Four. The group’s collective performance enthusiasm seemed as jubilant and sincere as its singing. From the show-opening harmonies of Today, all four vocalists exuded a level of honest, unrelenting cheer. Sure, obvious devotion to the spiritual cast of the music fueled much of that. But the group didn’t overplay that aspect of their repertoire. The singers weren’t out to convert anybody. But when they delivered an exuberant Oh, Rock My Soul, you couldn’t help but be moved by the conviction and celebration of their singing, even if you weren’t sitting in the same parish, so to speak, when it came to what the songs said.

The performance was also as rootsy as it was righteous. You could regularly detect source material within the vocals on songs like the title tune from Fairfield’s 1992 album Standing in the Safety Zone that suggested such primal pop genres as doo-wop.

Mostly though, the show boiled down to a musical communion between four friends. The legacy of their group may be massive (dating back to 1921, in fact). But last night, they summoned spirits through the most lasting, natural and convincing musical device of all – the human voice.

in performance: town mountain

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town mountain: nick disebastian, phil barker, bobby britt, robert greer and jesse langlais.

You could sense from its last two sellout performances at Natasha’s that North Carolina bluegrass sensation Town Mountain had not only outgrown the size of Lexington venue it could fill, but the type of performance setting as well.

Sporting a heavily traditional sound with more-than-ample instrumental chops and a level of honky tonk attitude that favors rustic immediacy over studio-produced slickness, Town Mountain moved over to Cosmic Charlie’s last night in attempt to shake up its performance environment. On that level, the adjustment seemed to work. With ample libations flowing through the audience, as well as onstage, the band shifted successfully from the listening room atmosphere of previous local shows to a kind of dance hall vigor that matched the very obvious drive of its music.

Guitarist/vocalist Robert Greer remained an engaging frontman for Town Mountain’s performance gusto with a jubilant variation on a traditional mountain tenor that fueled such barn dance party pieces as Whiskey with Tears, Up the Ladder and especially Tick on a Dog. The latter was one of several new tunes Town Mountain plans to record during the winter.

But the MVP in terms of bringing scholarly instrumentation to such festive string music was fiddler Bobby Britt. From the fervency and subtle Celtic flair of Four Miles to a series of hearty and seemingly instinctual solos, one of which sent the show past the midnight hour, there was hardly a tune uncorked by Town Mountain that Britt didn’t light a fuse to with his playing.

The midnight element sets up the only potential snag in Town Mountain’s full transition to a club act. While Cosmic Charlie’s proved the proper home for the younger, more vocal dancing enthusiasts that may have found venues like Natasha’s too quiet and confining, last night’s starting time of 11:10 p.m. undoubtedly put the squeeze on older patrons that are still very much part of the band’s fanbase. While the audience size didn’t thin dramatically as night turned into morning, it did lose a few pockets of fans – older ones, especially – early in the set.

That’s the only real problem in having a diverse audience. Cater favorably to one faction and members of the other might chose to bolt from the party altogether.

in performance: audio one

audio one pt 2

audio one, part two: jen paulson, josh berman, jeb bishop, nick macri and dave rempis.

It’s a broad comparison, but taking in everything that transpired during last night’s Outside the Spotlight performance by Audio One at Embrace Church was kind of akin to watching a soccer game. There was so much going between the ensemble’s 10 members – namely, vigorous soloing, exchanges and union lines between different factions within the group along with the agility to shift between composed sections, their cues and free improvising. All of it was continually in motion, too. While everything led to a satisfying conclusion in each of the six lengthy tunes Audio One performed during the two hour program, the real thrill was experiencing the bounty of ideas that formulated, the ultimate risks taken as each tune progressed and how such musical fearlessness showcased the abilities of the band’s remarkable arsenal of players.

Count vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz among the craftiest of the bunch. On the show opening Tape, one of four new pieces by saxophonist/clarinetist/group leader Ken Vandermark that made their performance debut last night, Adasiewicz applied a level of physicality to his playing that produced huge and often harsh sounds. You almost thought he was hitting his keys with hammers instead of mallets. Later, at the beginning of the evening’s second set, he contributed to an otherworldly chamber-like sound with violist Jen Paulson and bassist Nick Macri. All three artists, including Adasiewicz, played with a bow during the exchange.

Then there was the lyrical might triggered during the Julius Hemphill medley of The Hard Blues and Skin 1 that allowed drummer Tim Daisy to accelerate the pace and groove with help from a wildly scorched alto sax break from Nick Mazzarella. That, in turn, set up the very human (as in gargling) sound of Jeb Bishop’s muted trombone which foreshadowed a brief, freely improvised group implosion.

But the kicker was the show-closing cover of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Theme De Yoyo, a tune anchored by a killer bass line that Vandermark and all of Audio One’s six member front line of brass and reed players appropriated and blew up into a monstrous groove. But the tune was also deliciously schizophrenic, shifting back and forth from earthy funk to complete melodic anarchy with eerie, exact and fun precision.

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