Archive for in performance

in performance: sturgill simpson

Sturgill Simpson performing last night at the Opera House. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

Sturgill Simpson performing last night at the Opera House. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

“I know this is an opera house, but you don’t have to be so formal,” remarked Sturgill Simpson early into a sold out two evening run last night at, fittingly, the Opera House. Truth to tell, the invitation was probably a necessity. The capacity crowd acted liked it didn’t really know what to expect when the program kicked off and it was certainly left scratching its head when the show was over.

Musically, the Jackson-born, Versailles-reared Simpson’s game plan revolved around traditional country. That was most apparent in his singing which, despite all his frequent comments to the contrary, seemed fixated on the deep outlaw drawl of Waylon Jennings. That proved a potent reference last night as Simpson regularly chose instances to pump up the country tenor of his singing to amply dramatize a verse or chorus. The drawback? Such heavy vocal punctuation, which didn’t seem apparent during the few times he spoke to the audience, tended to steamroll over the narratives of his songs. In Simpson’s case, such a drawback weighed in more when one factored in the depth and detail of his songwriting.

Backing him was a seven member unit that included a three member New Orleans horn section. Here is where things got really interesting. As rooted as Simpson seemed to be to country tradition, he was also was industrious enough to shift the music to areas of Memphis and Muscle Shoals style soul in a way similar to what fellow Kentuckian Dwight Yoakam did during the mid ‘90s.

But as flexible as the music surrounding Sturgill’s sense of country soul was, his repertoire turned out to be surprisingly regimented. He opened with five selections from his 2013 solo debut album High Top Mountain that relished in vintage country settings typlified by the show opening shuffle and dash within Sitting Here Without You and the more tempered ramble of Time After All.

After a cover of the country staple You Don’t Miss Your Water was performed as a slice of Muscle Shoals-inclined R&B and served as an interlude, Simpson dug in deep with complete performances of his 2014 sophomore album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and the new A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Both turned loose Estonian guitarist/pedal steel ace Laur Joamets, who piloted Metamodern’s trippier accents (specifically the wiry, outer space squeals that wormed in an out of It Ain’t All Flowers) as well as much of the more nautically themed father-son fare from A Sailor’s Guide that tossed the music much closer to soulsville (in particular, the groove saturated Brace for Impact and the torchier Oh Sarah).

Everything coalesced – or collided, depending on your tolerance for the more rough-hued tone Simpson adopted in performance as opposed on record – on the album’s vitriolic finale Call to Arms, where vocals, guitar and brass meshed into a brassy rampage of rock and funk.

Then came the biggest surprise. Nothing – no encore, no real spoken adieu, just an instantaneous lights-up and a quick stage exit. A few patrons seemed miffed at Simpson bucking such a tired and expected performance rite. But given the scope, drive and sheer stylistic might of this 110 minute country and soul blitz, no one in the house had any justifiable reason to feel jilted.

Sturgill Simpson performs again at 8:30 tonight at the Opera House. The performance is sold out.

in performance: the james hunter six/liz vice

james hunter. photo by mark shaw.

james hunter. photo by mark shaw.

In the closing moments of tonight’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, British pop-soul ambassador James Hunter offered a few vaudevillian turns on guitar. During an encore version of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Love, he played his instrument upward like a double bass, then let it slip from his hands as if he were going to bounce the guitar off the stage floor like a basketball. In general, Hunter acted like an entertainer determined not to leave without a little levity.

The truly funny thing, though, was he didn’t need any of that schtick. The rest of Hunter’s WoodSongs set – specifically, four economical tunes from his fine new Hold On! album – offered a fascinating retro blend of British soul that borrowed generously from pop, rhumba, bossa nova and lots of vintage rhythm and blues. And that was just what you heard within the musical fabric of the singer’s expert sextet, imaginatively dubbed The James Hunter Six. The real magic was Hunter’s singing.

For Something’s Calling, an effortless, good natured soul croon heavily reminiscent of Sam Cooke was employed. Such a reference illuminated the neo-lounge style sway of A Truer Heart as well as the more exacting soul sound – one where the baritone and tenor sax duo of Leo Badau and Damian Hand played with almost metronomic precision and restraint – of (Baby) Hold On and If That Don’t Tell You. There were occasional shrieks of vocal falsetto to fuel the fuss, but the joy boiled down to the Six’s natural but animated ensemble charge and the scholarly soul voice that fronted it.

Portland, Oregon gospel-soul stylist Liz Vice, the program’s other featured artist, seemed almost purposely timid in comparison. Backed only by a drummer and keyboardist, Vice revealed an appealingly melodic vocal tone in songs like Enclosed By You and a meditative cover of Pure Religion (both from her 2015 album There’s a Light). There wasn’t much dimension to her singing, though. A curious encore recasting of the Nirvana staple Smells Like Teen Spirit as a torchy jazz meditation only added to the stoic feel of her set, especially when compared to the combo party gusto Hunter was letting rip alongside her.

in performance: alejandro escovedo

alejandro escovedo. photo by todd wolfson.

alejandro escovedo. photo by todd wolfson.

“Your silence is most revealing,” remarked Alejandro Escovedo early into a sublime trio performance last night at Willie’s Locally Known. The comment didn’t reflect any disinterest on the part of the sold out crowd. In fact, pockets of patrons were annoyingly chatty throughout the show. It was rather an observation made after the singer described how a population explosion within the Texas metropolis of Austin has forced numerous artists, including himself, to relocate – a topic fleshed out during the show’s second song, Bottom of the World. In true Escovedo fashion, the tune was a stylistic mesh-up, opening with elegiac grace before reverb soaked vocals and a honky tonk keyboard roll underscored the tune’s inherent sense of upheaval.

So what if the song’s geographic/demographic saga of Lone Star displacement didn’t fully register with the Lexington audience. The music most assuredly did with Escovedo, cellist Brian Standefer and keyboardist/harmony singer Sean Giddings forging works of fragile, folkish intimacy and scorched electric immediacy into keenly orchestrated works of considerable emotive depth and breadth.

Escovedo said at the onset of the 90 minute set that the performance was part of a tour designed to promote the vinyl reissues of his first two albums, 1992’s Gravity and 1994’s Thirteen Years. In reality, he played only one song off those records, a gorgeous show opening reading of Gravity’s Five Hearts Breaking that capitalized on the quiet but immensely complimentary support of Standefer and Giddings. After that, the program shot ahead for a trio of tunes from 2012’s Big Station with the sublime 2001 ballad Rosalie serving an elegiac, chamber-friendly interlude.

While Escovedo has completed his next album with an eye for a September release, last night’s performance shied away from new material to focus on, in a description he attributed to his son, “old music for old people.” But there was considerable life in such elder works, from a wonderfully ragged electric medley of Chelsea Hotel ’78 and Everybody Loves Me that revealed Escovedo’s still-abundant punk perferences to the comparative acoustic reflection of San Antonio Rose and a show closing cover of the David Bowie-penned Mott the Hoople hit All the Young Dudes, the latter being part eulogy, part requiem and part sing-a-long affirmation.

in performance: pearl jam

eddie vedder performing last night with pearl jam. herald-leader staff photo by pablo alcala.

eddie vedder performing last night at rupp arena with pearl jam. herald-leader staff photo by pablo alcala.

A sign of the times was posted throughout Rupp Arena last night, a curious testament to the staying power of Pearl Jam. It read thus: “Due to the nature of moshing and body surfing, we ask that you refrain from such activities due to the injuries that could occur.”

No concerns there. Together for 25 years and with frontman Eddie Vedder now an agile 51, there was little chance the heralded Seattle band was going to get too physical in facing a massive Rupp crowd of 18,000. What one witnessed instead was a six-man unit (four founding members, drummer Matt Cameron and keyboardist Boom Gaspar) that played a no frills program full of exact and tireless intensity. For nearly three hours, Vedder and company paced themselves with tunes of punkish immediacy and, at times, folkish intimacy.

The band bridged a championed past with a perhaps less chronicled present at the show’s onset. First up was a pair of tunes from Pearl Jam’s most recent album, 2013’s Lightning Bolt. The record’s show-opening title song might have suggested a moderation of the band’s coarser drive from years gone by. But that was before Pearl Jam’s ace in the hole, guitarist Mike McCready, let loose with a series of siren like squalls. Such detonations would become familiar artillery throughout the evening. All of that, however, proved a set-up for Mind Your Manners, a sonic rampage of rifling guitar runs that fell between punk and metal coupled with lyrics delivered by Vedder with the rapidity and drive of a jackhammer.

Then the past came flooding in with gems from the band’s first two albums – Ten’s Why Go and Vs.Animal. Instead of the bountiful angst that seemed to grip the songs over two decades ago, last night’s performances were muscular and precise without losing any of the original versions’ abundant vitality. The contact the songs made with the crowd, as well as the audience energy then hurled back to the stage, was instantaneous.

The artist-audience connection, in fact, was considerable throughout the performance. Sometimes it was obvious, as in Corduroy, where Vedder and the crowd engaged in a séance-like call and response wail that led into the song’s volatile refrain (“Everything has chains, absolutely nothing’s changed”). Ditto for the back-and-forth chant that distinguished Daughter. From there, the interaction took on less visible forms, like an encore cover of The Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away that the audience sang along with as fervently as it did on most of the warhorse originals, and a blistering, eight minute set closing update of Rearviewmirror. During the latter, the steady roar of the audience was as integral to the unrelenting groove as McCready’s ragged guitar ambience, Vedder’s seething vocals and the drum eruption from Cameron that cut loose just as the song seemed like it was finally going to settle.

There were scores of other delights, to boot. A cover of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb (dedicated to Louisville author Mark Wilkerson and his book on paralyzed Iraq War veteran Tomas Young) bled into an equally ferocious Do the Evolution. The one-two punch served as the highlight of two extended encore segments that accounted for nearly half of the show’s length while Betterman, played near the show’s conclusion (with a nod to the ‘80s English Beat hit Save It For Later), served as an affirmation of all the unsettled celebration that came before it. A lament of sorts to begin with, the song ran from bittersweet eulogizing to a finale chorus of pure rock ‘n’ roll jubilation. Such was the coarse Pearl Jam rode steadily last night – a journey of still-vital rock urgency, sans the moshing

in performance: james taylor

james taylor performing last night at rupp arena. photo by matt goins.

james taylor performing last night at rupp arena. photo by matt goins.

It wasn’t the most flamboyant of entrances for a veteran pop star, even one as seemingly retiring as James Taylor. Prior to beginning his first ever Rupp Arena concert, the songsmith took off his cap and bowed to the crowd of 8,300. He looked less like a celebrity and more like a cabbie come to collect a fare.

Such an unassuming profile, however, more than befitted a concert that relished in simple, folk-pop comfort. For over two hours, Taylor played decades-old favorites, almost apologetically delved into five fine works from his 2015 album Before This World and, in some the show’s finest moments, uncorked a few generous surprises.

One of the latter opened the performance – a relative obscurity from 1975’s Gorilla album called Wandering. It was a beaut of tune to begin with, too – one with such melodic delicacy and wistful vocal deposition that you tended to overlook the verse about how the protagonist’s thief father was executed by hanging. Such was the genial nature of the song’s lyrical construction and Taylor’s lullaby-like delivery.

Sometimes the arrangements altered several of the more familiar soundscapes, like the way all-star drummer Steve Gadd erupted with a few rolls of thunder as the otherwise plaintive Country Road drew to a close or the way Mexico turned into a travelogue featuring a mariachi turn by trumpeter Walt Fowler and saxophonist Lou Marini before percussionist Louis Conte veered the resulting jam straight to his native Cuba.

But these were simple adjustments in frame settings for tunes Taylor’s fans know every syllable and note of. Luckily, these are also works that Taylor, given the hundreds and even thousands of times he has performed them, still sings with fresh and almost impish vigor. His voice, still clear in tone and intent, has also lost none of its unhurried charm.

That leaves the songs themselves, the majority of which are quite extraordinary. Sure, Your Smiling Face, which almost approximated rock ‘n’ roll, and the blues-jazz party piece Steamroller didn’t push the envelope much. But what did was taking arguably Taylor’s most unabashedly comforting tune, Shower the People, and using a chorus snippet of Purple Rain as its intro and the titanic soul voice of Arnold McCuller as the captain of its coda. It was part eulogy, part affirmation and part testimony.

Speaking of eulogies, Taylor’s best known work, Fire and Rain, still packed the emotional impact of a tidal wave. What was surprising last night wasn’t how quietly commanding the song remains, but how a story of such overpowering sadness could still sound so unobtrusive and darkly intimate.

The Before This World music fit in nicely with the classics, as well, especially Jolly Springtime, which was prefaced by the album’s brief instrumental title tune. Both combined to form a saga of new beginnings, but the story was told with the same quiet contentment that dressed Taylor’s oldest material, like the homesick 1968 reverie Carolina on My Mind, performed earlier in the evening.

It should be noted that Taylor hasn’t been on a Lexington stage since the early ‘70s. As such, veteran fans that have witnessed his frequent performances over the years in neighboring cities might have viewed last night’s show as something of a rerun. But for everyone else wondering why in the world it took half a lifetime for him to play Rupp, patience was rewarded. With cap literally in hand, Taylor returned like an old friend, full of stories that still stir and soothe the soul.

in performance: drivin’ n’ cryin’

drivin' n' cryin': warner hodges, tim nielsen, kevn kinney, dave v. johnson.

drivin’ n’ cryin’: warner hodges, tim nielsen, kevn kinney, dave v. Johnson.

“I kissed a lot of rings,” sang Kevn Kinney with polite resignation over a Southern soaked guitar melody so sweetly dense you could practically ring the humidity out of it. “Do I get one, too?”

Judging by the two hours the Georgia songsmith and the rest of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ threw down last night at the new Willie’s Locally Known location on Southland Drive, the ring is all his. Over 30 years after the quartet roared out of Atlanta, leaning more to alternative and punk aesthetics than to the pervading Southern rock climate of the time, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ sounded as commanding and fun as ever.

While the sometimes sleepy, sometimes shrill voiced Kinney, bassist Tim Nielsen and drummer Dave V. Johnson (all longstanding DNC members) still play with an obvious vitality, the catalyst for the music was the band’s special guest. Commandeering the lion’s share of the guitar duties last night was Warner Hodges, longtime lieutenant in Jason and the Scorchers, the band that essentially wrote the book on cowpunk before DNC even formed.

The magic Hodges brought the show was considerable. His solos were all full of rock star confidence, yet the broad smiles he flashed after them revealed an artist still with a very honest love of performing. Frankly, though, it was equally fun watching Hodges play rhythm under Kinney’s breaks, adding a chunky precision through the killer riffs on warhorse favorites like Fly Me Courageous, Build a Fire and Scarred But Smarter. But when Kinney switched to acoustic guitar during the second half of the performance, the dynamics within Hodges’ playing bloomed. What resulted was a sometimes boozy rhythmic strut that would do Keith Richards proud and rich, fluid guitar lines that brought Southern stylists like Dickey Betts to mind.

While hardly an outward rock ‘n’ roll showman, Kinney obviously reveled in the band chemistry. While the DNC lineup on hand last night often played with thunderous precision, there were also tunes loose enough for Kinney to honor his influences. The wistful Let’s Go Dancing toughed up enough for the singer to veer off into a snippet of The Beatles’ I’ve Got a Feeling while With the People oozed in and out of a verse from R.E.M.’s King of Birds.

The whole party ended with Kinney in the middle of the club floor singing Blues on Top of Blues, happily involved with a delightfully ragged guitar solo of his own. Playing from a very different front line, there seemed an almost childlike solace about him. In his own way, one supposes, Kinney got his ring.

in performance: gregg allman

gregg allman.

gregg allman.

The distance between a storied past and a credible, vital present has always made for hard traveling in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. The bigger and more removed the history, the tougher it becomes to have a modern day audience – even if it draws heavily from the generation that championed the artist in question in the first place – to accept any serious revision.

That was the quandary Gregg Allman was in tonight during a sold out performance at the Opera House. With the famed Allman Brothers Band (the groundbreaking Southern blues, boogie and jam brigade he helped front on and off for 45 years) now permanently defunct, the singer has turned to a revue-style ensemble to both honor his past and adjust to a more streamlined here and now. It was a daring mission that yielded only a marginal victory.

First, there was the most inspiring part of the show. At 68, with an epic bout of rock star excess behind him, Allman was in remarkably strong voice. He coated vintage tunes like the ABB’s Black Hearted Woman and his ‘80s solo hit I’m No Angel with an effortlessly bluesy drawl seemingly unblemished by age while serving ballads like Sweet Melissa with a quieter, soulful glow.

Musically, the performance took some getting use to. The ABB classics that opened and closed the show – Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ and Whipping Post – sounded curiously sanitized. It wasn’t just the more moderate pace the songs were taken at compared to their recorded versions from 1970 and 1969, respectively, or the way the tunes were tempered by a horn section. The inherent urgency within both songs, and in much of the vintage material, was just gone. In its place was a sound altogether sunnier, safer and emptier.

Unfortunately, the tunes played more faithfully to their album blueprints revealed greater creative deficiencies within the band. Dreams strutted along with the same easygoing, jazz-like groove that has long propelled the song over the decades. But as it evolved into a lengthy jam, no one seemed able to breathe any serious definition or distinction into their solos. This was especially true of guitarist Scott Sharrard, who spent much of the evening caught between imitations of Duane Allman (especially in his slide playing) and Dickey Betts, the ABB’s founding guitarists.

Everyone had chops to spare, especially the only holdover from the ABB other than brother Gregg himself, percussionist Marc Quinones. But outside of a lively take of the instrumental Hot ‘Lanta, the only tune where Allman’s organ playing didn’t fade completely into the woodwork, the ensemble found little vigor in the older material and zero invention in any of the newer arrangements. When Allman left the stage midway through the set to let the band jam on its own, the performance collapsed completely into an array of faceless riffs, solos and funk exchanges.

It should be noted, the capacity crowd enjoyed the music thoroughly, seemingly spellbound by the show’s undeniable nostalgic sway. That’s fine, as far as it went. It just seemed a shame that a still capable artist like Allman, an obviously proficient band and a truly remarkable back catalogue couldn’t have found a more knowing, intuitive or original way to make the resulting music sparkle more genuinely for a present day crowd so eager to embrace it.

in performance: tim o’brien/ron block

ron block.

ron block.

The prime appeal within a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour is revealed when the program’s invited guests collaborate. It doesn’t happen often and when it does, the alliances tend to form quickly and briefly during encore segments.

Last night, though, bluegrass stalwarts Tim O’Brien and Ron Block, each promoting new indie solo albums, sat in with each other for a trio of tunes that capitalized on string music’s longstanding love of camaraderie. All three songs came during banjoist/guitarist Block’s segments where O’Brien, a versed multi-instrumentalist, played fiddle. The catalyst for such bonding was Block’s new all-instrumental recording Hogan’s House of Music, a work with roots in pre-bluegrass country instrumentation although it was by no means defined by that.

With guitarist Clay Hess rounding the tunes the two headliners played together as well as those executed by Block on his own, the instrumentation touched on traditional bluegrass but regularly veered into more progressive jazz-like phrasing, as in The Spotted Pony. There, O’Brien filled the fiddle seat that Block’s musical boss, Alison Krauss, occupied on the album. Sporting splendid tone, the trio took the tune at a pace far more relaxed than its more new grass-leaning predecessor Smartville, which Block and Hess played in a duo setting. A lively take of Brushy Fork at John’s Creek (done as a trio piece) and a beautifully lyrical take on Stephen Foster’s Gentle Annie (done as a guitar duet) cemented the graceful and very complete string music vocabulary of Block’s fine new record.

Only the trio encore of the Jimmy Martin staple You Don’t Know My Mind Today stepped out of the serene instrumental atmosphere for a round of traditional bluegrass with Hess on vocals.

O’Brien devoted all five of the songs from his sets, performed with partner Jan Fabricius as vocal accompanist, to music from his first solo album in four years, Pompadour. The resulting performances were streamlined to a stylistic degree when compared to the record’s considerable instrumental reach. But there was a strong emotive shift between the song’s storylines.

I Gotta Move contemplated the aftermath of divorce, Whatever Happened to Me proved a self-effacing view of aging, Pompadour’s title track reflected pure narrative whimsy and the encore of Go Down to the River revisited one of the many Mermaid Avenue works that Billy Bragg and Wilco fashioned around the words of Woody Guthrie.

But the highlight was The Water is Wise, a gorgeous tale of renewal co-penned by Sarah Jarosz that sounded like a traditional folk meditation given the rustic slant of O’Brien’s singing and the devilish, though unassuming richness of his guitar work.

in performance: mountain stage

robbie fulks. photo by andy goodwin.

robbie fulks. photo by andy Goodwin.

After nearly 33 years of broadcast history, the Mountain came to Lexington last night. The longrunning public radio live music radio show Mountain Stage, packed its bags, jumped over the state line from its West Virginia home and set up shop at the Singletary Center for the Arts with a five act bill that played out like a mini festival.

A typical Mountain Stage broadcast runs two hours. Last night’s presentation ran just shy of three with minimal downtime between acts and no intermission. Since host Larry Groce served strictly as an emcee, eschewing interview segments, the program focused almost exclusively on performances with each artist playing five tunes. Sarah Jarosz, the show’s de facto headliner, was allowed six.

Excluding between-set songs by Mountain Stage band singer Julie Adams and pianist Bob Thompson, here was what transpired, in order of appearance.

+ Robbie Fulks: After giving quick acknowledgements his numerous Lexington appearances at Lynagh’s Music Club and The Dame over the past 20 years, the Chicago song stylist juggled tales of despair, humor and delirious points in between, highlighted by the whimsical yet heartwarming Aunt Peg’s New Old Man. Backed by an authoritative band that leaned to traditional country, Fulks topped off his set with vocalwork that has never sounded clearer or more commanding.

+ Over the Rhine: Rounded out to a trio with the addition of guitarist Brad Meinerding, the Ohio husband-and-wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist offered a typically moving set of moody folk atmospherics. The songs were fine, especially wary narratives like Suitcase, I’d Want You and a delicate makeover of The Band’s It Makes No Difference. But the distinction this time was the group’s spot-on three-part harmonies. While Meinerding was an engaging instrumentalist, he also stands as one of the finer vocal foils to join the Over the Rhine ranks in many years.

+ Steve Forbert: After nearly four decades of making records, Forbert remains the disheveled but definitive folkie. Performing solo, he sang twisted reveries like Compromsied, Drink Red Wine and especially Complications like he was arguing with a friend and welcoming all ensuing conflicts. The resulting music, unrefined as it purposely was, still sounded soulful and solemn.

+ The Black Lillies: The only disappointment of the bunch. The Knoxville band had ample instrumental prowess, especially in the guitar department. But mainstay singers Cruz Contreras and Trisha Gene Brady, together the generally unremarkable Americana/pop tradeoffs within songs like Hard to Please and Desire, never fully caught fire.

+ Sarah Jarosz: The highlight of the night, Jarosz devoted her entire six-song solo set to new music from her forthcoming Undercurrents album (due out in June). After reflecting on her afternoon brunch at The Local Taco (“any day that includes tacos is a good day”), she settled into the often unsettled waters of her new songs. Within works like Early Morning Light and House of Mercy were largely emancipating sagas sung with an unsentimental exactness. Songs like the more vulnerable Everything You Hide and the more distantly endearing Jacqueline weren’t as stormy but reflected just as much emotive grace and detail. A simple, direct and often spellbinding set.

In what has long been a tradition for Mountain Stage, the program concluded with Groce leading everyone through an ensemble finale number – in this case, a cover of Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine. Owing more to the Kentucky Headhunters hit version from the late ‘80s rather than the Bill Monroe original, it was impressive more for Groce’s traffic cop conduction of the nearly 20 players assembled onstage than as actual cohesive performance.

in performance: old crow medicine show/parker millsap

old crow medicine show. from left: morgan jahnig, critter fuqua, ketch secor,  chance mccoy, cory younts and kevin hayes.

old crow medicine show. from left: morgan jahnig, critter fuqua, ketch secor, chance mccoy, cory younts and kevin hayes.

What a difference a decade-plus makes.

When Old Crow Medicine Show last played Lexington, the band’s breakthrough was still fresh, as was its mix of bawdy string band traditionalism (one that veered more to speakeasy blues than bluegrass) and punkish performance spirit

Last night, at the onset of a two night engagement at the Singletary Center for the Arts, an older Old Crow opened with a vice-ridden escapade, Tell It To Me, cut from the same album (2004’s O.C.M.S.) the band was promoting when it played downtown at The Dame a full 12 years ago. This time, though, the song opened up. It was more tempered, more orchestrated (fleshed out by keyboards, drums and pedal steel guitar – all non-traditional colors but nonetheless welcome reflections of the band’s growth). While a touch of the wildness from the Dame date was absent, the tune’s spirit was never compromised. What followed was a 1 ¾ hour set that greatly expanded on its renegade roots sound without loosing site of it.

Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua – playing fiddle and banjo, respectively, although both juggled numerous instruments all evening – remained the focal and vocal focus of the group. Secor was the sharp witted frontman, Fuqua the more sparse spoken foil. But the ensemble sound was quickly revealed during Alabama High Test, with members rushing to various platforms on the stage to surround and egg on a particular player. Sometimes what resulted were atomic bluegrass bits like 8 Dogs 8 Banjos and a warp speed barn dance medley of Ol’ Molly Hare, Raise a Ruckus and a spry yarn from the band’s 2015 album Remedy with a title that, sadly, isn’t fit for family print.

There were also more country and Americana flavored detours peppered throughout the set that might have seemed timid to those used to Old Crow’s dance hall beginnings. But songs like Caroline, Sweet Amarillo and especially the Doc Watson tribute Doc’s Days came off as products of a band searching to expand. The resulting sounds often approached the daring early ‘70s music of Poco and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But when drummer Cory Younts took a break for some feverish clogging, followed briskly by dizzying runs on mandolin, or when Secor let loose on fiddle, the spirit of its self-proclaimed “hillbilly music” heritage returned to its former, stampeding glory.

The biggest surprises came when Secor, Fuqua, Younts and guitarist Chance McCoy gathered around a single microphone for Stealin’ and the sublime unity anthem I Hear Them All. Also of note was a profoundly faithful reading of Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic with show opener Parker Millsap leading the vocal parade.

Millsap’s 45 minute set was great fun – a mix of rustic acoustic blues and country blues performed with a trio. But it was his singing – a potent wail that often recalled a young Robert Plant – that gave tunes like Hands Up, The Very Last Day (the title tune to his just released third album) and Pining, along with covers of Hesitation Blues and You Gotta Move – a sound that was suitably rootsy in design and potently jagged and boisterous in delivery.

Old Crow Medicine Show and Parker Millsap perform again tonight at the Singletary Center for the Arts. The performance is sold out.

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