Archive for in performance

in performance: ben vereen

ben vereen.

In referencing a career retrospective video that prefaced his “Steppin’ Out” performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, Ben Vereen seemed almost apologetic. The opening turned back the years to when the singer/dancer/actor’s younger self was deftly moving and grooving in Broadway musicals, cabaret outings and even television programs.

“All that dancing and carrying on you saw there… there will be none of that tonight,” Vereen said later in the evening. Turned out that wasn’t much of an issue.

At age 70 and with back surgery just a few months behind him, Vereen had earned the right hold off on the hoofing. But that hardly meant the veteran performer settled for a subtle evening. Backed by a jazz trio, Vereen offered songs and stories as “gratitude” for audience support during his 50-plus year career in a performance that ran tirelessly for two hours without an intermission.

This newest version of “Steppin’ Out” is essentially a large scale cabaret show with equal measures of song and talk. But there were curious differences in the program and typical cabaret sets. Opening with “Magic to Do,” a signature tune from “Pippin,” which earned Vereen the second of his two Tony Awards, the set was surprisingly loose in design. But the rest of the show wasn’t entirely the kind of overview the opening video suggested. There were obvious nods to his Broadway tenure, from a medley of tunes featured in “Hair and “Jesus Christ Superstar” to an efficiently moving “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked,” which Vereen served in a decade ago. But some of the music and a lot of the talk strayed from his own career to broader streams of inspirations. Just one quick tale from his work with Bob Fosse? That seemed a bit of a crime, but Vereen seemed to connect with the crowd through stories of personal and professional survival. Guess we can add the title of motivational speaker to his extensive list of occupations.

The show highlight was entirely unexpected – a duet of “Misty” with drummer Marc DiCianni adding lone accompaniment mostly through hand percussion. In was a moment of reflective, reserved beauty in a show that displayed its emotions as openly and brightly as a Broadway marquee.

in performance: justin hayward

justin hayward.

Pockets of patrons within the audience at the Lexington Opera House last night let out a chorus of groans when Justin Hayward remarked how his favored decade within a 50 plus year tenure as a member of the Moody Blues was the 1980s. His reasoning? Simple. “That’s the period I can remember.”

Truth to tell, the storied repertoire of his fabled band – “The Moodys,” as he tagged his mates – made up only half of this engaging 90 minute performance. As this was a performance billed under his name, Hayward, 70, balanced ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s tunes from the past with comparatively newer material cut as a solo artist. In doing so, the performance featured not a band but a pair of accompanists – guitarist Michael Dawes (who also opened the evening with a set of layered, percussive instrumentals that recalled Michael Hedges) and keyboardist/harmony singer Julie Ragins.

Such a configuration understandably gave the program a lightness that both suited Hayward’s voice – still clear in tone but a touch thinner with age – and the material itself, which leaned heavily on ballads. Among the more arresting solo entries fitting this bill was 2013’s “The Western Sky,” a song that recalled the more modestly sentimental flair of the Moody Blues’ early ‘80s music. But the show stealer was 1978’s “Forever Autumn,” a tune paired down from its orchestral blueprint version on Jeff Wayne’s “War of the Worlds” adaptation into a bittersweet folk-pop reverie.

Initially, the Moody Blues songs sounded a touch safe. “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Lovely to See You,” both dispensed with early in the show, were presented in swift, truncated versions. But in the biggest back catalog surprise of the evening, “Watching and Waiting” (the finale tune to what arguably remains the band’s finest album, 1969’s “To Our Children’s Children’s Children”), the dark melancholy of the Moodys beautifully emerged.

Hayward’s signature tune, 1967’s “Nights in White Satin,” closed the set. If there was a career hit one might suspect would be given perfunctory treatment simply by the fact the song has been performed so often, this would be it. But Hayward fully invested himself in this lean trio arrangement. With Dawes recreating Ray Thomas’ familiar flute solo on steel string guitar, Hayward’s voice sounded strong and assured, making the work sound not just valid and emotive, but unexpectedly youthful.

 

in performance: rene marie and experiment in truth

rene marie. photo by john abbott.

After an extended suite-like composition called “Lost” took her from bossa-driven bass to subtle swing to multiple codas of the blues, jazz songstress Rene Marie took a moment at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville last night to collect her thoughts and catch her breath. While regrouping, she encouraged patrons to ask questions of her band.

“Where did you all meet?” was one query.

Marie answered in a deadpan whisper, a marked contrast to the steady exuberance she displayed during the one hour, 45 minute performance. “In a bar.”

The audience, almost expectedly, laughed at the matter of fact reply. Though it turned out to be the truth, the fact such an alliance was struck up so casually seemed to fly in the face of the music that wound up on display. Indeed, among the many extraordinary aspects of the concert was the musical symmetry Marie shared with pianist John Chin, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Quentin E. Baxter, collectively known as Experiment in Truth. All were accomplished instrumentalists who drove the music’s giddiest extremes, the most buoyant of swing passages and the most intimate levels of phrasing. But it was how all four players clicked together that triggered the biggest and most natural fireworks.

You heard it in the way Chen’s bright, artful solo complimented Marie during “If You Were Mine.” It surfaced regularly in the fat, rubbery bass sound Bailey conjured at the onset of “Stronger Than You Think.” Similarly, such simpatico was apparent in the summery, percussive support Baxter designed for the Italian homage “Certaldo.”

Marie, of course, was always the ringleader. A singer of considerable range, she was not a belter, choosing instead to cater her crisp vocals to the songs’ specific emotive casts. The combustible confessions at the heart of “Go Home,” for instance, took passages of hushed vocal grace to bursts of high register desperation. But for the finale of “Joy of Jazz,” her bright and beautifully clear tone matched the trio’s South African inspired groove.

It should be noted that with the exception of a gorgeous take on Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” which was included as a eulogy for her mother-in-law who died earlier yesterday, the concert was devoted exclusively to original material from Marie’s 2016 album, “Sound of Red,” which is up for a Grammy Award next month.

To offer a repertoire of largely unfamiliar compositions was an atypically bold move for a singer devoted to straight up jazz. But the resulting performance was so technically and emotively engrossing that Marie’s songs quickly became as accessible as the obvious simpatico the singer shared with her remarkable band.

Not bad for a bunch of artists who met in a bar.

 

in performance: david parmley and cardinal tradition

david parmley performing last night at meadowgreen park music hall in clay city. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

The typically inviting environment of Meadowgreen Park Music Hall in Clay City was even more intimate than usual last night. The combination of single digit temps and a televised University of Kentucky basketball game likely kept away many of the faithful that usually devote Saturday nights to live bluegrass music at the venue. All we can say is being homebodies was their loss. Last night offered the return of David Parmley. The veteran guitarist and singer has been off the road since 2008 but returned last year with a ensemble full of sterling singing and scholarly instrumental fire called Cardinal Tradition.
The name references the great Bluegrass Cardinals, the band Parmley toured in beginning at age 17 with his father. Cardinal Tradition built upon the former group’s sterling vocal blend with Parmley’s deep tenor leads coloring the Louvin Brothers’ “Are You Missing Me” (with harmonies provided by bassist Ron Spears and mandolinist Doug Bartlett) and Lefty Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors.”
Cardinal Tradition also sported a profoundly clean and confident instrumental charge underneath all the vocal firepower. That was especially impressive given how the band’s fiddler Steve Day was sidelined only days earlier by a back injury. In his place was Steve Douglas, whose credits included tenures with such bluegrass stalwarts as Jim & Jessie and the Osborne Brothers, along with a legion of country music notables. His playing was as robust as it was effortless. But what was most astonishing was when Bartlett switched from mandolin to fiddle, providing Cardinal Tradition with a twin string sound that deftly navigated the treacherous traditional turns of “Monroe’s Hornpipe” and glided crisply through the Texas country lyricism of Bob Wills’ “Faded Love.”
Need more reasons to count Parmley and his band as the great new traditionalists of bluegrass? Then toss in Dale Perry’s deft turns on banjo during “Cripple Creek,” the patiently paced balladry of Randall Hylton’s “32 Acres” and perhaps the cheekiest version of “Long Black Veil” you’ve ever heard, with the verses staying true to song’s dark stoicism and harmonies illuminating a giddy undercurrent that enforced Cardinal Tradition’s resilient band spirit.

in performance: lexington philharmonic with hilary kole.

hilary kole.

hilary kole.

The James Bond mood at last night’s sold out “Casino Royale” performance by the Lexington Philharmonic was placed into action as soon as the lights dimmed at the Opera House. Instead of the usual stoic calls for silenced cell phones, a recorded voice identifying itself as Bond superior “M” informed patrons their “assignment” was to cease all use of “world altering or covert electronic devices.”

Of course, in the fully realized world of 007, the absence of gadgetry would mute the fun factor greatly. But as it was, the concert’s mission of paying tribute to the scores and hit theme songs from the 55 year old spy movie series offered ample intrigue. Aided by New York vocalist Hilary Cole, the program covered music from nearly the entire Bond canon, from 1963’s “From Russia with Love” to 2012’s “Skyfall,” tracing with it a considerable slab of pop history.

First things first. The orchestra sounded splendid. In what may be one of the few exclusively pops oriented concerts since conductor/music director Scott Terrell’s arrival at the Philharmonic, the orchestra revealed an impressive grasp of drama and dynamics. This was most evident in instrumental works that delved far beyond the obvious pop themes of Bond films into the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s scores of John Barry. For instance, “Ski Chase,” which was essentially a variation of the theme to 1970’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” employed a simple, repetitive melody that steadily brought out deeper shades of colors from the winds and strings as it progressed. Ditto for “Dawn Raid at Fort Knox,” a bolero-like manipulation of the theme music from the 1964 Bond epic “Goldfinger.”

Barry’s music has been so pervasive in Bond culture that it was intriguing last night to hear fragments of it pop up in later themes he didn’t compose, like 1989’s “License to Kill,” which directly lifted the horn line from the “Goldfinger” theme.

Cole proved to be a serviceable, amiable but ultimately unremarkable singing presence. She revealed lovely tonality and phrasing, especially in some of the more formulaic theme songs (“For Your Eyes Only,” “Nobody Does it Better”) but was either under amplified or, more likely, simply not in possession of the kind of vocal firepower needed to sell and bolster “Goldfinger” or the more rock and soul inclined themes to “Live and Let Die” and “Goldeneye.” Also, her between song chat, good natured as it was, was often scattered or, in some cases, inaccurate. For instance, Shirley Bassey didn’t sing two Bond themes, as Cole stated, but three – “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds are Forever” and “Moonraker.”

Still, this was a grand idea for an audience-friendly pops program from the Philharmonic. One hopes this New Year’s Eve tradition, now in its third year, will continue not only as an alternative to the orchestra’s rigorous classical repertoire, but as a reflection of its considerable stylistic breadth.

 

in performance: joe bonamassa

joe bonamassa.

joe bonamassa.

It wasn’t until the halfway point of his 2 ¼ hour guitar manifesto last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts that Joe Bonamassa paused long enough to chat with the near capacity crowd.

There was business to tend to at this juncture, the concert’s only substantial break. The guitarist thanked the audience, his crew and his band of heavy hitters (which included longtime CBS Orchestra drummer Anton Fig, Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans, heralded Nashville bassist Michael Rhodes and former Tower of Power trumpeter Lee Thornberg). But before any of that, there was some justifiable gloating to do over the announcement earlier in the day that Bonamassa’s newest recording, “Live at the Greek Theatre,” had received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album. In giving the news a homey spin, Bonamassa acknowledged he learned of the honor not through the Recording Academy that oversees the Grammys, but via a message from his mother.

Outside of that little chat, Bonamassa was all business, wielding a guitar sound born out of the blues but fortified with an electric stamina that generously and frequently borrowed from rock ‘n’ roll. The show opening “This Train” began a five song selection of original compositions off of “Blues of Desperation,” a studio album released earlier this year. While some of these works called upon colors from Bonamassa’s seven-member band (a barrelhouse piano run by Wynans here, a Southern fried horn riff from Thornberg and saxophonist Paulie Cerra there), the music was driven by heavy, humid guitar grooves and one piledriver Bonamassa guitar solo after another.

The mood didn’t noticeably lighten until the show began veering into the “Three Kings” repertoire of “Live at the Greek Theatre” – specifically, songs popularized by guitarists Freddie King, Albert King and B.B, King. There was still a weight to Bonamassa’s treatment of these tunes, including a toughened version of “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” a Crusaders-penned song B.B. King cut with a jazzy vibe in 1978. Bonamassa had none of that last night. His version let the guitars roar (both in his leads and in solid, propulsive rhythmic playing) before Thornberg and Cerra capped a pronounced party mood with brief but boisterous horn solos.

There were also a few detours into dynamics, as in the way a quartet version of Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” veered from its expected aural thunder to a guitar solo of surprising sparseness and delicacy. But the full, tireless spirit guiding this performance was best showcased by an encore finale of “Hummingbird” that served as a double tribute. The song was popularized by B.B. King (who died last year) and written by Leon Russell (who died last month). Though still abounding with gusto, the work offered a more balanced vocal and ensemble blend, allowing Bonamassa to lighten ever so lightly his voluminous guitar sound. One had to imagine that making room to pay homage to two legends simultaneously demanded that.

 

in performance: jim james

jim james.

jim james.

If Louisville audiences didn’t have the bearded, bushy haired visage of Jim James already imprinted on their collective rock ‘n’ roll psyches, they might have wondered exactly who the artist was onstage last night at the Louisville Palace.
For sure, it was James, back in his hometown for Thanksgiving. But this was very much a workingman’s holiday as the singer, guitarist and song stylist was in the midst of a tour away from his more familiar artistic enterprise, My Morning Jacket. That explains, to a degree, what might have thrown anyone not versed in the music he makes under his own name. In My Morning Jacket, James is a conjurer, a rock star of epic and very mobile design. With the five member band he assembled last night, which used the Louisville indie trio Twin Limb as its backbone (as well as the evening’s opening act), James largely unplugged from rock ‘n’ roll to become the psychedelic soul crooner that regularly sings with low, reflective fervor on his new solo album, “Eternally Even.”
James and his band played all of the record’s eight tunes (nine if you count the fuzzed out, keyboard/percussion dominate prelude to “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger”). The most immediate difference between these songs and MMJ music, outside of the new record’s very outward preference for lo-fi psychedelia and Shuggie Otis-style soul, was the heavy de-emphasis on guitar. While James tried to calm any game changing fears by prefacing the show-opening “Hide in Plain Sight” with a jagged electric guitar break, such moments were sporadic. The bulk of the evening’s guitar chores went to Twin Limb’s Kevin Ratterman, whose playing worked off more ambient waves of processed sound rather than organic leads, solos or hooks. As such, newer works like “Same Old Lie” and “True Nature” favored a denser melodic fabric than the familiar MMJ drive while slightly older works from James’ 2013 solo debut record, “Regions of Light and Sound of God” (in particular, “A New Life”) opted for a more vintage pop appeal that, at times, recalled the massive musical constructions of Phil Spector.
All of this was appealing enough even though James appeared, from a performance standpoint, a little stymied. Free of heavy guitar detail, be prowled across the stage empty handed as he sang. Sometimes, the effect allowed him to dig into the more spiritual, introspective vibe of the new material. In other instances, he just seemed uncomfortable and lost.
But the ace in the hole of this two hour show was an extended encore segment that served as a compact but riveting journey through James’ music outside of MMJ. It began with the solo acoustic “Changing World,” pulled from the 2012 album “New Multitudes” that pinned new music to unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics. That bled into perhaps the evening’s most moving and unexpected number, an a cappella turned sing-a-long version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are-A Changin’” that sounded frighteningly topical. James then regathered his band to revisit Monsters of Folk’s “Dear God,” the New Basement Tapes’ “Down on the Bottom” and two more “Regions of Light” songs, “Of the Mother Again” and “State of the Art,” with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s emancipating “I’m Set Free” spliced in between. This was where folk, soul and, yes, blazing rock ‘n’ roll crashed into each other, creating a remarkably full artistic profile where a Jacket was clearly not required.

in performance: david crosby

david crosby.

david crosby.

David Crosby seemed to take delight last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville at the notion high ranking politicos might be rankled by his 45 year old song “What Are Their Names,” a tune that lambasted corporate driven wars and the body counts they trigger.

“I’d like to think they don’t like me singing it,” he remarked before the work swelled into an incantation that had all the earmarks of a vintage protest tune. Here’s the thing, though. This actually proved to be a fish-out-of-water moment for a singer whose career began during the Vietnam era. The rest of the program centered far more on the contemplative music from Crosby’s just released “Lighthouse” album.

Aided by Snarky Puppy bandleader, bassist and guitarist Michael League, who co-wrote much of the new material and produced all of “Lighthouse,” Crosby performed seven of the record’s nine songs. Thematically, those works reached from the flight of global refugees (“Look in Their Eyes”) to more internalized meditations (“By the Light of Common Day”). Musically, their outlines were light in structure and folkish in design. But they were also poetically jazzy in execution, especially when you factored in contributions by keyboardist Michelle Willis and guitarist Becca Stevens, both accomplished songwriters whose primary function last night was to recreate the vocal stacks Crosby and League created for “Lighthouse” onstage. The resulting music was attractive enough though somewhat tentative sounding in spots (this was just the second performance of this quartet’s young existence) with little variance in tone and temperament from song to song, save for the more percussive syncopation of the New York ode “The City.”

There were also nods to the past, of course. “Laughing” and “Orleans” were resurrected from Crosby’s 1971 debut album “If I Could Only Remember My Name” with League summoning pedal steel-like ambience from electric guitar on the former. “Carry Me,” a 1975 work originally cut with Graham Nash, nicely retained its steadfast sense of hope in this drummer-less setting. Taking the most fluid advantage of the ensemble’s vocal possibilities, though, were “Déjà Vu” and “Guinnevere,” the latter of which gave Stevens and Willis the job of delivering the high harmonies supplied most often through the years by Nash.

Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” slowed with summery, pastoral grace, was saved for an encore, capping off a performance that made all the requisite stops in the past but was obviously built for maximum performance in the here and now.

 

in performance: jd mcpherson

jd mcpherson.

jd mcpherson.

It takes no small level of nerve to have one of your own compositions, much less your sophomore album, share its title with one of pop music’s most familiar vanguard songs. But when JD McPherson tore into the jubilant charge of “Let the Good Times Roll” last night at Willie’s Locally Known, you tended to place the classic jump blues tune of the same name on the back burner. McPherson used his song to ignite an unrelentingly potent 75 minute set where roots music styles and traditions were reassembled into a keenly crafted, sonically crisp and joyously executed sound of his own.

Some of the references were pretty exact, like the rockabilly strut that propelled “Crazy Horse” or the Coasters-meets-Beach Boys croon that warped around blasts of turbo charged guitar twang during “Bridgebuilder.” But there were also times when McPherson’s ultra-focused band zeroed in on second generation inspirations, such as the jittery chorus of “Firebug” that recalled some of Nick Lowe’s Rockpile-era music from the late ‘70s. Curiously, McPherson acknowledged the influence directly by following the tune with a cover of Lowe’s “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” one of the first tunes in the set to decelerate into a cooler, more contemplative groove.

Mostly, though, it was McPherson’s total reinvention of the vintage sounds that made for the performance’s most arresting moments. To that end, the show’s entire pacing came into play. This wasn’t a performance that dwelled on small talk. One song seemed to incite the next, creating a domino effect of sorts that had you absorbing its impact through clusters of tunes rather than through individual ones.

An extraordinary case in point came when the buzzsaw guitar coda from “Bridgebuilder” gave way to a bossa nova-like interlude from keyboardist Ray Jacildo. That, in turn, crashed head on into cyclical guitar riffs from McPherson and Doug Corcoran that detonated “Head Over Heels,” the least roots-savvy song of the night. The guitar maelstrom was further agitated by waves of electric fuzz bass by Jimmy Sutton, who otherwise spend the majority of the evening adding to the set’s more organic, rustic stride on acoustic upright bass.

For sheer diversion, there was the encore version of “Oil in My Lamp,” which sent this Americanized roots and rock celebration down to Jamaica for a very cool and credible serving of ska.

Expertly paced and vigorously executed with a clean but still deeply soulful sound mix to cap it all off, this one the most authoritative, efficient and seriously fun rock outings of the fall.

 

in performance: blind boys of alabama/dirty dozen brass band/roomful of blues

the blind boys of alabama.

the blind boys of alabama.

“We want you wake up,” urged Jimmy Carter, 84, last night at Heritage Hall as the Blind Boys of Alabama served up some serious 21st century gospel to cap off a three-act, roots-rich benefit concert for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass called, aptly enough, Big in the Bluegrass.

Though the venue was more than half empty, those in attendance heeded the call. At its core, the group’s sound was all Southern gospel, full of dynamics and drama, but its music regularly dipped into secular songs – albeit ones with strongly spiritual themes and inclinations. As such, the Blind Boys’ headlining set began with a run of tunes popularized by the Impressions (“People Get Ready”), Norman Greenbaum (“Spirit in the Sky”) and Blind Willie Johnson (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), all of which seemed to fit the group’s ragged but immensely devout harmonies. Similarly, the most moving song of the evening sounded heavily traditional, but wasn’t. It was a patient, engrossing reading of the Chi-Lites’ “There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table”) that gave the Southern slant of the Blind Boys’ gospel vision a very worldly glow.

Opening the evening were two miniature sets – about 30 minutes each – by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Roomful of Blues.

Making its second Lexington appearance in less than three months, the Dirty Dozen was all about loose, party-favored fun. It performance was a mix of the band’s New Orleans street parade heritage and James Brown level funk, a blend mirrored in a closing medley of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Dirty Old Man.” While the thrust of the performance was the group’s front line horn trio, it was baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis who proved to be the MVP, summoning wildly scorched solos but also colors that fueled the music’s more punctuated grooves and, during times when sousaphone wasn’t enough, bass patterns.

The opening performance by Roomful of Blues was, in comparison, scholarly. It too was fronted by horns, but the band’s blend of jump blues, swing and soul was clean and exact, yet still fiercely soulful. “It All Went Down the Drain” was full of playful, brassy sass, “I Would be a Sinner” offered a 12 bar blues variation that veered joyously into swing and “Two for the Price of Ten” triggered industrious sparring between trumpeter Doug Woolverton and pianist Rusty Scott. It all made for a convincing enough appetizer to suggest a headlining show by this veteran Rhode Island ensemble needs to head our way soon.

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