Archive for in performance

in performance: reeves gabrels and his imaginary friends

reeves gabrels and his imaginary friends: kevin hornback, reeves gabrels and jeff brown. marc pisapia is subbing for brown on the trio's current tour.

reeves gabrels and his imaginary friends: kevin hornback, reeves gabrels and jeff brown. marc pisapia is subbing for brown on the trio’s current tour.

Few champion guitarslingers place their tricks, technique and pure performance savvy on such intimate display as Reeves Gabrels did last night at the Green Lantern. The ‘90s axeman for David Bowie and current guitar chieftain for The Cure, Gabrels let a handful of die hard fans literally stand by his side during a loose but musically ferocious set that blasted away for nearly two hours.

Bolstered by a power trio called the Imaginary Friends that included Louisville-bred five string bassist Kevin Hornback and drummer/harmony vocalist Marc Pisapia, Gabrels employed very elemental designs – namely, basic rock, pop and blues melodies – to ignite solos and jams of far greater complexity.

Show opening run-throughs of Continue and Wish You Were Her set the show’s pace with tight trio interplay, a guitar sound full of bright and exact tone and a performance attitude that, while extremely focused, seemed open and playful.

It was during skirmishes like Zero Effect, one of six tunes performed off the new Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary Friends album, that the guitarist seriously opened up. Though the core of the tune was built around an elemental riff of pure pop intention (the Aerosmith hit Sweet Emotion came to mind), the music bloomed into an extended jam of lighter and neatly layered psychedelia.

Ditto for the show closing Yesterday’s Gone (from Gabrels’ 1999 solo album Ulysses) that worked off a bouncing groove to a create a richly textured ambience that seemed to disengage and float above the tune’s rhythmic structure as the music progressed.

The setlist served as an impressive retrospective of sorts, too. It reached back to the punkish brawl of Bus Stop, a work co-penned with Bowie for the 1989 self-titled debut record by Tin Machine, but also wound its way through the rugged power trio exchanges of Problem (from Gabrels’ first solo record, 1995’s The Sacred Squall of Now) and a radical transformation of the country chestnut Bright Lights Big City (rewired for the Imaginary Friends record) that mutated into a serving of turbulent, purposeful blues.

Such were the delights that surfaced as a guitar titan let fans get up close and personal.

in performance: eagles

Don Henley (left) and Glenn Frey performing last night with the Eagles at Rupp Arena.

Don Henley (left) and Glenn Frey performing last night with the Eagles at Rupp Arena.

Early into last night’s three hour Eagles marathon at Rupp Arena, Glenn Frey seemed pleased with both the veteran California band’s return to its country-folk roots as well as the attentive enthusiasm the crowd of 17,000 greeted the initial tunes with.

“Not bad for a bunch of 40 year olds,” he said.

The joke, of course, was on no one. The Eagles are emeritus members of a vibrant West Coast scene from the ‘70s. Such an alliance automatically added a few more decades onto the ages of its members as well as a good number of the fans that showed up last night.

But if you consider the remark was instead directed at the songs themselves, then it was spot on. With only one exception, the entire program, billed majestically as History of the Eagles, focused on material from the six studio albums the band issued between 1972 and 1979. The lone outsider was the Timothy B. Schmit-sung Love Will Keep Us Alive from the 1994 reunion record Hell Freezes Over. With apparently little interest in bringing its history lesson to the comparative present, the 2007 double album Long Road Out of Eden was ignored completely.

Presented in more or less chronological order, the 27 or so songs making up the concert were split into two hour-plus sets. The first was devoted to its flagship country-folk sound while the second was predominantly rock ‘n’ roll produced when the Eagles fully embraced their ‘70s rock star celebrity status.

The first set was understandably more reserved, but it also offered more surprises as it didn’t rely strictly on hits. Band founders Frey and Don Henley entered from opposite sides of the stage to begin the evening, appropriately, with Saturday Night, a forgotten piece of harmony rich pop-folk from the Eagles’ 1973 album Desperado. Then came the evening’s most welcome surprise – the addition of original Eagle Bernie Leadon, who offered a nice homage to the great Dillard & Clark duo by singing Train Left Here This Morning, a lovely country meditation refashioned for the Eagles’ self-titled debut album from 1972.

Leadon remained onstage for the rest of the first set, which carried the band through tunes from 1975’s One of the These Nights (his last album with the Eagles). Following Henley’s keen reading of the Western outlaw saga Doolin Dalton, the show essentially became a hit parade, although the teaming of Leadon with his replacement, Joe Walsh, and the expansive guitar support of Steuart Smith nicely bolstered Already Gone and the set closing Take It to the Limit. The later placed Frey on vocals in place of the absent Randy Meisner, who reportedly declined an invitation to also rejoin the band for this tour due to health reasons (he left the Eagles in 1977 and was replaced by Schmit).

The second set was perhaps less enchanting mostly because the two albums it drew from, Hotel California and The Long Run, largely jettisoned the country-rock sensibilities of the earlier recordings. But this was also the part of the program that unleashed Walsh, the only band member last night that steered outside of the Eagles catalog to revisit his own hits. Playfulness abounded during his 1970 James Gang gem Funk #49, as well as 1978’s Life’s Been Good, which ruled radio during the three year gap between Hotel California and The Long Run.

Walsh also goosed some of the more stoic Eagles originals during the second set, particularly The Long Run’s Those Shoes, with the same talk box guitar effects that have distinguished his own work.

Saved for encores, Hotel California’s title tune and Take It Easy were performed, as was the entire concert, was a relaxed and ageless efficiency. Yes, the Eagle elders held up well during their first Rupp showing in two decades. But in the end, it was the 40 year olds that truly kept the crowd happy and involved.

 

in performance: forecastle (day 2)

jim james of my morning jacket performing last night at forecastle in louisville. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

jim james of my morning jacket performing last night at forecastle in louisville. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

“Roll the dice, set sail the ship,” sang a jubilant Jim James last night at the onset of My Morning Jacket’s homecoming/headlining set at Forecastle in Louisville. It was an apt greeting for such a nautically themed festival. But James was all about celebration as the tune, Believe (Nobody Knows), kicked off the last of several impressive performances by Kentucky rooted artists that highlighted the festival’s second day.

My Morning Jacket was easily the most prominent homegrown act of the bill and rewarded a crowd that had baked in 90-plus degree heat all afternoon with a set rich in summery sentiment, from the chiming guitars that propelled Mahgeetah to the mix of psychedelia and reggae-fied groove underscoring Off the Record to the almost militaristic strut of Compound Fracture. The latter, along with Believe, was pulled from the newest MMJ album, The Waterfall.

sturgill simpson.

sturgill simpson.

Logistics were in the audience’s favor last night. Jackson native and one time Lexingtonian Sturgill Simpson wound up a far reaching country-rooted set on a second stage just minutes before MMJ closed out the day on the mainstage.

Simpson’s performance came with plenty of roots savvy ingenuity. The set opening Sitting Here Without You summoned the spirit of Waylon Jennings, both in the rumbling tenor of Simpson’s vocals and in the tune’s sense of rambling fortitude. A few stabs at what the singer termed as “bluegrass” were really jet-speed honky tonk romps (including the sly Railroad of Sin), while later tunes (Some Days and the Sunday Valley favorite Sometimes Wine) strayed from concise country parameters into generous electric jams.

john medeski performing with the word.

john medeski performing with the word.

Perhaps the most under the radar Kentucky entry of the day was John Medeski. Though raised in Florida, he remains a Louisville native. Currently on a workman’s holiday from the avant-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, the keyboardist yesterday was co-piloting the sacred steel/jam band hybrid music of The Word.

It was often an uphill climb for Medeski’s organ and electric piano work to be heard over the electric wailing of guitarist Luther Dickinson and pedal steel powerhouse Robert Randolph. But despite a lopsided mix, the resulting blend of gospel, funk, soul and even country sounded suitably festive. Especially arresting was Medeski’s Rhodes-style keyboard colors during Glory Glory, one of only two vocal tunes (sung ably by bassist Chris Chew) in an otherwise instrumental performance.

chris stapleton

chris stapleton

The other Kentucky returnee was Lexington-born, Paintsville-raised Chris Stapleton, whose late afternoon country set was even more roots hearty than Sturgill’s performance.

Stapleton pens tunes of hard country sentiment with regularly subtle melodies. The title tune to his recent debut solo album Traveller – along with the record’s highlight tune, the proudly assertive Fire Away – were fine examples that distinguished his performance. The songs’ quiet intensity made them curious picks for a large outdoor festival. But Stapleton enforced them, along with his popular cover of Tennessee Whiskey and the more robustly rockish original Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey (cut when Stapleton was with his former band, The Steeldrivers, which perform at Forecastle today) with singing that owed as much to vintage soul as hard-bitten country.

There was also plenty of fine Forecastle music yesterday from bands without Bluegrass ties. They included

+ a tireless set by the husband and wife duo known as Shovels & Rope that offered blasts of big beat pop on such guitar/drum dominant tunes as Bridge on Fire and Hail Hail.

+ a lyrical though occasionally static performance by the Philadelphia band The War on Drugs that was a throwback of sorts to the metronomic cool of ‘80s alternative rock.

+ a punkish, politically themed outing from Conor Oberst’s recently reformed Omaha collective Desaparecidos weaved around brutish tunes like The Underground Man and Te Amo Camilo Vallejo.

+ a sampling of multi-generational soul from the New Orleans-based troupe The Revivalists that combined brassy bits of vintage R&B with song structures owing greatly to hip hop.

in performance: neil young + promise of the real

neil young.

neil young.

“We’re glad Mother Nature is cooperating with us for the time being,” remarked Neil Young last night at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center. Indeed, the evening did a 360 from the storms that ripped through Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley earlier in the day. But while the skies cleared for a spectacular summer evening, the ever-wily Young was brewing up some turmoil of his own.

Backed by the youthful Promise of the Real quintet, the same band that fortifies Young’s wild new protest album The Monsanto Years, the double Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee offered a two hour-plus retrospective that moved through the years as readily as it did a series of diverse musical temperaments that reached several epic, electric crescendos with his new performance compatriots.

The program nodded generously to solo tunes, folk ensemble-infused works and torrential rock ‘n’ roll jams. That’s a lot of musical traffic to cover, but Young traveled through it all, at age 69, as tirelessly as the Promise of the Real members, all of which were easily half his age, if not younger.

As opening solo set dispensed with the hits – specifically, After the Gold Rush, Heart of Gold and Old Man – in quick but soulful succession. But the reading of Mother Earth (Natural Anthem) that followed, with Young seated at a portable pipe organ, was a foreshadowing of the environmental and agrochemical strife that sat at the heart of the Monsanto Years music.

Curiously, Young saved six of the seven songs performed from the album for the second half of the show, preferring to preface the new material with midtempo Americana staples like Out on the Weekend and Unknown Legend that would have fit neatly into a Farm Aid set.

Then came the evening’s most potent musical cloudburst, a still-venomous Ohio that Young dedicated to the four students killed four hours away and 45 years ago at Kent State University. “They were,” Young said with pokerfaced candor of the protesting students, “a threat.”

The songs from The Monsanto Years were left to fend for themselves without further commentary, from the whistling reverie of A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop to the corporate greed grind of Big Box (“too big to fail, too rich for jail”).

Bigger noise, however, surrounded three extended romps recovered from three different decades – 1969’s Down By the River, 1972’s Words (Between the Lines of Age) and 1990’s Love and Only Love. Here, Young cut loose with long, jagged guitar runs that delighted the multi-generational audience as well as the Promise of the New disciples onstage with him. Watching co-guitarist Lukas Nelson beam an electric grin as Young traded Black and Decker solos with him during the closing sparks of Down By The River was the Kodak moment of the night.

Perhaps fittingly, as the rumbles of Love and Only Love faded away, the distant thunder of a second band of storms began to brew. Mother Nature, it seemed, didn’t cherish the thought of being upstaged.

in performance: stephen stills

stephen stills.

stephen stills.

“I was pretty worried at the beginning,” remarked a patron leaving the Brown Theatre last night in Louisville after a two-set, two-hour performance by veteran folk-rocker and guitarist Stephen Stills. Truth to tell, a lot of people were.

At the onset of a clumsy, oddly electric recasting of the 1969 Crosby, Stills & Nash classic Helplessly Hoping, which began the concert, Stills summoned little more than a tentative, distant and largely unintelligible warble for a singing voice. That set a grim tone for the evening, one that threatened to erase the renewed stage vigor that distinguished his 2013 performances in the region with the blues-rock troupe The Rides. But by the show’s second tune, the solo hit Change Partners, Stills was himself again. He was no pop-rock Caruso mind you, but the husky vocal resonance and the warm, acoustic cast were remarkably faithful to the song’s 1971 studio version.

Such is the curiosity of Stephen Stills. As the concert progressed, one got the sense that the years (the artist is now 70) have had less of an impact on his singing than his own performance temperament. In other words, Stills seemed to sing as well as he cared to.

For the rest of the first set, which consisted primarily of solo acoustic tunes, his voice was clear enough to convey a convincingly folkish mood, from a medley of Fred Neil songs (Everybody’s Talkin’ and The Dolphins) to Stills’ own dark double shot of Daylight Again and Find the Cost of Freedom to the evening’s biggest surprise, the country-ish title tune to his largely forgotten 1978 album, Thoroughfare Gap.

The feel extended into another unexpected entry, a sleek band reading of Graham Nash’s I Used to Be a King and a blast of pure nostalgia by way of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. During the latter, Stills essentially counted on the crowd to supply harmonies (they did) while he capably hit the tune’s trademark high notes.

The second set let Stills loose on guitar, which remains his forte. In the heavier moments, like a set-closing take on Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World, his vocals were buried. In other instances, especially three works by The Rides (including Virtual World, a preview of the band’s upcoming second album), the singing sounded assured and perfectly in line with the sense of performance rejuvenation that made the band’s performances such a delight two years ago.

You practically forgot the blemishes when Stills cranked things up on guitar. Well, almost. There was bass heavy distortion through much of the second set. But Stills was undeterred, instigating a sly groove and tasteful jam in the middle of his 1968 Buffalo Springfield gem Bluebird. There, he reveled in the delights of his own performance world. Despite the potholes that peppered the rest of the show, the mood was infectious.

in performance: new riders of the purple sage/charlie parr

new riders of the purple sage: ron penque, johnny markowski, michael falzarano, buddy cage and david nelson.

new riders of the purple sage: ron penque, johnny markowski, michael falzarano, buddy cage and david nelson.

The standard practice of many live performances, especially the largely promotional sets presented at the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, usually dictates that featured artists devote the limited time they are given onstage to new music. Then, if the setting permits any kind of an encore, a familiar hit can be offered as an audience thank you for being an attentive test subject.

The veteran psychedelic neo-country troupe New Riders of the Purple Sage reversed that philosophy completely for the WoodSongs taping earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre. The band has two semi-new recordings to push, but devoted its entire four song allotment during the program to its most established fare – three tunes from its 1971 self-titled debut album (made when the band was essentially an offshoot of the Grateful Dead) and the Peter Rowan penned Panama Red, first cut by NRPS in 1973. Its lone new entry, curiously enough, was served as an encore.

Today’s NRPS sports two key members – longtime guitarist David Nelson and pedal steel ace Buddy Cage, who took over duties from a moonlighting Jerry Garcia in 1972. Not surprisingly, the thrust of the debut album trilogy – You Don’t Know Me, Whatcha Gonna Do and the playful drug smuggling chestnut Henry – revolved around both players.

Cage’s soloing set the tone of the performance, affirming the kind of hippie/honky tonk hybrid that still defines NRPS. But Nelson, a quietly assertive instrumentalist with a schooled sound owing equally to twang and folk-rock tradition, drove much of the set, especially the brief jam that ignited the title tune from the band’s 2009 album Where I Come From (which he co-wrote with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter) that closed out the evening.

The surprise of the program, though, was the co-billed Minnesota guitarist Charlie Parr. Sporting a roots driven sound that incorporated folk blues, country blues, a touch of rag and more, Parr offered an eclectic sampler of vigorous tunes on 12 string and National steel guitars.

Using predominantly a two-finger picking style, Parr’s playing sounded rustic but never antique or affected. In fact, tunes like True Friends and especially Over the Red Cedar, both of which employed foot stomps for a rhythm section, flew by with an ease, authority and swiftness that was refreshingly pure.

in performance: john prine/amanda shires with jason isbell

john prine.

john prine.

The defining moment of last night’s sold out John Prine performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts came in the closing minutes. Never one for long goodbyes, the veteran songsmith summed up an immensely spirited two-hour performance with show opener Amanda Shires, her Americana celeb husband Jason Isbell (“our special guest and her special guest,” as Prine put it) and the three stringmen that have long served as his touring band (guitarists Jason Wilber and Pat McLaughlin and bassist Dave Jacques) for a near-euphoric encore version of Paradise.

The song remains one of Prine’s most familiar works, so its inclusion in the setlist was hardly a surprise. But given the regional resonance of the tune (it details a Muhlenberg County countryside from the singer’s youth where coal definitely did not keep the figurative lights on) and the obvious joy triggered by having a pair of new generation disciples singing along, Paradise became a celebration. The cherubic, 68 year old Prine beamed like a schoolkid after it concluded and exited the stage with a citywide smile on his face. In short, the song he should have grown the weariest of playing had become a multi-generational anthem instilled with renewed vigor.

There were loads of less obvious treats, as well. Capitalizing on the camaraderie, Prine also enlisted Shires and Isbell for a trio version of what was perhaps the least likely offering of the evening, the bittersweet title tune from his 1980 album Storm Windows. All three hammered home the chorus, Prine and Isbell swapped verses and Shires iced everything with a fiddle solo full of Appalachian gusto. From a more playful terrain came a duet version of In Spite of Ourselves played as a sparring session between Prine and Shires.

The quartet tunes with Wilber, McLaughlin and Jacques formed the basis of the concert, from the three tunes off of 2005’s Fair and Square album that began the set (Glory of True Love, Long Monday and Taking a Walk) to darker vintage fare (Six O’Clock News, Souvenirs) that reached back to the early ‘70s. But the band’s most dramatic collaboration came when the four returned to the mid ‘80s for Lake Marie, a scrapbook meditation that mixed cultural folklore, a marriage on the rocks and TV coverage of a murder in the wilderness.

“You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?” sang Prine as the song headed into its homestretch. The audience, well versed in the lyrics, shouted back the grim reply: “Shadows.” That earned a grin, too

“Thank you, class,” Prine replied.

A brief unaccompanied section by the singer, which included a calm but still discomforting My Mexican Home, concluded with Sam Stone, the harrowing saga of a displaced, drug-addicted war veteran who dies alone of an overdose. Perhaps more than any other tune in the repertoire last night, Sam Stone benefited most from the vocal creases and coarseness of age, a reflection of both its potently succinct lyrics (“Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios”) and its sadly unfortunate topicality.

“I still sing this song at every show because there are still a lot of old veterans around,” Prine remarked.

Shires’ 40 minute opening set was a delight, as well. Though possessed with a voice full of pure country charm, her songs deviated from any kind of roots music symmetry. The show opening The Garden (What a Mess) possessed an air of somber mystery that brought some of the less prog-ish songs of Kate Bush to mind while Bulletproof set a portrait of hippie legend with references of weaponry and self-preservation to a neo-Spanish lilt.

Husband Isbell, an unadvertised addition to the proceedings, was largely an accompanist, engaging in a brief but feisty electric guitar and fiddle flare-up near the end of Shake the Walls and adding tasty slide colors to Mineral Wells. But he and Shires met on equal terms for a lovely cover of the underappreciated Warren Zevon gem Mutineer.

That didn’t keep a few Isbell fans in the audience from the misreading the occasion and calling out for several of his tunes (Cover Me Up earned the most vocal requests). But Mrs. Isbell remained in the driver’s seat of this set.

“If you want to request any of Jason’s songs, you’ll have to go his show tomorrow,” Shires told the crowd. “In Chicago.”

in performance: party knullers

fred-lonberg-holm.

fred-lonberg-holm.

On paper, a duo consisting of cello and drums would seem to dictate at least some kind of mimicry of a conventional rhythm section with cello being a serviceable stand-in for bass. But for that to happen, the musicians involved would have to subscribe to rhythm in the first place. Given the free-form exploits of Party Knullers, the duo of Chicago-based cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Norwegian percussionist Stxl Solberg, such a point is moot. Their music is no more based on rhythm than their instrumental duties are limited to support duties for other players, as is often the case, even in jazz circles, with a rhythm section.

Last night at Mecca before an audience that was modest in size but strong in terms of attentiveness, Lonberg-Holm and Solberg operated essentially as conversationalists. Sometimes that meant spacious improvisations full of strident exchanges. In other instances, the playing of each artist was complete unto itself with a vocabulary as vast and challenging as the music that fueled the jagged dialogue sections.

That was especially true of Lonberg-Holm. Aided by pedal effects that colored and corroded his playing, as well as a performance style that incorporated unconventional taps, scrapes and phrasings, his improvisations operated with essentially two voices – one organic and one electronically enhanced. Each proved as distinctive as the other. But the most fascinating segments of last night’s concert came during the several occasions when those voices could be differentiated simultaneously. While one couldn’t exactly view these moments as examples of harmony, the sounds did offer a fascinatingly textured make-up that enhanced both the tension and expression of the improvisations.

Though equally inventive his playing, Solberg also possessed a surprisingly exact tone, whether he found various shifts in register within the way he snapped a mallet stick against a drum head or the more assaulting sounds created by scrapping the drums with plastic forks, among many other unexpected as well as obvious percussive devices. For example, there was just as much engagement within the chatter of woodblock and cowbell and even the comparatively expected rattle of a snare.

There were also several instances where the sounds seemed almost otherworldly, like when Lonberg-Holm’s cello elicited a sampler of pedal produced belches and croaks, or when Solberg’s drumming brought these fractured dialogues to a slow but petulant boil.

Additionally, there was space within this music – lots of it. It was so prevalent, in fact, that when the first of six improvisations came to a close, no one in the meager sized crowd applauded. It wasn’t out disinterest and dislike of the concert to that point. Rather, the open-faced structures of these duo performances made it tough to tell when a piece had truly concluded.

But the reverse was true during Gold, a brief finale tune concluding the first set that had Lonberg-Holm switching to guitar. The fanciful, echoing colors he summoned brought the orchestral playing of Bill Frisell to mind.

Just try getting any of that from a rhythm section

in performance: large unit

large unit with paal nilssen-love, fourth from right.

large unit with paal nilssen-love, fourth from right.

“Ready to rock?”

That was the call to places by Paal Nilssen-Love for the 10 fellow musicians of the aptly titled Large Unit last night at the Downtown Arts Center.

But as anyone who has witnessed the Norwegian drummer in action at his numerous appearances here over the last 13 years for the Outside the Spotlight Series, “rock” is a relative term.

When he cranks into action, Nilssen-Love packs the precision and sonic assault of a schooled rock drummer. That happened several times during this 80 minute performance, creating a percussive firestorm as dueling rhythm sections punctuated the sometimes placid, sometimes corrosive sounds of a potent front line of horns and winds.

But Nilseen-Love is an improviser of the first order and Large Unit – composed of players from Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark – is a jazz army that fleshed out compositions by the drummer with modern classical flourishes, free jazz immediacy and a curious symmetry that sounded, well, Nordic.

The show-opening Austin Birds was an open display of the band’s cagey dynamics in action. A whir of electronic static from Tommi Keranen introduced the Large Unit sound in increments – strains of tuba from Per Ake Holmlander lifting out of a sonic fog, guitarist Ketil Gutvik and Nilssen-Love battling over two different bassists (Christian Meaas Svendsen and Jon Rune Strom) and exchanges from the four-member front line. Then everything hit head on and accelerated with the aural force of a rocketship, gaining speed and intensity until the music receded and splintered.

The down side of such a make-up was that several players were often left with little to do. For much of the performance, one rhythm section sat out as the other propelled the music. Other musicians – specifically, Gutvik – seldom got much elbow room in Large Unit’s almost inclusive sound.

That was likely part of Nilseen-Love’s design for the music. The dynamics created an almost Zappa-like undercurrent during Erta Ale 2. But in a leaner passage, the tune yielded a sparse, willowing exchange between Keranen and trombonist Mats Aleklint so symmetric that it became tough difficult to differentiate the electronic ambience from the organic improvising.

Then there were tunes like Circle in the Round that simply exploded with color – cartoon like bass runs, trombone led grooves and the two rhythm sections tossing rhythmic shifts back and forth. Topping it all was a horn/wind melody that wound this circus up with a pastoral coda that sounded almost mournful.

It was a lot to take in. But such were the challenges and rewards that resulted in having a jazz battalion like Large Unit around to shake up the senses.

in performance: michael mcdonald

michael mcdonald.

michael mcdonald.

“Let me just go down as saying that I’m glad to be here,” sang Michael McDonald last night near the onset of an especially jubilant and involving performance at the Opera House. “Here with all the same pain and laughs everybody knows.”

That especially telling verse came from Here to Love You, the leadoff track to the 1978 album that cemented the singer/keyboardist’s place in pop-soul stardom – the Doobie Brothers’ Minute By Minute. But at age 63, the lyrics eschewed a level of performance maturity that seemed to dominate the 85 minute concert.

From a technical standpoint, McDonald’s husky tenor was in fine shape. The very upper level of his falsetto surges seemed a touch muted, but that was the only visible hint of aging. Otherwise, his vocals meshed nicely with a proficient six member band. Of course, the fact the group was built around McDonald’s keyboard sound insured he was showcased prominently as both instrumentalist (from the clavinet funk supplied to a encore medley of Stevie Wonder tunes to the calliope like runs that underscored his Doobies gem It Keeps You Runnin’) and singer.

The song selection was a crowd pleaser, as well. Roughly one-third of the set list was devoted to his Doobies hits of the late ‘70s. But the show also reached into the ‘80s for the James Ingram duet funk hit Yah Mo B There (which opened the performance) and the movie hit Sweet Freedom as well as into comparatively recent years when McDonald’s recorded output focused more on his prowess as interpreter as opposed to songwriter. A standout from the later column was You Don’t Know Me, a Ray Charles classic by way of Eddy Arnold that peeled the band down to an intimate sax/piano/keyboard trio.

But the real surprise was McDonald’s seriously physical investment in this material. This was not some dialed in nostalgia ride. Though seated at his keyboard for the duration of the set, the singer was heaving his muscular tenor around like a wrecking ball. Even the few relaxed pop detours (What a Fool Believes and his co-written Kenny Loggins hit This is It) possessed a physical bravado that provided the performance with rugged immediacy and awarded McDonald with a sweat soaked shirt well before the end of the show.

The Doobies staple Takin’ It to the Streets, the song that largely introduced the singer to the pop mainstream nearly 40 years ago closed this celebration with the band in a joyous groove and McDonald howling like an in-his-prime Joe Cocker. How fitting that what began on the streets for the singer so long ago wound up there again last night in such vibrant form.

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