Archive for in performance

in performance: willie watson

willie watson.

willie watson.

“I know they like to play banjos in tune in Kentucky,” remarked Willie Watson before launching into a brittle bit of 1920s, Georgia-born folk-blues called Kitty Puss last night at Natasha’s Bistro. “So I’m just trying to fit in.”

Striking a bond with the audience on hand proved a modest task. While many patrons were likely introduced to Watson through his tenure with the revisionist string band Old Crow Medicine Show, he proved an amiable solo artist who created a distinct performance persona for the delivery of folk staples popularized over the last century by the likes of Ma Rainey, Utah Phillips, Rev. Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie.

During this 80 minute unaccompanied acoustic program, Watson wasn’t interested in the idea of presenting such tunes as rustic museum pieces. His vocal delivery was bright, animated and immediate. On the show opening Take This Hammer, for instance, Watson sounded like Jimmie Rodgers with a monstrous vibrato. There were echoes of bluegrass-inspired high lonesome singing (which would flourish in a more thematic way on the hapless Mexican Cowboy that followed), but Watson’s clean and expressive wails were more akin to gospel.

Of course, rattling around in the folk attic sometimes means wrestling with songs that, by modern standards, seem decidedly non-PC. Watson was apologetic about the mildly misogynistic slant of James Alley Blues, which he defused by essentially playing it for laughs (or, at least, that’s how the audience seemed to take it). But on the far darker Rock Salt and Nails, Watson allowed an unease fueled by the song’s murderous starkness to surface.

That was one of several sobering tunes that quieted patrons that became chattier (especially between songs) as the show progressed. Equally effective in bringing quiet to the room was a beautifully expressive Tattle O’Day, a banjo infused take on The Cuckoo and a devilishly involving encore of See See Rider.

While half of the set was devoted to nine of the 10 tunes from Watson’s 2014 solo debut album Folk Singer, Vol. 1, the remainder highlighted, among other delights, the hilltop gospel of I Belong to the Band and the show closing glee of On the Road Again (the traditional tune refashioned by the Grateful Dead, not the Willie Nelson hit) that gave hope Vol. 2 is headed our way soon.

in performance: ross hammond

ross hammond.

ross hammond.

The soundscapes that kept the Morris Book Store open a little past closing hour earlier tonight were part of the Outside the Spotlight Series of jazz directed improvisational music performances. But in reality, it was tough to peg the music Ross Hammond had on display as jazz in any strict sense.

Granted, the Lexington-born guitarist has established himself as a potent electric player in a variety of collaborative jazz projects on the West Coast for many years. But here at home, Hammond travelled an altogether different route. Over the course of an hour, he assembled six instrumental pieces for unaccompanied 12 string acoustic guitar that seemed to defy genre classification.

The distinguishing factor for the selections was Hammond’s recent folk and spirituals album Flight. But the record essentially served as a blueprint for even newer (and newly revised) pieces built around the rhythmic flow established by the 12 string. The lyrical appeal and the tunes’ overall spaciousness suggested European inspiration. But in several instances, Hammond briefly colored the music with slide guitar, which provided his playing with accents of American primitive music in general and revered guitar stylist John Fahey in particular.

But Hammond’s performance style was not nearly as brittle as Fahey’s. Songs like How Old is Your Face? and How Does a Monkey Write a Song? (with titles and inspiration suggested by the guitarist’s daughter) sounded largely meditative with only the slightest of melodies growing out of the 12 string’s richly orchestrated flow.

The comparatively pensive feel of For Miep Gies, however, opened the lyricism up to where it felt more in line with the patient, internalized playing of the great ECM guitarist Ralph Towner.

Consider Fahey and Towner more as references within Hammond’s music as opposed to strict stylistic influences. During a nearly unrecognizable reading of This Little Light of Mine, the tone and flow of Hammond’s playing answered to no one, sounding less like a rural spiritual and more like a pastoral folk-jazz reverie. Like the rest of this intimate, unamplified and beautifully immediate performance, influences were strictly support players for a sound that was serenely Hammond’s own creation.

in performance: dr. john and the nite trippers

dr. john. photo by bruce weber.

dr. john. photo by bruce weber.

“Does anybody need a Doctor?”

That was the cue from the stage at the Lexington Opera House earlier tonight that ushered in Mac Rebennack, the vanguard New Orleans pianist and song stylist known better to audiences as Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and musical shaman Dr. John.

With that, the good doctor took a seat at the piano and offered a quick primer in his musical ancestry (Professor Longhair and Huey Smith were the most visible inspirations) by hammering out a medley of Iko Iko and Shoo Fly. The carnival had officially begun.

This was an evening of many surprises. To begin with, the concert was advertised as a tribute to Louis Armstrong, tying the evening into Rebennack’s 2014 Satchmo-themed album Ske-Dat-De-Dat. That wasn’t the case at all. In fact, the only tune offered from the record was a gospel heavy reading of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. Even then, Rebennack re-assigned vocal duties so he could color in the spiritual bliss on piano.

What the 100 minute show turned out to be was, if anything, considerably more special – a detailed glimpse into Rebennack’s early years as Dr. John that excavated tunes from six of the seven groundbreaking albums the pianist cut for Atco Records between 1968 and 1974.

Some of the material was familiar, like the 1973 hit Right Place Wrong Time, the only tune of the night where Rebennack switched from piano to a small portable keyboard to replicate the tune’s ultra-funky clavinet groove.

Others were rich in New Orleans tradition, like Big Chief (from 1972’s Gumbo) and Mardi Gras Day (from 1970’s Remedies) that unlocked the second line syncopation of drummer Herlin Riley and a highly efficient five-member band.

But the show also went deep into the psychedelic voodoo side of the Dr. John persona for tunes that have long been absent from Rebennack’s shows. Among the rarities were the title tune to 1971’s Babylon, where musical director Sarah Morrow wildly refashioned the song’s electronic incantation for trombone, and Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, where the 74 year old Rebennack sounded eerily like the young Crescent City medicine man that first conjured the tune in 1968.

That, friends, was just what the doctor ordered.

in performance: dave rempis, darren johnston and larry ochs

clockwise from left: dave rempis, larry ochs and darren johnston.

clockwise from left: dave rempis, larry ochs and darren johnston.

The Outside the Spotlight series has been in action long enough that one of the great secrets behind its finest performances has become a given – dynamics. And last night’s trio performance by Dave Rempis, Darren Johnston and Larry Ochs at Dixieland Gardens sported a truckload of it.

For the uninitiated, OTS shows are jazz by definition but are better defined by the level of free improvisation involved. Last night’s concert was devoted almost exclusively to it. But despite regular forays into pure abstraction, the trio’s two sets sported improvisations that were almost respiratory in design.

The music would simmer within a variety of subtleties – like the cyclical rounds of sound that began the evening and the moments of whispery intensity that distinguished the second set – before boiling over with pure ensemble combustion. Watching these extremes build, deconstruct and reassemble at a pace that often surprised even the three artists creating the music was a serious thrill.

The trio’s novel instrumentation – two saxophones and trumpet – often played into the show fascinating dynamics. Rempis, an OTS regular that has played Lexington in nearly a dozen different band settings, initiated the fun with punctuated bursts on alto saxophone that sounded almost like aquatic percussion. Enter Ochs on tenor saxophone and Johnston on trumpet and the music tensed up for sharp ensemble jabs. There were respites from the fury, but the performance’s moments of solace were merely set ups that were quickly shattered so the trio could work itself into another lather.

The music allowed the three players to each shift between two instruments. Rempis doubled on baritone sax (his weapon of choice for a fascinating solo excursion during the second set) while Ochs moonlighted on sopranino sax (an instrument of compact size and a sound that fortified the evening’s boldest group exchanges). Johnston stuck to trumpet but augmented it a variety of plungers and mutes that wildly varied its sound. Clanging a metal bowl against the horn also furthered the trio’s percussive vocabulary.

The extraordinary acoustics this completely unamplified performance received within the brick walls of Dixieland Gardens and the wonderfully spontaneous moments of pure quiet that peppered the concert as the artists plotted their next move added to the fun while extending the music’s sublime dynamics.

in performance: jeff beck

jeff beck.

jeff beck.

Anyone doubting the power and playfulness Jeff Beck still yields on guitar at age 70 got an earful and then some last night at the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ Whitney Hall in Louisville.

Throughout a very briskly paced 95 minute set, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer approached tunes that shifted from fusion to techno to blues with the confidence and technique of a scholar but also the wonder and giddiness of a student in a lab experiment.

Take the show opening Loaded, a new tune that had Beck hammering out power chords and punctuated guitar squeals with oddly human vocal expression over a techno savvy backup groove. Later, for more muscular bite, he dipped back to 1989 for Big Block, a bulldozer of a tune with a monstrous ripple effect that Beck piloted over with guitar blasts full of playful immediacy.

As far the setlist went, there were large, important chunks of Beck’s repertoire that went missing. Champion ‘70s albums like Blow By Blow  and Wired were ignored completely. In their place, though, were curious covers of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1971 fusion fugue You Know You Know, which was built around a riff that repeated like a mantra save for the ragged variations added to keep the piece from sounding static, and an encore of the Celtic folk staple Danny Boy played as a county-esque reverie.

A little more problematic was Beck’s band, which included former Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall, bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer Jonathan Joseph. All were capable and technically proficient artists, especially Hall, whose singing sounded mightier than ever last night. But none could match the sense of instinct, playfulness and edge Beck still dispensed with ease. In short, they answered Beck’s inventiveness by playing things too safe.

The lone exception was co-guitarist Nicholas Meier, whose playing often remained in the background, providing tunes like Hammerhead with a propulsive rhythmic drive and his own composition Yemin with a lovely acoustic intro and efficient Spanish-flavored arrangement that Beck responded to with some of his most lyrical and relaxed soloing of the night.

in performance: chris stapleton

chris stapleton.

chris stapleton.

There is a quiet, unspoiled country solemnity to the music Kentucky’s own Chris Stapleton summons on his sublime debut album, Traveller. But earlier this afternoon, the Lexington native, who is currently one of the hippest breakthrough acts out of Nashville, trimmed his already frugal sound down to folkish essentials during a six-song in-store set at a packed CD Central.

Performing in a solo acoustic setting, the weathered detail of Stapleton’s songs gleamed with a narrative richness that unassumingly defied the Nashville norm. Take the set-opening title tune from Traveller, a tale of wanderlust both personal and painful. What you experienced in this kind of intimate performance arrangement was actually a sense of forwardness and faith. “Sure as my heart’s behind the pocket of my shirt,” Stapleton sang, “I’ll just keep rolling till I hit the dirt.”

There were two other distinct attributes to this 30 minute set, both emanating from the audience. Being a free show (on Mother’s Day, no less), the turnout was filled parents and their young children. Yet the crowd, even in this very non-traditional performance space, awarded Stapleton’s set with astonishing attentiveness and quiet.

The one sound you could detect from the audience was singing. People sang assuredly along with Stapleton on nearly every tune – an astonishing addition, considering Traveller has only been in stores for five days.

One could go on about the make-up of Traveller’s songs. But half the drive behind this quiet set was the vocal charge that came from the stage. The solo acoustic setting also empowered the simple rustic detail of Stapleton’s voice. It colored the stark narrative chill of When the Stars Come Out and Whiskey and You with conversational country ease but rose like a cloudburst during the unceremoniously defiant Fire Away.

The set serenely deflated with Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore. The title may suggest a loss of faith, but in fact the song dealt with the exact opposite. Again, the eulogy was delivered amid exquisite crowd quiet that enhanced the understated grace and severity of Stapleton’s words and voice to cement his place amid the finest, most powerfully authentic country talents of our day.

in performance: eric church/the lone bellow

eric church last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

eric church last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

“So how is the Commonwealth doing on a Thursday night?”

That was the icebreaking question offered by Eric Church last night at Rupp Arena. The response, needless to say, was rapturously positive even though the turnout of 11,500 was a few thousand less than when the country star played the venue in 2012. Chalk the difference up to timing. Any country show booked into Rupp on a weeknight is going to take a hit at the box office. Frankly, pulling in a five-digit attendance figure on a Thursday still counts as a solid affirmation of the meteoric rise in Church’s popularity over the last six years.

What defines that rise isn’t so readily explainable. Certainly last night’s two hour performance offered no easy answers, save for the fact Church doesn’t operate from an obvious musical template. The closest comparison, especially in songs like Homeboy, was Hank Williams Jr.

While Church packed a similar level of machismo, his onstage sound last night was considerably more muscular (the band boasted three guitarists, excluding the headliner) and his performance persona was more audience friendly. Credit the latter to a novel stage design essentially octagonal in shape with 360 degree visibility between artist and audience. Aside from the Spinal Tap-esque opening where the drum kit was lowered to the stage floor from near the lighting rigs, the technical make-up of the show was refreshingly unfrilly, right down to the black-and-white video imagery of the performance that played out above the band.

The real differences, though, were in the songs, especially in the eight or so tunes Church uncorked from his 2014 album The Outsiders. A more formulaic country attitude was at work in some of the older material – especially the monstrous sing-a-long coached during Drink in My Hand and the well-intentioned but pandering Merle Haggard tribute within Pledge Allegiance to the Hag. But songs from The Outsiders were musically concise while being stylistically all over the map.

The show-opening title tune to the album flexed metal-tinged guitar riffs that set the highly electric tone for the evening. But a four song parade from The Outsiders that broke out half way through the concert successively shifted gears from the sparse blues of Like a Wrecking Ball to the plays on country convention during Cold One to the combustible soul music drive at the heart of That’s Damn Rock & Roll.

But the champion of the Outsiders material was the hit Give Me Back My Hometown, a banjo-led dirge that could have been set in urban as well as rural America. It boasted Church’s most centered yet ultimately intense vocal performance.

The distance the show purposely kept from most arena-level country concerts extended to the opening band. It wasn’t a country act all, but the sharp Brooklyn-based Americana troupe The Lone Bellow. Somewhat akin to Dawes in sound and style but with a vibrant three-part vocal makeup, the band unleashed a U2-like level of intensity and immediacy during Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold and The One You Should Have Let Go, the songs that bookended The Lone Bellow’s fine 40 minute set.

Especially striking was yet another departure from the country concert norm. Where many country acts that have played Rupp in recent years have devoted stage time to covers of songs initially popularized way outside the Nashville city limits (The Band Perry covering Queen stands out especially), The Lone Bellow did the reverse and cooked up a nicely propulsive version of Dwight Yoakam’s roots-savvy ‘90s hit Fast as You. So instead of country relying on rock ‘n’ roll, we had a true outsider act saddling up to country. It was pretty cool, too.

in performance: keefe jackson quartet

keefe jackson.

keefe jackson.

Even within the Outside the Spotlight Series, where music is never formulated given its often exclusively improvisatory nature, there is some track record to go by, some level of past history to serve as a reference point.

Not so with last night’s performance by the Chicago-rooted Keefe Jackson Quartet at the Farish Theatre. This was the regional debut of a new band, made up largely of OTS frequent flyers, that mixed compositional passages with a wealth of free improvisation. The resulting music was challenging to say the least. The composed sections, themes that seemed to surface in almost classical fashion, gave the program an accessibility some OTS concerts purposely avoid. But the three pieces Jackson unveiled (or maybe there were two; the second and third bled into each other like a suite) had Jackson and Dave Rempis juggling various saxophones (and, in Jackson’s case, bass clarinet) while Jason Stein grounded the music somewhat by playing bass clarinet solely.

Cellist Tomeka Reid and Norwegian drummer Tollef Ostvang often worked independently of the quintet’s front line and, in many instances, of each other. Ostvang colored the music with percussion both sparse and spacious while Reid proved the group’s most resourceful player, creating sounds that filled percussive and bass roles. But there were also several places where her bowed playing took on a gorgeous life of its own.

Presented in a largely academic fashion (Jackson’s only spoken acknowledgement of the audience was a quick introduction of his bandmates ) that brought to mind the way Henry Threadgill designed a concert here some years ago, the quintet saved its most exhilarating stylistic mash up for the program’s conclusion.

With the saxophones and clarinets engaging in quick, roulette-style solos, the front line slowly locked into a fearsome melodic charge that Ostvang and Reid quickly turned to swing. Then the whole passage quietly imploded, offering a fascinating slo-mo deconstruction of the compositional complexities the quintet had taken such pains to that point of creating.

Such was the design of this Chicago/Norway brigade, a band that employed composition only as a means of navigation. No wonder the players were so eager, after finding their bearings, to steer straight into stormy waters.

in performance: rosanne cash

rosanne cash. photo by clay patrick mcbride.

rosanne cash. photo by clay patrick mcbride.

“We love you, Rosanne,” shouted a zealous fan last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond.

On the receiving end of the adoration was Rosanne Cash. Rather than offering immediate reciprocation (it eventually came), the Americana songstress pondered before replying.

“Well,” she said, “I can be difficult.”

Be that as it may, what was offered during a 2 ½ hour program, which included a very unexpected intermission, was a cordial travelogue through the South courtesy of Cash’s Grammy winning 2014 album The River & The Thread and assorted delicacies from a career that stretches back well over three decades.

The material from The River & The Thread was presented in bulk at the beginning of the concert with the intention of running sequentially, as on the album. Aided by an expert five man band led by her husband and longtime guitarist/collaborator John Leventhal, Cash offered songs full of Southern inspiration that wasn’t always overt.

The opening A Feather’s Not a Bird was a Zen-like reflection where the open highway led to more than just a physical destination while Modern Blue stretched clear to Europe and back before making its Southern rounds.

Other Southern ruminations were more literal but not necessarily obvious, like a love song to the pioneering Memphis roots music radio station WDIA (50,000 Watts) and a beautifully rendered Civil War themed saga of romance and spiritualism (When the Master Calls the Roll).

Throughout The River & The Thread set were songs of love, family, faith, the earth, the Depression and numerous shades of the blues all delivered by Cash with a clarity and confidence that bordered on the serene and a band that generously colored the plentiful nuances of the melodies Leventhal penned for the songs.

But as richly devoted to the South as The River & The Thread was, it took a guest appearance by Mother Nature to bring the journey to a standstill. Six songs in, a tornado warning was sounded, causing a 20 minute relocation of the audience to the EKU Center’s ground floor level. The interruption was handled efficiently, calmly and professionally by the venue’s staff. A half hour later, Cash was back onstage offering a loose fitting cover of Heartaches by the Number before The River & The Thread music resumed.

A few older favorites concluded the evening, including Cash’s early ‘80s country hit Seven Year Ache and a lively update of father Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Flat Top Box that let Leventhal and bandmate Kevin Barry loose on guitar.

The evening’s true heartbreaker was saved for last with an encore reading of 500 Miles, one of four tunes played from Cash’s 2009 album of country covers, The List. A sentimental quagmire for singers of less finesse, the song’s sense of separation seemed far greater than its title suggested. But with Cash’s dignified singing, the feel was far more intimate yet, ultimately, just as devastating.

in performance: the fairfield four

The Fairfield Four. From left: Levert Allison, Bobbye Sherrell, Larrice Byrd Sr. and Joe Thompson.

The Fairfield Four. From left: Levert Allison, Bobbye Sherrell, Larrice Byrd Sr. and Joe Thompson.

The only hint of anything that even approached a put-on during the a capella revival the Fairfield Four presented earlier tonight at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church came when Levert Allison feigned the fading drive of a wind-up toy. It took fellow tenor Bobbye Sherrell to simulate a visual wind-up that brought his singing mate back to speed to tackle the hollers and moans of an almost defiant Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around.

It was an innocent but telling bit of playacting. But if you thought for a second the jubilant energy that has driven scores of lineups of this veteran gospel group since 1921 was expiring, the joke was on you.

For close to 90 minutes, the current Fairfield incarnation – Allison, Sherrell, baritone Larrice Byrd and 80 year old bass singer Joe Thompson – summoned a gospel parade that was as tireless in its gusto as it was unwavering in its spiritual solemnity.

The focus fell on songs, both traditional and contemporary, from Still Rockin’ My Soul, the first album by this lineup. The quartet offered seven of the record’s 11 tunes beginning with the welcoming Come On in This House. Led by Sherrill, it established a simple and effective sound pattern that dressed the Fairfield’s booming vocal blend with only one item of accompaniment – the percussive acceleration of their own handclaps.

The only pronounced departure from that game plan came during the traditional I Love the Lord, He Heard Me Cry, which was delivered like an incantation first with a lone wail from Allison and through a powerful vocal call-and-response with Sherrell. Spiritual? Without question, but it was also deliciously ghostly.

On the other hand, the encore of Four and Twenty Elders (from 1997’s I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray) made the impending end of days seem almost festive with harmonies that, like much of the evening’s repertoire, drew clear lineage from gospel to secular traditions of soul, pop and especially doo-wop.

The Good Shepherd setting was a huge plus, too. While the amplified sound mix was often too boomey and harsh, the church’s intimacy and regal architecture nicely enhanced a gospel vocal charge that was ceaselessly fresh, timeless and spiritually persuasive.

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