Archive for in performance

in performance: saturday at forecastle 2018

Margo Price, the new Queen of Forecastle, performing this afternoon at Waterfront Park in Louisville. Herald-Leader staff photo by Alex Slitz.

LOUISVILLE – Kentucky native Chris Stapleton was the headliner. But this typically diverse Saturday at Forecastle belonged to a pair of hearty country upstarts – Margo Price and Brent Cobb. At temperatures swelled to 94 before much of the music even started,  the day eventually gave to very welcome cloud cover, a minimalist symphony, a hip hop celebration and the arrival, 40 minutes late, of the guest of honor.

Here is how this summer Saturday at Forecastle played out.

10:51 p.m.: Chris Stapleton. Here we hit the day’s only snag – a 40 minute delay due to “technical difficulties.” That didn’t detract from Kentucky native Stapleton’s rustic country allure, though. His electric works, like the show-opening “Midnight Train to Memphis,” possessed a dark, swampy atmosphere that the scratchier recesses of Stapleton’s singing brought to ominous life. Other tunes, like the bluesier “Nobody to Blame” or the more raggedly country “Hard Livin’,” were performed with a more sobering and soulful accent.

9:40 p.m.: The War on Drugs. If you didn’t see everything playing out onstage, you would have sworn a recording was slipped on the sound system as The War on Drugs played. Its music, all cleanly arranged with ample spaciousness, had the sheen of a studio album. Never was that more noticeable than when guitarist/vocalist Adam Granduciel led the Philadelphia band through “Lost in the Dream,” a work that deconstructed the ensemble’s electric preferences for largely acoustic orchestration.

9:17 p.m.: T-Pain. Want to know how extreme a culture shock can be? Try strolling from a stage where the Forecastle Orchestra was in the home stretch of its Terry Riley bliss out to the Ocean Stage where rap colossus T-Pain introduced himself with two extra-long expletives. His set, a mixture of live rapping, disposable singing and a quilt of DJ-moderated sonic stock footage, was a technical mess. But the audience went nuts over resulting tunes like “Can’t Believe It” and “I’m Sprung.”

8:45 p.m.: Forecastle Symphony. With Louisville Orchestra conductor/music director Teddy Abrams choosing to become part of the ensemble fabric by playing clarinet, this performance of Terry Riley’s still-fascinating minimalist composition “In C” was spellbinding. The orchestra’s cyclical patterns of mallet percussion, winds and strings proved the ultimate chill station for weary festival goers. Most sat on the ground as they watched, some even laid flat and let the intoxicating, textured sounds wash over them.

8:12 p.m.: Houndmouth. With its hometown of New Albany sitting across the river – and, in essence serving as a stage backdrop – a realigned Houndmouth made its case for pop stardom. With vocalist/keyboardist Katie Toupin gone but a new instrumental makeup at work that included dual saxophonists, the band stepped forever into the pop landscape with “Golden Age” (the title tune to a new album due out in August) and “Strange Love.” But older fare like “Say It” and “Hey Rose” produced a more nuanced and natural pop voice.

7:20 p.m.: Jenny Lewis. With the evening came relief by way of suddenly overcast skies, a semblance of a breeze and a wonderful pop sampler of a set from Jenny Lewis. Capable of cruising with the woozy reflection of “Happy” (from her 2005 collaborative album with the Louisville reared Watson Twins), tripping back to her days with Rilo Kiley for 2004’s “sadly still relevant” “Portions for Foxes” and returning to the crisply defiant 2014 gem “She’s Not Me,” Lewis proved she is still a daring pop voyager.

6:37 p.m.: Jimmy Eat World. In contrast to most of the acts on the four stage Forecastle roster, Jimmy Eat World was something of a pop elder. But with three of its founding members still on board, including the very amiable Jim Adkins on vocals, little has changed with this Arizona combo. Its devotion to rock solid pop melody was still as solid as its tireless performance spirit. That explains why band staples like “Sweetness” and “The Middle” sounded as bright and appealing as when they were hits 17 years ago.

5:30 p.m.: Margo Price. It took about half of the show-opening “Don’t Say It” for Price’s vocals to pop up in the sound mix. That qualified as a serious infraction, given the effortless tone, force and country zeal this Nashville renegade summoned as the set progressed. From the Nashville rebuke of “Cocaine Cowboys” (one of two songs that sent Price to the drum kit to detonate a jam) to the Kentucky themed charge within a cover of Guy Clark’s “New Cut Road,” Price earned rights to be crowned the new Queen of Forecastle.

4:40 p.m.: Pvris: Pronounced “Paris,” this very nocturnal sounding, clad-in-black troupe possessed neat, though somewhat static pop orchestration that recalled several post New Wave acts from the ‘80s. Lead vocalist Lynn Gunn served as a much as cheerleader as band chieftain, and certainly those near the front of the Boom stage responded enthusiastically to tunes like “You and I.” Everyone else seemed more modestly invested in this afternoon dose of midnight.

4:13 p.m.: Hiss Golden Messenger. This North Carolina collective fronted by MC Taylor often operates from a poetic, folkish foundation. On the Boom stage, though, it became contemplatively electric with tunes like “Call Him Daylight” and “I’m a Raven (Shake Children)” that worked off a front line of three electric guitarists that often sounded like an ambiently inclined Dire Straits. Taylor seldom sang above a grumble, making vocals serve as little more than another color in the band’s sonic fabric.

3:35 p.m: The Spencer Lee Band. And just like that, the ceiling caved in. Kansas-born song stylist Lee led off the lineup on the primary Mast stage with a pop-soul band augmented by brass but also a self-involved stage and vocal presence. The mood nicely cooled for the candid and patiently paced “River Water.” Then came something called “Best Sex,” which was as sophomoric and pretentious as its title suggested.

3:02 p.m.: Brent Cobb. Forecastle’s secondary Boom stage got underway with an expert set by this unassuming South Georgia songsmith and compositions that blended an authentic sense of country songwriting, albeit with a few unexpected twists (like the sly “Down in the Gulley,” where a grandfather’s pump house is mistakenly raided for being a moonshine distillery) and a sleek sense of Southern soul (suggested within the Little Feat-meets-Sturgill Simpson charm of “When the Dust Settles”). A fine kickoff.

in performance: chuck prophet and the mission express

Chuck Prophet. Photo by Karen Doolittle.

“You’ve got your problems, I’ve got my problems,” remarked Chuck Prophet last night in the midst of a rock ‘n’ roll excursion full of joyous involvement at Willie’s Locally Known. “But I’ve got the microphone.”

That was merely a cordial reminder that the San Francisco song stylist was still the ringmaster of his own concert circus. But it was also a measurement of Prophet’s own investment in the art of performance, which last night was considerable. Armed with a broad love of pop sentiments, from the massive ‘60s hullabaloo pageantry that propelled the show-opening “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins” to the West Coast garage rock glitz within a cover of the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action,” which ended the evening, Prophet inhabited fully the jubilant, immediate musical landscape he staked out with his long running Mission Express band.

At times, the mood became revivalistic, as during the mock self-pitying sermonizing that oddly brought a snippet of the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit “Lodi” together with the hapless 2014 Prophet original “Wish Me Luck.” In other instances, the show luxuriated in pop’s bottomless sense of fancy, as in “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp),” which alternated between a chorus of deceptively dismissive playfulness (“Who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding dong?”) and lyrics of more unsettled introspection (“Wake me up if I should drift away; I don’t want to miss a thing”).

The Mission Express, bolstered by Prophet’s wife, Stephanie Finch, on keyboards and harmony vocals, more than matched the vigor the bandleader was detonating during songs like “Run Primo, Run,” “Rider or the Train” and “Killing Machine.” But what made the entire performance so vital and fun was just how tirelessly present Prophet was. This wasn’t a veteran artist playing favorites and running through the motions. This was a session of live rock ‘n’ roll lit up like fireworks.

Who else could have sung an ode to “the greatest centerfielder of all time” (“Willie Mays is Up at Bat”) and made it sound like the salvation cry of an eager rock ‘n’ roll generation? Then again, Prophet had the microphone. It was entirely his game.

in performances: the pretenders

chrissie hynde of the pretenders. photo by jill_furmanovsky

Anyone doubting the current vitality and validity of Chrissie Hynde should have stuck around for encore time last night at the Louisville Palace. Armed with her current batch of Pretenders, the singer ripped into “Thumbelina,” a 1983 gem that roared with a monstrous, percussive shuffle (courtesy of the band’s only other surviving original member, drummer Martin Chambers) and an electric bravado that sounded like a cross between Merle Haggard and Iggy Pop (courtesy of Son Volt/Pogues alum James Walbourne, possibly the most animated guitarist to pass through the Pretenders ranks).  But it was Hynde that lit the fuse by singing the lyrics in a kind of sly howl where post punk urgency and neo-country narrative crashed head on. Does that sound like an artist going through the motions to you?

Hynde looked the part, too. Dressed in black t-shirt, jeans and thigh-high boots, the 66 year old “proud grandmother” looked fit enough to take out the front row of the Palace with just a few punches. One can only imagine, then, how an audience patron near the front of the stage felt after breaking the performance dictum of no camera or cell phone use to earn a personal rebuke from Hynde during “Down the Wrong Way.” There was no further confrontation, though. None was needed. Hynde succeeded in letting everyone know who was boss.

Beyond that, she was an enthusiastic, spirited and fearless chieftain. It took the show-opening “Alone” and “Gotta Wait” (both 2017 tunes) for her voice and the sound mix to find a compatible balance. But by the time “Back on the Chain Gang” commenced five songs in, the familiar – and, frankly, ageless – clarity of her singing surfaced.

What gave the 90 minute performance such spark was the same thing that has made the Pretenders, despite scores of personnel changes, such as an enduring act. Last night, it sat in Hynde’s stylistic prowess. The post punk vigor of the band’s initial albums was still in abundance, especially in a riotous “Middle of the Road” that plowed along like a locomotive with a culminating harmonica break by Hynde serving as a train whistle. But the singer also revealed repeatedly a well-schooled degree of pure pop smarts. You heard it in the sleeker, slower reflection of “Let’s Get Lost” (another tune from 2017’s “Alone” album), the summery stride of the 1986 hit “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and especially in the evening’s biggest surprise, “Hymn to Her,” an affirmation Hynde sang with only Carwyn Ellis’ church organ-like keyboards as support.

But when it came to rock ‘n’ roll, Hynde was equally in command. On the Bo Diddley style “Break Up the Concrete” as well as the effervescently chunky “Precious” (tunes cut over 35 years apart, but performed as encore tunes last night), her sense of drive never waned. In short, Hynde confidently showed, as she has for four decades, that the Pretenders are the real deal.

in performance: tyler childers

tyler childers. photo by melissa stillwell.

If there was a moment last night at Manchester Music Hall that defined the transformation of Tyler Childers from home state songsmith to progressive Americana celebrity, it came late in the program following a jubilant roadhouse transformation of the breezy country reverie “Feathered Indians.” As the music settled, the crowd roared. And roared. And kept roaring. This wasn’t just tipsy barroom acknowledgement of a favorite tune. What transpired was a full blown acknowledgement of Childers as an artist of status that local clubs could no longer contain.

And make no mistake, Manchester Music Hall could in no way contain the outpouring of popularity the Lawrence County artist now enjoys. Last night’s performance – the first show in a two night engagement that has been sold out for months – was packed to uncomfortable excess, turning the venue into a sauna amid a sound mix that was muddy and uneven. But Childers was on home state turf again for what, in all likelihood, will be his last round in the clubs. The fact tickets went on sale earlier in the day for a two night New Year’s stand at the Louisville Palace underscores the kind of bigger venues that will likely serve as Childers’ concert home for the foreseeable future.

The sweaty, sound-compromised conditions notwithstanding, Childers’ performance exhibited refreshingly minimal fanfare. His songs, strong on rural narrative and draped in an electric sound that bordered on outlaw country if you substituted Appalachian inspirations for all the Texas ballyhoo, were remarkably plain-speaking. That held true for compositions Childers has been playing for years (the sublimely descript but emotionally tenuous “Shake the Frost”), tunes from his 2017 breakthrough album “Purgatory” (highlighted by the exquisite country affirmation “Universal Sound”) and a few presumably newer entries (including “Ever Loving Hand,” a portrait of homesickness with a devilishly whimsical undercurrent).

All were anchored by Childers’ conversational vocals and the loose fitting honky tonk accents of a band that boasted continually spirited fiddle and guitar support from longtime Central Kentucky favorite Jesse Wells. The same held true for a few choice cover tunes – a suitably mischievous take on the 1975 Dr. Hook novelty “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and a darker, more turbulent take on Charlie Daniels’ “Trudy” (a coincidental pick, as Daniels was likely playing the tune himself a mere hour away last night at a Renfro Valley appearance).

Mostly though, the show was a right of passage, a final close-up of a Kentucky artist who cut his musical teeth in Lexington clubs before graduating to bigger halls in larger locales. Childers will undoubtedly be back. But in this kind of intimate – albeit, sweaty and cramped – setting? Unlikely. He has answered the call of the Universal Sound and is being rewarded. And honestly, how cool is that?

Tyler Childers performs again at 7 tonight at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. The concert is sold out.

in performance: rhiannon giddens

Rhiannon Giddens.

Just before finishing a stylistically and thematically stunning set last night with “Freedom Highway” at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, Rhiannon Giddens bowed her head, buried her face in her hands and went silent. When she looked up a few moments later, tears filled her eyes. “I can’t believe we’re having to go through this (expletive) again,” she told the audience.

Clearly, this was not a planned part of the program, although the crowd seemed to be right in step with Giddens. “Freedom Highway,” after all, was a gospel call to activism and equality, an anthem of the civil rights era written and popularized by the Staple Singers. But it seemed, at this instance, the marches of 50 years ago – or, more specifically, the purpose behind them – came into uncomfortable proximity with present day events. As Giddens reminded us, the walk along the Freedom Highway is no less complete now than it was in the 1960s. After apologizing for the sudden burst of emotion, she turned her focus to the tune and turned the testimony of Pop Staples into a blast of revivalistic soul. Together, it all made for a display of remarkably candid performance honesty.

The rest of the show? It was pretty cool, as well, as it reveled in songs that highlighted the potent clarity and pitch of Giddens’ vocals along with songs that reflected a more figurative voice through songs of social (and often historical) urgency.

The former was typified by the title tune to 2015’s “Tomorrow is My Turn” album that replaced the lustrous atmospherics Nina Simone gave to the song in 1962 with a sense of regal reserve that was almost defiantly Giddens’ own creation. At the other extreme was the Odetta-popularized “Waterboy,” still a showcase for the breadth of Giddens’ vocal stamina, from its huge, country-esque hollers to sleeker, bluesier grinds.

The remainder of the repertoire gave voice to her voice, from the simmering, banjo-fueled cover of Ola Belle Reed’s “Gonna Write Myself a Letter” that opened the evening, to Giddens’ own “At the Purchaser’s Option,” (a show of personal strength and identity sung from the perspective of a slave) to the double-whammy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe tunes (“That Lonesome Road,” “Up Above My Head”) that closed the concert. The latter songs lifted the heart while underscoring the fact that Giddens was hardly alone in her renewed push down today’s Freedom Highway.

in performance: melissa etheridge

Melissa Etheridge.

Aside from an Opera House performance earlier tonight that more than reaffirmed her reputation as a tireless live performer, Melissa Etheridge all but guaranteed a healthy number of online views for a music video of the evening’s final tune, “Like the Way I Do.” The tune, typical of the anthemic, electric and very authoritative tone of her music, was shot 30 years ago one block over at the long-since-demolished Main Street club known as Breeding’s. While Etheridge joked about the ‘80s-style spikiness of her hair in the video (it was, for the record, truly “Breakfast Club” worthy), she seemed quite at ease with her past and, more importantly, her place in the present during the one hour, 45 minute performance.

Perhaps that’s because so many of Etheridge’s songs – especially the several selections pulled from her 1988 self-titled debut record and 1993’s “Yes I Am” album – have aged quite well. They are works tailored sharply for the rough, R&B enforced edges of her voice and empowered by a confidence and attitude Etheridge still richly reflected onstage.

The years have only slightly settled Etheridge’s stage demeanor. There was perhaps a shade less abandon in her vocals tonight, although songs like “Chrome Plated Heart” and “Come to My Window” never lacked for enthusiasm and drive. It’s just that Etheridge takes her time these days in her shows. For instance, when she strapped on a striking looking (and sounding) Gretsch guitar for “Don’t You Need,” the song stretched into a loose, elongated jam. The same held true for the slinky electric groove that neatly ignited “Ruins” with minimal fanfare.

It should be noted that Etheridge handled nearly all of the guitarwork in her four member band. Keyboardist Max Hart played rhythm guitar a few times and, on “Talking to My Angel,” added colorful pedal steel. Outside of that, the show’s guitar duties, which focused far more on rhythm and riffs than flashy solos, were piloted solely by Etheridge.

But it was still the overwhelming sense of affirmation built into Etheridge’s songs, and the very good natured vigor in which she delivered it, that sold the show. In fact, the singer all but dared the near-capacity crowd to share the concert’s abundant sense of joy and promise as it re-entered the outside world at evening’s end with some serious testimony that prefaced “I Am the Only One.” At that point, the Opera House audience seemed more than willing to make good on the mission.

in performance: trombone shorty and orleans avenue

Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty.

It took an offstage rumble to get the crowd going last night the Lexington Opera House. You heard it moments before the house lights went down – the brassy stretch of a musician audibly warming up. The instrument at work, instantly recognizable, would prove the signature sound of the 90 minute jazz-soul-funk rampage that was to come.

A trombone.

With that Troy Andrews, known professionally as Trombone Shorty, and his Orleans Avenue band hit the stage literally running with “Buckjump.” The tune was a delicious blast of organic, instrumental funk that teamed Andrews with tenor saxophonist BK Jackson and baritone sax man Dan Oestreicher for a boisterous charge rich in the tradition of the bandleader’s native New Orleans but with a decidedly stormier and electric cast. It was a terrific firestarter for the program boasting an ending where Andrews rode atop the ensemble tempest with a solo that sounded like a massive, echoing bellylaugh.

In all honesty, nothing in the rest of the program matched the jovial ferocity summoned during “Buckjump.” And for the record, the rest of the program was still pretty fine and fun.

Andrews, a leader of a new generation of New Orleans musical journeymen, is schooled in tradition but was hardly the traditionalist last night. His setlist regularly weaved original works like “The Craziest Things” and “Where It At,” both hybrids of contemporary and vintage soul with strains of Crescent City sass, in between snippets of generational funk that directly pulled from the grooves of such disparate ambassadors as James Brown and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. All that doesn’t even take into account how Andrews also gems by New Orleans forefathers Allen Toussaint (“On Your Way Down,” “Here Come the Girls”) and The Meters (“It Ain’t No Use”) his own during the show

A cover of the Marvin Gaye make-out staple “Let’s Get It On” was the evening’s most extended glimpse of old school soul as well as the most complete vehicle for Andrews’ other instrument, the trumpet. His tone on the latter may have been less overtly animated that his leads on trombone, but his sense of soul lyricism was just as pronounced.

A show closing mash-up of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with the three horn players translating the verses into merry instrumental exchanges, and the more R&B friendly original “Do to Me” brought the party home. It may have started in New Orleans, but the resulting groove happily traveled the globe and tripped through time.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass (sunday)

Dry Branch Fire Squad. From left: Brian Aldridge, Jeff Byrd, Tom Boyd and Ron Thomason.

Taking in the Sunday session of the Festival of the Bluegrass is akin to watching a circus leave town. What you face upon entering the Kentucky Horse Park is a mass exodus with buses pulling out, camp sites breaking down and the main stage/big top, which had been alive with the sounds of Town Mountain a mere nine hours earlier, entering its final stages of dismantlement.
But tucked away under a tent at the opposite end of the field remains the festival’s last order of performance business – a three act gospel program headlined by Dry Branch Fire Squad. In many ways, this is the antithesis of the entire four day event – a presentation built around intimacy and music that, when it works, reverts to a pre-bluegrass string sound that wears its spiritual cast devoutly but with refreshingly minimal fanfare.
Therein sits the rustic and unfussy magic Dry Branch chieftain Ron Thomason creates every year, including his quietly but profoundly moving set from this morning that completed the festival. Dry Branch’s music remained steeped in rural, roots-driven songs and spirituals that didn’t call attention to themselves any more than the band’s antique harmonizing or Thomason’s Will Rogers-level storytelling did. As a result, what was delivered was a set scholarly in its understanding of gospel, bluegrass and, frankly, humanity, but also unspoiled to a degree that highlighted the music’s inherent timelessness.
You heard it with the understated turbulence of “50 Miles of Elbow Room” and “Jesus on the Mainline” that simply would not have translated on the festival’s already-vanished mainstage. It was evident in the effortless, familial quartet harmonies that illuminated the sadly relevant “You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor.” It also percolated in the turns Thomason took on mandolin, guitar and banjo.
As always, Thomason delighted as a raconteur. He related his storytelling to sermonizing, but none of his tales were terribly moralistic and certainly weren’t judgmental. In fact, two of the hour-long set’s most dramatic passages came from stories that had nothing to do with Sunday worship.
The first dealt with the final moments he shared with an aged show horse (Thomason is a veteran horseman as well as musician) before it was to be euthanized. The other was a performance of “He’s Coming to Us Dead,” a highlight also of past Dry Branch shows, that was performed solo on banjo. With roots that go back to the Spanish-American War, the song details the return of a soldier to his family at a train depot. But the title reveals the true nature of the homecoming.
Both instances moved Thomason and several patrons to tears. What resulted, though, wasn’t any sort of emotional manipulation, but rather a human reaction that was subtle, honest and endearing – as was all of Dry Branch’s sublime performance.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass (saturday)

Town Mountain. From left: Zach Smith, Jesse Langlais, Bobby Britt, Robert Greer and Phil Barker. Photo by Sandlin Gaither.

Which acts took top honors last night at the Festival of the Bluegrass? Why, the same ones that have been headlining the event’s Saturday evening slots for decades.

The festival’s reigning kings of Saturday night remain the members of Town Mountain, the Asheville, North Carolina troupe that inherited headlining status three years ago. Though the band plays locally, usually in rock clubs, once or twice during the year, the festival is where Town Mountain’s continued artistic and performance growth is best revealed. That was certainly the case last night.

Much of its late evening set leaned heavily on new material from the forthcoming “New Freedom Blues” album due out in October. But what fascinated most was how the songs placed into renewed focus already familiar strengths. Case in point was guitarist/vocalist Robert Greer. What “Witch Trials in Arizona” and “Lazy River” brought out were elements of traditional high lonesome color in his singing mixed with a winding, country vigor that enforced the song’s storylines. These qualities have always been there, but last night’s performance, together with the fresh compositions, strongly underscored them.

Then there was the general clarity and taste that the rest of the band brought to the set, especially fiddler Bobby Britt, the chief engineer of Town Mountain’s instrumental drive both in his own dizzying solos and in the more subtle colors he supplied under the leads of older music like the band’s popular cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”

The other Saturday night special was The Seldom Scene, the band that bequeathed headlining status to Town Mountain. With roots to the festival that are longer than the tenures of all the band’s current members, it’s easy to dismiss The Seldom Scene as being a bit long in the tooth. To be honest, some of the band’s sets at the festival over the years have been. Not so, last night. Fortified by new banjoist/fiddler Ron Stewart (whose many previous credits include an extended stay with JD Crowe and the New South), the Scene sailed through an early evening set highlighted by the giddy waltz within “Through the Bottom of the Glass” and the show opening blues of “Muddy Waters” (tunes that reach back to the band’s mid ‘70s catalog) as well as a starkly dramatic reading of Merle Travis’ coal mining requiem “Dark as a Dungeon” by guitarist/vocalist Dudley Connell that, amazingly, had some audience members dancing.

The highlight in a set that continually honored the past without succumbing to it was the 1974 instrumental “Appalachian Rain” that Stewart played as a light, spacious bit of darting blues dedicated to the tune’s composer, the now-retired founding Scene banjoist Ben Eldridge.

The acts before and between the two Saturday chieftains were opposites of each other in style, intent and delivery.

Staunch traditionalist Larry Sparks proudly championed bluegrass’ gospel and country heritage during a late afternoon set. “I don’t have to change,” he told the crowd, referencing a 50-plus year career that began during the final years of the Stanley Brothers. “And I won’t.”

With that, Sparks’ strong-as-oak tenor singing ignited “New Highway” and bolstered the a capella “I Don’t Regret a Mile,” both title tunes to late career gospel albums that revealed an unwavering resilience to contemporary intrusion. Ditto for Sparks’ country-esque hit “John Deere Tractor” and the wildfire instrumental “Katie Hill” that illuminated the giddy stride of his Lonesome Ramblers band.

The odd act out was Nashville’s Hogslop String Band, which played between Seldom Scene and Town Mountain. Versed as a square dance group and promoted as an old-time string band, the quartet seemed in search of a sort of primitive traditionalism that groups like Old Crow Medicine Show have efficiently adopted in recent decades.

There was an obvious disconnect in presenting that mission last night, however. Clawhammer banjoist Daniel Binkley and especially fiddler Kevin Martin were up for that challenge, offering an earnest, edgy drive to tunes like “Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia” and “Greasy Coat.” But Casey “Pickle” McBride, who played the single-string washtub bass, spent much of his stage time boasting of his inebriated state, which seemed to, at times, understandably perturb his bandmates. “Boy, you’re making a fool of yourself,” remarked guitarist/vocalist Gabriel Kelley at one point. Yes, he was.

In an evening dominated by artful and decisive bluegrass command, this set was amateur hour.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass (friday)

The Cleverlys. Clockwise from top left: DVD Cleverly, Cub Cleverly, Sock Cleverly, Ricky Lloyd and Digger Cleverly.

You got the sense the kids staged a takeover as the Festival of the Bluegrass’ Friday night lineup got underway at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. That’s an exaggeration, of course. But with usual Friday headliners Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out unable to take part this year, the festival took the almost radical step of allowing a local band to top the bill – not just that, but a still somewhat-young troupe with strong regional and mounting national followings.

The band is question last night was The Wooks, the Central Kentucky string outfit with myriad inspirations, many of which were placed on full performance display. Though the Wooks have been recording with former JD Crowe protégé Rickey Wasson in Clay City of late, much of its set was devoted to its still-popular and progressively-minded debut album “Little Circles.” The fare shifted from the brisk sweep of “Out of Mine” (which set the pace for much of the performance) to the woozier, waltz-inclined sway of “County Girl” to a cover of “Atlantic City” that owed more to The Band’s mandolin-driven 1993 version than to Bruce Springsteen’s somber 1982 original.

Fortified by the instrumental drive of its two newest members, mandolinist Harry Clark and banjoist George Wagman, the Wooks began previewing new music in the middle of the set through tunes geared alternately to jam-style accessibility and traditional finesse.

The Wooks still lean heavily on cover tunes to flesh out their sets. Last night, some worked better than others. The traditionally inclined “Down the Road” (a staple of Wasson’s tenure with Crowe) and a spirited take on John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream” fit nicely within the band’s cross-generational matrix. But a few Grateful Dead-leaning works – in particular, “Franklin’s Tower” – seemed a little static aside from a durable vocal lead by bassist Roddy Puckett. Though still a young band, The Wooks have matured well past the point of having to rely on such overly familiar jam band staples to flesh out setlists.

Before that was one of the festival’s all-time great curiosities, the Arkansas pseudo-family band known as The Cleverlys. The quintet that continually referred to itself as a trio was, on many levels, a comedy act that translated contemporary pop, rock and even hip hop tunes into bluegrass excursions. As an example of its irreverence, The Cleverlys opened the set with an instrumental that revealed considerable chops among all five members followed by a brief, choral-style salute to Bill Monroe. Then the band jumped off the stylistic cliff by playing “Gangnam Style” complete with Korean verses and beatbox-style percussion.

In the 90 minutes that followed, The Cleverlys provided string band reworkings of the Blackstreet/Dr. Dre mashup “No Diggity,” Yes’ 1983 comeback hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and Beck’s ‘90s moodpiece “Loser.” Curiously, guitarist/frontman Digger Cleverly led the band through a straight-faced version of Herb Pedersen’s “Wait a Minute,” a tune long ago adopted as a performance centerpiece by The Seldom Scene.

“You must have been starved for that,” Cleverly remarked after the song concluded without jokes or a drastic stylistic makeover. “Especially after all that junk we’ve been playing.”

The elders had their say when the evening began with the return of Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time. The Lawrence County native, making his first festival appearance in nearly two decades, went right for the narrative jugular of bluegrass – meaning he sang a lot of songs about death. There was plaintive and poetic death (“Where the Mountain Lillies Grow”), remorseful death that even spiritual salvation can’t redeem (“Pud Marcum’s Hangin’”), the metaphorical death of traditional country music (“Murder on Music Row”) and, at its most extreme, the death of a chicken destined for a skillet (“Yardbird”).

While much of his material – and, at times, delivery – generously leaned to country as much as bluegrass, Cordle proved an amiable and open frontman, whether he was delivering the hapless road reverie “Highway 40 Blues” or celebrating string music’s communal disposition with the new “Bluegrass Junction.” Both were light, inviting works highlighted by sterling dobro playing from Kim Gardner that pulled Cordle and company above the levels of murderous elegance that inhabit many of his songs like dinner guests.

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