Archive for in performance

saturday at forecastle

ruth "mama bear" ward performing this afternoon at forecastle. all photos by rich copley.

ruth “mama bear” ward performing this afternoon at forecastle. all photos by rich copley.

1:42 p.m.: LOUISVILLE – “How are you fine people in Kentuckiana doing this afternoon?”

That was the greeting Pokey LaFarge gave as Forecastle’s main entertainment (on the aptly christened Mast Stage, no less) got cranking this afternoon. With the storm threats of the previous evening at bay and a blast of mid-July sun beating down, the answer from the audience was openly affirmative.

Forecastle’s secondary Boom Stage actually got underway first with the mother-and-son Americana duo of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear and its brief serving of folk blues infused by son Madisen’s ringing falsetto and matriarch Ruth’s rugged, rootsy harmony. A lean duet version of “Modern Day Mystery” opened the set, but the band quickly grew into a full quartet to incorporate meaty elements of juke joint R&B, blues, ragtime-drenched folk and more.

LaFarge similarly mined vintage sources for a more revue-oriented, dance hall-derived set that allowed his animated tenor singing to serve as ringmaster for the gospel soul swing of ‘Something in the Water’ while the castanet clicking, clarinet moaning stride of “Goodbye, Barcelona” solidified the slow broil of the Waterfront Park environment. But it was the suitably border town feel of the Warren Zevon classic ‘Carmelita’ that best suited Forecastle’s summertime, riverside feel.

sarah jarosz at forecastle.

sarah jarosz at forecastle.

4:08 p.m.: Bridging multiple folk generations was Sarah Jarosz. Her all-too-brief Boom Stage set with guitarist Jedd Hughes and bassist Jeff Picker began with the banjo-led clarity of “Annabelle Lee” and sifted through the years to the fragile, autumnal reflection of “Built Up from Bones’ before reaching the gorgeous, atmospheric glow of the new “Green Lights.” To show she had not forsaken her roots, Jarosz delivered Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” as an affirmation of lovely poetic ambience.

Austin song stylist Shakey Graves placed less emphasis on dynamics and more on course immediacy. While he traveled down an acoustic sideroad early on with “Word of Mouth” (offset by an introductory claim of being “the first person to tell you the wrong thing to do”), Graves specialty was summoning waves of one-man-band electric guitar frenzy delivered with hootenanny style glee. Though appealing thanks to its raggedly spontaneous intent, the set ultimately fell victim to its own senses of weighty static and indulgence.

6:11 p.m.: By the time Something Corporate/Jack’s Mannequin songster Andrew McMahon (under his newest performance moniker of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness) took the stage around 4:30, the audience sized at Forecastle had doubled. A tireless McMahon responded with the anthemic and chirpy piano based pop of “High Dive” and more. Despite his limitless onstage energy, though, the sheer brightness of McMahon’s melodic drive didn’t offer much variance, making his set’s sea of good vibes sound a touch stagnant.

The Arcs, the psychedelic soul leaning side project of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, delivered a carnival sound anchored by the sharp R&B grooves instigated by the band’s twin guitar/twin drum charge. “Velvet Ditch” started the fun, but by the time the all female Mariachi Flor de Toloache joined in, the sound became a swirling, orchestral mix of soul chants, fuzzy guitar and orchestral might that shifted from the very Black Keys-esque “Pistol Made of Bones” to a fascinating, neo-fusion makeover of the forgotten Motown hit “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” Highlight set of the day so far.

dr. dog bassist and vocalist toby leaman taking a turn on guitar.

dr. dog bassist and vocalist toby leaman taking a turn on guitar.

8:09 p.m.: If The Arcs opened up a psychedelic soul vortex, Dr. Dog took the reins and sent the festival down a psychedelic pop alleyway. The pop element was key here. While all kinds of trippy, proggish turns surfaced in the Philly band’s evening set, there was also a melodic precision where the pop elements took over. Bassist/guitarist/vocalist Toby Leaman led the more spacious, exact and often patient melodies of “Cuckoo” and especially “Bring My Baby Back while the ensemble push behind “Be the Void” settled into fascinating keyboard and percusssion chatter before surrendering to silence and, after a few bewildering moments for the audience, a volcanic coda that affirmed the song’s – and the band’s – panoramic pop vision.

The Los Angeles troupe Local Natives delivered a considering more elemental and yet still appealing pop sound with a decidedly ’80s slant that owed to bands like U2 in its chiming, riff-fortified sound. It was a good natured set with layers of bright, atmospheric harmonies and a few surprises – like the guitar outbursts that erupted out of the new “Past Lives.”

brittany howard and alabama shakes conclude the saturday lineup.

brittany howard and alabama shakes concluded the saturday lineup.

10:36 p.m.: The Boom Stage’s Saturday bill ended rather unceremoniously with the self-described “livetronica” duo Big Gigantic. Playing sax and drums over set-in-stone pop-soul beats, grooves and even vocals, Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken were ringmasters for this party platform. The crowd loved it and danced along fervently. But given the makeup, someone could have hired a rudimentary DJ and produced the same effect.

The headliner, though, did not disappoint. The only act of the day to take the stage in darkness, Alabama Shakes designed an earthshaking kaleidoscope of soul sounds that used the piercing falsetto of Brittany Howard and the resulting “Future People” as its commanding greeting. From there, the set was all atomic testimony, from the locomotive gospel-soul of “Always Alright” to the vocal coo and lurch of “Miss You.” It was nothing for the Shakes to shift from R&B chill to grudge match intensity that let the love and fury of Howard’s singing run loose. But the killer was Heartbreaker, a take-no-prisoners torch song that began with Howard lit alone onstage amid waves of purple and blue. What she summoned from there was churchy in its conviction and full tilt monster soul in its patient, potent delivery.

in performance: universal indians with joe mcphee

joe McPhee.

joe McPhee.

After an introductory 17 minute ensemble improvisation full of free jazz fury tempered slightly at times by solo and duo dynamics, Universal Indians tenor saxophonist John Dikeman popped open a can of soda. As taking a few sips, Norwegian bandmates Jon Rune Strom and Tollef Ostvang engaged in comparatively pastoral dialogue on bass and bells, respectively. Seemingly restless, Dikeman then jumped back into a steadily mounting ruckus built around the Ornette Coleman staple Lonely Woman that would bounce, recoil and, at times, serenade with subtle texture over the next half hour.

Remarked one patron after the full hour-long Outside the Spotlight performance drew to a close earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center: “So that’s what a can of Ale 8 will do for you.”

Dikeman, a Wyoming native now based in Amsterdam, represented one of two jazz generations at work – one fascinated with the gusto, immediacy and especially volume brewed within a free jazz group. As such, his unamplified solos, especially within the echo-filled environment of the Lyric’s Community Room, possessed earsplitting volume early into the show. Fittingly, Dikeman physically threw himself into such moments, bopping back and forth from the waist up with rock star-like abandon.

In contrast was Universal Indians’ special guest Joe McPhee, a Poughkeepsie mainstay who, at age 76, has been a jazz renegade for nearly 50 years. McPhee’s playing on alto saxophone and the marvelous pocket trumpet wasn’t nearly so forward, physical or obvious. His soloing utilized space, breath and tone far more than Dikeman. But that didn’t stop him from making the pocket trumpet squeal like an approaching siren out of hushed dissonance the two times he played it.

There were also instances where McPhee and Dikeman teamed to embrace melody. Those times were brief and fractured, but they were immensely colorful, as in the moments where the beauty of Lonely Woman’s theme finally arrived like a fashionably late guest. The same held true when McPhee concluded the Coleman tribute with a snippet of South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza’s You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me, a tune regularly covered by another overseas trio the elder saxophonist often collaborates with, The Thing. With Universal Indians, though, the melody served as a cross-generational coda fueled equally by youthful fire and sagely reflection.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass (saturday afternoon)

town mountain: phil barker, jack devereux, adam chaffins, robert greer and jesse langlais. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

town mountain: phil barker, jack devereux, adam chaffins, robert greer and jesse langlais. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

“It’s another hot one, isn’t it?”

That was the observation of Town Mountain’s Robert Greer as yesterday afternoon’s temps shot near the ‘90s at the Kentucky Horse Park for the Festival of the Bluegrass. The heat may have sent many patrons scrambling for the shade, but the sounds served up for the remaining faithful combined for a remarkable showcase of two bands representing two string music generations.

The ascension of Town Mountain as one of the festival’s premiere acts was demonstrated in a set that emphasized the North Carolina’s quintet’s obvious strengths – specifically, a rugged ensemble charge (showcased at once during the show opening Tick on a Dog), ample stylistic dexterity (the honky tonk drive of Whiskey With Tears) and individual firepower (Greer’s joyous vocals, Phil Barker’s quick-witted mandolin picking).

Curiously, the ingenuity of Town Mountain’s set came down to two cover tunes. The first, the Grateful Dead by way of Johnny Cash classic Big River was all jovial country reinvention while the Cash by way of Sting gem I Hung My Head, with Lawrence County bassist Adam Chaffins on lead vocals, ignited the country core of a pop nugget, transforming it into a woeful Western epic that equaled classics like The Long Black Veil.

the seldom scene: rickie simpkins, lou reid, dudley connell and fred travers.

the seldom scene: rickie simpkins, lou reid, dudley connell and fred travers.

Yesterday afternoon also sported the return of The Seldom Scene, a festival mainstay and, until last year, the event’s Saturday evening headliner (Town Mountain now has that distinction). But with the addition of banjoist Rickie Simpkins on banjo, the band added a new dimension to an already diverse sounding unit, not to mention a welcome boost of new artistic blood.

The band’s three vocalists – guitarist Dudley Connell, dobroist Fred Travers and mandolinist Lou Reid – boldly spelled out the range of the current Scene lineup. Connell offered a sobering and solemn reading of Blue Diamond Mine while Travers’ high tenor singing brought new life to What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ ‘Round (a tune that reaches back to the band’s 1972 debut album, Act 1). But Reid pretty much owned the show with a galvanizing vocal lead on the plaintive ballad I Couldn’t Find My Walkin’ Shoes, a wild harmonic wail under Connell during the tipsy waltz From the Bottom of the Glass and nimble mandolin runs during a white hot Sugarfoot Rag that sent Simpkins over to fiddle. The combined firepower suggest a hearty renaissance for The Seldom Scene may be at hand.

tom gray and valerie smith.

tom gray and valerie smith.

In between the two titan bands during the afternoon was Missouri native Valerie Smith and her group Liberty Pike. Smith took perhaps the boldest chances of any act on the festival bill in terms of repertoire and sheer vocal stamina, both of which reflected plenty of genre hopping.

The set list was hit and miss. Some of the curiosities of her show, like George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun, proved an ill fit. But other, more extreme choices such as the 1975 Jessie Colter country hit I’m Not Lisa revealed a surprisingly fertile framework for strong harmonizing. For her wildest choice, Smith and bassist Tom Gray (curiously, a founding member of The Seldom Scene) soared out of bluegrass altogether for the jazzy stride of Buzzed that made for a fun and audacious festival diversion.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass (friday afternoon)

shawn lane and gaven largent of blue highway performing yesterday at the festival of the bluegrass. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

shawn lane and gaven largent of blue highway performing yesterday at the festival of the bluegrass at the kentucky horse park. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

The elephant in the room was more like one stomping about in the campground of the Kentucky Horse Park yesterday as Blue Highway took the stage for its afternoon set at the Festival of the Bluegrass. The elephant, in this instance, was the absence of dobroist and co-founder Rob Ickes, one of modern bluegrass music’s most recognized and awarded instrumentalists, who split amicably with the band late last year. Blue Highway guitarist and co-vocalist Tim Stafford wasted no time in addressing the question of “Where’s Rob?” But the explanation became more of an introduction for 20 year old Gaven Largent, Ickes’ replacement.

The Virginia native turned out to be quite complimentary to the rest of the Blue Highway lineup, which consisted exclusively of founding members. But it was also a wisely paced introduction. During the afternoon set, Largent largely sidestepped the kind of hearty soloing that distinguished Ickes and opted more for a natural integration into the band’s song structures, whether he was weaving his playing around the breaks of banjoist Jason Burleson and fiddler Shawn Lane or fortifying the leisurely paced Just to Have to a Job.

Largent wasn’t the only new face in Blue Highway yesterday. Daniel Salyer sat in for bassist Wayne Taylor who is recuperating from cardiac bypass surgery. Salyer more than stepped up to the plate by adding to the gospel quartet harmonies of Bill Monroe’s Wicked Path of Sin and supplying accomplished high tenor lead vocals to covers of the Stanley Brothers’ Little Maggie and Flatt & Scruggs’ The Old Home Town.

russell moore and jerry cole of IIIrd tyme out.

russell moore and jerry cole of IIIrd tyme out.

In contrast, a following set by Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, a longtime Festival of the Bluegrass favorite, was largely business as usual.

Designed as a celebration of sorts for the band’s 25th anniversary, the set drew upon songs vintage (the hard labor lullaby Moundsville Pen from IIIrd Tyme Out’s self titled 1991 debut album, which Moore curiously said “set the tone” for the quintet’s music) as well as numerous tunes from 2015’s It’s Almost Tyme. Highlights included I’m Leaving You and Fort Worth Too, which underscored the tireless drive of Moore’s singing, and the expert Wayne Benson instrumental Spindale, with the latter dispensing swiftly animated but unhurried runs on mandolin.

dara wray of blue mafia.

dara wray of blue mafia.

The Missouri band Blue Mafia, making its Festival of the Bluegrass debut, closed out the afternoon and early evening program with the day’s most traditionally minded performance, right down to the dark contours of Your Last Breath, a eulogy mandolinist and co-vocalist Dara Wray dubbed “a love song.”

The playing and harmonies were all crisply delivered, but Blue Mafia still has a ways to go in establishing a musical identity of its own. While it was refreshing to hear the band avoid the pseudo country accents that plague many young bluegrass acts, what was on display yesterday was largely perfunctory. As amiable and adept as the performance was, one hopes the band can develop a voice of its own to stand out more in a bluegrass field that the festival yesterday reminded us was still as stylistically diverse as it was vast.

in performance: sturgill simpson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in performance: the james hunter six/liz vice

james hunter. photo by mark shaw.

james hunter. photo by mark shaw.

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

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

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

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

in performance: alejandro escovedo

alejandro escovedo. photo by todd wolfson.

alejandro escovedo. photo by todd wolfson.

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

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

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

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

in performance: pearl jam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in performance: james taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in performance: drivin’ n’ cryin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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