Archive for in performance

in performance: asleep at the wheel

Asleep at the Wheel. Standing, from left: David Sanger, David Miller, Eddie Rivers, Jay Reynolds. Seated, from left: Emily Gimble, Ray Benson, Katie Shore. Photo by Wyatt McSpadden.

Asleep at the Wheel. Standing, from left: David Sanger, David Miller, Eddie Rivers, Jay Reynolds. Seated, from left: Emily Gimble, Ray Benson, Katie Shore. Photo by Wyatt McSpadden.

You could have had the worst Monday known to mankind and it would not have mattered, providing you were on hand earlier tonight as Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel turned the Lyric Theatre into a Lone Star dance hall.

Born not in its four decade old home of Austin but in rural West Virginia (“the suburbs of Paw Paw,” as Benson put it tonight), Asleep at the Wheel is a multi-generational ambassador of Western swing – a light, elegant but driving sound that blends the seemingly incongruous camps of country and jazz.

During its featured set tonight for the 800th taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Benson remained the sheriff of swingtown as well as an ageless cheerleader for Asleep at the Wheel’s richly animated songs. But if anything defined the band’s country-jazz mash-up, it was the jubilant instrumental harmony created by clarinetist/saxophonist Jay Reynolds, fiddler Katie Shore and especially lap steel guitarist Eddie Rivers. All were spirited soloists, but when they combined forces on bright melody lines, the trio made Asleep at the Wheel sound like a full swing orchestra.

Then again, there were several instances when the band became exactly that. Once the Quebe Sisters (a fiddle trio from Fort Worth that played like swing scholars and sang like the Andrew Sisters) and their rhythm players joined in, the ensemble grew to a dozen players. That gave Western swing classics like Navajo Trail and Miles and Miles of Texas a huge, sweeping sound that enveloped the theatre.

The thrust of the performance was Still the King, Asleep at the Wheel’s third and newest tribute album to Texas swing patriarch Bob Wills. Benson has long been a natural for Wills’ fiddle-savvy music as well as its inherent sense of playfulness, which was expertly emphasized on the mischievous I Hear Ya Talkin’.

But not even the iconic Wills could contain Asleep at the Wheel’s massive sound. When Benson, Rivers and a monstrous blast of boogie-woogie piano from Emily Gimble ignited on Route 66 (along with giddy vocal tradeoffs from Benson, Gimble and Shore), the music became as big and robust as a Texas twilight.

in performance: natalie macmaster and donnell leahy

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

The promise by Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy to transport a Sunday afternoon audience at the EKU Center for the Arts to Cape Breton, the Canadian headquarters of Scottish inspired fiddle music, didn’t initially sound too fetching to some in attendance.

“Canada? Really? After this week?” remarked one patron seated nearby who was likely still in thaw mode following the 18 inches of snow that buried Richmond three days earlier. But much like the abundant sunshine and 50 degree temps that were defrosting the city yesterday, the mix of contemporary and traditional jigs, airs and reels offered by MacMaster and Leahy made Cape Breton seem especially inviting.

Presenting a program titled Visions from Cape Breton and Beyond, the husband and wife duo offered an understandably varied representation of the island’s fiddle traditions. MacMaster is a Cape Breton native and one of the great modern champions of her homeland’s dance hall inspired music. That was especially evident during vibrant string blasts supported only by piano. Leahy grew up in Ontario with a mother who was a Cape Breton step dancer. So, needless to say, everyone’s feet were flying yesterday, from the stars of the show to three of their six children (all of whom were also wickedly adept fiddlers for their young ages) to band members.

Of course, the program did mention the music would venture “beyond” Cape Breton. As such, several medleys were full of multi-stylistic charm. The show opening St. Nick’s, merrily shifted between Celtic flavored fun and Americanized swing while The Chase allowed in classical and even gypsy flavored accents.

But the most richly emotive tune was also the one truest to Cape Breton itself. During the centuries old Scottish air Hector the Hero, MacMaster downshifted to explore a melody of simple, sterling beauty. Fittingly, a simultaneous video backdrop depicted Cape Breton not as some coastal branch of the Great White North, but as a retreat of rolling green countryside that could have passed for Scotland itself.

The visuals, and the lovely music they accentuated, may have been intended as a beckoning from a far away land that suggested an even farther away land. Yesterday, though, it was hard to view Hector’s mix of green hills and plaintive fiddle lyricism as anything other than an invitation to spring.

in performance : cameron carpenter

cameron carpenter.

cameron carpenter.

The only costume change a very all-business Cameron Carpenter allowed himself last night at Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts in Danville was the between-set exchange of a long sleeve shirt covered in fashionable graffiti for a black t-shirt with the Centre logo embossed in glitter.

“I’ll be sure to wear this next week when I give a master class at Harvard.” Such was one of the pokerfaced quips the Julliard-educated, Grammy nominated artist peppered a two hour display of his remarkable international touring organ with.

While humor played a modest role in the performance, Carpenter’s plan of action was implementing a largely classical repertoire to showcase a self-designed instrument that was essentially a digital hybrid of a traditional pipe organ and the comparatively contemporary theater organ.

The instrument, along with several massive banks of speakers (including one augmented with large, horn-shaped resonators) cut imposing figures onstage and created rich waves of sound, especially on organ pieces like Bach’s Toccata in F Major, that circulated to fill every corner within the Norton Center’s Newlin Hall.

But as distinctive as the gadgetry was, it was Carpenter’s technical command and sense of playfulness that made the program so engaging. The show opening treatment of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and the second set-closer, Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, were performed with scholarly cool, despite the compositional storm the latter brewed into, that made the music seem more inviting than imposing.

The more playfully devilish side of Carpenter’s performance profile emerged during Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture. Here, the Wurlitzer half of the international touring organ presented itself with an accent resembling a calliope. Together with Carpenter’s exact but highly animated phrasing, the piece took on an almost cartoon-like quality.

The program happily strayed from classical works, as well. A second set medley of George Gershwin tunes was designed, according to the mohawked organist, to “let my inner nerd run free, not that it hasn’t already.” But the performance turned decidedly summery for an encore of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse chestnut Pure Imagination that briefly brought to mind the subtle, lyrical playing of an altogether different organ pioneer, Booker T. Jones.

All that and a Centre shirt, too – kind of makes you wonder if Harvard will be hip enough to handle it all next week.

in performance: the hot sardines

the hot sardines. from left: joe mcdonough, evan "sugar" crane, jason prover, alex raderman, "miz" elizabeth bougerol, evan "bibs" palazzo, "fast" eddy francisco and nick meyers.  photo by leann mueller/decca records.

the hot sardines. from left: joe mcdonough, evan “sugar” crane, jason prover, alex raderman, “miz” elizabeth bougerol, evan “bibs” palazzo, “fast” eddy francisco and nick meyers. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

“We’re going to dedicate this one to your weather,” said Hot Sardines singer “Miz” Elizabeth Bougerol last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond.

With that, the New York swing troupe devised a quiet killer of a jazz delicacy that seemed to glow from the inside out. It began with a serving of piano blues and bowed bass from bandleader Evan “Bibs” Palazzo and Evan “Sugar” Crane that lingered like a dark lullaby. Brass eventually oozed in before Bougerol gave the brewing music a stark but decidedly torchy turn. A trumpet coda from Jason Prover brought everything to a boil before a final ensemble blast let the air out and brought this subtle but deceptively intense display to a close.

The tune, fittingly enough, was Summertime. While this was perhaps the one tune in the 90 minute show least indicative of the Hot Sardines’ studious swing, it made for the most distinctive and captivating performance of the evening.

The rest of the program generated more of party atmosphere with a mix of standards penned or popularized by Fats Waller, Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby and others along with band originals that used pre-World War II swing and jazz as their home bases before taking a number of inventive stylistic strolls.

The wilder turns included an instrumental version of Blue Skies that became a fun performance vehicle for tap dancer “Fast” Eddy Francisco, a revision of The Jungle Book’s I Wanna Be Like You sung by Bougerol in French (but fortified with enough American jazz sass to make the resulting music sound more French Quarter than French) and a set closing Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen that curiously placed most of the band’s eight members on their backs on the stage floor, including reed player Nick Meyers. His concluding clarinet solo sounded like it had erupted out the venue’s basement.

The one member who did not wind up horizontal during the song was a very pregnant Bougerol. When asked by an audience member when her baby was due, the singer dryly replied, ‘Well, if we don’t get this song started…”

in performance: gregory porter

gregory porter.

gregory porter.

“I was baptized to the sound of horns,” sang Gregory Porter by way of introduction last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. While that was perhaps not the most telling verse to the nature of the Grammy winning artist’s talents (Porter is a vocalist and songwriter, not a horn player), it did reference the level of jazz culture the performance was steeped in.

In fact, the song that line was pulled from, On My Way to Harlem, was a reflection of the formative musicians (Duke Ellington) and writers (Langston Hughes) that obviously resonated with Porter and the community that helped cultivate them (“Marvin Gaye, he used to play What’s Going On right over there”).

On record, Porter stresses songs as well as style by addressing romance, family and spirituality with just enough of a traditional soul pedigree to recall the great Bill Withers. In performance, though, jazz takes over. Last night, Porter’s phrasing shifted from glorious lyrical understatement to gospel-level vigor to blasts of clear, unwavering baritone. With the help of a resourceful back up quartet, every style was spoken with a commanding jazz accent.

No Dying Love, Wolfcry and Hey Laura, three of the seven songs performed from the 2013 Grammy winning Liquid Spirit album, illustrated the cool side of Porter’s performance persona. No Dying Love sported expert ensemble color, the powerful but exquisitely controlled love affirmation Wolfcry was performed as an elegant duet with pianist Chip Crawford and the especially Withers-esque Hey Laura balanced the sleekness of Porter’s singing with flute support from Yosuke Sato.

The title tune to Liquid Spirit, however, was all revivalist release punctuated by a gospel groove and a piano breakdown from Crawford that was as volcanic as Porter’s singing was sweet.

Porter and band saved perhaps their most complete performance for last – specifically, an encore of Be Good (Lion’s Song) buoyed by a bass solo from Aaron James that seemed to sing with its own independent melody, warm and conversational rhythms from drummer Emanuel Harrold and a vocal turn from Porter full of poise, authority and effortless soul.

in performance: cyrille aimee

cyrille aimee .

cyrille aimee .

When introductions were made last night for Cyrille Aimee and her band at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre, you got the idea you were sitting in on a United Nations summit. One of the singer’s two guitarists came from French and Italian parentage, her drummer was born in England but raised in Sri Lanka and her bassist possessed a purely Aussie heritage. Then there was Aimee herself, the daughter of a French father and Dominican mother who lived in Paris, Cameroon and Singapore before settling into her current home – Brooklyn.

As globally inclined as those backgrounds are, they paled last night next to the world music accents that went into Aimee’s music. Billed as a jazz vocalist (as appropriate a title as any given her exact but understated phrasing and the trombone-like timbre of her scat singing), Aimee scanned multiple countrysides for her repertoire and the musical accents that brought them to live.

The bulk of the program centrally placed the singer between two distinct guitarists –acoustic stylist Adrien Moignard and hollow-body electric player Michael Valeanu. The resulting balance combined lyrical elements of Euro-flavored gypsy jazz and Brazilian music. Such a mix also proved a flattering backdrop for the gentle huskiness of Aimee’s singing during Bamboo Shoots (one of nine songs performed from her 2014 album It’s a Good Day) and a springboard for the concert’s more playful instances, like the car chase tempo driven by drummer Rajiv Jayaweera and bassist Sam Anning during Love Me or Leave Me.

Band and singer matched wits as well as technique during a pair of dramatically retooled pop classics. The first, The Doors’ People Are Strange, allowed Aimee to slow the psychedelic slant of the vocals so the tune could morph into a noir-style confession. Later, the Michael Jackson hit Off the Wall surrendered to a warm, richly rhythmic melody geographically situated somewhere between Brazil and Mali. The gliding subtlety of Aimee’s singing then completed an arrangement that recalled The Rhythm of the Saints-era Paul Simon.

An Aimee original One Way Ticket (inspired by yet another port-of-call, India) and a loose, lively reading of Duke Ellington’s Caravan brought the journey home, certifying Aimee as a spry but fearless global music ambassador in the process.

in performance: california guitar trio with tony levin

california guitar trio: paul richards, hideyo moriya and bert lams.

california guitar trio: paul richards, hideyo moriya, bert lams.

At the very heart of the California Guitar Trio’s music sits a happily unbreakable bond with prog rock mainstay King Crimson. Group members Paul Richards, Bert Lams and Hideyo Moriya met over 25 years ago while studying with Crimson chieftain Robert Fripp, were introduced to mass audiences as an opening act on Crimson’s storied 1995 comeback tour and have long maintained the exact and often cyclical nature of Fripp’s guitar work in their own playing.

While Fripp may have formulated the alliance, longstanding Crimson bassist Tony Levin continues to uphold it. He has produced and performed on several of the CGT’s recordings and, when time permits (Levin has also served as Peter Gabriel’s bassist since the late ‘70s and co-leads his own band, Stick Men), tours as an auxiliary member of the trio. Last night’s sold out performance at the St. Xavier Performance Center in Cincinnati was one of the increasingly few dates to feature all four players and, my, what a delight it was.

The CGT’s usual stylistic dexterity was again on full display, both in terms of repertoire (original works, classical pieces, rock covers, surf tunes and an especially captivating jazz surprise) and instrumentation (three acoustic guitars capably augmented by pedal effects that mimic electric string instruments). As usual, technique was executed in a manner that was completely unassuming, from the dizzying completeness of Bach’s familiar Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (the only piece of the evening performed without Levin) to the loosely animated surf favorite Walk Don’t Run to the very Fripp-eresque original Yamanashi Blues.

tony levin.

tony levin.

For all of the deep end power Levin has displayed onstage through the years with Crimson and Gabriel, he was a portrait of taste and understatement last night. On two beautiful CGT originals, Eve and the new What Spring Does With Cherry Trees, his playing on fretless upright electric bass eschewed the usual role of rhythm maker to become a fourth melodic voice for the group. Such harmony was seamlessly expressed on the gorgeously wistful Spiritual, a tune cut 15 years ago by another outstanding guitar/bass combination, jazz greats Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden.

The surf staple Misirlou brought the party to close with a cheery groove and a roomful of and syncopated handclaps. It was the sound of giants at play.

in performance: keb’ mo’

keb' mo'

keb’ mo’

“Put your clothes back on, baby. We’re going to the mall.”

That delicious little no sequitur spilled out of Keb’ Mo’ last night at the Lexington Opera House in the middle of Dangerous Mood, the one tune in the two hour program that approximated traditional blues. But even that was sung with a knowing wink. If it summoned the blues inspirations that defined a portion of the Grammy winning song stylist’s musical persona, it also reflected considerably more of his mood – relaxed, whimsical and a little fearless.

While Mo’ and his three member band stressed new material with a generous sampling of songs from his 2014 album BLUESAmericana, the performance very much played to the Mo’ we know. What he played wasn’t blues by any strict definition, nor was that the intention. It was a sleek meshing of pop and soul that could have passed as an Americana version of Steely Dan. From the warm, hopeful cast of For Better or Worse and Do It Right (both BLUESAmericana songs) to the modest urban R&B flow of 1996’s More Than One Way Home to the very suburban slant of 2004’s Shave Yo’ Legs, Mo’ was very much the pop soul everyman. He seemed to revel playing the part, too.

There were a few instances that weren’t so much an exception to the show’s amiable but precise feel as an extension of it. For instance, The Old Me Better, an amusing BLUESAmericana yarn about marital metamorphosis previewed as an acoustic yarn at Mo’s 2014 Opera House outing, was playfully beefed up last night by drummer Casey Wasner’s double duty turns on kazoo. The results turned the song into a sort of jugband shuffle. There were also several fine guitar solos from Mo’ throughout the performance, including one during The Whole Enchilada that nicely complimented his band’s cool, exact groove.

The encore segment was a bit odd, though. After She Just Wants to Dance brought more than a few engaged patrons to their feet, the wheels came off during a few unplanned tunes of Mo’s choosing that ground to a halt with BLUESAmericana’s finale song So Long Goodbye.

Mo’ admitted the concert technically ended She Just Wants to Dance and that the final skirmishes constituted a rehearsal. Okay. But are songs full of botched lyrics and cues really how you want to take a show home? Rehearsal or not, it was a surprisingly deflating end to a show that seemed to pride itself on its balance of precision and feel.

in performance: ken vandermark

ken vandermark.

ken vandermark.

Ken Vandermark wound up a five day, four city Kentucky residency last night at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacob Niles Center for American Music armed with only three instruments. There were no collaborators to shoot ideas off of and no rhythm section to serve as a backdrop (or safety net). The performance simply presented the veteran Chicago composer, bandleader and reed specialist playing in a totally improvised (“that means I don’t know what I’m going to do”) and unamplified environment. Alone.

If that suggests a sterile concert environment or, in the opposite extreme, an opportunity for very capable improvisational skills to become a weighty indulgence, rest assured that neither surfaced. Performing two untitled improvised pieces each on tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone and B-flat clarinet, Vandermark conjured music that sounded predominantly composed (it wasn’t) and soloed with an exactness that revealed remarkable variance and unexpected harmony. In doing so, the openly free passages sounded all the more volcanic.

Opening on tenor, Vandermark discovered a cyclical riff that he interspersed with short jabs of boppish counterpoint that created, in effect, a solo conversation. A brief turn of classically hued clarinet followed before Vandermark turned to the beastly baritone.

Initially, he brought the instrument to life with puncturing, shotgun-like blasts played so briskly and with such respiratory-like voicing that the resulting music sounded like funk. Vandermark hardly came up for air during the improv, as well, making his playing sound as fluid as it was playful.

Returning to clarinet for a longer improv on clarinet that was dedicated to Pee Wee Russell, Vandermark unfurled the tune with torchy echoes of the blues. The music’s introspective nature soon gave way to potent wails and sweeps that strayed purposely from the blues without ever forsaking them.

A second baritone adventure opened with a suitably rustic drone but soon reached for registers far above the earthy tones usually associated with the instrument. The program then concluded where it began – on tenor sax. But this time the playing took off with galloping clusters of scorched riffs repeated like a mantra. Eventually, the music burst open with fractured runs, some almost melodic, bouncing madly as if they were ricocheting off each other.

Such was the vocabulary of three instruments and an improviser possessing the cunning to make each sing with immediacy and invention.

in performance: lee ann womack

Lee Ann Womack .

Lee Ann Womack .

“I don’t know if you’re in my living room or if I’m in yours,” remarked Lee Ann Womack last night as she took in the intimate but still sold out confines of the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre.

It was an understandable estimation as the majority of the country star’s Central Kentucky concerts over the years have been relegated to show opening sets at Rupp Arena. Here, she was able to carry on in a more conversational manner. For instance, the living room comment earned a quick reply of “Yours” from an audience member, to which Womack answered back, “In that case, welcome.” Just try that kind of bonding at Rupp and see how far you get.

The intimacy of the Weisiger environment also suited the largely traditional aspects of Womack’s music, especially the Americana slant of her 2014 Grammy-nominated album, The Way I’m Livin’.

Easily her best reviewed recording in a decade, The Way I’m Livin’ was featured prominently during the 1 ¾ hour performance. Specifically, that translated into a setlist that boasted 9 of the record’s 13 tunes. Highlights included electric and sleekly spiritual readings of Mindy Smith’s All His Saints, Julie Miller’s Don’t Listen to the Wind and Western Kentucky native Chris Knight’s Send It on Down along with the equally light but decidedly more earthbound tone of Bruce Robison’s Nightwind and the Neil Young Harvest heartbreaker Out on the Weekend.

But the Livin’ song that set off the biggest spark proved to be Hayes Carll’s Chances Are, a quietly solemn country wailer that showcased the vivid sadness, clarity and strength of Womack’s still-effortless singing.

There were also loads of career defining hits that predated the selections from The Way I’m Livin’, including the Dolly Parton-esque show opener Never Again, Again and a slice of honky tonk despair with a sense of weariness sewn right into its title: Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago.

But it was the newer material that provided a sense of subtle urgency, if not complete reinforcement, to Womack’s traditionalist roots while enhancing an overall performance intimacy that seemed to delight audience and artist alike.

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