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in performance: pat metheny unity group

PatMethenyUnityBand

pat metheny unity band: chris potter, giulio carmassi, ben williams, antonio sanchez and pat metheny.

Pat Metheny may just be the closest thing the contemporary jazz world has to a slight of hand magician. During a tireless 2 ½ hour performance last night at the KCD Theater in Louisville, not everything was what it seemed. He conjured acoustic sounds from an electric guitar and later squeezed electric firepower out of an acoustic guitar. Oh, and those keyboard and percussion sounds the audience heard chattering away for most of the night were actually the non-man made products of the Rube Goldberg-like Orchestrion.

Even the evening’s repertoire was a surprise. With two albums under his belt by two different versions of his Unity Group, one might suppose Metheny would go the route of the typical jazzer and discard material that could be viewed as a product of the past. Well, that wasn’t the case either.

After a show-opening exhibition on the double-necked harp guitar, the founding members of the Unity Group – saxophonist/bass clarinetist/flutist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez – ran through a quartet of meaty mainstream tunes – two of which, The Bat and Folk Song No. 1 came from Metheny’s seminal 80/81 album (the guitarist’s first recording away from the fusion fold) with the others, Roofdogs and Come and See, hailing from his current troupe’s 2012 debut album, Unity Band.

The name change from Unity Band to Unity Group for the new Kin album is more telling than it appears. The new lineup, which added Italian multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi to the quartet, brought a heightened lyricism and orchestral sheen to the music that often recalled the guitarist’s career defining Pat Metheny Group. But Carmassi was often an invisible presence, figuratively and literally, last night. He seldom soloed and was hidden from much of the audience’s view behind Sanchez. And while he is credited with playing over a dozen instruments on Kin, the majority of what would have been his onstage duties were handled by the Orchestration.

As much a living science experiment as anything else, the Orchestrion is a computer triggeed assembly of instruments – mostly percussive devices along with two cabinets of bottles and jugs that were used as homemade chambers for keyboard sounds. Together with the fiercely organic sounds of the Unity Group, Kin tunes like the gospel flavored Born and the anthemic On Day One, as well as the bolero-like 1982 PMG staple Are You Going With Me?, possessed a sound that was truly epic in scope.

Metheny nicely scaled back the program, though, for a series of duets with his bandmates, including a spry bit of sparring with Williams on 1976’s Bright Size Life. Perhaps the grand antithesis of the Orchestrion-directed music was an extended encore medley of melodies from throughout his 35 year that began with Phase Dance and concluded with Last Train Home. The trick? For once, there was none. Metheny served up the history lesson alone on unembellished acoustic guitar.

in performance: john fogerty

john fogerty

john fogerty.

 At this stage of his career, John Fogerty would have every right to let the swampy, textured rock and soul hits he fashioned over four decades ago as chieftain of Creedence Clearwater Revival, as well as some of the more streamlined tunes penned since then, to stand on their own. But last night at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati, there he was, racing from one end of the stage to the other, guitar in hand, egging his audience on as the 1970 Creedence classic Up Around the Bend roared through the concert grounds.

In a way, it was quite endearing to find the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer still playing the role of cheerleader for one of the most distinctive catalogues of any pop era. But it was also encouraging to witness Fogerty, at age 69, still in possession of enough vocal and physical stamina to fuel such performance vigor in the first place. While the years have mellowed some of the dark, roots-driven tone of his singing into an appealing and manageable tenor, nothing in this two hour performance resembled a golden age rocker going through the paces. This was instead a living portrait of an artist still deeply and effortlessly involved with even his most familiar music.

What music it was, too. The concert opened with eight Creedence songs – seven hits led by Travelin’ Band and Green River along with the Cosmo’s Factory epic Ramble Tamble. The latter was especially arresting as it showcased the program’s two most dominate instrumental voices – Fogerty’s guitarwork, which revealed a level of range and invention the heavily rhythmic musicianship of his Creedence days only suggested. The other belonged to drummer Kenny Aronoff, whose playing reflected elements of New Orleans groove that made it a natural fit for the Southern inclined Creedence hits. But the down beat in Aronoff’s playing was also exact, tireless and potent to the point of being atomic.

Beyond that, one could wax on for hours about the setlist alone. At the midway point came Suzie Q with its glorious feedback-enhanced guitar solo. A few songs later we heard Mystic Highway, the show’s newest work, which tempered the Creedence mystique with an Americana reality check. Best of all, perhaps, was Who’ll Stop the Rain, Fogerty’s faithfully performed remembrance of playing Woodstock.
“Everybody else got naked and stoned,” Fogerty said of the legendary festival. “But I actually remembered it.”

 

in performance: dave alvin, phil alvin and the guilty ones

dave-and-phil-alvin

dave alvin and phil alvin.

“I know you’ve been covering your ears all night,” said Dave Alvin to a patron seated next to a sizeable speaker last night at the Southgate House Revival in Newport. “But I should really warn you that things are about to get ugly.”

Up to that point, the performance the Grammy winning songwriter and guitarist was showcasing with elder sibling Phil Alvin was something of a roots rock jamboree. The initial repertoire dealt with the more acoustic driven works from their fine new Big Bill Broonzy tribute album Common Ground (All By Myself, Key to the Highway and especially the ragtime flavored instrumental Saturday Night Rub) as well as lighter fare from the brothers ‘70s and early ‘80s tenure in The Blasters (Jimmie Rodgers’ Never No More Blues) and brother Dave’s solo catalogue (the still regal King of California, which was dedicated to the Alvins’ mother). And, frankly, one could have walked home from that expansive segment and considered the evening a win.

But the “nasty” aspect had Dave switching to electric guitar and piloting the vastly rockier aspects of this highly roots conscious outing.

For the Broonzy songs, that meant riding the crest of lean, wily grooves that unfolded during Southern Flood Blues and pumping up the rockabilly sass of Truckin’ Little Woman. For the Blasters tunes, that meant serving up a big, chunky slice of roots rock fun during Border Radio and igniting the gospel-esque stride in their 1981 version of Samson and Delilah. And to prove the great Broonzy wasn’t the only inspiration at work, brother Phil delivered the ‘50s-era James Brown hit Please Please Please with the kind of combustible vocal vigor that stood in contrast to the ultra-reserved stage presence he maintained throughout the 2 ¼ hour performance.

The show wasn’t some makeshift Blasters reunion, either. In that band, the boundaries were clearly set (Phil sang, Dave wrote and played guitar). Last night, the brothers were equal partners. And while Phil’s ageless rockabilly tenor was obviously the more buoyant vocal utensil, Dave’sfolk-directed singing (especially during the anthemic Dry River and Fourth of July) nicely balanced a roots-hearty rock ‘n’ roll show fueled by extraordinary musical instinct and undeniable brotherly love.

in performance: chuck mead and his grassy knoll boys

Chuck-Mead

chuck mead.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                “Don’t forget about the big dance floor down here,” said Chuck Mead, motioning to the crawlspace in front of the stage at Willie’s Locally Known last night already occupied by a string of sizeable stage monitors.

A few couples squeezed into other available spaces to two-step (or something close to it) to the self-described “big country show” Mead brought to town. But those content to sit back and soak in the litany of traditional and roots-driven sounds the singer and his trio, the Grassy Knolls Boys, summoned certainly didn’t miss out. As a friend once told me, “You can dance to anything.” And indeed, the expert level of vital, vintage fare Mead was dishing deserved active listening from its audience.

Mead had a new album to promote, a fine Kansas-themed record call Free State Serenade that dominated roughly half of the 75 minute set.

The show-opening combination of Knee Deep in the Wakarusa River and The Devil By Their Side (which also serve as the first two tracks on Free State Serenade) were, to borrow a term from the latter tune, “cornfield shuffles” that centered around the continually spry pedal steel guitar colors of Carco Clave, a lightly toned but swiftly paced rhythm section and a vocal lead from Mead full of country reverence but also a hint of wry humor that helped seal the deal on this music.

Such a game plan further unfolded in the UFO parable Ten Light Years Away. Mead prefaced the tune with a story detailing the flatness of his home state (“There would be about six trees between you and Canada”) before the song outlined the prospect of an actual extraterrestrial landing there (“That ain’t no Chevrolet”).

The rest of the show was equally roots-driven, but drew on a wider range of source material. Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys took highly appealing stabs at tunes popularized by Buck Owens (Hello Trouble), Ray Price (Crazy Arms) and Del Reeves (Girl on the Billboard), as well as several appealing flashbacks to the singer’s tenure in the country roots band BR549. From that bunch, the beer-soaked neo-ballad Lifetime to Prove best reflected the soul, sass and solemnity that drove this Saturday night country revival.

in performance: mic harrison and the high score

MicHarrison-byAnnieClarkRankin

mic harrison. photo by annie clark rankin.

The clock was closing in on midnight at the Green Lantern as the crowd dwindled down to a small handful of patrons. Even the evening’s headliner admitted this was the latest start time he had been given for one of his shows in about four years.

But Mic Harrison and his longrunning Knoxville band The High Score carried on last night as though they were basking in prime time. Their show was fueled by a fine catalogue of elemental original tunes with a high garage rock quotient and a stylistic reach that stretched from honky tonk to surprisingly immediate post-punk jaunts. But Harrison put one in the win column with his stage demeanor alone. Despite the miniscule turnout and the late hour, his performance attitude reflected an unflinching love for his work and music. That made an already vital set sound all the merrier.

The show opening Wiser the Whiskey set the pace and temperament of the hour long set with a front line of three guitarists and a bassist, all of whom doubled as vocalists. While Harrison’s general vocal cheer recalled the mischievous immediacy that highlighted the late’90s records of the Bottle Rockets, some of the heavy lifting was left to guitarist Robbie Trosper. His meaty rhythmic jabs fortified the song’s loose groove and carved room for some serious instrumental shredding.

Elsewhere, the tunes themselves underscored – and then tinkered with – the show’s roadhouse vibe. Hey Driver, for instance, was a vintage-style trucker song with an inviting backbeat supplied by drummer Brad Henderson while Ruin of My Days (from the Harrison and the High Score’s fine 2012 album Still Wanna Fight) was a vastly involved suite that slipped a slice of ensemble psychedelia in between two passages of heavy honky that sounded like Status Quo on a rural country holiday.

The set also reached back for a pair of tunes from Harrison’s ‘90s tenure with the Knoxville power pop troupe The V-Roys (Sooner or Later and No Regrets) and two well chosen covers (Tom Petty’s Listen to her Heart and an exhaustive, show-closing take on Bob Seger’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man).

All in all, an enthusiastic, well balanced and highly intuitive performance sent to us from the other side of the Tennessee border. Too bad so few folks from the homestead showed up for the visit.

in performance: kenny vaughan

kenny vaughan

kenny vaughan.

On most Saturday nights, you’re likely to find Kenny Vaughan on the road, ripping through a country roots repertoire as guitarist for Marty Stuart. Last night, though, Vaughan was on his own at Willie’s Locally Known – and we do mean “on his own.”

With his bassist succumbing to stomach flu earlier in the day and his drummer taking another Nashville gig as a result, Vaughan performed as a true solo act. But if anything, that only heightened the stylistic breadth of his playing while giving the crowd an intimate and in depth look at one of Nashville’s premier fretmen at work.

Those expecting the kind of vintage county fare that Vaughan ignites with Stuart were rewarded with the Buck Owens-like groove of Country Music Got a Hold on Me (and a truly fearsome blast of warp speed picking that served as its coda) and the George Jones-like drive of Who’s on the Other Side of That.

But Vaughan’s setlist was hardly content to spend the evening rolling in the country. The 90 minute performance opened with the clean jazz stride of Mose Allison’s Ask Me Nice and concluded with a hearty encore of the Little Walter blues jam It Ain’t Right. The latter was one of three tunes that sported help from Lexington guitar maker Chad Underwood. The rest of the show employed loop-like pedal effects that captured and played back riffs and grooves. That effectively allowed Vaughan to serve as his own rhythm guitarist.

Such a practice has become increasingly popular among solo artists. But Vaughan’s use of such technology was judicious. It wasn’t implemented to create layer upon layer of melodies, as is the want of some guitar stylists. Vaughan used the effects primarily as a lean, rhythmic supplement to solo over during Ghost Riders in the Sky and as a harmonic device within the nocturnal jazz-blues soundscape of Mysterium.

Technology, stylistic daring and pure instrumental prowess combined during the new Vaughan instrumental Blues for Bill (a jazz centerpiece colored by a splash of psychedelia that was named after the guitarist’s one-time teacher, the then-unknown Bill Frisell) and an exquisite acoustic guitar reworking of Bill Monroe’s My Last Days on Earth. Vaughan dedicated the latter to Tommy Ramone, who died a day earlier.

Linking Monroe and The Ramones? No one but Vaughan would have attempted such a feat or made the results sound so honestly and simply poignant.

in performance: john hiatt and the combo/therobert cray band

john hiatt

john hiatt.

Their respective careers were set in motion decades ago, so it’s understandable that a double-bill performance by John Hiatt and Robert Cray would carry equal levels of expectation and nostalgia. But last night at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, both artists scored creative high points with either recent material or hearty reworkings of chestnut favorites.

The former attribute shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given how prolific both have been of late. Bluesman Cray has released seven albums of new music (excluding several fine concert recordings) since 1999. Veteran songsmith Hiatt has issued nine. He even seemed bemused last night by the fact. “Somehow,” he remarked, “they still let us makes records.”

Hiatt and his longrunning band The Combo – fortified by Louisiana drummer Kenneth Blevins, who has been playing with Hiatt on and off since his late ‘80s days with The Goners, and longtime Patty Griffin guitarist Doug Lancio – opened an 80 minute set by leaping head first into the deep pocket groove of My Business. Pulled from 2012’s Mystic Pinball album, the tune’s slyly lyrical sensibility, swampy rhythmic stride and plentiful, efficient guitar hooks defined the electric state of Hiatt’s current music. Such a fact was underscored by the coarse stride of Wind Don’t Have to Hurry (with Lancio adding brittle accents of banjo) from the forthcoming Terms of My Surrender. But the new record’s title tune veered off into the sort of light, antique jazz/minstrel plain Bob Dylan began exploring on Love & Theft.

There were oldies galore, too. The standout there was a retooled Cry Love that was set to an acoustic jamboree setting with Lancio taking the wheel on mandolin.

robert cray

robert cray.

Similarly, Cray’s performance was by no means anchored to the past. His new In My Soul bends generously to the ‘60s style pop, soul and R&B inspirations that have always been as prevalent in Cray’ music – especially in the spotless tone of his singing – as the obvious blues callings. As such, the guitarist devoted six songs during his 70 minute opening set to the album.

Some were coolly paced ballads fashioned as vehicles for the expert phrasing of Cray’s vocals. Into that column fell Fine Yesterday, a slice of summery but bittersweet Philly-style soul. What Would You Say later emphasized his ultra clean but never antiseptic guitarwork while the Richard Cousins instrumental Hip Tight Onions shot the spotlight over to keyboardist Dover Weinberg for a finger-popping, Booker T-flavored groove. Topping all of the new material, though, was Deep in My Soul, a desperate, anthemic affirmation where Cray sailed effortlessly back into the blues during a gorgeous coda solo.

The latter also held true for one of Cray’s breakthrough hits, Because of Me, which indulged in a leisurely but solemn slow fade solo that brought the quiet intensity of blues giant Otis Rush to mind.

Sadly, there were several inebriates in the Cincy crowd that used such a moment of chilled beauty to whoop, holler and needlessly call attention to themselves. Booze and social decorum – never shall they meet.

in performance: the holmes brothers/chatham county line

chatham county line

chatham county line: chandler holt, greg readling, dave wilson and john teer.

One of the major delights derived from sitting in on a live taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio comes when the program presents two acts, seemingly removed from each other as well as from the stereotypes that dog their respective genres, performing in peak but unassuming form.

Such was the case with a charming bill earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre that featured The Holmes Brothers, a group generically labeled as a blues band despite obvious its reverence for vintage soul, gospel and juke joint rock ‘n’ roll, and Chatham County Line, a quartet that borrows generously from bluegrass instrumentation but operates largely as a folk group.

holmes

the holmes brothers: sherman holmes, wendell holmes and popsy dixon.

The Holmes Brothers – real life siblings Wendell (on guitar and keyboards) and Sherman (bass) with longtime pal Popsy Dixon (drums) – remain ageless wonders. All three are in their ‘70s and revealed a natural affection for groove, soul and harmony. The three shifted vocals on four tunes from their new Brotherhood album, from Sherman’s rustic tenor lead on the lean blues excursion Drivin’ in the Drivin’ Rain to Wendell’s playful piano stride on the gospel-esque Stayed at the Party to Popsy’s syncopated percussion and low vocal pleading on Soldier of Love.

But the killer was a classic – a version of Amazing Grace led by judicious vocal whoops from Wendell and an otherworldly falsetto finale from Popsy that translated into serious testifying.

Chatham County Line, which has issued a decade’s worth of progressively minded string band music on the Yep Roc label, found a lot to like within bluegrass tradition without outwardly sounding like a bluegrass band. Singer Dave Wilson and mandolinist John Teer dressed songs from the band’s recent Tightrope album – specifically, the lightly driven Should Have Known and the spry jamboree tune Tightrope of Love – with elastic harmonies, while Wilson’s guitarwork on The Traveler possessed a delicate, autoharp-ish quality.

But this wasn’t a retro minded troupe. Instead, the band deemphasized bluegrass’ fondness of speed and soloing in favor of strong ensemble instrumentation anchored by bassist Greg Readling and story songs, like the cross-generational war requiem Hawk, that possessed the narrative detail of a fine folk ensemble.

That said, one of the program’s highlights occurred when Chatham County Line banjoist Chandler Holt was given roughly 90 seconds to “go cosmic” with a rollercoaster solo that succinctly showcased his technical prowess with being unduly flashy. The biggest reward wasn’t the vocal response from the audience in front of him but the very obvious approval from The Holmes Brothers at his back. All three beamed not like a pack of discerning blues elders but like a group of eager students cheering on a youthful comrade.

in performance: simone felice/dawn landes

SimoneFelice2

simone felice.

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Following lengthy delays caused by a late afternoon cloudburst and an extended between-act soundcheck, Simone Felice delivered an involving and inventive trio set that was over and done with in 35 minutes.

The inaugural headline act of WUKY-FM’s Phoenix Fridays series at Phoenix Park, Felice constructed folk-based storysongs with loose, rockish settings that sported the novel instrumentation of Austrailian electric dobroist Matty Green and acoustic cellist Gabriel Dresdale with the star attraction doubling as drummer and vocalist.

The scant, six song sent was split between three works from the singer’s two solo albums, two from records cut with his Catskill-based brethren The Felice Brothers and a contemplative finale cover of Neil Young’s Helpless.

What was there was quite intriguing. A loose, ragged jam slowly gathered steam before bleeding into If You Go to LA (one of two songs pulled from Felice’s new Strangers album). The tune ended with a more dissonant, deconstructed exchange among the three players. A poppish drive later accented the Felice Brothers’ appealing Radio Song.

Felice also proved an intense and intuitive performer, both as instrumentalist and singer. The jams revealed a willingness to tinker with a song’s mood and groove, but he remained a storyteller at heart while singing the mantra-like verses of You and I Believe (from his untitled 2012 solo debut album) and constructing the almost spiritual cast given to Helpless.

And that was it. After six songs, he politely bid Phoenix Park adieu. The set was roughly half the length of the preceding set-up and soundcheck and considerably shorter than the fine opening outing by Dawn Landes.

dawnlandes

dawn landes.

The Louisville-born, Brooklyn-based Landes favored a set of spacious, midtempo Americana tunes with strong country undertows and a style of singing that was steadfast and confident despite the often vulnerable nature of songs like Straight Lines and Wandering Eye. Picture Natalie Merchant singing Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan and you get a partial idea of where Landes’ music was coming from.

Especially arresting was her cover of Southern Accents, the title tune to one of Tom Petty’s worst albums. The original version’s solemn pace would have fit in easily with the comfortable stride of Landes’ set. But the singer amped up the song and cut loose with a rootsy gusto that provided another dimension to an already strong performance.

in performance: gordon lightfoot

gordon lightfoot

gordon lightfoot.

“Everything we’re going to play tonight was written in the 20th century,” remarked Gordon Lightfoot near the onset of his return concert last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

For the numerous elders in the audience, those were words of comfort. For nearly 50 years, Lightfoot’s catalog of pop-folk songs – which last night shifted from overtly sentimental ballads to tunes with vastly darker narrative undertows – have been rightly revered. As such, a promise from the singer to feature a repertoire from the last part of the last century seemed an enticing proposition even though the concert also proved certain technical elements from the past simply can’t be recaptured.

Let’s get the show’s most outward blemish out of the way. While Lightfoot’s songs have aged beautifully, his voice simply hasn’t. His vocals have been getting thinner and reedier over the past decade. Last night, Lightfoot lost considerable definition, especially in his upper register, which made songs like Carefree Highway and Cotton Jenny an obvious struggle.

But as a friend correctly summarized after the show, “He worked with what he had.” To that end, there were several songs that actually took on a new, sage-like maturity within Lightfoot’s limited vocal reach. One, quite ironically, was 1972’s Don Quixote. Unintentional as the song’s theme and intent were for the occasion, it was still apt for Lightfoot, at age 75, to inhabit the soul of Cervantes with a self-empowered drive that “shouts across the ocean to the shore till he can shout no more.”

Another example was Restless, one of several tunes pulled from 1993’s Waiting for You album. It came across as sleekly gray and decidedly autumnal meditation orchestrated by the light-as-air keyboard support of Michael Heffernan.

The hits were proudly welcomed, too. The sea chanty epic The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was acknowledged by Lightfoot as a “responsibility” to play (a nod to the 29 very real lives that perished in the wreck) while the breakthrough ballad If You Could Read My Mind still possessed a quiet but devastating sadness that earned the singer a standing ovation.

Despite the vocal liability, Lightfoot showed no signs of any impending retirement. In fact, the final line of the evening’s closing song – the title tune from Waiting for You – suggested an audience rapport triggered by a still adventuresome spirit: “Waiting for you to say ‘let us begin.’”

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