Archive for in performance

in performance: big bad voodoo daddy

bbvd

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy: Joshua Levy, left, Dirk Shumaker, Kurt Sodegren, Andy Rowley, Karl Hunter, Glen “The Kid” Marhevka and Scotty Morris. Photo by Don Miller.

Given the scholarly ease with which Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has navigated its career, it should come as little surprise that a similarly schooled confidence was applied to the band’s holiday concert last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. But it took a seasonal program like this to underscore an attribute that has long defined the West Coast ensemble as much as its command of swing and jump blues styles, jazz-friendly instrumentation and inventive arrangements.

The secret ingredient, the catalyst that sparked the aforementioned finery, was as essential as it was simple – attitude.

From the time a backdrop was lowered behind the band depicting a winter landscape highlighted by a snowman with boxing gloves and a stogie, the performance’s light hearted but still very learned view of holiday music lit up like a Christmas tree. This was not a stoic, overly reverential celebration of the season, nor was a crassly sentimental one. Frontman/vocalist Scotty Morris, pianist/arranger Joshua Levy, an ultra flexible rhythm section and a five man horn team kept the mood fun and the music hot.

The bulk of the program was devoted to the primarily original tunes from 2004’s Everything You Want for Christmas album and the revamped staples that dominate 2013’s It Feels Like Christmas Time.

From the former came the show opening Rockabilly Christmas, a blues cool treatment of Merry Christmas Baby, the Mardi Gras groove-a-thon Mr. Heatmiser and a noir-style instrumental version of We Three Kings that placed the horn section front and center.

The newer recording favored more familiar tunes with riskier arrangements. That translated into a brass sass savvy Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, a hornless jazz quartet update of All I Want for Christmas (is My Two Front Teeth) and a wonderful rumba revision of Winter Wonderland funky enough to put Scrooge in a conga line.

There was also a brief smattering of non holiday fare (Diga Diga Do, Why Me and the band’s traditional show closer So Long, Farewell, Goodbye). But even the concert’s most prominent swing hit, Go Daddy-O, became Go Santa Claus for the evening to cement a program full of inviting seasonal fun.

Given the scholarly ease with which Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has navigated its career, it should come as little surprise that a similarly schooled confidence was applied to the band’s holiday concert last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. But it took a seasonal program like this to underscore an attribute that has long defined the West Coast ensemble as much as its command of swing and jump blues styles, jazz-friendly instrumentation and inventive arrangements.

The secret ingredient, the catalyst that sparked the aforementioned finery, was as essential as it was simple – attitude.

From the time a backdrop was lowered behind the band depicting a winter landscape highlighted by a snowman with boxing gloves and a stogie, the performance’s light hearted but still very learned view of holiday music lit up like a Christmas tree. This was not a stoic, overly reverential celebration of the season, nor was a crassly sentimental one. Frontman/vocalist Scotty Morris, pianist/arranger Joshua Levy, an ultra flexible rhythm section and a five man horn team kept the mood fun and the music hot.

The bulk of the program was devoted to the primarily original tunes from 2004’s Everything You Want for Christmas album and the revamped staples that dominate 2013’s It Feels Like Christmas Time.

From the former came the show opening Rockabilly Christmas, a blues cool treatment of Merry Christmas Baby, the Mardi Gras groove-a-thon Mr. Heatmiser and a noir-style instrumental version of We Three Kings that placed the horn section front and center.

The newer recording favored more familiar tunes with riskier arrangements. That translated into a brass sass savvy Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, a hornless jazz quartet update of All I Want for Christmas (is My Two Front Teeth) and a wonderful rumba revision of Winter Wonderland funky enough to put Scrooge in a conga line.

There was also a brief smattering of non holiday fare (Diga Diga Do, Why Me and the band’s traditional show closer So Long, Farewell, Goodbye). But even the concert’s most prominent swing hit, Go Daddy-O, became Go Santa Claus for the evening to cement a program full of inviting seasonal fun.

in performance: trans-siberian orchestra

tso

trans-siberian orchestra in full regalia.

Early into the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s telling of The Christmas Attic last night at Rupp Arena, narrator Bryan Hicks spoke of a child being warned that life during the holiday was merely a reflection of “the same old world all tinseled up.”

For close to 2 ½ hours, the pomp and pageantry TSO brought to its own seasonal songs as well as to quasi-originals and medleys fashioned around familiar carols and classical works, reached for something more than a gussied up version of holiday music. In the end, though, “tinseled up” was exactly what The Christmas Attic seemed.

You could appreciate the family friendly theme of a child fascinated by the music boxes, gramophones and especially letters discovered in an attic. But the sheer weight of the production design and the generally overwrought delivery of the singing, instrumentation and even narration just sank the sentiments. It was like tying a brick to a duck and expecting it to fly.

In fairness, bombast has always been at the heart of TSO’s music, especially onstage. It has long embraced arena rock excess on all levels, from the requisite guitar shredding to the vocal pageantry to the overall anthemic feel of the compositions, even the ballads. On top of that were enough lights, lasers and pyrotechnics to make Kiss blush.

While the crowd of 8,600 ate every effect and postured riff up, it was disappointing to experience The Christmas Attic in such a puffed up setting. Released as a recording in 1998, it was one of TSO founder Paul O’Neill’s first rock operatic works. It remains one his simplest and gentlest pieces in terms of sentiment.

There were instances where that came through last night, especially in singer Rob Evan’s delivery of Christmas in the Air, the ‘80s-esque pop-rock piece that brought the work out from the attic of the past into the city streets of today. Similarly, The Three Kings and I exhibited a playful pop-soul strut until the arrangement simply took on too much near its conclusion. Ever heard The Hallelujah Chorus and Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir quoted in the same tune? Well, here was your chance.

The stage was constructed to resemble a large storage trunk (yes, like you would find in an attic) that opened up to reveal TSO’s more stationary players – a string quartet, a drummer and a keyboardist. A 10 member vocal team made periodic turns on stage floor, alternating lead vocal duties while a three man guitar lineup, led by veteran TSO mate Chris Caffery, were in constant motion on the ground and, quite often, in the air on various hydraulic lifts.

The last third of the program, which incorporated music from other TSO recordings, was more loosely presented but went even heavier on the artillery until the pop-rocker Sparks (from 2009’s Night Castle) brought the lasers up to Spinal Tap proportions.

But there was also a moment that effectively captured the seasonal spirit, and it had nothing to do with the music. In making good on TSO’s promise to give a portion of the evening’s ticket sales to charity, Caffery said before the show began that nearly $8,000 was being donated to the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital. That was when you sensed that Christmas was truly in the air.

in performance: wynonna

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wynonna judd.

To paraphrase a classic song title, everyday may not necessarily be a holiday for Wynonna Judd. But judging by the gusto and spirit that drove her performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, the Kentucky born country star supplied an array of Yuletide tunes with the same vocal nerve as the many country-pop hits she has chalked up over the past three decades. Leave to Judd not to discriminate.

Take the show opening Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. When the song reached the “deck the halls” reference in its chorus, Judd’s left hand became a clenched first while a vocal roar slid between bared teeth. Sure, the seasonal mood was still there. But Judd also looked like she was ready to deck something (or someone) other than the halls.

Last night’s program was billed as A Simpler Christmas. In essence, that was what she delivered – or at least, intended. The stage was adorned with candles, antique lamps, a Christmas tree and the like, giving it the air of a Cracker Barrel. Judd also employed a resourceful four member band, which included husband Cactus Moser. A mandolinist and very capable drummer, Moser figured as much into the show as an onstage foil for Judd’s lengthy between song chats as an instrumentalist.

But “simpler” seldom translated in subtle or even gentle. At 51, Judd has lost little of the jackhammer potency of her vocal charge. That explains how familiar Christmas yarns like Joy to the World and Jingle Bells were transformed into hardened, almost guttural blues-based jams. The same held true for some of the non-holiday fare. Judd’s vocal grit didn’t so much toughen an encore cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as wrestle it to the ground.

Granted, such spunk has long been at the heart of Judd’s vocal style. The 1984 Judds hit Love is Alive and a solemn, stoic show-closing sing-a-long of Silent Night were the closest things to reserve reflected within the performance. The singer’s 1992 solo career breakthrough single No One Else on Earth better reflected the concert’s overall tone and temperament.

Such were the makings of this Simpler Christmas on a not so silent night.

in performance: acoustic jam 2014

hunter hayes 2

hunter hayes performing at the opera house last night as part of acoustic jam 2014. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

“If you’re here tonight with someone you’re wildly in love with, let them know,” said Hunter Hayes, one of the 12 country artists showcased last night at the Opera House for the sold-out Acoustic Jam 2014.

That, of course, opened the floodgates for a sizeable, vocal segment of the female contingency on hand to hurl affections – well, verbal ones, at least – directly at the popular 23 year old singer as he launched into a poppish slice of romantic confession called Wanted. By the time the song was over, a marriage proposal was offered and accepted within the audience.

“Congratulations, Hunter,” said baritone voiced Josh Turner, another Acoustic Jam artist seated directly right of Hayes. “One of your fans is no longer single.”

Such was the mood that surrounded one of the most refreshing locally staged country music presentations in years. Such a distinction was due as much to the show’s design as anything else. The dozen artists performed in groups – or, dare we say it in the heart of Wildcat Country, platoons – of four with one-to-three backup players (usually guitarists) to assist. Aside from a few modestly utilized electric keyboards, the instrumentation lived up to the program’s name and operated within lean acoustic frameworks.

That meant all the production varnish applied to contemporary country recordings was stripped away. There was no autotuning, no lip synching and no arena pageantry. There also wasn’t a single performer that didn’t sound better as a result.

Each artist played three songs round-robin style. That made everyone, in essence, a co-billed act. Acoustic Jam was also a benefit concert, netting the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital $120,000.

The first wave centered mostly on new talent: the teen female duo Maddie & Tae, “silent” Sugarland partner Kristian Bush, singer Tyler Farr (in his third Lexington performance in 16 months) and The Voice champion Danielle Bradbery.

Farr was the artist that jump-started this set after a somewhat complacent opening with the wistful Whiskey in My Water. But Maddie & Tae later offered a surprisingly blunt ode about the roles of women in the Nashville work place (Girl in a Country Song) while Bush turned the Sugarland hit Baby Girl into a starkly paternal love song. Bradbery proved a capable but somewhat stymied vocalist during Heart of Dixie. She revealed abundant technical skill but little artistic identity.

Next up was a pack that included two top Central Kentucky country music exports, Montgomery Gentry and John Michael Montgomery, along with young buck stars Sam Hunt and Scotty McCreery.

The duo of Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry probably had to make the biggest adjustment to the acoustic setting, but the rockish, homey vibe of My Town lost nothing minus the voltage. John Michael, the elder Montgomery brother, wound up as a comparative traditionalist with his 2004 hit Letters From Home taking on a deeper, almost sage-like luster. McCreery was surprisingly confident onstage as he celebrated the casual, summery charm of Feelin’ It. Hunt was the distinctive one, though. A curious hybrid of vintage soul crooner and’90s alterative popster, he made his current single Take Your Time sound like a curious but appealing cross between Bobby Womack and Gin Blossoms.

Hayes, Turner, David Nail and Joe Nichols closed out the evening with what was by far the loosest of the three sets.

Nail was humbly proficient in delivering the understated cool of Red Light, Nichols was the open and obvious reveler during Hard to Be Cool and Hayes did his best to play unassuming heartthrob for I Want Crazy. But bettering them all was the solemn tradition stride Turner summoned for the masterful Long Black Train, a work of Johnny Cash-level spirituality, reflection and drama. Of the 36 songs offered by the 12 artists last night, Long Black Train was the one that most decidedly went the distance.

Click here to view Rich Copley’s Acoustic Jam 2014 photo gallery.

in performance: frode gjerstad trio with steve swell

frode gjerstad 2

frode gjerstad.

The music sounded inconspicuous enough at first with Frode Gjerstad and Steve Swell squaring off in a light but lovingly fussy dialogue on alto saxophone and trombone, respectively. But the whispery exchange proved to be a prelude of sorts for the melee to come – specifically, an improvisational suite that tested the stamina as well as the musical resources of Gjestad and his all Norwegian trio along with veteran New Jersey bandleader and improviser Swell. The collective results, which clocked in at just under an hour, made up the bulk of last night’s vigorous but surprisingly intimate Outside the Spotlight performance at Mecca.

Gjerstad and Swell are pros at this kind of mischief and last night was no exception. Their playing either complimented the performance cunning of the other or fed into the immediacy of the entire ensemble. Part of the latter involved finding a foil among the other two players. In drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, Gjerstad and Swell had an accomplice that was physically and intuitively tireless. A veteran of many OTS shows over the last 12 years, Nilssen-Love proved again to be a monster player. He summoned a percussive firestorm of speed and agility under Gjerstad’s fragments of bop and blues on alto sax early into the suite. But Nilssen-Love was just as resourceful during a playful duet where Gjerstad switched to clarinet.

Swell was as fascinating to watch as he was to listen to. Early into the extended improv, he arched his back and tilted the trombone so low that it nearly swept the floor, all while summoning a squall line of short, brassy outbursts. But he also found room for a more guttural exchange during a brief duet with bassist Jon Rue Strom.

But the there were also several instances where all four players exploded into improvisational glee simultaneously. While all seemed to speak for themselves, their ferocious playing also enforced an ensemble spirit that remained vital even as the music began to splinter into solo and duo passages.

Similarly, the evening’s second and final improv – a five minute reverie dubbed “a little goodnight song” by Gjerstad – was as slow, spacious and intimate as the initial centerpiece suite was a lesson in exhaustive jazz dynamics.

in performance: diego garcia/bear medicine

diego garcia 2

diego garcia.

How much you bought into last night’s performance by Diego Garcia depends on how deeply you view popular music as a means of pure of romantic expression, or at least as an intention of that expression.

A Detroit native of Argentine parents, Garcia engaged in songs drawn largely from two albums that explored the aftermath of love as obsessively fueled heartbreak (2011’s Laura) and in stages of reconciliation and rebirth (2013’s Paradise). What that boiled down was music that danced a fine line between sentimentality and self pity.

Given his parentage, it wasn’t surprising to hear elements of Spanish balladry surface during the performance, from the whispery nature of Garcia’s singing during the set-opening Roses and Wine (which recalled the summery vocals of Josh Rouse) to the purposely confessional nature of songs like Separate Lives.

While there was no denying the emotive impact of Garcia’s compositions, it was the lead guitar work of accompanist and Buenos Aires native Zeke Zima that carried the evening. From the flamenco-like flourishes during a cover of the Kinks’ Strange Effect to the bossa nova rhythms that dressed Donde Estas to the crisp, pop-flavored melody that drove Garcia’s most affirmative tune She Dances (an ode to his daughter), Zima’s playing was as unassuming and exact as Garcia’s songs were obvious in their need to express vulnerability.

Frankly, the 40 minute opening set by Lexington’s own Bear Medicine was as engaging as anything offered by the headliners. There also, though, the narratives got a little skittish, especially during the burrowing bugs saga Infestation. But there was so much stylistically to be thrilled by, including folk accents drawn around flute, cello, keyboards, guitar and drums that were alternately rockish and reserved. All of those sounds and ideas came into play during the mammoth instrumental Big Chief.

Bear Medicine cellist Seth Murphy also supplied keen and presumably unrehearsed support for two songs during Garcia’s hour long set – Nothing to Hide and You Were Never There.

It was also cool to again experience a performance in the Singletary’s upstairs recital hall – a vastly more intimate space the main 1,500 seat concert hall. Given the folkish foundation of both acts and the especially conversational tone of Garcia’s set, the recital hall proved a fine fit for the night.

in performance: jason marsalis vibes quartet

jason marsalis 1

jason marsalis.

The most immediately arresting aspect of last night’s performance by Jason Marsalis at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College was the profoundly cool sound he summoned from the instrument before him. Known through area concerts over the past two decades as a drummer (including a 2005 show on this very stage), the youngest sibling of New Orleans’ famed Marsalis family favored the vibraphone and the melodically lustrous but sonically reserved tone it conjured.

On the opening bars of Blues Can Be Abstract, Too, the vibraphone’s notes hung liked chilled colors in the air that grew more expansive when Marsalis chose to add pedal induced sustain. The tune served as a beautiful introduction not only to the instrument but to what the bandleader chose to do with it.

Fronting what he aptly calls his Vibes Quartet, Marsalis flirted with jazz tradition and tried out more than a few progressive ideas. But that hardly translated into the big band majesty Lionel Ham\pton brought to the instrument from the 1930s onward or the scholarly combo improvisations defined a generation later by Gary Burton. Aside from a few fleeting passages where Burton’s innovations in playing the vibes with four mallets instead of the usual two surfaced, Marsalis followed his own muses, including a few from his native New Orleans.

On Blues for Now, one of eight com positions performed from the Vibes Quartet’s second and newest album, The 21st Century Trad Band, a rugged Marsalis solo on the vibes led into a tight trio run instigated by pianist Austin Johnson. The music became noticeably more playful during the checklist of conflicting grooves that set the stage for The Man with Two Left Feet and its jovial percussive breakdown from drummer David Porter. And for pure Southern melody, nothing beat the curiously titled 18th Letter of Silence where a sunny vibes stride by Marsalis quickly served as a contrast to the dynamics of his rhythm section. Johnson got the lion’s share of the solo spotlight but Potter and bassist Will Goble drove the tune.

Ultim ately, it was the show-closing title composition to The 21st Century Trad Band that defined the performance with a mash-up of familiar melodies (When the Saints Go Marching In was the most detectable), twisted bits of swing and some furious syncopation. The elements may have been rooted in the past but the end results brought the music into the here and now with the tonal splendor of the vibes leading the charge.

in performance: gov’t mule

govt-mule

gov’t mule: matt abts, danny louis, warren haynes and jorgen carlsson .

As an unrelenting Gov’t Mule performance slipped past the 2½ hour mark last night at the Opera House, guitarist and band chieftain Warren Haynes decided to check in with the tireless audience before him.

“Are you still with us, Kentucky?”

It was a fair question. The crowd most decidedly was, although the Mule had already put patrons through the paces. The first set in the veteran jam band’s first Lexington concert in over 15 years opened with the guitar drenched ‘60s gospel of the Staple Singers’ Hammer and Nails, tore through the rugged (and, briefly, reggae-fied) original Banks of the Deep End and later eased into the old school soul of the Ray Charles classic I Believe to My Soul (goosed by Haynes’ hearty power chords) before hitting intermission with Kind of Bird, the 1990 instrumental from Haynes’ early days in the Allman Brothers Band. The latter last night sounded more than swing-worthy even as the guitarist worked in quotes from another Allmans classic (Les Brers in A Minor) and keyboardist Danny Louis took a mischievous turn on trombone.

But Haynes must have known the crowd still had his back. His audience reality check fell in the middle of a second set stretch that offered, in reverse order, a remarkable capsule summation of Gov’t Mule’s recorded history.

First up was Captured, a blast of psychedelic cool from 2013’s Shout album. Then Haynes rewound the repertoire for Mule, a swampy groove excursion from the band’s self-titled 1995 debut album. Last night’s version was far more expansive sounding than the original, though, with a lengthy clavinet-style jam from Louis. Such playfulness underscored a stylistic variance that made the trio lineup that first cut the tune sound positively streamlined in comparison.

Finally, there was another blast from Haynes’ pre-Mule days, Soulshine. Served as an encore, last night’s version was probably the most concise performance of the night. The preceding acres of grooves, solos and guitar-led jams all sounded splendid. But it was also cool to this hear this Haynes gem, with its sparkling Southern soul guitar lead, thriving without all the heavy artillery. In a night dominated by fearsome instrumental interplay, Soulshine was a spring-like coda, a sunny shelter away from the rest of the storm the Mule kicked up.

in performance: lucinda williams

lucinda 2

lucinda williams.

It seemed only fitting, being Sunday and all, that Lucinda Williams wound up her tough as oak performance last night at the Opera House with the tabernacle-infused fun of Get Right With God. Admittedly, the snake handling and bed of nails imagery Williams sang of may not have fit everyone’s idea of sermonizing. But there was no doubting the fervor the singer and her extraordinary band had been working up to over the previous two hours.

It started with the deceptively deadpan affirmation of Blessed, worked its way through five tunes from her new double-album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, hit full throttle with a double barrel blast of Change the Locks and Joy and tagged up with the blues before meeting up with the Lord.

Hallelujah to that. Pacing, it turns out, is just one of things Williams masters in concert. Luckily, she also possessed an arsenal of powerfully plain speaking songs that allowed her to work up to such a fuss with authority.

The childhood snapshot Cars Wheels on a Gravel Road and the boozy epitaph Drunken Angel defined the early stages of the show with understated melodies and grooves balanced by devastating narratives. By the time the Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone material kicked in, temperament went a little more hand in hand with tempo, especially on the sin-busting rocker Cold Day in Hell. “You thought you could make it to heaven,” Williams sang with droll confidence. “But, honey, heaven done closed the door.”

As the music intensified, so did the resourceful playing of Williams’ band – guitarist Stuart Mathis (on loan from The Wallflowers), bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton. It was especially to fun watching Norton at work. Think rock drummers are only defined by flashy solos? Not this guy. Norton continually defined grooves and then toyed with them, whether it was the cool drive flowing under People Talkin’ or the rockish might he hammered into the set-closing roots rock parade of Honey Bee.

And what would this Sunday service be without the blues? For that, Williams offered a surprise encore reading of the early Allman Brothers Band classic It’s Not My Cross to Bear, a song that eluded to serious testifying but was grounded in the kind of earthy urgency that fueled all of this fine, fascinating performance.

in performance: dave mason’s traffic jam

DaveMasonVertical11

dave mason.

“Not everybody in England sounds like the Gecko,” remarked Dave Mason last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort after a member of the sold out audience asked why the veteran Brit rocker spoke with little discernible accent.

The short answer was this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer hails from Worcester, near the Welsh border, where dialects are less defined than in heavily rural regions of the country. But there is also the none-too-small matter of Mason having spent the better part of the last four decades in California.

During the course of two specifically themed sets designed to form a sort of musical autobiography of the veteran songsmith, vocalist and guitarist, Mason let the pop-rock pasts from both sides of the pond play off each other.

From his late teen years in England as a co-founder of Traffic, Mason delved into a blend psychedelic-based but often prog-leaning excursions like the darkly hued Forty Thousand Headmen (which opened the show), the comparatively roots savvy You Can All Join In, the guitar-dominate party piece Pearly Queen and perhaps Mason’s recognizable composition of the era, Feelin’ Alright. All four tunes came from Traffic’s self-titled 1968 sophomore album.

The songs all sounded remarkably fresh, with Mason’s singing, buried though it often was in the sound mix, reflecting rich detail and confidence. But Mason has long had a curious history with this music. While You Can All Join In and Feelin’ Alright are his own works, the rest of the Traffic material was penned by band mainstays Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi. Two, in fact, (Rock and Roll Stew and a bluesy revamp of The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys) were recorded by Traffic four years after Mason’s initial departure.

A little more to the point was a second set devoted primarily to Mason’s California-bound solo career. Much of that, in turn, focused on his extraordinary 1970 solo album, Alone Together. The Traffic set was fun, but the Alone Together songs offered the evening’s most satisfying and complete performances, especially a riveting Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave, where Mason’s guitar soloing strengths, which had been held in reserve up to that point, were given room to roam.

How Do I Get to Heaven, a tribute tune to Capaldi (who died in 2005) from Mason’s new Future’s Past album was another highlight. It linked this pow-wow with the past to Mason’s still-vital here-and-now.

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