Archive for in performance

in performance: kuzu

Kuzu: Tyler Damon, Dave Rempis and Tashi Dorji. Photo by Julia Dratel.

There is symmetry and coincidence in how the moniker of the Chicago-rooted jazz trio Kuzu is pronounced so similarly to the name of a certain, portable instrument – namely, the kazoo. Sure, the latter is in large measure a toy, a hand-held device capable of creating considerable animation and noise. In its own way, Kuzu, which played a volcanically intense set of improvisational music Tuesday evening at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery for the Outside the Spotlight Series, reflects similar traits. Collectively, the group’s music isn’t as cartoonish as what you get out of a kazoo. But there is a complimentary sense of wonder at work in both camps, a level of playful abandon.

On a kazoo, that kind of bedevilment sounds innocently reckless. From Kuzu, the music sounds purposely combustible. It’s the same manner of thinking except that at the Niles Gallery concert, the trio tossed all that mischief out in the open and set it on fire.

Led by Chicago saxophonist and OTS frequent flyer Dave Rempis, Kuzu revealed itself as a trio with rockish tendencies in its sense of musical proportions. That didn’t mean guitarist Tashi Dorji resorted to conventional power chords or technically overcooked soloing. Instead, he produced a sound that worked as a rhythmic foundation for the band in his use of short, clipped shards of electric color as well as a bass device, playing under the ensemble sound, especially when Rempis manned the baritone saxophone.

From there, drummer Tyler Damon (a duo mate of Dorji prior to the formation of Kuzu) seemed to dictate the pulse of the program, which was divided into two extended, untitled improvisations. At times, Damon’s playing was a set up for Rempis, as during the opening moments of the performance when a chattering of cymbals seemed to count in the entrance of a tenor sax avalanche. In other instances, he was able to lead the full trio to rhythmic retreats and even a dash of swing. But these were very brief moments – cues, really – that allowed the trio to work its way back into a thundering lather.

Rempis, as always, was a wellspring of dynamics and stamina. His vocabulary of alto, tenor and baritone ingenuity remained vast, operating from elongated lines of the blues on alto one moment and rounds of circular tenor spitfire the next that seemed to circle for a landing after a musical dogfight with Damon.

The room acoustics played a role in this merry chaos, too. The natural echo of the Niles Gallery seemed to magnify the clarity and volume of sax and drums. Curiously, electric guitar, the only amplified instrument of the three, struggled to be heard above its acoustic counterparts. But the ensemble sensibility, full of vigor and invention, never waned.

in performance: marty stuart and his fabulous superlatives

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. From left: Chris Scruggs, Kenny Vaughan, Marty Stuart and Harry Stinson. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

In prefacing a segment of songs from his 1999 album “The Pilgrim” that encompassed nearly half of an engagingly comprehensive Opera House performance on Saturday night, Marty Stuart recited a list laundry list of career accessories. All were items he knew, prior to the album’s release, would be lost should the record tank commercially.

They included his band, his record label, his management and so on. Shoot, if he threw in a truck and jilted girlfriend and made a song out of it, he might have had enough of a conventional radio hit to keep his star status intact.

Instead, the record fizzled on the charts and Stuart, one of the prime Nashville celebs of the 1990s, was sent packing from the airwaves. “How many of you remember the ’90s?” he asked the Opera House audience. “Well, congratulations. I don’t.”

But “The Pilgrim” signaled a turn away from corporate country maneuvers into music that was darker thematically, richer musically and more in line with the country traditions that first placed Stuart on the road with Lester Flatt as a teenager. Not coincidentally, the Fabulous Superlatives, the backing combo that ignited the Saturday performance with an acreage of rootsy fire, fun and attitude, was in place within three years following the commercial dismissal of “The Pilgrim.” The band members – guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and, most recently, bassist Chris Scruggs – have been Stuart’s indie-minded, country roots accomplices ever since.

The material from “The Pilgrim” has certainly weathered the years well, displaying a cumulative narrative of reckless love, reckless death and unexpected redemption. Sometimes the tunes encapsulated Stuart’s own weary world view, as in the cool agility of “The Observations of a Crow” which can best be categorized, thematically and musically, as country noir. In other instances, the “Pilgrim” music went straight to tradition – most notably in a duet version of the standard “Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man.” The tune was played with Stuart on mandolin and Earl Scruggs on banjo for the 1999 recorded version. On Saturday, grandson Chris Scruggs helped rewire the song as a mandolin/bass showdown full of rhythmic fortitude.

But the music from “The Pilgram” was merely a portion of a Stuart performance that surveyed much of his career, from the famed ‘90s hitmaking days (“Tempted,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’”) to tunes from 2017’s psychedelic inclined, Western-tinged “Way Out West” album (the Byrds-meets-Beatles twangfest “Time Don’t Wait” and the harmony rich “Old Mexico”) to works highlighting each of the Superlatives culminating in a transformation of “Orange Blossom Special” from a fiddle tune into a scorching showpiece for Stuart on solo mandolin.

There were fascinating curveballs, too, including the surf-inspired instrumental “Mojave” that highlighted feisty guitar play from Vaughan and the show closing premiere of a new work, “The Angels Came Down,” that pondered death and rebirth with the same narrative grace that marked the “Pilgrim” tunes.

Topping it all was a highly audience-friendly performance attitude that made the music sound effortlessly natural, from Stuart’s “bandstand request” for Scruggs to take a crack at “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to the gospel-esque fervor and alertness that drove “Tear the Woodpile Down.”

It all amounted to a country show for the ages presented by a pack of roots-savvy scholars who were all too eager to go reeling in the years.

in performance: sturgill simpson/tyler childers

Sturgill Simpson, left, and Tyler Childers played separate sets before a sold out crowd of 16,000 at Rupp Arena on Friday evening. Photos by Estill Robinson.

The significance of their Friday evening at Rupp Arena was not lost on Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers. Before a sold out crowd of nearly 16,000, the two Eastern Kentucky born country-and-way-more stylists devoted much of what little stage time they allotted for talking to the occasion at hand – namely, reactions to their mutual debut at the grand poobah of Lexington venues.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” Simpson remarked before his immensely electric two-hour set got underway. Actually, he dutifully pinned an expletive at the end of that quote, but you get the gist of the excitement level. Simpson commented later, in the middle of a show opening segment build around all 10 songs from his recent, rock/synth-infused album “Sound & Fury,” that Lexington was where he learned to play music, learned to lead a band and met his wife.

That was about it for the chat. Fronting a four-member band with himself handling all guitar duties and, as a result, the bulk of the set’s instrumental soloing, Simpson was out to further deconstruct an image he has seemingly despised – that of country outlaw. The collective wrecking ball to that reputation was “Sound & Fury,” a song cycle of restless narratives that more than once addressed the folly of stardom and its warped influence on personal freedom.

Thematically, the angst hit the boiling point with “Mercury in Retrograde,” an unflinching snapshot of pop star intrusion (“They all just come on in, asking me what all my songs mean, wonderin’ if they’re all about them”). But it was the sonic charge of “Sound & Fury” that packed a far greater wallop.

Throughout, the new music balanced aggressive, though occasionally static, guitar grooves with wails of analog synthesizer, giving this segment of the show a sound that was simultaneously modern and retro. The one country element that couldn’t displaced, though, were Simpson’s vocals. It was easy to escape expectations and cut loose on guitar during the predominantly instrumental show opener “Ronin.” But as soon as the singing ignited “Remember to Breathe” and “Sing Along,” that deep, unalterable country tenor reawakened.

The result? Music that sounded like a cross between T. Rex and Kraftwerk with Waylon Jennings as frontman. Crazily enough, the meshing worked. The rest of Simpson’s show was devoted mostly to rocked up, de-brass-ified works from 2016’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” that presented a modestly sleeker level of dynamics than the “Sound & Fury” material. A case in point: the way a lengthy, jagged guitar jam during “Brace for Impact” bled into the cooler, soul-savvy waters of Simpson’s take on When in Rome’s “The Promise.”

Childers seemed vastly more relaxed with the Rupp crowd but no less enchanted by the turnout, especially since the Lawrence County native was still playing club shows in Lexington as recently as two years ago.

His spoken remarks, all of which came after an industrious and inviting 75-minute set, referenced the bars and venues “within walking distance, well, stumbling distance” of Rupp, with Al’s Bar receiving the only specific shout out.

Where Simpson’s show seemed to purposely sideswipe expectations, Childers’ set welcomed them openly. To set the mood, the songsmith used one of his warmest and most popular compositions, “All Your’n,” adorned by vocals that recalled the similarly emotive and unadorned singing of Roger McGuinn on the Byrds’ final records, to open the evening. From there, the repertoire shifted between material from his two breakthrough albums, 2017’s “Purgatory” and 2019’s “Country Squire” (recordings co-produced by Simpson).

From the former came an accelerated reading of “I Swear (to God)” that solidified Childers’ bond with the audience through playful call-and-response verses as well as the instrumental might of Morehead multi-instrumentalist Jesse Wells (here on fiddle), an ace-in-the-hole performer all evening long. From the latter came the vastly darker “House Fire,” which was introduced by a session of round-robin band solos before Childers took the wheel for some seriously chilly storytelling.

There were several delights, though, that dodged the two albums, including a neo-funk informed “Trudy” (a 1970 Charlie Daniels chestnut that has been part of Childers’ shows for years) and “Tulsa Turnaround” (a 1971 relic first cut by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition sporting a backbeat-savvy backdrop that tossed the set onto slightly more psychedelic turf).

But the highlight was saved for last. With his band dismissed for the evening, Childers closed with a solo acoustic reading of “Nose on the Grindstone,” another longtime concert staple he has yet to put on a record. It’s a sobering saga of a coal miner’s son being taught the dangers of rural poverty and the consciousness required to navigate – and eventually escape – them.

“Keep in mind that a man’s just as good as his word,” Childers sang with stark solemnity.” “It takes twice as long to build bridges you burn.”

Wise words, indeed, to close a rich Kentucky homecoming.

in performance: raul midon and lionel loueke

Raul Midon (left) and Lionel Loueke.

Just before handing over the stage to the co-billed Raul Midon at the Singletary Center for the Arts on Saturday evening, Lionel Loueke offered a friendly warning.
“He’s going to freak you out.”
Well, he wasn’t kidding. The resourcefulness of the New Mexico-born Ridon was quickly revealed in a vocal command that shifted from a high soul falsetto to a punctuated scat that mimicked a trumpet. Then came instrumental fireworks that allowed him to synchronize acoustic guitar and percussion with eerie harmonic clarity.
But native West African native Loueke (he was born in Benin) was no straggler, keeping pace with a lone 7-string electric guitar that implemented a series of bending, flexible rhythms that echoed his homeland. But he was equally comfortable slapping out bass and lead lines in several tunes by one of his principal influences (and employers), Herbie Hancock.
This is what unfolded in an immensely distinctive 90-minute performance at the Singletary’s intimate Recital Hall. On their own, which is how they played for the bulk of the concert, both sounded like self-contained combos.
Loueke’s initial set, especially, introduced a light but authoritative electric guitar voice full of worldly lyricism that he illuminated with whispery vocals propelled by clicks and punctuation made with his mouth and tongue. Such design was introduced on the show-opening “Bennie’s Tune,” although it would be utilized throughout the concert.
When Loueke turned to a pair of fusion pieces pioneered by Hancock during the ‘70s (“Hang Up Your Hang Ups”) and ‘80s (the genre-busting “Rockit”), though, the mood and moves turned to Americanized funk that the guitarist produced with the integration of bass patterns and percussive colors generated by slapping and tapping the strings. Curiously, the other Hancock entry, “Driftin’,” dated back to the pre-fusion year of 1962 and was draped with the same world music sway that distinguished Loueke’s original material.
Midon’s set shifted the focus away from West Africa into waters of bossa nova (“I Love the Afternoon”) and, more fleetingly, flamenco (“God’s Dream”). But on more robust pop/soul originals like “Pedal to the Metal,” “Bad Ass and Blind” and an extended take of “State of Mind,” Midon’s one man band intentions took over. His vocal charge playfully mutated into the trumpet mimicry while his leads on acoustic guitar intensified, especially when Midon mixed in simultaneous percussion on bongos.
If there was a drawback to the performance, it was that the two only occasionally played together. The few times they did, however, were sublime. The best instance closed the show, with Midon and Loueke tempering the tone in their playing for a lovingly patient reading of “My One and Only Love.” It was a stately display of two seemingly disparate stylists communicating with a keen and common tongue.

in performance: luke combs/ashley mcbryde

Luke Combs playing to a sold out crowd of 16,000 at Rupp Arena on Friday evening. Photo by Estill Robinson.

It was at the midway point of Luke Combs’ sold out performance Friday evening that the pieces of this rather unexpected country music superstar saga came together. They didn’t necessarily fit together, mind you. But given how the explanations for Combs’ meteoric commercial ascension, especially within the last year, are like parts of a jigsaw puzzle, it was at least insightful to have the pieces in full view.

First up was the song at hand, a mid-set tune called “She Got the Best of Me.” With the help of a capable, seven-member band, over half of which was devoted to guitarists, Combs offered a country breakup story seemingly devoid of traditional design. It was instead an assured slice of sentimentalism performed with a clean pop sheen, a melody propelled by a mid-tempo current and lyrics of polite despondency that the crowd of 16,000 sang back to Combs with conciliatory respect.

Two more pieces of the puzzle dealt with expectation and relatability. That Combs’ entire show was rooted in a country-pop sound that was largely rootless made him neither a stylistic maverick nor a corporate prop. Normally, contemporary trappings are gussied up in a high-tech show where every movement, every audience interaction and every bit of between-song banter is choreographed. The Friday concert was none of that.

It played out on a largely bare stage backed by three huge video screens serving as the only luxury items. When Combs spoke to the crowd, he sounded reserved, almost shy, especially when introducing “Dear Today,” a kind of inner monologue where a present day persona fearful of losing its identity converses with the future. It began as a solo acoustic snapshot by Combs before the rest of the band joined in, making it an affirmation more in line with the rest of the program’s pop-friendly fare.

As for the relatability issue, all you had to do what look at the guy. Dressed in what looked like black work clothes and the requisite mesh hat (in this case, one bearing the logo of a sunglasses manufacturer), Combs looked more like someone who would have bought a ticket to a Rupp country show rather than an artist headlining one. Similarly, his songs embraced a bounty of expected country themes. That culminated late in the performance with “Lovin’ On You,” which was essentially a checklist referencing fishing, whiskey, boots, trucks (by brand name), beer (by brand name) and cigarettes (by brand name). It also possessed the remarkable ability to fashion all of that into a love song.

As a singer, Combs largely mirrored his material. He displayed hints of a rugged tenor that clicked into gear as soon at the show-opening “When It Rains It Pours” commenced, retaining a capable, conversational tone for the entire concert. But like so much of material, the vocals were merely serviceable. There was little offered to distinguish anything other than the moment at hand. Despite Combs’ immense popularity, the bulk of this performance isn’t destined for any record books other than those devoted to ticket sales.

Ashley McBryde at Rupp. Photo by Estill Robinson.

Far more enriching was a solid 45-minute opening set by Ashley McBryde. In her third Rupp outing in just over two years (each as a show opener), the Arkansas-born song stylist fashioned songs and storylines that largely bypassed the more expected freeways Combs’ music travelled in favor of back roads full of dark rural imagery.

Among the highlights, each distinguished with a rich vocal vibrancy, were “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” a brittle snapshot of life with a meth addict for a neighbor, and a riotously rocking preview tune from McBryde’s forthcoming “Never Will” album called “Martha Devine” that uncorked some especially dirty (and murderous) family secrets. “Honor thy father, honor thy mother,” the lyrics went. “But the Bible doesn’t say a damn thing about your daddy’s lover.”

Okay, country radio. Play that.

in performance: kiss/david lee roth

Kiss co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley performing Thursday evening at Rupp Arena. Photo by Estill Robinson.

Let’s go reeling through the years with Kiss, shall we?

The logical liftoff point is the here and now with 2020 serving as the midway point of the latest farewell tour by the relentlessly popular pop-metal band, a trek that will stretch well into next year. It stopped at Rupp Arena on Thursday evening before a crowd of 8,200, resulting in a typically flamboyant performance that saw founding members Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, along with show opener David Lee Roth, having perhaps lost a step or two in terms of vocal stamina. But all three have long favored performance vigor and attitude over singing precision. On those former fronts, they were as audience engaging as ever.

Next, let’s zip back to 1977. That marked the second year of Rupp’s existence and the first in what would become nine concert visits through the decades by Kiss. This was the era that defined the band’s glammed up, pyro heavy carnival design on record and onstage. Not surprisingly, the band went right to this golden age at the show’s onset by entering the stage – or, more exactly, being lowered to it on separate platforms – to the tune of “Detroit Rock City” and an immediate follow-up of the celebratory “Shout It Out Loud” (both from 1976’s megahit album “Destroyer”).

Kiss didn’t stay locked in the most distant corner of its past, though. With fellow original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss having long ago severed ties with the band, Stanley and Simmons were free to explore less obvious works, primarily from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, that were cut with different players. Among the highlights from what had been an abandoned era were 1984’s “Heaven’s on Fire” and 1985’s “Tears Are Falling,” a pair of more poppish entries for the MTV generation that have aged well in this program thanks to the electric jolt of Tommy Thayer, Kiss’ guitarist since 2002.

Finally, let’s set the way-back machine to, say, 1917. No, Kiss hasn’t been around that long. But the amount on onstage artillery the band continues to pack onstage – the flames and pyro-triggered sonic booms, in particular – rivalled what was blowing up around the Hindenburg Line in Sam Mendes’ current epic war film. Only the laser extravaganza that Kiss regularly implemented to give a sense of live action neon to the show would been out of place in the movie.

The concert, in essence, was a comic book come to life. Neither Stanley, 68, nor Simmons, 70, have (or have had) the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Caruso-esque vocal chops. Still, their leads – Stanley on another ‘80s nugget, “Lick It Up” and Simmons on his (fake) blood spitting anthem “God of Thunder” – were serviceable enough to color a rock pageant that, against all odds, sounded ageless.

David Lee Roth at Rupp. Photo by Estill Robinson.

In a rocket paced, 45-minute opening set, Roth essentially mirrored the drive of Kiss’ show, but without the makeup, pyro and set pieces.

Backed by an industrious five member band, three of which supplied very functional backup vocals, Roth, 65, ripped through a set of 11 songs, eight of which were pulled from his storied late ‘70s-to-mid ‘80s tenure as frontman for Van Halen. His voice didn’t reflect the dexterity of those glory days and his range was exhibited more through frequent shouts and screams than his actual singing. But Roth still commands every ounce of the swagger that defined his performance persona during the Van Halen heyday, whether he was riding the power-chord heavy “Runnin’ with the Devil” (with guitarist Al Estrada ably navigating the Eddie Van Halen playbook of licks and solos) or swinging and strutting to his hit solo career medley of “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”

Just watching the guy flash a grin big and electric enough to have been seen from Mars revealed a perhaps underappreciated show business paradigm – namely, that age is no match for attitude.

in performance: kronos quartet

Kronos Quartet. From left: Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt, David Harrington and John Sherba. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

The full intent behind Tuesday evening’s Kronos Quartet performance at Transylvania University’s Haggin Auditorium was best expressed onstage by words as opposed to music.

Near the conclusion of Zachary James Watkins’ “Peace Be Till,” the recorded voice of Clarence Jones, speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr., divulged the cue given for the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. “These people don’t know it,” Jones recalled being told by King, “but they’re about to go to church.”

That was, in essence, what Kronos did at Transy. Of the numerous Kentucky concerts presented by the Grammy-winning, San Francisco-based quartet over the past three decades, this was among their most spiritually rich and approachable. In fact, outside of a few blinks of dissonance during “Peace Be Till,” the performance steered away from the greater abstractions that often pepper a Kronos outing. In its place was a meditative accessibility drawn from a repertoire heavy on socially conscious works from, or inspired by, the Civil Rights Era South. But the program by no means remained anchored there.

With Paul Wiancko subbing for regular Kronos cellist (and new mom) Sunny Yang, the ensemble opened the evening with a trip to Egypt by way of Islam Chipsy’s “Zaghlala.” Starting as something of an Eastern hoedown, the piece placed violist Hank Dutt on dumbek, a Middle Eastern hand drum, although the full group echoed the tune’s densely percussive feel.

Similarly, the performance concluded with Wu Man’s adaptation of “Silk and Bamboo,” a traditional Asian melody where Dutt again sat out on strings by adding to the work’s lightly exotic feel on woodblock and Chinese gong.

What came between all this, outside of striking performances of new works by Bryce Dessner of The National (“Le Bois,” which Kronos premiered three nights earlier at Carnegie Hall) and Philip Glass (the gentle, arpeggio-rich “Quartet Satz”), the program set up shop within social divides of the ‘60s era South.

For the Abel Meeropol-penned, Billie Holiday-popularized “Strange Fruit,” David Harrington’s violin lines transformed the tune’s plaintive, primary melody into an elongated cry. The resulting ensemble sound lifted itself into the air at the song’s conclusion with a slow fade worthy of a séance.

While not exactly Southern in design, the Gershwin standard “Summertime” retained a heavy dose of blues elegance by being modeled more after Janis Joplin’s 1968 psychedelic version with Big Brother and the Holding Company than the song’s “Porgy and Bess” beginnings. But the evening’s emotive highpoint came with two brief back-to-back compositions that served as the thrust of the concert’s second set.

On John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” the quartet played as an elegiac whole, producing a hymn-like feel that underscored the composition’s inescapable sadness (Coltrane wrote the piece in response to the 1963 church bombing that killed four African-American girls in Birmingham).

To counteract such tragedy, the focus then went to Dutt. He carried Antonio Haskell’s “God Shall Wipe Away All Tears” (a song cut by Mahalia Jackson at the onset of her recording career) with a viola lead of heartbreaking subtlety and grace. The capacity audience rightly awarded him an ovation.

How do you lighten the mood, especially considering the lengthy “Peace Be Till” followed this one-two punch? You serve up an encore of “Orange Blossom Special” with violinist John Sherba giving the tune enough of an exotic flair and drive to make it sound like a Romanian folk adventure.

That was the church service Kronos took Transy to on Tuesday – a program of humanity and grace that summoned the spirits of the South as readily as it criss-crossed the rest of the globe.

in performance: steep canyon rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left: Barrett Smith, Nicky Sanders, Mike Guggino, Woody Platt, Graham Sharp and Mike Ashworth. Photo by David Simchock.

Leave it to the Steep Canyon Rangers to actually apologize to a Saturday night club crowd because they asked for a bit of silence during one of the quieter segments of its program.
That happened at Manchester Music Hall when the Grammy-winning bluegrass-and-more troupe trimmed its ranks and instrumentation for a few subtle passages played and harmonized around a single microphone. Most of the crowd readily complied while those at the bar near the back end of the cavernous room were oblivious and kept chatting. Such is life when you march to your own tune in a performance combat zone.
This was an intriguing moment for other reasons, as well. Playing around a lone mic is standard practice for a traditional bluegrass troupe. The Rangers’ music, however, is not dictated by historical protocol. Then again, the North Carolina band’s collective method of modernization didn’t travel an expected path, either.
The practice adopted by many contemporary bluegrass outfits is to approach songs with the accessibility and, ultimately, predictability of pop-informed country. That results in a lighter shade of a genre that is pretty weightless to begin with. The two-hour show favored music, much of which was penned by banjoist Graham Sharp, that steered clear of modern bluegrass sheen and sunshine to focus on meatier melodies and often darker themes.
“Stand and Deliver,” with Sharp’s sobering vocal lead, boasted a lyricism that grew out of a dub-style reggae groove propelled by drummer Mike Ashworth and mandolinist Mike Guggino. For the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love,” a banjo melody from Sharp repeated almost as if it was on a loop, triggering vocal blends with guitarist Woody Platt that led to a lengthy ensemble jam. Then there was “Monumental Fool,” a heartbreak tune turned inward with another instrumental excursion that ended with the entire band on the drum riser fueling a percussive groove.
Yes, that right – a drum riser. At a bluegrass performance. But this was bluegrass rewritten to the Rangers specifications and fortified by a setlist that included, along with the mentioned examples, loads of new tunes. Slap all of this together and you had an evening of dynamics and invention that none of the Rangers needed to apologize for.

in performance: fabio mittino and bert lams

Bert Lams (left) and Fabio Mittino,

It seemed fitting that Fabio Mittino and Bert Lams had driven 18 hours – from Hartford, Conn., to be exact – in order to play the Kentucky Coffee Tree Café in Frankfort on Wednesday evening. That’s because the program they designed for two acoustic guitars had done a bit of traveling of its own.

For roughly 75 minutes, the duo explored the music of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. The former was a philosopher and mystic of Greek and Armenian ancestry who gathered tunes during late 19th and early 20th century travels throughout the Far East. He then dictated them for transcription, often through oral recitation, to the latter, a Russian composer and one of Gurdjieff’s most trusted protégés.

So, in a nutshell, the evening was a bit of a travelogue. What Mittino and Lams translated that into was a series of brief instrumental pieces averaging about two minutes in length that possessed the exactness and elegance of classical music, the emotive accessibility of folk and liturgical works and a modest but pronounced exotic air that came from a variety of Eastern accents.

During the concert-opening “Movement 13,” a lead from Mittino danced about with the delicacy of a ballet, yet at its core sat a melody of simple, bittersweet beauty. Similarly, “Mamasha” revolved around a sense of classical grace Mittino rightly compared to Chopin.

While the entire program was focused on Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music, save for a lone Mittino original titled “Shining Road” that had the guitarist juggling dual melodies simultaneously, there was still considerable variety. For “Tibetan Masked Dance,” Lams let loose with a vigorous, repeated riff that could have passed for surf music while the entire piece possessed the spry animation (and propulsion) of a mazurka. “Round Dance in G” later slowed the pace of Mittino’s more rugged rhythmic phrasing while Lams’ lead summoned a buoyant dance melody that quickly said its peace before receding so that the composition could stop on a dime.

The most fascinating aspect to this seemingly forgotten music, though, were the roots it revealed to the works of a slightly more familiar culture. There was no mistaking the Eastern inspiration within “Armenian Song.” But as the tune’s relaxed but stately melody unfolded, one could detect how such an exotic sound was connected to classical and especially folk works from more Western regions of Europe. Who knows? Maybe Bach possessed a smidge of Armenian blood we didn’t know about.

Regardless, catching a ride with Mittino and Lams through the far off lands once travelled by Gurdjieff without leaving the ultra-intimate setting of the Coffee Tree Café made for an exquisite vacation from the dead-of-winter doldrums.

in performance: delvon lamarr organ trio

Delvon Lamarr. Photo by Jan Scheffner Photography.

You sensed early Sunday evening at The Burl that Delvon Lamarr and Jimmy James would have been more than content to spend their two-hour performance trading riffs and melodic fragments from whatever vintage tune popped into their brains and, eventually, fingertips.

That was how much of the show played out for the mainstay members of the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio. The set was framed by their animated instrumentation and interaction – Lamarr on B3 organ and James on guitar with Steven Sandifer, the latest in a succession of drummers, rounding out the lineup. From there, the music revealed a devotion to a groove owing equally to late ‘60s/early ‘70s era jazz and soul. But the trio’s resulting music was perhaps better viewed as summit of expectation and surprise.

The expectation part was revealed during playful sparring between the two mainstay members that turned the show into something of a groove-centric jukebox. Before launching into the sunny expanse of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” (a soul staple the Lamarr Trio has essentially made own over the last two years), licks from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” were introduced as a sort of multi-genre, cross-generational warm up.

Later, during an update of the vastly more obscure “Top Going Down, Bottom Going Up” (a mid ‘70s single for Georgia R&B star Nathan Bartell), Lamarr and Jones spent a good 20 minutes letting the jukebox rock as the tune receded into the more layered, orchestrated colors of the B3. The two then traded licks from melodies by the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Gnarls Barkley, Survivor, The Temptations, The Beatles, Biz Markie, Bob Marley and, perhaps most improbably, Dolly Parton (by way of a snippet from the chorus to “Jolene,” which the crowd largely unrecognized).

Finally, with a show-closing take on Tyrone Davis’ unjustly unheralded 1968 hit “Can I Change My Mind,” the organ-guitar tradeoff squeezed in riffs from Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and Rush. Fittingly, James was wearing a Rush t-shirt for the show, a likely tribute to the Canadian band’s drummer Neal Peart, who died last week.

Needless to say, this wasn’t the kind of vocabulary one would expect from a band seemingly devoted to the soul-pop grooves generated decades ago by the likes of Lonnie Smith and Brother Jack McDuff. But such tinkering with tradition seemed to be at the heart of the fun, especially onstage, for the trio. Watching Lamarr and James break into smiles as the jams erupted, whether they were through the medley-laden tunes or stand-alone delights like the new Meters-meets-James Brown groove-a-thon “Chicken Leg” or the solid soul shuffle “Fo’ Sho’,” uncorked a level of performance immediacy that rivaled the most fervent of rock shows.

James, however, took all of that a step further. During the greasy-grooved “Buttered Popcorn” and the equally rambunctious “The Dirty,” the guitarist seemingly cut ties with the trio’s soul serenading by turning his amp up and letting a series of brash, electric solos turn the music into blasts of pure psychedelia. Jimi Hendrix was an obvious reference point for this kind of stylistic detour, but the soul foundation still at the heart of James’ playing better brought to mind the great Parliament/Funkadelic guitar giant Eddie Hazel.

“I could do this all night,” James remarked earlier in the concert as the swapping of riffs and melodies with Lamarr began. Given the sparks triggered between the two as the night progressed, few in the audience would have minded if he did.

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