Archive for in performance

in performance: steve earle and the dukes

Steve Earle.

After winding up the anthemic, pop-savvy sway of “Waiting for You” earlier tonight at Renfro Valley, Steve Earle shook his head, beamed a grin and offered a remark that was tantamount to an apology.

“It was the ‘80s.”

Why the self effacement for one of his own works let alone one of his performances? It might have been that the long forgotten song was one of the 10 compositions that made up “Copperhead Road,” Earle’s 1988 breakthrough album. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the record’s release, he devoted the first half of the concert to a complete performance of the album. That meant digging into the lesser known nuggets – the “chick tunes,” as Earle dismissively described them. But with the electric flexibility possessed by the current lineup of his longrunning Dukes band, Earle turned an exercise in nostalgic appeal into an expansive overview of how his storied career began connecting with a major audiences outside the country spectrum.

The five tunes constituting the album’s first side were, as Earle suggested, stronger. It offered haunting remembrances of Reagan-ism in the country carny yarn “Snake Oil” along with grim glimpses of a country just coming to grips with the post-Vietnam era. The popular title tune, which began the album and tonight’s performance, connected as much for its drug-smuggling danger element as for its more desperate, but humanistic profile of a Vietnam vet on the edge. More effective, though, was the less obvious “Johnny Come Lately,” with its Celtic mandolin/accordion jig delivery.

Earle offered insightful stories to go with the tunes, as well, including a reference to Irish upstarts The Pogues (which played on the recorded version of “Johnny Come Lately”). Color me skeptical, but my guess is this was the one and only time the band will ever get a shout out on a Renfro Valley stage. Another story, oddly enough, explained how the Oak Ridge Boys were the Nashville force largely responsible for getting Earle the recording contract that created career defining albums like “Copperhead Road.”

The rest of the program steered closer to the present with a setlist that boasted the similarly jig-worthy “The Galway Girl,” a heavily traditional country duet with Eleanor Whitmore of the The Mastersons (who served as members of The Dukes as well as the show’s fine opening act) on “I’m Still in Love With You” and a quartet of tunes from last years “So You Wannabe An Outlaw.” The latter concluded with the brooding electric doomsday call of “Fixin’ to Die,” which, in turn, bled into an equally foreboding, but highly faithful cover of “Hey Joe.”

Funny. Such a dark conclusion to the concert brought Earle and the Dukes back to the mean streets they know so well. Three decades on, they still can’t stay away from Copperhead Road.

in performance: foo fighters/the struts

Dave Grohl performing with Foo Fighters last night at Rupp Arena. Photo by Matt Goins.

“Sorry we’re late. My bad.”

That was the succinct apology Dave Grohl offered over 14,000 patrons near the midway point of Foo Fighters’ tireless and exuberant 2 ½ hour performance last night at Rupp Arena.

The tardiness, of course, was a nearly seven month postponement of the concert due to a family emergency. But Grohl and company more than made up for lost time with a show built around rock ‘n’ roll essentials – specifically, punkish immediacy, arena rock expansiveness and a hefty dose of good humor.

It’s easy with the kind of amiable profile possessed by the current six-member lineup of Foo Fighters to overlook just how in charge of the proceedings Grohl really is. The concert began with a live, offstage guitar squall before he entered alone with a mad dash around the front lip of the stage. This continued as the other members were still getting situated. Even when everything coalesced into the furious grind of “Run,” from the Foos’ most recent album “Concrete and Gold,” you sensed the rest of the band was still getting into the groove that Grohl was already running away with.

That was largely how the bulk of the program played out. Only longtime Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins, at times, was allowed the kind of room to roam that Grohl luxuriated in. Indeed, some of the concert’s strongest moments revolved around numerous exchanges between the two players, from the rumbling jam that grew out of “Rope” to the sparring that surfaced from the impressive group dynamics of “My Hero” to a duel that capped off a playfully riotous “Breakout.”

Mostly, though, Grohl and the Foos established themselves as a band of the moment. The recorded versions of the songs offered last night proved to be mere blueprints of what ignited onstage. The anthemic “Walk,” one of two tunes pulled from 2011’s “Wasting Light” album, was built largely around elemental riffs. But the front line guitar team of Grohl, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear gave such a basic fabric a huge, spacious framework. “The Pretender,” however, was just loose enough in construction for the band to take their time and peel back its post grunge exterior so more rootsy intimations could flourish.

Aside from an extended drum feature from Hawkins, this wasn’t a program that flaunted instrumental solos. Grohl was obviously more taken with mood, namely the kind of jovial spirit summoned from rock ‘n’ roll basics, than technique. Sure, he could scream and hammer out the riffs with ample energy. But he was obviously after the fun element too, an aspect that boiled over late in the program during a set of covers that included snippets of the “Grease” hit “You’re the One That I Want,” a version of the Van Halen staple “Jump” played to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and a respectful take on the Queen/David Bowie classic “Under Pressure.” The latter sent Grohl to the drum kit and left vocal chores to Hawkins and Luke Spiller, whose opening set with the Brit band The Struts was consumed with early ‘70s glam rock. Imagine the forgotten band Slade had Freddie Mercury been hired as singer. That was the vibe.

As a footnote to the evening, Grohl also revealed the cause of the family emergency that prompted the concert’s postponement from last fall – an illness that sidelined his mother. He didn’t elaborate.

“There’s only one thing I love more than the Foo Fighters,” he told the crowd. “And that’s my mama.”

in performance: chris potter

Chris Potter. Photo by Tamas Talaber.

There are fewer artistic triumphs greater for a contemporary musician than to successfully mold and recast and a tradition into something original. There was a striking moment – one of many, really – in tonight’s performance by Chris Potter at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center where that occurred with seemingly accessible ease.

It came went an unaccompanied Potter skirmish on tenor sax eased into “Togo,” a decades old work by the late drummer Ed Blackwell with roots that reached back to melodic traditions from Ghana. Potter, though, presented the tune as a conversation piece with a largely hypnotic sax solo that spread itself patiently over the slight, steadfast support of guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Fima Ephron and drummer Dan Weiss. At times, shades of the tune’s West African heritage were revealed (Togo is the country that borders Ghana on the east). But by the composition’s conclusion, the modest drive of Potter’s tenor lead and his group’s subtle, sustained groove sounded almost Eastern.

The reverence with which Potter addressed the tune with was indicative of the entire 95 minute performance, the most significant booking in the debut season of the locally produced Origins Jazz Series. The quartet was largely structured after Potter’s long running Underground band, although it wasn’t officially billed as such. That meant the prominence of two electric players (Rogers and Ephron) along with modest electronic embellishments on Potter’s part that provided loops and echo effects to brief runs on clarinet and flute that created an attractive orchestral ambience at times.

While the bulk of the show flirted with notions of funk and fusion, the music never fully surrendered to either. The funk rolls in the concert-closing “The Wheel,” for instance, embraced groove even though the tune’s restless nature continually shifted rhythmic gears. The same held true for the opening “Train,” which juggled moments of funk and boppish glee, and “Pop Tune # 1,” which tastefully suggested elements of Southern style soul more than any overt pop strains.

As a footnote, it was enormously encouraging to see such a hearty turnout for this performance. Jazz – serious, adventurous, sit-down-and-listen jazz – is a hard sell outside of major metropolitan markets. While the Lyric was well short of capacity, the attendance was generous enough to suggest the Origin Jazz Series may well be on its way to establishing a following in Lexington for such original and invigorating music. Let’s hope so.

in performance: brantley gilbert/aaron lewis/josh phillips

Brantley Gilbert performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

Within the first few bars of the show-opening “My Kinda Party,” Brantley Gilbert placed all of his performance cards squarely in view of the 5,550 fans he pulled into Rupp Arena last night.

On the upside, his stage demeanor seemed energetic, good natured and immensely audience friendly – especially the latter, as those he happily slapped hands with along a walkway that ran down the arena floor can attest to.

Also in the plus column was a knowing sense of the contemporary country market that has made Gilbert a significant star over the past decade. That meant an efficiently staged show with the usual Spinal Tap-ish pyrotechnics, video screens and, most of all, an impressively flexible band whose role in fleshing out the variety of styles that gradually unraveled during the 90 minute set – the hip-hop cool of “Dirt Road Anthem,” the metal-esque crunch of “It’s About to Get Dirty” and radio-friendly country-pop of “More Than Miles” – proved continually pivotal.

The takeaway from last night’s concert that was more disconcerting was how weak a vocalist Gilbert was. Maybe he was ill. Maybe it was spring allergies. But from the onset of the show, Gilbert’s singing was a coarse, internalized mumble. He would bark out occasional exclamations to trigger audience involvement, but there was little within initial electric party pieces like “Country Must Be Country Wide” and “My Baby’s Guns N’ Roses” to suggest any kind of sustained vocal drive.

When the pace chilled and the volume settled for tunes like “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” and brief acoustic revisions of “Them Boys” and “My Kind of Crazy,” a modest level of fluidity and detail was detectable in the singing. On more discernable crowd favorites, though – “Small Town Throwdown,” for instance – the audience took over some of the vocal load.

This may have indeed been his kind of party, but Gilbert’s surprisingly lax vocal command definitely took the fire out of the celebration.

That wasn’t the only curiosity to the evening. Preceding Gilbert was an hour-long, chain smoking set by Staind vocalist Aaron Lewis. That’s the right, the same Aaron Lewis who powered such post-grunge anthems as “Right Here” and “It’s Been Awhile,” both of which he played. But Lewis wasn’t as much of a fish-out-of-water artist last night as one might suppose. His country material often revealed serious honky tonk volition as well as subtle but determined narrative digs, all of which were on display in an industry swipe called “That Ain’t Country.” The set-opening “Country Boy,” on the other hand, was all dark, swampy contemplation akin to the late ‘70s records of Hank Williams, Jr.

Sure, there was requisite jingoistic plundering and pandering (Lewis began his set by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), but for the most part, there was an uncompromising solemnity and soulfulness to his performance that was quite arresting.

The evening began with a 20 minute solo acoustic set by North Carolina newcomer Josh Phillips. The singer racked up bonus points for playing without a band in an arena setting, but little was offered to distinguish his songs from the same thematic blather that permeates country radio today. When you have to turn your show-opening song – in this case, “Tonight Ain’t the Day” into a medley with a cover of “Highway to Hell,” you’re not exactly displaying unshakeable confidence in your work.

in performance: eagles

Joe Walsh performing with the Eagles last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Alex Slitz.

Anyone curious about how in tune a retooled Eagles lineup would be with the times had their understandable concerns settled within the opening moments of the band’s very inviting 2 ½ hour concert last night at Rupp Arena.

With zero fanfare, a six member team – the lone original, the two mainstay members, a pair of new recruits and a key auxiliary player – lined up across the front of the stage to sing “Seven Bridges Road,” the Steve Young tune that was exclusive to the 1980 album “Eagles Live,” a record many assumed would serve as the band’s swansong work.

As the performance progressed, the five principle members would juggle lead vocal duties. Here, however, all were one – a resilient, harmonic front line of age, youth and no small level of musical acumen. As the voices were raised, the results sounded more like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young than the Southern California country-rock hybrid the Eagles claimed ownership of during the ‘70s. For a band used to the higher reaches of mega-stardom, this was an effectively subtle, even unassuming opening.

Much of the first half of the single-set, 27 song performance was spent establishing the identities of the new members and fortifying the legacies of the returning vets. Curiously, it was Joe Walsh who spoke to the crowd of 11,000 first (with a typically aloof “Good morning”) before introducing Deacon Frey, son of the late Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey. The young vocalist quickly took the reins of “Take It Easy” by doing just that. His delivery, though distinctly different than that of his father, was confident, convincing and, as was much of the entire concert, refreshingly unforced. The younger Frey’s delivery later in the show of “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” though, reflected an almost ghostly similarity to his father’s singing.

The other “new guy” was Vince Gill, the veteran country guitarist, vocalist and (thanks to a brief stay during his bluegrass days of the ‘70s) former Lexingtonian. Gill took to the Eagles catalog – specifically, other songs originally sung by father Frey – with maximum ease, although his still potent high-tenor voice had more in common with band bassist Timothy B. Schmit’s singing. Gill took assured but respectful ownership of everything from the rocking “Heartache Tonight” to the surprise inclusion of Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” (a tune cut for what arguably remains the Eagles’ best album, 1974’s “On the Border”). But the stunner was his treatment of “Take It to the Limit,” the regal lament co-written and sung by original Eagles bassist Randy Meisner but appropriated after his departure from the band by the elder Frey. Gill’s version, aided by choral-like harmonies from the other players, was a singular highlight of the performance.

Schmit, seated for the duration of the show with a booted right foot elevated on a platform due to a hotel room fall, was the only member whose singing revealed some wear, especially during a frail sounding “I Can’t Tell You Why.” His later delivery of the “Hell Freezes Over” single “Love Will Keep Us Alive” sounded richer.

Walsh, ever the guitar dynamo, elevated the energy level several notches whenever he took the spotlight, from vintage James Gang fare (a dynamic “Walk Away” bolstered by a five man horn section), solo career hits (the still haplessly baffoon-ish “Life’s Been Good”) and perhaps his best known Eagles tune, the darkly hopeful “In the City.” Walsh drove much of the performance simply a guitarist, whether through his own slide solos or healthy sparring with Steuart Smith, a touring member of the Eagles since 2001 and a major front line presence last night on guitar and harmonies.

That left Don Henley, the last of the original Eagles, who appeared visibly at ease with all manners of business conducted by his band’s realigned lineup. Watching him trade key harmonies with Frey and Gill revealed an almost patriarchal spirit, one that extended into the music itself. At 70 (the same age as Walsh and Schmit), his vocals revealed impressive clarity and range, from the ringing falsetto produced for “One of These Nights” to the rockish command that fortified “Victim of Love” to the quieter, folk-savvy turns within “Best of My Love.”

Nothing, though, beat the title tune to “Desperado,” the genre defining album that celebrates its 45th anniversary next week. Backed by a string quintet and the Eagles’ front line offensive, the song sounded as robustly weary and worn as it did in 1973. But there was also a sagely aspect to last night’s show-closing version, as if Henley was taking the song’s own advice to heart and letting the audience show a little love before the band called it quits. The song proved an absorbing survivor statement, one that spoke equally to the Eagles’ potent history as well as to the abundant vitality and purpose it still possesses today.


in performance: gangstagrass

Gangstagrass, from left: Rench, Dolio the Sleuth, R-Son, Dan Whitener and Landry McMeans. Photo by Benjamin Smith

“I love it when you guys are down with the program,” remarked Gangstagrass guitarist and chieftain Rench as cultures deliriously clashed last night at Willie’s Locally Known.

The program, in this instance, was a musical mission that has been viewed over the past decade as a mash-up of bluegrass and hip-hop. The one hour, 45 minute performance revealed, however, that summation to be slightly inaccurate.

The very handmade musical fabric supplied by Rench, Dan Whitener and Landry McMeans on acoustic guitar, banjo and dobro respectively was more reflective of pre-bluegrass country music, especially works that generously emphasized their Appalachian ancestry, than what we have come to accept as bluegrass. Tempos were rougher, darker and slower than the string music brought forth in the post-Bill Monroe age. The approach could have almost been accepted as folk were it not for the looped beats that continually grooved under the tunes, from the show opening “I Go Hard” to the closing cover of the roots-music staple “Darlin’Cory (Dig a Hole in the Meadow)”.

That set-up made it easier to emcees R-Son and Dolio the Sleuth to bring the hip hop element to the evening. While deciphering their rhymes was often difficult given the show’s muddy sound mix, what resulted were songs where the three instrumentalists established the music’s traditionally minded accents through narratives the emcees would then mirror with more contemporary slants. Even the most familiar fare, such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” was presented with a wild duality, interspersing vintage verses sung by the instrumentalists with modern rhymes based off those words by the emcees. The formula didn’t shift dramatically for original fare, either, like “Bound to Ride,” “Keep Talking” and the new “Nowhere to Run.”

The most elaborate example of this cross-generational song swapping came when Gangstagrass let its popular “Justified’ theme song “Long Hard Times to Come” bleed into a vigorous update of “Hard Times Come Again No More,” the folk-blues affirmation penned by Stephen Foster. The two songs, bolstered by McMeans’ amplified dobro runs that mimicked electric slide guitar, the emcees’ tireless performance drive and the unwavering confidence the full band displayed in making such disparate styles sound natural and unified showed how Gangstagrass was getting with its own program just as readily as its audience was.

in performance: california guitar trio

California Guitar Trio: Hideyo Moriya, Paul Richards and Bert Lams.

To recognize the scholarly technique and stylistic dexterity of the California Guitar Trio when appraising one of its concerts isn’t exactly detective work. The ensemble has stressed both traits with unassuming ease throughout its 27 year history, so much so that such a design has allowed the music it fashions for three acoustic guitars to remain both accessible and adventurous. In short, the game plan has long been standard operating procedure. The music and musicianship within it, however, remains anything but.

The CGT’s annual visit to the Kentucky Coffeetree Café last night in Frankfort, one of the most intimate venues the group plays on a regular basis, offered an especially well-rounded repertoire that embraced the familiar but emphasized the new.

The four selections that opened the 90 minute performance made for a refresher course of the band: a faithful cover of “Classical Gas,” the surf staple “Walk Don’t Run,” the Argentine folk-inspired original “Chacarera” and the slide blues-meet-Western mash-up “Train to Lamy Suite.” Collectively, all have made frequent rounds in CGT shows through the years. Last night, though, they provided a crash course in the textures, techniques and sheer stylistic cunning the band was capable of. For all their familiarity to CGT die-hards, the tunes all sounded fresh and immediate.

There were also less obvious entries, like the beautiful “Euphoria,” a relatively recent entry from CGT member Paul Richards that revolved around a light, spacious group melody that quickly dived into deeper, layered colors. While not exactly an obscurity, Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” returned after an extended absence from the CGT repertoire, but still boasted a richly percussive drive.

It was also a blast to hear two career-spanning originals by fellow CGT co-founder Hideyo Moriya played back to back – 1993’s “Kan-Non Power” (which strongly summoned the influence of group mentor Robert Fripp both in its percolating arpeggios and the long, sustained mock-electric sounds Richards created with pedal effects) and “Komorebi” (the title tune to the CGT’s 2017 album, which sported a considerably lighter, more openly atmospheric makeup).

Four new entries were also added to the CGT catalog last night – a beautifully fragile arrangement of Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” by the late Collin Landinguin, a jubilant take on the Ventures’ surf classic “Diamond Head,” a loose but extremely fun stab at the Beatles’ “Get Back” and a wonderfully textured work by Buenos Aires guitarist Alex Anthony Faide entitled “Where It Goes, We Go.”

Then it was back to CGT essentials to close the show with guitarist Bert Lams helping co-pilot the mix of cinematic ambience and drama within “Punta Patri” and an encore cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that underscored the sense of combustible fun that still sits at the heart of the trio’s immensely inventive and inviting music.

in performance: miranda lambert/jon pardi/the steel woods

Miranda Lambert and her band performing last night at Rupp Arena. Photo by Matt Goins.

Miranda Lambert divulged the game plan for her Rupp Arena return last night within the opening minutes of a vibrant, inviting and thematically far reaching performance. In that short space of time, she sang a storyline of homespun sensibility, one that was perhaps country in design but very worldly in its narrative scope – a trait that would play out in varying ways over the next hour and 45 minutes.

Curiously, the song in question wasn’t one of her own hits, but rather a cover of a 40 year old gem penned by one of America’s most revered and reflective songwriters, John Prine. The tune was “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round.” While Prine sang it originally (and still does today) with a hapless, wide-eyed reserve, Lambert plugged the tune in and turned it into an Americana carnival packing a searing electric jolt that was also a forecast what was to unfold.

What the Rupp crowd of 13,500 witnessed was, in essence, a kind of artistic duality. For die-hard fans, there were tunes full of rockish defiance that established Lambert’s musical reputation more than a decade ago – songs like “Kerosene” (which shot out of “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round” like a bottle rocket) and “Gunpowder and Lead.” Lambert’s voice, while hardly the epitome of country gumption, possessed a rockish might that, once detonated, sailed into upper registers to give these early tunes a properly anthemic authority.

But a considerable chunk of the show was devoted to newer music – specifically, a half dozen fine entries from 2016’s “The Weight of These Wings” album. Among the most expressive was “Vice,” a heartbreak tune cast in layers of elegiac cool but born out of an environment “where the numb meets the lonely.” Equally arresting was “Tin Man,” which echoed similar despondency (“Take it from me, darling, you don’t want a heart”) but without the orchestrated aid of Lambert’s eight member band. She instead performed the song alone with fitting but informal grace on acoustic guitar.

The crowd pleaser, though, came when Lambert welcomed Ashley Monroe and Martin County native (as well as one time Lexingtonian) Angaleena Presley onstage for an impromptu Pistol Annies outing. Though limited to a scant two songs (“Hell on Heels” and “Takin’ Pills”), the trio fully embraced and celebrated the electric independence of Lambert’s early music. It was, in essence, the diesel fuel that very much made her world go ‘round.

The evening’s two show openers – Jon Pardi and The Steel Woods were remote footnotes amid Lambert’s pageantry. While Pardi displayed an honest immediacy in his performance energy, songs like “Cowboy Hat” and “Head Over Boots” still came off as the sort of numskull Bro Country product that sounded like it was written in a corporate board room with an early afternoon deadline. The show-opening Steel Woods fared better by recalling Chris Stapleton during his Southern rocking Jompson Brothers days. Hats off, also, to Woods guitarist Jason Cope, who provided “Straw in the Wind” and a set opening cover of the 1982 John Anderson hit “Wild and Blue” with inventive, electric atmosphere.

in performance: the robert cray band

Robert Cray.

During a very brief tuning break between songs last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, Robert Cray plucked out a chord, took a beat to appraise his work and gave a quick summation of the discovered sound.


Then another chord and another slightly more demonstrative judgment.


Finally, a more developed lick emerged, full of the tone and lyrical clarity he seemed to be searching for. A louder verdict was reached.


A man of few words but many musical expressions – that’s our Cray. As one of the most dependable live acts on the blues and soul circuit, the Grammy winning guitarist and vocalist, along with his long-running band, wasn’t exactly full of surprises. Last night’s 90 minute concert possessed more of the same blues inspired R&B that has long defined both his vocal and guitar work for the last three-plus decades. But Cray was in no way going through roots-informed motions during the show. His playing was clean and precise but never antiseptic or stale in a way so many blues/soul artists can sound after a lifetime on the road.

For instance, during “Two Steps from the End” (the tune the “yeah, yeah, yeahs” led into), Cray’s soloing settled into an almost sinister cool that played off of the equally serene B3 organ orchestration of Dover Weinberg. But on “Move a Mountain” (a wonderful deep track pulled from 1990’s “Midnight Stroll” album), the guitar drive grew more muscular to sustain the tune’s punctuated drive. Then on “You Have My Heart” (one of six tunes performed from 2017’s “Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm,” his newest recording) and “Right Next Door” (a hit off of 1986’s career-making “Strong Persuader”), the guitar sound dipped low, bringing the full band to a luscious, organic fade.

There were similar dynamics to Cray’s singing, which has never received its proper due through the years. On the show opening “I Shiver,’ the 64 year artist effortlessly reached a crisp, high soul tenor. For “I Don’t Care,” he sailed just as readily into a ringing falsetto. The latter was one of several songs (“Fix This” and “Sadder Days” were others) possessing titles and lyrics that suggested a trip to the deeper abyss of the blues. But the music surrounding them was positively sunny, both in Cray’s jubilant guitar leads and the summery soul cast of his vocals.

Guess you really can’t judge a song by its title. Take “Phone Booth,” a 1983 Cray gem served up as one of two encore tunes (the mighty blues opus “Time Makes Two” was the other). The song’s desperate protagonist may have been calling from a phone booth, but none of the familiar fare the real Cray was dispensing last night was being phoned in.

in performance: the earls of leicester/early james and the latest

The Earls of Leicester, from left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales.

During the closing moments of the Earls of Leicester’s sublime bluegrass summit last night the Opera House, banjoist Charlie Cushman stepped to the front microphone to offer a stunning bit of trivia. He stated it was 49 years ago to the evening that bluegrass forefathers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, whose music largely forms the repertoire for the Earls (hence the band name), ended their pioneering musical alliance.

But the six member ensemble, under the direction of dobro colossus and one-time Lexingtonian Jerry Douglas, has made a mission out of rekindling audience interest in Flatt & Scruggs music by recording and performing it with a deftness both artful and playful. Last night, that legacy leapt to vibrant life with the opening strains of “Salty Dog Blues” and didn’t subside until Douglas reprised the famously mad bluegrass dash melody of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on dobro after Cushman had set the tune’s mischievous spirit in motion.

In its most immediate terms, the approach the Earls took to the Flatt & Scruggs catalog was a presentation of scholarly taste. Douglas has long been known as an instrumental thrillseeker. But the musicians surrounding him were no less versed, especially fiddler Johnny Warren, a direct link to Flatt & Scruggs’ famed Foggy Mountain Boys band (where his father, Paul Warren, also played fiddle).

Similarly, Cushman was regularly in the driver’s seat, propelling the jubilant group charge of “Will You Be Lonesome, Too?” while navigating the tricky tuning shifts of “Earl’s Breakdown” with giddy assurance. Then there was guitarist Shawn Camp, whose vocal work underscored the cheer and soulfulness of Flatt & Scruggs’ music, even during devout gospel numbers like “Get in Line Brother.”

But none of this meant the Earls treated the performance as some kind of academic exercise. While the compositional efficiency of  these tunes precluded the sort of monster soloing Douglas reaches for with his more progressive minded projects, a luxurious glimpse was nonetheless revealed when he honored the great Josh Graves, the Foggy Mountain Boys’ dobro ace (and one of Douglas’ prime influences) during the instrumental turns of “Spanish Two Step.”

But perhaps the most moving and purposeful moment came when Douglas, Camp, Warren and mandolinist Jeff White stood around a single mic to sing “Reunion in Heaven,” a Flatt & Scruggs gospel song that dates back to the early 1950s. The Earls sang the tune in December at the funeral of mandolinist Curly Seckler, the last surviving member of the Foggy Mountain Boys. Douglas and his mates did more here that merely offer a tribute. They utilized the bluegrass tradition that defines the Earls’ very existence to provide such extraordinary vintage music with a whole new sense of purpose and place.

A bonus to last night’s program was an opening set that introduced a fine acoustic guitar and upright bass duo from Birmingham, Ala. called Early James and the Latest. The modus operandi here was pure blues – ghostly, rapturous, meditative blues (as shown by the set-opening “Dig to China”) along with merrier, rag-inspired juke joint works (typified by “Taste of Sin” and “Gravy Train”). Both extremes were fleshed out with wiry and often eerie authority through the vocals of guitarist James and orchestrated by the subtle but very complete bass support of Adrian Marmolejos. Keep an eye and ear out for these guys.

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