Archive for in performance

in performance: noam pikelny

noam pikelny. photo by justin camerer.

Noam Pikelny had his performance philosophy whittled down to an efficient credo that he proudly shared with his audience last night at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville.

“Nobody cares if you play new music when you have no hits.”

With that, the Punch Brother mainstay presented a project of zero commercial familiarity – a solo banjo concert. Well, it was almost one. The sparsely adorned Weisiger stage also included three guitars of various lineage – a six string acoustic (utilized during a intimately rustic version of “The Wreck of the Old 97”), a Telecaster (plucked with tastefully vintage country electricity on “My Tears Don’t Show”) and an oddly shaped 1928 plectrum guitar (whose four strings provided the Josh Ritter murder ballad mash-up “Folk Bloodbath” and the Pikelny original “The Great Falls” with a hybrid voice echoing steel guitar as well as banjo).

Everything else, though, was Pikelny, his whispery, old world baritone of a singing voice (which he tagged as “funerary”) and solo banjo tunes that were embracing bluegrass tradition one moment and gleefully fleeing from all expectations associated with it the next.

The show opening “Waveland,” for instance, unfolded with hummingbird like speed, lightness and agility while “Sugar Maple” operated with more patiently paced momentum, equal delicacy and a dash of folkish fancy. Even the most deep seeded songs of bluegrass ancestry went through multiple stylistic rebirths, as with a medley of three tunes (“Mississippi Waltz,” “Ashland Breakdown” and “Jerusalem Ridge”) from 2013’s “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” – a record that offered banjo reconstructions of fiddler Baker’s original variations of mandolinist (and longtime employer) Monroe’s compositions. Baker made Monroe’s music often swing with jazz-like flexibility. While Pikelny’s versions last night restored some of the bluegrass luster, the solo setting (unlike the record’s quintet lineup) also revealed a starkness more clearly approximating the blues.

One could go on at length about the scholarly technique and sense of invention Pikelny put on very unassuming display. Half the magic of last night’s show, though, was the way the music was presented. Pikelny’s possessed a wry but engaging sense of humor which heightened the accessibility level of a concert that could have easily, for all of its honorable artistic intent, seemed foreign or even abstract to unsuspecting listeners. Instead, a set closing cover of Roger Miller’s “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll be a Long Time Gone)” came with purposely indecipherable instructions for an equally improbable sing-a-long of a warp speed chorus. “Oh, this is going to be good,” he said in anticipation of the vocal train wreck to come. The banjoist also shared a hysterical account of a Grand Ole Opry performance centering on the potential mispronunciation of his name by host Roy Clark. Instead, the country veteran introduced champion fiddler (and Pikelny’s duet partner) Stuart Duncan as Cisco Kid actor Duncan Renaldo.

Best of all was a hapless explanation of how Pikelny’s moonlighting projects from Punch Brothers have involved successively smaller ensembles, resulting in his current unaccompanied performance status. He then joked the only logical follow-up would be “an avant garde evening of silence.”

“Get your tickets now. That one will be over in the big hall.”

in performance: blessed union of souls

Blessid Union of Souls. From left, Chris Arduser, David Lessing, Eliot Sloan, Brian Lovely and Dave Ramos.

“It’s a beautiful night for a show,” admitted Eliot Sloan a few songs into Blessid Union of Souls’ sleek and exuberant headlining set last night at the Christ the King Oktoberfest. No argument. With the rains of the week having dissipated and the beer gardens and bingo tents doing especially brisk business, the Cincinnati band settled into a 90 minute set focused squarely on the soul bravado of Sloan’s singing and his band’s efficient brand of power pop and retro-hued rock.

“Retro” was the operative but perhaps not obvious word for the performance. Blessid Union of Souls’ popularity can be traced to a pair of ‘90s radio hits – “I Believe” and “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me for Me)” – from the Blessid Union of Souls’ first and third albums (1994’s “Home” and 1999’s “Walking Off the Buzz”). That era of commercial pop – defined by songs strong on sentiment, affirmation and frequent bursts of hook-heavy melodies – largely spoke to the base of operations Sloan and company operated from for much of the 90 minute set.

The show opening “Oh Virginia,” for instance, let Sloan’s tireless stage demeanor sell those traits through bursts of crisp, churchy sounding pop. Admittedly, the singer had help by way of two veterans of the Cincy pop wars – drummer Chris Arduser and guitarist Brian Lovely – who injected the tune, as well as the music that followed, with a strong, efficient drive.

So resolute was Blessid Union of Souls’ devotion to ‘90s pop that even the set’s plentiful of level cover tunes reflecting a jukebox level of familiarity (meaning hits by U2, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, The Beatles and more) largely wound up sounding like post grunge radio fare. It was all efficiently executed, but a little, well, safe sounding.

This devotion to pop past’s also extended to the band’s treatment of its own songs, even to the point of sandwiching “Hey Leonardo” in the middle of a cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

It was all good natured, enough. Sloan consistently sounded strong and it was great having an ace like Arduser back on Lexington soil again. His explosive rhythmic turns on “Girl I’ve Been Telling You About,” in fact, were the highlight of the show. But after a closing cover of “Pride (in the Name of Love),” the crowd enthusiasm didn’t dissipate. That’s because the bingo tent has just crowned another winner.

Church bingo and rock ‘n’ roll. After all these years of Oktoberfest, that’s a combo platter that still astounds.

 

in performance: blind boys of alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left: Joey Williams, Ben Moore, Jimmy Carter, Ricky McKinnie and Paul Beasley.

The sagely jubilance of the Blind Boys of Alabama was placed on full display within the opening minutes of their performance earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Opening with a version of the 1970 Norman Greenbaum rock radio staple “Spirit in the Sky,” the group’s four-man front line sat stoically in matching tan suits and shades. One by one, they stood with only singer Ricky McKennie remaining seated and silent as the song’s sense of Southern fried salvation was conjured. Then, at the midway point, McKennie surrendered to the music by standing and swaying like a sudden convert to a brand of traditional gospel channeled through some very secular electricity. If you came to the theatre with any Monday blues, they were immediately washed away by this inviting blast of Sunday morning soul.

This was pretty much business as usual for the Blind Boys, but that didn’t make the eight songs performed for the WoodSongs taping seem any less striking. As always, it wasn’t just the group’s immovable sense of faith that fueled its sense of scholarly performance fervency, but the agelessly subtle vigor with which they delivered it.

Co-founder Jimmy Carter again personified that attitude. At age 85, he delivered the remarkably candid and autobiographically inclined title song to the Blind Boys’ new “Almost Home” album, a tune fashioned by the great contemporary Southern songsmith Randall Bramblett out of interviews with Carter and the group’s largely retired co-founder Clarence Fountain. It grew out of stark piano accompaniment with a storyline born out personal blues but ignited by faith.

Similarly, the John Leventhal/Marc Cohn composition “God Knows Everything” began with the elder vocal reflections of Ben Moore but eventually wound its way through to the more youthful falsetto of Paul Beasley for a serving of blues-gospel rooted in soulful grace and reserve.

Covers of “People Get Ready,” “Down by the Riverside” (performed as an encore with 15 year old Lexington singer Makayla Brown) and the group’s signature realignment of “Amazing Grace” set to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun” played more to the stylistic sense of adventure that initiated the Blind Boys global following and Grammy-winning popularity back in 2001. But the attitude didn’t blink last night. Carter and company may have basked in gospel’s confident assuredness, but the audience was very much part of the service. There was plenty of glow to go around.

in performance: red, white and boom – night two

sam hunt performing last night for red, white and boom at whitaker bank ballpark. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

Sam Hunt remarked near the halfway point of his headlining set for Red, White and Boom’s second evening stay at Whitaker Bank Ballpark last night that his Georgia youth was so specific to country music that he “couldn’t have told you the difference between Nirvana and Madonna.”

Inner reply to that: Swell. Another Nashville star with blinders on to the rest of the world. But that didn’t turn out to be the case. After dismissing his band, Hunt settled into a solo acoustic segment that exhibited where detours developed within his influences. He performed snippets of four cover tunes, one each by Alan Jackson (“Don’t Rock the Jukebox”), Travis Tritt (“Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares”), Usher (“Nice and Slow”) and R. Kelly (“Ignition”). The country/R&B connection might not seem surprising to fans introduced to Hunt through his 2014 hit “Take Your Time,” a smoky mash-up of crooning indebted to both genres that was served up with fitting reserve near the end of the 75 minute set. But Hunt didn’t just use the medley as exposition. He backed it up with a wish that the 15,000-plus country fans assembled before him last night be accepting of diversity and strive to be more “culturally integrated.”

Those are two words you aren’t likely to hear together often in any context at a contemporary country concert. They were perhaps even more unexpected given how conventionally cosmopolitan Hunt’s set was up to that point. It relied heavily on a radio-friendly pop sound during the show opening “Leave the Light On,” the domestically themed romp “House Party” and especially his newest dance-directed hit “Body Like a Back Road.” But the message was clear and welcomed. May country artists and audiences alike heed it.

Curiously, the generation Hunt spoke of also made up all of last night’s Red, White and Boom lineup, which is the same roster the singer has been on the road with this summer for his 15 in a 30 Tour (the title references a chorus lyric from “Body Like a Back Road”). Each is an essentially young artist whose respective sets were built around the music of a single album.

ryan follese.

Lead off singer Ryan Follese, who came to country right out of frontman duties for the Nashville pop troupe Hot Chelle Rae (its biggest hit, “Tonight Tonight,” closed the singer’s 35 minute set) possessed a clean, expressive but largely antiseptic voice that dressed songs from a new self-titled debut album. Tunes like “Wilder,” “Roots” and “Put a Label on It” catered nicely to the crisp contours of Follese’s singing, but there was little to distinguish this material or even this performance from the work of numerous similarly designed country-pop merchants.

chris janson.

The exact opposite held true for Chris Janson, a Missouri born songwriter with a lit-fuse level of performance energy and immediacy that ignited his set at once during the opening “Redneck Life” and its credo-like chorus (“I didn’t choose the redneck life, the redneck life chose me”). While one could admire the gusto in such sentiments and execution, Janson didn’t impress much as a vocalist. Maybe it was because he could never stop talking before, after or during songs like “Fix a Drink,” “Everybody” and “Name on It” (which, along with “Redneck Life,” appear on the forthcoming “Everybody” album, due out on Sept. 22). He talked about himself, his wife, his faith, his mood, his stage moves, his somewhat flat ability to tell a joke and more. Maybe focusing some of that stamina on his singing might help.

maren morris.

That left a 45 minute by Maren Morris. Though the Texas songsmith played last year’s Red, White & Boom as a relative unknown, her return last night as an established star revealed little artistic growth. Morris again possessed a pleasing, serviceable vocal profile that reflected a wealth of pop inspirations dating back to the ‘90s. She earned considerable audience reception for her hit “My Church” in the process. But Morris’ set again revolved tightly around her 2016 album “Hero” – so much so that she performed all of the album’s 11 songs (the best being the pop-soul flavored “I Wish I Was”) along with “Greener Pastures” (a more traditionally flavored original tune cut last year by Brothers Osborne) and an attractive but hardly revelatory cover of the John Prince staple “Angel from Montgomery.” All in all, it was a nice summation of the year that made Morris a celebrity. But with a repertoire that was essentially a rerun, it was made one curious as what new music she has in development. Perhaps that was the point.

 

in performance: chamber music festival of lexington, mainstage concert II

matt ulery.

As last night’s sold out second mainstage concert of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington got down to its main event at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, two musical factions faced each other, seemingly ready for friendly fire. Seated on one side was a string quartet that included the festival’s artistic director Nathan Cole. Standing on the other was the jazz trio Triptych that included composer-in-residence Matt Ulery and artist-in-residence Zach Brock. What resulted was a summit in the form of an extended work from Ulery titled “Become Giant.” And, well, it did.

The composition’s world premiere, the centerpiece event of the festival, was indeed huge in scope – an 11 part, 40 minute assimilation of jazz flexibility and, at times, groove, with the more composed (as in structure, not temperament) design of the strings. At times, the two ensembles stayed true to their respective stylistic bases. At others, they merged almost without notice. They also took turns working as the dominant voicing and, in effect, a backup unit.

The switch-hitter in this set-up was Brock, who gamely bled into the pizzicato chatter that became a theme of sorts for the quartet. But he also helmed longer solo passages, including one striking occasion when he briefly played unaccompanied, that luxuriated in improvisation. There were also snapshots of unexpected symmetry within the groups – specifically, when Ulery, on double bass, and cellist Priscilla Lee locked into an almost bluesy line where both players set bows aside and plucked strings in unison for a rubbery, percussive feel.

Even with Ulery and Brock playing such pivotal roles, the musician driving “Become Giant” was Triptych drummer Jon Deitemyer. As the only non-string player in a combined group of six, he deftly guided the tune though hints of samba-like sway, boppish cool and whispery punctuation to the strings’ sometimes minimalist turns.

In introducing the piece, Ulery told the audience he was reluctant to explain its 11 part construction (“In case anyone was going to count until it’s over”) or overall intent. “We just want to go ahead and play it.” And that they did, in brisk animated fashion, offering a jazz-classical blend restless enough to alter its course at a moment’s notice yet cohesive enough to stand as an engaging and singular music statement.

The first half of the program presented Brock in purely classical mode. He joined Lee, violinist Akiko Tarumoto and violist Burchard Tang for Hayden’s String Quartet No. 4 (“Sunrise”) which glowed in its more pastoral passages as well as through accelerated ensemble gallops.

But the most dramatic performance of the evening belonged to pianist Alessio Bax, who skippered the remarkable dynamics within Faure’s Piano Quartet #2 in G Minor, Opus 45. From the tossed sea sensibility immediately conjured for the opening Allegro movement to the similarly sudden conclusion to the third Adagio non troppo movement that triggered an audible audience gasp a few rows behind me, this was perhaps the most fully realized and openly emotive performance so far in the festival.

in performance: chamber music festival of Lexington, mainstage concert I

zach brock. photo by jimmy katz.

The following is a quick check list of items normally not associated with a chamber music concert:

Amplifiers. Pedal effects. A drum kit. Oh, yes – and red shoelaces.

Actually, all of the above were accoutrements to perhaps an even more unlikely component within tonight’s first of three mainstage concerts at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center making up this year’s Chamber Music Festival of Lexington – jazz. Yet these trappings were quite unobtrusive (with the possible exception of the shoelaces) within a very engaging set by Triptych, a jazz trio that boasted artist-in-residence (and Lexington native) Zach Brock on violin, composer-in-residence Matt Ulery on bass and Jon Deitmyer on drums.

Deviating somewhat from the announced program (Ulery’s “Nightshade” was jettisoned), the trio embraced a sound full of exquisite reserve, especially on Brock’s part. He and Ulery may have employed modest amplification (including Brock’s subtle use of pedals), but their combined sound possessed a light, organic tone that was alternately playful and pensive in the opening “Sweet Bitter,” the more chamber-esque coupling of violin and bowed bass that triggered a brief improvisation and the contours of Ulery’s bass work that shifted from an assured rhythmic bounce to strides of boppish cool during “Kentucky Animal Orchestra.”

The rest of the program was impressively diverse. Violinist and festival artistic director Nathan Cole came out discreetly swinging on Maurice Ravel’s Sonata No. 2 in G Major, displaying often astonishing dynamics alongside pianist Alessio Bax. Speaking of dynamics, ensemble-in-residence Windsync provided Miguel del Aguila’s Quintet No. 2 for Winds with a rich, varied vocabulary of animated runs and puncture-liked percussion formed on the mouthpieces of their instruments. At times, even a group vocal hum was added to accent the soundscape.

The concert’s second half was devoted exclusively to Franz Schubert’s String Quartet #13 in A Minor, Opus 29 (“Rosamunde”) that perhaps played more to crowd expectations. While violinist Akiko Tarumoto nicely led several, folk-like passages, the composition and its performance relied on remarkable ensemble execution and an ability to color it with grace, delicacy and effortless drama.

 

in performance: moontower music festival

Jake Cinninger of Umphrey’s McGee performing last night at the Moontower Music Festival in Masterson Station Park. All photos by Rich Copley/Lexington Herald-Leader.

Just after 11 last night at Masterson Station Park, a crescent moon hung near the horizon. Mammoth in size and orange in hue, it was perhaps a fitting conclusion to the Moontower Music Festival, which was in its closing moments. But if the image was slightly faint to the eye, it wasn’t because the nearby lights of downtown Lexington were bearing down on it. Rather, it was the blinding stage illumination that lit up the headlining set by Umphrey’s McGee. Imagine the moon was setting on a space age Las Vegas.

The display painted the larger of Moontower’s side-by-side stages with visuals that were as bright, complex and changeable as the songs. From the opening title tune to 2014’s “Similar Skin” album onward, UM constructed a performance built around a series of surprisingly elemental riffs. At times, it began with a lilting reggae rhythm. In other instances, a chunkier and more metal-savvy chord set the tune up. Inevitably, though, what resulted would explode into shards of prog and fusion-style fancy. That meant a jam formula based far more around composition that music forged during the looser, roots-driven days of the Grateful Dead.

A jam erupting out of “Higgins,” for instance, unfolded like a pop glossary of the past three decades with a Van Halen-flavored guitar lick here and a cooler jazz retreat there triggered by drummer Kris Myers and sustained by flourishes of Rhodes-flavored keyboards by Joel Cummins.

“Deeper,” on the other hand, lightened the mood (but not the light show) for a party groove that bordered on funk before hardening into tough, prog-ish guitar and percussion fills that recalled a few of the longer, less commercially driven works of Phil Collins-era Genesis.

Probably the most striking excursion of the set was “Make It Right,” which worked off of riffs and solos hammered out by guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger that worked at an almost respiratory pace. The tune would toughen and accelerate before easing back into more conventional pop song form. But as was the case with much of UM’s performance, the retreat was a ploy. A different groove or breakdown was waiting around the next lyrical corner.

Here are some of the other hits, misses and draws that marked the rest of yesterday’s Moontower Music Festival.

Ronnie McCoury,

+ The Travelin’ McCourys: Arguably the best performance of the day, this set expanded on the bluegrass tradition that distinguishes the group’s alter ego incarnation as the majority of the Del McCoury Band. That meant moving into outlaw country (fiddler Jason Carter’s take on the Waylon Jennings hit “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”) and complete pop reinvention (mandolinist Ronnie McCoury’s lead on a grassy makeover of Nick Lowe’s “I Live on a Battlefield”). Hit.

+ Cherub: In a word – insulting. The Nashville duo of Jordan Kelley and Jason Huber has designed decent enough dance tracks in the studio. Onstage at Moontower, though, the music was all pre-set, pre-recorded or pre-programmed with the artists adding superfluous bits of guitar, bass and percussion and, in general, acting like self-absorbed adolescents. Perhaps fittingly, the gear shut down at one point, leaving the two with a dead stage for nearly five minutes. Miss.

Tyler Childers.

+ Tyler Childers: One can only suppose the Moontower schedule was mapped out without any sense the Eastern Kentucky songsmith and one time Lexingtonian would become a summer sensation with a nationally distributed album (“Purgatory”). How else do you explain cramming the honky tonk ingenuity of songs like “Swear to God” and the ensemble reinvention of Charlie Daniels’ “Trudy” into a 45 minute set in the early afternoon? Hit.

+ Benjamin Booker: It was hard to tell if Booker was having a bad night or if his disjointed performance signaled bigger problems. He possessed a distinctive sound that used retro soul inspiration at the basis for a series of well constructed rock songs like “Wicked Waters” and “Believe.” But the singer let himself get derailed by “guitar issues” and a generally haphazard performance pace. Miss.

+ Todd Snider and the Eastside Bulldogs: Just when you think you’ve had your fill of Snider’s stoner folk songs, out he comes fronting an eight member band with an old school, rock-soul attitude that sounded like a cross between T. Rex and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. The whole riotous mix ignited songs new (“Way and Means”) and old (“Play a Train Song”) alike. Hit.

Big Sam Williams.

+ Big Sam’s Funky Nation: New Orleans trombonist Big Sam Williams is on to something with a fusion of Crescent City street soul and retro funk, and certainly this set had plenty of energy and verve to make the formula work. What it didn’t have was the material. Williams mines ‘80s pop-funk so hard that the set quickly slipped into a predictable rut. One could see the closing cover of the P-Funk staple “Give Up the Funk” coming as soon at the set began. Draw.

+ The Record Company: There was much to enjoy about this Los Angeles trio, especially in the way it threw a rootsy curve ball by way of harmonica and slide-savvy guitar solos from Chris Vos. But the set had a lot of static moments, too. When you have to resort to an electric bass solo four songs into a 45 minute set, then your show is in need of a tune up. Draw.

 

in performance: donald fagen and the nightflyers

donald fagen.

“It’s too soon after the eclipse for bowling alley songs.”

That was the curious remark Donald Fagen offered at the Louisville Palace last night just before launching into a very faithful version of the Steely Dan chestnut “Kid Charlemagne.” What did he mean? Beats me. Then again, a good chunk of the storylines within tunes Fagen has put his name to over the years leave me scratching my head. But the mix of surrealistically cosmopolitan lyrics and assured jazz-pop swing that has long dressed Fagen’s music in and out of Steely Dan proudly fueled this 1 ¾ hour performance.

Though officially billed as Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers, the music on display strayed little from the familiar Steely Dan sound. The only difference was texture. Since returning to the road in 1993, Steely Dan has existed as a pop orchestra of sorts with a horn section, backup singers and, of course, Fagen’s longtime accomplice and band co-founder Walter Becker. The Nightflyers consisted of five unknown 20 and 30-something players from near Fagen’s upstate New York homestead. But this was hardly a Discount Dan at work. All the members capably handled backup vocals, even the high harmonies performed on past tours and records by women. And while Zach Djanikian played sax on a few numbers (as well as guitar), the Nightflyers’ rhythm section offered support so complimentary to the songs’ original arrangements that the full brass orchestration wasn’t really missed.

Hearing the Steely Dan selections was great for audience nostalgists, which was pretty much everyone. But it was especially interesting to experience some of Fagen’s solo career material in a concert setting. Those selections were represented almost exclusively by the 1982 debut solo record “The Nightfly” (hence the band name). The show opening “Green Flower Street” (with Fagen on melodica, adding soul-pop accents that recalled early Steve Wonder music) and “New Frontier” (which introduced the flexible guitar vocabulary of Connor Kennedy) set the pace. But when the show then jumped into the Steely Dan favorite “Hey Nineteen,” the crowd made very clear its preference.

Fagen remains, at age 69, a curiously askew performer. A serviceable vocalist at best with a nasally tenor that has thinned a bit with age, his vocals nonetheless inhabited naturally and completely the weirdly hip contours of his songs, from “Weather in My Head” (the only tune played from Fagen’s most recent album, 2012’s “Sunken Condos”) to a deftly cool cover of the Chuck Berry classic “You Can’t Catch Me” to the Steely Dan staple “Reeling in the Tears,” which closed the performance.

Now, if he could have only found room for a bowling alley song or two.

in performance: the robert cray band

robert cray.

After opening his performance last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort with an overlooked 2001 gem called “Anytime” that was full of blues/soul authority but little undue fanfare, Robert Cray shielded his eyes and asked the tech crew to soften the spotlight that was squarely centered on him.

“I’ve got nowhere to hide,” the guitarist remarked.

That was a telling phrase. On the surface, it spoke to the genial and retiring nature Cray has long maintained onstage, an attribute the entire 100 minute performance also adhered to. Time and time again, Cray made blues and soul traditions work as a single platform. His guitarwork and vocals were so at home with each other that there was no need to exert the sort of tortured artist effect many purveyors of these styles summon to establish performance credibility. Last night, Cray dished out one epic guitar break after another, from the neo-psychedelic drive established on the original “You Had My Heart” (one of four tunes played from the new “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm” album) to the chestnut “Phone Booth (which dated back to 1983’s “Bad Influence”) that let a light, limber groove bust out into a hearty ensemble jam. Ditto for the singing, where Cray’s ageless tenor (and occasional falsetto) undercut the rhumba-esque rhythm of “Will You Think of Me” (from 1995’s “Some Rainy Morning”) one moment and ignited the full summery R&B bounce of “You Move Me” (from 2014’s underrated “In My Soul”) a few songs later. During one remarkable instance, “It Doesn’t Show” (off of 2005’s “Twenty), Cray’s instrumental and vocal blend created a call-and-response dialogue within the tune’s slower sense of soul-savvy cool.

Aside from all the far corners of his career such a setlist took him to (which covered nearly a dozen different albums spanning 34 years), what remained Cray’s primary artistic strength was his ability to embrace the soul and blues accents of his music so naturally. Admittedly, he’s not the biggest risk taker. The songs from “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm” (so named because the record was cut not his usual band but a team of veteran Memphis session players at the famed Royal Studio) could have passed for any number of the soul-fused works from throughout the guitarist’s career that peppered last night’s show. On the other hand, Cray delivery was so confident and schooled that the repertoire never remotely sounded stoic or stale.

That was especially true when two tunes near the end of the show managed to shake up the soul foundation a bit. One was the set-closing “You Must Believe in Yourself” (from “Hi Rhythm”) which triggered the Cray band’s most immediate and propulsive rhythmic drive of the night. The other, an encore finale of “Time Makes Two” (off of 2003’s “Time Will Tell”), ended the show with a soul-blues manifesto fortified by the mallet drumming of Terence Clark, the deep pocket bass of Richard Cousins and the orchestral keyboard backdrops of Dover Weinberg, all of which set up and supported Cray’s most dramatic guitar excursion of the show.

Yep, there was nowhere for Cray to hide, alright. But when the music flowed so efficiently and exactly, why would he even want to?

 

in performance: dave rawlings machine

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Photo by Henry Diltz.

“We’ve got a bunch of new songs to rehearse for you tonight,” remarked David Rawlings last night at the Brown Theatre in Louisville. Perhaps he felt this was an necessary admission, as this was the first night of a month long tour for the Dave Rawlings Machine, the first show since the release of his new “Poor David’s Almanack” album, and, as a result, the first time onstage for much of the record’s material.

Truth to tell, the looseness that permeated the program seemed entirely natural. Rawlings, partner Gillian Welch and the rest of the Machine, possessed an easygoing command of their repertoire – whether it was through the Dylan-esque songs played from his first two albums (“A Friend of a Friend” and “Nashville Obsolete”) or the more old world folk fortitude of the “Almanck” material. As such, there was a quiet, loose introspection to some of the more delicate tunes (the parlor-ready “Lindsey Button” from the new record) and a jamboree flavored drive to feistier works (“To Be Young” from “A Friend of a Friend”).

Though he was all smiles throughout the concert, Rawlings proved a keen guitarist capable of whipping up a quick-picking frenzy on songs like “Ruby.” But he also designed less obvious patterns that supplemented the roots-directed turns in the “Almanack” tunes – in particular, the sleepy guitar line that wound its way into “Yup,” a slow poke-paced saga of an old woman’s whimsical defeat of the devil.

There was plenty of fire power in the rest of the Machine ranks, too. Old Crow Medicine Show alum Willie Watson was the evening’s utility man, playing guitar, fiddle, banjo and – “as of a few hours ago,” as Rawlings put it – bongos. He also previewed a rustic take on the gospel/blues chestnut “Samson and Delilah” that will appear on his next album. Likewise Brittany Haas added all manner of muscular solos and lyrical runs throughout the show on fiddle.

Then there was Welch, a perhaps bigger marquee name than Rawlings, who was content to play co-pilot for much of the program, adding earnest harmonies to “Midnight Train” (the most infectious and immediate of the eight songs played from “Almanack”) and a set closing cover Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately.” She briefly took the wheel for a pair of regally reserved nuggets from her 2003 album “Soul Journey” – “Back in Time” and “Look at Miss Ohio.”

The evening’s highlight, though, clearly belonged to Rawlings. In the midst of an understatedly solemn performance of the “A Friend of a Friend” gem “I Hear Them All,” he took a rapid, dramatic turn into “This Land is Your Land” complete with the infamous “No Trespassing” verse.

If ever there was a time for such an iconic folk statement to be reinstated into the modern music lexicon, it’s now. If ever there was a more unassuming but fitting artist to oversee such reclamation, it’s Rawlings.

 

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