Archive for in performance

in performance: the earls of leicester

The Earls of Leicester.

It was the last concert of the year for the Earls of Leicester on Sunday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. So in explaining the band’s eagerness in hitting the road and heading home, band founder and overall ringmaster Jerry Douglas offered a proclamation on the onset of the evening.

“We’re going to play real fast.”

A joke? And if not, a feckless excuse for getting a concert over and done with? The answers: Definitely no to the latter and sorta kinda to the former. The thing is, the whole deal with the Earls is bluegrass – specifically, the still soulful and technically audacious repertoire of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, so playing “real fast” is something of a requisite.

Yes, the Earls made quick business of things at the Lyric, cramming 25 tunes into a set that clocked in at just under 90 minutes. And while audience patrons did have to figuratively strap themselves in to keep up with the lightning pace, no one was short changed. The musicianship was typically authoritative, the harmonies were sublime (especially the frequent four-part blend that draped the more patiently paced tunes as well as the warp speed numbers) and the band spirit was bold enough to suggest no one was enjoying this wrap party of a performance more than the players onstage.

With only one exception (a fun cover of Roger Miller’s “In the Summertime”), the setlist was drawn exclusively from the Flatt & Scruggs catalog, from Charlie Cushman’s take on Scruggs’ wild shifts in banjo tuning during “Flint Hill Special” (which closed the concert) to guitarist Shawn Camp’s light and inviting Flatt-style presence as an emcee as well as vocalist to the irrepressibly joyous runs on fiddle by Johnny Warren (the son of original Foggy Mountain Boys fiddle man Paul Warren).

There were a few new faces in the lineup, too. Specifically, Ashby Frank subbed for Jeff White on mandolin while Daniel Kimbro took over for Barry Bales on bass. But the transition was seamless. “I’ll Go Stepping Too” still breezed along with effortless string music cheer, “White House Blues” still raced with delirious speed and agility and “Paul and Silas” still used the Earls’ potent harmonies to fuel an impassioned gospel feel.

That left, as Camp called him, “Uncle Flux” – the mighty Douglas. Unlike his own projects, the Earls’ sense of ensemble stamina and performance economy left minimal room to showcase his full dexterity on the dobro. But since Flatt & Scruggs dobro great Josh Graves, a musical mentor for Douglas, had to operate with similar efficiency in the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Earls’ dobro lines were delivered with a concise but very defined drive.

For those needing something just a touch more demonstrative, though, there was the instrumental medley of “Spanish Two Step” and “Steel Guitar Blues,” an astonishing display of tone and tempo where the spirit of Graves and ingenuity of Douglas merged into a singular, fiery celebration of bluegrass tradition.

Had the Earls been able to convert that kind of energy into bus fuel for the ride back home… well, let’s just say there would have quite a few startled state troopers along I-65 on Sunday night.

in performance: postmodern jukebox

Rogelio Douglas Jr of Postmodern Jukebox.

For all the concern in capturing the feel of the 1920s, a sentiment that extended to tagging its current tour as “Welcome to the Twenties 2.0,” Postmodern Jukebox didn’t seem content in staying put in any set time zone Saturday evening at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

Sure, the better part of its immensely entertaining two set, two hour concert used the a 30 year span stretching from the Roaring ‘20s to the Post-war era as a ballpark scenario for its jazz and blues re-castings of contemporary pop compositions. And, yes, with four immensely capable vocalists, six stylistically astute musicians and a tap dancing maniac, the ensemble found yesteryear a pretty cozy place to chart at least part of the evening from. But by the end of the night, the time tripping landed everyone in the present day for the most volcanically potent performance of the night.

First, the beginning – or rather, the past. The first three songs of the evening indeed roared back to somewhere around the ‘20s with a sense of vaudeville that was as pronounced as the jazz sensibility. It began with vocalist/emcee Rogelio Douglas, Jr. and tap dancer Matt Shields transforming the Michael Jackson staple “Thriller” into a slice of playful swing. Singer Dani Armstrong (who performed last night under the non de plume of Jack Dani) then injected “Toxic” with noir-seasoned textures and dynamics that were light years beyond the vocal ability of the song’s originator, Britney Spears. Then PMJ newcomer Therese Curatolo led a charge of swing that fell somewhere between tango and klezmer on a makeover of Billie Eilish’s “bad guy.” Actually, the latter’s foremost accomplishment was wiping clean the original’s vacuous attitude and robotic vocal detachment so Curatolo could inject the tune with some vampish humanity.

The rest of the program maintained the inventive, retro-inclined cabaret spirit with a few technical glitches (a muddy sound mix at the show’s onset and some intrusive rings of feedback in the second set) until the past caught up with the present during the program’s encore.

Here, Armstrong grabbed hold of the Sia hit “Chandelier” in a version that didn’t so much echo the ‘20s as simply free the song from the synthesized confines of its original version. In short, it was presented as an organically orchestrated pop work that Armstrong took to the heavens with earnest, operatic vocal drama. No, it didn’t possess any obvious atmosphere of nostalgia or even the campy pleasantries that distinguished the rest of the show. It was rather a straight-up arrangement with a commanding vocal presence that, frankly, put the original to shame. And that’s a pop effect that works like magic in any era.

in performance: amanda gardier

Amanda Gardier. Photo by Tim McLaughlin.

The performance appeal and accessibility of Amanda Gardier was established within the opening moments of a set (the first of two) Friday evening at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Club. The tune that placed the introduction in motion was “Fjord,” an original composition by the Indianapolis based alto saxophonist that revealed a respect for melody – specifically, a rolling, descending riff with a hint of Latin flavor. It affirmed an instrumental voice that was subtle, tasteful and a touch restless.

Though she would eventually establish as assured command of bop and swing, Gardier never overplayed her hand. There was a lightness in her playing that made brash, exploitive runs on the sax unnecessary. Instead, much of her set revealed an alto sound of often graceful ease, whether it was through the more boppish inclination of standards like “Beatrice” or the more autumnal luster of originals like “Smoke.”

But this wasn’t pop or fusion-esque lyricism at work. As melodically spacious as her playing was, Gardier also exhibited inventive twists of tempos and dynamics within a solo, especially through the darting, punctuated runs that ignited a nimble reading of “You and the Night and Music.”

Gardier had considerable help in piloting such an intriguing set. The prime foil within her onstage quartet was guitarist and husband Charlie Ballantine, a player with zero interest in fusion-style flamboyance in his soloing. Instead, he employed a modest touch of echo to frame solos as well as rhythmic passages, which, in their more spacious moments, nicely recalled the electric taste of the late John Abercrombie.

Such accessibility served Gardier well. As the second featured artist in the third season of the Origins Jazz Series, she is largely unknown in Central Kentucky. By exhibiting a conservable level of solo and ensemble ingenuity that respectfully honored groove and melody without surrendering to them, she offered a performance introduction that tastefully calls for a follow-up visit.

in performance: bela fleck, zakir hussain and edgar meyer with rakesh chaurasia

Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer. Photo by Jim McGuire.

After tearing through the absurdly treacherous rhythmic passages in a tune Indian tabla percussionist Zakir Hussain penned for longtime musical pal John McLaughlin, banjoist Bela Fleck – an artist who is not exactly a slouch when it comes to the demands of progressive music – offered a subtle confession.

“That was hard.”

Cue bassist Edgar Meyer, a Fleck compadre of several decades and an artist with an equal sense of artistic adventure and, perhaps more importantly, sense of humor.

“It’s not hard if you practice.”

That was the kind of alliance Hussain, Fleck and Meyer struck up Friday evening at the Singletary Center for the Arts in a fascinating East meets West musical summit where borders quickly dissolved and a common artistic topography was merrily explored.

Take the show-opening “Bubbles,” a tune from “The Melody of Rhythm,” the 2009 album that largely introduced the trio’s collaborative spirit. It began, as did many of the evening’s pieces, with a bowed bass passage from Meyer that danced between the plaintive and playful revealing elements of classical and folk working alongside a hearty measure of the blues. Hussain gradually added rhythmic colors on tabla until the instrument’s unmistakably Eastern sensibility took over. Then Fleck’s lead became the tune’s catalyst, establishing a tone of remarkable agility and lightness – a combination he would return to throughout the performance. The resulting music sounded, alternately, earthy and spiritual – a contemplative journey with numerous roots-driven signposts.

“That’s what this is going to be like,” Fleck told the audience at the tune’s conclusion – a promise for the evening the trio proudly kept. In short order, though, the group became a quartet with the addition of Rakesh Chaurasia on a variety of Indian flutes, including the bamboo-made bansuri. This added another voice to the group’s global fabric, enhancing vibrant runs that punctuated melodies with Meyer but also producing backdrops with mischievous colors and drone-like subtleties that underscored a meditative feel under Hussain’s playing.

For some, this might have seemed a curious mix – two popular American stylists whose strong bluegrass roots long ago became springboards for myriad outside inspirations teamed with a pair of master Indian classical artists and their penchant for collaboration. Fleck (a Lexingtonian briefly in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s) may have been the marquee draw and, to be sure, his performance did not disappoint. But the glue to this ensemble was clearly Hussain, whose sense of rhythmic adventure was at the helm of every piece performed, from works of raga-like grace to lyrically spacious pieces that emphasized the expansive expression of Fleck and Meyer.

The evening’s most enchanting moment, though, was also its most traditional and it belonged to Hussain alone. In an exhibition of konnakol vocalizing, Hussain put his percussion where his mouth was though the rapid recitation of syllables in an almost mathematical flow of meter. The result became wildly rhythmic and conversational even though the tablas were mostly left silent.

What was said likely seemed foreign to American ears. But the sense of musicality and joy exhibited needed no translation.

in performance: “it was fifty years ago today – a tribute to the beatles’ white album”

Todd Rundgren. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith.

First of all, the math was off.

The tribute tour to the Beatles’ White Album that played the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville on Sunday evening billed as “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today” fell victim to miscalculation. The day of this writing, Sept. 30, marks 50 years to the day since the U.S. release of a cornerstone Beatles recording. It wasn’t the White Album, but rather the masterpiece “Abbey Road.” The White Album, the bundle of fractured fascination that it was, came out in November 1968.

A detail, you say? Hey, this is The Beatles were talking about. Details were, and still are, everything.

What Danville wound up with a good intentioned tribute that was a year late and a few rock ‘n’ roll gems short. It was fun from a purely nostalgic viewpoint and genuinely engrossing when the veteran artists participating in it proved to be performance-fit for the occasion. When they weren’t, well…

The unlikely fivesome covered a career as old as the White Album itself. The members included Monkees mainstay Mickey Dolenz, who became a TV teen idol beginning in 1966; longstanding guitarist, song stylist and producer Todd Rundgren, who began issuing records just as the White Album surfaced; Joey Molland, the only surviving original member of the ‘70s pop group Badfinger; pop/rock songsmith Christopher Cross, whose career broke open at the dawn of the 1980s; and Jason Scheff, the bassist/vocalist who replaced Peter Cetera in Chicago and remained with the horn-driven band for over three decades.

The winners: Scheff and Rundgren. Vocally, they were far and away the show’s strongest entries. Scheff still has a durable range for lighter pop fare that nicely underscored the mounting turbulence of “Dear Prudence” and “Julia” while Rundgren hit the harder stuff – “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” and “Helter Skelter” – with the command of a rock ‘n’ roll sage. Rundgren also took the biggest risks. He was unafraid to add a vaudevillian twist to “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by shooting a squirt gun the size of a bazooka into the audience but stayed solemn for the necessary instrumental investment needed to pull off a dynamic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

The others were more problematic. Dolenz, as he was in Monkees heyday, was a performance clown who mugged his way through “I’m So Tired” and “Rocky Raccoon” without much vocal firepower at all. Molland summoned only a modest vocal charge during “Savoy Truffle” and “Revolution 1.” Cross seemed like he was in another room with quiet, distant singing that suited softer works like “Blackbird” and “I Will” nicely. But he seemed noticeably detached from the rest of the ensemble.

Each of the featured artists were allowed two songs each from their respective careers with Scheff and Rundgren again in the driver’s seat.  Though saddled with tunes he didn’t originally record with Chicago, Scheff offered authoritative takes on a hornless “25 or 6 to 4” and the ‘80s pop ballad “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” Rundgren went right for the two 1972 hits that established his career, “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” performing both with cheery freshness. Dolenz aped his way through “I’m a Believer” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” Molland gave workmanlike readings of the Badfinger hits “Baby Blue” (which Rundgren served as producer for in 1971) and “No Matter What” and Cross offered capable but somewhat anesthetized versions of “Sailing” and “Ride Like the Wind.”

The members continually entered and exited during the evening, which offered a somewhat disjointed band spirit. Only “Back in the U.S.S.R” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which opened and closed the performance, had everyone onstage at the same time.

A recording of the White Album’s finale tune “Good Night” was played as the audience exited bringing to mind how it and the record’s only other tune sung by Ringo Starr, “Don’t Pass Me By,” were, well, passed by during the performance.

Poor Ringo. So many celebs onstage and not one of them could give the drummer some.

in performance: the mavericks/nick lowe and los straitjackets

The Mavericks. From left: Paul Deakin, Raul Malo, Jerry Dale McFadden and Eddie Perez.

Raul Malo seemed to commiserate Thursday evening at the Brown Theatre in Louisville with his audience. Specifically, he addressed a question he felt  fans have long been confronted with by skeptics of the band he has now fronted for three decades, The Mavericks.
“What kind of music do they play?”
Well, The Mavericks’ wildly spirited 90-minute outing probably didn’t make finding a suitable tag any easier, but let’s give it a try. How about Cowboy conjunto music? What that translated into, through a setlist that spanned nearly all of the band’s three decade career, was a series of songs occasionally rooted in very traditional country sentiments, but with a spacious zest that alternately shifted between accordion driven norteno and Tex Mex sounds to brassy, percussive Cuban excursions hinting at son music but with an exuberance that swelled well past obvious borderlines.
Malo, as always was at the forefront of this multi-cultural charge with a buoyant tenor voice of remarkable range and expression. As such, comparisons to Roy Orbison were not out of place. But Malo also didn’t press the point. Opening tunes like “All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down” and “Come Unto Me” allowed his vocals to soar without coercion or forced sentiment over the orchestrated rhythms of a beefed up, nine-member Mavericks lineup (the core quartet with a team of five auxiliary players lined up at the back of the stage).
But as evening progressed, Malo turned up the vocal intensity, reaching the boiling point with “Every Little Thing About You.” Pulled not from a Mavericks record but from his 2001 solo album “Today,” the song sported a powerful, descending riff that was emboldened by the band’s three-man horn team. From there, Malo hot-wired the Tejano adventure with an almost operatic drama and a tag team of guitar squalls aided by Mavericks co-pilot Eddie Perez.
Mostly, though, Malo was a blast to watch because he seemed to enjoy the show as much as the audience. A massive smile was plastered across his face throughout the evening. Match that with a sense of multi-cultural cunning that made a cover of John Anderson’s “Swingin’” sound like The Bar-Kays on a Havana holiday and Waylon Jennings’ classic “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” seem adaptable enough to include an out-of-nowhere snippet of the Traffic/Dave Mason relic “Feelin’ Alright” and you had a pop hybrid of ingenious distinction.

Nick Lowe (center) and Los Straitjackets.

Good thing, too, that Malo and The Mavericks were at the top of their game as the performance opened with a sterling 55 minute set that teamed the great British pop stylist Nick Lowe with the surf, roots and rockabilly twang of Los Straitjackets.
For Lowe, who turned 70 this year, the program was a return to past form after a series of recordings that quieted his sense of pop expression to a whispery cool. Appearing remarkably fit, physically as well as vocally, Lowe rode easily with the pop cheer (and, at times, modest cynicism) of ‘70s and ‘80s gems like “So It Goes,” “Ragin’ Eyes” and “Without Love.”
For Los Straitjackets, the long-running instrumental band with a flair for visual novelty (its members don Mexican wrestling masks during performances), the Lowe connection was an easy fit. The band dressed calliope-like party pieces like “Half a Boy and Half a Man” with a vigorous guitar drive and Lowe’s biggest hit, “Cruel to be Kind,” with a fun, lyrical freshness.
Los Straitjackets also got a chance to dig into a quartet of tunes on their own, including the chiming, big beat original “Aerostar” and a playfully riff-centric, retro-rock update of the 1970 Shocking Blue radio hit “Venus.”
It was the set’s encore finale, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that capped off the collaboration. Lowe first cut the tune over 45 years ago (although many will recognize it through a popular 1978 cover by Elvis Costello). But taken at a slower pace with Los Straitjackets providing support both complimentary and discreet, Lowe’s world-weary search for peace in a world caught in a spiritual tailspin never sounded more poignant, purposeful or timely.

in performance: patty griffin/scott miller

Patty Griffin. Photo by Michael Wilson.

For a brief instance, after referencing teenage activist Greta Thunberg, it looked like Patty Griffin was going to let loose on the headlines of the day. But the veteran Texas songstress, who is no stranger to championing a cause, instead took a breath, flashed a smile and resumed her sublime performance on Tuesday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.

“No, we’re not going to get into that.”

Not that the unrest of the outside world didn’t reach into the séance-like setting Griffin and her very industrious trio summoned. During “The Wheel,” one of eight tunes performed from her self-titled 10th album, she sewed together ragged bits of guitar and percussion to color a tale that began as a stormy blues meditation (“Here’s a song about sitting in a dark room, losing track of your mind”) before coming up for air in 2014 New York with a not-so-thinly veiled recollection of Eric Garner’s death during a petty arrest (“Here’s a song about a man, about a man I never met… choked to death by a policeman for selling single cigarettes”).

The rest of the performance wasn’t nearly so disquietly or as electric. Aided by guitarist David Pulkingham (who doubled on piano) and drummer Conrad Choucroun (who also played bass, guitar and piano), Griffin offered contemplations filled with spacious ambience. While the ghostly, gospel-esque colors of her singing sometimes turned her lyrics into a blur, the overall atmosphere she orchestrated was nonetheless arresting.

Sometimes the allure was deceptively serene, as in “Where I Come From,” another work from her new album that breezed musically along like a train heading into the stillness of winter as it outlined the slow fade of the rural Maine town she grew up in. On others, like “Luminous Place,” a generous dab of echo on Griffin’s singing, along with some sparse piano/guitar accompaniment, made the music sound otherworldly.

The nods to older material were equally striking, from the ancient mandolin tone Griffin use to drive “Shine A Different Way” (from 2015’s “Servant of Love”) to the down-home jubilance of the show-closing “Heavenly Day,” which the singer confessed was really a love song to her dog (from 2007’s “Children Running Through”).

The performance was opened by Virginia songsmith Scott Miller, whose performance history in Lexington was considerable between 1995 and 2005, first as a member of the Knoxville rock/pop quartet The V-Roys and then as a solo artist.

His solo acoustic return on Tuesday offered a 35 minute set of alert works from throughout his career that pared down the cunning urgency of his electric records (the 18 year old “I Made a Mess of This Town”) while offering a vivid folk Poloroid of the floods unleashed in 1969 by Hurricane Camille (the as yet unrecorded “It’ll Never Be That River Again”). Vocally, thematically and compositionally, it was a splendid set.

It should be noted both artists made cameos during each other’s performance on Tuesday. Griffin added primal country harmonizing for Miller’s finale rumination, “Is There Room on the Cross for Me?” while Miller added some train whistle harmonica to Griffin’s otherwise solo version of “Love Throw a Line.”

in performance: matthew sweet

Matthew Sweet. Photo by Evan Carter.

It was, as Matthew Sweet termed it, a “chair show.” That meant the champion of ‘90s alternative pop was seated throughout his Saturday night headlining set at the Christ the King Oktoberfest due to lower back and knee pain and, in all likelihood, an inevitable aging process that afflicts some performers far more than the works they perform.

“But you can still rock in a chair,” Sweet added, after a smoothly electric, show-opening version of “Time Capsule.”

True enough. While Sweet’s hour-long performance had a certain sage-like quality to it that had little to do with him being seated, what was placed on display was an ample depiction of a pop stylist with a stylistic and emotive range that is often underappreciated.

As such, if Oktoberfest revelers were expecting a power pop party, they got only a sporadic one. For every jubilant blast of melodic, radio-friendly lyricism there was a trip down a darker, but often more fascinating alleyway.

Aided by his longtime rhythm section of drummer Rik Menck and bassist Paul Chastain, Sweet spent the better part of the show in the past, even though he has released three albums of new material since 2017. Specifically, 10 of the set’s 12 tunes came from the three recordings that defined his career during the first half of the ‘90s – 1991’s “Girlfriend,” 1993’s “Altered Beast” and 1995’s “100% Fun.” From that, came a four-song run from “Girlfriend” during the second half of the show that offered the best overview of the emotive breadth within Sweet’s songs.

At one extreme was “Evangeline,” whose bright-eyed melody and somewhat hapless balance of religion and romanticism reflected the level of invention that distinguished so much of Sweet’s material over 25 years ago. In all likelihood, it also formed the basis of the pop profile many audiences still carry of the artist today.

But right after that came “You Don’t Love Me,” a comparative dirge whose narrative desperation, along with a decelerated guitar-rock backdrop that fueled a lengthy quartet jam with Sweet repeating the forlorn title like a mantra, was pure Neil Young. That’s the side of Sweet some have cast aside.

The show wound up with “Sick of Myself” (one of two songs pulled from “100% Fun”) and a truckload of hook-happy riffs as well as a sense of ensemble mischief that played out through a series of false codas.

“I could do this all night,” Sweet remarked. But after the song, his hour was up and Sweet vacated the stage, his endearing though unavoidably aged pop portrait having been given its latest varnishing.

in performance: marty stuart and his fabulous superlatives

Marty Stuart. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

Four songs into a crisply paced, all-acoustic performance at Frankfort’s Grand Theatre on Thursday evening, Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives opted for efficiency. During a spry reading of “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” one of the program’s few nods to the headliner’s past hit parade, Stuart, drummer Harry Stinson (who played the entire evening on a lone snare and a pair of brushes) and bassist Chris Scruggs harmonized with old school cool around a single microphone while guitarist Kenny Vaughan added a regal solo drenched in the blues.
“Everything good?” Stuart asked the crowd after the tune wound down. Yes, indeed. Everything was just fine.
This portrait of no-frills country sentiment, traditional in design but thoroughly immediate in delivery, has been Stuart’s M.O. for much of his career, especially in the 17 years that the ultra-resourceful Superlatives have been the singer’s band of choice. For the 90 minutes that followed, Stuart and company played as a thoroughly authoritative combo that took considerable joy in exhibiting their country command. No wonder then that the singer serves as historian/commentator for Ken Burns’ “Country Music” series currently running on PBS.
Stuart and the Superlatives put history into well propelled motion during the Thursday performance. You sensed it when Scruggs’ resilient high tenor vocals ignited a reading of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” that was anything but obligatory. You heard it when Vaughan veered out of the country and into the Shadows for the surf-savvy “Apache.” It also fueled Stinson’s transformation of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” into a gleeful but still moralistic folk reverie.
Stuart had plenty of traditional country snapshots of his own to show off, as well, from the vocal flair that capped off the acoustic psychedelia within “Old Mexico” to a set of piledriving mandolin runs during an instrumental reading of “John Henry” performed as a duet with Scruggs.
Curiously, nearly half of the performance setlist was devoted to songs from “The Pilgrim,” a daring 1999 album of original music that offered a full arc of country themes (love, loss, death and redemption) that is set to be reissued in October. The record was initially a commercial disappointment, effectively ending Stuart’s decade-long tenure at MCA Records. Still, its sense of narrative and stylistic tradition remained as devout as it was diverse, even in the Thursday concert’s acoustic setting, whether it was through the honky tonk mischief of “Red, Red Wine and Cheatin’ Songs” or the sly, surrealistic “The Observations of a Crow.”
This meant the Grand audience was having to process a big chunk of music it was likely unfamiliar with. But in the end, what Stuart was offering were stories. Sure, there was expert instrumentation, effortless harmonies and a very natural blend of tradition and performance animation backing it all up. Still, what sold the songs – be they recognizable or not – was a narrative spirit as big as the Western skies yet as intimate as a campfire. And isn’t that what country music – real country music – is all about?

in performance: steve earle and the dukes

Steve Earle. Photo by Tom Bejgrowicz.

“Pork.” That was Guy Clark’s last word before his passing in 2016 to longtime friend and protégé Steve Earle. The latter relayed the confession during a performance Saturday evening at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center that called heavily upon Clark’s masterful songs and spirit.

The farewell, as it turned out, referenced the prime ingredient of a catered barbeque feast delivered to Clark’s quarters following cancer treatments. A Texas native who migrated to Nashville, as Earle did, the thought of pork being favored over beef as a base for barbeque was apparently abhorrent. No doubt, Clark would have looked far more favorably on the heavily reverent tributes Earle gave to his music and memory.

The basis for Earle’s current tour, of which Renfro Valley was the final stop, was a 2019 album called simply “Guy” that offered takes on a series of thematically and stylistically varied songs from throughout Clark’s career. Earle and his long running Dukes band performed 11 of the album’s 16 tunes during the two hour show, from the familiar (“L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train”) to the comparatively overlooked (“The Ballad of Laverne and Captain Flint”), as well as from the whimsical (“Rita Ballou,” which was decked out with proper Texas dance hall charm) to the very stark and dark (a chilling solo acoustic reading of “The Last Gunfighter Ballad”).

Perhaps the most absorbing was a 1981 Clark delight titled “New Cut Road,” which dealt with a family of revelers bound for Texas from their native Kentucky because they felt the later was too populated. The delivery was a mash-up of bluegrass, Cajun and even Celtic accents led by the husband and wife team of fiddler Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson. The two also opened the evening with a fine set of original material as The Mastersons highlighted by a striking call for social empathy titled “In the Name of God.”

Earle eased the performance away from Clark’s songs to his own work several times, but not from his mentor’s spirit. He offered the antique, war-worn snapshot “Mercenary Song” because it was a Clark favorite and “Fort Worth Blues,” a stoic tribute to mutual friend Townes Van Zandt, because Clark recorded it in 1999. Earle termed the occasion of Clark cutting one of his songs instead of the other way around as “the greatest accomplishment in this work I do.”

A brisk run through music from several recent Earle albums – the unexpectedly jazzy “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me” (from 2015’s “Terraplane”), the eerily topical “That All You Got?” (a tune from 2013’s “The Low Highway” penned for a post-Katrina New Orleans but stoked with new urgency given the impending arrival of Hurricane Dorian) and the metal-esque country requiem “Fixin’ to Die” (from 2017’s “So You Wannabe an Outlaw”) – brought the show down the home stretch. But it was back to Clarksville for the finale of “Old Friends,” a solemn affirmation of alliance that underscored the humanity of Clark’s writing and the devout fellowship of one of his most prized disciples.

The lone gripe about the performance: a sound mix that regularly buried Earle’s vocals. Admittedly, at age 64, some the firepower to his singing has decreased while the Dukes’ instrumental potency has remained constant. Regardless, a more capably balanced mix would have helped. Every word of these songs, whether they came from the pens of Clark or Earle, needs to ring loud and clear.

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