Archive for misc.

stevie wonder in the key of life

stevie wonder performs  'songs in the key of life' tonight in louisville. photo by chris pizzello (chris pizzello/invision/AP).

stevie wonder performs
‘songs in the key of life’ tonight in louisville. photo by chris pizzello (chris pizzello/invision/AP).

The prospect of a veteran pop act playing a career-defining album in its entirety as the focus of repertoire for a concert tour is nothing new. But outside of Roger Waters and his recently completed performance revival of the Pink Floyd epic The Wall, few artists have taken the album concert concept to an arena level.

Enter Stevie Wonder, 64, perhaps the most enduring and progressively minded artist from the golden age of Motown. Tonight, he makes an ultra-rare regional concert return with a KFC! Yum Center show built around a full performance of the album that served as the zenith of his commercial and creative visibility, 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life.

To appreciate the potency of the popularity behind Songs in the Key of Life, you have to consider the stylistic and artistic growth achieved by the four albums that preceded it. Those recordings – Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale – were cut and issued in whirlwind fashion between March 1972 and July 1974.

While Music of My Mind was the least commercially prominent of the pack, it redefined Wonder’s music with a modernized keyboard vocabulary (he performed nearly every instrument on the record) and compositions that shied away from Motown’s cherished pop soul formulas of the ‘60s in favor of a more contemporary funk and R&B groove. Talking Book and Innervisions quickly weaved a much stronger social urgency into the lyrics, yielding some of the most commanding hits of Wonder’s career (Superstition, Higher Ground and especially Living for the City). Fulfillingness’ First Finale was, by comparison, a cool, sophisticated exhale of a record.

Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year in 1974 and 1975. Songs in the Key of Life was given the same honor in 1977 after spending nearly three months atop the Billboard all-genre album chart and scoring four hits (including the charttoppers I Wish and Sir Duke).

Songs in the Key of Life had it all. Released as a double album with a bonus five-song EP, it contained some of Wonder’s brightest pop (typlified by the uber-popular radio smash Isn’t She Lovely, which, amazingly, was never released as an official single) as well some of his keenest social observations (as shown by the way-underrated Black Man, which was equal parts global anthem, history lesson and funk manifesto).

Tonight, it all comes to life onstage for the first time on a Kentucky stage. Forget the fact this music is nearly four decades old. Songs in the Key of Life will forever be in tune and of the times.

Stevie Wonder performs Songs in the Key of Life at 8 tonight at the KFC Yum! Center, 1 Arena Plaza in Louisville. $36.50-$144.50. Call (800) 745-3000 or go ticketmaster.com, kfcyumcenter.com.

zz x 3

zz top: frank beard, billy f. gibbons and dusty hill.

zz top: frank beard, billy f. gibbons and dusty hill.

“Same three guys. Same three chords.”

That’s the credo guitarist Billy F. Gibbons long ago adopted to describe the make-up of ZZ Top, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted Texas trio he has spearheaded with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard for over 45 years.

It’s also a simple, honest and ever-reliable summation of how three guys out of Houston took Lone Star blues and boogie tradition and re-fashioned it into an internationally popular sound of its own. For ZZ Top’s entire history, music has remained elemental – albeit, in often strikingly varied and distinctive ways.

The foundation of the band’s popularity is two-fold. Most fans either flocked to the trio’s lean boogie groove during the early ‘70s (defined in 1973 by the Tres Hombres album and its massive radio hit La Grange) or the MTV-savvy, electro-heavy hipster music that grabbed ears a decade later (1983’s Eliminator and its monster singles Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs).

Obviously, the Tres Hombres era is more overtly blues oriented (that album’s Hot, Blue and Righteous remains one of ZZ Top’s finest, most unadorned slow blues tunes). But all of the Elimintor hits were based around lean guitar hooks and Gibbons’ elegantly seedy way singing a lyric. Even when the band’s fascination with synths, sequencers and drum loops reached an apex with 1990’s Recycler album, the blues were never out of reach, as typlified by the record’s roots-iest song, My Head’s in Mississippi (“I’m shufflin’ through the Texas sand
/But my head’s in Mississippi”).

Still, the same three guys and their chords persisted. Their commercial visibility is considerably more modest these days, however, despite the Top 10 success of 2012’s Rick Rubin produced album La Futura (the band’s highest charting album since Recycler).

Of course, in the school of pop culture opinion, maintaining a level of commercial sustainability that equals the most earnest of artistic integrities is just about impossible. As such, the ZZ members, all of whom are now 65, have not had a radio hit capable of competing with younger pop generations since Sleeping Bag became a Top 10 single in 1985.

That’s certainly not a reflection of the band’s creative output. A decade-long tenure with RCA Records yielded a quartet of fine studio albums (culminating in 2004’s devilishly funky bordertown mash-up Mescalero) that quickly faded from fan memory. Only Pincushion, the lead single from 1994’s Antenna, remains in the band’s current concert repertoire from the RCA years.

But like so many of its still-active contemporaries, ZZ Top continues to thrive as a concert act. While it doesn’t headline arenas anymore (once a frequent Rupp Arena visitor, the band hasn’t played in Lexington since 1991), more consolidated sized venues – theatres and festival stages, especially – have become the new norm. That includes arts centers, which have brought the band back to Central Kentucky in recent years. The trio performed at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond in 2013. It will play the Norton Center for the Arts on Saturday.

This weekend’s show is a make-up for an originally scheduled date last fall that was postponed due to a hip injury Hill suffered after falling in a tour bus. The bassist has joked on ZZ Top’s website that the Slim Harpo blues classic Hip Shake, which already echoes within the guitar groove of La Grange, should be added to the band’s performance playlist.

What was striking about the EKU show was how ZZ Top was essentially perceived as a family act, with high numbers of parents and children attending together. Perhaps for them, ZZ Top exists as video representation of the ‘80s. Certainly, the waist-length whiskers and shades Gibbons and Hill still don onstage maintain a distinctive hipster profile that compliments the band’s stage presence.

But the music hasn’t changed. While several hits (La Grange, Tush, Pearl Necklace) are still saturated in a level of innuendo that likely seems more benign over time, the album track entries peppering concerts – from Tres Hombres’ tireless Waitin’ for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago medley to La Futura’s ultra-fun Chartreuse) still point to the three-guys/three chords mission statement – that, and a substantial amount of performance fun.

“It’s a dream job to get out there and play La Grange every night, singing ‘haw, haw, haw,'” Gibbons told me in an email interview prior to the 2013 concert. “Don’t get much better.”

ZZ Top and the Ben Miller Band perform at 8 p.m. March 21 at Newlin Hall, Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $85, $95. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to nortoncenter.com.

big belew nation

adrian belew 1

adrian belew

The ingredients were all there – the impending homecoming of Kentucky-born guitar hero Adrian Belew, a gray Saturday afternoon and a desperate need to place holiday madness on hold for a few hours. It all provided the ideal setting for me to become reacquainted with the sublime music Belew has created over the past 35 years.

To many, the Covington native is best known for the vocabulary of guitar sounds – from twang bar-happy solos to animalistic roars – that have colored his solo recordings (dating back to 1982’s The Lone Rhino) as well as the audacious works cut during a 33 year tenure with prog mainstay King Crimson (beginning with 1981’s Discipline).

Dig deeper, though, and all kinds of treasures reveal themselves, including seminal recordings with three of the pioneering acts Belew played with during the formative days of his career, specifically Frank Zappa (on 1979’s avant pop carnival record Sheik Yerbouti), David Bowie (the magnificent 1978 live set Stage) and Talking Heads (the progressive funk performances captured on the 1981 concert album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads).

But it was during and around King Crimson’s scattered periods of activity that the heart of Belew’s music fully revealed itself. The scorching nature of his guitar work had become a given. His compositions, however, began exhibiting strong echoes of Beatles-esque pop. While such inspiration was never imitative, you heard it powering through songs like Member of the Tribe (the joyous finale to 1992’s Inner Revolution album), I See You (the Lennon-esque power chord party piece off of 1994’s Here) and the Under the Radar (the rich psychedelic meditation from 2005’s Side One).

Belew has also remained very active over the decades as an instrumental composer and performer, stretching the pop inferences of his playing to more unexpected and sometimes abstract plains, as on The Gypsy Zurna (the one man Eastern safari tune from 1986’s Desire Caught by the Tail), Ring Around the Moon (an ambient slice of processed guitar music from 1995’s The Guitar as Orchestra) and b (a groove epic showcasing Belew’s Power Trio from 2009’s live-in-the-studio e).

Finally, there are the delicacies underscoring his gift as a collaborator. From that camp came Holy (one of Belew’s finest all around vocal performances featured on the 1989 Mike Oldfield album Earth Moving), Walking on Air (a gorgeously serene refection from the 1995 King Crimson reawakening record Thrak) and Life in a Nutshell (a powerhouse pop workout with his Cincinnati-based pals in The Bears from 2001’s Car Caught Fire).

The biggest rediscovery though was a bit of a revelation – a revision of The Rail Song, a bittersweet but anthemic remembrance of a lifelong fascination with trains originally featured on 1983’s Twang Bar King. But the version that hit me last weekend was an unadorned version from 1993’s The Acoustic Adrian Belew that stripped the tune down to a stark confessional while enhancing the song’s very natural sense of drama.

That was as much Belew as I could squeeze into a single afternoon. Left untested in this Belew review was Fuse, the new computer app he designed that delivers tunes in an infinite number of variations. That means the guitarist will have an especially keen job condensing a catalog of such masterful music into a single performance this weekend. His Sunday concert at the 20th Century Theatre will conclude a two month tour in his old Cincy stomping grounds with his comparatively newer Power Trio mates, bassist Julie Slick and drummer Tobias Ralph.

Then again, exploring the generous terrain existing between power pop accessibility and groundbreaking instrumental technique, composition and improvisation has always been the driving force behind the music of this Kentucky guitar pioneer.

In essence, that is Belew’s life in a nutshell.

Adrian Belew Power Trio with Saul Zonana perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 21 at the 20th Century Theatre, 3021 Madison Rd. in Cincinnati. $24, $28. Call (513) 731-8000, (800) 745-3000 or got to www.ticketmaster.com.

go nordic!

frodeOkay, we know asking you out on a Monday night isn’t exactly an enticing proposition, especially with the rather intrusive season premiere of the Polar Vortex at hand. Nonetheless, The Musical Box urges you to brave the snow and cold tonight by heading to the Mecca studio on 948 Manchester to help the Outside the Spotlight Series celebrate its 12th anniversary with a 8 p.m. return performance by the Frode Gjerstad Trio.

A veteran alto saxophonist and clarinetist who has collaborated with such vanguard jazz renegades as Peter Brotzmann, William Parker, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Sabir Mateen and many others, Gjerstad will be fronting his longstanding all-Norwegian trio that includes frequent OTS guest Paal Nilseen-Love on drums and Jon Rune Strom on acoustic bass. For this outing, the Gjerstad Trio will also sport a special guest in trombonist Steve Swell, who will be making his first OTS appearance in close to eight years.

The Gjerstad Trio is something of a pressure cooker where improvisatory elements are hatched before blooming into blasts of intense trio interplay. While the final explosive summit of their music is something to behold, the real magic comes within the dynamics revealed as the band works its way from subtle, sparsely outlined introductions into massive anarchical crescendos.

The addition of Swell – whose extensive jazz history includes recordings and/or tours with Ken Vandermark’s Resonance Ensemble, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton and Tim Berne, among others – should broaden the Gjerstad Trio’s already mighty free jazz vocabulary even further.

If you’re an OTS regular, you know how special these performances can be and the vital role they play in a balanced local music scene. Having them staged within the up close and intimate setting Mecca offers makes the shows all the more inviting.

If you haven’t yet taken in an OTS concert, we recommend the Gjerstad Trio’s performance wholeheartedly. If the music you hear seems new and foreign, it is. This is jazz built from scratch the instant you hear it. The music doesn’t come with expected melody lines or accessible lyricism, but it drives and grooves in its own immediate way. It is the sound of instant, undeniable art created without preconception.

So if the Arctic blast that settling around Lexington has you down, then take in the infinitely hipper warm front that’s about to roll in from Norway.

Time go Nordic, y’all.

An ’80s Oktoberfest

NGL_16SMITHEREENS_27833258

The Smithereens: Jim Babjak, Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion, Dennis Diken and Pat DiNizio.

The ’80s will live again in September. The free headliners for this year’s Christ the King Oktoberfest were announced this morning and both harken back to an era when MTV was pop’s top policymaker.

Sept. 19 brings The Smithereens, the no-frills New Jersey rock troupe responsible for the late ‘80s radio hits Behind the Wall of Sleep, Only a Memory and A Girl Like You. The band still tours with three of its four original members – guitarist/vocalist Pat DiNizio, guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken.

The Sept. 20 lineup will feature The Fixx, the post New Wave British band defined by a string of early ‘80s singles that included Saved By Zero, One Thing Leads to Another and Secret Separation. Amazingly, the quintet’s mainstay lineup – vocalist Cy Curnin, guitarist Jamie West-Oram, keyboardist Rupert Greenall, bassist Dan K. Brown and drummer Adam Woods is still intact.

The event will be held outdoors at the Cathedral of Christ the King, 299 Colony Blvd. Showtimes and a full Oktoberfest schedule are forthcoming. For more info, go to http://www.ctkoktoberfest.com.

drummer, doctor and trucker

drive-by truckers 2

drive-bytruckers: brad morgan, patterson hood, jay gonzalez, matt patton and mike cooley

If you think drums are integral to the deeply literate, pile-driving rock ‘n’ roll of Drive-By Truckers, then spend some time with the band’s new English Oceans album.

The clap of sticks from Brad Morgan, who has manned the drum chair in the Athens, Ga. band for the past 17 years, is the first sound you hear before the Truckers erupt into a Mike Cooley narrative about life in wartorn suburbia. Morgan is also the last musician standing as the album fades with the beat of Patterson Hood’s eulogy for a longtime Truckers pal.

To bookend an album so powerful, a sound so huge and a band so continually vital speaks well to the kind of musical gusto Morgan can summon. But there is another, less visible role Morgan has played behind the scenes. Given the personalities at work in and around the band, the kind of relentless touring regimen they often fall into and the potentially devastating aftermath both can unleash, Morgan’s other duties have probably played into the Truckers longevity as deeply as his groove.

“I always saw myself as the psychiatrist of the band who was making sure everybody is happy and making sure everything is rolling the way it should be.

“It’s all about personalities living in very close quarters. I mean, we see the crew as band members. We’re all living together. We’re around each other all the time. It feels like there are 10 people in the band. All those relationships have to work. Everybody has to get along. If people have problems with somebody, I’m like, ‘Let’s figure this out or something else is going to happen.’ I’m kind of sensitive to that type of thing.”

His efforts seem to be working. Morgan said the current band spirit is high, thanks largely to its newest lineup, dubbed DBT 12 in the liner notes to English Oceans. The album marks the recording debut of the band’s latest recruit, bassist Matt Patton.

“As a drummer, a good bass player for the rhythm section is really important,” Morgan said. “Just having somebody there who is just nailing it every time really takes a load off me. Plus, it’s nice being on the road with a bunch of old friends and having everybody get along.”

But personalities have also been at the heart of the Truckers’ longevity. On English Oceans, Cooley and Hood take full and equal ownership of the band’s songwriting duties for the first time. The distinction between their narrative styles of songwriting (Hood’s songs read like dark, rural novels while Cooley possesses a more informal yet bluntly conversational tone) have fascinated Morgan even before he joined the band.

“I was like the No. 1 fan,” he said. “I would be at every show. One of my best friends was playing drums for them at the time. When I was able to start subbing in the band, it was great because every night I would get to hear those songs from the back of the stage. Even today, that puts me back in that state of just how much I love the band and the songs. People at the shows get that, too. I can see it in people’s faces.”

Perhaps the most the heartfelt personality surrounding the Truckers these days belongs to a friend who is no longer with them. On the Hood-penned Grand Canyon, the closing song on English Oceans, the Truckers honor Craig Lieske, a late touring companion who sold merchandise at concerts and was a beloved member of the Athens music community.

“It sucks to have that happen,” Morgan said. “We were on the road with Craig for, like, seven years. Before that, I had been friends with him for another 10. I mean, everybody loved him. It was a connection you kind of took for granted until he was gone.”

Drive-By Truckers perform at 9 tonight at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom.899 Manchester St. Tickets are $28. Call (859) 368-8871 or go to www.bustersbb.com.

a tucker, not a trucker

shonna tucker

shonna tucker.

Here’s a bit of rock ‘n’ roll coincidence for you. On the night before Drive-By Truckers return to Buster’s on Friday with tales of rural unrest, two of the band’s former members will play at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 North Broadway.

Tonight, Shonna Tucker, the band’s bassist for eight years will showcase her debut solo album, A Tell All, with her country-soul informed band Eye Candy. The group includes another Trucker alum, John Neff on guitar and pedal steel guitar.

During Tucker’s stay with the Truckers, she contributed one-to-two songs alongside the tunes pf Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley to their albums. The 2011 split with the band apparently wasn’t on the best of terms. When asked prior to a 2012 Truckers show at Buster’s if her parting was amicable, Cooley said politely but succinctly, “Not really.”

Tucker’s Eye Candy Band include several vets of a long-fertile Athens, Ga. music scene. Along with Neff, the lineup includes guitarist Bo Bedingfield, keyboardist Neil Golden and drummer Clay Leverett.

Bio material for A Tell All describes he album as “ten songs about love and jealousy, nights spent on the road and nights spent in the kitchen, the things men do to women and women do for men.”

Opening tonight will be The Campbell Family Band and The Kentucky Hoss Cats (7 p.m., $10). Call (859) 281-1116 or go to www.willieslex.com.

Tomorrow, we will hear from longtime Trucker drummer Brad Morgan ahead of the band’s Buster’s return.

Shining Brightly

kelly pratt

Kelly Pratt

Just a brief note about some swell sounds occurring Wednesday night that have nothing to do with bluegrass.

Over at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave., we have a homecoming of sorts. Lexington native Kelly Pratt, performing under his non de plume as Bright Moments, lets us in on some of the sounds he has been creating when not on the road with the likes of Arcade Fire, David Byrne/St. Vincent and Beirut or recording with Coldplay and LCD Soundsystem.

On Tourists, the Bright Moments debut on Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, Pratt fashions pop pieces both progressive and accessible with accents of trumpet, synths and, as described in one bit of bio material, the “occasional huffing accordion.”

Pratt’s Bright Moments project will open tonight for Mother Falcon, the 17 member, Austin, Texas-based troupe that creates soundscapes utilizing cello, violin, banjo, trumpet, accordion, guitar, piano, bassoon and more.

Last year alone, Mother Falcon collaborated with Alejandro Escovedo, Amanda Palmer, Tony Trischka, Lexington’s own Ben Sollee and more. (10 p.m., $10).

For more info, call (859) 309-9499 or go to Cosmic-charlies.com.

paul mccartney postpones louisville show

Paul McCartney

paul mccartney.

Looks like you will have to wait until fall to experience the first Kentucky concert by Paul McCartney in 24 years. Sir Paul has postponed all of his June concerts to fully recover from a virus that hospitalized him earlier this spring in Japan causing the postponement of several performances there and in Korea.

The ex-Beatle’s June 26 concert in Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center has been rescheduled for Oct. 28.

“I’m sorry but it’s going to be a few more weeks before we get rocking in America again,” McCartney said in a press release issued this afternoon. “I’m feeling great but taking my docs’ advice to take it easy for just a few more days.  Look forward to seeing you all soon.”

McCartney is slated to return to his Out There Tour on July 5 in Albany, NY.

book of ely

joe ely

joe ely.

In the spring of 1978, much of contemporary music favored one of three stylistically disparate routes. At one extreme was commercial pop, which was still in the grips of the disco fallout triggered six months earlier by Saturday Night Fever. At the other was the gradual mainstream acceptance of still-emerging punk and post punk acts like The Ramones, Devo, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. In between all of that was the then-current state of country music, which was in the waning stages of an outlaw movement that had provided Willie Nelson with seemingly permanent residency at the top of the Billboard charts.

Somewhere in the midst of all this was the release of a record titled Honky Tonk Masquerade. Such was my introduction to Joe Ely.

Seemingly marketed as a country record, Honky Tonk Masquerade was as stylistically removed from Nashville as Ely was geographically. A native of Amarillo, Tx. who grew up in Lubbock among truckloads of Mexican migrant workers and the native music they brought with them, Ely weaved nearly every roots music resource at his disposal into the record.

The country songs sported the pedal steel colors of Lloyd Maines, which howled like the dusty West Texas wind. The Tex Mex music asserted the accordion work of Ponty Bone, who channeled the festive sounds Ely heard emanating from the cantina situated across the road from the clothing store his father ran in Lubbock. The rockers reflected all of the music’s forefathers, from fellow Lubbock expatriate Buddy Holly to Jerry Lee Lewis.

The compositions were similarly far reaching. There were entries by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, the two expert Texan songsmiths Ely teamed with during the early ‘70s as The Flatlanders – a group that would quickly disband and remain dormant until 2002. There was also one of Ely’s great roadhouse rock originals, the wry Lewis-flavored Fingernails (“I keep my fingernails long so they click when I play the piano”). Wrapping the whole party up was a hearty Lone Star makeover of the Hank Williams staple Honky Tonkin’.

As an unsuspecting teen turned on to the record at a college party, I was stunned. Honky Tonk Masquerade sounded deliciously foreign in its assembly of Texas inspirations but also curiously in line with the favored roots-country acts of the day – John Prine, Little Feat, early Bonnie Raitt and Ry Cooder. It also made Texas seem like another cultural universe.

I wouldn’t get to see Ely in performance for another six years. By that time, he had toured with The Clash, recorded two seminal roots rock albums – 1980’s Live Shots and 1981’s Musta Notta Gotta Lotta – and had become something of an international ambassador for Texas music. But at a 1984 festival performance in Austin, Ely turned songs like Dallas, Cool Rockin’ Loretta and Boxcars into jovial yet vital anthems that asserted his strengths as a live performer.

During the ‘80s and’90s, Ely made his way to Louisville and Cincinnati with some regularity. But he didn’t play Lexington until a 1998 performance at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club. That show was distinguished by an extraordinary band (it included the Dutch flamenco guitarist Teye and longtime electric guitar pal Jesse Taylor) and the fact that a stage amplifier briefly caught fire.

Subsequent local outings included a 2000 opening set for Dixie Chicks at Rupp Arena (a family affair of sorts as Chicks singer Natalie Maines is the daughter of Lloyd Maines) and a 2009 WoodSongs date with the reunited Flatlanders.

Today, Ely, 67, still embraces rock and roots music while on Texas turf. He joined Bruce Springsteen onstage in Houston as recently as last month. But he chooses unplugged settings for out-of-state touring. Ely’s regional return on Saturday will be an acoustic duo performance with guitarist Jeff Plankenhorn.

It may not be a rock show, but having one of the truly great Texas song stylists of our day back in Kentucky – on a Saturday night, no less – will surely set off some Lone Star sparks.

Joe Ely performs at 8 p.m. June 7 at the Southgate House Revival, 111 E. Sixth St. in Newport. Tickets are $20 advance, $25 day of show.Call  (859) 431-2201 or go to www.southgatehouse.com.

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