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just like sister ray said

The Lexington musicians of Sister Ray. Clockwise from left, Robby Cosenza, Sam McWilliams, Willie Eames, Scott Whiddon, Tim Welch and Kim Conlee. Photo by Matt Goins.

Scott Whiddon figures maybe 10 to 15,000 people, in total, saw the Velvet Underground perform, an estimate given credence by the sluggish sales the New York band posted for the four studio albums it released between 1967 and 1970.

But the Velvets – Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and (following Cale’s dismissal) Doug Yule – were cultural icons of the rock underground during its day and an overwhelming artistic inspiration to successive generations of bands that followed in its wake. So it’s hardly surprising the Velvets’ influence also reaches to Lexington.

For the third time in as many years, Whiddon, bassist from the local indie pop troupe Palisades, and a like minded crew of musical pals (guitarist/vocalist Tim Welch, guitarist Willie Eames, drummer Robby Cosenza, keyboardist/vocalist Kim Conlee and violinist Sam McWilliams) will offer their own takes on Velvets music – from the psychedelic street sounds of their 1967 Andy Warhol-produced debut (“The Velvet Underground and Nico”) to the raw experimental grind of their 1968 follow-up (“White Light/White Heat”) to the comparatively relaxed and almost poppish stride of their first post-Cale record (1969’s “The Velvet Underground”) to the more streamlined electric charge of what became Reed’s last album before departing for a solo career (1970’s “Loaded”).

The six will perform as Sister Ray on Saturday at the Green Lantern. The band’s name comes from the title to the cacophonous, lo-fi 18 minute riot of a song that concludes “White Light/White Heat.”

“I remember being 13 or 14 years old and spending the weekend at a friend’s house,” Whiddon said. “Their older brother came home from college with one of the compilation albums by the Velvets, one that focused mostly on the first record. It was tremendous. It was one of the first steps where those songs got into the DNA of how I thought about the world.

“From the Velvets, you can follow a path to a lot of noise bands, you can follow it to R.E.M., you can follow it to Yo La Tengo.”

As is always the case with any local act, the challenge of mounting a Sister Ray performance centers largely on logistics. All of the members juggle duties in other bands (in many instances, several other bands) as well as family responsibilities and assorted day job demands. But that doesn’t prevent the yearly Sister Ray outings from maintaining a familial feel or diminish the band’s devotion to the Velvets’ music.

“One of the things that just makes me smile is how musicians of this caliber, whenever we do this sort of thing, are willing to make the time and effort to take part,” Whiddon said. “The first thing is that. Then there is the fun part, of course. We get to play songs that we love that perhaps made a mark at some point in our lives when we were falling in love with music.

“But you also have to live up to all of that. You know you want to play really, really well and you want to honor that tradition. So it’s always fun, but it’s also a question of presenting this music to people who also love those records.”

Sister Ray: An Evening of Music by the Velvet Underground performs with DJ sets by Matthew Clarke tonight, Feb. 17, at 9:30 at the Green Lantern, 497 W. 3rd. Admission: $8.

headhunting through the years

The Kentucky Headhunters: Doug Phelps, Greg Martin, Fred Young and Richard Young. Photo by Joe McNally.

As he discusses the current and future doings of the Kentucky Headhunters, Richard Young tosses out a factoid that very much plays into the Metcalfe County band’s considerable past.

It deals directly with longevity – specifically the realization that guitarist Young, sibling drummer Fred Young and guitarist Greg Martin – have been making music together for 50 years. That chunk of time takes the alliance that began touring in the Glasgow region as Itchy Brother through the official formation of the Headhunters and its electric mix of blues, boogie and modern country in 1986. That’s when bassist/vocalist Doug Phelps signed up, making him, with a mere 32 year tenure, minus a brief mid ‘90s split, the youngster of the band.

“I’ve seen all four of us sit in with different people at jam sessions,” Young said. “So all of us individually, we’re pretty good. But, boy, when you put the four of us together, it’s a powerful thing that just seems to make people happy. It’s really good music.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think the band plays great. But there’s just this kind of happiness that happens when we’re together that transcends to the audience. It’s just a fun band. I mean, you can tell none of us has any kind of hang ups about ourselves. It’s always been about the band.”

Here’s a recap for any Kentuckian new to the Headhunters. Once the Itchy Brother era ended, the Headhunters blasted onto charts in 1989 with a solid one-two punch via a very rocking cover of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” and the original tune “Dumas Walker.” That combo earned a truckload of awards, including a Grammy.

But changes quickly took hold. Phelps, along with his lead vocalist brother Ricky Lee Phelps, exited as the band expanded its musical scope to emphasize inspirations that have long played into their music – namely, blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. Two albums with longtime Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson (1993’s “That’ll Work” and 2015’s posthumously released “Meet Me in Bluesland”) typified the growth. Doug Phelps rejoined the Headhunters in 1996.

“We’re so proud of what we achieved in those early years,” Young said. “That was a great foundation, but it was just a part of what the band was. Now, we’re really open and can do anything. It’s not really about country, rock, blues, jazz, rockabilly or anything. It’s about the Headhunters and how we’ve evolved over the years. You know, we’ve got the same bag of tricks we had in 1990. We carry those with us as well as the ones we’ve created lately. So it’s a very, very good place to be for us right now.”

Recent Headhunters activities have centered on the 2016 album “On Safari,” although the big news for the band has been a renewed willingness to tour overseas. Young resisted such travels in the past due to a fear of flying. Convincing him to make the journey for British and European shows in recent years was son John Fred Young, drummer for Black Stone Cherry, the rock troupe whose global popularity has been considerable.

“Black Stone Cherry twisted my arm after 34 years of not flying, so I got on an airplane to go over to Europe. When the Headhunters were Itchy Brother, we would go back and forth to New York and it just terrified me. John Fred said, ‘Daddy, this is ridiculous. You guys would have a whole new audience over in Europe just waiting for you. You’re going to get your butt on an airplane and you’re going to go over. We’ll even set up the shows for you.’ So all of a sudden, I’m a world traveler.”

Young said the immediate future for the Headhunters includes a live album, a possible studio record of blues-oriented music and, as always, a wealth of touring. The band performs Saturday at the Manchester Music Hall with Martin slipping into town tonight to play with his side project band, The Barren County Stumblers, at Lynagh’s Irish Pub.

“We’ve been so blessed to be able to do everything we’ve ever wanted to do,” Young said. “What’s great about that is we’ve found out some of the hardcore blues people will check out a few of our country songs from the early days while we’re turning country music fans onto the blues. It gives you a special worth that you’re not only out making a living doing exactly what you want to do, but that people are also taking to it. I guess you could call the Headhunters a musical education program.”

The Kentucky Headhunters, Those Guyz and Dustin Collins perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $20-$60. Call: 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com/event/the-kentucky-headhunters.

meshing cultures, bands and generations, rudresh mahanthappa redefines jazz

rudresh mahanthappa. photo by ethan levitas.

With each recording he cuts and every band he take to a stage with, Rudresh Mahanthappa reveals different views of a musical persona that can best be described as globally expansive.

In 2015, the composer, educator and bandleader  – as well as Alto Saxophonist of the Year, as voted on by Downbeat Magazine’s International Critic’s Poll six out of the last seven years – channeled, dissected and reassimilated the music of Charlie Parker into an audacious album called “Bird Calls.” Last fall, Mahanthappa followed with “Agrima,” a stylistic turnaround that meshed jazz, Indian classical music and electronics. As he prepares for his Kentucky debut on Saturday, Mahanthappa discussed plans for a future project that involves a straight ahead jazz trio of sax, bass and drums fashioned after Sonny Rollins’s classic 1958 album, “A Night at the Village Vanguard.”

“Look at my discography and you will see every album is different,” Mahanthappa said. “Almost every album has a completely different band, so I’m always trying to shake things up for myself and change the vehicle as much as I can. My musical personality stays the same, I guess, but different scenarios bring different things out of me.”

Mahanthappa’s personal history is as culturally rich and varied as his music. Born in Italy to Indian parents, he grew up in Boulder, Colorado, initially absorbing the pop sounds of Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn on the radio before cutting his teeth in area jazz and even Dixieland bands.

“I knew every track with a saxophone solo that was being played on Top 40 radio, whether it was Men at Work or Supertramp or the sax solos on (Bruce) Springsteen records. I learned them all. That was my first kind of ear training, trying to learn by holding my mono tape recorder up to the radio so I could learn the saxophone solos.

“The players in the Boulder bands were all twice my age but they took me in. I was butchering Charlie Parker solos, but people gave me a chance. Those experiences were really important. It was the welcoming aspect that really mattered. I felt like I belonged someplace. Not that I didn’t belong in my family. It was just a way to really be a musician with other musicians.”

Curiously, Mahanthappa’s exploration of his Indian heritage came much later in his decidedly American upbringing.

“The elements of Indian music came from a place of trying to engage my ancestry in a way that was really meaningful. I don’t speak my parents’ language. I didn’t grow up around any other Indian families. Beyond the limits of my immediate household, I was figuring out how to create an Indian-American culture on my own and with my brothers. For me, in particular, music was the most effective way of describing that, defining that and communicating that. I feel a lot of the music I play is a by-product of me getting to know myself.”

Today, Mahanthappa’s heralded career is balanced with duties as the head of jazz studies at Princeton University. That ties in to his performance on Saturday at the Singletary Center, where he will team with University of Kentucky jazz pros Miles Osland and Raleigh Dailey in their Jazztet.

“It’s nice to go to these places I’ve never been before and play with the locals who have developed a real scene in their part of the country. I think it’s very important to the relevance of this music to engage as many of the communities as possible and not just show up to do the gig and take off. There’s a lot more to it than that.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa performs with the Osland/Dailey Jazztet at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Singletary Center for the Arts Recital Hall, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $13 public, free in advance to University of Kentucky students. Call 859-257-4929 or go to etix.com.

harry dean, cop cars and dodgers dates: the punk rock odyssey of john doe

John Doe.

John Doe got to know Harry Dean Stanton the old fashioned way – in the back of a police car.

No, the veteran Los Angeles punk rocker, actor and author didn’t connect with the late Kentucky born film celebrity through any untoward activity. Both were actually gaining experience for roles as policemen in Wayne Wang’s 1987 movie “Slam Dance,” which will be screened Saturday at the Farish Theatre as part of the Harry Dean Stanton Fest. Doe will also perform a solo concert covering music from throughout his 40 year career, including songs cut with the vanguard Los Angeles band X, tonight at the Green Lantern.

“We worked six, maybe, eight weeks on ‘Slam Dance,’” Doe recalled. “We did a lot of ride-alongs with homicide cops to figure out what they were all about. That was both intriguing and frightening because their world view has to be kind of skewed since they’re dealing with criminals a lot of the time and dealing with the aftermath of things gone very wrong.

“But then I asked Harry Dean to play music with me at this club in L.A. called McCabe’s Guitar Shop, and he said, ‘Well, sure.’ I knew he had played music from when he did ‘Paris, Texas’ and films like that, but little did I realize I was opening the door for him to reek havoc on the musical world for the next 20 years. He did a residency at The Mint and then at another place up on Sunset Boulevard. I feel pretty good about that.”

Cruising with cops has been just one of the unlikely but situations Doe has been led to by a remarkably far reaching career. Another came in August when all of X – Doe, vocalist Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake – were honored by the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to a baseball game at Dodger Stadium.

“That’s another mystifying turn of events. ‘Really? You want a punk rocker to sing the national anthem? Okay.’ Sure, I’ve spread out a little more from just being a punk rock musician, but, still, it’s weird. You don’t think about that stuff and then when it happens, you feel a certain odd sense of validation.”

“So for X Day at Dodger Stadium, we played gender reversal. Exene threw out the first pitch and I sang the national anthem. Usually it would be like, ‘Oh, let’s have the girl sing and the boy throw the ball,’ but we switched that around. She did great. She got it over the plate and Rich Hill, the pitcher that night, caught it. He pitched a no hitter until the game went into the 10th inning. We figured it was the magic Exene laid on the team.”

“Spreading out,” as Doe termed it, has included a long running solo career he has maintained outside of X, one that has taken him to various avenues of rock and roots-oriented music. His newest record, 2016’s “Westerner,” teamed him with producer Howe Gelb for a series of songs inspired by Doe’s friendship with the late author Michael Blake, best known for writing “Dances with Wolves.”

“I’ve been friends with Howe Gelb and a fan of his production and music for a long time. He’s really the main architect of what you might call the Tucson Sound, which would include Neko Case or Calexico and Howe’s band, Giant Sand. There’s a lot of space, a lot of reverb that really fit the songs.

“A lot of the songs were about my friend Michael. We were friends for 30 years, but he struggled with dementia for the last four of them. We talked a lot about art and what we want to do with the world and things like that. Before he was really sick I started writing these songs just because he was such an inspiration to me.”

Almost concurrent with “Westerner” was the publication of “Under the Big Black Sun,” a overview of the Los Angeles punk uprising that began in the late 1970s, the era that gave birth to X (the books shares its title with X’s third album, released in 1982). Doe, along with Tom DeSavia, was as much a curator of the book as an author since it also boasts chapters penned by other members of the L.A. punk community, including Henry Rollins, Mike Watt and Dave Alvin. The audiobook version of “Under the Big Black Sun” earned a Grammy nomination.

“I didn’t really want to be the authority,” Doe said of the book. “I couldn’t tell the story of what it was like for women in that era. I didn’t live at the Canterbury where Jane Wiedlin (of the Go Go’s) lived. I wasn’t part of a roots band, which Dave Alvin was. There are so many different stories that people have. They were the experts in those subjects, so that’s why we pulled them in.”

As for his solo concert tonight, Doe said fans should expect a little bit of everything: X tunes, “Westerner” music, “unexpected” cover selections and more.

“Plus, I know a hell of a lot of John Doe songs, so I can take requests. If I don’t know them, I’ll wing it. Sometimes, I crash and burn, and that’s fun, too.”

John Doe and Warren Byrom perform at 10 p.m. tonight (Sept. 29) at The Green Lantern, 497 W Third. Tickets are $15. Call 859-252-9539 or go to harrydeanstantonfest.org.

Doe will also participate in a Q&A session following a free screening of “Slam Dance” as part of the Harry Dean Stanton Fest at 3 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Farish Theater of the Lexington Public Library, 140 E Main.

the tenuous kentucky connection to the world of rufus wainwright

rufus wainwright.

Having performed around the world with a wildly diverse variety of concert programs reflecting equally far reaching musical preferences, Rufus Wainwright is quick to point out his ties to the Bluegrass.

Until now, they have not included Lexington, although that will change with a Wednesday performance at the Opera House. He has played Louisville on occasion, but that’s not what Wainwright is recalling. There was an earlier link to the region that landed him in, of all places, Bardstown.

“My mother and aunt were huge Stephen Foster fanatics, so when I was a child, we did a pilgrimage to My Old Kentucky Home. So, yeah, I have a slight, tenuous history with your state.”

This Kentucky sojourn unlocks the first and perhaps most immediate aspect of Wainwright’s artistic identity – his family. The mother and aunt in question were Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the immensely celebrated Canadian singer-songwriting siblings from Quebec. His father is veteran folk songsmith Loudon Wainwright III and his sister is the acclaimed folk and rock stylist Martha Wainwright.

“Once you scratch the surface and get into our story, you realize it’s really like a three generation saga that I’m gratefully involved in with all the good music and positive outcomes that we’ve experienced as a family – along with some adversarial situations, of course.”

Over the past two decades, Wainwright has solidified a career of astonishing stylistic breadth. He recorded numerous albums of his own works (including the extraordinary two volume “Want” in 2003 and 2004) but also released a concert tribute record to Judy Garland (2007’s “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall”), composed two operas (the newest of which, “Hadrian,” based on the Roman emperor of the same name, will have its premiere next year in Toronto), cut an entire album of Shakespearean sonnets set to original music (2016’s “Take All My Loves”) and, earlier this year, fashioned a cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” for the Los Angeles charity The Art of Elysium.

What he will bring to the Opera House will be, in essence, all of that and more – a solo program encompassing his original works, standards, perhaps a pop cover, a sampling of the sonnets and a likely nod to some of the great Canadian songsmiths that came before him (the Leonard Cohen staple “Hallelujah” has been a frequent inclusion).

“I’m made up of three parts, shall we say. One being a songwriter, one being a composer of operas and the third being a singer. I find that in singing opera, singing standards or singing my own material, there is something about my voice specifically that is able to unite a lot of very disparate musical ideas to bring out the commonalities. So as a singer, I often have to look for themes as opposed to the variations.

“The show I’m bringing to you guys really just represents who I am as a working, eating, sleeping, loving musician. This is what I have to do to in order to earn my keep. It draws on a lot of elements of my career, be it pop songs or opera stuff.”

Born in New York and currently (as of a year ago) residing in Hollywood, Wainwright moved with his mother and sister to Montreal at the age of three following his parents’ separation. He has long maintained dual citizenship in Canada and the United States (“the best of both worlds,” as he called it) and has found considerable kinship with the music of other songwriters from his longtime homeland.

“I sing a lot of those songs, whether they come from Leonard (Cohen), Joni Mitchell or Neil Young. So, yeah, it’s a strange phenomenon, actually, as to how there are so many brilliant songwriters from Canada. I think it has to do with the light – of the lack of it, shall we say. It gets pretty dark up there in the winter – cold, too. You really have to escape to the nether regions of your imagination to make it through.”

That won’t be a problem this fall, though. Between our conversation last week and his Opera House concert this week, Wainwright will head to Havana for a string of concerts collectively titled “Wainwright Libre!” But this time, climate will play an altogether different role. Battered earlier this month by Hurricane Irma, Cuba was, as of this writing, bracing for a possible hit from Hurricane Maria.

“We’re just going where we’re needed, you know? But let’s just hope Maria doesn’t meet me there.”

Rufus Wainwright performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $45.50-$55.50. Call (800) 745-3000, (859) 233-3535 or go to ticketmaster.com.

robert cray gets the royal treatment

robert cray at royal studio in memphis. photo by ronnie booze

When you’re a Grammy winning bluesman that has rubbed shoulders and shared songs with the rock and soul elite for over three decades, what territories are left to be won? For Robert Cray, such turf revealed itself in Memphis at the famed recording studio with a sense of legend and prestige that is embodied in its name.

Royal.

Under the direction of producer Willie Mitchell, such R&B giants as Solomon Burke, Bobby Blue Bland and Ann Peebles and recorded some of their most cherished music at Royal. This was also where Al Green cut his vanguard ‘70s hits for the Hi Records label. But rock ‘n’ rollers found a home there, too, with John Mayer, My Morning Jacket and Rod Stewart having also made music at Royal.

Even though Mitchell died in 2010, the studio never slowed down. In fact, two members of the its famed Hi Rhythm Section, organist Charles Hodges and his bassist brother Leroy Hodges, still record there with Mitchell’s family overseeing ongoing operation of Royal. The mix of history and ongoing vitality prompted drummer/producer Steve Jordan to suggest Royal Studios for his newest recording project with Cray.

“While we knew we were going to do another record together, Steve and I had different ideas of what we wanted to do. Then all of a sudden, he sent me an email saying, ‘I got it. ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm.’ We’ll record at Royal. So I’m like, ‘Okay. Fantastic.’

“From the moment when you walk in at Royal, you see pictures of Willie Mitchell, you see pictures of Al Green, you see pictures of people like Ann Peebles and you just go, ‘This is where the magic was made.’ It puts you in that mood, plus you’re playing with the same players that made that music. It was great.”

The resulting record – titled, as promised, ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm’ – may have employed the Hodges brothers, their keyboardist cousin Archie “Hubbie” Turner and Jordan – in place of the longstanding Robert Cray Band, but the vintage-flavored music they created played out as naturally as it did on many of the guitarist’s previous albums. The mix of soul and blues remains unchanged. “The stories with both are the same,” Cray said. “It’s just that the delivery is a little bit different.” But the repertoire is made more expansive with songs by Bill Withers (the churchy, orchestral album opener “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”), The 5 Royales (the two part soul scorcher “I’m With You,” the conclusion of which lets Cray loose on a jubilant guitar solo) and a trio of original tunes that fit in easily with the record’s retro feel (“Just How Low,” “You Had My Heart” and “The Way We Are”).

But among the highlights are two songs by Tony Joe White (“Aspen, Colorado” and “Don’t Steal My Love”) that feature the esteemed Louisiana guitarist and song stylist sitting in.

“He is just the coolest cat in the world,” Cray said of White. “He’s so casual and nonchalant, but he really wanted to be at the sessions. It was great for us to have had the opportunity to work with Tony Joe. He’s so cool.”

One of the many greats to have recorded at Royal was Chuck Berry. The rock forefather, who died a month before ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm’ was released in April, figured prominently in the guitarist’d career. Cray and Jordan were among the artists featured in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 concert documentary celebrating Berry’s music, ‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ The guest list included Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Walsh and an artist especially intrigued by the new blues music Cray was just starting to get noticed for – Keith Richards.

“You see, ‘Strong Persuader’ (Cray’s Grammy winning 1986 breakthrough album) hadn’t even been released yet when we did these shows. So we had our meeting in Keith’s hotel room and there is this cassette player on the mantle. I looked at it and saw a tape in there with the handwritten title ‘Strong Persuader.’ I said, ‘Where did you get this?’ Keith went, ‘I’m a Rolling Stone. I’ve got everything.’ That broke the ice.

“I was the new kid on the block back then. I could do no wrong. Chuck was like, ‘Robert, let’s have coffee.’ He was the nicest man in the world to me.”

The Robert Cray Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets: $40-$65. Call 502-352-7469 or go to grandtheatrefrankfort.org.

graham nash: still changing the world a song at a time

graham nash. photo by amy grantham.

In the chorus to one of his most acclaimed songs, Graham Nash designs the chorus as an affirmation, a chant against a social and political climate ripe with unrest.

The tune was “Chicago.” The year was 1971, although the tune was written in the aftermath of conflict that arose out of the Democratic National Convention three years earlier. The chorus was almost child-like in its simplicity.

“We can change the world.”

Now at age 75, Nash stands by the credo. Even though the world – his own as well as the one that surrounds him – has undeniably shifted, he stills believes in the power of a singular voice.

“Let me give you an example,” Nash said. “Do you know who Frank Wills is? He was a guard at the Watergate hotel. One night he was sitting there at his desk with a little nine inch black and white television showing a basketball game. He went on his rounds and saw that there was tape keeping a door open. Now, he’s faced with a decision. ‘Do I check it out or do I go back to my game and make believe everything’s fine?’ He made the decision to check it out. I mean, that brought down the President of the United States. You can absolutely change the world, even if it’s only your world.”

The changes in Nash’s world have been considerable in recent years. In his personal life, the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee divorced his wife of 38 years, moved to New York and formed a new relationship with photographer Amy Grantham. On the professional front, the heralded folk-rock trio of Crosby, Stills & Nash, after an on-again/off-again run of over 45 years, crashed to the ground following a dispute with longtime partner David Crosby. Those events and more informed Nash’s first solo album in 14 years, “This Path Tonight.”

“I make music that comes from my heart,” Nash said. “I came to New York and fell in love with a beautiful photographer. Actually, the very first picture that Amy ever took of me became the album cover.”

Touring continuously since the record’s release in April of 2016, Nash has been performing in a duo setting with guitarist Shane Fontayne, whose extensive credits includes tenures with Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Lone Justice. While the resulting shows have understandably emphasized songs from “This Path Tonight,” the repertoire reaches back to his pre-CSN tenure with The Hollies. In a career known for songs like “Our House,” “Teach Your Children” and “Cathedral,” is it difficult to get an audience to give attention to Nash’s newer music?

“I’m finding the people coming to see us are very cognizant of who I am,” Nash said. “I want them to enjoy music from when I was first writing music. The last tour I did started with ‘Bus Stop.’ This tour, I’m starting with ‘On a Carousel’ (the tunes were hits for The Hollies in 1966 and 1967, respectively). People are loving it. Those songs, they’re not particularly brain scratchers in terms of message, but they’re fun pop songs that make you feel good because you bring in all this memory of your youth into play. Not only do audiences understand that I sang in The Hollies and I made pop records for years before I met David and Stephen (Stills), they are also responding to this new stuff brilliantly. I couldn’t be happier.”
Forming Crosby, Stills & Nash involved sacrifice, though. He left everything – his home, his marriage, his band and nearly all his belongings – in his native England to move to Southern California to begin the group.

“Let’s just think about what I did. I left my incredibly popular band that, when I was with them, had at least 15 or 16 Top 20 hits. I left my bank account. I left my equipment. I left my first wife, although we were going to get divorced anyway. Hearing me and David and Stephen sing… that was it for me. That’s how powerful that sound was. That’s how powerful three voices sounding like one voice was. It brought me to America. It made me give up my entire life.”

Nash didn’t shy away from discussing his current rift with Crosby, which stems from disparaging remarks the latter made about Neil Young, CSN’s frequent fourth member, and his relationship with actress Daryl Hannah after divorcing his longtime wife – a situation that largely mirrored events in Nash’s life. Does the quarrel mean CSN is a dead proposition as a performance unit?

“At the moment now, yes,” Nash said. “David was very, very unkind. You may not agree with what your friends do, but you can kind of keep that to yourself. You don’t go on national radio and talk about Neil like that. That’s insane. And let me tell you, Neil was very upset because this came at a very fragile point. I completely understand because I just went through the same thing. For one of his (Young’s) friends to say that publicly was powerfully cruel.”

With such a championed artistic history to his credit, Nash is not standing still. His mission remains the same as it was in the ‘60s – to change the world one song at a time.

“I’m on the road right now, writing every day for another record. What’s in my future? More love. More peace. So yeah, I’m still alive.”

Graham Nash performs 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short St. Tickets: $55, $65. Call 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to ticketmaster.com.

nicole atkins addresses her inner pop star

nicole atkins. photo by anna webber.

Let’s get one question out of the way before we go any further. Who is Rhonda Lee?

The fourth and newest album by Nicole Atkins – the Jersey songstress with towering vocal chops and the pop smarts as a writer and performer to put them to expert use – is titled “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.” Alright then, who in creation is Rhonda Lee?

Ah, but there’s the key. It turns out that’s exactly what Rhonda Lee is – a creation. She is, in effect, Atkins’ fictitiously evil twin – the character who acts with unapologetic recklessness. She is, if you will, a trouble child.

“She’s the girl who always has a little too much,” said Atkins, who makes her Lexington debut on Thursday (the night before the release date for “Goodnight Rhonda Lee”) at The Burl.

“You know when you have a friend that drinks too much and you give them a different name? That’s what’s she’s like. In my family, it’s when they tell me, ‘Oh, we’re having dinner tonight. Don’t bring Rhonda Lee.’”

Turns out, though, Rhonda Lee was making her presence quite known in Atkins’ life long before she was immortalized in song. Even as the singer was rewarded with a new and happy marriage as well as a move from her longstanding New Jersey/New York roots to Nashville, she was duking it out something fierce with her uneasy alter ego. Specifically, she was battling for sobriety on top of dealing with news that her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

On top of all that, she was facing an everyday artistic dilemma – maintaining a career that had been gathering momentum since the release of her debut album “Neptune City” a decade ago. Fueling such mounting visibility was a vocal charge that regularly summoned the spirits of pop giants like Roy Orbison and encompassed inspirations of vintage pop, soul and country but with a literary flair all her own.

“I was under the delusion that it mattered to keep putting things out and moving fast – you know, the fear that things could go away if I didn’t keep moving. But for this record, I really just wanted to take my time until every song was a song that I wanted to hear, a song that told a story about my life. I feel that this is the album that taught me how to be a good songwriter.

“I’ve always been really connected to that big crooner type of singing – you know, Roy Orbison or Jay Black, that kind of stuff, as well as classic country, soul music and rock music in the 1968 kind of vein. I didn’t think it was possible for me to make a record that combined those things. It wasn’t until three years had past and I had moved, gotten married and went through rehab that I kept saying, ‘I wish I could just move forward.’

“Then, while sitting and listening to the 16 songs I whittled down from maybe 100, my husband popped into the room and said, ‘You did it, babe.’ I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘You’ve got your soul record.’ It’s funny because sometimes I can’t see when things are done until somebody else steps in and tells me.”

Among the heroes in Atkins’ corner during writing sessions for “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” was veteran rock and pop stylist Chris Isaak. Longtime friends and touring mates, the two collaborated on one of the true gems of “Goodnight Rhonda Lee,’ the epically orchestrated and ultra Orbison-esque “A Little Crazy.”

“Chris was, like, ‘Your voice has this special thing that I don’t think you utilize enough. It’s kind of your superpower.’ When we were having burgers for lunch, I came up with this chorus that was kind of Righteous Brothers-ey. Then I was like, ‘Well, what do I write it about? I’m happily married now.’ Chris said, ‘Remember that horrible relationship you had when we were touring together? You got anything from that?’ I thought, ‘I have a lifetime of stuff from that.’

“I remember having an old boyfriend saying to me, ‘You know what your problem is? You’re defined by your music.’ Well, okay. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m absolutely defined by that. It’s my life, no matter what happens. I won’t stop doing this until I can’t physically do it anymore. There’s no Plan B.”

Nicole Atkins with Joslyn and the Sweet Compression perform at 8 tonight (July 20) at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.  Tickets: $8, $10. Call: 859-447-8166 or go to theburlky.com.

bring on the noise

bruce hornsby. photo by megan holmes.

He had led an all-star jazz trio, taken turns at bluegrass and collaborated with some of the most honored names in rock and pop. Shoot, the guy was even a member of the Grateful Dead.

But when it comes to the regal, piano-based music he makes on his own, Bruce Hornsby favors a setting where he can make serious noise. Hence, the Noisemakers, a band of diversely versed pop strategists that can match Hornsby’s virtuosic musicianship, play with a fearsome ensemble tightness and yet remain open to whatever spontaneous turns and jams that might emerge.

The Noisemakers – keyboardist J.T. Thomas, guitarist/mandolinist Doug Derryberry, saxophonist Bobby Read, bassist J.V. Collier and drummer Sonny Emory – are also the players that bring the multi-Grammy winning Hornsby back to Lexington for a Tuesday concert at the Opera House.

“The members of the Noisemakers are veterans, like me, of so many different types of gigs, from lounge gigs, frat parties with ropes to separate the dancers from the band, wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, J-Lo, Was Not Was, biker bars, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mumford and Sons, Gladys Knight, Holiday Inns, Captain Beefheart, Brandi Carlile, on and on and on.

“They are very adept at moving from one style to another at the blink of an eye or wave of a hand – in this case, my hand. They watch me closely because they know I’m restless and often looking for something new to do within a song’s performance. Also, I try to ‘entertain the band’- to keep it loose, free and improvisational every night. This approach keeps it always fresh.”

Hornsby emerged as an expert pop songsmith when the singles “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain” and “The Valley Road” made him a rock radio regular beginning in 1986. But his career has since traveled numerous stylistic paths his airwave-friendly music might not have forecasted, including two albums with Kentucky-born country/bluegrass giant Ricky Skaggs and an instrumental jazz record with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Jazz music, bluegrass music and lots of my own music have one thing in common- they’ve all been about virtuosity on the instrument. My style comes from a combination of these disparate stylistic elements and is often described as ‘Bill Evans meets the Hymnal, with some blues thrown in.’”

In 1991, Hornsby met up with one of his foremost musical inspirations, Leon Russell, to produce a comeback record for the elder artist titled ‘Anything Can Happen.’ But scan most any Hornsby record and you will likely find a song (like “Another Day” from 1990’s “A Night on the Town”) where the jubilant spirit of Russell, who died in November, beams.

“I thought I could do a pretty solid Leon imitation on the piano until I started working with him closely on the ‘Anything Can Happen’ record,” Hornsby said. “I saw that it was way deeper than I had thought. It was beautiful to actually be able to learn literally at the feet of the gospel/rock ‘n’ roll master. We were good friends for years, and I spoke at his memorial service in Tulsa last November. I’ll always miss him, very much like Garcia.”

“Garcia,” of course, was Jerry Garcia, the late guitarist of the Grateful Dead, which enlisted Hornsby as a touring member during the ‘90s. The connection was re-established in 2015 when he was asked to play as part of the Dead for a run of career-concluding concerts. The performances were chronicled on the concert CD/DVD, “Fare Thee Well.”

“The finality of these ‘last Dead concerts’ gave me a different sense of what was happening. I tried to savor certain special moments while they were happening, moments when things would really jell musically and the crowd would respond in that amazing Deadhead fashion. The ‘Fare Thee Well’ concerts were an unforgettable experience for me – such a great time playing with my old Dead cousins.”

Up next for Hornsby will be the completion of music for Spike Lee’s Netflix series based on his first movie, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (his ninth project with the filmmaker) and a record of new songs composed for orchestra.

“(It) may be the most original thing I’ve done,” Hornsby said of the latter project. “Or it may not be. But at the very least it’s surely the most dissonant and harmonically adventurous music I’ve made. So yes, I’m in a very fertile, creative place with regard to new music and musical areas to explore.”

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers perform at 7:30 p.m. June 27 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $75.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to     ticketmaster.com.

lonesome ruhks

Band of Ruhks: Kenny Smith, Ronnie Bowman and Don Rigsby.

It’s been quite some time since Ronnie Bowman, Kenny Smith and Don Rigsby have been this Lonesome.

As the foundation of the contemporary bluegrass troupe Band of Ruhks, the three established their far reaching musical profiles as bassist, guitarist and mandolinist, respectively, with the Lonesome River Band. All three departed in 2001, after solidifying the group’s mighty instrumental drive alongside banjoist Sammy Shelor and, in the process, fortifying a level of popularity carried on by subsequent versions of the band.

But the chemistry between Bowman, Smith, and Rigsby was never forgotten as the three established separate careers. Band of Ruhks rekindles it completely. While its self-titled 2015 debut album hardly ignores tradition, as shown by a vocal cameo by the late bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley on “Coal Mining Man,” the record regularly extends its reach to more contemporary country and Americana inspirations.

“We’re a bluegrass band with traditional sensibilities but are forward leaning,” said Isonville native Rigsby, who served as the inaugural director of Morehead State University’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music for eight years following his exit from the Lonesome River Band.

“We definitely pay respect and revere the old guys. I mean, shoot, we had Ralph on the last album. But it’s one of these deals where we know we can’t beat the guys who have already done this, so we’re going to do our own thing. When I play with these guys, I think that I’m with some of the best musicians on the planet. There is nobody who can sing better than Ronnie Bowman. There is nobody who can play guitar better than Kenny Smith.”

The three reteamed with Shelor for a one-off reunion of their Lonesome River Band roster in 2010. But with Shelor still committed full time to the group’s present lineup, Bowman, Smith and Rigsby worked with a succession of other banjoists to form Band of Ruhks. Its current enlistee is Brian Fesler, who preceded Shelor, Bowman, Smith and Rigsby in the Lonesome River Band.

“When the three of us were all in the Lonesome River Band together, we knew we could make great music and get along because we did so for years,” Rigsby said. “But at the same time, everybody kind of gets in a spot where they feel they need to explore more, so we all went our separate ways. Ronnie became quite a well known songwriter (he has penned chart-topping songs for Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn, among others), Kenny went on to teaching and did great records with his wife Amanda. I went into the education field and had my own band together. There were growth opportunities for all of us.

“But when I was getting ready to leave my job at the university, I had been kind of itching to play with the guys again, so I contacted all of my bandmates for a Lonesome River Band reunion. We only did one concert because Sammy already had his Lonesome River Band lineup going since we had all been gone. We talked about doing some more dates, but I think it got to the point where Sammy felt like it might be counterproductive to have two Lonesome River Bands out there. Still, Kenny, Ronnie and me decided there was a lot of great music left for us to make together.”

A sophomore Band of Ruhks album, the group’s first with Fesler on board, is in the planning stages. Before that will be considerable summer touring. When off the road, Rigsby calls Sandy Hook, just a few miles from Isonville, home.

“They couldn’t run me off if they tried,” he said. “Even if they did, I’d just wind up back there in Elliott County. It’s good because they keep you humble there. They don’t want you to get too big. They like to keep you anonymity. I kind of like that anonymity, too.

“It’s nice to be able to go out and hear someone say, ‘Hey, there’s ol’ Don. He’s no big deal.’”

Band of Ruhks performs at 5 and 8 p.m. on June 10 as part of the Festival of the Bluegrass at the  Kentucky Horse Park Campground. The festival runs through June 11. Tickets are $10 (June 11 only), $50 (June 9 only), $55 (June 10 only). Call: 859-253-0806 or go to festivalofthebluegrass.com.

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