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revenge of the windbreakers

Spinal_Tap_Break_Like_The_Wind

spinal tap in 1992: cover art for ‘break like the wind’

In honor of Wednesday’s 30th anniversary showing of This is Spinal Tap at the Kentucky Theatre, here is a 1992 interview I conducted with Harry Shearer, one the film’s (and the band’s) three comic architects.

The occasion was a summer tour for which Spinal Tap transformed itself from a purely cinematic creation into an actual live performance band. There was even a new album, the poetically titled Break Like the Wind, to tie into the tour.

To our fine fortune, though, Shearer insisted on being interviewed in character as Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls. During our talk, he discussed those pesky pod props used during shows that were always a trial to climb out of, the clumsy reputation he feels his band earned as a result of This Is Spinal Tap and how tough it can be finding your way to the stage some nights. 

Q: How does it feel to be on tour again? 
A: Great. The amps are louder than ever now, so we’re able to feel the power more than ever. We’re able to dominate an audience far better as a result. It’s serious pain. 
Q: Is pain important to Spinal Tap? 
A: Oh yeah. It’s part of our philosophy as artists. What every artist wants to communicate is pain. True pain. What we do is play so bloody loud that we actually inflict physical pain on you. Also, our lyrical and thematic concepts are so multilayered and confusing that you experience mental pain trying to figure them out. So you really do feel our pain. That’s true communication.

Q: So if an audience member fled from one of your concerts screaming in agony, would that be a sign that you are getting your message across? 
A: That would be like a Nobel Prize. 
Q: Do you feel Spinal Tap has anything to prove with this tour? 
A: If we’ve got anything to prove, it’s just the movie was a hatchet job. We want people to know that the Spinal Tap you think you know is not the real Spinal Tap. 
Q: You really feel that the movie was a hatchet job? 
A: I know it was. We found the stage plenty of times. But they never showed that, did they? I made it out of the pod at least six times out of 10. For eight years, it was ‘Oh, Derek, you going to make it out of the pod tonight?’ 
Q: Do you think audiences agree with your opinion of the film? 
A: Listen, you can only pull the wool over people’s eyes for just so long before they go, ‘Oh, that’s hot and scratchy.’ Especially in the summertime. 
Q: Spinal Tap supposedly disbanded after the film was released. How is it that you got together again to make Break Like the Wind
A: We met up at (band manager) Ian Faith’s funeral. It was a joyous event. People really hated Ian’s guts. Well, they would have if he had any. So it was a real celebration of death. The vibe was so great that we didn’t want to leave. People were dancing on his grave. It was great fun. 
Q: Your current drummer is Ric Shrimpton, the brother of Mick Shrimpton. Wasn’t Mick one of your drummers that blew up? 
A: Well, yeah. Come to think of it, Ric broke his ankle Friday night before the gig in L.A. So it’s like old Mr. Curse going: ‘Don’t forget about me. I’m still here. I’ve still got my power.’ 
Q: How has the reception been at the shows this summer? 
A: The reception’s been good. We even get cable in some cities. The crowds have been great, too. 
Q: In the time between This Is Spinal Tap and Break Like the Wind, could you spot Spinal Tap’s sound in younger bands? 
A: Sure. I could all along. Only now, they admit it. All these Seattle bands admit to being influenced by Spinal Tap. But in the old days, it was always ‘ Spinal who? Sounds like a disease.’ 
Q: Is there any ultimate goal Spinal Tap would like to achieve? 
A: I’ll say this. We’ve been around for 25 years. It seems long past time for us to be in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Especially since there’s no bloody hall. Just the fame. So if they change their minds and realize they’ve made a mistake, now’s the time to do it. They don’t even have to take a plaque off the wall. The whole hall is only on paper at this point anyway. They can just take an eraser to it. 
Q: Do think Spinal Tap runs any risk of breaking up again? 
A: No. I think we’ll stay together as long as we remember how to play. What we stand for, people crave. We’re not like any of those labels. We’re not ‘pre’ this or ‘post’ that or ‘punk’ anything. What we do is just good old generic rock. Yes, generic rock — that’s what we stand for.

the sum of the fairfield four

fairfield one

Fairfield Four: Joe Thompson, Bobbye Sherrell, Levert Allison and Larrice Byrd, Sr. Photo by Lee Olsen.

For all of its critical and commercial success, the math didn’t always add up with the Fairfield Four.

When the Rev. J.R. Carrethers formed the a capella gospel group in 1921 with his two sons among the membership, the lineup was a quartet – hence the ensemble’s name. But photos from throughout its storied history, from versions led by the Rev. Samuel McCrary in the ‘40s and ‘50s to the Grammy winning roster featuring Isaac Freeman and Willie “Preacher” Richardson featured on the multi-platinum 2000 soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, reveal the head count within the group grew to five and sometimes six singers.

Yet the name never changed. For 93 years, the touring gospel that flowed from Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville has been credited to the same troupe, regardless of the number of enlistees. It has always been the Fairfield Four.

This weekend, with its first Lexington appearance in over a decade at hand, the group is finally a quartet again. That means its current lineup – Joe Thompson, Levert Allison, Larrice Byrd, Sr., and Bobbye Sherrell – had to relearn a few very old traditions.

“Well, they started out with four, which is how they got the Fairfield Four,” said bass vocalist Thompson, 79. “It was from the church that all these guys belonged to. Then some started dropping out and they added more. Then Sam McCrary came in. He’s the one that really kept the Fairfield Four going. At first, he was my pastor. He baptized me.

“Now we have to learn how to sing with four people all over again. Most of the group got kind of lazy when they added that fifth person. It made it much easier on everybody. But I remember when the group got hooked up with a barbershop quartet. I would listen to it and go, ‘Man, these guys are doing the same thing we’re doing.’ The chords and everything were the same. We just slide into them a different way. So now we’re learning how to sing all over again in that barbershop style.

“Of course, it may be a barbershop style. But what we’re doing is a big ol’ gospel thing.”

Thompson, a cousin to original Fairfield Four members Harold and Rufus Carrethers, began singing with the group on a fill-in basis during the 1950s.

“They used to come get me out of high school to make trips when one was sick or something happened in someone’s family. They would call my mom and ask her if I could go with them. They would have me sing whatever voices they needed.”

For pop and Americana audiences, recognition of the Fairfield Four came much later. John Fogerty enlisted the group for his Blue Moon Swamp album in 1997. That same year, Elvis Costello collaborated on Fairfield’s Grammy-winning I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray. And once the O Brother soundtrack became a sensation, the singers found themselves on the road as part of an all-star tour with the likes of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley that opened at Rupp Arena in January 2002.

But the full force of the Fairfield Four comes when you hear its four (or five) voices singing on their own. A fine example: the roar of the traditional hymn Hallejujah on the 2001 concert album Wreckin’ the House, where the only accompaniment to the members’ booming harmonies are their fervent handclaps.

“I look at these guys when we’re practicing and you can just see the excitement on their faces when we learn something new in the arrangements we try to put on these old, old songs,” Thompson said. “I just wish you could see the smiles. It’s a lovely thing in my eyesight.”

Fairfield Four performs at 8 tonight at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N.Broadway. Admission is $20. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to www.willieslex.com.

violins, guitars and a linden tree

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zach brock. photo by janis vogel.

Inspiration can sprout anywhere. In one especially vivid instance – namely, an original composition on his new Purple Sounds album titled Brooklyn Ballad – Zach Brock discovered it towering out of the ground.

The inspiration the internationally acclaimed, Lexington-born jazz violinist found was something exceedingly precious for any musician working in New York – a tree. Specifically, it was a massive linden tree that grew outside of the one bedroom apartment Brock and his wife lived in for eight years after relocating from a fruitful jazz scene in Chicago.

“I don’t know how old this thing was, but it went up at least eight stories and was just gorgeous. There is so much ugliness in New York all the time that just to have one beautiful tree you can look at out of your window when you’re trying to write some music was wonderful. I didn’t realize how much it meant to me.

“Then, right before I wrote the song, this is probably in 2010, I came home one day and these guys sent by our landlord came in the front yard of our apartment building and cut the tree down. People lost their minds. I mean, there were people in our building throwing things out their windows at these guys. There were people crying and wringing their hands. I couldn’t believe we were all freaking out about a tree, but it was like they came in and took away the most beautiful thing we had. Coming to understand what that meant to myself and this little community I had become part of… the music kind of came from that place.”

Much of the rest Purple Sounds explores the kind of community that exists between jazz violin and guitar. In doing so, Brock chose works that celebrated several historical alliances that employed such instrumentation, including Frank Zappa and Jean-Luc Ponty (Twenty Small Cigars), Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti (the standard After You’ve Gone) and Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli (a fresh arrangement of the duo’s signature tune Nuages).

For Purple Sounds, Brock’s guitarist of choice was Norwegian born Lage Lund, Brock’s roommate when the two studied at Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

“Lage is a dyed-in-the-wool musician’s musician. I think it’s pretty hilarious that he doesn’t even appear in the Downbeat polls and stuff like that. But people come to his gigs and study his playing. It’s crazy. You play gigs with him and he’s got admirers from all over the world. You go online and there are people trading Lage Lund solo transcriptions. So I just wanted to rekindle my musical relationship with him.”

For his homecoming concert tonight at Moondance Ampitheater, Brock will go local with Lexington jazz mainstays Raleigh Dailey (piano), Danny Cecil (bass) and Paul Deatherage (drums) along with local guitar mainstay Bruce Lewis, who lived and worked for many years in Eastern Europe.

“The last time I saw Bruce Lewis, I think, was in Vienna,” Brock said. “I was playing there with a band and he was living in Budapest. He drove over with his two sons just to see our gig. I remember when I was a youngster playing some gigs with him and seeing him with all the different groups he’s played in.

“Raleigh is a real monster, too. All of our opportunities to play together have been in stuff where he and I might be doing a sideman thing, like when we played with the (Lexington) Brass Band. That’s great, but it’s also like you hardly get to play together. So I’m looking forward to this. I’m just excited to get back to Lexington and kind of chill at the end of the summer.”

Zach Brock and Friends perform at 7 tonight at Moondance Amphithater, 1152 Monarch St. in Beaumont Circle. Admission is free. For info, go to www.moondancelex.com.

mountain climbing

town mountain

bobby britt, phil barker, robert greer and jesse langlais of town mountain performing at natasha’s in june. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

Sometimes you can’t help but notice the growth of an enterprise.

Take for instance, the rapidly expanding visibility and acceptance of Town Mountain, the tirelessly rustic bluegrass troupe out of Asheville, North Carolina that has come to think of Lexington as something of a performance home away from home. Sporting a sound rooted in string band tradition but with a fearsome instrumental drive that makes its music anything but a museum piece, the band has watched its audiences grow younger, larger and more feverishly enthusiastic.

Vocalist, guitarist and frontman Robert Greer got an inkling of Town Mountain’s mounting appeal two years ago when the quintet conquered the mighty bluegrass task of selling out a Seattle club on a Tuesday night.

“That was the first time I really noticed where things were going,” Greer said. “That’s really becoming more and more the way for us and I think that’s just due to us sticking around. I have great confidence in our band, in our songwriting and in our presentation. But a big part of it is hanging around, being persistent and not worrying about what’s going on around us.

“So, yeah, growth is a trend that is happening for us. And we’re welcoming it.”

Such growth has been on vivid display in Lexington over the past 18 months. Town

Mountain introduced itself through several intimate shows at Willie’s Locally Known, a pair of well-received sets at the 2013 Festival of the Bluegrass and a trio of sold out performances at Natasha’s culminating with a Best of Bluegrass kickoff in June with Lonesome River Band. Town Mountain’s Tonight’s return brings the band to Cosmic Charlie’s for the first time.

The change in performance venues was quite purposeful. Despite being a club known primarily for showcasing indie rock acts, Cosmic Charlie’s wasn’t simply a larger hall for Town Mountain to play, it was a move away from the sit-down atmosphere of previous performances into a setting that encouraged dancing, audience involvement and a bit more volume.

“We all feel like the band is more in its element whenever we’re able to let it all hang out and create more of a dancing quality environment,” Greer said. “I think a lot of our music lends itself to that. That’s why we’re stoked to play Cosmic Charlie’s because we’re going to plug in and be able to get above the crowd noise a lot better than a place where we’re playing strictly into the microphones.”

Also marking this latest growth spurt for Town Mountain was the release this week of the band’s first concert recording, Live at the Isis. Admittedly, much of the unvarnished excitement generated on the 10-song set comes from the band playing on home turf in Asheville. But the music also speaks to the performance direction Greer referred to. Mandolinist Phil Barker’s Lawdog sounds like White Lightning-era George Jones with an Appalachian makeover, Greer’s Up the Ladder could pass for Jerry Lee Lewis on a bluegrass bender and the ferocious instrumental Tarheel Boys taps directly into the speed, agility and drive that fuels Town Mountain’s overall sound.

“All of this music just evolves,” Greer said. “We bring a brand new take when we start playing it out live, so it evolves naturally. The more times we play a song, the more we figure out something that works dynamically. Then we’re going to work that into the music, too. It’s cool. Tarheel Boys in particular, sounds really good on the live record. It’s a high energy number.”

It also reflects a sound increasingly rare in a bluegrass world that often favors the spit-and-polish of modern country songwriting over the raw fervor of roots driven string music.

“Well, that’s good for us, I guess, because we’re going to continue doing what we do.”

Town Mountain performs at 10 tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets are $12. Call (859) 309-9499 or go to www.cosmic-charlies.com.

going with the flo

Flo&Eddie001

flo and eddie of the turtles: mark volman and howard kaylan.

Few California bands of any critical or commercial worth remained as devoted to pop tradition through the latter half of the ‘60s as The Turtles.

Sure, psychedelia and hippie-dom abounded at the time. A certain degree even filtered into their music, from the golden lyricism of Eleonore (cq), She’s My Girl, You Baby and You Showed Me to the transformation of Bob Dylan’s folkish kiss-off anthem It Ain’t Me Babe into a blast of radio-friendly rock ‘n’ roll that introduced the world to The Turtles in 1965.

But at the heart of it all was an expertly crafted pop sound that crested – in terms of performance, arrangement and composition – on the 1967 hit Happy Together, a song that continues to define the journey of The Turtles today.

“I think you’re making it sound like we knew what we were doing,” said Mark Volman, who with fellow co-founding Turtle Howad Kaylan utilize Happy Together as the namesake tune for a tour that unites a pack of like-minded ‘60s and ‘70s acts into an annual summer concert tour. One of the trek’s stops every August is the Kentucky State Fair.

“We really had no idea we were creating a kind-of iconic sound and groove. We really were flying by the seat of our pants, sort of speak. There was so much luck involved in the fact that we were experimenting on almost every record we made. We didn’t really set out to be music stars because there really wasn’t any music business when we started out. We were just happy to be able to meet girls in high school with our band.”

While the Happy Together Tour focuses strictly the duo’s music with The Turtles, the rock ‘n’ roll careers of Volman and Kaylan developed remarkable reach. For two storied years following the Turtles’ 1970 breakup, the singers joined what is perhaps the most outrageous lineup of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.

Where The Turtles were wholesome family fun, the Mothers were a progressive minded rock enterprise disguised as an out of bounds frat party. Adopting the stage names of Phlorescent Leech (Flo) and Eddie that they still use today, Volman and Kaylan fronted a Zappa lineup responsible the notorious Fillmore East June 1971 album and the experimental film project 200 Motels.

“I’ve noticed after Frank’s death that either this was considered either one of the fans’ favorite times of the Mothers or one of the worst,” Volman said. “I’ve seen reviews that just hated the period we were with him. They said it was sophomoric, that there was too much improvisation onstage, that there was not a wealth of great instrumental music, that it was just a bunch of stupid humor and jokes – kind of like being on the radio with Howard Stern.

“Frank didn’t stop to consider if people were going to like it. That was always Frank’s thing. It was, ‘If you don’t like this, who cares? We’re going to do another project six months from now or six weeks from now.’ He didn’t read reviews. We would make records and then move on to the next project and just continue working and creating.”

In the post Zappa years, the duo now known as Flo and Eddie, would sing on records by John Lennon, Alice Cooper, Blondie, The Ramones, Duran Duran and many other sessions, including some that yielded two landmark rock hits – T. Rex’s Bang a Gong (Get It On) and Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart.

But when summer rolls around, the clock turns back, and Flo and Eddie become The Turtles again, bringing an era of seeming pop innocence to the present day.

“If there was one thing we learned with Frank, it was to continue doing what we do,” Volman said. “People who are going to like it will like it. That’s why this tour is fun. It’s really simple – just hit songs. There are no deep tracks, no B-sides and no stress.”

The Turtles featuring Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (Flo and Eddie) perform Aug.21 as part of the Happy Together Tour at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville as part of the Kentucky State Fair. The performance is free with fair admission ($6 children and seniors, $10 adults, $8 parking). Call (502) 367-5000 or go to www.kystatefair.org.

elton at the pops

michael cavanaugh

michael cavanaugh.

Most any pop-savvy pianist will happily admit their reverence of the music Elton John has created over the past 45 years. Count Michael Cavanaugh among them.

“I’m a huge fan of Elton,” said the pianist and vocalist who will be the guest artist at this weekend’s Picnic with the Pops performances. “I’m also a huge fan of Bernie Taupin, his lyricist. The stuff they wrote was just so unique. Most of their songs, especially the ones from (John’s 1973 multi-platinum album) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, they wrote and recorded in one day. That just blows my mind. They were all living in this mansion of a house that was turned into a big recording studio. So they’d get up in the morning, write a song, record it and that was it. That’s how songs like Bennie and the Jets and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road happened. That’s just crazy.”

Many of the songs John wrote with Taupin during the first half of the ‘70s also sport keen orchestral arrangements by Paul Buckmaster and, on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Del Newman. That makes such music a fine fit for orchestral concerts such as the Picnic with the Pops performances with the Lexington Philharmonic. But Cavanaugh isn’t limiting his touring tribute, The Songs of Elton John and More, which makes up the program for Picnic for the Pops, solely to the vanguard British rocker’s orchestral works.

“We open the show with (the 1975 single) Philadelphia Freedom because it’s got this great orchestral purpose already,” Cavanaugh said. “So obviously songs like that, songs like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, songs like (John’s breakthrough 1970 hit) Your Song have these beautiful orchestral and string arrangements that we love playing. But then we also love doing songs like Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, which has never seen an orchestra before but sounds really cool with one. And there’s Candle in the Wind. So many people got used to hearing just the piano/vocal version of that song. I do it with piano, voice and strings and it really sounds beautiful.”

Curiously, John wasn’t Cavanaugh’s first or most formative piano-pop inspiration. That honor goes to Billy Joel. After catching a Las Vegas performance by Cavanaugh in 2001, Joel chose his devotee to be the lead for Movin’ Out, his Broadway bound collaboration with famed choreographer Twyla Tharp. Cavanaugh remained with the production for three years, earning Grammy and Tony Award nominations.

Actual orchestral concerts, though, didn’t begin for Cavanaugh until after Movin’ Out closed. That was when he designed large scale touring tributes to Joel, John and a newer singer-songwriter program (the “… and More” qualifier in the title to this weekend’s John tribute calls for additional ‘70s-era songs by Wings, Styx and the Eagles).

“When I was on Broadway, I worked with a 10 piece rock band. It was a rock ‘n’ roll band with a horn section, basically. The first time I ever played with an actual orchestra onstage was at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops. I guess I got spoiled.

“Growing up as an ‘80s kid, I was surrounded by synthesizers that were trying to mimic these orchestras but couldn’t do it. So suddenly to be surrounded by a real orchestra was incredible. It was like taking cotton out of my ears.

“What’s beautiful about these concerts now is we’ve got these guys coming from the rock ‘n’ roll world and symphonic musicians coming from the classical world. We’ve learned over the last eight years of doing this how to play with an orchestra and work effectively with a conductor. The more you do that, the more you feel these two different worlds coming together. There’s nothing like it.”

Picnic with the Pops: The Songs of Elton John and More featuring the Lexington Philharmonic and Michael Cavanaugh performs at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 15 and 16 at The Meadow at Greene Barn, Keeneland, 4201 Versailles Rd. Tickets are $15-$300. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to http://lexpops.com.

hometown guitar

ross hammond

ross hammond.

Traveling is usually just an accepted routine within the life of a working musician. That’s certainly been the case for guitarist Ross Hammond.

Though born in Lexington, he has spent all of his professional life in Sacramento, Calif. establishing a voice of his own for the jazz guitar and, more importantly, an audience to accept and appreciate it. While the West Coast has afforded him numerous performance situations, including a commission from Sacramento’s Croker Art Museum that yielded an outstanding live recording and a favorable write-up in the jazz magazine Downbeat, furthering his guitar voice inevitably meant hitting the road.

“I go to the East Coast every six months or so and just try to have a presence,” Hammond said. “I just turned 37, so if there is a time to do this, to travel and pay your dues in a national sense, I think it’s kind of now or never. I’m just trying to grow the circle a little bit more every year. That’s the idea, so I’m trying to do whatever possible to get out.

“I think that’s helped in terms of visibility, too. Maybe people might go, ‘Oh, here’s this dude from California. What’s he got going on?’”

This weekend, though, Hammond travels to Kentucky for personal as well as professional reasons. The trip was initially designed merely as a visit to see his father. But when Ross Compton, chieftain of the Outside the Spotlight series got wind the guitarist was heading to Lexington, he arranged for a performance tonight at the Mecca dance studio on Manchester.

The concert will be unplugged in the truest sense of the term as Hammond will perform without a band and minus amplification of any kind.

“It’s totally stripped down,” Hammond said. “You can’t get any more stripped down than this.”

Somewhat coincidentally, the performance ties into Hammond’s newest recording project, a collection of solo guitar pieces scheduled for release over the winter.

“I had the idea to do this recording of how the music would sound around the house when you’re playing an acoustic. It’s mostly.original, but there are also some hymns. What I recorded was a lot of 12 string, 6 string and resonator/slide guitar music. I’ll just be playing 6 and 12 string when I’m in Lexington. People will just have to sit in close at the show, but that should work out pretty good.”

The upcoming solo record differs considerably from Hammond’s most recently issued recording, Humanity Suite. That album is a live document of the piece commissioned by the Crocker and was recorded at the museum.

Humanity Suite was designed around a 2013 Crocker exhibit of works by visual artist Kara Walker, known for using paper silhouettes to reflect scenes of racism, violence and slavery. Walker’s Crocker exhibit combined dark silhouetted images with photos of the Civil War that first appeared in Harper’s magazine. Hammond’s music is a blend of neo-classical accents, subtle groove and open improvisation.

“The Crocker asked me to play opening night of the exhibit,” Hammond said. “So I thought if we’re going to do this big show, I want to write new music specifically for the event. Then they commissioned the piece. I was able to get Catherine Sikora, who is a really wonderful tenor saxophonist in New York, and Vinny Golia, who is a great (saxophonist) in Los Angeles. I was able to bring them out and play with a lot of the guys in Sacramento and we just made this sextet.

“The music wasn’t really like, “This song goes to that piece.’ It was more like, ‘If all these silhouettes were made into a film, what would the film sound like?’ That’s how I went about it.

“The recording was a little bit of a risk, too. There are just two giant tracks. But people seem to dig it.”

Ross Hammond performs at 7 p.m. Aug. 15 at Mecca, 948 Manchester St. Admission is $5. Call (859) 254-9790.

 

travels with saintseneca

Saintseneca

saintseneca: clockwise from top left: maryn jones, steve ciolek, jon meador and zac little

Slip on Dark Arc, the newest album by Columbus, Ohio alternative folk-popsters Saintseneca and you are greeted by a sound that takes obvious delight in time travel.

The opening Blood Bath starts like a throwback to the psychedelic acoustic music fashioned at the dawn of the ‘70s by the Incredible String Band – that is until chant-like cheer reminiscent of the Lumineers chimes in. Move on to the splintered pageantry of So Longer and Conor Oberst comes to mind. By the time Dark Arc’s title track takes the album down the home stretch, we hear an Eno-fied version of the Decemberists.

That doesn’t even take into consideration the folky introspection of Neutral Milk Hotel, the ‘90s pop ambience of Mazzy Star and the light narrative abstraction of ‘80s-era Robyn Hitchcock that echo throughout Dark Arc. In fact you could play “Spot the Influence” all day with a record like this.

In the end, though, what Saintseneca chieftain Zac Little has designed is a patchwork of sonic color with mandolin, balalaika, dulcimer and the Eastern stringed instrument known as the baglama as his favored utensils. But Little admitted the sounds on Dark Arc were as much the product of accidental discovery as they were of any purposeful inclination on his part.

“Sometimes when you have a vision for a song, you’re kind of aiming for something,” said Little, who brings Saintseneca to Lexington tonight for the second performance in WUKY’s Phoenix Friday series. “But that sound can be a pretty abstract goal, so in the process of being inspired by something you inevitably end up landing somewhere else. A lot of times that becomes something interesting and exciting about the recording process, to have that little bit of dissonance between where you’re aiming and where you’re landing all the time.”

On the surface the instrumentation surrounding Dark Arc might seem reflective of Little’s upbringing in Noble County, a rural region in Southeast Ohio that runs through Appalachia. But the Saintseneca frontman said no regional trait, favored artist or cherished recording stands as a pivotal inspiration. Music, he said, has been his mission since childhood.

“I think I’ve always had that drive and always had something that subconsciously motivated me to do this. I don’t think there was ever a moment where I was a passive listener of music and then flipped a switch and said, ‘Now I’m going to start taking this seriously.’ I mean, even from the time I was very young, I had the impulse to write songs. But it wasn’t until I was a little older that I actually had instruments and the conduits through which I could express those things and channel that impulse. Then once I started playing in bands, even on a really small level, I always took it really seriously. I don’t think things have really shifted.”

Initial EP recordings were the first order of business after Saintseneca formed. While the personal shifted dramatically after the release of its first album (ironically titled Last), the band exists today as an expansive sounding combo that also includes Maryn Jones, Steve Ciolek and Jon Maedor as it tours behind Dark Arc. The record also marks Saintseneca’s debut on Anti- Records, the label home of Tom Waits, Kate Bush and Neko Case, among other notables.

“We’re out there chugging along, but I think one of the things that becomes important is to take a step back and find a level of fulfillment in every step. You can set some lofty goal. But when we’re selling out some place with 1,000 people packed in, that’s when I’ll really feel that I’ve made it. But that’s also an artificial standard of success. To feel supported and feel like what you’re doing means something to other people is pretty important, too.”

WUKY’s Phoenix Fridays featuring Saintseneca, Small Batch and Englishman begins at 5 p.m. July 25 at Phoenix Park, S.Limestone and W. Main. Admission is free. Call (859) 257-3221 or go to http://wuky.org.

of brothers and broonzy

dave and phil alvin 2

phil alvin and dave alvin.

Phil Alvin remembers well the first time he heard a Big Bill Broonzy record. He was barely in his teens, growing up in the Southern California town of Downey with an infatuation for music that was fervently matched by younger brother Dave.

Once they hit their ‘20s, the siblings fell into a Los Angeles punk and roots music movement that yielded such vanguard acts as X, Los Lobos, Kentucky’s own Dwight Yoakam (who would eventually score a major hit with a cover of Dave’s Long White Cadillac) and the band that gave a platform to the Alvins’ rock ‘n’ roll passion, both as stage performers and as recording artists – The Blasters.

Before any of that though, there was Big Bill.

“I remember there was a reissue album my mother bought for me in a department store,” said Phil, 61. “The cover was great. There was this real sharp looking guy on it. That was my introduction to Big Bill’s songs. I took it home and played for my brother and we both just loved it.”

The multi-stylistic blues of the Southern-bred Broonzy, who penned and copyrighted over 300 songs before his death in 1958, did more than inspire two brothers in search of their own musical voices. It would, roughly a half century later, serve as the sound that reunited them after a lengthy period of estrangement and solo career activity.

On Common Ground: Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, the brothers refocused on one their foremost inspirations to cut their first full studio album together since 1985.

“The thing is, Big Bill Broonzy never played in just one style,” said Dave, 58. “If we were doing, say, a Lightning Hopkins tribute we would pretty much have to sound like Lightning Hopkins all the way through. But Big Bill could play in ragtime. He would play country blues. He did everything.”

But when asked the chicken-or-the-egg question about which came first, the idea of recording a Broonzy tribute or reuniting with his brother, Dave didn’t hesitate.

“It was the chance of doing something together.”

Perhaps that’s because another circumstance intervened to bring Common Ground to fruition. While on tour in Europe with the present day Blasters (which Dave has largely steered away from over the years, save for a tour in 2003), Phil was hospitalized for an infection caused by an abscessed tooth. The condition caused his heart and vital signs to momentarily stop.

“Everything has changed since then,” Phil said. “You put more value in music. You put more value in everything. It’s hard not to when your mortality flashes before you like that. I wish it was something I could get away from, but I can’t. But I’m out here and staying healthy”

Dave was solemn and succinct in describing the reunion. “It’s just great to be out playing with my brother.”

During their years apart, Dave released a succession of roots-driven solo recordings (1998’s Blackjack David being among the finest) and forged a devout Lexington following though a series of late ’90s performances at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club with his band, The Guilty Men. The group, now dubbed The Guilty Ones, will back the brothers during a Wednesday concert at The Southgate House Revival in Newport.

The two will resume their separate careers this fall. Phil, in fact, will make his Lexington debut on Labor Day when the Blasters perform at Willie’s Locally Known. But with their professional and personnel bonds now strengthened, neither brother plans on letting too many years slip away before reteaming again.
“I’m not that stupid anymore,” Dave said.

Added Phil: “That’s funny. I think I’m getting more stupid.”

Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones perform at 8 p.m. July 23 at the Southgate House Revival,111 E. Sixth St. in Newport. Tickets: $25, $35. Call (859) 431-2201 or got to www.southgatehouse.com

crows landing

counting crows

adam duritz of counting crows. photo by danny clinch.

In the 20-plus years he has piloted Counting Crows, Adam Duritz has seldom found his way to Kentucky. So the singer and songsmith behind such ‘90s radio hits as Round Here, Rain King and Mr. Jones and such stylistically disparate albums as 1993’s smash debut August and Everything After (which sold over 7 million copies) and 2007’s distinctive covers collection Underwater Sunshine was both pleased and surprised to find his band booked as the headline attraction at this weekend’s Master Musicians Festival in Somerset.

“It’s funny,” Duritz said. “You tour forever and then realize, ‘How do we keep missing these places?’ But we do it. We still manage to miss these places over and over again. That’s why we said yes when they told us about the festival down there because it’s been a long time since we’ve been in Kentucky. We’ve played in Louisville on occasion, but not a lot.”

Counting Crows’ Saturday evening performance comes as a new chapter in its career unfolds. The band completed what Duritz promises as a very different new album (“It’s not like anything we’ve ever done before”) last spring as an indie act. But it will issue the project, titled Somewhere Under Wonderland, this fall as the first release under a new contract with Capitol Records.

“It’s really cool,” Duritz said of the new recording. “The songwriting is different – the lyric writing, especially. The tunes are very emotional. But the record has also got humor, which I’ve never allowed myself to write with before.

“My songs come mostly from my life. Even with this record, where there are stories, the emotional weight always comes from how I feel about things. But the imagery in the stories that I’m trying to tell is a lot different this time. They are a lot more impressionistic. I’ve allowed myself to be a lot freer with imagery on this record.”

Somewhere Under Wonderland comes at a time when the record industry is in great flux, with sales of product plummeting and major labels investing less in the cultivation of new artists. But as an act set to release its next album on a major label after recording the work entirely on its own, Counting Crows is using what is left of the record industry to full advantage.

“Some of the greatest songs ever are being written right now,” Duritz said. “You just have to look for them. They may be a little harder to find, but they’re out there. I mean music is being made by really good musicians all over the place.

“We did get lucky and make it. But it’s going to be very hard for us to sell close to 10 million copies ever again. I mean, it will probably never happen again for us. I don’t even know if we’ll sell a million copies again. Maybe we will. Maybe this album will be different because it’s been awhile (Somewhere Under Wonderland is Counting Crows’ first album of new songs since 2008’s Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings) and people are hungry for it. I don’t know. I do know that we were free to make it. It was affordable for us to make a record ourselves so we could bring a finished product to the record companies. Normally, they’re telling us what we need to do with it, which is nothing we ever listened to anyway. But now it’s not an issue because it’s done.”

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