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sardines and swing

the hot sardines. top to bottom: jason prover, nick myers, joe mcdonough, evan "sugar" cane, alex raderman, evan "bibs" palazzo. left: "miz" elizabeth bougerol. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

the hot sardines. top to bottom: jason prover, nick myers, joe mcdonough, evan “sugar” crane, alex raderman, evan “bibs” palazzo. left: “miz” elizabeth bougerol. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

At a glance, it would be easy to view the Hot Sardines in strictly revivalist terms.

You have a New York bred band with a singer reared in France, Canada and the Ivory Coast wielding a repertoire that reaches back to the ‘20s,’30s and ‘40s for inspiration. Then you hear sounds that come from as nearby as Harlem and as remote as Paris and New Orleans. At the forefront of the band’s music – and, in particular, its self-titled major label debut album – is vintage swing. But gypsy and creole accents, all kind of jazz spirits and bountiful performance immediacy are also at work. The result is a sound that hints heavily at the past but possesses an undeniable here-and-now vitality.

In short, while the music is not contemporary, it’s not a museum piece either.

“That is the take we really hope people will have about the album and the music we perform live,” said Hot Sardines pianist, bandleader and co-founder Evan “Bibs” Palazzo. “The music isn’t dusty in the way we approach it because we know it so well. Our attitude about the music is that it’s universal and perfect for the 21st century. It’s very joyous. The way we express joy may be a little different than how people are used to, but there is no mystery to it. It’s what we love and we play it how we feel it.”

The Hot Sardines formed when Palazzo’s wife placed a Craiglist ad seeking a jam session with enthusiasts of vintage “hot” jazz. That introduced the pianist to Parisian-born singer “Miz” Elizabeth Bougerol. In turn, that led to a pack of like-minded jazzers that included a tap dancer (“Fast” Eddy Francisco) and, eventually, an itinerary heavy on subway busking, bar gigs and open mic nights.

Enter a rave-like performance phenomenon – an underground speakeasy movement, to be exact – that quickly earned the Hot Sardines a cultish but devout following.

“You would go online, get a password and then an address comes to your email for where you need to go on a given Saturday night,” Palazzo said. “It was usually a warehouse in deep Brooklyn, somewhere non-descript. But 300 or 400 people in their 20 and 30s would come out dressed like it was the ‘20s. When you walk in, these places would be decked out like a nightclub. There was burlesque, cocktails, the whole nine yards. We kind of cut our teeth by discovering this circuit. Eventually, other people came to these underground events, like Lincoln Center, for instance. So, really, our reputation and our opportunities flowed from that.”

Flash forward to late 2014. Balancing residencies in such noted New York venues as Joe’s Pub with international touring, the band released The Hot Sardines, an album on Decca/Universal boasting classic jazz works by Fats Waller (Honeysuckle Rose), Sidney Bechet (Petite Fleur) and Victor Young (I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You) as well as similarly structured originals (the Bougerol tunes Wake Up in Paris and Let’s Go.

“Elizabeth always says we’re old souls. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know my parents and her parents played this music for us in our formative years, so it definitely formed our understanding of music from the get-go.

“Now here we are with a lifelong hobby that has turned professional. Every night we get to have the greatest party with a great group of people. It’s a very social music with a real romantic sense to it, too, that may be a little bit lacking in music today.

“I see a lot of couples coming out and it’s always the same scene. The ladies are into the whole thing – the outfits, the fishnet stockings – and they’re dragging along their guys who are usually just wearing their business suits with maybe a fedora. But by the time the night’s over, they think it’s pretty awesome. All of that draws me to this music.”

The Hot Sardines perform at 7:30 tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to www.ekucenter.com

feeling the liquid spirit

gregory porter.

gregory porter.

On the title song to his 2013 recording Liquid Spirit, which won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album last year at this time, Gregory Porter compresses the remarkable distinction and diversity of his music into a three-and-a-half minute tent revival.

The lyrics address a sense of soulful need and eventual nourishment sung with churchy hipster reserve and punctuated with righteous hand claps. But the accompanying music (which, like the narrative, was penned by Porter) is all jazz flexibility peppered by Stax-style brass.

It’s a complete, sanctifying song with a message Porter has been happily spreading to global audiences. Throughout the 18 months since the album’s release, such gospel soul smarts have also elevated Porter to celebrity status within a jazz world where stardom often translates into commercial concession.

“In the year I’ve been performing these songs, the messages and ideas I had upon writing them became clearer to me in a way,” Porter said. “The poetry for the song Liquid Spirit – – ‘Un re-route the rivers/Let the dammed water be/There’s some people down the way that’s thirsty/Let the liquid spirits free’ …I remember the feeling and energy I had when writing the song, that I had something to express, something to get out, something to get off my chest musically.

“I’m really trying to open up people’s spirits and have them open up their own spirits. It’s just a release of energy, love and music. It’s happened definitely for me. When I perform this song, whether it be at the Berlin Philharmonic, whether it be at Town Hall in New York City or at the Royal Albert Hall, people are clapping their hands and releasing their own musical energy. I don’t mean to sound romantic or overly spiritual, but that’s the thing.”

As a child in a large family growing up in Bakersfield, California, sensing the spirits became second nature for Porter. His mother, a minister in the Church of God in Christ, saw to that

“She just encouraged me. It’s an interesting thing. She always worked two jobs, but I don’t ever remember her not being around us. She was always a present figure in our lives. There were eight kids – five boys and three girls. So as our main minister and our mother and our provider and our encourager, she was a really extraordinary person. Her encouragement to just sing very much encouraged me. Even today, in my writing, she comes up all the time. She’s in Liquid Spirit. She’s in the song When Love Was King and in the song Movin’ (both from the Liquid Spirit album). She’s marked quite well musically.”

Plenty of secular inspirations also came into play for Porter, as witnessed by Liquid Spirit’s loose limbed cover of the 1960s Ramsey Lewis hit The In Crowd. In fact, ask him about the giants that helped shape his singing and Porter’s reply is immediate.

“That would be both Nat King Cole and Donny Hathaway. They had two very different styles, both coming out of emotive expression that probably had some experience developing in church. They struck me as artists. Aside from what they were doing musically, which was deep and profound, their music really grabbed me emotionally

“People talk about the emotion in my jazz. I think that’s the way jazz first hit me. It was emotion and not just the lines and dots of the music and not the theory and the intellect, which is all there. But the emotion struck me first.”

While fans and critics alike may view the follow-up to Liquid Spirit as the next logical step in expanding Porter’s still-blooming musical profile, the singer and songsmith plans on making sessions for his next album, which should commence in the spring, as stress free as possible.

“I don’t put any pressure on myself. I’m not trying to match the Grammy win or the reviews or the acceptance of this last record. If it’s received the same way as the last record, cool. If it’s not, well, I hope to continue to work at this thing and do what I do.

“I am just trying to be an organic musician. I’m not trying to please ears or anything. I just try to make the music, and that’s what I will attempt to do naturally.”

Gregory Porter performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets: $35-$42. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to ekucenter.com.

aimee amore

cyrille aimee.

cyrille aimee.

Buried within the dozens of online video clips of jazz singer Cyrille Aimee in performance sits a quiet little treasure, a three-minute reading of something wholly unexpected.

It’s not a standard like You and the Night and Music, although she has frequently performed it with a quiet Latin-esque lushness. It’s not a show tune by Stephen Sondheim, although this French-born songstress brought a number of his songs to life in the company of Bernadette Peters and Wynton Marsalis with the 2013 revue A Bed and a Chair. It’s not even the more untamed intonations of Thelonious Monk or numerous other jazz giants that echo through her performances.

No, this clip is of the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Fortunate Son, an electric protest anthem from the Vietnam War era that its composer, John Fogerty, still performs with proper venom. But in the clip, Aimee makes the song seems like a tropical breeze, an exotic and cross-cultural incantation that is more Jobim than rock ‘n’ roll.

“I think when you cover a song, you have to give your take on it and play it different from when it was done originally,” said Aimee, who performs Feb. 5 at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville.

“It’s a combination of things, really. But for me, the lyrics are very important. I know when the music gets picked, I can do whatever I want with the arrangement. But I have to be really connected with the lyrics. I like to pick songs that I can relate to and, I hope, that other people can relate to – songs that I believe in when I sing them.”

Raised in Samois-sur-Seine by her French father and Dominican mother, Aimee became infatuated with what she heard at nearby gypsy camps assembled for the city’s annual celebration of the iconic guitarist Django Reinhardt. But her fascination went further than the music.

“At first, it was really the people who made the music that got me in love with it,” she said. “They really live every day like it’s their last. They are so free. The way they play their music is the same way they live their life.

“It’s not coming from the brain. They don’t read music. They don’t think about it. They just do it, from the heart. That’s what made me fall in love with the music.”

The gypsy inspiration then collided with a broader spectrum of sounds she was introduced to at home.

“My parents, they are not musicians, but they love music. Ever since I was little, they would play a lot of music in the house. My mom is from the Dominican Republic, so I heard salsa, meringue and cha-cha. Also, she loved country music and French chanson and Spanish music. My father loved classical music but Michael Jackson was always playing in the house, too. There were all sorts of music.”

That helps explain the influences that Aimee, now a New Yorker, brought to her 2014 album, It’s a Good Day. The repertoire runs from Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When to the Jackson pop hit Off the Wall to the Duke Ellington staple Caravan. But perhaps the most telling tune of the record is Aimee’s version of Love Me or Leave Me. While the singer said she was guided by epic renditions from Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, her new reading purposely avoids comparisons to such legends by opting for a hushed but powerfully soulful update with a modest touch of gypsy soul.

“Is there a thread with all this music? Well, yeah. The thread is me. I love all these styles. I don’t think they each belong in a box. All of it is my story.

“Basically, the biggest challenge of the album was to make these styles all sound like one music for the whole record. It defines the sound for whatever we play. And that sound is ours.”

Cyrille Aimee performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Weisiger Theatre, Norton Center for the Art, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $38-$49. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

the next yonder

yonder mountain string band: allie kral, jake jolliff, ben kaufman, dave johnston and adam aijala. photo by tobin voggesser.

yonder mountain string band: allie kral, jake jolliff, ben kaufman, dave johnston and adam aijala. photo by tobin voggesser.

How can a band remain so steadfast within its inner structure, from its personnel lineup down to its instrumental make-up, yet be so open to change and growth? Ask the members of Yonder Mountain String Band, and the answer becomes as intuitive as its music.

Since its Colorado formation in 1998, the group has employed traditional bluegrass instrumentation (guitar, mandolin, banjo and upright bass) for music that strays from string band tradition to embrace progressive Americana and a fearless improvisational and jam-savvy spirit.

In theory, the premise seems stoic and static – the same four guys playing the same four instruments. In performance, though, there is no end to what YMSB is capable of cooking up. They could spend 20 minutes dissecting an original composition into solos and rhythms that approach jazz. Then it might rewire a Talking Heads cover so its still heady groove sounds positively country-esque. And should the performance occasion call for guests, then the quartet would morph into something altogether different. Over the years, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas – all forefathers of their own modern string band sounds – have sat in with Yonder Mountain.

“We’ve always been a band that said, ‘Let’s get this dude in here’ or ‘Let’s get this person up onstage,” said YMSB guitarist Adam Aijala. “All through our whole career, we’ve played a myriad of instruments, too – everything from drums and horns and all the bluegrass instruments, adding fiddle, dobro and/or other mandolins, banjos, guitars, basses, whatever. Adding new people and new sounds… that’s never been difficult.”

Then came a far more pronounced shift, one that went to the foundation of the band. Last spring, mandolinist Jeff Austin became the first YMSB member to break ranks and start a solo career. Admittedly, the remaining trio – Aijala, bassist Ben Kaufmann and banjoist Dave Johnston – had already experienced road life on the road without Austin when he bowed out of a tour the previous winter after becoming a father.

“The most difficult thing for us was the transition away from a rhythm we had gotten so used to,” Aijala said. “Since the band works without a drummer, the bass is kind of like the kick drum and the snare is the mandolin. That’s kind of your drum set, so everyone plays rhythm a little bit differently.”

When YMSB played in Lexington a year ago, when Austin’s split was thought to be only temporary, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury and fiddle Jason Carter were celebrity fill-ins. But since both have jobs in two major bluegrass outfits – The Del McCoury Band and its Del-less offshoot, The Travelin’ McCourys, YMSB had to look elsewhere when Austin chose to leave for good.

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘It’s run its course’? Well, that’s kind of how everybody felt when Jeff left, and that’s okay. Still, with a four-piece, you take anyone out of that configuration, no matter what, and the music is going to sound a little different, not to mention that Jeff was kind of the focal point onstage. I wouldn’t say he was the band leader, but he was a frontman. Remove that element and of course the sound differs. It’s supposed to.”

Favoring the quintet sound it found with McCoury and Carter, YMSB enlisted mandolinist Jake Jolliff (from Joy Kill Sorrow) and former Cornmeal fiddler Allie Kral for its current tour. Aijala said he is thrilled by the technical command, youthful drive and overall new blood spirit the two have brought to the band both onstage and on a newly completed Yonder album due for release late this year.

“We’re not trying to emulate the band we were, but one thing I think we still capture is the high energy and fun factor of what we do. It seems like the folks we know that have seen us for years, the reason they enjoy coming to the shows so much is simply because they have a good time. They enjoy the music and it makes them feel good. If that categorizes us as a traveling party, then I’ll take it.”

Yonder Mountain String Band and Horse Feathers perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E Main. Tickets: tickets: $22.50 in advance, $25 day of show. Call (888) 718-4253.

the intimate newcomer

carrie newcomer.

carrie newcomer.

One of the words Carrie Newcomer continually returns to when discussing the songs, themes, even cover art of her recent A Permeable Life album is “intimate.”

Granted, that might seem an obvious term in describing the lightness and immediacy of the folk inspirations that have long been key to the music of this Michigan-born songsmith. But intimacy also extends to the poetic and often spiritual nature of the songs she has penned and recorded over the last 25 years, as well as to the collaborative artistic relationships she has forged with numerous authors and activists (Parker J. Palmer, Barbara Kingsolver and Philip Gulley, among them). But on A Permeable Life, intimacy… well… permeates the music as well as the inspirations behind it.

“This is probably one of the most intimate recordings I’ve ever done,” who performs tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts. “The idea behind this album was to feel as if I was sitting across the kitchen table from you instead of singing from a stage.”

What is perhaps most striking about the recording is how pervasive the intimacy is within the arrangements and production. On one of A Permeable Life’s most infectious songs, Room at the Table, a sunny, percussive and chant-like melody brings out the deep, resonating calm of Newcomer’s singing. During Abide, a tune she co-wrote with Palmer, the vocals glide gracefully on cushions of cello and guitar.

“Every album I record generally has a theme,” Newcomer said. “Often a collection of songs will have some kind of question or theme running through it, so you want to create a musical space that really works with those ideas. The themes on this album deal with things like finding something really extraordinary in an ordinary day because there is something really honorable about our daily lives. There is a lot on this album about presence. We’re not really encouraged in our culture to actually show up for our lives. We’re so busy. So when we’re actually here and present in our lives, that’s when you see amazing and wondrous things. Every day, when we pay attention, there is always the miraculous.

“So the music, the arrangements and the production were intended to hold those ideas in a way that makes sense and the songs in a way that makes sense. The artists who played on this record were just wonderful, elegant musicians that could play you a whole lot of notes if that is what the song needed. But if all it needs is a few notes and a pause, that is all they will do. So it’s a very egoless kind of camaraderie. It’s all about creating something very elegant. Simple is not easy. It is elegant.”

Intimacy will also surround tonight’s concert. With longtime pianist Gary Walters as her only bandmate, Newcomer will perform with the audience seated alongside her on the EKU Center’s stage. Finally, she finds additional intimacy in another striking but perhaps underappreciated aspect of A Permeable Life’s design – its cover art. The album jacket depicts a lone boatman floating on calm waters near shore while being approached by two non-threatening but decidedly non-aquatic creatures – giraffes.

“The designer’s name is Hugh Syme,” Newcomer said. “He has designed the last nine of my albums. I sent him the collection of songs, then we started talking about the image that would go along with the album. What he sent me… there was beauty to it, there was intimacy to it and there was also this sense of wonder and whimsy. When I opened it up to see it on my computer, I just said, ‘This is perfect.’”

Carrie Newcomer with Gary Walters perform at 7:30 pm tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets: $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

 http://ekucenter.com.

the elder jorma

jorma kaukonen.

jorma kaukonen.

For over a half century, Jorma Kaukonen has mastered the art of acting one’s age.

As a roots music enthusiast in his early 20s, he absorbed the songs and fingerstyle guitar inspirations of the Rev. Gary Davis as the country awakened to a’60s folk boom.

When that generation plugged their music in as the decade progressed, Kaukonen joined in as co-founder of San Francisco’s cornerstone psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane and, eventually, its still-active blues-based offshoot, Hot Tuna.

In recent decades, though, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer refocused on his initial folk and blues influences through more elemental lineups of Hot Tuna, his own expansive solo career and the guitar classes he oversees at his Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio.

Having turned 74 two days before Christmas, Kaukonen is openly embracing his elder musical persona with a new solo record called Ain’t in No Hurry. Due out Feb. 17, the album is a collection of new and old songs cut with new and old friends. But the end result is a musical portrait the guitarist views as being very up-to-the-minute.

“Everything I do tends to be reflected in terms of what is going on, more or less, in my life and where I am at that moment,” said Kaukonen, who will perform for the first 2015 taping of the WoodSong Old Time Radio Hour on Monday. “So for me, this record is the project of a 74 year old guy.”

Ain’t in No Hurry was produced by Larry Campbell, guitarist and collaborator for such greats as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm and many others, as well as a participant on many of Kaukonen’s most recent recordings.

“I’ve worked with Larry on a number of projects – both my solo records and with Hot Tuna as well as some stuff of his, too. Larry is a multi-instrumentalist, but he is also an adept and creative producer. As a producer, he goes inside the artist – in this case, me – and it’s like he’s known you all your artistic life. He doesn’t try to change you. He tries to make you sound like you. It’s like we’ve always been in a band together.”

Ain’t in No Hurry sports several new original songs that poetically hint at mortality (In My Dreams, Seasons in the Field) along with folk-blues staples that have been part of Kaukonen’s performance repertoire for as much as 50 years but are just now finding a place on one of his records (Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out).

The big surprise, though, is a reworking of a vintage Kaukonen tune, Bar Room Crystal Ball, that first appeared on the 1975 Hot Tuna album Yellow Fever. But unlike the heavy electric cast of the original version, the tune now takes on a lighter country air colored by Campbell’s pedel steel playing and Kaukonen’s scholarly fingerpicking. It also enlists help from Kaukonen’s longtime running buddy in Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane, bassist Jack Casady.

“A lot of people listen to our stuff, whether it was with Jefferson Airplane or Hot Tuna, and they tend to interpret things through an interesting filter,” Kaukonen said. “Sometimes they come up with meanings to lyrics I’ve written that just have me going, ‘What planet are these people from?’ And that’s not a criticism. I find, as an artist, if somebody likes your song, it doesn’t matter what they hear. As long as they like it, that’s okay. But Bar Room Crystal Ball was a very personal song done in a very bombastic way on Yellow Fever. As such, it was one song I always wanted to do so you could actually hear all the lyrics.

“You know, at some point, you just can’t avoid the phrase ‘at my age.’ Well, at my age, people ask me, ‘Do you ever think about retiring?’ And I always say, ‘So I can do what? Play the guitar more?’ The thing is I’m so fortunate that I’m still healthy enough to do this kind of stuff. The traveling isn’t fun. The glamour years of air travel are long gone. But whether it’s me and Jack or me with any of my buddies, when we hit the stage and start playing, it’s still as magical as it ever was.”

WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour featuring Jorma Kaukonen and Lowell “Banana” Levinger. 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third. Tickets: $10 public, $5 students. Call (859) 252-8888.

uber ute

ute 1

ute lemper.

Ute Lemper committed one small oversight when she agreed to forsake her New York home tonight to perform here with the Lexington Philharmonic.

“Somehow this performance was booked without the consent of my children,” said the internationally acclaimed singer, actress, visual artist and songwriter. “When they found out, they said, ‘You won’t be here for New Year’s Eve?’

“Actually, I used to be able to see the fireworks out my kitchen window, but now it’s all downtown. I thinking I’ll just bring my children with me and we will celebrate in Lexington. I think you should be having some better weather there.”

Times Square, it seems, will just have to make do this year without Lemper, widely recognized as one of the foremost revivalists of Kurt Weill songs and German cabaret music of the pre-war Weimar era. But such accolades merely represent the starting point of a remarkable career as one of the most versed and versatile crossover artists of the past 50 years.

Lemper has eight touring repertoires at her disposal, which run from separate programs devoted to Weill and political poet/playwright Berthold Brecht to shows featuring the tango music of the great Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, string quartet sets (where she sings everything from Debussy to Billie Holiday) to programs that set the stylistically disparate poetry of Charles Bukowski and Pablo Neruda to music. There are orchestral collaborations, as well, like the one Lemper will perform with the Philharmonic. That program will be split evenly between the French chanson music of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel and the songs of Weill and Brecht she grew up with in Germany.

“It has been my mission to further the revival of this music,” Lemper said of the latter repertoire. “Artists like Weill were forced to leave Germany after the Weimar era. Much of his music was hid away after World War II until the 1980s, so there was a great responsibility on my part to be a tool for this revival. I love performing this music for my generation and for the world.”

But even Lemper’s wildly diverse performance repertoire doesn’t signal the artistic range her career has explored. Initially a student of dance, she has been celebrated for a variety of stage roles. She has portrayed Sally Bowles in the original Paris production of Cabaret and then played Velma Kelly in Chicago, which took Lemper to London (where she won the Lawrence Oliver Award) and New York.

“I never cared much for the musicals, I must tell you. Performing a show eight times a week got to be almost boring. When you do that for three months in order to get to the bottom of a character, it becomes very difficult and very hard on your voice.”

Then how about a more exclusive and singular engagement, like Roger Waters’ 1990 staging of the Pink Floyd epic The Wall at the site of the Berlin Wall?

“He (Waters) was trying to get performers representing different countries. I was quite visible in Europe then, so I was invited. It was unlike anything I had done, but I was very grateful for the experience and the opportunity to meet all the other wonderful performers (which included Van Morrison, The Band and British actor Albert Finney).

Awaiting Lemper in 2015 is the completion of a new recording of music she wrote based on The Alchemist by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, a project the singer views as “a collaboration of the soul.”

But there was still jet-setting to do before Lemper brings 2014 to a close in Lexington. In the weeks leading up to tonight’s Philharmonic performance, she performed her program of Neruda love poems in Paris, presented Last Tango in Berlin (a mix of Piazzolla and chanson music) in Geneva and sang her Berlin Cabaret Songs show in London.

“It has been such a long, wonderful journey,” Lemper said of her career. “But as I get older, my hunger for this kind of musical exploration only gets more intense.”

The Lexington Philharmonic with Ute Lemper perform 7:30 p.m. Dec. 31 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $25-$75. Call (859) 233-4226 or go to www.lexphil.org.

it’s good to be the queen

shemekia 2

shemekia copeland.

Should you desire a crash course in the extremes that define Shemekia Copeland’s brand of the blues, just check out the two tunes that bookend her fine 2012 album, 33 1/3.

At the beginning sits Lemon Pie, a big beat blast of blues-infused funk that powers some socio-economic hardball (“others get the steak, you get the bone”). But as it concludes, Copeland turns down the rage with a light, wiry stroll through Bob Dylan’s classic I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.

Such are the temperaments that make up just part of the musical voice belonging to the present day Queen of the Blues. Admittedly, her majesty has received some fine tutelage. She took to heart the vocal phrasing and performance inspirations of her father, the famed Texas blues guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland. There were also lessons – in life as much as much as music – soaked up from the previous Queen of the Blues, Chicago sensation Koko Taylor. Mostly though, Copeland learned the blues by living them. She essentially grew up in public, performing and recording alongside such greats as Dr. John, Steve Cropper, Ruth Brown and others to become a multiple W.C. Handy Blues Award winner and Grammy nominee.

“For me, I think the blues is about telling your story,” said Copeland, who returns to Natasha’s for a Friday performance. “When I was a kid, my father used to say, ‘If it wasn’t for the blues, I wouldn’t weigh over 90 pounds.’ He meant that, too. I feel that way about the music, as well. It’s been my entire life, pretty much from birth. It’s everything to me.”

While the Harlem-born singer’s recording career has seen the release of seven albums over the past 16 years (she was 19 when her 1998 debut, Turn the Heat Up!, was released), the sounds instilled by her father – a vocal style both earthshaking and intimate – still guide Copeland’s music today.

“I’ve stolen everything I possibly can from him – his phrasing, everything. But people don’t really recognize that because I’m a woman. If I was a man, it would be different. Also, if I played guitar, I think people would notice more. Dr. John always says that I approach the music vocally the way a man would. And it’s true because I always listen to male singers. My father was a great singer, so yeah, I stole everything from him. He’s in there. He’s in everything that I do.”

The great Taylor proved another profound mentoring figure, from when she befriended Copeland as a blooming talent to the time the former’s title of Queen on the Blues was formerly bestowed on her young protégé. But that wasn’t at all what Copeland treasured most about their friendship.

“Let me just say that woman was amazing,” Copeland said of Taylor. “In terms of talent, she was unmatchable. But what I loved most about her was that she was so kind to me. She didn’t know me. She didn’t know anything about me. She just heard that I was a girl who could sing. So this woman took me under her wings and was kind to me. As I started out, she would call me to see how I was doing. She would call my mom to see how I was doing. She was instrumental in giving me advice on how to survive out on the road. She just went above and beyond what you would think anyone would do for a person.

“Today, I’m just proud to be called a blues singer and a blues artist. So many other people feel being called that limits you. Well, it hasn’t limited me in any kind of way. I sing what I want to sing about. If I want to rock out, I rock out. If I want to be funky, I’m funky. Whatever I want to do, I do it.”

Shemekia Copeland performs at 9 p.m. Dec. 19 at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Tickets: $20, $30. Call (859) 259-2754 or go to www.beetnik.com.

the message of music maker

timduffy

tim duffy of the music maker relief foundation.

If anything impacted Tim Duffy more than the glorious roots and blues sounds he grew up with in the Carolina region, it was the poverty so many of the music’s most versed but obscure practitioners lived in.

“Poverty in America… people don’t think about it,” he said. “But it’s very, very real.”

Experiencing the deep struggles of rural blues artists – not just in getting their music heard but in maintaining a sustainable existence – prompted Duffy and wife Denise to form the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that has recorded the authentic roots music of over 300 artists during its 20 year history that would otherwise never be heard. But that’s just part of the mission.

“There is poverty throughout the world, but that’s not the whole gist of what we do. If you follow any popular music around the world – world music, blues, jazz – it’s born from the working class people of our nation. Go into those working class communities today and you will find people that kept the old traditions going.

“If someone doesn’t have medicine or heat and there is no one in their community they can turn to for help, maybe we can with a simple grant for medicine. Maybe in the wintertime, we can help so they can stay warm. That keeps the guitar out of the pawn shop. That’s our sustenance program.”

Music Maker also has a professional development program that helps get the music of these artists recorded and packaged as well as a cultural access program that provides forums, especially at radio stations, for the resulting music to he heard.

“At the heart of it, Music Maker is really a social justice organization, because these people are invisible,” Duffy said. “Audiences don’t know who these people are. They won’t go into their neighborhoods, so we have to give them a voice. We do that with the music and the songs.”

Duffy will further explain Music Maker’s work at Monday’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. But the fruits of his project will be perhaps best reflected by live music from three of the artists the organization has helped nurture – Ironing Board Sam, Boo Hanks and Big Ron Hunter.

“Big Ron Hunter very much has a sense of joy about life,” Duffy said. “He’ll talk about the red clay of North Carolina and the squirrels chasing each other above the trees. He’ll talk about how he incorporates that in his music. Then there’s Boo Hanks. He is a living example of a Blind Boy Fuller, who created such great music in the ’30s. So Boo is a great, great Piedmont blues artist. And Ironing Board Sam… now here is a totally eccentric artist from South Carolina that started in the Winston-Salem drink houses. He’s like Sun Ra (the eccentric jazz stylist from Alabama who insisted he came to earth from Saturn). He’ll tell you how, in his first life, he was there at the Big Bang and how he visits this plain every 20,000 years or so. His music is all over the place. He can play simple down home blues, pop music, weird jazz, anything.”

The support of such blue celebrities as B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal has helped spread the word on Music Maker. So has the breakout of Duffy’s most visible discovery for the organization, the now-popular Carolina Chocolate Drops. But his work still boils down to providing a platform for unheralded and unknown artists.

“The artists we chose to help don’t really have a spit in hell’s chance of making it in the music industry, so we live completely outside of that. I’ve helped a lot of people. But to tell you the truth, all this work has helped me much more. I’ve gotten a lot more than I’ve given through all the people I’ve gotten to know very deeply.

“My grandfather used to tell me it’s not what you get out of this life, it’s what you leave behind. In other words, you never see a U-Haul behind a hearse.”

The Music Maker Relief Foundation featuring Tim Duffy, Ironing Board Sam, Boo Hanks and Big Ron Hunter will be showcased at 6:45 tonight at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets: $10. Call (859) 252-8888.

up in the attic with tso

paul_o_neill_composer_640

paul o’neill of trans-siberian orchestra.

There is a curious addition to the titles Paul O’Neill can now make claim to.

Alongside duties as composer, instrumentalist, producer, engineer and all around rock music entrepreneur – all of which stem from his role as founder of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra – O’Neill can now rightly call himself an outlaw. Such as a distinction comes as a result of a youthful transgression that would later trigger the inspiration for The Christmas Attic, the double-platinum 1998 album TSO will bring to gargantuan life on Thursday at Rupp Arena.

“Well, the statute of limitations ran out on this a long time ago, so it’s okay to talk about. I think the technical term for it is breaking and entering.”

As a kid growing up in New York City, O’Neill and several youthful pals were drawn to rows of abandoned buildings. Vacated and boarded, he would venture inside and find little more than a whole lot of empty – that is, until he reached the attic.

“These attics had stuff left from decades, sometimes centuries ago,” O’Neill said. “The one I will never forget was like a wonderland for kids. The first thing I saw was a Gramophone. There was all this stuff from the past including this old sea chest. When we opened it, it was filled with letters from the 1850s and 1860s. That day we just sat and read those letters till twilight. It was like a time machine. That’s where we got the whole idea for The Christmas Attic.”

This month marks the first full seasonal run for The Christmas Attic as a concert piece. But that doesn’t mean TSO will retreat from its usual performance assault. In addition to the rock opera trapping of strings and guitar will be TSO’s equally cherished arsenal of pyrotechnics, lighting effects and general all-out flash.

The year began with the opportunity to take such grandiosity to a new locale – specifically, a New Year’s Eve performance at Brandenburg Gate. But there was a hitch – getting TSO and all of it titanic gear to Berlin after a pair of Stateside concerts the night before.

“We had that puddle between us and Germany to deal with called the Atlantic,” O’Neill said. “Plus we were flying against the clock. There have been times when I’ve played in Europe and then in America the next day, but there every time you crossed a time zone, you would get an hour. It’s the exact opposite when you’re going the other way. But this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. We had the jets waiting on the Tarmac because we only had about two hours of error room. But there was no turbulence, everything worked out perfect and we finished soundcheck with 15 minutes to spare.”

The result was a performance where TSO rang in 2014 before a live audience of two million and an estimated television viewership of eight million.

Next up for O’Neill is something perhaps smaller in scale but considerably larger in terms of ambition. With three new non-holiday recording projects in the works, he hopes to take TSO to Broadway and redefine the role of rock music in contemporary theatre.

“The idea of arena rock theatre is something we have developed quite nicely. But I’ve also wanted to take on Broadway.

“I love Broadway. But the problem is it is so stuck in the past. So I would like to take some of the special effects from the world of rock ‘n’ roll, the quality of musicianship from rock ‘n’ roll, but also the coherent storytelling aspect from Broadway and combine that so maybe in the next couple of years we will have our first Broadway production.”

And the cost? If there is anything more overblown than ticket prices to an arena rock show, it’s the ticket prices of most Broadway productions.

“We’re working on that aspect right now because getting the show written and put out there is only half the battle. It still has to be affordable for everyone. But it can be done. We are a perfect example. TSO keeps its ticket prices between $25 and $70 and we have one of the most expensive productions in the world. We’ve done that for 16 years, so it can be done. There has to be a way to do that for Broadway, too.”

Trans-Siberian Orchestra performs 7:30 p.m. Dec.11 at Rupp Arena. Tickets: $31.50-$61.25. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

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