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the reverential blues

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band: Breezy Peyton, The Reverend Peyton and Ben “Birddog” Bussell.

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band: Breezy Peyton, The Reverend Peyton and Ben “Birddog” Bussell.

Josh Peyton has been playing the blues in Lexington for a long time – clear back to the early days of The Dame on West Main, in fact.

Peyton was anomaly then. A child of the ‘80s reared in rural Southern Indiana (Brown County, to be exact), he became enamored of fingerstyle guitar, the blues that was born out of it and especially the legendary stylists like Charlie Patton that sought to expand and individualize the sound.

“My dad was into Johnny Winter and rock-blues stuff,” Peyton said. “Then we would go back and play Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf – that kind of music. When you go back to the early stuff, you see there were a lot fewer rules. Blues now, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s got to be 12 bars, pentatonic scales and shuffles.’ I’m like, ‘Well, wait a minute. Go back early enough and there wasn’t hardly any of that stuff in blues. There weren’t any rules and the feel was awesome.

“The finger-style country blues just absolutely, I think, was the greatest guitar style America has ever produced. I love it. But I don’t want to just preserve it. I want to take it new places and maintain it as a living, breathing guitar form. Plus, me being a country kid, the rural music just spoke to me more. It just felt right to me.”

Those inspirations eventually found their way into an unconventional trio that matched Peyton’s growing guitar prowess with two percussionists – a washboard player (his wife, Breezy Peyton) and a drummer whose kit includes a five gallon bucket (Ben “Birddog” Bussell).

Then there was the matter of a stage name for Peyton and his trio that indicated something huge and reverential about the elemental blues grind he was forging. Thus was born The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, along with the start of a steady stream of Lexington concert stops that have continued for over a decade.
But The Reverend – not Josh, mind you – insists that if you haven’t experienced the big blues attack of the Big Damn Band since the Dame days, then you are in need of a serious refresher course.
“If you were someone who saw us even five years ago, then you haven’t seen us,” Peyton said. “That’s all there is to it. That’s not just bravado. It’s a literal fact. We literally work at getting better every day.

“Some artists get into kind of a groove and roll and think, ‘This is what we do. We’re going to stick to that.’ I get too bored with that thinking. I have to consciously try to get better. That doesn’t mean I want to be completely different, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be someone else next week.’ I just want to figure how to be better at being me.

“Now, what does that mean? It means I want to be better at singing, writing songs and playing guitar. I want to get the feel right. It’s just something I work on every day. We work on the live show, too. The live shows are way better now, which is great because that’s our bread and butter.”

Part of that evolution is evident on the Big Damn Band’s new So Delicious! album, the first release by a contemporary artist on the famed Yazoo label (previously devoted exclusively to recordings of archival roots music). The music is so direct and down home that the album notes include Breezy’s recipe for pot roast.

“Oh man, I am more proud of this than anything we’ve ever done,” Peyton said of the record. “I just feel like it has such a cool diversity of sounds. It’s so organic. The vocals on it I’m really proud of – the background vocals, especially. They’re probably the best they’ve been. They really texture the record. The guitar picking on it, I’m just really proud of that, too.

“You make a record and you hope people like it. But with this, it’s like we’re at the top of our game.”

rolling on the river

rosanne cash.

rosanne cash.

At the heart of Rosanne Cash’s Grammy winning 2014 album The River & The Thread sits a Civil War themed narrative titled When the Master Calls the Roll.

While the tune is as epically romantic as anything Cash has written in a recording career that stretches back nearly four decades and as Southern accented as the other 10 original works making up The River & The Thread, it is also a wildly expansive family snapshot. It draws on inspiration from Cash’s children for the song’s construction, her ancestry for its characters, her husband (producer, arranger and guitarist John Leventhal) for its music and even her ex-husband (veteran country/Americana troubadour Rodney Crowell) for its recording.

“My son was doing a project on the Civil War and I showed him a picture of our ancestor William Cash on the civil war database,” Cash said via email last week. “My daughter Chelsea wrote a great Civil War song and I loved it and wanted to write one myself. I found Mary Ann Cash in my family history – 20 years old at the beginning of the war. It was all very compelling.

“John wrote this gorgeous melody that seemed to be in the tradition of those narrative folk ballads, so I asked Rodney to re-write the lyrics he had already written for the melody as a story about my ancestors. It was a powerful, almost overwhelming experience to write the song. The characters were alive.”

Family, of course, plays an almost unavoidable role in Cash’s personal and professional history. The eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, she has devoted her career to establishing a remarkable songwriting voice of her own. Though a champion of Nashville initially, she long ago cut ties with commercial country music for recordings of powerful personal reflection that included 1990’s Interiors, 1993’s The Wheel and 1996’s severely underrated 10 Song Demo.

Her father’s shadow was never far from Cash’s side, however. She addressed their relationship directly on 2006’s Black Cadillac and devoted a follow-up covers album, 2009’s The List, to compositions the elder Cash deemed “essential country songs.”

In a way, her father was a catalyst for The River & The Thread, as well. After assisting in fund-raising for Arkansas State University’s purchase and restoration of Johnny Cash’s childhood home, she and Leventhal journeyed throughout the South and gathered snapshots and inspirations for what would become her first album of new songs since Black Cadillac.

Among those she contacted along the way was Marshall Grant, the bassist for her father’s early Tennessee Two band. His relationship with wife Etta formed the foundation for Etta’s Tune, one of the most poignantly romantic songs on The River & The Thread.

“They don’t figure just metaphorically in Etta’s Tune,” Cash said. “It’s fairly documentary – the house on Nakomis Ave. in Memphis, the collection of artifacts from Marshall’s years on the road.

“But it wasn’t a reconnection. I’d stayed in touch with them my whole life and Marshall called me every six or eight weeks in the few years before he died to talk about the old days and go over all his memories. That’s why I said (in the song) ‘don’t stare into the past.’”

Leventhal again designed a delicate musical fabric to support Cash’s lyrics on the tune. While he has served as a vital contributor to his wife’s recordings (mostly as a producer) and concert performances (as a guitarist) over the last two decades, The River & The Thread is a project where the two are on equal standing. Cash penned nearly all of the lyrics while Leventhal wrote, produced and arranged the music.

“This was a total collaboration,” she said of the resulting recording. “We are good at very different things and brought our best selves to work. His great gifts in arrangement and melody writing really serve my lyrics and vice versa. I’m lucky to have found the perfect collaborator and get to sleep with him as well. For twenty years.”

That brings us to the here and now. With the The River & The Thread now 15 months old, Cash is facing a milestone event next month – her 60th birthday. But that serves to underscore the greatest strength of her newer music – an emotional and narrative maturity that can only be attained through life experience.

“Not a sensitive subject,” she said of her impending birthday. “It’s a matter of public record, so no way I can avoid it.

“No, I couldn’t have written these songs at 30. Life shows up in your writing and in your voice. Observation is keener, bittersweet becomes an overriding sentiment at times, awareness that time is limited, losses accumulate. They all become urgent topics.

My actual process is much the same, however – writing in spurts, lots of rumination.

“I feel …settled, but still very curious.”
Rosanne Cash performs at 7:30 p.m. April 25 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets: $31.50-$59. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to ekucenter.com.

two trios are better than one

The California and Montreal Guitar Trios: Marc Morin, Hideyo Moriya, Sebastien Dufour, Paul Richards, Glen Levesque, Bert Lams. Photo by Pierre Larue.

The California and Montreal Guitar Trios: Marc Morin, Hideyo Moriya, Sebastien Dufour, Paul Richards, Glen Levesque, Bert Lams. Photo by Pierre Larue.

What can be more striking than a trio of virtuoso guitar players busting stylistic boundaries from tune to tune in performance? You guessed it – two trios of like minded thrillseekers pursuing parallel musical missions while remaining distinct.

Such a game plan sits at the heart of the perhaps unlikely alliance of the California Guitar Trio and the Montreal Guitar Trio that will perform Thursday at Natasha’s.

The California Guitar Trio, which has been visiting Lexington for over a decade, brings together acoustic players of three nationalities – Paul Richards (American), Bert Lams (Belgian) and Hideyo Moriya (Japanese) – that studied extensively in England with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Unassuming in its stage demeanor, the trio juggles classical, prog, surf, jazz, original works and more within its repertoire.

The Montreal Guitar Trio, which makes its Lexington debut with the Thursday concert, is as outward in its presentation as the CGT is reserved. All three – Marc Morin, Sebastien Dufour and Glenn Levesque – are French Canadians with strong classical backgrounds that, on recent albums, have reached out to tunes by modern rock vet Radiohead, tango giant Astor Piazzolla and fellow Canadian troupe Rush to intersperse with its own compositions.

A chance meeting at an Oregon conference led to a quick friendship as well as a part-time partnership that celebrated the trios’ stylistic similarities as well as often dramatically different approaches to the guitar.

“The differences, firstly, are in the guitars we use,” Richards said by phone from Los Angeles. “The California Guitar Trio plays steel string acoustic guitars while the Montreal Guitar Trio plays nylon string classical guitars, so the fundamental approach is quite different. The sound is very different.

“During the first half of the show, each group plays separately so people get to hear what the Montreal Guitar Trio sounds like on their own and also the California Guitar Trio for those people who haven’t heard us before. Then we play the second half of the show together. It’s important for people to hear the difference in the sound and the repertoire.”

The MGT’s Dufour agreed that differences in the guitars the trios play emphasize not only a difference in technique but how those techniques have led the groups to different stylistic terrains.

“Nylon string guitars also bring us to the flamenco music,” he said by phone from Montreal. “There are a lot of strumming techniques and rhythmic patterns that you find in Spanish and Latina music that have really driven the MGT. That’s something CGT has explored a little bit but not as much.

“The California guys have their repertoire from the progressive rock and the music they studied with Robert Fripp, whose influence is very obvious and present in their music. They have a kind of atmospheric approach to the music. We have more of Latina energy to the music. So when we bring the two things together, it seems to really expand the spectrum of what guitars can do in a normal ensemble. That’s what makes it so interesting to play together in this project.”

Another curiously complimentary aspect to this alliance centers around the on-and-offstage personalities that distinguish the trios.

“The Montreal guys are very wild, passionate French Canadians,” Richards said. “You can see that in the way they perform. Burt, Hideyo and I are pretty mellow. There is not much joking around, not much flashiness going on. They are really high energy players.”

“It’s a balance,” Dufour said. “The three of us in MGT are very energetic guys and the guys from California are really Zen. I think that’s why we’re able to stick together. It’s kind of a ying and yang. They’re really calm people. We’re talking all the time. They bring us a good vibe and we bring them a good balance. We like that.”

California Guitar Trio and Montreal Guitar Trio perform at 9 p.m. April 16 at Natasha’s Bistro. 112 Esplanade. Tickets: $20. Call (859) 259-2754 or go to www.beetnik.com

cd central turns 20

steve baron at cd central. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

steve baron at cd central. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

Feel like holding an entire rock ‘n’ roll era in your hands? Then grab hold of The Complete Studio Albums 1981-1990, which chronicles the entire recording history of Minneapolis upstarts The Replacements.

Born during the final crest of the punk revolution and a cultural shift that turned the pop landscape of the time into synthesized mush, The Replacements were the black sheep of the ‘80s. Led by the coarse, restless songs of Paul Westerberg, the band was an unknowing and perhaps unwilling architect of a movement that helped shaped indie rock as it exists today.

Such a legacy came at a price, though. There were fallouts along the way. Some were personal splits and casualties within the band, other centered around an eventual commercial breakthrough that bordered on heresy to the punk faithful that first championed the band.

Released in conjunction with a series of semi-reunion shows spearheaded by Westerberg and founding bassist Tommy Stinson, The Complete Studio Albums is a no-frills box set that gathers the eight recordings The Replacements plowed out in a 10 year span.

1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (highlighted by the giddy yet caustic Shiftless When Idle) and 1982’s ultra raw Stink (an EP that bashes through eight songs in 15 minutes) define the band’s punk roots and garage rock sensibility. But it was 1983’s Hootenanny that centralized a boozy charge through nay-saying anthems like Color Me Impressed and the performance immediacy of guitarist Bob Stinson, Tommy’s older brother.

That set the stage for what were arguably The Replacements’ two strongest albums, 1984’s Let It Be and 1985’s Tim. The music retreated from a purely punk stance for power pop gems like Unsatisfied (from Let It Be) and Here Comes a Regular (the closing tune on Tim) that compromised none of Westerberg’s poetically disheveled outcast narratives.

The firing of Bob Stinson (who died in 1995) trimmed the band to a trio for 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me, an album full of wonderful surprises (the jazzy Nightclub Jitters) and familiar punk-pop drive (Alex Chilton). 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul then cemented Westerberg’s more streamlined maturity as a writer and enlisted guitarist Slim Dunlap, a tempering, good-natured personality to compliment the band’s modestly retiring new sound. Punk die-hards hated it even though it remains The Replacements’ most fully realized and enduring album.

Mars left and was replaced prior on 1990’s fractured swan song record All Shook Down, the closest thing the band did to an incidental record, by Steve Foley (who died in 2008). The Replacements called it a day in 1991.

Now that Westerberg and Tommy Stinson have at least temporarily reassembled the band for a new generation, we have eight reminders, all packed together, of how The Replacements put a glorious hurt on the ‘80s.

drum roll, please

james campbell. herald-leader staff photo by pablo alcala.

james campbell. herald-leader staff photo by pablo alcala.

As the 30th anniversary of the University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble drew closer, James Campbell began contacting the many musicians that graduated from the band and the percussion program he has overseen.

His question was simple: Did such a milestone warrant a reunion performance? The replies he received were swift and affirmative.

“I took kind of an inventory,” said Campbell, the UKPE’s director and the university’s first full time percussion instructor. “I asked, ‘Who are the alums and what are they doing now?’ I think we’ve had 23 doctoral students graduate and 19 are teaching at the university level.’ So I thought that was a pretty good track record.

“Looking back through all the people that have come through the program, they’re all working. They’re all professionals. I just sent an email out to all of them and said, ‘What do you think about doing a 30th anniversary concert?’ And I started sensing a lot of enthusiasm.”

Nearly 50 alumni players – from his son, Chicago percussionist Colin Campbell, to celebrity graduates like percussion artist and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche – wanted in on the gig.

“Jim really hammered it home that we couldn’t be one trick ponies in college,” Kotche said. “We had to learn the basics from a lot of different areas of percussion. When I was there, I studied steel pan drumming and African drumming and hand drumming and jazz vibraphone, orchestral percussion and modern multiple percussion. All of those skill sets I still use on a daily basis. I really do. You wouldn’t think that would incorporate into what I do with Wilco, but it absolutely does.”

Then came a bigger question regarding the Sunday performance. What kind of music do you present to intrigue and challenge such a hefty guest list?

The piece Campbell settled on was Inuksuit by New York composer and Heinz Award recipient John Luther Adams. The 70 minute piece, designed to be performed outdoors, can accommodate up to 99 percussion artists.

“We couldn’t put everyone in a spotlight, so the John Luther Adams piece came to mind,” Campbell said. “It’s sort of an environmental space piece. That way, everybody is the same. There is no soloist. Everybody has an equal part in the production of the piece. “We’ve got alums coming from everywhere for this – from Syracuse University, the University of Michigan, the University of Tennessee. Glenn is coming back. They’re coming from California, New York, Michigan and Alabama, so we’re hitting all corners. We’ve even got one of our alums who is a law professor at Harvard. She’s coming back to play.”

“It’s quite workout, this piece,” Kotche said of Inuksuit. “But it’s a really wise choice on how to get all these alums together for a kind of collaborative weekend. Honestly, though, for as much as I love John Luther Adams and his music, the weekend is about Jim. More than the performance, this is about celebrating Jim and what he’s done for us.”

The alums will filter back into Lexington for a private reception tonight. That leaves time Sunday morning – mere hours before the performance – for everyone to gather for a single rehearsal.

“It’s a piece that doesn’t need a conductor. If you can envision this, we’ll have everyone outdoors in basically three circles. There are three parts to the piece and each of them has a leader. That leader will start, then someone else in that group will go from there. All of the notes are written out, but the timing is not synced up. All the notes and the sequence are in order, but you’re not synced up with other players. You’re reading a script and making sounds and music based on that script. When you hear someone come in, then you come in with your parts. It’s almost a follow-the-leader scenario. The music comes in waves.”

Though planned for presentation outdoors around Stoll Field, the concert will be revamped as an indoor performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts in case of rain. But the biggest thrill for Campbell isn’t the scale or performance setting for Inuksuit. It’s the opportunity to reconnect with players he has coached over the past three decades.

“I wanted my people to always be connected,” he said. “This is a small profession, and they help each other. We’ve really stayed in touch over these 30 years. I have students that graduate that want to go on to grad school and go on to study with an alum. I have alums that are superintendents at music schools. There are music programs where they hire our alums to be band directors. So we have a family sort of thing where we always stay connected. I just try to connect the dots between those people. That’s really made our program strong.

“I really don’t think Jim views himself as a teacher just for those four or five years you’re in Kentucky,” Kotche added. “He takes care of his former students long after they’re gone. He still informs them, still helps them. He’s always there to offer his expertise to guide us in the right way. I’ve called on him so many times just for advice on what to do with my career. He’s a lifelong teacher and simply a great guy who is still very inspiring to us all these years later.”

The University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble’s 30th anniversary celebration on April 12 will include a 2 p.m. performance by the UK Wildcat Marching Band Alum Drumline at Stoll Field, a 2 p.m. talk with Glenn Kotche and Andrew Bliss at the Singletary Center for the Arts President’s Room and a 3 p.m. UK Percussion Ensemble Alumni performance of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit at Stoll Field and the Singletary Center lawn. All events are free.

full circle with joshua bell

joshua bell.

joshua bell.

Peruse the specifics regarding Joshua Bell’s performance tonight with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and you will discover how everything – from the artist to the program to the very performance setting – is linked.

First, consider the pairing – one of the world’s most celebrated classical violinists collaborating with a student orchestra full of players roughly the age Bell was when the Indiana native made his performance debut in some of the most prestigious concerts halls in the world.

“I enjoy being around young people who are sort of at the cusp of a musical career,” said the Grammy, Mercury, Gramophone and Avery Fisher Prize winning Bell. “I enjoy being around that sort of enthusiasm. I feel at that stage they are still ready to soak things in and learn. They have a real love of music which one should have throughout one’s life.

“I spend most of my time playing with professional orchestras, and that can be wonderful, too. But there are times where you get the sense that most professional orchestras are doing it precisely as a profession. Sometimes it feels like you don’t get the same sense of youthful enthusiasm of a student orchestra. My point is I enjoy being around young people. I’ve had 30 years of touring and making music professionally. Hopefully, some of that wisdom might be able to rub off on them.”

Next consider the work that will feature Bell tonight, Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, a piece that has long been an integral part of the violinist’s performance repertoire. In fact, Bell made his Carnegie Hall debut playing the concerto with the St. Louis Symphony. That was in 1985, when Bell was 17.

“I’ve played the piece since I was 12 years old. It was also the first concerto I ever recorded, when I was 18. But I wouldn’t even dare listen to those recordings now. I approached the piece so differently. That’s the wonderful thing about these great classics, it’s that you grow with them. The way you look at the piece just changes. The greater the piece, the more depth there is to find. Even though Bruch not the kind of household name as a Beethoven or a Brahms, this particular piece is really up there with the Beethoven and Brahms concertos, as well as the really great pieces in the repertoire.

“But as you keep looking at a piece, you find different nuances. You look at a phrase and realize that it means something a little bit different than you had thought of before. It’s really a wonderful thing about classical music.”

Curiously, one of those early recordings of the Bruch concerto links Bell directly to the here and now. It was cut in 1988 with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the reknown British orchestra Bell today leads as Music Director. The only other person to hold that title was Sir Neville Marriner, whose served as conductor for the 1988 recording.

“It’s probably been the most important musical experience for me of the last 20 years,” Bell said of his work with the orchestra. “It’s really taught me a lot about leadership, about how to articulate musical ideas and how to show them as a conductor. It’s also taught me how to look at music in a far deeper way because I’m so apt to be involved on a deeper level with every instrument in the orchestra. It’s made me a better musician, for sure, so I’m incredibly grateful.

“Also, it’s expanded my repertoire. Getting to do Beethoven symphonies, like the Eroica Symphony or the Fifth Symphony… these are pieces I’ve known my whole life, but it’s a dream to get to really interpret them. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Joshua Bell performs with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Tickets are $45-$85. Call (859) 257-4929 or go to http://finearts.uky.edu/singletary-center.

the arrival of rhiannon

rhiannon giddens.

rhiannon giddens.

As it turns out, the title could not have been more prophetic – Tomorrow is My Turn.

It’s a song penned decades ago by Charles Aznavour and popularized by the incomparable Nina Simone. But this spring it serves as the title tune to the debut solo album of Rhiannon Giddens. That this co-founding member of the Grammy winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and, more recently, the all-star New Basement Tapes, adds a luster to the tune worthy of Simone is almost beside the point. It represents the arrival of an exact, complete and powerfully regal voice.

“All of this has been a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest with you, but not necessarily an unwelcome one,” said Giddens, who performs Tuesday at the Lexington Opera House. “I was gearing up to work on the next Chocolate Drops record when all of this happened. It’s taken some time to get used to. But I just feel like after 10 years in the Chocolate Drops and continuing on with that mission as I am, it’s time for this.

“I’m just so much about the music, and the music is getting out there. This album seems to be reaching a wider audience than the Chocolate Drops albums have. That makes me happy because it means that maybe this expansion is working.”

Expansion is the key word. Over the past decade with the Chocolate Drops, Giddens has explored the roots music repertoire of African-American string bands from the 1920s and ‘30s. The band’s recordings featured Giddens’ talents as an instrumentalist as much or more than as a singer. But on Tomorrow is My Turn, her vocal talents are placed front and center on tunes penned or popularized by Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Odetta, Patsy Cline, Elizabeth Cotton and Kentucky’s own Jean Ritchie. She also concludes the record with an original work, a gorgeous song of renewal called Angel City.

“I’ve always been a singer who has played instruments, and I am okay with the fact that my singing was secondary to what the Chocolate Drops were trying to do,” Giddens said. “I really feel strongly in that mission. But it has been really neat to let my voice fly a little bit. What I’ve always been is a singer, so it’s good to have a solo record out there representing artists that I respect so much.

“The whole reason I wanted to do this was to honor to these women who had come before me. It just seemed right. Everybody who is on this record with me, I can hear in my head or I could be reading their stories and picking up on what they’re passing on. There is that feel of the knowledge of where I stand with these women. It’s all there.”

Giddens had a strong ally in her corner as she established her solo career – famed Americana producer T Bone Burnett. After inviting Giddens to his curated Another Day, Another Time concert (a 2013 performance at New York’s Town Hall dedicated to the ‘60s folk scene in Greenwich Village that inspired the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis), Burnett signed on to produce Tomorrow is My Turn.

“When T Bone and I started off, he was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I had a list of songs and he said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ It was very empowering, I think, and that is something he is very good at doing – creating the space so you can feel empowered. You may not know exactly that you can do it. He doesn’t make you do it. You have to do it. But he creates the space to let you bring your A-game.”

No sooner was the solo album complete than work on Lost on the River, the resulting recording of the New Basement Tapes project began. The collective teamed Giddens with Elvis Costello, Jim James (of Louisville’s My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) to create new music for unpublished 1967 lyrics by Bob Dylan.

‘That was a once in a lifetime opportunity. You take a box full of old Dylan lyrics, put it in one of the nicest studios in the country at Capitol Records with some of the best engineers in the world with four other incredible musicians and then go at it. It was just fantastic. Now, in the middle of it, I was freaking out a little. But I’m really proud of my contribution and feel like I learned so much. I’ll be using for years what I learned from that project.

“I feel like last year was a really important one for me with my first solo record and the New Basement Tapes. Those two projects will loom large in my career for a long time to come. It’s great, you know? But when all is said and done, for me, the most important thing is to feel the music is being treated right and that we’re getting it out to the people I want to get it out to. If that happens, I’m happy no matter what.”

Rhiannon Giddens and Bhi Bhiman perform at 7:30 p.m. March 31 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $25.50, $35.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

checking out of shamrock city

Solas. From left: Seamus Egan, Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Niamh Varian-Barry and Eamon McElholm (McAuley and Varian-Barry aren't currently in the group.)

Solas. From left: Seamus Egan, Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Niamh Varian-Barry and Eamon McElholm (McAuley and Varian-Barry aren’t currently in the group.)

As it returns to Frankfort on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, the heralded Irish-American band Solas finds itself nearing an interval separating two hugely ambitious musical projects.

The first is an album built around a story of Irish immigration composed and presented from a very personal standpoint. The second is a celebration of Solas’ own history – specifically, a recording that will serve as a family reunion of every singer and instrumentalist that has served in the band’s ranks over the past two decades.

“It’s sort of amazing, really,” said Solas fiddler and co-founder Winfred Horan, who performs with the current Solas lineup at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort on Monday. “We’ve been touring Shamrock City, our newest album, for the last year and a half. So we’re wrapping up that touring cycle. Then in May, we start recording for the 20th anniversary celebration album. We’re doing half of the recording here in the States and half of it back in Ireland just because a lot of the band members and former members live there. It’s all kind of crazy to think about.”

Solas (Gaelic for “light”) is the brainchild child of Horan, a New York-born fiddler born to parents from County Wicklow in Ireland, and multi-instrumentalist/composer Seamus Egan, a Pennsylvania native to parents of County Mayo, which became his childhood home when the family moved back to Ireland.

Solas became a performance platform for the two’s takes on Irish music tradition. Lineups fluctuated with nearly every album, but Egan and Horan remained at the helm for a string of folk-based recordings that made Solas one of the most critically acclaimed Irish-American bands on either shore.

That led to Shamrock City, a 2012 concept album that tells the story of Egan’s great great uncle, Michael Conway, and his journey to one of the more unexpected destinations for Irish immigrants – the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

The journey is explained through a series of original songs both plaintive and poetic in feel and instrumentals (including Horan’s lovely Welcome the Unknown) that generously reflects Conway’s homeland. An all-star guest list that includes Americana sensations Rhiannon Giddens and Aoife O’Donovan and veteran Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan help throughout the record.

“Some of the earlier Solas albums have a ton of energy, but it’s unbridled energy,” Horan said. “That’s all well and good. That comes from being young and new and naïve. Back then, we weren’t putting any sort of parameters on anything. But as you mature as a musician and as an artist, you spend more attention to detail and content and message. That’s what happened with Shamrock City.

“I think it’s our most mature album, and that’s not just because we’re more mature. I just think, musically, thematically and continuity wise, it was a really brave move into something different.”

The Frankfort concert will be one of the final performances devoted to Shamrock City. It will also mark the end of this incarnation of Solas. Last year, the band’s accordionist, Mick McAuley went on hiatus to perform on Broadway in Sting’s musical The Last Ship. His replacement, Dublin’s Johnny Connolly, will finish out his stint with Solas this month. Completing the group are guitarist Eamon McElholm and a new vocalist, Vermont born Moira Smiley (“She’ll blow you away,” Horan said.).

After a break in April, McAuley will rejoin and work on the 20th anniversary Solas recording will commence.

“Seamus and I have seen Solas from birth until now,” Horan said. “We stayed committed to it over all these years and saw it through many lineup changes, challenges and 20 years of touring. But I can honestly say that every single person that came into the band brought so much with their contributions – each and every one different, but all very powerful and beautiful.”

Solas performs at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $15, $20, $30. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to grandtheatrefrankfort.org.

bluegrass queen in new country

rhonda vincent.

rhonda vincent.

Rhonda Vincent already had a handle on what was to be her newest bluegrass recording when she got the call to sing at the Grand Ole Opry the night after George Jones died. “They asked everyone on the Opry that night to sing a George Jones song,” Vincent recalled. “So I picked When the Grass Grows Over Me. Never sang it before, but I love the sound of steel guitars. The song just went so well.

“Then it occurred to me to have six bluegrass songs and six country songs on my album. It was kind of a gamble, but these styles seem to correlate with audiences. The record wound up debuting at No. 1 album on the Billboard bluegrass charts and got a Grammy nomination. So I guess it was a good move, but you don’t know that when you’re going into a project like this.”

It’s hard to imagine Vincent being anything but confident as she constructed the 2014 bluegrass/country hybrid album Only Me. Sure, she has been billed regularly as the Queen of Bluegrass thanks to a string of recordings with her longrunning band The Rage and a sackful of Grammy nominations and International Bluegrass Music Association awards. But as an artist who cut her musical teeth in a touring family band that regularly performed traditional country tunes, she was well versed in the sound of old school Nashville. Maybe that’s why country greats like Alan Jackson, Keith Urban and Dolly Parton, among many others, have enlisted Vincent for their recordings.

“Bluegrass has always been the sister to country music,” said Vincent, who performs a free convocation concert with The Rage at Berea College on Thursday. “There are so many similarities. When I was growing up in a musical family, the music that we did was considered country music, even though it might have been acoustic. To me, it was really all the same. That’s what this CD is an illustration of. There may be steel guitar. There may be banjo. The music is still me.”

While the Opry tribute to Jones may have triggered inspiration for Only Me, Vincent had already retuned her sense of tradition on a 2012 collaborative record with country music veteran Gene Watson titled Your Money and My Good Looks.

“The project with Gene gave me confidence. I knew there was an audience for this music. It upsets me when people say country music is dying. Country music is not dying. There are still fans of the traditional country music style. There are fans of the more contemporary country music style. They’re just aren’t many people making recordings and songs that bring something new to the table.

“For most people, if they want to listen to traditional country music, they’ll go put on an old George Jones album or an old Merle Haggard record. I want these fans to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to put on the new Rhonda Vincent album and hear new recordings of the traditional country music style.”

What surprises most about Only Me is how regularly country and bluegrass mingle. In theory, the two styles are grouped separately on the album. But the title song, which boasts help from Willie Nelson, along with an update of the vintage country duet We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds (performed on Only Me with Daryle Singletary) wind up among the bluegrass songs while Jerry Irby’s Drivin’ Nails, which Vincent cut over a decade ago with the Rage as a bluegrass romp has been retooled and cast among the country material.

“The obvious thing would have been to have Daryle Singletary on the country side and have Willie on the country side, but I wanted to do something really different. And as for Willie, he fits in anywhere. He’s the universal artist. He could sing with anyone and still be himself. He doesn’t alter his voice at all but always seems to blend so well. I was so amazed and so excited to work with him.”

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage perform at 8 p.m. March 12 at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College. Admission is free. Call (859) 985-3359 or go to berea.edu/convocations.

the family that fiddles together

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

It’s a sobering state of affairs to suspect, just after marriage, that you and your beloved don’t really make beautiful music together after all.

Donnell Leahy, fiddler and leader of the celebrated Celtic family band from Ontario that bears his surname, thought as much in a very literal sense once he and the acclaimed Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster tied the knot in 2012.

“It was just after we got married,” Leahy said. “Someone taped a house party set we played. In listening back to it, we just didn’t sound very good together. Each of us were covering up the other’s styles. It was just this big jumble. But what we found was that if we write together or learn a tune together, things sorted themselves out.”

Just over 12 years and six children later, the first couple of Canadian Celtic music will release their first ever collaborative album this spring – an appealing mix of traditional, contemporary and original fiddle-saturated tunes titled simply One.

The title, of course, implies unity. But before exploring the project, or the tour that brings MacMaster and Leahy to the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond on Sunday, there was the matter of solidifying common ground between their differing fiddle styles. After that came an even mightier task – the logistics of plotting a recording and tour for two artists with separate careers and a joint household.

“We have very different styles,” Leahy said. “Natalie is a Cape Breton player. She grew up in Cape Breton listening to Cape Breton fiddlers. I grew up in Ontario without that kind of style around me. But I listened to my father play the fiddle. I listened to the radio. I listened to accordion music because I had a friend who was an Irish accordion player. Any Cape Breton music I heard came from my mother playing it on the piano.

“Natalie and I intended on recording together for awhile, but I had projects planned and she had projects planned. Then babies started to arrive. It just kept getting delayed and there was never any time. Basically, this project should have been done eight years ago. It got to the point where we said, ‘Okay, this is ridiculous. We have to record.’ So we put everything else aside and said, ‘This is what we’re doing’ and made it happen.”

Enter a totally unexpected guest to serve as the project’s producer – Bob Ezrin. Over the last four decades, the fellow Canadian has produced such high profile records as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Kiss’ Destroyer, Lou Reed’s Berlin, Peter Gabriel’s self-titled solo debut and all of Alice Cooper’s career-defining albums from the early ‘70s.

That begs the question of how things went in the studio when a veteran rock producer takes on a Celtic fiddle album.

 

“Bob called us up,” Leahy said. “He heard that we were making a record and said he would like to be involved, so we met. He brought such a great attitude and, of course, all that experience. But he also brought great ears. He brought honesty and a great sense of arranging.”

Then there is the family situation. Who tends to the children back home when mom and dad are fiddling around on tour? Simple. No one is because the kids are part of the road crew.

“Our duties at home are on the road,” Leahy said. “We bring all the children with us, which is really the only way we could do this. The kids love it. They love the music and they love the excitement of being on tour with swimming pools and tour buses and new cities.

“We home school our children, as well, which is necessary for our lifestyle. But we get the schoolwork done quickly so the day is left for us to see museums and check the hockey scores.”

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy perform at 3 p.m. March 8 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets: $23-$36. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to ekucenter.com.

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