Archive for profiles

sarah jarosz rides with the currents

sarah jarosz. photo by scott simontacchi.

sarah jarosz. photo by scott simontacchi.

On the second song of her forthcoming album, Sarah Jarosz sings with almost mystical intrigue. That the tune, Green Lights, is wrapped discreetly in reverb and has its delicate folk fabric colored modestly by electric guitar presents a paradox. In terms of storyline, it is remarkably grounded – romantic, but not for an instant sentimental. Yet the music all but leaves the earth to embrace a ghostly ambience that presents a lean but very atmospheric contrast to the rest of the spare acoustic framework to the album, which is aptly titled Undercurrent.

To those that have followed Jarosz’s music through her three previous albums (a remarkable discography considering she is only 24), Undercurrent will seem a logical progression in the ascent of one of the most heralded young songsmiths of the past decade. But for Jarosz, a Texas native who recently graduated with honors from the New England Conservatory of Music and subsequently established a new home base in New York City, Undercurrent is very much an emancipation.

“The headspace for this record was just being here in the city, living here for the first time and having, actually, a lot of solitary time,” said Jarosz, one of the artists performing at Sunday’s live broadcast of Mountain Stage from the Singletary Center for the Arts. “For the first time, I’ve lived by myself here. Really, in a way, this feels like a first album in a sense in that it was the first time I had all my time dedicated to focusing on writing and recording the record, whereas before it was running between classes and kind of fitting it in somehow. I felt more focused on it this time than I think I ever have before.

“This was also the first time that I really thought about the songwriting in a way that was more like a craft, whereas before it was kind of, ‘Okay, whenever the inspiration comes and whenever I have the time to kind of season it.’ This time around, I actually had the time to work at it every day. I feel that comes through on the record. I live on the Upper West Side and spend a lot of time walking around the Central Park reservoir. That really influenced a lot of the imagery on the album.”

Before New England and before New York, there was, for Jarosz, Texas – specifically the Hill Country near the center of the state and the neighboring music metropolis of Austin. She was versed enough on mandolin, clawhammer banjo and guitar to play her first bluegrass festival by age 11 and was signed to the established Americana label Sugar Hill to record her debut album at 16.

“I was talking with (Kentucky born songwriter and instrumentalist) Darrell Scott, who really believes the landscape of where someone grows up ultimately affects the music that they make and shapes them as a musician. I totally believe that in terms of growing up in the Texas Hill Country. It was kind of the rawness of that landscape, of Texas in general. It’s flat but it’s also hilly and I totally think that influenced that kind of music, that acoustic kind of raw music that I was drawn to, especially early on. I lived it every Friday night going to a weekly bluegrass jam. That totally shaped me.

“Last week, I was performing at (the renown Austin music festival) South by Southwest. It’s always good for me to go back to Texas and be reminded about how much I was influenced by that scene down there. It was kind of full circle for me because it was the first time that I performed many of these songs from the new record. It’s good to be reminded how that region is always going to be a part of me and my identity.”

 

Mountain Stage with Sarah Jarosz, The Black Lillies, Steve Forbert, Over the Rhine and Robbie Fulks. 7 p.m. April 3 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $25 advance, $30 day of show. Call 859-257-4929 or go to etix.com.

as the crow show flies

old crow medicine show. from left chance mccoy, cory younts, ketch secor, morgan jahnig and critter fuqua.

old crow medicine show. from left chance mccoy, cory younts, ketch secor, morgan jahnig and critter fuqua.

In the 18 years since he helped assemble Old Crow Medicine Show, Critter Fuqua has never felt like part of a scene.

He didn’t sense any belonging to a country contingency that had long forsaken the kind of roots-inspired string sounds the Crow crew embraced. But there was also no special kinship to the growing number of string bands that began to emerge in the wake of Old Crow’s breakthrough among a growing Americana fanbase with 2004’s O.C.M.S. album.

So with a 2015 Grammy win to its credit, a pair of concerts (one of which is sold out) that mark the band’s first Lexington performance stop in a over a decade and a generally refreshed perspective on recording and touring, just what camp does multi-instrumentalist Fuqua think Old Crow belongs to?

“I don’t know. We kind of do what we do and let the music do what it does. I never really felt a part of a scene. The funny thing is, I don’t really listen to any of the Americana stuff when I’m off the road. I don’t have my pulse on that scene. It just feels so insular when I’m with Old Crow because I’m just focused on what we’re doing. It’s hard to keep up with everything else because there are so many bands out now. I just keep up with what we’re doing. That’s all I can do.”

Like it or not, though, Fuqua, co-founding Old Crow fiddler Ketch Secor (the two met in the seventh grade) and the rest of the band lineup almost unintentionally became an establishment attraction in 2015 after picking up a Grammy for Best Folk Album – not country album or Americana, but folk – for its most recent recording, Remedy.

“Everybody is always like, ‘Yeah, awards don’t mean that much.’ Then when you get one, you’re like, ‘Yeah, awards are pretty cool.’ I mean, my attitude, really, was that it was great to be nominated. Then when you’re out there, you’re thinking, ‘Well, it was great to be here, and it’s great to be nominated.’ But then you’re kind of like, ‘Well, I’m sitting here. It would be nice to win.’ It’s weird how the whole scene gets you.

“Before, honestly, I never thought about Grammys. Ever. Then when you’re nominated, you’re like, ‘I deserve it.’ It kind of gets into your head. Personally, awards don’t mean that much. But when you’re nominated and you get into that world, you start getting effected by it. It’s strange.”

Remedy also marked a re-emergence for the band. After a grueling touring schedule that had grinded on with few breaks since the success of O.C.M.S., Old Crow went on hiatus in the late summer of 2011. But Fuqua had already bowed out of the band by then to kick a mounting alcohol addiction and to eventually attend college in Kerrville, Tx., where he studied English (“I’m fluent now,” he says).

“I left the band to get sober and didn’t go back because I was going to school. I kind of needed that break. But I think it was a necessary break for the band, too. It just happened.”

In the end, Remedy turned out to be just that – a brawl of an acoustic roots music record that assimilates vintage country, ragtime, Prohibition Era blues and elements of rock ‘n’ roll in spirit more than style. The inspirations still call out to the string music of eras past but with an immediacy that makes it sound like anything but a museum piece.

“The thing with this musical form – which is labeled, I guess, Americana now – is that back in the day, it used to be brand new. It lends itself to whatever is going on around you. It doesn’t have to be about dogs and fiddles and jugs of moonshine, although we sing about that stuff (all are covered vividly on Remedy). But this music really lends itself to collaboration with different sources. I guess people forget that country music can still be creative.”

Old Crow Medicine Show and Parker Milsap perform 8 p.m. March 30 and 31 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. The March 31 performance is sold out. Tickets for March 30 are $39.50 and $42. Call 859-257-4929 or go to etix.com.

guitar pals

chris eldridge, left, and julian lage.

chris eldridge, left, and julian lage.

At the heart of a collaboration that unites two acclaimed guitarists from distinct and seemingly opposing musical communities sits a simple component.

It is flexible enough to find common ground between stylistic differences – jazz for one, bluegrass for the other. It is also durable enough for Julian Lage – recognized as a prodigy even before tenure with such jazz vets as Gary Burton, Fred Hersch and Jim Hall – and Chris “Critter” Eldridge, picker for the genre-hopping Punch Brothers with an extensive bluegrass pedigree, to find time to collaborate outside their own full and separate careers.

The unifying factor? Simple. Friendship.

“As long as Jules and I continue to have this wonderful relationship, which I totally anticipate being the case, I think there will also be reason to do this project,” said Eldridge. “That’s one thing I really value about what we’re doing. I take it really seriously as a musical project and I’m very proud of it – as proud as I am of anything else. But at the same time, it’s equally important to me because Jules is my good friend.”

“Probably the most important thing about this project is just the friendship,” Lage added. “It’s the desire just to work on stuff and feel as strong and supportive about it as possible. The music is pretty indicative of that. But I think is also goes into a personal realm. It’s something that I certainly cherish a lot, as I think Critter does.”

Lage and Eldridge came together when both were New Yorkers. Lage was invited to a Punch Brothers concert so as to discuss band a recording date with founder Chris Thile. Backstage, he met Eldridge. Then the guitars came out.

“So as two guitar players tend to do, I said, ‘Let’s play something while we’re waiting here,’ ” Lage recalled. “So it was such a neat connection that we left with – like, ‘We should do this again.’ Of course, our careers took to us to different things, so it wasn’t like we were able to jump back into it right away. But every few months we would revisit the idea again and say, ‘We should do a record.’ Then we would go away for six months or whatever. So eventually, Chris just said, ‘Look, are we going to do this or not? If we are, we’ve got to put it on the calendar and jump in.’ And that’s what we did.”

First up was an August 2013 recording titled Close to Picture, aptly self-described as “an EP of original music… and a fiddle tune.” As an introduction to the duo, the music fell somewhere between the more progressive side of Tony Rice’s early albums and the lighter, rootsier playing of pioneers like Norman Blake. In October 2014, a full debut album, Avalon, surfaced. Produced by Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids, the record largely eschews original material for a cornucopia of song traditions – Blake’s Ginseng Sullivan, the George and Ira Gershwin standard Someone to Watch Over Me (with Eldridge adding vocals), Jimmie Rodgers’ vintage country yarn Any Old Time and the traditional spiritual Open Up the Window, Noah. The sound is undeniably homey, though, as Pattengale chose to record the duo onstage at the 1920s-era Avalon Theatre (sans audience) in Easton, Maryland.

“Jules and I were exploring and trying to push ourselves, to see what two guitars could do together,” Eldridge said. “We were just trying stuff that we hadn’t necessarily tried before. Following the EP, we thought, ‘Great, our next record will build on that. Kenneth saw us play out at Wintergrass, an acoustic music festival out in Seattle a few years ago. He came to us and said, ‘I want to record you guys and I’ve got an idea. I just want to document what you do, because it’s cool and I think it would be worthy.’  I don’t think that we would have ever made that record if it hadn’t been for Kenneth.”

Added Lage: “There is a shared willingness, an extreme curiosity, that we share about the instrument, the architecture of this music and what it means for us to kind of define this music in a way that makes sense to us since we are the product of many great generations of musicians.

“We also just wanted to just acknowledge the guitar. The guitar has a rich lineage where it fits into so many kinds of music. That was a gateway for us. The voice on the guitar, it can be at home in so many places and so many scenarios. So definitely with Avalon, we took advantage of that. Then again, we’re guitar nerds, basically, at the end of the day.”

Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge perform at 8 tonight at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut in Danville. Tickets: $38, $49. Call: 877-448-7469, 859-236-4692 or go to nortoncenter.com.

riding the wild mercury

rose guerin and mark charles heidinger of vandaveer. photo by kurt gohde.

rose guerin and mark charles heidinger of vandaveer. photo by kurt gohde.

The initial idea for The Wild Mercury – the fifth and newest album by Lexington bred Mark Heidinger, better known as Louisville indie folk-pop stylist Vandaveer – was an idea that seemed curiously tame.

Specifically, the game plan called for some aural downsizing. Heidinger and Vandaveer mate Rose Guerin were to record a new batch of new, original tunes with minimal fuss and accompaniment. The planned makeup called for songs, harmonies, guitar and not much lot else.

Things quickly changed. Once Heidinger connected again with a crew of Lexington pals – producer Duane Lundy, longtime guitarist/collaborator J. Tom Hnatow and others – the sound and scope of what would become The Wild Mercury quickly expanded.

“I knew I had a batch of songs that I wanted to go in the studio with,” Heidinger said. “I thought, initially, given the thematic nature of the material, maybe this will become a stripped down, confessional type album – more of a singer-songwriter production.

“But I had a pre-production meeting or two with Duane and thought, ‘You know what? We should really go all in and do this as a band.’ We wanted to kind of find our way, sonically speaking, with the whole unit. So there was a lot of exploration in the studio where maybe with past records, we were working more in a sort of compartmental fashion and then pulling in pieces as we felt they were needed. With The Wild Mercury, there was much more collaborative, creative exploration in the studio.”

While Heidinger’s songs have long been the nucleus of Vandaveer’s music over the past decade – from its folkish intuition to its sometimes psychedelic reach – Guerin’s accompaniment has become a signature exponent of the group’s sound. Even in the expanded touring lineup – rounded out by guitarist/pedal steel ace Hnatow, bassist Blake Cox and drummer Robby Cosenza – Guerin’s singing shifts the temperament of the tunes from robustly soulful and to stark and ghostly.

“Rosie picks and chooses where she injects herself into the creative process,” Heidinger said. “She has very definitive ideas about vocal arrangements. I come from a pop background. Rosie comes from a storied folk family. That’s her reference point. There are times when I’m needing more of a pop harmony and she’s adamant about doing something that’s more in that folk vein. But Rosie has carte blanche when it comes to the sort of choral arrangement of vocals she brings to the table.

“We do a lot of vocal exploration where we’re just sitting together and it’s just the acoustic guitar and the two of us singing. She is just so innately good at harmonizing. She comes up with winding, melodic harmonies that are just world class.”

How all this translates into the music the Vandaveer quartet will bring to tonight’s second installment in the Sunday Sessions series (an evening that will also include an exhibit by Herald-Leader staff photographer Mark Cornelison) and subsequently, the furthering of what has already been considerable national attention for Heidinger’s songs, is difficult to forecast. He is well aware of what he terms the “new model” of the music business, so much so that The Wild Mercury retains Vandaveer’s indie profile by being the debut release for the Lexington-based WhiteSpace Records. Beyond that, Heidinger’s hope rests on his ability to be heard in any capacity, by any audience.

“There is a lot of complaining about the new music economy, about how it’s not fair and how it devalues music. Somehow, there is this idea that the old way of doing things was better and was inherently more fair. I think some of that is revisionism. I don’t know if a band in our position would have even come close to making a fifth record with the old economy and the old structure where if you didn’t sell a ton of your first record or a ton of your second record, there was no third record. So we if can carve out our own little niche and claw our way up our ladder leaning up against the giant wall of music, then I’m thrilled.

“We’re in our mid to late ‘30s and we’re making music ‘for a living.’ We’re finding a way to move forward. So it’s privilege more than anything. Of course I would like to be able to put this record in front of more people and perform it in front of more people onstage. But for that, you’ve got to put your head down and work. We’re fortunate in that we get to do that for as long as get to do it.”

Sunday Sessions featuring Vandaveer performs as part of the Sunday Sessions series at 6:30 tonight at the Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main. The performance is sold out.

joan baez at 75: enforcing the voice

joan baez.

joan baez.

When asked if there was an artistic attribute that has helped sustain her career as one of the most cherished folk artists of successive generations, Joan Baez offered a reply as exact as it is succinct.

“Talent.”

She means it, too. But the reply isn’t an arrogant one. In conservation, Baez is animated and in no way self-serving. She has simply viewed her talent, her voice and her artistic instinct as a collective gift, from the instant her career ignited at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 right through to a star-studded January concert held at New York’s Beacon Theatre in honor of the singer/activist’s 75th birthday. As such, Baez doesn’t so much see herself as the creator of that talent, but rather its custodian.

“People ask how come I’ve lasted so long, and I say, ‘Talent.’ I mean, that is part of it. That is a magical part of it, but that was given to me. I can sit here and joke about it, because it doesn’t have much to do with me. My job is maintenance and delivery, and other things like meeting these younger people and getting to know them. I realize many of them say, ‘Oh, my dad and mom listened to you and it meant this and it meant that.’ So I listened to those things for many years. These people kind of came into my life, some of them by invitation, some simply because I heard them.”

Both categories apply to the Beacon Theatre concert, which was taped by PBS for broadcast this June as part its Great Performances series. The concert was full of artists that owed considerable cultural debt to the kind of socially conscious voice, but figurative and literal, Baez has given to folk music for over five decades. The guest list included Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Judy Collins and Richard Thompson, along with such globally inclined new generation stylists as Irish songster Damien Rice and Chilean singer Nano Stern.

“It was a splendid evening,” Baez remarked. “It was a tremendous amount of work and stress. But I’ve had enough work with hypnosis and Native American practices that when, finally, everything was together, I walked out onstage and just had a wonderful time.”

Baez’s career took flight during a decade when there was not just a laundry list of social issues to address – the Vietnam War, the military draft that accompanied it, the Civil Rights Movement and numerous environmental causes – but a generation of folk artists whose music confronted the times. Different social obstacles exist today, she said, but not necessarily the music on a scale large and inventive enough to properly address them.

“Music should be something to reflect the situations we are in,” Baez said. “But there is so much talent that came out of the ‘60s and ‘70s that people are trying to recapture. Some of the songwriting is good, but there haven’t been any anthems. There hasn’t been a Blowin’ in the Wind or an Imagine. That’s probably the hardest thing in the world, to write an anthem. I think there are a lot of kids who are concerned about the state of the world and who do, in fact, write some pretty good songs. They just don’t have much of a platform right now. There are no icons at the moment.”

The responsibilities of a folk matriarch don’t stop with keeping a torch for social awareness that was ignited decades ago. Her duties today also involve upkeep, a balance of health and attitude necessary to fuel a prolonged, sustained performance life.

“The most difficult thing is the voice because it begins to betray you, actually, in your mid 30s. A few years back, I went to see an ear, nose and throat guy because I was having so much trouble my voice. The fact was that, at that point, I had a 71 year old voice and that was simply not what I wanted to hear. I mean, I had perfected the vibrato by the time I was 14, and now it was not there anymore the way I wanted it to hear it. So it’s all smoke and mirrors now. I have to figure out ways to get notes that are comfortable so they are listenable and make as few of them as possible, which means I lower the range. But there is something about the lower range that I really do love. I think it reflects a lifetime.”

Then are also less crucial but still taxing forms of upkeep that have to take a back seat in a career that continues to move briskly. Baez recalled one such fleeting bit of maintenance that had to be jettisoned during the Beacon concert.

“There was no time for me to fix my hair,” she said with a rich laugh. “I haven’t seen the footage. I’m just hoping that it doesn’t look as weird as I think it did.”

Joan Baez performs at 7:30 p.m. March 12 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets are $85.50. Call 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to ticketmaster.com.

striking out the band: houndmouth rocks on

Houndmouth, from left: Katie Toupin, Shane Cody, Zak Appleby and Matt Myers.  Photo by Dusdin Condren.

Houndmouth, from left: Katie Toupin, Shane Cody, Zak Appleby and Matt Myers. Photo by Dusdin Condren.

Shane Cody didn’t sense any pressure when Houndmouth began work on the followup to its 2013 debut album From the Hills Below the City. He didn’t, that is, until someone brought up the subject.

“We were all so new to being a real band, so we didn’t think about any of that until we got asked that question right before we were about to record,” said the drummer. “We were like, ‘Oh, thanks. No pressure.’ But there wasn’t any, really. We’re just going to keep writing what we want to write. We don’t feel pressure from any of that – at least, I don’t.”

From the Hills proved to be a major breakout for the New Albany/Louisville based quartet with a collection of earthy, homegrown Americana tunes that earned frequent comparison to The Band’s vintage blend of roots music ingenuity and elemental rock ‘n’ roll. The considerable touring for Houndmouth that ensued heightened audiences’ expectations for the 2015 followup, Little Neon Limelight. It also sharpened the abilities of Cody, guitarist Matt Myers, keyboardist Katie Toupin and bassist Zak Appleby to work as a more cohesive and industrious unit. In short, the four learned how to further their musical identity as a band.

“I think Little Neon Limelight is pretty much – collectively, as a band – our first record. That’s how I look at it. We had had the songs from the first record kind of before knowing each other personally. Really, we only wrote a couple of those songs together. So this is our first record as a real band, I think. So it was cool to work with each other a little more. Basically, the approach was pretty much whoever writes a song sings it. But the music also kind of got thrown into a pot. We would take this verse or that chorus and kind of split things up.”

What resulted were songs that downplayed the Americana reflections (save for all the swirling B3-like keyboard lines that still bring Garth Hudson of The Band to mind) by beefing up the pop vocabulary. That practice explains the revved up Beach Boys flavor of 15 Years, the pure pop stride of Black Gold and the stark, spacious sounding Gasoline.

“The songs just kind of went off on their own,” Cody said. “When we were writing a song, we were never like, ‘Oh, let’s make it sound like this.’ I would never write a pop song like that. Like, for Gasoline, we were sitting outside the studio in a little kitchenette area. We were sitting on a couch, making a bourbon or making some coffee and someone was like, ‘That sounds really good. What is that?’ So we set the room mics up in the kitchen and we all recorded within the room, just us and two mics. It was real spontaneous. Probably one of my favorite moments.’

“Someone,” in this instance, was producer of the moment Dave Cobb, the seemingly omnipresent pop/Americana stylist behind recent records by Jason Isbell and Kentuckians Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.

“Dave was really cool – super laid back and a really great guy. I didn’t know too much about him before. But when I walked into his studio for the first time, we were all in this little room working and Dave would come in almost like a maestro in an orchestra. He’d grab a shaker or something and point at me and be like, ‘A little louder’ or ‘a little softer.’ It was cool. We just decided to leave a bunch of the banter with us talking on the record.’ We were like, ‘Why not? It’s what it was – all of us a room together just playing music.”

References to The Band still haunt Houndmouth, but the spirits are a lot friendlier these days now that the foursome has actually dissected the recordings of its would-be inspiration along with the solo music of perhaps its most prominent member, the late Levon Helm.

“When we started getting all the Band comparisons, we didn’t know much about them. We knew The Weight and Up On Cripple Creek, but none of us really delved deep into their catalog. Once we started getting those comparisons, we all went on a binge. So later, Levon definitely became a huge influence, obviously with me with his singing and drumming. I’ve actually changed the side of my microphone, where I put it when I sing, to what he did. You can get a little more range when you put it to your right and higher up. So for that, thanks Levon.

“Here’s one of the coolest things that has happened to me. A couple of years ago, our van got broken into. I had just found a Levon solo record called Electric Dirt. It was sealed. I bought it in a record store, although I forget where we were. When the van got broken into, that got taken, so I tweeted something about it. Then last year, on my doorstep, a fan just sent me a copy of it. It blew my mind. It was the nicest, coolest thing ever.”

Houndmouth and Justin Paul Lewis perform at 9 p.m. March 4 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. The performance is sold out.

staying busy with warren haynes

warren Haynes. photo by danny clinch.

warren Haynes. photo by danny clinch.

By now, a new stylistic shift in the career of Warren Haynes should be viewed as standard operating procedure.

For the past three decades, the heralded guitarist and songwriter has maintained a seemingly restless artistic course that has weaved in and out of two mainstay ensembles – the legendary Allman Brothers Band (which dissolved in 2014) and his own long running Gov’t Mule. There have also been several high profile moonlighting projects (the newest being an orchestral tribute to Jerry Garcia) and a solo career.

Haynes’ solo work has been an adventure just unto itself. He embraced soul and blues tradition on 2011’s Man in Motion but altered course for bluegrass and roots rock-oriented instrumentation on 2015’s Ashes and Dust. The latter record brings Haynes back to Lexington for a Saturday concert at the Opera House.

“I love being busy,” Haynes said. “There are a lot of songs that I’ve written that I haven’t recorded yet and a lot of projects that I want to do that haven’t come to fruition yet. So I just kind of continue plowing ahead to see what happens.”

The mix of Haynes’ electric guitar expression and the predominantly acoustic roots framework on Ashes and Dust circles back to an elemental form of songwriting he has long enjoyed, as well as to a previous project that was never realized.

“I was going to make a record seven or eight years ago before I made Man in Motion. I was going to make a record with Levon Helm, Leon Russell and a bass player named T-Bone Wolk (a longtime bandmate of Hall & Oates with a distinguished studio career). Then T-Bone passed away and then Levon passed away, so that record kind of disintegrated. I turned around at that point and made Man in Motion because I had written a lot of songs in that soul music meets blues direction, as well, and wasn’t exactly sure how to continue with the songs I had prepared for the record we never made.

“So after Man in Motion, we made another Gov’t Mule record called Shout! Then I thought, ‘Well, I should start thinking about revisiting some of those other songs.’ I had been writing a lot of new songs in that direction, as well. I just started recording as many songs as possible in that direction and picked 13 that I felt worked together to make the most cohesive statement.”

Ashes and Dust was recorded with Railroad Earth, the celebrated bluegrass-inspired jam unit, as his support band. There was initial touring together after the album’s release last summer. But Haynes quickly saw the need for a group more specific and exclusive to handle a longer trek of touring.

“I did the record with Railroad Earth, but we realized that our touring schedules weren’t going to mesh beyond doing two or three weeks, which we did early on. So I put together a whole other band, starting with my friend Jeff Sipe (whose credits include the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Leftover Salmon and Kentucky performances with Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Jeff Coffin). Jeff is one of my favorite drummers. Then I reached out to Bela Fleck, who turned me on to these guys in a (Nashville) trio call ChessBoxer. It’s fiddle, banjo and upright bass group that I checked out and really loved. In addition to the stuff from Ashes and Dust, we’re doing a lot of material that spans my career or that I’m connected to in one way or another, and just putting our own spin on it. It’s really been a blast.

“I feel like I’m surrounded by so many incredible musicians and have my hands in a lot of wonderful projects. It’s a great feeling to have these kinds of opportunities.”

Warren Haynes performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets are $44.50. Call 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or got to ticketmaster.com.

grammy suspect

highly suspect. from left: ryan meyer, johnny stevens and rich meyer. photo by shervin lainez.

highly suspect. from left: ryan meyer, johnny stevens and rich meyer. photo by shervin lainez.

Imagine this. You’re a member of an established New York rock troupe riding a crest of attention garnered by a critically lauded 2015 album. Since mainstream appeal still remains at bay, you begin a December morning by readying yourself, your bandmates – which in this case includes your twin brother – and, perhaps most importantly, your van, for another road trip in hopes of hoisting your artistic and commercial visibility a little higher.

Then you get a bit of news that changes everything. That’s what happened to the guitar rock power trio Highly Suspect on the day it received two Grammy nominations (for Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song). Such recognition stunned audiences and critics alike, especially ones unfamiliar with the band. But no one was in greater shock than trio members Johnny Stevens, bassist Rich Meyer and sibling drummer Ryan Meyer.

“It was a complete shock,” said Rich Meyer. “I didn’t even know the Grammy nominees were being announced that day. It wasn’t a thing that I was thinking about in any way. I was thinking about the tour, the merch, the songs, the gear and all the people involved, you know? I was working.

“Then all of a sudden, I think it was 7:30 in the morning. I had maybe gotten three or four hours of sleep and was trying to get my laundry done before we got back on the road again. So I was kind of sitting over my coffee and all of sudden Ryan came over to me and gave me a hug said we got a Grammy nomination. I didn’t believe him. I had to look it up on the internet, but there it was. I was kind of in a daze. Then I packed up all of my stuff, got in the van and hit the road. But that was all were talking about in the van. It was like, ‘Seriously?’ It was ridiculous.”

Hardly Suspect didn’t take home any Grammys last week (Muse won Best Rock Album while Alabama Shakes won for Best Rock Song). But for the trio, the experience gave immediate credibility to the phrase “It was an honor just to be nominated.”

“It was, absolutely, especially when the bands we were in there with were Florence and the Machine and Muse and Slipknot. We couldn’t believe it.

“Everything about this was certainly surreal. I’m sure everyone says that about their first Grammy experience, but that’s what it was, though. It doesn’t seem real when you’re walking down a red carpet, looking at all the celebrities. It’s just hard to accept that that is what’s really happening.”

The records that triggered all the Grammy fuss for Highly Suspect were the 2015 album Mister Asylum and its intensely electric lead single Lydia. The music is a continuation away from the more relaxed, reggae/ska sound that began when the band formed in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts in 2009. The eventual move to New York coincided with a search for songs with a tougher – or, at least, different – edge.

“There had really been a change in our life experience from what was a kind of sedated, blue collar, chilled out, easygoing lifestyle to all of a sudden this fast paced existence where you’re dealing with massive business and the competition from other bands. We really, really work to stick out. The life experiences we were having were intense – nights out on the town, struggling with huge business decisions, stuff like that. The inspiration for the songs, all of a sudden, was much different than the inspirations from back in the hometown.

“We’re inspired to write about how we feel and what our feelings were. What comes out of that is what it is. At the time, it was some pretty heavy rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not heavily produced commercial rock music. It’s raw and it’s real.”

Highly Suspect, And the Kids and/Audiodamn! Perform at 9 p.m. Feb 28 at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets: $15 – $18. Call 859-309-9499 or go to cosmic-charlies.com.

raising their voices

patty griffin.

patty griffin.

The day after the Use Your Voice Tour opened in the decidedly non-wintry Florida climate of St. Petersburg, Patty Griffin seemed content if not encouraged.

“We’re having a great time,” she remarked. “There is a lot of love out there.”

The love, in this instance, is two fold. Much of it comes from collaborating with her co-billed songsmiths – fiddler, vocalist and Nickel Creek alum Sara Watkins and new generation folk champion Anais Mitchell. Then there is also the mission that gives the Use Your Voice Tour its name – specifically, an alliance with the League of Women Voters that hopes to help encourage participation in elections among female voters.

First, there is the sisterhood and the music Griffin is creating with Watkins and Mitchell. The teaming recalls the last time Griffin performed in Lexington – a 2008 outing with Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin. Like that earlier performance, the trio was augmented by a celebrity guitarist (the earlier show featured Buddy Miller where Saturday’s bill will boast David Pulkingham, who has played Lexington previously with Alejandro Escovedo) with the three headliners swapping songs and stories.

“They are really, really brilliant,” Griffin said of Watkins and Mitchell. “I think Sara is one of the most beautiful singers I’ve ever heard in my life on top of being a pretty incredible instrumentalist. Her songs are sort of otherworldly. People say that a lot about singers and their songs, but to me, her sense of timing and placement of words is so incredibly unique, delicate and beautiful. Anais, to me, is one of the finest lyric writers that we have out there right now. I think she is really outstanding that way. Within the folk tradition, she is a leader.”

anais Mitchell.

anais Mitchell.

The feeling turns out to be more than mutual. The Vermont-based Mitchell, who opens a fully staged theatrical presentation Off Broadway  this spring of music from her 2010 album Hadestown, sites Griffin’s 1996 demo-style debut album Living with Ghosts, as a pivotal piece of inspiration.

Living with Ghosts is sort of lodged deep in my psyche,” Mitchell said. “When I first started writing songs, I was very influenced by that album. I love how its sound was so stripped back. So it’s so wonderful to get to hear Patty every night and, even more than that, to get to sing with her and play with her.”

Though Griffin’s recordings – specifically newer works like 2013’s American Kid and 2015’s Servant of Love – have unfolded with an almost orchestral ambience, the overtly acoustic setting of the Use Your Voice Tour reflects the folk roots all three headliners share.

“I think it is pretty much home for all of us,” Griffin said. “I’m always gunning to get out there and do things that are a little more stripped down. I love doing it this way. There are things that are actually quite cool sounding with everybody chipping in on different things they don’t normally play. We even we’re having some fun trying to figure out how to become a drummer when we have to.”

“I’m always so overwhelmed by the power of just the human voice and very basic accompaniment,” Mitchell added. “I think part of it is just being able to be a storyteller and how to focus entirely on the story in that kind of a setting.”

There is also the more outwardly dutiful aspect to the Use Your Voice Tour, namely its hope of encouraging women to participate more vigorously in the selection of their elected officials. Griffin stressed, however, such a crusade is entirely non-partisan in its intent.

“We want you to come out and vote,” she said. “Whatever your point of view is at this moment, share it – or at least participate in the democracy with us and let’s see what happens.

“The fact that we’re doing this in a big presidential election year is not necessarily an accident, but it’s just a matter of timing. To me, a major, major deficit in voter turnout is in local elections. Single women will turn out for a presidential election a little more than they will for a local one. Local elections really affect issues that have to do with single women – for example, the public school system. We really want single working moms’ opinions on that and how that should work within our communities.

“We want everyone to feel welcome at our shows – male, female, all walks of life, whatever your political affiliation.”

As for life after the Use Your Voice Tour, Griffin remains open, relishing a sense of chance that seems to go hand-in-hand with her music.

“One of the things about my job that is awesome is that I never feel like I know what I’m doing. There are so many infinite things about being in this kind of work. There is such variety of music. It’s really all comes from the same source, I believe, but there are so many ways of expressing it. It’s endlessly inspiring, so I feel like I’m always learning even though I’m always slightly behind the game.”

Use Your Voice Tour featuring Patty Griffin, Sara Watkins and Anais Mitchell. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $32, $38, $45. Call: (859) 257-4929 or go to etix.com.

bibb and the blues: a global journey

eric bibb.

eric bibb.

Eric Bibb knows the ways of a bluesman. He knows the routes that pioneers paved before him and the avenues his contemporaries still travel in order to keep the music alive and vital.

But the singer, writer and song stylist is also versed on the side roads, the trails that wind around the blues into regions of folk and soul as well as the vast terrain that stretches between them. Bibb has followed those pathways all over the world in a career that encompasses five decades. While he is proud to be linked with the blues, there remains a drive to let audiences know his music is by no means confined or defined by them.

“I’m grateful that I have been able to make use of the interest there is in blues as a genre, all the hype included, as well as the real deal stuff,” said Bibb who performs twice in the region over the coming week – once with fellow global blues journeyman Corey Harris tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville and again on Feb. 11 on his own at Berea College.

“I’ve been able to find a way onto the blues platform, an established, marketable commodity that has helped my career. But blues is not the entirety of what I do. If I had marketed myself simply as an eclectic singer songwriter songster, I think I would have missed out on a lot of exposure that has been a real boom for me.”

To appreciate the scope of Bibb’s music, you need to meet the family. His father, Leon Bibb, was a Louisville-born champion of Broadway and the 1960s New York folk boom. His uncle was pianist John Lewis, mainstay member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His godfather was singer/activist Paul Robeson. It was that heritage that encouraged Bibb to see the world – first with his family and then on his own.

“I actually had a 13th birthday in Kiev,” Bibb said. “My dad had a tour of what was then the Soviet Union. So I had a chance to see Europe, the Soviet Union and England as a 12 year old and 13 year old. It was unusual for an African-American family to be traveling around Europe in the mid 60s. So it was a blessing. It probably had a lot to do with me moving to Europe when I came of age, having had a taste of something that must have peaked my curiosity.

“I’m not the first blues troubadour who has traveled around the world. Big Bill Broonzy was in Europe early on. Leadbelly was in Paris in 1949 before he died. So I feel like I’m carrying on a tradition, not only musically but just in terms of my wandering. It’s been a gift, truly.”

Such globetrotting, along with ties to a like-minded generation of musicians (Keb’ Mo’, Alvin Youngblood Hart and performance mate Harris) that revere the blues without being pigeonholed by them has helped inform a remarkably prolific recording career. In recent years, Bibb’s output has included a well-rounded blues and soul solo session (2013’s Jericho Road), a summit with a pack of genre-busting roots music stylists that includes the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal (2014’s Blues People), a Leadbelly-inspired project with French harmonica ace J.J. Milteau (2015’s Leadbelly’s Gold) and a forthcoming collaboration with veteran British bassist Danny Thompson (The Happiest Man in the World).

“It’s challenging to juggle all of this history without making a cartoon out of it, without lumping all of the African-American experience into one howl. This music, it’s varied and it’s subtle. Getting all that across in a genre that tends to characterize the music and the musicians is challenging. But educating ourselves, as well our audiences, is part of what this journey is about, too.”

Corey Harris and Eric Bibb perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut in Danville. Tickets are $38. Call 877-448-7469 or go to nortoncenter.com. Bibb will also perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College in Berea. Admission is free. Call 859-985-3965 or go to berea.edu/convocations.

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