Archive for profiles

big mac

Ian McLagan by Jim Chapin

ian mclagan. photo by jim chapin.

The name he attaches to an extensive list of rock ‘n’ roll credentials, from founding membership in The Small Faces and The Faces to extensive work with The Rolling Stones to a reputation as one of the most jubilant keyboardists in the business, is Ian McLagan.

But to fans, contemporaries, protégés – everyone, really – he forever goes by a simple, endearing nickname: Mac. That’s the name the native Brit and transplanted Texan has happily answered to in a career that stretches back a half century.

“I’m the luckiest guy I know because I love what I do, and I can still do it,” said McLagan, 69. “People still come out just to hear the music, too. That’s a blessing, you know? What else am I going to do but play the piano and sing?”

McLagan’s performances Monday for the WoodSongs Old-Time Hour and Tuesday at Parlay Social will be his first Lexington performances promoting his own music. He will be accompanied both evenings by bassist Jon Notarthomas, a member of the keyboardist’s long running Bump Band, now based in Austin. But McLagan has played twice at Rupp Arena with two acts that have helped define his career – The Rolling Stones in December 1981 and Rod Stewart in October 1993.

The former performance was particularly telling as it paired McLagan with longtime Stones mentor and pianist Ian Stewart. The two shared similar tastes and inspirations. Stewart was a devotee of roots-driven piano music and boogie woogie. McLagan was fascinated by Muddy Waters blues records that featured pianist Otis Spann.

“Stu was a wonderful man,” McLagan said. “He had no ego at all. He wasn’t a showboater. I learned a lot from Stu just from watching him and listening to him.

“He would say to me sometimes, ‘I don’t understand what you’re doing. Your playing – it’s sounds right, but you do it strange.’ I said it was because I had no training. I had to fumble and figure it out for myself. Some things I do wrong, but I’ve got to get to the notes.”

The Stones figured heavily in McLagan’s performance education, as well – that, along with more informal serenading from within his family.

“It’s funny, my grandmother played the concertina. She was a fantastic player. She wasn’t a professional. She just happened to be brilliant. I think if there is any music to hit me from anywhere, that’s where it came from.

“But when I first started out, you just wanted to be inside of the music you heard. So when I saw the Stones play a little club in the West of London, I thought, ‘Okay, it’s possible.’ That encouraged a lot of young musicians in London to hear the Stones live, because they were a blues cover band back then. We thought, ‘Yeah, we love that music. Why can’t we do that?’”

The Stewart performance came on the heels of the singer’s 1993’s Unplugged… and Seated album. But his connection with McLagan goes back to the boozy rock and soul records the two cut with guitarist Ron Wood, bassist Ronnie Lane and drummer Kenny Jones in the early ‘70s as The Faces (the band began in 1965 as the more pop-directed Small Faces with McLagan, Lane, Jones and soon-to-be Humble Pie chieftain Steve Marriott).

“Rod’s voice was just a delight to play under. But I worked as hard as I ever did with The Faces. My fingers would be battered, my nails would be broken. I would get these big blisters. The music brought a lot out of me. It was pretty physical.

“We’re talking about getting together again next year. Rod is real interested. Ronnie (Wood), Kenney and I are interested. It’s looking real positive (Ronnie Lane died from multiple sclerosis in 1997).”

“It’s ridiculous to think that 50-some years on I’m still doing this. I mean, I’ve never had a job. I’ve never had to go to work. I always had to go to fun.”

Ian McLagan and Jon Notarthomas perform Oct. 27 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour with Janiva Magness (6:45 p.m., $20) and 8 p.m. Oct. 28 at Parlay Social, 249 W. Short with Willie Eames (8 p.m.; $15, $20). Call (859) 252-8888 for the WoodSongs taping and (859) 244-1932 for the Parlay Social performance.

empty head space

Leo Color 2

the man behind the guitar: leo kottke.

The voice on the telephone belongs unmistakably to Leo Kottke. It’s a slow moving baritone that sounds alternately cautious, content and sleepy. None of those, of course, are the case. In conversation, he is open and alert, especially when it comes to explaining the often non-musical practices that have helped make him one of the most celebrated non-classical guitarists of the past 45 years.

But speaking from a hotel room in Cleveland, Kottke is greeting this Friday afternoon with unassuming hesitation.

How are you, Leo?

“Oh,” he offers as a groggy reply, followed by a lengthy pause. “About the same. There are these big power lines leading to some transformer station outside my window. It’s a glorious day.”
Droll? Dismissive? Perhaps. But if you have experienced Kottke in concert, such a remark would be almost expected. Mentored by the great folk-blues guitar stylist John Fahey, Kottke’s extraordinary fingerpicking on 6 and 12 string guitar is equal parts technique (with inspirations of folk, jazz, blues and even a fractured pop melody or two fighting for equal time) and instinct. But his performances have always been peppered with wryly hysterical stories that might seem like concert non sequiturs to some. Kottke admits that while his stories and musicianship are separate skills, both have always fed off each other onstage.

“The talking is independent of the music,” he said. “But without it, I don’t know what to play next. That’s why I open my mouth. I couldn’t look up for three years when I started playing. I used to get halfway through a set and realize that everything I wanted to play I had already played. But if I talked to the crowd, that doesn’t happen. There seems to be some way that talking to them organizes the set for me so that it follows a curve.

“The same thing applies to the guitar itself. Some nights I will have subjects that are familiar to me that will come up. But if I have an empty head, which is the requirement, they take turns, go places and develop in ways I do not expect. The nights that your head just won’t go blank are the nights that are difficult. You can get away with them and even have a good time, but there is a little bit of me that hangs around to drive the bus or something. But what is right is when you’re not there.”

Kottke added that having an “empty head” to trigger musical invention and possibility can never be planned for a performance.

“I suppose if performing sucked, I wouldn’t tell you. But it doesn’t suck. I don’t know why, but there’s more to it the longer you do it. It never, ever gets old.

“Emma Thompson did an interview to promote some movie she was in where she said artists are fundamentally inconsolable. That’s why they keep doing it. I’ve heard jazz guys say they play jazz because they didn’t want to play the same thing every night. Well, I’ve been trying to play the same thing every night for decades but it’s never happened. Every night is unlike every other night. I think that’s one of the reasons you keep going back.”

Helping enforce the notion that his music will never be overcome by sameness are plans for two new recording projects. That should result in the guitarist’s first albums in nearly a decade. The first continues an ongoing collaboration with Phish bassist Mike Gordon (the two have released two previous records), the other will be a trio session with violinist David Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summer from the Turtle Island Quartet

“It’s always a surprise if somebody calls up and wants to pay you to come and play. But it suits who I have been as far back as my memory will go to be doing this. I can’t imagine anything that would fit better. And I will keep doing it until I can’t.”

Leo Kottke performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets are $36.50. Call (859) 280-2218.

starship trooper

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mickey thomas.

You would need to be a navigational scholar to successfully chart the various flight patterns Starship has followed through the years. But the real trick comes in understanding how the veteran rock and pop unit known for mid ‘80s hits like We Built This City, Sara and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now (but with flight logs dating back decades) could have stayed strategically grounded for so long.

Admittedly, the band – still fronted by the towering pop/soul tenor of Mickey Thomas – has never given up touring. But there had been no new Starship recordings for nearly 25 years (since 1989’s Love Among the Cannibals, to be exact) until an album called Loveless Fascination surfaced in late 2013.

“I guess I started to wonder if there would be another Starship album, as well,” explained Thomas. “I started a few projects over the years, but nothing really panned out. I was never totally happy with them. Then the more time went by, the greater the expectation. I thought, ‘How am I ever going to do a Starship album that’s going to live up to what people are expecting?’ But then I just thought, ‘The heck with that.’ I hooked up with my friend Jeff Pilson (an alumnus of Foreigner and Dokken, who wrote eight of Loveless Fascination’s 10 songs) and went in the studio. I really wanted the album to have more of a ‘70s feel to it musically and vibe-wise than, say, an ‘80s or ‘90s feel.”

That meant revisiting Thomas’s very entrance to the band in 1979. At the time, it was known as Jefferson Starship, a ‘70s update of the psychedelic ‘60s troupe Jefferson Airplane that included many of the same members. Thomas, a Georgia native that scored a chart-topping hit Fooled Around and Fell in Love with the Elvin Bishop Group in 1976, was recruited after the departures of principal Jefferson Starship vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin. Thomas’ recorded debut with the band was released 35 years ago this fall as Freedom at Point Zero. Its lead single Jane became an immediate hit and established a harder arena rock sound than what was featured on more pop-oriented Jefferson Starship records like Red Octopus, Spitfire and Earth.

“It took me awhile to take the plunge and join Jefferson Starship,” Thomas said. “I had just left Elvin Bishop and was getting ready to pursue a solo career when I got a call from Jefferson Starship. I thought that was kind of odd because my musical background was so different than what my impression of Jefferson Starship music was like. But once I got to meet the guys and hang out, I realized they wanted to reinvent the band with a much harder edge. So we started jamming and I started applying my sort of gospel/R&B vocals on top of the harder rock that the band was all about. Then we came out of the gate with Jane, which set the tone pretty much for the new Jefferson Starship.

“But at the concerts, the fans were still like, ‘Where’s Grace? Where’s Marty? So it took us awhile. Actually, just about the time that I think we were getting people to accepting Jefferson Starship without Grace Slick in it, she came back and rejoined the band.”

Jefferson Airplane/Starship co-founder Paul Kantner left in 1984, taking the rights to the band’s name with him. Hence, the official change to Starship. But another makeover arrived with 1985’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla – namely, a consciously commercial pop sound designed for the times.

“By the time 1985 rolled around, we needed to again reinvent the band,” Thomas said. “We wanted to try a new way of producing and making records with a lot of songs that were really different stylistically. We knew if we achieved what we wanted to achieve, we were going get a lot of backlash because the idea was to have a real strong radio presence. Hit singles were what we were purposely trying to create with Knee Deep in the Hoopla. And it worked. But then came the whole thing about selling out and ‘Whatever happened to the idealism of the Jefferson Airplane?’

“Our whole idea was just to take the band in a fresh new direction. We didn’t look at it as selling out or copping out. It was just a fun experience.”

Starship featuring Mickey Thomas performs at 8:30 tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts, Newlin Hall at Centre College, 600 West Walnut in Danville. Tickets are $35, $46. Call (877) 448-7469 or (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

the dobro adventures of rob ickes

Rob_Ickes-1-high-res

rob ickes.

As one of the most celebrated bluegrass instrumentalists on the planet, Rob Ickes has spent 2014 cultivating three recordings that reflect not only his skills on the wiry, wily resonator guitar known as the dobro but a set of musical environments that define his musical past, present and, in many ways, future.

The first surfaced in January with The Game, the newest album by the progressively minded bluegrass band Blue Highway. Though a native of San Francisco, Ickes hooked up in Nashville with the band 20 years ago. That largely introduced him as a talent that would go on to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Dobro Player of the Year an unprecedented 15 times.

The second, Three Bells, came last month. It is a recorded summit with two dobro pioneers that helped forge a stylistic path for Ickes – former Lexingtonian Jerry Douglas and the late Mike Auldridge. The record boasts no rhythm section or musical accomplices of any kind. It instead has three dobro pals merrily conversing. Auldridge succumbed to prostate cancer a matter of weeks after recording sessions concluded.

The third, which brings Ickes back to Lexington for a return visit to the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday, has the dobro artist teaming with a young and largely unknown country vocalist and guitarist named Trey Hensley. Their collaboration came about almost by accident, when Hensley was enlisted to help Blue Highway on The Game.

“Trey is a young guy but an old soul,” Ickes said. “You hear that in his voice. There is just something there that sounds really deep to me. He’s soaked up a lot of different influences, but he’s got his own thing going. And he’s one of the best guitar players anywhere. So to me, he’s this surprise that I’ve been excited to share with people. Plus, we have a good time together.”

The duo’s debut album, Before the Sun Goes Down, is due out in January. Its sound is casual and rich with Ickes’ mischievous slide playing and Hensley’s commanding country tenor creating distinctive but homespun harmony. Among the highlights is a roots-country reading of the Stevie Ray Vaughan hit Pride and Joy.

“When Trey plays blues, it’s really authentic sounding to me. It doesn’t sound like a bluegrass guy playing some blues licks. When we do Pride and Joy live with a band, I play lap steel and he plays electric guitar. But on the record, I thought it would be fun just to do an acoustic version and give people a different take on this great song.”

Working with a young artist like Hensley also offers a role reversal from the Three Bells sessions, where Ickes and Douglas were essentially younger protégés of Auldridge.

“The dobro is still kind of an obscure instrument, but Mike gave it this nobility,” Ickes said. “He was a real humble guy but had a pretty big vision for what he wanted to do with the instrument. Mike was all about music his whole life. What a treat to for me to get to record with him and hear our dobros together. But my hat goes off to Jerry for getting the record together because he is such a busy guy. It was just neat that he would make this such a priority because we were in a kind of now-or-never situation.

“Mike knew this was going to be his last session. He told us several times that he was just honored it was going to be with us and that it was going to be a dobro project. He had so much fun on it.”

 Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley perform with Emi Sunshine and Presley Barker perform at 6:45 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 252-8888

braving the elements

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ben sollee. photo by ann evans.

When last we left Ben Sollee, the Lexington cello stylist turned national (and now international) pop-folk journeyman was winning an argument with Mother Nature.

The setting was Phoenix Park, where Sollee, Coralee and the Townies and Josh Nolan held court for the August installment of WUKY-FM’s inaugural Phoenix Friday concert series. Nolan managed to squeeze in his set before the heavens erupted with what was arguably the summer’s most unrelenting thunderstorm.

“When the rain came, everybody went into the various corners,” recounted Sollee, who returns to the region on Thursday for a performance at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. “Some people went ahead and left. Some people stayed on. Probably about 30 or 40 of us collected under the canopy of Park Place Apartments. Eventually they called the police, who told us to move along. So we jammed into the elevator lobby.”

Calling the lobby Sollee refers to compact is, at best, generous. Still, with a weatherbeaten crowd that had dwindled from the hundreds to a handful of devotees that included two major VIPs, Sollee adapted to the setting and carried on.

“I grabbed the cello and started playing tunes. It was like, ‘Alright, folks. Elevator concert! Who wants to hear what?’ So as I played my songs, the elevator would come down and the doors would open like in some type of Wes Anderson movie and the people inside would look shocked. Then others started getting the idea to climb up the stairs and get in the elevator and then come down to watch the concert from the elevator.

“It was a really special experience. Probably what made it extra special was my parents, Bob and Myra Sollee, were also huddled around that space. They’re musicians – not professional, but wonderful musicians that raised me on a lot of good music. It’s a rare occasion when we get to sing or jam in any type of public setting. So my mom sang with me and my dad kind of drummed on things. It was really fun.”

The August show continued a fruitful year for Sollee. In September, he undertook his first headlining tour of Europe (he played there previously in collaborative settings with banjo star Abigail Washburn and bluesman Otis Taylor). Last week, he was literally left hanging in North Carolina by the Charlotte Ballet (“They had me in a little platform cage suspended above the stage that moved around during different parts of the show. It was pretty crazy.”). Then, on the heels of the EKU performance, Sollee will perform for two evenings with the Louisville Orchestra and Nashville fiddler Jeremy Kittell on a composition by the latter aptly titled Big Fiddle.

But what of Sollee’s own music? While collaborations and activism continue to drive his career, the always prolific Sollee has not released a new studio album since 2012’s Half-Made Man. That doesn’t mean, though, that the cellist hasn’t been stockpiling a few songs.

“I’ve had music recorded for a long time, but I haven’t put anything out because management and so on are going, ‘Well, we should just get a record label.’ So we keep searching and searching. But I’ve gotten kind of tired of waiting, so I told everybody, ‘Hey I’m going to put out two EPs (a two volume set called Steeples) this fall. Hope you’re all okay with that.’

“You know, I’ve always been the kid who has been into everything. When I was a student at SCAPA (School for Creative and Performing Arts) Lafayette, I was in the orchestra, was in all the musical theatre that I could get into, was briefly on the cheerleading squad, was involved in student government… all of that. I got into everything. What I liked about that was it really taught me how all artistic disciplines kind of inform each other. That’s what I really get excited about.

“Could I have imagined it would all lead to this broad spectrum of projects I’m involved with today? Totally. But picturing how it all shook out on the path to get there? Unimaginable.”

Ben Sollee performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to http://ekucenter.com.

the new lord fauntleroy

alejandro-2

alejandro escovedo, moonlighting as a fauntleroy.

The Fauntleroys may reflect the design, feel and sound of a strictly extracurricular rock ‘n’ roll activity. But get them in the same city, in the same basement studio and, eventually, the same performance stage and you have making of a champion band.

“Everyone has their own careers and bands that they’re involved in and music that they’re doing,” said veteran Texas songsmith Alejandro Escovedo, who along with three longtime pals – New York guitarist Ivan Julian, self-described Chicago “raconteur” Nicholas Tremulis and celebrated drummer Linda Pitmon – make up The Fauntleroys. “But when we’re together, we really do have the feel of a band. There is just something about it. It’s easy for us to play together having known the music that we’ve known for so many years. We all have the same aesthetic somewhat.”

The four came together in New York with the idea of writing and recording songs with the kind of post-punk pop energy that resounded around the city during the late ‘70s. While Escovedo’s punk fascination initially began on the West Coast with the San Francisco rock troupe The Nuns, he became acquainted with Julian while living in New York in 1978. Already a pop survivor from his ‘60s tenure with The Foundations, Julian had become a member of The Voidoids band led by punk entrepreneur and Lexington native Richard Hell. But the catalyst for The Fauntleroys was Tremulis, whose Chicago bands have meshed multiple accents of rock, soul and pop.

“We’ve talked a long time about doing this but we never really had any time,” Escovedo said of the formation of The Fauntleroys. “So Nick kind of pulled us all together and set up a period where we all were free.”

The New York meeting ground for the four members was a Lower East Side coffee shop called The Pink Pony and, more specifically, the recording studio located beneath it. The members would write lyrics in The Pink Pony then quickly adjourn downstairs to record what they came up with. What resulted was a six song, 23 minute EP disc aptly titled Below the Pink Pony.

“ We would go downstairs to work on a track and then Nick and I would go upstairs and write the lyrics out then go back down and sing them and get everyone to do things. It was a really great experience and a lot of fun. I love working with fresh ideas like that and taking chances. It was really cool.”

Escovedo (who plays bass as a Fauntleroy), Tremulus and Julian each sing lead on two songs. Pitmon, last seen in Lexington with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey and husband Steve Wynn in The Baseball Project, added back-up harmonies to each song.

“Linda is amazing, man,” Escovedo said. “What a great drummer and what a great spirit to have in the studio. She’s very, very involved in the moment… just a great musician to play with.

“I think what we came up with is a very New York sounding record. That’s largely due to Ivan’s guitar work and the way he writes. It’s a style that I’ve always loved. I’ve always felt like a part of the New York scene. I guess I really was a part of it because The Nuns were so close to all of the New York bands. We were really more New York than California.”

The Fauntleroys’ fall tour will be brief and brisk – 10 cities in 11 days. After that the members will resume work on their separate careers. But Escovedo said the prospect of returning to The Fauntleroys down the road is favorable.

“There is no reason not to come back to this and make a record that involves more songs with more of an album-like feel and more touring. I’m hoping so, anyway. I mean, it’s just a great band.”

The Fauntleroys perform at 8 p.m. Oct. 5 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to www.willieslex.com.

the soul side of robert cray

robert cray

robert cray.

For a bluesman long devoted to the vocal, compositional and emotive depth of traditional rhythm-and-blues, Robert Cray came to the soul music design of his newest album largely by chance.

The record in question is In My Soul. Specifically, it’s named after Deep in My Soul, a slice of regally orchestrated R&B first popularized by the late blues-soul singer Bobby “Blue” Bland. But as a more encompassing title, In My Soul, also refers to the soul traditions that have always been integral to the blues appeal of the five-time Grammy winning Cray.

Still, it took a little gamesmanship on the part of producer Steve Jordan (known for his work with Keith Richards, Neil Young, John Mayer and many others) to fit Cray’s full run of soul inspirations into In My Soul.

“The album just came out of nowhere, basically,” said guitarist/vocalist Cray, 61, who returns to Central Kentucky for a Monday concert at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. “We had a couple of ideas that were thrown to us by Steve, the first of which was cutting the Otis Redding cover, Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Then he threw out (the 1966 Stax Records gem popularized in 1969 by Lou Rawls) Your Good Thing (is About to End). The guys in the band and myself, we wrote the rest of the songs. But nobody else, outside of myself, knew about those other two songs Steve had suggested. We only presented our material to one another three days before going into the studio with the instructions from Steve to not over rehearse anything. So when we showed up, we had all this R&B stuff.

“As the session went on, I added the Bobby Blue Bland song as kind of a tribute to him because we lost him last year.”

Your Good Thing and Deep in My Soul become subtle epics in the hands of the Cray Band, brewing from subtle studies in brassy R&B into fearsome guitar/vocal confessions. At the other end of In My Soul’s retro-savvy roots exploration is a celebratory party jam called Hip Tight Onions that serves as a gleeful tribute to the ‘60s organ-fueled R&B of Booker T and the MGs. The title is an appropriation of three career defining hits for Booker T – Hip Hug Her, Time is Tight and Green Onions.

“That one came from our bass player Richard Cousins. It’s the first instrumental we’ve ever done.”

Cousins is more than a composing member of the rhythm section. He co-founded the Cray Band with the guitarist in 1974, a time when the soul and even pop inspirations of the budding guitarist began leaning toward the blues.

“When I first started, it was all about the Beatles’ music,” Cray said. “Everybody in my neighborhood got a guitar, so I wanted to play guitar, too. Back then I was inspired by just about everything.

“But I think it was when I saw (Texas born blues guitar great) Albert Collins that everything changed and kind of set me in the direction for where we are now. I saw him having so much fun and just laying waste to anybody else who came onstage before or after him. He was such a great player. I think that was the inspiration for us in starting the band. In the early days, even before we started the Cray Band, Richard and I played in bands together. We even tried to model ourselves after Albert Collins and his show.

“When we get up onstage today, we’re always searching. That’s the one constant. You’re always searching for a new approach to something that’s already there. That’s what makes it so fun for me. Just trying out different things and being put on the spot and being forced to make decisions right then and there – it all about being there at all times. That’s the challenge and that’s what I enjoy about playing music.”

The Robert Cray Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $40, $50 and $65. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org.

bass talk with edgar meyer

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edgar meyer (left) and chris thile.

The day after his current duo tour with Chris Thile kicked off in Vancouver, Edgar Meyer is hesitant about giving himself a favorable review.

“I should have played a little better,” he said in a phone interview after the tour moved on to Seattle. “But the people were nice.”

Such a perfectionist’s appraisal perhaps befits a musician of Meyer’s considerable standing. An acknowledged virtuoso of the double bass, he is recognized as one of the primary instrumentalists to discover common ground between bluegrass and classical worlds. Such a description, though, marginalizes his artistic achievements, which include collaborations with such similarly minded string players as Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor as well as recordings that have placed him alongside the versed Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, the acclaimed crossover cellist Yo-Yo Ma and, on a 2000 album, himself by arranging a series of Bach cello concertos for the double bass.

His collaboration with mandolinist Thile seems to be a going concern, however. They began playing together 15 years ago and released their second album of duets, Bass & Mandolin, earlier this month. The title cuts to the chase of their music’s instrumental makeup even though it leaves the door open for exactly what stylistic direction that music will take. Meyer credits Thile, 20 years his junior and possessed with a similar bluegrass-bred dexterity and blindingly deft musicianship, for expanding the already considerable stylistic reach of their playing.

“Chris might as well be my teacher,” Meyer said. “I learn from everything he does. He is a person of unique and very unusual ability. He is very thorough, and he’s always looking around the corner to see what’s possible. I learn from him every day. That’s a lot of the fun of it.”

Bass & Mandolin comes just a year after a national tour the two players engaged in as part of a multi-stylistic string ensemble called The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan and vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. The group, which released a self-titled album in 2011, continued a chamber-like variation of Americana music that earned Meyer a Grammy Award for the 2000 recording Appalachian Journey (with Ma and O’Connor).

“Things with Chris are very defined just by having a bass and mandolin,” Meyer said. “We enjoyed the collaboration with Yo-Yo, Stuart and Aoife. So Chris and I talked about bringing a couple of elements that were more from that project, the biggest difference being some of the lyricism. I’m not sure we necessarily achieved that. I think we were still being very much ourselves.”

When asked who of the two might favor such lyricism on Bass & Mandolin, the same critic that gave Meyer such a non-congratulatory appraisal for the previous night’s concert re-emerges.

“Chris brings a lot of that. I don’t know if my nature does.”

What Meyer does experience in his duo music with Thile is an expansion of the genre-free musical expression that has fortified much of his career. While the resulting instrumentation may touch on bluegrass, classical, jazz and more, the intention is never to be stylistically specific.

“This is the way music evolves,” Meyer said. “Once all these different elements of music are in your brain, they don’t want to stay in their own little room. They want to get in there and talk to each other. Chris and I find that type of thing to be inevitable and natural, not that there isn’t value in things that are more traditionally, or otherwise, defined.

“Take bluegrass, for instance. People look at that as something sacred. The irony of that is when Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs defined bluegrass, they were mashing a lot of stuff together. So at the very moment all these things are real sacred cows, the music itself becomes fundamentally a fusion.

“I’m just pointing that out because this is a natural process. There is always tension – and you hope there is tension – between trying to hang on to certain elements and also trying to let the music move forward, recombine and redefine. If there is no tension, there is no interest.”

Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer perform at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

blues from the mud

For Pops - Mud and Kim hi-res by Sam Holden

kim wilson and mud morganfield. photo by sam holden.

That the late blooming blues singer Mud Morganfield would be asked to record a tribute album to father McKinley Morganfield, better known as the Delta/Chicago roots music pioneer Muddy Waters, would seem inevitable. Adding the harmonica talents of Fabulous Thunderbirds founder and frontman Kim Wilson, an avowed Waters disciple, seemed a cinch to heighten the authenticity of such a project.

But For Pops (A Tribute to Muddy Waters) is actually the end result of an unexpected collaboration and an equally unlikely career.

To start with, Morganfield shared little of his youth in the company of his father and didn’t professionally pursue an inherent love of blues music until 2005. As for teaming with Wilson, that was done exclusively for the tribute album. The two barely knew each other before recording sessions began.

Still, For Pops sounds like the work of seasoned blues pros that have been playing together for years. The link between Morganfield’s booming, bass-heavy singing and Wilson’s effortlessly soulful blues harp work can’t help but recall the champion recordings Waters cut decades ago with harmonica great James Cotton.

The catalyst for the project was David Earl of the indie blues label Severn Records, which issued Morganfield’s Son of the 7th Son album as well as the Thunderbirds’ On the Verge.

“What would have been my dad’s 100th birthday was coming up,” Morganfield said. “Dave made phone calls to different people because Kim and I were both on the same label – his label. They asked us to hook up and do something. We had met each other on the road. But these recording sessions were really the first chance we had to talk. We became great friends.”

There were two keys to making For Pops sound pure and robustly blue. The first was the song selection. Morganfield wanted to avoid a simple recitation of warhorse Waters tunes like Hoochie Coochie Man, Got My Mojo Working and Mannish Boy in favor of a slightly less obvious repertoire. As a result, For Pops mixes a few familiar gems (Trouble No More), several underappreciated classics (most notably, a fervent take of Blow Wind Blow) and some comparative obscurities (My Dog Can’t Bark).

“The songs were a combination of choices by me, Kim and Dave Earl,” Morganfield said. “We would try to stay away from Mojo and Hoochie Coochie Man, that kind of stuff. People have done it a million times. We were just trying to get down to the nitty gritty Delta blues sound that pop did.

“Just for the record, I saw my father very little growing up. I was at an early age when he and my mother broke up. I mean, pop was a great dad as far as taking care of me financially. But I didn’t study much of his stuff back then. As a matter of fact, every song on the album I sung off a sheet in front of me. Didn’t even know the lyrics to them. I just sang them as the band played the songs, so it’s as real and raw as you can get.”

For Pops is also an exploration of the link between Delta-based vocals and the harmonica sounds that have long supported them. That was what brought Morganfield and Wilson together in the first place, but it also served as a point of discovery for the singer when it came to his father’s music.

“For a lot of years, I could never figure out why my dad loved Little Walter, James Cotton and all those great harp players so much,” Morganfield said. “It took me quite a long time to understand that if you don’t have harp player, the music is not really traditional blues.

“You could put all the horns in there you like. But if you don’t have a harp player, man, you just don’t got no blues.”

Mud Morganfield and Kim Wilson perform for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at 6:45 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Also appearing will be Angaleena Presley. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 252-8888, (859) 280-2218.

mouthing off

smashmouth

smash mouth: michael klooster, steve harwell and paul de lisle.

In the years leading up to the late ‘90s popularity of its radio hits Walkin’ on the Sun and All Star, Smash Mouth could have been any kind of band it chose to be. That’s because the California troupe had already given a test drive to nearly every pop sound under the sun it was soon to be walking on.

“The original lineup really was four very different personalities,” said bassist and co-founder Paul De Lisle. “Everyone played the way that they played and it worked. You can’t predict chemistry, I guess.

“Steve (Harwell, Smash Mouth’s vocalist and frontman), he listens to country music. But when he was in high school, he listened to modern rock. But he’s kind of an alternative rocker, too. He’s a real serious music fan. He just likes what he likes. Same with me, too. Now, dealing with the different influences does come into play. You put a band together and go, ‘Okay, I’ve got three of the hottest musicians out there.’ But then one of them is a jerk. Then another isn’t working out in a different situation.’ You never know. But for the four of us at the very beginning, it just clicked. None of us were that great by ourselves. But together, it just worked. There was that intangible thing going on, you know?”

Of course, it could also be said the time was right for an unapologetically fun performance pack like Smash Mouth when its double platinum debut album Fush Yu Mang was released during the summer of 1997.

“The ‘90s was such a wide open time,” De Lisle said. “Nirvana kind of opened the floodgates. That wasn’t just for punk rock bands, either, because grunge bands were essentially like pop-punk bands. But that was the case for alternative music, in general. There was the whole ska-punk thing going on, too. It was like anything was alternative.

“That whole era was great for us because it was also a song oriented time for radio. That was our thing. For us, it all came down to songs. There were always labels – alternative this, grunge that. But the reason Nirvana was great wasn’t because they were a grunge band. It’s that their songs were better than everyone else’s. It was the songs. Period.

“Our whole goal was to remain song oriented. We were trying to write hit songs that were pop songs. That was the craft we’re trying for, but it was a hard thing to do. We were trying to write songs people would like but that we also liked. Our record collections growing up were filled with punk rock, but it was more the pop-punk stuff. We always liked bands like the Buzzcocks more than, say, the Sex Pistols. We were just always song oriented. We didn’t want to jam. We just wanted to write good songs.”

Roughly a dozen musicians, most of them guitarists and drummers, have entered and exited the Smash Mouth ranks since the band formed in 1994. While keyboardist and 17 year member Michael Klooster along with two comparatively recent recruits – guitarist Sean Hurwitz and drummer Jason Sutter – round out the band’s current lineup, Harwell and De Lisle have been with Smash Mouth for its entire 20 year history.

“Steve and I are like brothers,” De Lisle said. “The other day we were in this restaurant. I can’t even remember what we were talking about. But the waitress came up and said, ‘You guys are either brothers or have known each other a long time.’

“We talk like an old married couple. We bicker at each other. There are times I just want to ring his neck, but I love the dude. We’re really good friends. Always have been.”

Smash Mouth performs at 8 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

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