Archive for profiles

a solo shade of moody blue

justin hayward.

Ever since the strains of “Nights in White Satin” defined the progressive sound of late night radio a half century ago, the pop world has known the name Justin Hayward. More generally, they knew he helped establish The Moody Blues. But it was Hayward’s voice, guitar and pen that summoned many of the group’s other established works, including, “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Lovely to See You,” “The Story in Your Eyes” and many others.

But here’s a fact even some of the Moodys’ most ardent fans don’t know. For 40 of Hayward’s 50 years with the group, he has also maintained a solo career, focusing on tunes that are lighter in tone and more personal in narrative.

“In the early days, I did hold some songs back that I didn’t think were kind of appropriate or a decent fit for the Moodys,” said Hayward, who makes his first Lexington appearance since 1994 on Tuesday at the Opera House. “It’s okay being personal, but sometimes it’s good to be… well, not deliberately obscure, but working in a place where you try and make a song more about a general emotion instead of a specific one. There are a couple of things on this tour that I probably held back from recording with the Moodys because they were a bit too me-me-me and not us-us-us.”

That’s not to say Hayward tucks the familiar Moody Blues tunes in a closet when he tours on his own. In fact, the repertoire this winter is being split between his vintage hits and solo career songs, many of which have been compiled on a new Hayward anthology recording called “All the Way.”

“It was a bit daunting, to be quite honest,” Hayward said of his solo career’s launch with the 1977 album “Songwriter.” “The people I met during that time were very precious to me. The musicians I worked with are still my friends today. It was kind of scary, but there was so much good will that I found. I didn’t find the world saying, ‘When are the Moodys going to get back together?’ I found a world that was welcoming to me and people that said, ‘I’ve just always liked your songs.’ It was as simple as that.”

The mix of Moody Blues and solo material at Tuesday’s show will play out not in a band setting, but in a trio configuration that will team Hayward with British guitarist Mike Dawes (who will also open the concert) and keyboardist/vocalist Julie Ragins.

“With this band, you can hear every nuance of the sound. I get a chance to bring my acoustic guitars, the ones that were used the records. It’s a little bit more like the original recordings, in some ways – particularly the early recordings where (producer) Tony Clarke and (engineer) Derek Varnals would put the acoustic guitar much further forward and the drums further back in the mix. The acoustic guitar and the mellotron often led the Moodys’ early recordings. It’s a little bit more like that.

“I mean, I’m very lucky to still have the Moodys. I love every moment of it. But this tour, without that volume, is like being in my music room, like being with friends. That’s how these songs were written, including the parts that I put on all my original demos. It’s how they originally sounded. It’s how the songs were born.”

So what drives Hayward in 2017? He turned 70 in October and still maintains a hearty touring schedule of solo dates and Moody Blues shows. What keeps his performance attitude so full of vigor?

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? There are some things I don’t have to deal with that others might. I don’t have to deal with celebrity. I don’t have to deal with paparazzi or that kind of stuff. I’m spared that. I can be just the guy walking down the street. But these songs, a lot of them mean something in peoples’ lives just as songs of other artists do in mine. And, really, what else would I do?

“My daughter tells me, ‘Look, you have a lovely house. You love reading books, why don’t we go there and just read books for the rest of our lives?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a nice idea. And? What about this other thing I have to do?”

Justin Hayward withMike Dawes perform at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $55.50, $65.50. Call 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go ticketmaster.com.

webb wilder rocks on

webb wilder.

Leave it to Webb Wilder to perfect the art of singing in the shower – or, at least, realizing when such an activity can be best optimized on a record.

At the close of his “Missississpi Moderne” album, Wilder’s newest sampler of typically varied roots rock delicacies, the veteran Nashville-by-way-of-Hattiesburg songster includes a version of the blues chestnut “Stones in My Passway” that was recorded in purposely primitive conditions – specifically, on a hand held recorder in the shower. Wilder never intended it for professional or public release, but the ultra lo-fi result proved a fitting way to open and close the album.

“It was pretty silly,” Wilder said of his “Stones” realization. “I will go to my grave reserving the right to be silly.

“Look, I am from Mississippi and if I grow up in an Afro-Celtic culture, I like to think I can do that sort of thing with as much soul as the next guy. But that was never meant to be released. It was kind of a ‘Ha ha, listen to this’ deal. I made that thing up in the shower in the mid 90s. I call it ‘hand held’ because I recorded it on a hand held cassette recorder. We wound up putting it on the multi-track. Tom Comet, our bass player, had the idea of putting just a little snippet of it at the beginning, so the album is bookended by it.”

Mixing rootsy drive and authority with a discreet level of giddiness has pretty much been the modus operandi for Wilder over the last three decades. Wilder the musician actually grew out of Wilder the hip ‘50s private eye character created for an indie short film. But ever since the release of his debut album, 1986’s “It Came From Nashville,” Wilder’s askew but devout roots music – which regularly incorporates rock, rockabilly, country, surf, swing, blues, soul and more – has remained vibrant.

“For a lot of us, music is our core,” Wilder said. “It’s our spirituality. To be a musician is a lifelong pursuit. Ahead of everything else in life, it’s a pretty nutty thing to do. So the only people who really do it are people who are unable to not do it. It’s like a calling. So I was born into music apparently.

“I was in the fourth grade when the Beatles spearheaded the British invasion. I think for a lot of us, it just meant the world. It meant, ‘This is the new world. This is how it is.’ The Beatles were in a category by themselves. On one album, they would have a Broadway show tune, a Chuck Berry song and something they wrote.

“By the time I started making records, that’s not what record companies wanted you to do. They wanted you to have a sound and that was what you were. Well, I’m sorry. I like rhythm and blues. I like country. I like blues. I like rock ‘n’ roll. I like British rock ‘n’ roll. I like American rock ‘n’ roll. I like rockabilly. I like cowboy songs. But I also can’t be a play-it-just-like-the-record duplicator of any of it, so all of it does come though my filter. Hopefully the ‘me’ element does unify it. The challenge comes from focusing the eclecticism.

Outside of a few brushes with major label exposure (as on the 1989 Island Records release “Hybrid Vigor,” whose title still nicely sums up the cross-genre joy of his music), Wilder has essentially been an indie artist, touring clubs and theatres with workmanlike regularity while maintaining a celebratory mood that has not dissipated through the years.

“I don’t know what it is that fuels my particular approach to performing, but I think my default setting is that of a performer as much as a writer or recording artist. Live is sort of my element so I like a level of spontaneity to be there.

“I get stage nerves and I have nervous energy, so, yeah, there’s some kind of it’s-really-who-you-are thing going on there. You really mean it and you’re pretty serious about it even if you’re being humorous or whatever. When it clicks, you’re lost in it and it’s more a feeling than thinking thing and you’re surfing six inches off the ground. Hopefully when you’re not, you’re up for the task enough to where no one notices.”

Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks perform at 9 p.m. Feb. 10 at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Dr. Admission: $10. Call 859-281-1116 or go to willieslocallyknown.com.

king of the road

joe bonamassa.

joe bonamassa.

There is a credo printed on the inside cover art to Joe Bonamassa’s new “Live at the Greek Theatre” album. What it entails isn’t so much a philosophy but a practice, a four word summation of the guitarist’s life as a working musician.

“Always on the road.”

For Bonamassa, this is a simple truism. Since opening for B.B. King at the age of 12, he has amassed a critical reputation as a vanguard instrumentalist that is exceeded only by an even greater profile as a live performer, be it in a format of straight blues or through any number of side projects that veer into rock (Black Country Communion with Glenn Hughes, Jason Sherinian and Jason Bonham), jazz/funk (Rock Candy Funk Party) or collaborative blues/soul settings (with singer Beth Hart).

Add to that the number of live albums he has released chronicling his touring adventures (an astounding 10 since 2012) and there is little doubt Bonamassa indeed lives for – and on – the road.

“A lot of musicians make a record, do a tour and then they go away for four or five years,” said Bonamassa, who returns to Lexington for a Dec. 6 concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts. “That’s fine if that’s how you want to do it, but I come from the B.B. King school of touring where you make a record just so you can stay on the road.”

That’s why Bonamassa’s vast catalog of live recordings is peppered with studio albums, the works he promotes on tour and, ultimately, the products of what his touring life brings him. His newest is “Blues of Desperation,” an hour long set of original compositions released in March that displays a broad dynamic range of the blues, from barnstorming guitar excursions to comparatively meditative pieces.

“I wanted to do another original record,” the guitarist said. “It’s been great for me to rediscover songwriting. I kind of had a few years of dormancy where I wasn’t inspired to write as much. It’s nice to get back into it and create your own world again. It’s a lot of fun.”

Music from “Blues of Desperation” will constitute roughly half of the Singletary Center show. Much of the rest will be devoted to the repertoire from “Live at the Greek Theatre.” Don’t let the somewhat unrevealing album title fool you. This isn’t a standard revisit to older, familiar music. Instead, Bonamassa fronts an 11 member band on the record boasting horns, backing vocalists and, most importantly, songs drawn exclusively from careers of the guitar-slinging Three Kings of blues music – Freddie King, Albert King and B.B. King.

“Those are the cats,” Bonamassa said. “That’s where the DNA is written in my world. I don’t think 10 years ago I could have done something like this. I just don’t think it would have been in my wheelhouse to pull it off, vocally or musically. I mean, I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with an 11 piece band. I mean, 10 or 15 years ago, the fact that I had 11 people in my whole crew on the road was an undertaking much less an 11 piece band. We’re traveling now with an eight piece band including two great singers and two horns. It’s been great. To have that big sound is really important because those guys had big bands. Those guys had big show bands. So this is an honor. I’ve always wanted to have a big band on the road.”

The ensemble – which includes former CBS Orchestra/David Letterman drummer Anton Fig, Stevie Ray Vaughan keyboard alumnus Reese Wynans and veteran trumpeter Lee Thornburg (all of whom are scheduled to perform with Bonamassa at the Singletary) – also allows the guitarist to explore the stylistic differences within the music of the Three Kings, from Freddie’s muscular guitar tone to Albert’s soul/blues fondness to B.B.’s gifts as an instrumentalist, bandleader and, especially, vocalist.

“Freddie was the firecracker of the three. Albert was the soul man and B.B. was the blues. It was harder to find songs of Freddie’s. We tried to stay away from the well worn paths, but it was also one of these things where we wanted to get deep into the catalog to some of Freddie’s pre-vocal era, into the Shelter years (referring to the label Freddie cut a trio of superlative albums for during the early ‘70s) and beyond. Albert was soul based, straight up, and B.B. was a shouter. B.B. had, arguably, to me, the best of the three voices. But that’s like saying, ‘What’s better, a Ferrari or a Ferrari?’”

The record and tour also boast another, more unintended tribute. Among the B.B. King recordings they cover is a soul-steeped, quietly combustible tune initially cut by the blues giant in 1970 called “Hummingbird.” Its composer was the great song stylist Leon Russell, who died last month.

“At first, I wasn’t so keen on doing it. Kevin (Shirley, Bonamassa’s long time producer) kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to try it.’ Then as soon as we got an arrangement of it, I was, ‘Oh, man. This is the best thing we’ve done in a long time.’ It’s a beautifully written song, but a quirky song. It works, though. We close our show with it every night. I would like to close with something more uptempo, but you can’t follow that song. That’s a tribute to the writing, to the bigness of it.”

Joe Bonamassa performs at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $89-$125. Call 859-257-4929 or go to finearts.uky.edu/singletary-center/joe-bonamassa.

jd mcpherson keeps rolling with the times

jd mcpherson.

jd mcpherson.

There was a time when being labeled a revivalist might have gotten under the creative skin of JD McPherson.

Admittedly, it’s hard not to soak in the load of roots friendly accents that help the Oklahoma native’s 2015 sophomore album “Let the Good Times Roll” live up to its title. But the thrill of McPherson’s music has always been its ability to rewire those inspirations for a sound as organically modern and it is effortlessly vital.

“There probably was a time when the musicologist in me wanted to say, ‘Well, we’re not doing this or doing that.’ But that really doesn’t matter to me too much as long as people are talking about what we’re doing.”

In recent years, there has been considerable talk about McPherson’s roots conscious songs. It could be sparked by the sleek after hours feel of “Bridge Builder,” which balances a blues variation of Coasters-style crooning until riffs of Link Wray-friendly twang detonate the tune. Then again, the fuss might be stemming from “It’s All Over but the Shouting,” a party piece full of brassy cool that sounds like The Blasters had they worked out of Kansas City juke joints during the ‘50s instead of Los Angeles punk clubs in the ‘70s. But when McPherson whipped all those inspirations together during a downtown Lexington concert held outdoors as part of the Breeders’ Cup Festival in 2015, labels didn’t matter. What emerged was a full blown block party.

“I still get really excited by early expressions of rock ‘n’ roll,” said McPherson, who returns this weekend to Lexington for a performance at Willie’s Locally Known. (The show was initially booked for the new Cosmic Charlie’s location on National Ave., but  its reopening has been rescheduled to late November or December.)

“That stuff still rings true to me. There is something about swinging and rhythm that’s always going to be cooler than playing it straight. But how do you juxtapose something against it that makes it all swing? These weird push and pull things are fascinating to me. There are a lot of realms to be explored with that stuff.”

Though taken equally by punk and roots music in his teens, McPherson grew up without any exposure to live music. In the cattle ranching terrain of Southwestern Oklahoma, there wasn’t much of it to be found.

“When I became a teenager and was able to drive, I made trips to go see shows because there was literally nothing within a 2 ½ hour drive from where I grew up. So it was all about being in my room and just reading, listening and playing. It really was a kind of insular, sort of hermetic approach to music up until a certain point.

“There wasn’t any internet then. Instead, I would hear something from a radio station in Dallas on a rainy day, write the title down and call the music store in Fort Smith, Arkansas to order it. Two weeks later, when my family would go to Fort Smith, I would pick it up and grab magazines to read all I could about the music. I mean, that was all I cared about. That was all I did.”

Just before his debut album, “Signs and Signifiers” was re-released by Rounder Records in 2012, McPherson had been working as an arts and technology teacher. Through that, came an insight to the eagerness of young minds and the necessity to encourage whatever artistic pursuits they called out for.

“I learned that a young person’s mind is lot more voracious and a lot more open than those of most adults. Kids are always trying to figure things out. That’s the thing I remember from being that age. You want to be more comfortable. You want to find something that helps you figure out who and what you are. Any kid with any talent for something… you should really nurture that and help bring that out, whether that kid is a mathematician or painter or anything. It’s really important they are around supportive people.

“I didn’t have art or music classes as a kid. I went to a rural school that didn’t have the budget for that. I wonder what it would have been like if I could have learned to read music or had a band instrument to play or piano lessons. So it’s very important for me to make sure a young person is being helped to become a more fully realized adult.”

JD McPherson and Erica Blinn at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Dr. Tickets: $15. Call 859-281-1116 or go to willieslocallyknown.com.

living again in the reel world

Reel World String Band. From left: Sharon Ruble, Sue Massek, Karen Jones, Elise Melrood, and Bev Futrell. Herald-Leader staff photo by Mark Cornelison.

Reel World String Band. From left: Sharon Ruble, Sue Massek, Karen Jones, Elise Melrood, and Bev Futrell. Herald-Leader staff photo by Mark Cornelison.

Bev Futrell remembers when the Reel World String Band first played in New York. Already noted nationally as a topically inclined ensemble of music making women from Central Kentucky, the band had Futrell’s then-five year old daughter in tow when it arrived at the club it was to play. At the bar, however, was a social worker who didn’t exactly approve of blending parenting with performing.

“The owner talked to us about it, so we, as band, said we just wouldn’t go up for a second set. But he finally offered us his office upstairs, so she was able to stay and sleep up there.”

Then the memories poured out.

“We were actually onstage when the owner was talking to us,” banjoist Sue Massek recalled. “We walked off the stage.”

“We were like feminist lawyers,” added fiddler Karen Jones with laugh. ‘We were like, ‘This is an affront to working women.”

“That,” Futrell said, “was our first gig in New York City.”

So how does her daughter, now 40, view the experience of being among the many longtime fans of Reel World’s folk, protest and Appalachian themed music?

“She feels like she has five mothers,” Futrell said. “And that’s just fine with her.”

While Reel World will turn 40 next year, its members – completed by bassist Sharon Ruble and pianist Elise Melrood – make no secret that the band’s duty as a fully active performance entity is essentially complete. In the spring, it donated a drove of archival material to the University of Kentucky Libraries to essentially put the wraps on its career. Reel World performs a reunion show of sorts this weekend at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, but there will be little pageantry tied to the event. There is no new recording to promote and no real celebration planned relating to the impending anniversary.

Instead it will offer an opportunity to play music with two long established friends, the Grammy winning folk/country/swing duo of Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, as well as one new acquaintance. The latter is Sam Gleaves, 24, a Virginia native now living in Berea who toured overseas this past summer with folk veteran Peggy Seeger. Gleaves cites Reel World as a vital artistic influence. The band views his inclusion in Sunday’s concert as a generational and artistic “passing of the torch.”

“I loved hearing Reel World and Cathy and Marcy together about four or five years ago,” he said. “I loved that combination and wanted to hear it again. I seriously think all the ladies in Reel World have been real inspirations to me. It’s been wonderful to get to know them all as friends.”

The Reel World inspirations being, in effect, bequeathed to Gleaves, were initially realized when the band formed in Lexington in 1977. With local clubs nearing the end of a bluegrass boom that had dominated the region just a few years earlier, Reel World arrived as a string band in terms of instrumentation. Its music, though, largely took its cue from older, pre-bluegrass sounds and mountain harmonies with a pervading sense of social and political consciousness. Bluegrass bands sang of family, faith and lost love. Reel World did, too. But it also addressed, among other subjects, women’s rights, coal workers’ rights and environmental awareness.

“Bluegrass was pretty much male oriented back then,” Futrell said. “We were looking at the music from a new perspective. Our harmonies were really different. Also, for a lot of the bluegrass festivals, we were considered too political.”

“When you see a banjo, you’re thinking bluegrass and not necessarily folk or old timey music,” Jones added. “But that’s okay. It’s all culturally based and pretty closely tied with old time and traditional music. Of course, then we added piano which took us totally out of bluegrass.”

The gradual downshift in Reel World’s visibility in recent years is largely attributable to a focus on other activities. Futrell and Jones perform in TDH4, the newest incarnation of their Tall, Dark and Handsome group. Massek remains an active writer and playwright, Ruble has immersed herself in photography and Melrood plays with the local jazz trio Paper Moon. Still, what has fortified the Reel World members through the years was a personal and professional bond that will carry over into Sunday’s concert and whatever sporadic performance activity the band may or may not involve itself with in the future.

“I don’t know if this is unique to other women or not,” Futrell said. “But the only other group I can think of that stuck together so long was (43 year old vocal group) Sweet Honey in the Rock.”

“For me, it was all about having a purpose for what we did,” Massek said. “But working together has always been such a dear experience for me.

“It wasn’t really ever for the money, either” Melrood added. “That was a good thing. We were really fortunate that we were able to keep it going without having to depend on it for our livelihood.”

The financial compensation for its musical journey was also referenced by Jones when recalling the creative drive sparked by the band’s work with the Tennessee-based, grassroots driven Highlander Research and Education Center early in its career.

“When we came back from Highlander, people who were our mentors said to go back home and find work to do. So we did a once a week thing at the Fishnet (the long defunct downtown music venue and restaurant) where we had a theme each night. It was all social justice stuff, but the Fishnet always let us do whatever we wanted.”

The cover charge for those performances, Jones said, was $2.

“Our price hasn’t really gone up much since then.”

Reel World String Band with Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer and Sam Gleaves perform at 6 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets: $15. Call 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

still feeling the spirit of the century

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left to right: Ricky McKinney, Paul Beasley, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Joey Williams. Photo by Cameron Witting.

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left to right: Ricky McKinney, Paul Beasley, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Joey Williams. Photo by Cameron Witting.

For an artist who has spent nearly his entire life singing in the same gospel quartet, Jimmy Carter never thought much about retirement. But at age 84 – along with a career that spans the entire seven decade lifespan of the Grammy-winning Blind Boys of Alabama – he senses the day will eventually arrive to abandon performance life.

Luckily for everyone, artist and audience, that day is not at hand.

“Never used to think about retiring, but I do now,” Carter said before erupting into sagely laughter. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m going to stay out here as long as I possibly can. I don’t know how long it’s going to be, but I’m feeling good. My health is fair. I’m a diabetic, but I’ve got that under control. So as long as I can hold out, I’ll be here.”

Though the Blind Boys of Alabama began singing together as children in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, the last 15 years ignited a crossover into the secular marketplace with a long roster of non-gospel artists as collaborators. That has led to high profile tours with the likes of Peter Gabriel, joint recordings with Ben Harper and, subsequently, a string of five Grammy Awards.

What sparked the extraordinary renaissance was the 2001 album, “Spirit of the Century” – a record that mixed spiritually themed secular songs (Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” the Rolling Stones’ “Just Wanna See His Face”) with traditional gospel (“Good Religion,” “Soldier”) and a diverse guest list of contributing artists that included blues veterans John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite, American guitarist David Lindley and British bassist Danny Thompson. The record opened the Blind Boys up to a huge fanbase, much of which had never heard their singing up to that point. It also won the group its first Grammy.

But the “Spirit” tune that sparked the most attention was a wild mash-up of the spiritual and secular – specifically, a version of “Amazing Grace” sung to the weighty melody of the decidedly non-gospel “House of the Rising Sun.”

“We didn’t want to record that because the arrangement was too much like ‘House of the Rising Sun’ for us,” Carter said. “But we had a great producer in California, John Chelew, who said, ‘Well, let’s put in on there.’ I think that song was what won us the Grammy. Now we never miss a night playing that song.”

Aside from a 2014 holiday album with bluesman Taj Mahal (“Talkin’ Christmas”) that Carter doesn’t sound fully taken with (“It came out okay, but not as good as I thought it would”), the Blind Boys’ last recording was 2013’s “I’ll Find a Way,” produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The album boasted a guest list that included My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus and, on a stirring version of Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” Vernon himself.

Carter said the alliance with Vernon proved fruitful once he and the Blind Boys got to know each other.

“Our manager came to us one day said, ‘How would you all like to make a record with Justin Vernon?’ I said, ‘Well, fine. Who is he?’ I was embarrassed because I didn’t know him. But after we met and after we talked, we went to his house. He had a studio in his house. In Wisconsin. In November. To us, it was very cold, but he had a warm house and a warm heart, so everything worked out good.

“We enjoy collaborating with secular artists, but there has to be an agreement that if we need to change something to fit our fervor, we are able to do that. A lot of times, people come to us with songs that are too secular for us. We’re gospel singers, you know? We can’t go too far out, so sometimes we have to change some words. But most times with these collaborations we have, the guys know what we’re looking for and usually present the music in a gospel way where we can use it.”

Curiously, Carter said that one of the ideas being considered for the next Blind Boys’ recording is a repertoire that does away with secular tunes altogether.

“It’s just in the talking stage. We’ve been collaborating with so many people, but I think it’s time that the Blind Boys just go back to basics, back to what brought us here, which is singing traditional gospel music. I think we should go back to that and see how it will work. I think it’s time for us to show the people we are still the Blind Boys of Alabama.”

 

Big in the Bluegrass featuring Blind Boys of Alabama, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Roomful of Blue. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at Heritage Hall in Lexington Center, 430 West Vine St. Tickets: $35-$150 at ticketfly.com.

eric johnson goes acoustic

eric johnson. photo by max crace,

eric johnson. photo by max crace,

The album title should be a tip off. It’s called simply “EJ,” the initials of the Grammy winning guitarist, studio perfectionist, multi-genre composer and vocalist who made it – Eric Johnson.

Two letters, an efficient but purposeful representation of an artist – that’s what we’re provided. Give a listen to the recording and what you hear is essentially the same. Instead of the intricately crafted and keenly produced electric music that has made Johnson part of a long line of heralded Texas guitar-slingers, we have music made primarily with acoustic guitar, voice and, perhaps most surprisingly, piano. Yet it sounds as complete and inventive as any record Johnson has made. Longtime fans may consider it a surprise. Johnson considers the project long overdue.

“Actually, I think I should have done something like this a lot earlier. I was going to do an acoustic record years ago but got sidetracked by a bunch of electric projects, so I put it on the back burner. All of a sudden, it’s something like seven years later. I think now is an okay time, but I wish I had made at least one record like this years ago.”

An Austin native, Johnson’s music has long differed from many of the guitar giants to emerge from Lone Star country during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Less overtly blues-rooted, he began making noise, literally and figuratively, with a fusion band, The Electromagnets. By 1986, his second album, “Tones,” solidified a sound blending psychedelia, jazz undercurrents, rockish foundations and vocals that often seemed meditative. But there were also detours through country, soul and, yes, blues. “Cliffs of Dover,” which mixed several of those styles, won Johnson a Grammy in 1991 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

While there have been nods to acoustic music on past albums, it was “EJ” that allowed Johnson to focus on it exclusively. Similarly, his current tour, which brings him to the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday, departs from his usual electric combo performances for solo acoustic music.

“I wanted to record stuff that was more performance oriented,” Johnson said. “So much of this record occurred live in the studio. Some people are still going, ‘Well, what’s this?’ They’re wondering why I’m not playing electric guitar, but I think this is a good step for me.

“Playing solo, though, is a totally different discipline. I’m not as used to it as I am playing with a band, so it’s a little bit of a challenge. I’m trying to learn to play these songs as well as I can live, which is a lesson in itself. It’s a little more demanding when you’re by yourself, where you have to try to nail everything. I’m getting there, though, slowly but surely.”

While some of the sensibilities within the repertoire of “EJ” are a natural fit, like a quick picking, harmonically altered version of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Mrs. Robinson” and the album closing original “Song for Irene” (both played as instrumentals), Johnson pulls from sources both unexpected (a giddy, swing-savvy take on Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise) and electric. From the latter world comes Jimi Hendrix’s “One Rainy Wish,” which is reworked for piano, acoustic guitar and a light, limber rhythm section without losing any of the psychedelic fancy from the original 1967 version.

“There was some fooling around with different songs that I like. That was one that I thought kind of worked out, that I got a good performance on. But Hendrix’s music has such great songwriting that you can interpret it different ways and it can still work. I thought it intrinsically had this swaying, jazz feel to it. He’s playing these really full chords and doing this kind of swing thing, so it kind lent itself to maybe a different feel.”

Johnson is so taken with the acoustic adventures of “EJ” that he is already making plans to record a sequel. Mostly though, he sees the album as an additional means of opportunity and expression awarded to him by a four decade-long career.

“I find myself having more realizations of what ways I can present my music that can make it more impactful, more meaningful. So that’s what I’m trying to do. We just want to leave the door open for things to happen and try not to get in the way of ourselves.”

Eric Johnson performs at 6:45 p.m. Nov. 7 for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Also performing are the Gonzalo Bergara Quartet and Emma Moseley. Tickets: $20 public, $5 student. Call: 859-252-8888, 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

frampton comes alive acoustically

peter frampton.

peter frampton.

Having forever solidified his rock ‘n’ roll celebrity status with the release of “Frampton Comes Alive!” 40 years ago this past summer, one might suspect Peter Frampton would kick back a bit as a pop elder. But at age 66, the veteran guitarist and songwriter isn’t about to shut himself away and let his legacy speak for him.

Just look at the recordings he has released in the last decade alone. In 2006 came “Fingerprints,” an all-instrumental album that earned Frampton a Grammy. A platter of new original songs, “Thank You, Mr. Churchill,” followed in 2010. Then he co-produced a 2013 four-disc expansion of “Rockin’ the Fillmore,” Frampton’s landmark live album with Humble Pie, the band that directly prefaced his solo career. A collaboration with the Cincinnati Ballet resulted in 2014’s “Hummingbird in Box.” That brings us to his newest adventure, “Acoustic Classics,” the aptly named 2016 set of predominantly solo reworkings of hits (“Show Me the Way,” “Do You Feel Like I Do”) and assorted career gems (“Fig Tree Bay,” “Wind of Change”).

“My M.O., in general, is I want to play something tomorrow that I can’t play today,” said Frampton, who concludes his third “Raw – An Acoustic Tour” on Saturday at the Opera House. “I want to write something that has a structure, lyrically or musically, that I haven’t done before.”

An initial idea proposed to Frampton as a recording project was to simply re-cut his past hits for a new album, thus allowing him to own the rights to those versions of his work. Disinterested in simply repeating himself, the idea emerged to revisit some of his music in an acoustic setting and then offer them in a more intimate performance environment that allows him to share stories of the inspirations behind his compositions. But being essentially a child of rock ‘n’ roll, Frampton also found such a prospect a little, well, frightening.

“My management remarked that I’ve never done an all acoustic record and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Well, there’s a reason for that. I’m scared to death of it.’

“Well, maybe not scared to death. But I was apprehensive. What became so enjoyable about playing acoustic, however, was how different the performances were. We’re playing in these theatres, anywhere from 900 to 1,600 seat places. It’s like being in a large living room. Say you came over for coffee one day and we were just talking and I said, ‘Hey, you want to hear this new song I wrote last night?’ Well, that’s the kind of performance I want to give everybody.

“So when I first started recording ‘Acoustic Classics,’ I thought, ‘Oh, this is just going to take a couple of days. Well, no. I did the first couple and went into the control room and listened. It sounded like me without the band, obviously, but it was like I was performing with the band in my head. So I want to go back to that moment, reverse engineer my songs, and return to one acoustic guitar and one voice. I even lowered the key just a semi-tone here and there so I don’t have to be so forceful, so the music can be much more intimate. I’m not going to be screaming the songs. I’m going to be singing them just as if I was on my own and it was a brand new song.”

Frampton won’t entirely go it alone on Saturday. Guitarist Gordon Kennedy will accompany him with son Julian Frampton, the show’s opening act, sitting in during some of the set.

“You know, I’m playing guitar more now than I was in my teens. It’s a passion that re-energizes itself. Playing guitar is the most important thing to me apart from my family.

“I was very young when I started it. It was something I was using to just hide away and do my thing. I was very shy when I was young, so that was the thing that got me through the night, as it were. And guess what? It still does.”

Peter Frampton performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St. Tickets: $95.50. Call 859-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to ticketmaster.com.

a transfer of harmony

cheryl bentyne of the manhattan transfer.

cheryl bentyne of the manhattan transfer.

The two groups are essentially a generation removed from each other with stylistically preferences that reflect sometimes markedly different inspirations. But Cheryl Bentyne didn’t take notice of that when she and the other members of the Manhattan Transfer began rehearsals with the singers from Take 6 for their current collaborative tour. Their alliance is, in all senses of the term, harmonious.

“I think what we bring differently to our performances is pretty obvious,” Bentyne said. “In the Transfer, have the four voices – two women and two men – that create a real horn section type sound. But with Take 6, there is this incredible, immediate harmony because they’re all men and they’re all singing within their own structure of ranges. It goes all over the scales. The groups are different, but we’re from the same mother of harmony.”

A blend of jazz and pop harmony with a largely unparalleled command of styles like vocalese (the singing of lyrics to tunes initially composed as instrumental works) made the Transfer – Bentyne, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul and Trist Curless – one of the most distinctive vocal groups of the past four decades. Vocalese was also a passion of group founder Tim Hauser, who died in 2014. Tonight’s Norton Center show will be the quartet’s first regional performance without him.

“Tim was kind of my father/brother figure when I came in into the group (in 1978),” Bentyne said. “He helped define my role by bringing songs for me as a soloist because I didn’t know exactly how I would fit in. They obviously knew how I would fit in, but I certainly didn’t. He had a lot of ideas for me and was always in my corner. He was absolutely insane with information, too. I think he had some kind of photographic or maybe phonographic memory. He had every song he had ever heard lodged somewhere in his brain, along with the B-sides of those records.”

Perhaps the definitive vocalese statement of the Transfer is “Birdland.” Composed by Josef Zawinul for his fusion band Weather Report in 1977, the song was recast with lyrics by Jon Hendricks (of the famed ‘50s/’60s vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, seen by many as a precursor to the Transfer).

“I walked in for an audition with them one day in Los Angeles and sang a few songs. After that, we sat down and Janis played ‘Birdland’ for me, the Weather Report version, just to get my response. I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great song. You guys are going to sing that?’ So I was thrilled. Jon Hendricks wrote a story about Birdland and the history of jazz in New York City. When we got the lyrics, just pages and pages of them, it blew us away. Even before I was in the group, I don’t think they had done anything of that caliber. It took us quite awhile to break it down and start singing it. Now, it is our foundation piece.”

The song is also part of a musical legacy than has inspired numerous subsequent vocal groups, including Take 6.

“We were talking at dinner last night and Mark Kibble, who is Take 6’s arranger, spoke about seeing us when he was beginning one of his first vocal groups. Hearing that kind of gave us a sense of, ‘Yeah, we really did start something 45 years ago.’

“This group was Tim Hauser’s dream – a vocal group with two men, two women, based on the Count Basie sax section that sang all kinds of music. I think a music teacher told him that once you become categorized, you become disposable. So it was a conscious effort for us, and an easy one, to do all kinds of music with the basis of it always being harmony. We could do almost anything with harmony. We stretch out on all of our different styles because we can. With four voices and harmony you can do that.”

Manhattan Transfer and Take 6 perform at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at Newlin Hall of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $39-$65. Call 877-448-7469, 859-236-4692

or go to nortoncenter.com.

amanda shires embraces home

amanda shires. photo by josh wool.

amanda shires. photo by josh wool.

When Amanda Shires played a June 2015 performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts, she was in the company of three individuals who, to put it mildly, figure prominently in her personal and professional lives.

The first was her husband, Jason Isbell. That night, the immensely popular Americana songsmith was an unannounced guest but served strictly as Shires’ lone accompanist, a placement she had to re-iterate when an eager audience member shouted out to hear “Cover Me Up,” one Isbell’s more popular tunes. “If you want to request any of Jason’s songs, you’ll have to go his show tomorrow,” Shires replied. “In Chicago.”

The second was the evening’s headliner, John Prine. As a folk elder with a massive fan following that includes Shires and Isbell, Prine likes camaraderie. He invited Shires back to the stage during his set to sing “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title tune to a 1999 album of duets with female artists. Prine just released a sequel of sorts, “For Better, or Worse,” and enlisted Shires again to sing on “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music,” a barroom swing staple that, curiously, was never designed to be a duet.

Finally, there was her daughter Mercy Rose Isbell, who may have been in the house but had yet to make a formal entrance. Shires was still pregnant with her at the time. In fact, the Singletary show would be among her last before taking a sabbatical from the road to become a mom. It was during the interim period at home – along with the changes, thrills and worries that come with adding “parent” to one’s job description – that songs began to brew for her new “My Piece of Land” album.

“I was about 33 weeks pregnant and started having to go to more doctors’ appointments,” said Shires, who performs Saturday at The Burl. “Being on the road wasn’t the safest or healthiest thing to do in the late part of pregnancy, so I took some time off and stayed at home. While I was there, Jason was still touring, so I did all the things that kind of go along with the hormones and the pregnancy. I did so much cleaning and nesting, as they call it – everything from cleaning out the drawers to hanging up art in the garage, because the baby needs to see that when she comes home.

“I finished everything I could think of to do. I was left to face myself and face the real situation of bringing a child into the world with all the hopes and anticipation and, at the same time, all of the doubt and wondering about what kind of childhood she would have. All of a sudden, I started thinking about home and what that meant to me. Through that, I discovered, for me, how home isn’t at all my address. For me, home is with my friends and family. It doesn’t have to be defined by the four walls that I live in. While those walls are nice and I love them and I love to be at home, for me it’s about being together, sharing things together and making awesome memories together.”

That sentiment soars to the forefront on the closing tune to “My Piece of Land,” an atmospheric meditation called “You Are My Home,” a song of both solace and longing that moves along with slow, fervent solemnity. Then, roughly half way through, Shires picks up her favored musical weapon of choices, the violin, and tears into a solo that matches the jagged, electric intensity Isbell offers alongside her on guitar.

Unlike Shires’ last show here, Isbell’s presence will be his absence this weekend. He will be at home tending to parental duties while Shires digs into a three week tour that marks her longest time away from her daughter.

“I’m lucky to have Jason, who is just the ideal co-parent. But, honestly, I feel today a little bit like I’ve shot myself in the foot because I didn’t know what my limits would be in how long I could go without seeing Mercy. To be gone about 21 days without seeing her – that is a lot, and I’m just now internalizing that. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again. I’m just pretty much praying I can get through it and set my limits and boundaries a little better next time. I’m not trying to go down a dark road or anything. She’s going to be fine, but she can’t ride in a van for a million hours a day. It’s barely bearable for adults, but it’s for the end goal. I want to work as hard as I can now so I can set her up better for the future.

“But, really, everything is going wonderfully. I feel super lucky and grateful that I get to do this for my job. I mean, I’m really a crappy waitress.”

Amanda Shires and Lilly Hiatt performs at 9 p.m. Oct. 15 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets: $15, $18. Call 859-447-8166 or go to http://theburlky.com.

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