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the modern tales of steep canyon rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left: Michael Ashworth, Graham Sharp, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Nicky Sanders and Barrett Smith. Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither.

During the recording of their most recent album, “Out in the Open,” the Steep Canyon Rangers played around a single microphone in much the same way a traditional bluegrass band would have 50 or 60 years ago.

That might not seem like earth shattering news save for the fact the Grammy winning North Carolina sextet – lead vocalist/guitarist Woody Platt, banjoist/vocalist Graham Sharp, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, bassist Barrett Smith and percussionist Michael Ashworth – isn’t exactly what one would call traditional. It encompasses an Americana blend that reaches generously but respectfully outside the bluegrass norm. The string band instrumentation is scholarly and confident enough to still be viewed as bluegrass, but the songs – many of which are penned from within the band – possess an almost vintage folk and country inspiration that harkens back to such songwriting stylists as Gene Clark and Vern Gosdin. The Rangers’ appeal, however, has proven inviting enough to forge an unlikely alliance with comedian/actor Steve Martin that has served as a second career of sorts over the past decade.

“We grew up in an area where there was a lot of mountain music and old-time music,” said Platt, who will perform with the Rangers on Saturday at Manchester Music Hall. “I don’t think any of us really absorbed a ton of that or got really focused on it until we were in college, but it was around. There was a square dance every Thursday night right across the street from our house with a bluegrass band, but each member of our band comes from a non-bluegrass background, meaning saxophone players, choir singers and drummers.

“We were sort of a melting pot of influences and I think that comes through in our music. There was a time when we dove into traditional bluegrass head first. Now we’ve been around and have evolved naturally so everybody’s other musical interests and influences are creeping into our version of what I still like to call bluegrass.”

Making the traditional approach to recording the decidedly non-traditional “Out in the Open” all the more curious was the band’s choice of producer – Joe Henry. In addition to his own immensely atmospheric recordings, the veteran song stylist has produced records for such far-ranging artists as Rodney Crowell, Hugh Laurie, Ani DiFranco, Bettye LaVette, Joan Baez, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.

“We walked into the studio and there’s this guy immaculately dressed with this sharp hat on,” Platt said. “He just immediately set the vibe for a cool, laid back but kind of spiritual approach to making a record. It was never overbearing. He taught us a lot about how he viewed recording. It’s hard to explain until you experience making a record with Joe how impactful he can be without being overly pushy. There was such an easy way about him that really set the mood.”

Cementing the Rangers’ appeal outside of bluegrass circles has been the ongoing partnership with Martin, which has included numerous recordings and performances in front of amphitheater and arena audiences that might have otherwise never heard the band – or, for that matter, bluegrass music.

“I think all bands hope for a break in their careers,” Platt said. “What that may be is a certain song, a certain show or a certain collaboration with a different artist. I never saw one of the biggest breaks we would have coming from a movie star/comedian. It’s kind of bizarre, but it was natural from day one. We played one little jam with Steve and 10 years later we’ve never stopped talking about music.

“People may have gone to see Steve who weren’t bluegrass fans. They were just fans of his career and him. Then all of a sudden, he’s playing bluegrass with the Rangers. We’ve seen that help us when we’ve gone back to those markets. People have come to our shows and said, ‘I saw you with Steve.’ So that’s been a really great thing. Also, just working with Steve and watching him work a crowd and play a big show. That’s given us a ton of great stage experience that we’ve been able to carry into our shows.”

Ahead for the Rangers in 2019 will be a retrospective album of material re-recorded with the Asheville Symphony, continued work on a record of new music and ongoing stage work with Martin and fellow comedian Martin Short.

“There is potential when you’re getting close to the end of your second decade as a band to sit back and coast. I feel we’re more focused now than we’ve ever been. It’s an exciting time for the Rangers.”

Steep Canyon Rangers perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $21-$36. Call 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com.

rayland baxter find inspiration in unexpected kentucky retreat

Rayland Baxter. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Seeking solace and sanctuary in some form of geographical retreat is nothing new for artists. For centuries, many have created some of their most lasting works in remote and even foreign settings away from the masses. The locales could be as plush as an oceanside villa or as isolated as a country cottage.

Rayland Baxter found his in Kentucky, but it’s not the kind of retreat you might expect a song stylist still in the early stages of his career to find inspiring. After all, how enticing would you think an abandoned rubber band factory near the Kentucky/Tennessee border might be?

For five months, the Nashville-based songwriter used one in the Simpson County city of Franklin to compose nearly all of the music on his third album, “Wide Awake.” The record brings the more contemplative alt-country soundscapes and storylines of his first two albums into broader, power-pop territory. Given how cheery much of “Wide Awake” wound up sounding, the Southern Kentucky factory dwelling must have been accommodating.

“A friend of mine lives in Franklin,” said Baxter, who performs Jan. 24 at The Burl. “He had a place that was once this rubber band factory. He was like, ‘Hey, Ray. I hear you’re looking for a place to live for awhile and write. I’ve got a place that I’d like for you to come up and check out.’ So I checked it out. It was free. It was quiet. It was perfect. It was in the wintertime, so I didn’t know how long I was going to stay out there, but I got up there and it became like my bird’s nest. I could do everything I needed to do. I could keep to myself. This was from the end of October 2016 to early February 2017.

“I wanted to write tight songs. There are a million different ways to say ‘I love you,’ a million different ways to describe the wind blowing through the trees and a trillion bazillion different ways to look at the world and yourself. So I just wanted to keep on doing what I thought felt natural. I wanted to write nice melodies and some words I would never get sick of singing. That was it. That was the objective.”

To get the full effect of Baxter’s stylistic expansion on “Wide Awake,” start at the finish line with the quiet morning affirmation of “Let It All Go, Man.” Then let the album rewind to its opening track, “Strange American Dream,” which typifies the record’s more pop-inclined disposition. Lyrically, the songs are like kin. Musically, they travel more diverging stylistic trails.

“That all just happened in the studio, really. I wrote some pop forms on the guitar. For everybody that was in the studio, that was just what came together. It’s what everybody decided to play in support of the song. I mean, Butch Walker (the producer for “Wide Awake” who has overseen albums for Weezer, Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco) is a pop guy, but he’s got grit. He’s got this cabin-in-the-woods kind of thing about him. I don’t know. I have no other explanation for it other than every time we were done tracking, we liked what happened. It was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool, that’s it.’ Also, it’s just the third album, you know? They’ll be more.”

Helping Baxter out on pedal steel guitar during the sessions was an esteemed musical vet – his father, Bucky Baxter. The elder Baxter played extensively with Bob Dylan during the ‘90s and was a frequent visitor to Lexington during the late ‘80s as a member of Steve Earle’s band, the Dukes.

“Well, he’s a part of my project of life,” the younger Baxter said of his dad. “But I’m really his project, I guess. He’s been on every album of mine. He played on ‘Feathers & Fishhooks’ (his 2012 debut album), ‘Imaginary Man’ (the 2015 follow-up) and this new one.

“He tried to get out of it, too. He was like, ‘Oh, Ray, I’m not really well rehearsed. You should call Lloyd Green (now 81, who has recorded with everyone from Johnny Cash to Paul McCartney). Here’s his number. That was great, too. But my dad had to play on this record. I mean, he’s my dad. It’s a dream situation. I’m beyond fortunate to have his opinion about music.”

Rayland Baxter/Illiterate Light performs at 8 p.m. Jan 24 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.

Tickets are $15, $18 at theburlky.com.

the classical-pop adventures of gabriel royal

Gabriel Royal. Photo courtesy of Columbia Artists.

Seated before a microphone in a video for his composition “Remember Us,” the dual musical worlds inhabited by Gabriel Royal quietly bleed into each other.

As a bow hits the base of his cello, a sense of classical clarity is summoned with long vibrant lines that sound distinctly European. Then he sings, but not with the sort of operatic color one might expect as dressing for such stately music. No, what emerges instead is a solid pop-soul tenor, one that winds into a sense of longing the strings already suggested. The two voices are remarkably complimentary, even if they sound like they were forged in different centuries.

The biggest surprise, though, is saved for when the camera pans out at the end of the clip. There you discover Royal wasn’t recording in a studio or rehearsing in a theatre. Instead, he was performing live in a New York subway.

That latter detail is the catalyst for the unlikely career of this genre-hopping artist. Raised in Oklahoma, he moved east and became a Brooklyn busker playing to legions of New York commuters.

“I feel like every time I went down in the subway, I was facing my nerves,” said Royal, who performs Jan. 18 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “Nobody asked you to be there randomly setting up and playing. As such, you don’t feel confident until you see that first dollar drop. Then you’re like, ‘Okay. People like me. I think I can do this.’ It can be a battle, but in the subways, for me, there has mostly been positive response.”

Having since graduated to such prestigious New York club gigs at the Blue Note and Le Poisson Rouge, Royal has been honing a classical cello/pop vocal hybrid that links New York to his youth (he calls the numerous home state refugees he discovered in Brooklyn “Oklahomies”). One sound didn’t necessarily lead to the other, though. Royal took to classical and pop simultaneously.

“The cello does what I tell it to, pretty much,” Royal said. “If I’m playing in a particular style, it’s because I’ve chosen to do that. I’ve never really had those kinds of hang ups about classical music.

“Back in school, my brothers and I would go to the orchestra and then we would come home and get on other instruments. I played drums when I was in college, so we would have the classical training, the music theory, ear training, choir and all that at school. At home, we would listen to hip-hop and jazz. I never had an idea that classical music was the end all and be all of everything. It was just one of the genres I was into. During the day, we would be on the classical side. At night, we would be on the jam-out side. The two always went hand in hand.”

Taken by the orchestrations and compositional structure of vintage Burt Bacharach songs, Royal’s musical scope quickly became panoramic, absorbing everything form Erik Satie to Black Sabbath to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. From the communities of R&B, soul and pop, Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Thundercat lead a diverse lineup of inspirations.

“I always start with Burt Bacharach. I’m a huge Burt Bacharach fan, especially the stuff he did with Dionne Warwick, like ‘Walk On By.’ A lot of his songs had that laid back, kind of smooth, early ‘70s pop sound. I don’t know if you can hear it all that much in my songs, but there is a real bouncy happiness that definitely comes from listening to Burt Bacharach.”

While his heroes may have favored massive, expansive sounds, Royal – at least, for now – goes it alone in his concerts, forging a patiently paced classical/pop blend with one instrument and one voice.

“It works because I can add a beat. I can add a verse. I can make up some stuff. I can take extended time with certain phrases. But there are also things that I lose. I love the huge group harmonies, but I can’t get that when it’s just me and the cello onstage. There are things that you gain by having an actual ensemble with you. I want to get there, but for now, this is doing alright.

“I mean, to be onstage, look out and see people smiling at a song I wrote, that’s a special thing. So, really, I couldn’t be happier.”

Gabriel Royal performs at 8 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Weisiger Theatre at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut in Danville. Tickets: $29, $39. Call 877-448-7469 or go to nortoncenter.com.

gail wynters brings the jazz home

Gail Wynters and son/percussionist Tripp Bratton relax at CoffeeTime on Regency Rd. Herald-Leader staff photo by Charles Bertram.

She has made performance homes in New York and California, toured around the world and recorded with some of the most prestigious names in jazz and pop. But talk to Gail Wynters today and she will be quick to tell you she is more than happy to be singing on home turf.

“I’m still so connected in the heart and soul of all my friends in New York,” said Wynters, who will perform Jan. 12 as part of the Origins Jazz Series. “But I can think of no other place I’d rather be now than here. This is it. I love being close to my family. My sisters and I are all from Ashland. Three of us are here now because all of our kids are either in Lexington or Irvine. So we all moved closer to be with our grandkids and hang out with our children. Now we’re a couple of miles of each other in Nicholasville. I have three sisters. Two are here and one is still in Naples, Fla. We’re trying to get her to come here, too.’

Now maintaining, by her own description, a “semi-retired” life, Wynters’ relocation back to Central Kentucky follows a career where her potent, gospel-bred vocals, which she began exercising professionally as a child, started to roar in such celebrated New York venues as the Rainbow Room, the Blue Note and the long-demised Village Gate.

The repertoire she will bring to this weekend’s Origins shows at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Club will center on a series of arrangements by pianist Tamir Hendelman of tunes penned or popularized by, among others, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim. What will likely distinguish the show, though, will be the notable Central Kentucky company supporting her – specifically pianist Keith McCutchen, bassist Danny Cecil and her son, drummer/percussionist Tripp Bratton.

“Obviously, every time Tripp is onstage with me, it’s family. But we just include other members to the family. It’s just the best. Tripp is a wonderful human being and a great musician. He always has been. I’m the luckiest person in the world in that area.

“But sit me around anybody that’s doing any kind of a rhythm on a piano or hitting a note on a guitar and music just starts rolling in my head. I’ve never thought of this as ‘me’ putting on a show. I always feel like it’s ‘us’ as a unit. We’re all there as one presenting a performance.”

Challenges, of course, present themselves in forging ahead with a jazz career in Central Kentucky. Some of the venues where Wynters has performed Sunday brunch concerts (most notably, Willie’s Locally Known) have closed. Also, the simple maintenance of a singing voice over time has been demanding at times.

“My range is more limited now, mainly from singing in the middle keys for all these years. That’s kind of taken away my highs.” With a laugh, she added, “Of course, age and smoking have nothing to do with it.”

One thing that hasn’t changed has been Wynters’ love of jazz itself. Whether it was through recording projects from decades past with such luminaries as Dr. John, Michael Brecker and Richie Havens or performing locally with friends and family, the music’s unwavering flow of creativity continues to excite her.

“Arnie Lawrence, an incredible saxophonist who started the New School of Jazz in New York (where Wynters served on the faculty), said jazz was spiritual music. It really is. You kind of search within yourself to bring out this music. Some of that you do because it’s fun, especially with the lyrics and the rhythmic parts of the songs. But it’s also poetry. It’s singing poetry that provides the ability to go anywhere you want to in order to express it.

“Pop pretty much stays the same, but jazz almost never repeats. You can do the same song 10 or 20 times, but it’s always changing because you’re feeling differently in the moment. I find it to be a heart, soul, mind connection. It’s a kind of freedom of expression. Hopefully, as an artist, you know a certain level of craft. But everything above that… that’s kind of what you live for.”

Gail Wynters performs at 7 and 9:15 p.m. Jan. 12 at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Club, 266 E. 2nd as part of the Origins Jazz Series. Tickets: $17.50 for each performance, $30 for both shows at originsjazz.org.

a fellini affair: chico plays bowie, part two

Chico Fellini in 2007. From left: Christopher Dennison, Emily Hagihara, Duane Lundy and Brandon Judd. Herald-Leader file photo by Mark Cornelison.

January can be a pretty heady month for David Bowie fans. Witness, for example, what happened in 2016.

On January 8, the vanguard British artist turned 69. The same day, he issued his 25th and final studio album, “Blackstar.” Two days later, he died of complications from liver cancer.

Picking up on what now stands as a dual anniversary of celebration and sadness is the Lexington pop/rock troupe Chico Fellini. The band will perform an entire evening’s worth of Bowie compositions on Jan. 12 at The Burl with the local new generation power trio Johnny Conqueroo opening.

Here is the intriguing part, though. As popular and visible as Chico Fellini was in Lexington clubs a decade ago for its own music, the quartet – vocalist Chris Dennison, guitarist Duane Lundy, bassist/keyboardist Emily Hagihara and drummer Brandon Judd – has largely been out of commission for the past two years. That makes Chico Fellini’s Burl show as much a reunion as a tribute to a rock and pop culture colossus.

Lundy said the members’ myriad outside projects, led by production work at his own local Shangri-La Productions, put Chico Fellini on indefinite hold following a 2016 performance at Crave Lexington and a subsequent show for The Burl’s grand opening.

“When you do music or any sort of collaboration that ends up dealing closely with your friends, things can tend to slip into a sort of limbo where most relationships don’t always do very well. The band stopped playing when my production schedule just got really, really busy. We needed to make some decisions. At that point, it was a little bit of a healthier route to put everything on pause. We’re all still really close friends, so every once in a while the idea to do something special comes up.”

Fast forward to a conversation Lundy had with mainstay Lexington drummer Robby Cosenza, who will be one of several guests augmenting the core Chico Fellini lineup this weekend. The two recalled a similar Bowie tribute the band staged in 2009 as Chico Fellini’s artful and inventive self-titled debut album was being readied for release.

“We were just chatting and I said. ‘That Bowie show was so much fun. I would love to hear Chris sing those songs again.’ That’s really all that it amounted to. Bowie’s birthday and the anniversary of his passing are real close together in January, so it seemed like a good thing to do. The Bowie thing was always a natural fit for Chris. But, really, who doesn’t want to play David Bowie tunes?”

While Bowie’s career spanned over 50 years, Chico Fellini will focus primarily on music he fashioned during an especially creative, prolific and commercially visible period during the ‘70s and early ‘80s. During those years, Bowie switched stage personas as regularly as he juggled musical styles with songs that shifted from glam rock to Philly-style soul to ambient European expression to Nile Rodgers-produced pop.

“First off, playing Bowie tunes gives me an excuse to play guitar because I love Mick Ronson (the guitarist on Bowie’s landmark albums from the early ’70s). Nobody explored music in different ways more successfully than Bowie did within the rock format. (Led) Zeppelin was a huge thing for me, but they did what they did. So did the (Rolling) Stones, and so on. But Bowie was able to wear so many different hats. Going out to play those songs is sort of a selfish thing for me, really. But I also get to hang out with my old bandmates.”

In addition to Cosenza, who will add percussion to the Bowie tribute, Chico Fellini will enlist guitarist Marty Charters (from Joslyn and the Sweet Compression), vocalist John Ferguson (Big Fresh), keyboardist Lee Carroll (C the Beat, among many other projects) and vocalist Erin O’Donnell Reynolds (Oh My Me) as guest performers this weekend.

“It a pretty wild little crew,” Lundy said.

Chico Fellini presents “Hang on to Yourself” – A Night of Bowie at 9 p.m. Jan 12 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Ticket are $10 at theburlky.com.

oregon’s horse feathers flock with kentucky players

Horse Feathers: Robby Cosenza, J. Tom Hnatow, Justin Ringle and Nathan Crockett.

What happens when an Oregon indie pop stylist, stationed for a time in North Carolina, is in need of a working band for an unexpected touring opportunity? Why, he heads to Kentucky, of course.

That’s the situation then-Portland, now-Astoria based song stylist Justin Ringle, the ringmaster behind the Northwestern folk-pop troupe Horse Feathers, was in a few years ago. After completing duties as producer for the Asheville band River Whyless, a touring offer presented itself even though there was no working road version of Horse Feathers available. So Ringle called up a pair of Lexington pals, drummer Robby Cosenza and guitarist J. Tom Hnatow, as well as longstanding Horse Feathers violinist Nathan Crockett. The partnership wasn’t entirely new. Ringle had shared bills with Cosenza and Hnatow during their tenure in the multi-state rock collective These United States. But Ringle wasn’t just after a quick-fix band to hit the road with. He was pursuing a whole new artistic and sonic temperament.

“Back in 2016, when I was working in Asheville, I got called to do a tour in a pinch,” Ringle said. “Geographically, Tom and Robby were the closest people I knew so I gave them a call. One thing led to another and it just became evident that it was going to be a fresh start working in Kentucky.”

“We met probably 10 or 12 years ago,” Cosenza added. “We would cross paths on the road all the time and always admired each other as players. I think it just made more sense for Justin to find something closer than Astoria or Portland, but I think he was also looking to ramp things up a bit. He called Tom and said, ‘You guys aren’t available, are you?’ We were like, ‘Sure.’ He was taking a shot in the dark and it worked out.”

The tour led to sessions for the sixth Horse Feathers album, “Appreciation.” Recorded largely at La-La Land Studios in Louisville and Shangri-La in Lexington, Horse Feathers cemented the working alliance between Ringle, Cosenza and Hnatow while expanding the band’s previously studied and subtle indie folk sound. What resulted was a fuller rock, pop and soul charge that often echoed the exuberance of a vintage Van Morrison record.

“There were so many new perspectives I explored that came from doing a lot of the record in Kentucky,” Ringle said. “It was the first time I recorded outside of the state of Oregon. Robby and Tom helped greatly because they had been working in styles I don’t regularly experiment with. They’ve sat in on a lot of country, Americana and soul sessions. They’ve done work with all types of bands.

“It just came across as a band vibe,” Cosenza said of the “Appreciation” recording sessions. “It wasn’t like Tom and I were hired guns. We all wrote together, we arranged together. It clicked pretty naturally. A lot of times, Tom and I would be goofing off on a tune and that would be the stuff Justin would go, ‘Man, what was that? Use it.”

Recording so far from home might suggest an air of displacement in the new Horse Feathers songs. It’s there, for sure, but not because of the Bluegrass connection.

“I had felt a sense of displacement because I had moved from where I had lived for the previous decade,” Ringle said. “I moved out of Portland to the Southeast and then, consequently, to the Oregon coast. I had also started a new relationship, so there’s a number of themes about everything that goes into that – good and bad. But one of the biggest things artistically, aside from the songwriting and themes, was that I really wanted to explore some sonic differences that I hadn’t really gotten underneath the hood with. I hadn’t really explored full blown rock ‘n’ roll dynamics. I hadn’t explored soul. I hadn’t explored a number of those things. I had to surrender to an experiment.

“We ended up with a sound I didn’t anticipate, but one that I felt really resonated for me and for the band. We were all like, ‘Wow, this is working in a way that none of us expected.”

Horse Feathers, Bendigo Fletcher and Daisy Helmuth perform at 9 tonight at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets: $15, $18 at theburlky.com.

the musical stew of the wood brothers

The Wood Brothers: Jano Rix, Oliver Wood, Chris Wood. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

Digging into a Wood Brothers tune pretty much requires a check list.

A slinky guitar riff born out of the blues but industrious enough to fit most any roots-savvy groove? Check that. Brother Oliver Wood has you covered.

A rubbery bass line that sounds fittingly rustic yet is soulfully funky enough to always seem in motion? Check that. Brother Chris Wood is on the job when then kind of combo commences.

A percussion charge that can sound jagged and loose on one tune but rugged enough on another to fuel a solemn shuffle? Check that. Non-sibling Wood Brother Jano Rix is the guy keeping that groove going.

Smack all that together and you have the recipe the Wood Brothers have been following for the past 14 years. From the earthy tunes offered on “Live at Tonic,” a now out-of-print 2005 EP disc of the band’s very first performance (cut when Oliver and Chris played as a duo) to the ultra-indie design of 2018’s “One Drop of Truth,” a record the trio lineup cut and produced on its own without outside guests, the music of Wood Brothers has been a fresh but largely borderless blend of blues, funk, jam-friendly folk and jubilant rock and soul.

Oliver Wood, however, doesn’t play favorites. He sees all these colliding genres as one musical language.

“It’s just part of the palette with all of the different influences,” he said. “When you have three different guys who have overlapping tastes, different elements are brought in that we feel passionate about. I think, as in any band, that creates a distinctive sound. It’s like it’s a stew or a recipe that is unique to that band. Other people do that, too, but we have our own take on it. We put it together and it’s our little stew.”

A Colorado native, Oliver Wood spun off to Atlanta, landing in the blues band of guitarist Tinsley Ellis and eventually the roots music troupe King Johnson. Chris Wood landed at the New England Conservatory of Music before moving to New York and eventual membership in the popular avant jazz, jam and funk collective Medeski Martin & Wood. Rix, who utilizes a conventional drum kit as well as a modified guitar called a shuitar that is played as a percussion instrument, made the Wood Brothers a trio in 2011.

“Jano has been with us for seven years now, so his role has evolved,” Oliver Wood said. “He helped create some of the real signature noises you hear coming off the stage and the records. From the beginning, he totally fit us.

“I think when musicians get together, they sort of meet in the middle. They just kind of take awhile. With my brother and myself, it was instant just because we grew up together. With Jano or any other member, it takes a little longer. But eventually you get there. You meet in the middle and find a new language where you connect eventually. The way you wind up communicating with that musical language is really cool.”

Though “One Drop a Truth” was a purposely self-contained effort, the Wood Brothers have long been open to the idea of collaboration. Americana favorite Buddy Miller produced the band’s 2013 album “The Muse” while the Wood Brothers found themselves jamming with Hot Tuna and Tedeschi Trucks Band on the latter’s 2017 Wheel of Soul Tour.

But the band’s hybrid sound remains very much its own in any setting. Oliver Wood said that’s a result of unavoidably emulating the rock and soul sounds of the stylists that came before them. Then again, the singer admitted that’s standard operating procedure for most any artist.

“I’m a Ray Charles fan, but I’ll never sound like Ray Charles,” he said. “I’ll probably try some twisted, lame version of it that ends up morphing into something cool. A lot of my heroes did that, like the (Rolling) Stones. They tried to imitate the American blues guys and ended up with their own sound. There are countless examples of that.

“I think that’s how people’s original voices come out. It starts by emulating. They may fail to some degree, but their own personalities emerge. I think we all do that. Take a group of guys that are all doing that to some degree and you find that music is in your DNA.”

The Wood Brothers and Nicole Atkins perform at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main. Tickets: $25. Call 859-231-7924 or go to kentuckytheater.com.

 

 

chris potter looks to the next mountain

Chris Potter. Photo by Tamas Talaber.

The jet lag had barely lifted. Still, on the afternoon following Chris Potter’s return from a European tour with a new quartet he will show off Sunday evening for the Origin Jazz Series, the saxophonist seemed content – well, as content as a globetrotting, band-jumping composer, improviser and collaborator can be.

“It’s just nice to do a solid three weeks of work,” Potter said of his European run. “So now we’re feeling good about the band and its momentum. So we should show up in Lexington fairly well oiled.”

It’s been 15 years since Potter first played Lexington as part of the Dave Holland Quintet at the Opera House. Like Holland, he favors appealing melodic structures and robust improvisatory ingenuity for his music within arrangements and band interplay that often sounds strategically orchestral.

“For Mr. Potter, that involves more than the particulars of a given solo,” wrote Nate Chinen in a 2011 New York Times review of a Village Vanguard concert. “It’s about process and priorities, an investment in mystery, a resistance to habit and comfort.”

Not surprising, Potter and Holland have long enjoyed strong international reputations. Among their many collaborative recordings was Holland’s 2005 Grammy winning big band album “Overtime.”

“Working with Dave has been a very rewarding relationship, both musically and professionally,” Potter said. “Just seeing how he puts together groups, how he thinks about them and just witnessing the personal strength and commitment to what he’s doing has been inspiring.”

But Potter’s musical history is as varied as it is extensive. He toured with Steely Dan when it became a reactivated touring ensemble in the 1990s and was featured on its 2000 comeback album “Two Against Nature” (another Grammy winner).

“To even be a fly on the wall, to see how they rehearse the band and how they would think about the rhythms and then being a part of all that was incredible,” Potter said of his time with the band.

The saxophonist has additionally teamed with a lengthy roster of jazz giants that include Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and the Mingus Big Band. He last played Kentucky in 2014 for a Louisville concert with the Pat Metheny Unity Band.

“You’re always looking at the next mountain,” said Potter of the myriad projects and bands that have taken him around the world over the past two decades. “I feel very, very lucky that I’ve been able to spend years now involved in music that I really believe in and wanted to be a part of, both as a leader and with other people.

“I’ve been playing the saxophone now for a long time, but I still feel like I’m learning new things, even about the instrument, with every performance. So I’m just following that line the same way I always have.

Potter’s last three albums, all for the European ECM label, sport different bands and equally far reaching moods. “The Sirens” (2013) had him playing opposite two keyboardists (Craig Taborn on piano and David Virelles on celesta and harmonium), “Imaginary Cities” (2015) augmented his long-running Underground band with string players and “The Dreamer is the Dream” (2017) was a rich, acoustic quartet session highlighted by Potter’s playing on flute and bass clarinet as well as saxophone.

Perhaps fittingly, the band Potter will perform with on Sunday at the Lyric Theatre, presents a different lineup from all of those records. It plucks two electric players from the Underground – guitarist Adam Rogers and electric bassist Fima Ephron – along with drummer Dan Weiss, who has worked with another acclaimed saxophonist who recently visited Lexington, Rudresh Manhanthappa.

“I hadn’t really explored the more groove aspect of my musical influences, so this band gives me a bit of a platform to express that. I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire along with Weather Report and the Headhunters. That’s been a part of my musical DNA from an early age, along with Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. This group helped me find a way to explore that and play really organically in a kind of funk context.

“I’m not terribly methodical. I don’t really have a manifesto. The way I approach playing is that with whatever situation I’ve gotten myself into, the reactions I’m going to have and the things I’m going to say musically come from my thought process. It’s the same as if you’re going to have a conversation with someone. You could be talking with them about anything, but the way they process information and the way you express yourself come through no matter the subject matter. That’s what I’m trusting in. That’s what I’m exploring.”

Chris Potter performs at 7:30 p.m. April 22 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets: $25. Call: 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

don henley on the 2018 eagles: “we wanted everybody to be all in”

The Eagles, from left: Joe Walsh, Vince Gill, Deacon Frey, Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit. Photo by George Holz.

At the onset of the Eagles’ last Rupp Arena concert, frontmen and lone mainstay members Glenn Frey and Don Henley entered from opposite sides of the stages.

Longtime fans might have viewed this as a coming together of two figurehead performers who helped define a ‘70s Southern California rock community, one that would also dictate the direction of a country music generation decades later. But audiences also knew the Eagles carried a fair amount of in-house baggage over the years full of aggravated relationships that dissolved the band seemingly for good in 1980. The split, in fact, appeared so permanent that the title of a 1994 comeback album half-jokingly referenced the long-held prospect of a reunion – “Hell Freezes Over.”
Yet, here on a late July evening in 2015, with the Eagles long since re-solidified as sagely and resiliently popular touring attraction, Frey and Henley opened the show without accompaniment, singing one of the few songs in a 2 ½ program that was not a hit – a decidedly nostalgic folk reverie from the 1973 Eagles album “Desperado” called “Saturday Night.” It opened the third to last performance of a tour that began two years earlier. It was also the third to last performance Frey would give with the band.

“The guy played through pain for several years,” said Henley during a phone interview last month. “He hid it very well. I could see it in his fingers. His rheumatoid arthritis made his fingers swollen and bent. It was difficult for him many years. But like an old football player, he would get himself taped up and go out there on the field and play the game, so he hid it very well. But he was very uncomfortable for a long time.”

In January 2016, Frey died at the age of 67. In addition to rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis, he had also developed pneumonia the preceding fall. His death placed the often tenuous future of the Eagles again in question. Did Henley, now the lone original member, sense this was the Eagles’ final bow?

“I didn’t sense it, no. As we always say, the Eagles were breaking up from the day the Eagles got together. It was a constant, ongoing thing. But in the past decade or two, we had gotten into the habit of making a reassessment every January. We would stop touring, usually, in October and then go home for the holiday season. Then when January rolled around, we would all get on the phone together to reassess and see if everybody was willing to go on or not, because we were very conscious of everybody’s enthusiasm or lack thereof. We wanted everybody to be all in, so to speak, before we decided to continue.

“We always want to be able to deliver a quality show, a show that is up to the standards that the fans expect. When we feel we can no longer do that, then we’ll hang it up. So when that tour you were speaking about ended, we just thought we would take a two or three month break, then we would probably tour some more the following year. Then the tragedy happened in October. That’s really when Glenn fell ill. That’s when the pneumonia struck. So you never know what’s going to happen in this life. It’s full of unexpected events.”

With its Tuesday return to Rupp Arena, the Eagles boast two new members in Frey’s absence. The first is the late singer’s son, Deacon Frey, whose stage experience prior to joining was largely limited to benefit shows with his dad. But for Henley, his involvement was essential for the Eagles to continue.

“Deacon carries his father’s torch. He carries his father’s spirit. It blows my mind sometimes when I’m sitting at the drums and I’m looking at the back of his head. His hair looks just like his dad’s did in 1974. It’s like déjà vu. We’re all like uncles to him, so it very much has a feeling of family. Having Deacon in the band is really the only way it made sense to me. It’s the only thing that, to me, would make it ethically alright to carry this on. And if he hadn’t been able to do it, I don’t know if we would be out there again this year.

“His first show with us was at Dodger Stadium, so that’s a pretty big leap for a young man. And he did it. He amazed all of us with his composure. But, of course, it’s still an emotional thing for him. Deacon is dealing with it, but he still has moments of emotional upheaval when he remembers his dad. But we all surround him with love and support.”

The other new recruit is distinguished country veteran Vince Gill, a prolific singer, guitarist and hitmaker, as well as part of the Nashville generation that found considerable inspiration in the country-esque verses and harmonies that drove early Eagles favorites like “Take It Easy,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

“Vince, of course, is just a natural fit,” Henley said. “After we decided to put Deacon in the band, Vince was the other obvious choice to come in. He adds years of experience and he’s an extraordinary singer, an extraordinary guitarist and a great songwriter, plus he’s having a really good time out here with us.”

Deacon Frey and Gill join Henley and the two other permanent Eagles – Joe Walsh (who joined in 1975) and Timothy B. Schmit (who joined in 1977). Will their flight continue after touring concludes this fall?  Henley said that call will be made at a later time. Until then, he intends to journey on with a storied band whose entire lifespan has defied rock ‘n’ roll odds.

“We are all acutely aware of what an extraordinary run we’ve had and how this band has had almost as many lives as a cat. We’re aware of that every day and every night. That gives us an edge, energy and will to continue, because we know how unusual our career has been and we know how fortunate we are.”

The Eagles perform at 7 p.m. April 10 at Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine. Tickets: $49.50-$229.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to rupparena.com.

just like sister ray said

The Lexington musicians of Sister Ray. Clockwise from left, Robby Cosenza, Sam McWilliams, Willie Eames, Scott Whiddon, Tim Welch and Kim Conlee. Photo by Matt Goins.

Scott Whiddon figures maybe 10 to 15,000 people, in total, saw the Velvet Underground perform, an estimate given credence by the sluggish sales the New York band posted for the four studio albums it released between 1967 and 1970.

But the Velvets – Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and (following Cale’s dismissal) Doug Yule – were cultural icons of the rock underground during its day and an overwhelming artistic inspiration to successive generations of bands that followed in its wake. So it’s hardly surprising the Velvets’ influence also reaches to Lexington.

For the third time in as many years, Whiddon, bassist from the local indie pop troupe Palisades, and a like minded crew of musical pals (guitarist/vocalist Tim Welch, guitarist Willie Eames, drummer Robby Cosenza, keyboardist/vocalist Kim Conlee and violinist Sam McWilliams) will offer their own takes on Velvets music – from the psychedelic street sounds of their 1967 Andy Warhol-produced debut (“The Velvet Underground and Nico”) to the raw experimental grind of their 1968 follow-up (“White Light/White Heat”) to the comparatively relaxed and almost poppish stride of their first post-Cale record (1969’s “The Velvet Underground”) to the more streamlined electric charge of what became Reed’s last album before departing for a solo career (1970’s “Loaded”).

The six will perform as Sister Ray on Saturday at the Green Lantern. The band’s name comes from the title to the cacophonous, lo-fi 18 minute riot of a song that concludes “White Light/White Heat.”

“I remember being 13 or 14 years old and spending the weekend at a friend’s house,” Whiddon said. “Their older brother came home from college with one of the compilation albums by the Velvets, one that focused mostly on the first record. It was tremendous. It was one of the first steps where those songs got into the DNA of how I thought about the world.

“From the Velvets, you can follow a path to a lot of noise bands, you can follow it to R.E.M., you can follow it to Yo La Tengo.”

As is always the case with any local act, the challenge of mounting a Sister Ray performance centers largely on logistics. All of the members juggle duties in other bands (in many instances, several other bands) as well as family responsibilities and assorted day job demands. But that doesn’t prevent the yearly Sister Ray outings from maintaining a familial feel or diminish the band’s devotion to the Velvets’ music.

“One of the things that just makes me smile is how musicians of this caliber, whenever we do this sort of thing, are willing to make the time and effort to take part,” Whiddon said. “The first thing is that. Then there is the fun part, of course. We get to play songs that we love that perhaps made a mark at some point in our lives when we were falling in love with music.

“But you also have to live up to all of that. You know you want to play really, really well and you want to honor that tradition. So it’s always fun, but it’s also a question of presenting this music to people who also love those records.”

Sister Ray: An Evening of Music by the Velvet Underground performs with DJ sets by Matthew Clarke tonight, Feb. 17, at 9:30 at the Green Lantern, 497 W. 3rd. Admission: $8.

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