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bibb and the blues: a global journey

eric bibb.

eric bibb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

practice makes ‘perfectamundo’

billy gibbons. photo by gerardo ortiz.

billy gibbons. photo by gerardo ortiz.

Somewhere in the deep wiry, soul infested fiber that defines Billy Gibbons – and we don’t mean his classic whiskers – sit the blues.

That’s evident to anyone who has cheered the elemental boogie charge the guitarist has led for over the past 40 years with ZZ Top. But the blues encompasses a lot of music – styles that dance, groove and sustain in ways that might seem unexpected if all you know of Gibbons are hits like La Grange and Sharp Dressed Man. For Perfectamundo, his first album outside of ZZ Top, Gibbons revisits the Latin and Cuban music he knew in his youth – sounds that even pre-dated his pre-ZZ Top band, the Moving Sidewalks. The same fuzzy guitar sound that fortifies his playing and put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still in abundance, as are the scratchy hipster vocals that made the coolest of ZZ Top tunes sound even more chic. But there is also a generous piano and B3 organ drive along with a wall of Latin-charged percussion, making Perfectamundo serious dance floor stuff. At the end of the day, though, the music running the show is still the blues.

“Let’s say the blues and Afro-Cuban music are, ironically, quite compatible,” said Gibbons via email last week. “For instance, Miles Davis, among others, exemplified those interestingly unexpected connections many years ago.  We initially went about the Perfectamundo sessions in a similar manner, without formula, per se.  The rhythms are up front for, well, you know, moving the backsides. We kept an open mind to surround the ongoings to let everybody figure what influences what.  As everybody knows, the root of everything is the blues and that’s a fact.”

Gibbons’ fascination with the rhythms of Afro-Cuban music runs back to his childhood, when his bandleader father introduced him to Cuban percussionist and composer Tito Puente. The always-exuberant Cuban music stylist would become one of Gibbons’s earliest musical mentors.

“My Dad thought it would be helpful if I spent time getting a handle on the basics of polyrhythmic percussion rather than just roam around the house beating and banging on trash cans and such.  Tito’s message, as far as execution was concerned, was elemental –‘Play what you want to hear, directly and deliberately.’ Señor Puente would abide no half hearted efforts, so I do get what you mean about his exuberance.  He got down with gusto.”

While Perfectamundo uses several blues and roots music staples (Got Love If You Want It, Treat Her Right and Baby, Please Don’t Go) as segue ways of sorts to the Latin-savvy command of Gibbons’ BFGs band, several original tunes play right to the heart of the album’s piano, percussion and guitar directed music. Leading the pack is the rich mambo strut of Sal Y Pimiento (Spanish for ‘salt and pepper’). It’s the fourth tune on the album, but the first one to be recorded. As such, it set the pace for the Perfectamundo sound.

“I fell into a just-opened Cuban restaurant in Houston and took a business card with me back to the studio,” Gibbons said.  “I presented it to our engineering crew and said, ‘Here’s the title of the first song for the album. Now, let’s figure out what it sounds like.’ The restaurant was, of course, named Sal Y Pimiento.

“The song is kind of a Latin vamp and is more about the groove than anything else. Truth be told, it could have been 10 times longer because once we got it going, it was hard to stop. We wanted to build momentum with that one that carried through the whole album which, of course, hadn’t been recorded yet. Certainly a funky beginning.”

Where do Gibbons’ ZZ Top bandmates, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, fit in with all this? For now, the guitarist said, they are enjoying a break from the road. But the trio will be back in action again for a European tour this summer.

“ZZ Top is, of course, the ‘main man.’ The Perfectamundo experience is a bonus.

“Can’t imagine not getting out there and playing for the people and gettin’ down night after night. It’s just terrific to be able to do what you really enjoy doing and know that others are so supportive. Win-win-win.”

Billy Gibbons and the BFGs with Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown perform at 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $65.50. Call (800) 745-3000, (859) 233-3535 or go to ticketmaster.com. Tickets for the concert’s originially scheduled Jan. 22 date will be honored.

miles and miles and midon

raul midon.

raul midon.

Ask Raul Midon about his musical inspirations, and he will point to the Argentine folk styles introduced to him by his father. Review his touring itinerary and you will find him on the road with an all-star legion of jazz celebrities this winter as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival Tour. Consider the genres his songs readily lean to and you will discover abundant accents of R&B and pop. Finally, sift through the tunes making up his most recent album, 2014’s Don’t Hesitate, and you will find a Latin-leaning work co-penned by soul impresario Bill Withers and a cover of I Can See for Miles, a 1967 hit for The Who.

Which sound dominates enough to define Midon’s truest musical identity? Try all of them.

“I have a very wide palette so I never really thought of myself as part of a musical genre,” Midon says. “That’s very difficult from a business standpoint, but that’s just the way it is for me. That’s what I do. If a song is going in an R&B direction, I just let it go there. If it’s going in a jazz direction, I go there. Sometimes I purposely write something in a certain genre or that inclines toward a certain genre. But, I don’t know. I’ve never really stuck to just one genre, for whatever that’s worth. Maybe I should have from a career standpoint, but that’s not the way I’ve done things. I’ve always been into bridging things — bringing things together that are not normally brought together.”

The New Mexico-turned-New York guitarist, vocalist and composer has, over the past decade, established a sound with a folkish accessibility bolstered by strong phrasings of jazz. There was quick support from two of his idols, Stevie Wonder (who was a guest on Midon’s 2005 album State of Mind) and Herbie Hancock (whose Possibilities album featured Midon singing Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You). But click onto Midon’s website and you will be greeted by a video of him interpreting the John Coltrane standard Giant Steps, not as what he calls a “rite of passage” instrumental but as a springboard for vocal improvisation.

“It’s interesting that it’s getting so much attention because nobody improvises as a singer over those changes,” Midon says. “People just don’t do it. I know people — saxophone players, trumpet and even guitar players — that play it. But singing it is another matter.”

Okay then? How do you go from Coltrane to The Who? What made Midon, who filled Don’t Hesitate with a wealth of stylistically far-reaching original material (including the Withers co-write Mi Amigo Cubano) to cover a Who hit?

I Can See For Miles is a very difficult song, but that’s always part of what I look for — something challenging. The song is amazing. Keith Moon’s drumming on it is just spectacular. The harmony in the song is spectacular. I also like the whole metaphor of ‘I can see for miles’ from my standpoint,” Midon says. “The thing just really spoke to me so I decided to tackle it.”

That resonance becomes more understandable when you consider Midon has been blind since infancy. But he has continually brushed aside any obstacles brought on by the condition. For Don’t Hesitate, that extended to the album’s recording process. He cut it in his home studio with a technology called cake-talking.

“What cake-talking has done has made the technology transparent enough to be able to convert what you hear into recorded music,” Midon says. “It was created by someone who really understands what a blind person needs, namely to be able to use the keyboard and not the mouse for doing everything. As a sighted person, you just scan and find what you want. But if you don’t see, the screen has to be configured like, ‘Okay, how do I get this information and not a billion others things that I don’t want.’ Achieving that is really the genius of it.”

Midon is already at work on a follow-up to Don’t Hesitate, even though it likely won’t see a release date until 2017. Among his goals is a renewed emphasis on jazz songwriting — not instrumental compositions, but actual songs that deviate from conventional pop strategies.

“Trying to write a song, a new song, using the modern jazz musical language is not something that’s being done a lot,” Midon says. “Is that something that is ultimately going to get played on the radio? I don’t know. But for me, that’s what’s exciting. I don’t need to sing another Sinatra tune. There are a lot of people doing that and doing it very well. It just doesn’t really hold a lot of interest to me.”

Paul Midon performs at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets: $25. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to ekucenter.com.

gregg allman #1: beyond the brothers

gregg allman.  photo by danny clinch.

gregg allman. photo by danny clinch.

One year ago, almost to the week, Gregg Allman took to the stage at the Grand Opera House in Macon, Ga. for a performance that was both a homecoming and a rediscovery.

Some 45 years earlier, Macon served as the homebase of the mighty Allman Brothers Band, the ensemble that infused blues, Southern soul and jazz-like jamming into a musical genre that became generically known as Southern rock. But with singer/organist Allman having long since established nearby Savannah as his current home, the opportunity to perform again in Macon in 2015 doubled as a chance to re-introduce himself as a solo artist, especially as the legendary band that bore his name had called it a day a year earlier.

The performance resulted in Back to Macon, Ga., a CD/DVD recording that was released in August. The first album since the split of the ABB, Back to Macon retooled several of the group’s more established concert pieces (Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’), a few diamonds from Allman’s solo career (Queen of Hearts, I’m No Angel) as wells as a couple of R&B gems the singer grew up with (Brightest Smile in Town, I’ve Found a Love). But instead of recreating the twin guitar, triple percussion drive of the ABB, the new recording presented Allman as the head of a hearty Southern soul revue with a larger group that included a second keyboardist, a horn section and one ABB holdover, percussionist Marc Quinones.

“It’s very interesting having a larger band,” said Allman, 68. “I’ve got people that are like my teachers. They might be a little bit younger than me, but they are way more accomplished musicians. I just happened to pick the right ones. Everybody gets along beautifully and everybody has got the same goal.”

The latter quality, Allman intimated, was lacking in several of the ABB incarnations.

“It’s different from the Allman Brothers in that the Allman Brothers, after my brother died, never had a leader. Every organization needs a focal point. I mean, if it’s for nothing else, somebody to say ‘start’ and ‘stop.’ I’m just saying that it helps when the leader obtains a little bit of respect from all the rest of the band. That always helps.

“I’ve had a band on the side ever since the Laid Back record (Allman’s 1973 solo debut album). But this is by far the best arrangement of musicians I’ve ever played with.”

The other “brother” Allman referenced was older sibling Duane Allman, the groundbreaking slide guitarist who founded the ABB in 1969 only to die in a 1971 motorcycle accident just as the group was achieving stardom.

Did the elder Allman’s long absence from stewardship of the ABB contribute to the group’s seemingly final dissolve (the band also split for extended periods in 1976 and 1982) in late 2014?

“Let’s just say there were just too many head chefs in the kitchen.”

What Back to Macon also affirms is the emergence of a stronger, healthier Allman. A veteran of one of the more publicly excessive rock star lifestyles of the 1970s, Allman was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2007 and underwent a liver transplant in 2010. He has battled numerous ailments through the years, including respiratory infections.

“I still have my days, but for the most part I feel really good. I say prayers of thanks every day. I’m a very blessed and fortunate person, I really am. So far, I’ve had a beautiful life.”

Gregg Allman performs at 8 tonight at the Newlin Hall, Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. The concert is sold out.

Tickets go on sale Jan. 15 for Allman’s 7:30 p.m. performance on April 6. For info, go to ticketmaster.com. The Musical Box will post more of its interview with Allman a few days prior to that concert.

guitars and gurdjieff

fabio mittino and bert lams. photo by danny nguywn.

fabio mittino and bert lams. photo by danny nguywn.

Grab your passports, folks, we’re going on a trip. Well, not in the literal sense, perhaps. But the international pathways to be explored in Friday’s guitar duo performance at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café in Frankfort by Bert Lams and Fabio Mittino nonetheless constitute an overseas journey of sorts.

Here’s the travelogue checklist. Lams, one-third of the popular California Guitar Trio, hails from Belgium. His performance partner for a brief winter tour is a former student, Italian-born guitarist Mittino. Their favored repertoire tonight, which also fortifies their fine new Long Ago album, will be the works of Russian/Armenian composer/philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and his Russian/Ukranian protégé Thomas Alexandrovich de Hartmann.

Oh, yes, did we mention Lams and Fittino met in England while studying with British guitarist/King Crimson chieftain Robert Fripp? Those are the destinations that begin Friday in Frankfort.

“Robert suggested that Fabio take some guitar lessons with me,” Lams recalled of his initial meeting with Mittino. “This was 20 years ago. Fabio is a lot younger than I am. He was really a kid then who travelled all the way from Milan twice or three times to take some lessons. Then we started playing together and gradually became friends.”

The music of Long Ago evokes exactly what its title suggests. Gurdjieff gathered melodies during travels through the Middle East, Far East and Africa. Often with de Hartmann’s assistance, the music was fashioned into pieces for piano. Initial exposure in North America to the resulting compositions came through artists like pianist Keith Jarrett. But Long Ago represents the first time Gurdjieff’s work has been so extensively transcribed for, and subsequently performed on, guitar.

“Most of this music came from what Gurdjieff heard during his early travels,” Lams said. “Gurdjieff’s father was a professional storyteller, so he was steeped in this oral tradition. He seemed to remember most of these melodies that he heard a long time ago. But he needed someone like de Hartmann to translate it, because Gurdjieff couldn’t really play very much. He could sing a little bit, play guitar with one finger and play a little bit on the harmonium, but he wasn’t a totally accomplished piano player or anything. It was de Hartmann who really brought that to us.”

For Milan native Mittino, an early fascination with Gurdjeff paralleled with the discovery of The Bridge Between, a 1993 album by the Robert Fripp String Quartet. That band was a progressively minded joint venture between the then-newly formed California Guitar Trio and two members (Fripp and stick player Trey Gunn) of the soon-to-be-relaunched King Crimson.

“I was studying with a classical teacher at the conservatory in Milan, but when I heard that CD by the Robert Fripp String Quartet, it just blew my mind,” Mittano said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I want to absorb and learn this language.’ I knew in order to do that, I had to go to the source. That was how I met Bert.

“The same thing happened with Gurdjieff. I heard this piano piece (Allegretto, which is featured on Long Ago) and it became one of my favourites. So I wanted to learn how to play this music. I discovered nobody transcribed it for guitar, so that was the beginning of my work on that music.”

There is a delicate intimacy to the Hindu, Kurdish and Armenian mazurkas, dances and folk tunes Gurdjieff and de Hartmann appropriated for the music that makes up Long Ago. While one can still sense the lyricism piano would lend to these works, the expression the tunes yield in a guitar duo setting becomes rich and often harmonious.

“The reason we play this music is simply because it spoke to us,” Lams said. “But we also like doing something that has never been done before. The guitar brings to this music a sort of new life because until now it has mostly been played on the piano. The piano is a beautiful instrument, but it has a very authoritative sound. When you play some of this music on the guitar, it has a much more intimate sound. Most people come to me after a show and say they were moved by it. They were touched by it. I think the guitar can do that in a different way.

“Still, there is something in this music, regardless of what instrument you play it on, that needs discovering. For us, it feels like we discover something new every night in front of the audience. It’s very exciting.”

Bert Lams and Fabio Mittino perform at 8 p.m. Jan. 8 at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, 235 W. Broadway in Frankfort. $20. 502-875-3000. For ticket info, go to kentuckycoffeetree.com.

brubeck time

chris and dan brubeck.

chris and dan brubeck.

Peruse the list of artists Chris Brubeck has composed music for and you will discover names that span generations and styles alike.

There is the concerto he wrote for a trio of genre-specific violinists (classical virtuoso Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, jazz stylist Regina Carter and Irish-American fiddler Eileen Ivers), a quintet piece recorded with the heralded woodwind ensemble Imani Winds and a work for the Americana-friendly trio Time for Three performed this fall with the Lexington Philharmonic.

While all of that has established the multi-instrumentalist as a premiere composer, arranger and performer, there is a name his most formidable musical talents always seem to answer to – his own. That’s because Brubeck is the son of jazz icon Dave Brubeck, the pianist whose inventive use of time signatures was the basis of a far-reaching career that spanned over 60 years. But the father-son relationship was also a professional one. Chris and brother/drummer Dan Brubeck were regular bandmates of their father beginning in the ‘70s, playing together at the inaugural concert of the University of Kentucky’s Spotlight Jazz Series in 1978. So it’s of little surprise the music the siblings will perform for a New Year’s Eve concert tonight with the Philharmonic will focus less on Chris’s compositions and more on the music penned and popularized by father Dave.

“Part of the reason I have the courage and insanity to do what I do is because I grew up listening to my father do it,” Chris said. “My dad and Leonard Bernstein were some of the first guys in the jazz world and the classical world to try to put things onstage together and to try to work together. Since I grew up in a household where I saw it happen, it didn’t seem like a totally impossible thing for me.

“So my brother Dan and I really enjoy playing this music along with (guitarist) Mike DeMicco and (pianist) Chuck Lamb. We’ve played with quite a few orchestras over the years, some as far flung as the Russian National Symphony Orchestra in Moscow. We played a sold out performance at Tchaikovsky Hall, and that was really thrilling – to think, ‘Wow, we’re on the other side of the world and they have Dave Brubeck fans there.’ So to be able to play that music and bring the same basic mission, which is to have really cool music and then improvise on top of it, through, up and around it, is really great. That’s what we’re going to be doing on New Year’s Eve, too.”

While Dave Brubeck was best known for combo hits like Take Five (a composition by Brubeck Quartet saxophonist Paul Desmond), Blue Rondo a la Turk and Unsquare Dance, he composed numerous works for orchestra. One of his most prominent orchestral pieces, Brandenburg Gate (featured on Brubeck Quartet albums in 1958 and 1963) is scheduled to be part of the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve program.

“It’s one of those seminal pieces,” Chris said of Brandenburg Gate. “Frankly, people in the audience probably will not have heard it or will have compared it to Blue Rondo a la Turk or Take Five. But it gets a good reaction. It’s rather Bach-like and has room for improvisation. It’s really just a theme with variations.

“I’m always reminded of how important this was at the time in terms of where my dad wanted to go with his music. He used to get really nervous playing with orchestras. My dad used to be so nervous that he wouldn’t announce things to the audience or introduce guys in his band. It’s funny, because if you saw him later on in his life, he got much, much looser. Some nights, he would have what I call the Will Rogers Syndrome, where he would just have this funny face when he was talking and it was really hilarious. It was like seeing a standup comedian who would play piano. It’s hard to believe that he could have been so completely uptight about it when he started.

“I’ve played with orchestras with my father for probably 40 years. There used to be this feeling of unwelcome-ness when we would show up to play with some of them. A lot of old European-schooled immigrants thought mixing these two genres of music was a sin, although my dad would always try to remind the classical musicians, ‘Hey, remember that the greatest improvisers of the time were Bach and Mozart.’ Going to see Mozart play then would probably be like going to see Chick Corea play today. You have that same kind of thrill.”

The Lexington Philharmonic with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $25-$155. Call 859-233-4226 or go to

www.lexphil.org.

a walk in the trackless woods

iris dement.

iris dement.

It’s common practice for champion songwriters to detour slightly from their own work on occasion to cover the music of other favored artists. Similarly, it has become a favorite workman’s holiday activity for songsmiths to fashion new compositions out of unpublished song lyrics from such pioneers as Woody Guthrieand Bob Dylan.

Iris DeMent traveled another route altogether in constructing her sublime new album The Trackless Woods. A vocalist of regal Americana beauty and a writer of brilliantly reflective songs steeped in often heartbreaking detail (the rural eulogy Our Town, one of her first compositions, remains a prime example), DeMent looked to another shore and a different time for the source material behind her newest songs. Specifically, she became engrossed in the works of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose early 20th century writings served as lyrics for DeMent’s newly composed melodies.

DeMent downplays the feat, though, saying the music and poetry for The Trackless Woods were a natural and almost effortless fit.

“For reasons I can’t explain, it felt very familiar to me, really from the first poem I read,” DeMent said by phone last week. “I instantly heard melodies with her poems. So it was not a struggle. By my standards, it was surprisingly easy. There were just a lot of pieces that went together that made this feel very natural. It was a joy to set these poems to music.”

In some ways, the seemingly novel practice of weaving ages-old poetry together with freshly composed music was a proven strategy to DeMent. Her husband, veteran folk stylst Greg Brown, set the poetry of William Blake to original music on his 1986 album, Songs of Innocence and Experience. But DeMent noted there was a significant difference between the inspirations for that album and The Trackless Woods.

“Greg had grown up with Blake,” she said. “I wasn’t familiar with Anna Akhmatova’s poetry or her name for that matter until the very first poem I read, which was Like a White Stone. I read it and a minute later I read it again and set it to music. So my introduction to her happened right along with the introduction of the poems to the melodies. These were not poems that I carried around with me. I was meeting them for the first time. I would say at least half of these poems I had only read once or twice when I set them to music.”

So what drew one the most cherished American songwriters of her generation to the works of a poet who, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, lost family and friends to the gulags, creating poems of lightness and being in the wake of human atrocities?

“I feel I should be able to answer that. I’ve drummed up a few things that would sound good in print. But the truth is, I don’t know. It was just an instantaneous connection that I felt. To be perfectly honest, I read one poem and it was like somebody walked in the room and told me to set it to music. That all happened before I had any emotional sense of connection to this writing. I felt directed to do it. It was after reading those first poems that I started to do some research. I went to find out who this lady was and certainly developed a great interest in her life and her personality and her story. But I can’t put my finger on it. I just can’t.

“I grew up with a lot of hymns and old church music. Some of those hymns have been around a hundred years, the ones that rose to the surface and lasted. I know that when I read Anna’s poems, I had that same sort of experience that I’ve had singing those timeless hymns. I know that I experience them that way. I don’t know if she was writing them that way, but I know the words and the sounds and the melodies I heard with them all seemed so tied up with that hymn structure and style and emotional quality.

“I suppose you say the same thing about many poets. But one thing I really like about Anna is you can really hear in her poetry that it’s very personal, but she also has this quality that ties her into this big world, to nature and place. She has this sense of where she is at in history and her connection to the things, the people and the land around her. It’s broad in that way. They say that some of the things that are most personal can be the most universal. Anna has that quality for me in her writing.”

The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour featuring Iris DeMent and Leyla McCalla performs at 6:45 p.m. tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets are $20. Cal (859) 280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

a home for the holidays on the road

mark o'connor. photo by mitch weiss,

mark o’connor. photo by mitch Weiss,

Among the core themes of holiday songs – and, indeed, to Christmastime, in general – are family and home.

Mark O’Connor has expanded on that idea. Since the heralded violinist has been on the road this time every year since his Americana-flavored An Appalachian Christmas album was released in 2011, he has chosen to take his family with him as he creates his sounds of the season. Of course, the fact that wife Maggie (also on violin) and son Forrest (on mandolin) are both versed musicians doesn’t hurt.

“It’s hard to describe, but I think there is a natural element to a project like this,” said O’Connor, who brings his An Appalachian Christmas program to the Singletary Center for the Arts on Friday. “Some families might play together. But my wife and I just have this chemistry with the violins. When we play together, we know we really like it and we can see our audiences really like it. To be able to extend that duo chemistry with the violins to a larger group and then have everybody just fall into that closeness of sound and style… it’s really just a catalyst for good music making.”

“Playing with my son and my wife offers a whole new dimension that I have never really imagined before. I mean, how can you plan that? It’s not like a career development path. It just happened. It was just right there. We just put it onstage like any good musician would do with any good idea.”

Bred on bluegrass, but with a far-reaching vocabulary that reaches into classical, jazz, country, fusion and swing, O’Connor has been championed equally as an instrumentalist, composer and, thanks to a teaching method that bears his name, educator. An Appalachian Christmas, however, picks up on what was perhaps his most visible career during the ‘80s and ‘90s – that of a sideman on scores of predominantly country music recordings.

“I’ve played with a lot of singers as a sideman. But to kind of switch it around and have the focal point of An Appalachian Christmas be the fiddle and then have the songs and the album’s incredible guest singers (Renee Fleming, Jane Monheit, James Taylor, Alison Krauss and Russell Springs favorite son Steve Wariner) to combine for a sequence of beautiful songs that support that central element is something I also feel very lucky to be part of.
“You get this real feeling that the American violin is central to this project. The style of music, in a real general sense, has bluegrass instrumentation stretching to include the sounds of classical, the sounds of swing, the sounds of ethereal and New Age, the sounds of Appalachia. Then to make that a cohesive whole has really been a rewarding experience, something that brings generations of audiences together at a really special time of the year in American life.”

But O’Connor has a dual purpose for his Lexington visit. He will be in town a day early to present a workshop on the O’Connor Method, an instructional regimen that employs American music as a primary source and reference for teaching.

“It will be a community of music learning. We want kids to learn American music. It’s powerful and it’s inspirational. We want kids to play instruments again, you know? Maybe spend less time on video games and more on playing actual instruments. People like us are the ones to deliver that message. We can sing great, we can look great, but the important thing is we’re playing our instruments. We cherish that.

“We want to make sure that message gets to kids. We want to appeal to kids. We don’t want to just tell them, ‘Do this scale over and over until it’s perfect.’ They’ve already tried that for generations. It works for some but not for the many. We think we have a different and better approach for strings with the O’Connor Method where we are using American music and its cultural diversity. It incorporates music from all eras, all these different styles that are so inspirational. And creativity – creativity and improvisation. We’re definitely doubling down on string orchestra, but we’re not leaving out bluegrass bands or jazz ensembles or rock. We want strings to be in every part of music culture.”

Mark O’Connor: An Appalachian Christmas performs at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $15-$32. Call 859-257-4929 or go to finearts.uky.edu/singletary-center.

O’Connor and his band will present a workshop on the O’Connor Method at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 10 at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCAPA), 400 Lafayette Parkway. Tuition is $60, registration fee is $35. For more information, go to www.oconnormethod.com.

turning the corner with dailey & vincent

jamie dailey and darrin vincent .

jamie dailey and darrin vincent .

It was just over eight years ago that Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent uprooted themselves from duties in two immensely prestigious bluegrass bands – Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver for the former and Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder for the latter – to set in motion a group that would bear their own names.

With 2015 coming to a close, one can see how well the resulting alliance worked. Dailey & Vincent have become a monstrously popular act built on bluegrass tradition but with generous leanings to gospel and country as well as a performance style that blended virtuoso picking and harmony vocals with the expansiveness and agility of an orchestra. Of course, back in 2007, Vincent didn’t have much inkling as to what fortunes awaited the duo. In fact, he said the whole formation of Dailey & Vincent wasn’t even his idea.

“Honestly, I never thought about doing this. Jaime had the idea and the vision for all of it. When he was with Doyle, he said, ‘Look, I’ve been here nine years. Financially, we’re never going to get past this mark we’re at today. If we don’t do something out on our own, we’re always going to be here.

“We had already started a band together, but in January 2007, Jaime said, ‘This is our year to do this.’ He gave Doyle Lawson a year’s notice and I gave Ricky a year’s notice. We said, ‘Look, at the end of this year, we’re going to stop. We’re starting our own thing.’ So we went a whole year not knowing how long we would last. Looking back, Jaime made it to the middle of August with Doyle and I made it all the way to the first of November with Ricky. It was a blessing, but it was also a scary time back then. The bottom fell out of the economy, fuel prices went up. It was a hard time to start a band and start a new business. But we’ve come a long way in eight years.”

During that time, Dailey & Vincent chalked up 13 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, a trio of Grammy nominations and accolades for high energy performances that inspired the CMT network to dub the duo as “the rock stars of bluegrass.”

But from the onset, Dailey & Vincent were as much about instinct as tradition. After releasing the duo’s first three albums in a 19 month period, Dailey felt compelled to devote a record to one of his strongest musical inspirations – the country gospel vocal group The Statler Brothers. Vincent was game for the idea, but no one at the business end of the duo’s affairs was especially thrilled.

“Our label, Rounder Records, said, ‘Look, you guys are brand new. This is too early to do a tribute record in your career,’ Vincent said. “Our management didn’t want anything to do with it, either.”

What turned the corner on the project was as an abbreviated set at the Ryman Auditorium where Dailey & Vincent performed one of the Statlers’ most established hits, the harmony rich Elizabeth. In the audience were executives from Cracker Barrel, the country restaurant/store chain that also operated its own record label.

“As soon as we got backstage, they had somehow made it back there and said, ‘Look, how can we partner up with you guys? We are open to any ideas you have.’ Jamie just dropped his guitar and said, ‘Well, I’ve got this idea for a tribute to the Statler Brothers I would like for us to do.’ They said, ‘Count us in. We’re on board.’ After that, Rounder said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea,’ and our management said, ‘That’s a perfect idea.’

Vincent lets out a howl of laughter at the recollection. “I love it.” The aptly titled Dailey & Vincent Sing the Statler Brothers was released in early 2010. Today, the focus for Dailey & Vincent is a new live CD/DVD set called Alive! In Concert. Recorded on the campus of George Mason University in Manassas, Va., the recording underscores the instrumental support of the duo’s backing band but also utilizes GMU’s 50 member orchestra and 100 member choir. What results is an atypically massive sound for a bluegrass project.

“Just being in the moment onstage, listening to the strings plus our band, the music sounded huge,” Vincent said. “It was so beautiful and full of joy. Me and Jaime didn’t want to stop. We were like, ‘Let’s do this again.’ It was wonderful.”

Dailey & Vincent perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut Street in Danville. Tickets: $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469 or go to

nortoncenter.com.

kinky friedman: the lonely, sold american

kinky friedman. photo by brian kanof.

kinky friedman. photo by brian kanof.

“Start talking.”

That’s how Kinky Friedman answers the telephone as we begin our interview. You discover quickly, though, that the veteran Texas songsmith, author, one-time gubernatorial candidate and all-around raconteur isn’t being rude or abrupt. He’s just anxious for a conversation – any conversation – to begin.

For the moment, talking is a good pastime. Friedman is on the road – specifically, “Pennsylvania somewhere on the way to Ohio.” It’s Sunday morning as well as his 71st birthday. So what better way to pass a few minutes and miles than talking music, politics and writing, and then wrapping it all up with a Texas-sized dose of wry humor.

“It’s just the curse of being multi-talented, that’s all,” Friedman said. “I’ve written about 34 books. Then, of course, the politics takes up all kinds of time and sucks most of the energy out of your life and turns you into a bad person if you stay with it too long. I mean, it’s the only field where the more experience you have, the worse you get.”

For the singer who popularized Sold American decades ago, life in the Americas today is a quizzical, troubled journey. Yet he still finds audiences outside of Lone Star country taken with his vintage songs as well as music from his newest album, The Loneliest Man I Ever Met.

“I think Raymond Chandler, the mystery writer, said, ‘Scarcely anything in literature is worth a damn except what is written between the lines.’ So what we have here is really a record stripped down to the soul to where you can bring your own imagination into the songs, which you can’t really do with all this over-produced crap today where everything sounds like Beyonce or Taylor Swift.”

While Loneliest Man boasts a few Friedman originals, the bulk of its leanly arranged repertoire is devoted to what he calls “interpretive renderings” of songs by Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and other fellow renegades.

“We puts some tracks down at our ranch in Texas, tracks that sounded so damn good that we said, ‘Why the hell do we have to make this like something coming out of Nashville, some over produced background music for a frat party? Let’s just pick songs we love and keep it sparse, just like Willie (Nelson)’s Red Headed Stranger.’ That seems to have worked.”

A Chicago native, Friedman was part of a wave of country-inspired songwriters headquartered in Austin, Tx. during the early ‘70s. The satirical elements of his music were often severe (his long running band was called The Texas Jewboys), but Friedman’s inspiration was vast. His landed a recording contract with the help of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen in 1973 and became part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975.

“It’s a heady experience being around great, original talent,” Friedman said. “Nashville now is like a corporate publishing house. You’ve got a songwriters meeting with three guys working on a song that should sound a little like this guy and a little like that guy and since it’s going to be for Toby Keith, it has to sound a little bit like Toby’s last record. I’ve never met Toby. I’ve got nothing against the guy. But this just shows you how the business part took over.”

“Look, I’m 71. But I read at the 73 year old level. Young people today… their bands may be good, bad or indifferent, but what you’re hearing coming out of the radio is not something that’s going to inspire anybody. I’ll tell you, just going to see a concert by Levon Helm used to inspire me, or by Merle (Haggard) or Bob or Willie or Billy Joe Shaver. They all inspired me. There are just a handful of people doing their thing and that group is diminishing all the time. I mean, these guys will make you think with a song that may stay with you for a lifetime.”

Friedman’s career has regularly veered outside of music. He mounted an independent campaign for Texas governor in 2006, finishing fourth in a six-candidate race won by Rick Perry. But he has been especially visible since the 1980s as a writer of crime novels (curiously, most of them were set in New York). He has subsequently written a column for Texas Monthly and several non-fiction works.

“A question was posed to me by a child once. He knew I was a songwriter and he knew I wrote books. He asked when I’m typing the books if I was hearing music in my head. I guess the answer is yes. For songwriting or writing a novel, I think the best bet is you’ve got to find a way to be miserable. If you’re a happy, well-adjusted person, you can pretty well forget it.

“My definition of an artist is someone who is ahead of his time and behind on his rent.”

Kinky Friedman and Kacey Jones perform at 6:45 p.m. Nov. 23 for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour featuring at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center , 300 East Third. Tickets: $20. Call (859) 280-2218.

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