Archive for profiles

the arrival of rhiannon

rhiannon giddens.

rhiannon giddens.

As it turns out, the title could not have been more prophetic – Tomorrow is My Turn.

It’s a song penned decades ago by Charles Aznavour and popularized by the incomparable Nina Simone. But this spring it serves as the title tune to the debut solo album of Rhiannon Giddens. That this co-founding member of the Grammy winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and, more recently, the all-star New Basement Tapes, adds a luster to the tune worthy of Simone is almost beside the point. It represents the arrival of an exact, complete and powerfully regal voice.

“All of this has been a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest with you, but not necessarily an unwelcome one,” said Giddens, who performs Tuesday at the Lexington Opera House. “I was gearing up to work on the next Chocolate Drops record when all of this happened. It’s taken some time to get used to. But I just feel like after 10 years in the Chocolate Drops and continuing on with that mission as I am, it’s time for this.

“I’m just so much about the music, and the music is getting out there. This album seems to be reaching a wider audience than the Chocolate Drops albums have. That makes me happy because it means that maybe this expansion is working.”

Expansion is the key word. Over the past decade with the Chocolate Drops, Giddens has explored the roots music repertoire of African-American string bands from the 1920s and ‘30s. The band’s recordings featured Giddens’ talents as an instrumentalist as much or more than as a singer. But on Tomorrow is My Turn, her vocal talents are placed front and center on tunes penned or popularized by Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Odetta, Patsy Cline, Elizabeth Cotton and Kentucky’s own Jean Ritchie. She also concludes the record with an original work, a gorgeous song of renewal called Angel City.

“I’ve always been a singer who has played instruments, and I am okay with the fact that my singing was secondary to what the Chocolate Drops were trying to do,” Giddens said. “I really feel strongly in that mission. But it has been really neat to let my voice fly a little bit. What I’ve always been is a singer, so it’s good to have a solo record out there representing artists that I respect so much.

“The whole reason I wanted to do this was to honor to these women who had come before me. It just seemed right. Everybody who is on this record with me, I can hear in my head or I could be reading their stories and picking up on what they’re passing on. There is that feel of the knowledge of where I stand with these women. It’s all there.”

Giddens had a strong ally in her corner as she established her solo career – famed Americana producer T Bone Burnett. After inviting Giddens to his curated Another Day, Another Time concert (a 2013 performance at New York’s Town Hall dedicated to the ‘60s folk scene in Greenwich Village that inspired the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis), Burnett signed on to produce Tomorrow is My Turn.

“When T Bone and I started off, he was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I had a list of songs and he said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ It was very empowering, I think, and that is something he is very good at doing – creating the space so you can feel empowered. You may not know exactly that you can do it. He doesn’t make you do it. You have to do it. But he creates the space to let you bring your A-game.”

No sooner was the solo album complete than work on Lost on the River, the resulting recording of the New Basement Tapes project began. The collective teamed Giddens with Elvis Costello, Jim James (of Louisville’s My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) to create new music for unpublished 1967 lyrics by Bob Dylan.

‘That was a once in a lifetime opportunity. You take a box full of old Dylan lyrics, put it in one of the nicest studios in the country at Capitol Records with some of the best engineers in the world with four other incredible musicians and then go at it. It was just fantastic. Now, in the middle of it, I was freaking out a little. But I’m really proud of my contribution and feel like I learned so much. I’ll be using for years what I learned from that project.

“I feel like last year was a really important one for me with my first solo record and the New Basement Tapes. Those two projects will loom large in my career for a long time to come. It’s great, you know? But when all is said and done, for me, the most important thing is to feel the music is being treated right and that we’re getting it out to the people I want to get it out to. If that happens, I’m happy no matter what.”

Rhiannon Giddens and Bhi Bhiman perform at 7:30 p.m. March 31 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $25.50, $35.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to

checking out of shamrock city

Solas. From left: Seamus Egan, Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Niamh Varian-Barry and Eamon McElholm (McAuley and Varian-Barry aren't currently in the group.)

Solas. From left: Seamus Egan, Winifred Horan, Mick McAuley, Niamh Varian-Barry and Eamon McElholm (McAuley and Varian-Barry aren’t currently in the group.)

As it returns to Frankfort on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, the heralded Irish-American band Solas finds itself nearing an interval separating two hugely ambitious musical projects.

The first is an album built around a story of Irish immigration composed and presented from a very personal standpoint. The second is a celebration of Solas’ own history – specifically, a recording that will serve as a family reunion of every singer and instrumentalist that has served in the band’s ranks over the past two decades.

“It’s sort of amazing, really,” said Solas fiddler and co-founder Winfred Horan, who performs with the current Solas lineup at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort on Monday. “We’ve been touring Shamrock City, our newest album, for the last year and a half. So we’re wrapping up that touring cycle. Then in May, we start recording for the 20th anniversary celebration album. We’re doing half of the recording here in the States and half of it back in Ireland just because a lot of the band members and former members live there. It’s all kind of crazy to think about.”

Solas (Gaelic for “light”) is the brainchild child of Horan, a New York-born fiddler born to parents from County Wicklow in Ireland, and multi-instrumentalist/composer Seamus Egan, a Pennsylvania native to parents of County Mayo, which became his childhood home when the family moved back to Ireland.

Solas became a performance platform for the two’s takes on Irish music tradition. Lineups fluctuated with nearly every album, but Egan and Horan remained at the helm for a string of folk-based recordings that made Solas one of the most critically acclaimed Irish-American bands on either shore.

That led to Shamrock City, a 2012 concept album that tells the story of Egan’s great great uncle, Michael Conway, and his journey to one of the more unexpected destinations for Irish immigrants – the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

The journey is explained through a series of original songs both plaintive and poetic in feel and instrumentals (including Horan’s lovely Welcome the Unknown) that generously reflects Conway’s homeland. An all-star guest list that includes Americana sensations Rhiannon Giddens and Aoife O’Donovan and veteran Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan help throughout the record.

“Some of the earlier Solas albums have a ton of energy, but it’s unbridled energy,” Horan said. “That’s all well and good. That comes from being young and new and naïve. Back then, we weren’t putting any sort of parameters on anything. But as you mature as a musician and as an artist, you spend more attention to detail and content and message. That’s what happened with Shamrock City.

“I think it’s our most mature album, and that’s not just because we’re more mature. I just think, musically, thematically and continuity wise, it was a really brave move into something different.”

The Frankfort concert will be one of the final performances devoted to Shamrock City. It will also mark the end of this incarnation of Solas. Last year, the band’s accordionist, Mick McAuley went on hiatus to perform on Broadway in Sting’s musical The Last Ship. His replacement, Dublin’s Johnny Connolly, will finish out his stint with Solas this month. Completing the group are guitarist Eamon McElholm and a new vocalist, Vermont born Moira Smiley (“She’ll blow you away,” Horan said.).

After a break in April, McAuley will rejoin and work on the 20th anniversary Solas recording will commence.

“Seamus and I have seen Solas from birth until now,” Horan said. “We stayed committed to it over all these years and saw it through many lineup changes, challenges and 20 years of touring. But I can honestly say that every single person that came into the band brought so much with their contributions – each and every one different, but all very powerful and beautiful.”

Solas performs at 7:30 p.m. March 16 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $15, $20, $30. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to

bluegrass queen in new country

rhonda vincent.

rhonda vincent.

Rhonda Vincent already had a handle on what was to be her newest bluegrass recording when she got the call to sing at the Grand Ole Opry the night after George Jones died. “They asked everyone on the Opry that night to sing a George Jones song,” Vincent recalled. “So I picked When the Grass Grows Over Me. Never sang it before, but I love the sound of steel guitars. The song just went so well.

“Then it occurred to me to have six bluegrass songs and six country songs on my album. It was kind of a gamble, but these styles seem to correlate with audiences. The record wound up debuting at No. 1 album on the Billboard bluegrass charts and got a Grammy nomination. So I guess it was a good move, but you don’t know that when you’re going into a project like this.”

It’s hard to imagine Vincent being anything but confident as she constructed the 2014 bluegrass/country hybrid album Only Me. Sure, she has been billed regularly as the Queen of Bluegrass thanks to a string of recordings with her longrunning band The Rage and a sackful of Grammy nominations and International Bluegrass Music Association awards. But as an artist who cut her musical teeth in a touring family band that regularly performed traditional country tunes, she was well versed in the sound of old school Nashville. Maybe that’s why country greats like Alan Jackson, Keith Urban and Dolly Parton, among many others, have enlisted Vincent for their recordings.

“Bluegrass has always been the sister to country music,” said Vincent, who performs a free convocation concert with The Rage at Berea College on Thursday. “There are so many similarities. When I was growing up in a musical family, the music that we did was considered country music, even though it might have been acoustic. To me, it was really all the same. That’s what this CD is an illustration of. There may be steel guitar. There may be banjo. The music is still me.”

While the Opry tribute to Jones may have triggered inspiration for Only Me, Vincent had already retuned her sense of tradition on a 2012 collaborative record with country music veteran Gene Watson titled Your Money and My Good Looks.

“The project with Gene gave me confidence. I knew there was an audience for this music. It upsets me when people say country music is dying. Country music is not dying. There are still fans of the traditional country music style. There are fans of the more contemporary country music style. They’re just aren’t many people making recordings and songs that bring something new to the table.

“For most people, if they want to listen to traditional country music, they’ll go put on an old George Jones album or an old Merle Haggard record. I want these fans to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to put on the new Rhonda Vincent album and hear new recordings of the traditional country music style.”

What surprises most about Only Me is how regularly country and bluegrass mingle. In theory, the two styles are grouped separately on the album. But the title song, which boasts help from Willie Nelson, along with an update of the vintage country duet We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds (performed on Only Me with Daryle Singletary) wind up among the bluegrass songs while Jerry Irby’s Drivin’ Nails, which Vincent cut over a decade ago with the Rage as a bluegrass romp has been retooled and cast among the country material.

“The obvious thing would have been to have Daryle Singletary on the country side and have Willie on the country side, but I wanted to do something really different. And as for Willie, he fits in anywhere. He’s the universal artist. He could sing with anyone and still be himself. He doesn’t alter his voice at all but always seems to blend so well. I was so amazed and so excited to work with him.”

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage perform at 8 p.m. March 12 at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College. Admission is free. Call (859) 985-3359 or go to

the family that fiddles together

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

It’s a sobering state of affairs to suspect, just after marriage, that you and your beloved don’t really make beautiful music together after all.

Donnell Leahy, fiddler and leader of the celebrated Celtic family band from Ontario that bears his surname, thought as much in a very literal sense once he and the acclaimed Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster tied the knot in 2012.

“It was just after we got married,” Leahy said. “Someone taped a house party set we played. In listening back to it, we just didn’t sound very good together. Each of us were covering up the other’s styles. It was just this big jumble. But what we found was that if we write together or learn a tune together, things sorted themselves out.”

Just over 12 years and six children later, the first couple of Canadian Celtic music will release their first ever collaborative album this spring – an appealing mix of traditional, contemporary and original fiddle-saturated tunes titled simply One.

The title, of course, implies unity. But before exploring the project, or the tour that brings MacMaster and Leahy to the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond on Sunday, there was the matter of solidifying common ground between their differing fiddle styles. After that came an even mightier task – the logistics of plotting a recording and tour for two artists with separate careers and a joint household.

“We have very different styles,” Leahy said. “Natalie is a Cape Breton player. She grew up in Cape Breton listening to Cape Breton fiddlers. I grew up in Ontario without that kind of style around me. But I listened to my father play the fiddle. I listened to the radio. I listened to accordion music because I had a friend who was an Irish accordion player. Any Cape Breton music I heard came from my mother playing it on the piano.

“Natalie and I intended on recording together for awhile, but I had projects planned and she had projects planned. Then babies started to arrive. It just kept getting delayed and there was never any time. Basically, this project should have been done eight years ago. It got to the point where we said, ‘Okay, this is ridiculous. We have to record.’ So we put everything else aside and said, ‘This is what we’re doing’ and made it happen.”

Enter a totally unexpected guest to serve as the project’s producer – Bob Ezrin. Over the last four decades, the fellow Canadian has produced such high profile records as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Kiss’ Destroyer, Lou Reed’s Berlin, Peter Gabriel’s self-titled solo debut and all of Alice Cooper’s career-defining albums from the early ‘70s.

That begs the question of how things went in the studio when a veteran rock producer takes on a Celtic fiddle album.


“Bob called us up,” Leahy said. “He heard that we were making a record and said he would like to be involved, so we met. He brought such a great attitude and, of course, all that experience. But he also brought great ears. He brought honesty and a great sense of arranging.”

Then there is the family situation. Who tends to the children back home when mom and dad are fiddling around on tour? Simple. No one is because the kids are part of the road crew.

“Our duties at home are on the road,” Leahy said. “We bring all the children with us, which is really the only way we could do this. The kids love it. They love the music and they love the excitement of being on tour with swimming pools and tour buses and new cities.

“We home school our children, as well, which is necessary for our lifestyle. But we get the schoolwork done quickly so the day is left for us to see museums and check the hockey scores.”

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy perform at 3 p.m. March 8 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets: $23-$36. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

sardines and swing

the hot sardines. top to bottom: jason prover, nick myers, joe mcdonough, evan "sugar" cane, alex raderman, evan "bibs" palazzo. left: "miz" elizabeth bougerol. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

the hot sardines. top to bottom: jason prover, nick myers, joe mcdonough, evan “sugar” crane, alex raderman, evan “bibs” palazzo. left: “miz” elizabeth bougerol. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

At a glance, it would be easy to view the Hot Sardines in strictly revivalist terms.

You have a New York bred band with a singer reared in France, Canada and the Ivory Coast wielding a repertoire that reaches back to the ‘20s,’30s and ‘40s for inspiration. Then you hear sounds that come from as nearby as Harlem and as remote as Paris and New Orleans. At the forefront of the band’s music – and, in particular, its self-titled major label debut album – is vintage swing. But gypsy and creole accents, all kind of jazz spirits and bountiful performance immediacy are also at work. The result is a sound that hints heavily at the past but possesses an undeniable here-and-now vitality.

In short, while the music is not contemporary, it’s not a museum piece either.

“That is the take we really hope people will have about the album and the music we perform live,” said Hot Sardines pianist, bandleader and co-founder Evan “Bibs” Palazzo. “The music isn’t dusty in the way we approach it because we know it so well. Our attitude about the music is that it’s universal and perfect for the 21st century. It’s very joyous. The way we express joy may be a little different than how people are used to, but there is no mystery to it. It’s what we love and we play it how we feel it.”

The Hot Sardines formed when Palazzo’s wife placed a Craiglist ad seeking a jam session with enthusiasts of vintage “hot” jazz. That introduced the pianist to Parisian-born singer “Miz” Elizabeth Bougerol. In turn, that led to a pack of like-minded jazzers that included a tap dancer (“Fast” Eddy Francisco) and, eventually, an itinerary heavy on subway busking, bar gigs and open mic nights.

Enter a rave-like performance phenomenon – an underground speakeasy movement, to be exact – that quickly earned the Hot Sardines a cultish but devout following.

“You would go online, get a password and then an address comes to your email for where you need to go on a given Saturday night,” Palazzo said. “It was usually a warehouse in deep Brooklyn, somewhere non-descript. But 300 or 400 people in their 20 and 30s would come out dressed like it was the ‘20s. When you walk in, these places would be decked out like a nightclub. There was burlesque, cocktails, the whole nine yards. We kind of cut our teeth by discovering this circuit. Eventually, other people came to these underground events, like Lincoln Center, for instance. So, really, our reputation and our opportunities flowed from that.”

Flash forward to late 2014. Balancing residencies in such noted New York venues as Joe’s Pub with international touring, the band released The Hot Sardines, an album on Decca/Universal boasting classic jazz works by Fats Waller (Honeysuckle Rose), Sidney Bechet (Petite Fleur) and Victor Young (I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You) as well as similarly structured originals (the Bougerol tunes Wake Up in Paris and Let’s Go.

“Elizabeth always says we’re old souls. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know my parents and her parents played this music for us in our formative years, so it definitely formed our understanding of music from the get-go.

“Now here we are with a lifelong hobby that has turned professional. Every night we get to have the greatest party with a great group of people. It’s a very social music with a real romantic sense to it, too, that may be a little bit lacking in music today.

“I see a lot of couples coming out and it’s always the same scene. The ladies are into the whole thing – the outfits, the fishnet stockings – and they’re dragging along their guys who are usually just wearing their business suits with maybe a fedora. But by the time the night’s over, they think it’s pretty awesome. All of that draws me to this music.”

The Hot Sardines perform at 7:30 tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

feeling the liquid spirit

gregory porter.

gregory porter.

On the title song to his 2013 recording Liquid Spirit, which won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album last year at this time, Gregory Porter compresses the remarkable distinction and diversity of his music into a three-and-a-half minute tent revival.

The lyrics address a sense of soulful need and eventual nourishment sung with churchy hipster reserve and punctuated with righteous hand claps. But the accompanying music (which, like the narrative, was penned by Porter) is all jazz flexibility peppered by Stax-style brass.

It’s a complete, sanctifying song with a message Porter has been happily spreading to global audiences. Throughout the 18 months since the album’s release, such gospel soul smarts have also elevated Porter to celebrity status within a jazz world where stardom often translates into commercial concession.

“In the year I’ve been performing these songs, the messages and ideas I had upon writing them became clearer to me in a way,” Porter said. “The poetry for the song Liquid Spirit – – ‘Un re-route the rivers/Let the dammed water be/There’s some people down the way that’s thirsty/Let the liquid spirits free’ …I remember the feeling and energy I had when writing the song, that I had something to express, something to get out, something to get off my chest musically.

“I’m really trying to open up people’s spirits and have them open up their own spirits. It’s just a release of energy, love and music. It’s happened definitely for me. When I perform this song, whether it be at the Berlin Philharmonic, whether it be at Town Hall in New York City or at the Royal Albert Hall, people are clapping their hands and releasing their own musical energy. I don’t mean to sound romantic or overly spiritual, but that’s the thing.”

As a child in a large family growing up in Bakersfield, California, sensing the spirits became second nature for Porter. His mother, a minister in the Church of God in Christ, saw to that

“She just encouraged me. It’s an interesting thing. She always worked two jobs, but I don’t ever remember her not being around us. She was always a present figure in our lives. There were eight kids – five boys and three girls. So as our main minister and our mother and our provider and our encourager, she was a really extraordinary person. Her encouragement to just sing very much encouraged me. Even today, in my writing, she comes up all the time. She’s in Liquid Spirit. She’s in the song When Love Was King and in the song Movin’ (both from the Liquid Spirit album). She’s marked quite well musically.”

Plenty of secular inspirations also came into play for Porter, as witnessed by Liquid Spirit’s loose limbed cover of the 1960s Ramsey Lewis hit The In Crowd. In fact, ask him about the giants that helped shape his singing and Porter’s reply is immediate.

“That would be both Nat King Cole and Donny Hathaway. They had two very different styles, both coming out of emotive expression that probably had some experience developing in church. They struck me as artists. Aside from what they were doing musically, which was deep and profound, their music really grabbed me emotionally

“People talk about the emotion in my jazz. I think that’s the way jazz first hit me. It was emotion and not just the lines and dots of the music and not the theory and the intellect, which is all there. But the emotion struck me first.”

While fans and critics alike may view the follow-up to Liquid Spirit as the next logical step in expanding Porter’s still-blooming musical profile, the singer and songsmith plans on making sessions for his next album, which should commence in the spring, as stress free as possible.

“I don’t put any pressure on myself. I’m not trying to match the Grammy win or the reviews or the acceptance of this last record. If it’s received the same way as the last record, cool. If it’s not, well, I hope to continue to work at this thing and do what I do.

“I am just trying to be an organic musician. I’m not trying to please ears or anything. I just try to make the music, and that’s what I will attempt to do naturally.”

Gregory Porter performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets: $35-$42. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

aimee amore

cyrille aimee.

cyrille aimee.

Buried within the dozens of online video clips of jazz singer Cyrille Aimee in performance sits a quiet little treasure, a three-minute reading of something wholly unexpected.

It’s not a standard like You and the Night and Music, although she has frequently performed it with a quiet Latin-esque lushness. It’s not a show tune by Stephen Sondheim, although this French-born songstress brought a number of his songs to life in the company of Bernadette Peters and Wynton Marsalis with the 2013 revue A Bed and a Chair. It’s not even the more untamed intonations of Thelonious Monk or numerous other jazz giants that echo through her performances.

No, this clip is of the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Fortunate Son, an electric protest anthem from the Vietnam War era that its composer, John Fogerty, still performs with proper venom. But in the clip, Aimee makes the song seems like a tropical breeze, an exotic and cross-cultural incantation that is more Jobim than rock ‘n’ roll.

“I think when you cover a song, you have to give your take on it and play it different from when it was done originally,” said Aimee, who performs Feb. 5 at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre in Danville.

“It’s a combination of things, really. But for me, the lyrics are very important. I know when the music gets picked, I can do whatever I want with the arrangement. But I have to be really connected with the lyrics. I like to pick songs that I can relate to and, I hope, that other people can relate to – songs that I believe in when I sing them.”

Raised in Samois-sur-Seine by her French father and Dominican mother, Aimee became infatuated with what she heard at nearby gypsy camps assembled for the city’s annual celebration of the iconic guitarist Django Reinhardt. But her fascination went further than the music.

“At first, it was really the people who made the music that got me in love with it,” she said. “They really live every day like it’s their last. They are so free. The way they play their music is the same way they live their life.

“It’s not coming from the brain. They don’t read music. They don’t think about it. They just do it, from the heart. That’s what made me fall in love with the music.”

The gypsy inspiration then collided with a broader spectrum of sounds she was introduced to at home.

“My parents, they are not musicians, but they love music. Ever since I was little, they would play a lot of music in the house. My mom is from the Dominican Republic, so I heard salsa, meringue and cha-cha. Also, she loved country music and French chanson and Spanish music. My father loved classical music but Michael Jackson was always playing in the house, too. There were all sorts of music.”

That helps explain the influences that Aimee, now a New Yorker, brought to her 2014 album, It’s a Good Day. The repertoire runs from Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When to the Jackson pop hit Off the Wall to the Duke Ellington staple Caravan. But perhaps the most telling tune of the record is Aimee’s version of Love Me or Leave Me. While the singer said she was guided by epic renditions from Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, her new reading purposely avoids comparisons to such legends by opting for a hushed but powerfully soulful update with a modest touch of gypsy soul.

“Is there a thread with all this music? Well, yeah. The thread is me. I love all these styles. I don’t think they each belong in a box. All of it is my story.

“Basically, the biggest challenge of the album was to make these styles all sound like one music for the whole record. It defines the sound for whatever we play. And that sound is ours.”

Cyrille Aimee performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Weisiger Theatre, Norton Center for the Art, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $38-$49. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to

the next yonder

yonder mountain string band: allie kral, jake jolliff, ben kaufman, dave johnston and adam aijala. photo by tobin voggesser.

yonder mountain string band: allie kral, jake jolliff, ben kaufman, dave johnston and adam aijala. photo by tobin voggesser.

How can a band remain so steadfast within its inner structure, from its personnel lineup down to its instrumental make-up, yet be so open to change and growth? Ask the members of Yonder Mountain String Band, and the answer becomes as intuitive as its music.

Since its Colorado formation in 1998, the group has employed traditional bluegrass instrumentation (guitar, mandolin, banjo and upright bass) for music that strays from string band tradition to embrace progressive Americana and a fearless improvisational and jam-savvy spirit.

In theory, the premise seems stoic and static – the same four guys playing the same four instruments. In performance, though, there is no end to what YMSB is capable of cooking up. They could spend 20 minutes dissecting an original composition into solos and rhythms that approach jazz. Then it might rewire a Talking Heads cover so its still heady groove sounds positively country-esque. And should the performance occasion call for guests, then the quartet would morph into something altogether different. Over the years, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas – all forefathers of their own modern string band sounds – have sat in with Yonder Mountain.

“We’ve always been a band that said, ‘Let’s get this dude in here’ or ‘Let’s get this person up onstage,” said YMSB guitarist Adam Aijala. “All through our whole career, we’ve played a myriad of instruments, too – everything from drums and horns and all the bluegrass instruments, adding fiddle, dobro and/or other mandolins, banjos, guitars, basses, whatever. Adding new people and new sounds… that’s never been difficult.”

Then came a far more pronounced shift, one that went to the foundation of the band. Last spring, mandolinist Jeff Austin became the first YMSB member to break ranks and start a solo career. Admittedly, the remaining trio – Aijala, bassist Ben Kaufmann and banjoist Dave Johnston – had already experienced road life on the road without Austin when he bowed out of a tour the previous winter after becoming a father.

“The most difficult thing for us was the transition away from a rhythm we had gotten so used to,” Aijala said. “Since the band works without a drummer, the bass is kind of like the kick drum and the snare is the mandolin. That’s kind of your drum set, so everyone plays rhythm a little bit differently.”

When YMSB played in Lexington a year ago, when Austin’s split was thought to be only temporary, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury and fiddle Jason Carter were celebrity fill-ins. But since both have jobs in two major bluegrass outfits – The Del McCoury Band and its Del-less offshoot, The Travelin’ McCourys, YMSB had to look elsewhere when Austin chose to leave for good.

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘It’s run its course’? Well, that’s kind of how everybody felt when Jeff left, and that’s okay. Still, with a four-piece, you take anyone out of that configuration, no matter what, and the music is going to sound a little different, not to mention that Jeff was kind of the focal point onstage. I wouldn’t say he was the band leader, but he was a frontman. Remove that element and of course the sound differs. It’s supposed to.”

Favoring the quintet sound it found with McCoury and Carter, YMSB enlisted mandolinist Jake Jolliff (from Joy Kill Sorrow) and former Cornmeal fiddler Allie Kral for its current tour. Aijala said he is thrilled by the technical command, youthful drive and overall new blood spirit the two have brought to the band both onstage and on a newly completed Yonder album due for release late this year.

“We’re not trying to emulate the band we were, but one thing I think we still capture is the high energy and fun factor of what we do. It seems like the folks we know that have seen us for years, the reason they enjoy coming to the shows so much is simply because they have a good time. They enjoy the music and it makes them feel good. If that categorizes us as a traveling party, then I’ll take it.”

Yonder Mountain String Band and Horse Feathers perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E Main. Tickets: tickets: $22.50 in advance, $25 day of show. Call (888) 718-4253.

the intimate newcomer

carrie newcomer.

carrie newcomer.

One of the words Carrie Newcomer continually returns to when discussing the songs, themes, even cover art of her recent A Permeable Life album is “intimate.”

Granted, that might seem an obvious term in describing the lightness and immediacy of the folk inspirations that have long been key to the music of this Michigan-born songsmith. But intimacy also extends to the poetic and often spiritual nature of the songs she has penned and recorded over the last 25 years, as well as to the collaborative artistic relationships she has forged with numerous authors and activists (Parker J. Palmer, Barbara Kingsolver and Philip Gulley, among them). But on A Permeable Life, intimacy… well… permeates the music as well as the inspirations behind it.

“This is probably one of the most intimate recordings I’ve ever done,” who performs tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts. “The idea behind this album was to feel as if I was sitting across the kitchen table from you instead of singing from a stage.”

What is perhaps most striking about the recording is how pervasive the intimacy is within the arrangements and production. On one of A Permeable Life’s most infectious songs, Room at the Table, a sunny, percussive and chant-like melody brings out the deep, resonating calm of Newcomer’s singing. During Abide, a tune she co-wrote with Palmer, the vocals glide gracefully on cushions of cello and guitar.

“Every album I record generally has a theme,” Newcomer said. “Often a collection of songs will have some kind of question or theme running through it, so you want to create a musical space that really works with those ideas. The themes on this album deal with things like finding something really extraordinary in an ordinary day because there is something really honorable about our daily lives. There is a lot on this album about presence. We’re not really encouraged in our culture to actually show up for our lives. We’re so busy. So when we’re actually here and present in our lives, that’s when you see amazing and wondrous things. Every day, when we pay attention, there is always the miraculous.

“So the music, the arrangements and the production were intended to hold those ideas in a way that makes sense and the songs in a way that makes sense. The artists who played on this record were just wonderful, elegant musicians that could play you a whole lot of notes if that is what the song needed. But if all it needs is a few notes and a pause, that is all they will do. So it’s a very egoless kind of camaraderie. It’s all about creating something very elegant. Simple is not easy. It is elegant.”

Intimacy will also surround tonight’s concert. With longtime pianist Gary Walters as her only bandmate, Newcomer will perform with the audience seated alongside her on the EKU Center’s stage. Finally, she finds additional intimacy in another striking but perhaps underappreciated aspect of A Permeable Life’s design – its cover art. The album jacket depicts a lone boatman floating on calm waters near shore while being approached by two non-threatening but decidedly non-aquatic creatures – giraffes.

“The designer’s name is Hugh Syme,” Newcomer said. “He has designed the last nine of my albums. I sent him the collection of songs, then we started talking about the image that would go along with the album. What he sent me… there was beauty to it, there was intimacy to it and there was also this sense of wonder and whimsy. When I opened it up to see it on my computer, I just said, ‘This is perfect.’”

Carrie Newcomer with Gary Walters perform at 7:30 pm tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets: $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

the elder jorma

jorma kaukonen.

jorma kaukonen.

For over a half century, Jorma Kaukonen has mastered the art of acting one’s age.

As a roots music enthusiast in his early 20s, he absorbed the songs and fingerstyle guitar inspirations of the Rev. Gary Davis as the country awakened to a’60s folk boom.

When that generation plugged their music in as the decade progressed, Kaukonen joined in as co-founder of San Francisco’s cornerstone psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane and, eventually, its still-active blues-based offshoot, Hot Tuna.

In recent decades, though, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer refocused on his initial folk and blues influences through more elemental lineups of Hot Tuna, his own expansive solo career and the guitar classes he oversees at his Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio.

Having turned 74 two days before Christmas, Kaukonen is openly embracing his elder musical persona with a new solo record called Ain’t in No Hurry. Due out Feb. 17, the album is a collection of new and old songs cut with new and old friends. But the end result is a musical portrait the guitarist views as being very up-to-the-minute.

“Everything I do tends to be reflected in terms of what is going on, more or less, in my life and where I am at that moment,” said Kaukonen, who will perform for the first 2015 taping of the WoodSong Old Time Radio Hour on Monday. “So for me, this record is the project of a 74 year old guy.”

Ain’t in No Hurry was produced by Larry Campbell, guitarist and collaborator for such greats as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm and many others, as well as a participant on many of Kaukonen’s most recent recordings.

“I’ve worked with Larry on a number of projects – both my solo records and with Hot Tuna as well as some stuff of his, too. Larry is a multi-instrumentalist, but he is also an adept and creative producer. As a producer, he goes inside the artist – in this case, me – and it’s like he’s known you all your artistic life. He doesn’t try to change you. He tries to make you sound like you. It’s like we’ve always been in a band together.”

Ain’t in No Hurry sports several new original songs that poetically hint at mortality (In My Dreams, Seasons in the Field) along with folk-blues staples that have been part of Kaukonen’s performance repertoire for as much as 50 years but are just now finding a place on one of his records (Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out).

The big surprise, though, is a reworking of a vintage Kaukonen tune, Bar Room Crystal Ball, that first appeared on the 1975 Hot Tuna album Yellow Fever. But unlike the heavy electric cast of the original version, the tune now takes on a lighter country air colored by Campbell’s pedel steel playing and Kaukonen’s scholarly fingerpicking. It also enlists help from Kaukonen’s longtime running buddy in Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane, bassist Jack Casady.

“A lot of people listen to our stuff, whether it was with Jefferson Airplane or Hot Tuna, and they tend to interpret things through an interesting filter,” Kaukonen said. “Sometimes they come up with meanings to lyrics I’ve written that just have me going, ‘What planet are these people from?’ And that’s not a criticism. I find, as an artist, if somebody likes your song, it doesn’t matter what they hear. As long as they like it, that’s okay. But Bar Room Crystal Ball was a very personal song done in a very bombastic way on Yellow Fever. As such, it was one song I always wanted to do so you could actually hear all the lyrics.

“You know, at some point, you just can’t avoid the phrase ‘at my age.’ Well, at my age, people ask me, ‘Do you ever think about retiring?’ And I always say, ‘So I can do what? Play the guitar more?’ The thing is I’m so fortunate that I’m still healthy enough to do this kind of stuff. The traveling isn’t fun. The glamour years of air travel are long gone. But whether it’s me and Jack or me with any of my buddies, when we hit the stage and start playing, it’s still as magical as it ever was.”

WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour featuring Jorma Kaukonen and Lowell “Banana” Levinger. 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third. Tickets: $10 public, $5 students. Call (859) 252-8888.

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