Archive for profiles

back into the blues game

lil’ john burton. photo by timothy duffy.

The mission of the Music Maker Relief Foundation has long been to preserve the blues-roots traditions of the South. That includes assisting the musicians from the region that have helped cultivate those sounds through the decades.

Trombonist Lil’ John Burton, who doubles as emcee for the long-running Music Maker Blues Revue, is among those artists even though he hails from an entirely different Southern region – specifically, the Southside of Chicago. But it was a lifelong pursuit, even when playing with blues icons like Junior Wells and B.B. King, to head to the real South where the blues, and Music Maker, took root.

“I came up in the projects in Chicago, so it was a little rough,” said Burton, who will perform with the Music Maker Blues Revue tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “The idea was to get the hell out of there. So my mother had me play the horn as a deterrent, to be out of the gangs.

“Because I was a little kid then, when I got out of school, I would take the horn and go to the candy store. I’d be playing for my schoolmates and the candy man would give me candy for pay. I thought, ‘Oh, wow.’ Then as I got older and older, the candy turned to money. After that, I never looked back.”

Upon relocating to Atlanta nearly 20 years ago, Burton teamed with Music Maker, the North Carolina-based organization whose intent on enforcing Southern blues tradition meant locating a generation of musicians whose careers – and, quite often, lives – had been forgotten.

“They give everybody a platform when they wouldn’t normally have one,” Burton said. “Some of the musicians have fallen on bad times and haven’t recorded in years. Music Maker gives them the opportunity to, as they say, get back into the game.”

That involved the formation of the Music Maker Blues Revue, a rotating lineup of players whose credits includes tenure with Ray Charles, Clarence Carter, Bo Diddley and many others. The ensemble has given Music Maker its most visible performance presence outside of the South. The organization has also undertaken ways of financially assisting these players in day-to-day needs, from assisting with healthcare to helping with housing and basic transportation. For Burton, that meant helping cover the costs of hip replacement surgery.

“Yes, they did. Yes, they surely did. We’re looking out for a friend of ours now. His name is Eddie Tigner. He’s been with Music Maker quite a long time and is 90 years old. He was supposed to come to Kentucky with us, but he’s not able to because of an illness that keeps him from traveling. But he’s one of the superstars of Music Maker (Tigner’s diverse resume runs from work with blues pioneer Elmore James to the vintage vocal group The Ink Spots). He’s here in Atlanta now, so Music Maker takes good care of him. Everybody is looked after at Music Maker. Everybody.”

As emcee of the Revue as well as one of its performing members, Burton takes pride of introducing his fellow blues journeymen to audiences throughout the United States and Europe.

“I love having that responsibility because I do feel like I’m guiding the train. It’s wonderful to introduce these great, great musicians each night. It’s an honor and a privilege. I get such a thrill out of introducing them and then listening to them just explode like they do onstage.

“It’s a pleasure because these Music Maker artists are phenomenal. They didn’t just get to this point. They have years and years of experience and all have real kind hearts. They’re all really beautiful people, so we have a good time together. We’re like a big family.”

The Music Maker Blues Revue performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $20-$28. Call 877-448-7469, 859-236-4692 or go to nortoncenter.com.

hal ketchum: country dreamer

hal ketchum. photo by john lacker.

Songs aren’t always finite things to Hal Ketchum. A major presence on country radio during the 1990s through hits like “Small Town Saturday Night,” “Hearts Are Gonna Roll” and “Mama Knows the Highway,” he says his compositions don’t always come from real world inspirations – or even the real world, for that matter.

“Sometimes, I dream these things,” said Ketchum, who performs Thursday at Willie’s Locally Known. “They literally just come in a dream form, but it’s been really, really fantastic to explore the options. At the same time, there is no such thing as a song that’s finished. They can take a while to write but the more you play them, the more you’ve just got to let them go.”

Today, Ketchum operates outside of country music convention as an indie artist whose music gains as much admiration from Americana audiences as the Nashville mainstream. Similarly, his itinerary isn’t of full band concerts. The bulk of his touring schedule, including his Lexington performance, leans to stripped down duo presentations with longtime guitarist Kenny Grimes

“I used to travel with a full band and it just wasn’t very cost effective. So it’s really nice to do this with Kenny. He’s my best friend. We’ve been doing this for 35 years. Working with him has just been fantastic.”

Ketchum does have a new album to showcase titled “I’m the Troubadour.” But the big news isn’t so much that the record is his first full studio work since 2008 or his first release after a 17 year alliance with Curb Records. No, the headline here is that there is new music from Ketchum at all.

Following the release of 2008’s “Father Time” album, Ketchum was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis, a spinal cord inflammation that brought paralysis and a near end to any kind of career.

“I was paralyzed from the neck down,” he said. “I was blind. So I moved to New Mexico, to Santa Fe. I rented a little adobe casita and just had to really work everything out. I had no feeling in my arms, so I had to learn to play guitar again. It was pretty tough for awhile.

“But I’m like the Black Knight,” he said, alluding to the character in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” whose loses both legs and arms in a battle but refuses to concede defeat. “It was only a flesh wound.”

Today, Ketchum resides again in the Hill Country of Texas. A native of Greenwich, New York, he moved to the Austin region in the early ‘80s before his escalating career took him to Nashville the following decade.

“I grew up in upstate New York, so I’m a Yankee by birth but a Texan by choice,” Ketchum said. “Today, I live in paradise. This place we bought – five acres on a hill in Comal County… I mean, the sunrises and the sunsets here are all just absolutely magical. I feel really happy.”

Musical lifetimes spent in Texas and Tennessee might suggest Ketchum’s prime musical inspirations hailed from the world of country music. He is quick to point out otherwise.

“I have three musical heroes – Van Morrison, Van Morrison and Van Morrison. He’s truly the most creative man I’ve ever met.

“I got to do a show with him. We were playing Dublin one time in a pub and it was absolutely incredible. When I was soundchecking, I was playing ‘I Miss My Mary’ (an original composition from Ketchum’s 1991 album “Past the Point of Rescue”) and he just stood there and listened. He’s a very engaging guy. He said, ‘Did you write that song?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I did.’ We got along so well. It was fascinating. He’s absolutely my hero.”

Though he is proud of his hitmaking career, Ketchum said he feels little kinship to the country music emanating from Nashville today.

“I think it’s pretty much a wasteland. It’s just a bunch of tailwagging. I sound like a crotchety old man, I know, but I’m not impressed with it at all.

“But I still feel very creative and very much alive with what I’m doing. I just celebrated 25 years of being a member of the Grand Ole Opry, so I’m just very blessed to be doing what I do for a living. It’s all good, man.”

Hal Ketchum performs at 8:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Drive. Tickets: $30. Call 859-281-1116 or go to willieslocallyknown.com.

a solo shade of moody blue

justin hayward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

webb wilder rocks on

webb wilder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hector del curto: torchbearer of tango

hector del curto.

The chance to play with an artistic idol brought Hector del Curto to a crossroads early in his career.

The opportunity involved a performance with Astor Piazzolla, an artist who was far more than an inspiration for the young Argentine instrumentalist. Piazzolla was also the new generation pioneer in both the tango sounds that captivated de Curto’s homeland during his youth and the instrument that helped provide the music with its voice, the bandoneon.

The trouble was Piazzolla was considered a musical heretic by many Argentine traditionalists, including del Curto’s father, who viewed the composer’s modernization of tango, the aptly dubbed “nuevo tango,” as artistic blasphemy for its inclusion of jazz and classical accents.

So in essence, playing with his hero in 1989 (three years before Piazzolla’s death) meant del Curto had to distance himself from an established artistic practice of his culture and his family.

“At the time, with my father being a traditionalist, Piazzolla was simply not allowed,” said del Curto, who will perform two Piazzolla works on Friday with the Lexington Philharmonic. “Like many other people in Argentina, he did not accept the music of Astor Piazzolla. So when I performed with him, there were many mixed feelings.

“People talked about him, saying Piazzolla destroyed tango. But then I saw him onstage and how he put his personality into his music. Not only was his music very sophisticated and very developed. What made Piazzolla was his personality. That was something huge. You heard his life. That marked me for how I should proceed into the music. It’s not about trying to sound like this person or trying to write like that person. It’s about how you combine all the elements that you learn and the experience that you have with your own personality and how you convey that.”

For del Curto, a fascination with Piazzolla began in his teens while performing traditional tango music in the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugilese. Taken by a performance by Piazzolla’s Sexteto Nuevo Tango, he formed a quartet named after a Piazzolla piece that seemed that sum up the temperament of his new idol and the dramatic musical variations he was designing – Revolucionario.

“Tango was my language, but Piazzolla added his knowledge of jazz and classical. At that age, I was still developing my technique, so there were technical challenges built into his music, as well.”

For the sparse but potently emotive “Oblivion,” one of the Piazzolla works del Curto will play with the Philharmonic, the challenges are established and then pursued on the bandoneon, the concertina-like instrument that has long defined tango.

“The challenge is every time that you play a slow piece, where there are very few notes, that’s when you have to show your personality and your understanding of the music. If you have a lot of notes, you can show your virtuosity but not so much in a slow piece.

“The bandoneon is the main instrument on the piece. It’s not a percussive instrument. You can hold the notes and create different colors. That’s one of the main attractions of a piece like that – all this space that happens between one note and the other to create different emotions. An artist like Astor Piazzolla was able to simplify the music to where only the most important notes made up the piece, but those notes create many colors and many emotions. Nothing is wasted in the notes. Each note is very important and each note can be made beautiful. There are so many possibilities in a piece like this.”

Tonight’s Philharmonic concert won’t be the first time del Curto has performed in Central Kentucky. In 2014, he played Danville as a member of the Pablo Ziegler Quartet. Ziegler was Piazzolla’s pianist during the last decade of the latter’s performance career. Zigeler’s ongoing alliance with del Curto is now in its 26th year, even though the bandoneon artist performs regularly with his own group and released his second album as a bandleader, “Eternal Piazzolla,” in 2013.

“For my instrument, it’s very important to participate in all these different projects. Sometimes, people can be reluctant to include the bandoneon in different kinds of music. But the instrument can blend so well. It has such a unique voice.”

Lexington Philharmonic with Hector del Curto perform at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the, Singletary Center for the Arts 405 Rose St. Tickets: $25-$75. Call 859-233-4226 or go to lexphil.org

the price sisters catch a break

leanna and lauren price. photo by amy richmond.

It wasn’t an expected way to spend spring break.

With a sizeable quotient of collegiate America setting their sights on sunny Florida, Lauren and Leanna Price had in mind a destination that wasn’t so far down the interstate, although the sense of adventure their journey promised was considerable. The twin siblings, now established professionally as The Price Sisters, devoted their week off to cutting a self-titled seven song EP in Nashville with some of bluegrass music’s most respected names.

“We went down to Nashville for the week, recorded it and released it at the end of August in 2016, which was when we started our senior year of school,” mandolinist/vocalist Lauren said. “Since then, we’ve been thinking about the next album, actually – a full length album that we are ready to record at some point this spring.”

The EP makes for an astonishing listen because its traditional slant, especially evident in the beautifully antique vocal harmonies, suggests an almost sage-like confidence one might not anticipate from a pair of 22 year old college seniors. You hear echoes of the Carter Family within the chestnut “What Does the Deep Sea Say” (the duo has often acknowledged its fondness for Doc Watson’s popular version of the tune), although the singing is just as authentic and authoritative during Marshal Warwick’s waltz-flavored “It’s Happening Again,” the EP’s lone contemporary entry.

“We really started singing – trying to sing harmony, anyway – when we were about 10 or 11,” said fiddler/vocalist Leanna. “Our parents always sang together and knew how to harmonize with each other. A love of music ran through our family from both sides. We could be part of it if dad was singing lead or our mom was singing harmony. Over time, that sound just came to us because it was what we were used to hearing.”

Though the Ohio born sisters’ fascination for bluegrass was a proud product of family environment, what has helped nurture the music they have created on their own was a transfer from Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Va. to the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.

“We were playing a festival in Rosine, Ky. (birthplace of bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe),” Lauren said. “At the time we were students at Davis & Elkins College but ended up stopping in Morehead at the Music Center to practice with a guy who was going to play banjo with us. He turned out to be a student in the program.

“Up to that point, we never really had that feeling you get whenever you visit a school and just know it’s right. But when we walked into the Center, something was really different.”

Part of the school’s spark came from Center director Raymond McLain’s history as part of a long prestigious family ensemble (The McLain Family Band) and his recognition of similar artistic kinship with the Price Sisters.

“We have always loved to sing with each other,” Leanna said, “and everyone at the Center appreciates that. Raymond comes from a family of music so he knows what that’s like. He is totally supportive. He understands we’ve always been together musically and that singing together is really what we like to do the most.”

The Price Sisters’ EP, the duo’s first release for the acclaimed bluegrass label Rebel Records, also sports guest appearances by Ronnie McCoury and Alan Bartram (of The Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys), bassist Mike Bub (a McCoury Band alum), Charlie Cushman (The Dukes of Leicester) and Mike Benson (formerly of Special Consensus).

“These are some of the musicians we have looked up to and admired,” Lauren said. “I’ve been listening to Ronnie McCoury’s playing since I was little. But they were so nice to us and so helpful. It was such a treat to hear some of my favorite musicians in the booth next to us recording and then having that come out on our record. It was very cool.”

But will the experience of cutting the Price Sisters’ first full length album prove to be equally cool?

“It’s one of those bittersweet moments in a lot of ways with graduation coming up and things like that,” Lauren said. “But it will also be something really new. It’s a big step, but we’re looking forward to it. I think everything is going to turn out great.”

The Price Sisters perform for Red Barn Radio at ArtsPlace Performance Hall, 161 North Mill at 8 p.m. Feb. 8. Tickets: $8. For more info, go to redbarnradio.com.

king of the road

joe bonamassa.

joe bonamassa.

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

“Always on the road.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jd mcpherson keeps rolling with the times

jd mcpherson.

jd mcpherson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

living again in the reel world

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

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

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

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

Then the memories poured out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

still feeling the spirit of the century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Next entries » · « Previous entries

Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | About Our Ads | Copyright