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father knows best

John Mayall. Photo by David Gomez.

All you need to understand the musical legacy forged by John Mayall is a fresh listen to three of his earliest albums, all of which were cut over a half-century ago.

In the fall of 1967, the long-revered “Father of British Blues” issued an album titled “Crusade” featuring a teenaged Mick Taylor on the guitar. Less than two years later, Taylor would defect to the Rolling Stones and remain a member through what many consider the band’s most creative recording era.

Earlier that year, Mayall released “A Hard Road,” which introduced guitarist Peter Green to the world. Before 1967 was done, Green, Mayall drummer Mick Fleetwood and, eventually, band bassist John McVie would form the core of a new group called Fleetwood Mac.

Back up to 1966 and you have the album that forever changed the blues world, “Blues Breakers.” Handling principle guitar duties was a young Eric Clapton. Just after the record’s release, Clapton left Mayall to rock civilization with the power trio Cream.

Those are the familiar yet still-ridiculously impressive first chapters in a career that has never looked back. Today, at age 85, Mayall continues to perform over 100 concerts a year while maintaining a remarkably prolific recording run that has seen the release of over 70 albums (excluding numerous anthologies). Through it all, his brand of the blues has been revolutionary, from the choice of instrumentation (highlighted by Mayall’s distinctive drummer-less bands of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s) to a sensibility that has attracted world class instrumentalists, especially in the guitar category.

So what does the artist whose initial albums launched the careers of three of England’s most celebrated guitar heroes look for when forming a band?

“I just enjoy people’s originality, regardless of what instrument they’re playing,” said Mayall, who makes a rare regional appearance this week for a sold-out performance at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. “That’s always something I’m looking for. I’m thrilled to play with different people that I admire. The main thing musicians should aim for, especially the new musicians on the scene, is something of your own, something original, rather than maybe copying somebody else.”

Curiously, Mayall took a fresh approach to that philosophy on his newest album, “Nobody Told Me.” Rather that seek out an underdog guitarist to joining his long-running trio featuring bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, Mayall sought more familiar names. But instead of enlisting specific players, he sent out a casting call-like invitation to artists that might be interested in working with him.

Accepting the offer – and, subsequently, appearing on “Nobody Told Me” – was a varied company of all-star players, several of which were not readily associated with blues music. They included pop/prog maestro Todd Rundgren, E Street lieutenant Steve Van Zandt and Rush mainstay Alex Lifeson. Augmenting the crew were contemporary blues stylists Joe Bonamassa, Larry McCray and the Texas guitarist currently touring with the Mayall trio, Carolyn Wonderland.

“That was the theme,” Mayall said. “So I put the word out that I wanted to try different guitar players as guests. That they aren’t all known as blues players was one of the nice things about not actually sending out for specific people. Those are the ones who came through, so I was delighted. I was very interested to see what they were doing.”

The casting call approach is the latest chapter for an artist who capitalized on an early ’60s blues scene in England that history has regularly overlooked in favor of a well-documented British fascination with American R&B.

“There was a change in what people were listening to at the time,” Mayall recalled. “Prior to the blues invasion, if you want to call it that, the roost had been ruled by trad jazz bands led by people like Chris Barber and Humphrey Lyttelton. It was time for a change. (Blues artists/bandleaders) Alexis Corner and Cyril Davies put the whole thing together and gave people a taste of what electric blues was all about. It happened very quickly at a time when people were ready for something new.”

“The music has always been at a good place for me since then because we have the total freedom to play what we want. People have always accepted that with me, too, which is a very good indication of the awareness to what we’re doing. The records, they are all personal expressions about what I was thinking about at a particular time. They serve as documentation of my life.”

John Mayall performs at 7:30 pm. Aug. 5 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. The performance is sold out. For info, go to

the southern roots of the marcus king band strengthen

The Marcus King Band, From left: Jack Ryan (drums), Dean Mitchell (saxophone), DeShawn Alexander (keyboards), Marcus King (guitar), Stephen Campbell (bass) and Justin Johnson (trumpet/trombone). Photo by David McClister.

Marcus King recalled some advice received in his youth. It came from his father, a noted South Carolina guitarist and the third of four generational representatives of Southern roots music within his family. It might have dealt with music, it might have spoken to something larger, but the younger King took it to heart.

“Growing up in a musical family, I learned certain situations to look out for,” King said. “Find the right people that will do right by you and it can really be a beautiful thing. People like my father, he told me to be on my toes. And that’s a good way to be.”

For King, a stunning blues and soul stylist, guitarist, vocalist and bandleader who at age 22 has a become highly heralded roots music ambassador, that meant surrounding himself with a band that brings to mind the brassy warmth of Muscle Shoals soul, the churchy reverence of Southern gospel and a roaring guitar sound, matched by an equally gritty vocal might, that places him in the higher ranks of a new generation rock and roots movement.

But on his new “Carolina Confessions” album, that meant bringing another A-league player onto his team – producer Dave Cobb, whose seemingly omnipresent role in modern Americana music and more has placed him in the company of such Southern mavericks as Jason Isbell as well as a series of masterful Kentucky-bred artists led by Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and, more recently, Dillon Carmichael.

“Dave has a really good ear for songwriting and for what is going to play well,” King said. “What Dave keeps in mind is the overall flow of a record. He has these really cool studio tricks that I don’t want to get into too much. I don’t want to give out the secret recipe, but Dave just knows how to work with a band. It’s not about just looking at an artist, myself, with hired guns. He treats us equally as a group, which is how we like it. That’s what we want. He pushed everybody.

“Some members (of the band) liked that more than others, but Dave Cobb and I really hit it off. He’s become a dear friend of mine. He really helped use the studio as another voice on the record.”

Of course, having Cobb’s production home, the famed RCA famed Studio A in Nashville, didn’t hurt in the creation of “Carolina Confessions” (“As soon as we walked in, we felt there were a lot of friendly spirits in the room”). Mostly, though, Cobb helped fulfill King’s mission for the record – to create music that emphasized songwriting over King’s proven forcefulness as a guitarist and singer. In doing so, what emerged was more of an ensemble sound that underscored the tasteful orchestration of hornmen Justin Johnson and Dean Mitchell along with the sleek organ colors of DeShawn Alexander. More than King’s three previous albums and EP discs, “Carolina Confessions” was truly the work of the Marcus King Band, not just King himself.

“I don’t know if it was a conscious decision as much as just an organic happening along with the recording process,” King said. “We wanted to focus a bit more on songwriting and composition. That’s what we wanted on this record to highlight for the band. The other records focused a little bit more on musicianship and just the rawness of the sound. But on this one, we wanted to focus more on the songs. By doing that, I think we showcased the musicianship of the band as a whole. That allowed us to show our strength in working together on a common goal.”

The new album continues the traction created by a very fruitful touring year in 2018 that saw the King Band being invited as a guest for Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheel of Soul Tour during the summer. That collaboration almost seemed inevitable, as co-leader and guitarist Derek Trucks, now 39, began gaining national notice, as did King, during his teen years.

“The thing with somebody like Derek isn’t so much about any direct advice he gives. It’s more about the stories he tells. I look at Derek like an older brother. You listen closely enough to these heroes, these legends, talking about their career and you can hear the lessons that are being taught. Those are the kinds of people I’ve always been drawn to.

“I don’t like direct orders being sent my way. That’s never really been my bag. People that I’ve become good friends with, like Derek, those people just have good stories to tell. If you listen close enough, you pick up a lot of life advice and musical advice. It’s all right there.”

The Marcus King Band and Magnolia Boulevard perform at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester Music Hall. Tickets: $12, $15. Call 859-537-7321 or go to

the new traditionalist sound of dillon carmichael

Dillon Carmichael. Photo by Angelina Castillo.

From the moment you hear Dillon Carmichael launch into “It’s Simple,” a standout life parable from his debut album, “Hell on an Angel,” a sense of authenticity is struck.

Sure, as a country artist from Burgin making his way in Nashville, the 25 year old singer-songwriter has plenty of family ties to lean on, from parents and grandparents who sang gospel and country throughout Eastern Kentucky to a pair of famous uncles that know a thing or two about making a hit – John Michael and Eddie Montgomery.

All of that fades for a moment, though, when you hear Carmichael sing. What he lets loose is an effortless and inviting baritone, a voice so rustically smoky that a solid traditionalist streak is immediately established.

It’s no wonder then, in a generation where stars like Kane Brown and Florida-Georgia Line seem to almost purposely distance themselves from where country music has sprung from, Carmichael is going old school. His sound blends outlaw sentiments and serious Hank Williams charm with a list of influences that reel back through the years to such country classicists as Waylon Jennings and Vern Gosdin.

“Honestly, I think that sound is just in my soul,” said Carmichael, who performs this weekend at the Kentucky Castle. “I could have rebelled against it very easily and gone in a different direction. But Kentucky generates such great songwriters, so I wanted to sing to people as a songwriter.”

“As far as growing up went, my uncles Eddie and John Michael were gone and on the road as I was growing up. Of course, we would spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together and hang out then like a normal family.”

One of the key artists in Carmichael’s corner when creating “Hell on an Angel” may not have been part of the family, even though he came to feel like a brother as soon as recording sessions commenced. His name is Dave Cobb, who has been the Americana-and-more producer of the moment for several years. Cobb’s diverse client list includes John Prine, Jason Isbell, Zac Brown Band, Brent Cobb, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Chris Isaak, Lake Street Dive, Shooter Jennings and two other Kentucky born country stylists who have made more than a little commotion of late – Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.

“Dave is kind of an ambassador for all of us out here,” Carmichael said. “But mainly, he just a great guy. The guys he got to play on the record are the best around, plus Dave is a great guitar player himself. While we got him to play on the play on the record, too, he but mostly just let me do my thing. You just leave all the other stuff at door when you go into the studio with Dave.

“This is my dream record with my dream producer on my dream record label (the booming publishing, management and label collective Riser House) helped by my dream radio team. It’s a big dream come true. The album just tells my story. I got to record songs that were true to me and my life. To out play them every night… man, that never gets old.”

Dillon Carmichael performs at 6 p.m. Jan 18 and 19 at the Greenhouse of the Kentucky Castle, 230 Pisgah Pike. Tickets are $35-$75. Call 859-256-0322 or go to

joseph jarman, 1937-2019

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, circa 1987. From left: Famoudou Don Moye, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors.

As the volumes of interviews accumulated over multiple decades stack up, it is perhaps understandable to be asked which ones stand as favorites. It is probably just as expected that the answers be names known for some level of celebrity status.

When faced with that question, one of the first names that springs to mind is Joseph Jarman.


Joseph Jarman, who passed away yesterday at age 81, was an Arkansas-born saxophonist who became a keystone member of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and a mainstay instrumentalist for one of the organization’s banner jazz projects, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

To many, what the AACM and the Art Ensemble were creating was renegade music – a jazz sound that often favored free improvisation over conventional melodic structure, although even that assessment is a generalization of what the groups were after. It wasn’t until I gained an appreciation for the Art Ensemble over time that its mix of heritage and invention revealed itself.

When the Art Ensemble visited Lexington for a December 1987 concert at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall (as part of its historic Spotlight Jazz series), it was easy for unfamiliar jazz listeners to view the band as imposing. Maybe it was the face paint several members (Jarman among them) wore in performance or the shards of sound created on chimes and bicycle horns as well as on conventional wind, brass and percussion instruments. The Art Ensemble was a performance troupe that drew on tradition but celebrated creation of the moment.

I didn’t know what to expect when I phoned Jarman for a late November interview in 1987, as I had accepted the stereotypical view of the time that the Art Ensemble shunned melody for seemingly purposeful musical discord. But within minutes – specifically, after he admitted he was going to munch on turkey leftovers during our talk – all hesitancy vanished.

A scholarly but very congenial individual, Jarman spent the next 45 minutes with me discussing his music, his motivation, the sense of history at the heart of his playing and especially the inclusiveness of his art. The interview wasn’t merely disarming, it was an open invitation to take part in something new, a musical parade down jazz music’s more adventurous and unexpected avenues.

I won’t pretend that I fully understood the Art Ensemble’s performance the following month. But, 31 years on, I feel privileged to have witnessed the band when all its key members – trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors and Jarman, all passed on now – were fueling the fire of a music that was new and immediate. I think of these players at nearly every jazz performance I have attended since, especially ones featuring the young indie artists visiting Lexington for the Outside the Spotlight series, and feel grateful for the invite Jarman extended into this world of musical promise.

“America has the youngest cultural entity in the world,” Jarman, already a devout Buddhist, told me in our 1987 interview. “Yet, we’re still trying to define just what our culture is. We’re still breaking away from that heavy European tradition. Just now, we’re seeing those first little seeds of our own sprouting up.

“It’s been a total effort on our part to survive this long. People are really beginning to discover just how serious we are about this music. It’s funny, I’ve heard people say, ‘Hey, those guys are crazy. But they don’t sound too bad.’ “

in performance: “hallelujah: the leonard cohen tribute concert encore”

leonard cohen.

The side door to Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center was left open last night during much of the second half of “Hallelujah: The Leonard Cohen Tribute Concert Encore,” presumably to let some cool evening air in to counter the room’s mounting temps. But one had to wonder what any passers by along Elm Tree Lane must have thought as the finale chorus to “Hallelujah” (the benchmark Cohen tune that gave the program its name) spilled out into the street. Was it the product of a prayer meeting? A community sing-a-long? A folk-inspired tent revival?

Well, the concert was a little of all of that, much in the same way an initial Cohen tribute staged last November was. With few variations, last night’s sold-out show featured the same artists singing the same songs as before. But that was essentially the intent. It was a literal encore for local Cohen fanatics, of which there seem to be many, that either didn’t get enough of the November concert or missed it entirely.

The highlights were the same. Doc Feldman and Art Shechet still created an alternately dramatic and meditative séance out of “You Want It Darker,” although last night’s version added in nicely orchestrated piano color from Kevin-Holm Hudson. The trio also performed an equally potent “If It Be Your Will” not included in the November show.

The two song sets by JoAnna James’ trio and Nev’im that closed the second portion of program were the same as before, but none of their insightful command had diminished. James again displayed remarkable conversational dynamics on the relative Cohen obscurity “Ballad of a Runaway Horse” (better known by an earlier 1979 title, “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” as well as through a sublime 1993 recording by Emmylou Harris) while Marilyn Robie confidently led Nev’im through the Brechtian dance hall grace of “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

One notable new entry last night was a lovely reading of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” by Daisy Helmuth that was rich with a vocal delicacy that illuminated the song’s haunting atmospherics. Coolest footnote of the night: Helmuth performed in full formal attire before heading off to her prom.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how the local enthusiasm for Cohen’s music hinted at by the November concert had grown. The fall show was a technical sellout – technical because tickets were free. Last night’s show played to a crowd twice the size with a $15 ticket attached and was also a sellout. Hallelujah, indeed.

in performance: so percussion and the university of kentucky percussion ensemble

So Percussion, from left: Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Jason Treuting and Adam Sliwinski. Photo by Evan Monroe Chapman.

By the time So Percussion concluded its centerpiece suite “Amid the Noise” earlier tonight at the Singletary Center for the Arts, everyone was part of the act.

The four members of the troupe – including the work’s composer, Jason Treuting – led the way after spending the previous 45 minutes scattering themselves among dozens of percussive instruments assembled around the stage. So were members of the University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble, who sat out of sight on the stage floor when not called upon, but rose to action with no small amount of drama when the music’s textures and orchestration needed their input. So, for that matter, was the audience, which was succinctly conducted by So member Josh Quillen to add a choral-like coda to the piece and, fittingly enough, the evening.

So Percussion and the UK Percussion Ensemble played separately during the program’s first half. So tackled Bryce Dessner’s “Music for Wood and Strings” predominantly on devices they termed “chordsticks” – lap steel-shaped instruments with two sets of four criss-crossing strings played with bows and pencils (“No. 2 pencils,” as Treuting emphasized during an introduction). The resulting sounds mimicked a hammer dulcimer with Quillen’s tuning adjusted to create bass like patterns that often led the work.

The UK group took on Sergio Assad’s “Asphalt Junge” with help from guitarists Dieter Hennings (a guest from the UK faculty) and Andrew Zohn. Together with the ensemble’s variety of mallet percussion colors on marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel, the tune weaved in and out of samba rhythms and more open-ended fragments of melodic grace.

But “Amid the Noise” was the showstopper. Augmented by other faculty and alumni players on cello, accordion and guitar, as well as the participation of ensemble director James Campbell, the full onstage brigade numbered roughly two dozen players. But the suite was all about dynamics, from the mallet cool initiated by Treuting, to a section where all four So members played a single piano (two on strings, one on keys and one tapping out sounds on the frame) before the music melted into another choral section. Treuting manned a drum kit as the piece drew to a close, intensifying the tune’s drive while never deviating from its contemplative and ultimately triumphant spirit.

in performance: trans-siberian orchestra

the trans-siberian orchestra performing last night at rupp arena.

Spending an evening with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is akin, in many respects, to over indulging at the dinner table at holiday time. Everything is inviting and offered in abundance, so you readily accept. But the food never stops coming, so those partaking do so far past the saturation point. The result: a feeling that surpasses mere satisfaction and soars straight into gluttony.

Transfer that kind of feast into a concert presentation and you had the makeup of what TSO offered last night for its annual seasonal performance visit to Rupp Arena. With about 9,800 dinner guests in attendance, the ensemble poured it on thick, both visually – via an onslaught of lasers, pyrotechnics and screen projections – and sentimentally, where original compositions by the late Paul O’Neill came sugar-coated in pathos and individual performances were bolstered by a litany of rock star postures.

Overblown? That doesn’t begin to describe it. Like past Rupp outings, this TSO show was spectacle for spectacle’s sake – a presentation that tied an anchor as well as a bow around conventional holiday cheer and tossed the whole gaudy package overboard.

Before going any further, it should be noted that the audience ate it all up – the Spinal Tap-like excess, the Kiss-like flamboyance, the WWE-level of sheer physical stamina. And why shouldn’t they? In terms of technical design and execution, the show was a marvel. Few were the moments when stage platforms didn’t bob up and down or shift with the aid of remarkably clear screen projections that shifted the look of the set from a movie theatre to a cathedral to a winter snowscape in mere seconds. Similarly, the lighting design, from dancing lasers to showers of computerized effects, was beyond dazzling. The production was even climate controlled, with huge rows of flames shooting from the stage one minute and dancing suds of makeshift snow falling over the arena audience the next. In short, this was a production and-a-half, even by TSO’s theatrically intensive standards.

But at the same time, there was hardly an instance – especially, in the first half of the 2 ½ hour program, which was built around a stage recreation of the band’s 1999 television film “The Ghosts of Christmas Eve” – that wasn’t choreographed to the point of claustrophobia or delivered with an excess that made even its sweeter emotions – like the ones summoned during the Pachelbel-inspired “Christmas Canon Rock” – seem coerced.

Curiously, the most human element of “Ghosts” was reflected in segments shown of the original film that featured the late Ossie Davis. The 18 year old clips didn’t allow Davis to utter a word, yet they reflected a subtle warmth and grace the rest of the program bulldozed over.

The concert’s second half was looser, owing less to the production piece structure of “Ghosts” and more to TSO’s non-holiday material. But by the time the show hit a seemingly inevitable “Carmina Burana,” the bombast was back to stay.

Again, the quibbles here are largely with the overall framework of TSO’s productions and their unrelenting pageantry as opposed to the performers and performances igniting them. And, again, the audiences fully appreciated the feast being served, even if it seemed less like a holiday gathering and more like an alien invasion.

critic’s pick: neil young, ‘decade’

Why should we give much concern to the re-release of an anthology? Well, when it is as valuable a representation as “Decade” is to the critical and commercial heyday of Neil Young, a celebration is unavoidable.

Upon its initial release 40 years ago, “Decade” was designed less as a conventional greatest hits set and more like the sort of retrospective blueprint adopted for detailed boxed sets that are now commonplace milestones for veteran artists. Even Young, who decided on the song selection, viewed “Decade” as the summation of a chapter, rather than a career.

In listening to “Decade” again in 2017, the record presents an astonishing sense of history that simply couldn’t be appreciated upon its initial release. Much of the reason stems from how uneven Young’s music has been since then. There were certainly triumphs that post-dated “Decade” (in particular, the Crazy Horse summits “Rust Never Sleeps” and “Ragged Glory”) and there is no denying how wildly prolific and stylistically adventurous he has always been as an artist. But the decade chronicled on “Decade,” without question, represents Young’s glory years – a period of psychedelic pop expression, Laurel Canyon folk reflection and garage rock rampaging that wildly predated the punk and grunge movements. Similarly, those adventures play out here through songs with Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. To explore that music again on “Decade” is to retrace one of the most creative eras in the evolution of modern pop.

The striking points of Young’s early years are represented though unobvious songs like “Expecting to Fly” (officially a Buffalo Springfield track, even though Young is the only band member playing on it) and “The Old Laughing Lady” (from Young’s 1969’s self-titled debut solo album). Both remain gorgeously surreal portraits that let their folk preferences warp into the epic orchestration that ran rampant during the “Pet Sounds”/”Sgt. Pepper” era. They sound less like Southern California folk than they do the Moody Blues.

Subsequent years would offer folk tunes of homespun candor and simplicity (“Sugar Mountain”), electric statements of stunning topicality (“Ohio”) and extraordinary mergers of the two (“Walk On” and “For the Turnstiles,” both from Young’s most underrated album, 1974’s “On the Beach”).

“Decade” stops slightly short of being a complete chronicle of that time. Young’s lost 1973 live masterpiece, “Time Fades Away,” is again ignored. Likewise, the 10 year period represented here means excluding the two classics that closed out the ‘70s, “Comes a Time” and “Rust Never Sleeps.”

But with three hours of essential listening packed onto two discs and selling for a mere $15 (a vinyl reissue, which surfaced back in the spring, costs a bit more), the resurrection of “Decade” serves as the restoration of a pop legacy.

Want to know why Neil Young is so revered? Here’s the primer that tells almost the whole the story.

the rock and soul of nikki hill: “a rebellious way to get in people’s faces”

nikki hill.

When one views at all the varied inspirations, stylistic expressions and performance experiences that have bolstered her career, it would be natural to consider Nikki Hill as a living artistic contradiction.

She learned to perform in the church but has never viewed herself as especially religious, revering the Cramps and AC/DC as highly as gospel. She found favor with the traditions of R&B and soul, but has proven to anyone who has seen her perform – including the crowds that have caught her numerous Lexington shows over the past two years – that the North Carolina reared, New Orleans based singer is a rocker at heart. And while she is very much a child of the South, the music on her recent ‘Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists’ album is less tied to specific genres or geography. It’s rural Alabama juke joint soul one minute and Detroit-worthy rock ‘n’ roll the next.

“I never entertained being a singer, let alone a front person,” said Hill, who returns to Central Kentucky as part of Well Crafted – Brews + Bands on Saturday. “I loved the idea of being a part of a group that could make people feel the way that all those bands I’ve seen over the years have made me feel, and maybe even record music that other people would be interested in hearing.

“Little Richard and Otis Redding and The Cramps are probably the ones that stand out where I would catch myself thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ The images and playing of Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Barbara Lynn also showed me women that I felt were more representative and identifiable for me. Seeing and hearing them play made it seem like a true possibility for a woman like me and a different and more rebellious way to get in people’s faces.”

Music began for Hill, as it did with so many R&B, soul and even rock-based artists from the South, in church. But singing in the choir didn’t necessarily mean she bought into being part of the congregation. Still, the urgency and immediacy of gospel opened a door to the potency of a live performance.

“I have never been religious, but I could never deny the power of the music on the audience, the way it felt so much like a performance and the energy that it built within the room.

“I was so drawn to people that were openly angry and expressive and passionate. I felt like I was so quiet, so I was drawn to others singing and playing out their pain. I had never really seen or heard that until seeking it out on my own in rock ‘n’ roll and blues. All these artists I loved, especially in the soul and R&B/rock ‘n’ roll vein, mostly grew up in the church, as well. I knew there was a tie to it. I could hear in the music the old call and response style, the attitude, the passionate execution of the songs. The more I listened and the more I got into researching the influences of my favorite artists, I was able to see how much all the styles of roots music were really tied together.”

Perhaps that’s why Hill balances the R&B authority of LaVern Baker or early Aretha Franklin with the collar-grabbing guitar rock command of the MC5. But working as an independent artist without major label help means having to get her music out the old-fashioned way – through lots and lots of road work.

“Do we always have packed rooms? No. Are we able to get into every venue/festival that we want to play? Hell, no. There are ups and downs to it, but I think if it wasn’t paying off, I wouldn’t still be touring and able to make records.

“I’m just facing it head on because that’s all I know. Plus, there is no need for me to ever act like I chose an easy way. It all boils down to the fact that I’m a black Southern woman playing rock ‘n’ roll in 2017. It’s confusing. It’s unidentifiable. It’s unfamiliar. It’s unmarketable. It’s not popular. But it’s me and I’m making a living at it.”

Nikki Hill performs at 4:30 p.m. as part of Well Crafted – Brews + Bands at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Rd. in Harrodsburg. Admission: $25. Gates open at 11 a.m. Call 859-734-5411 or go to

critic’s pick: rhiannon giddens, ‘freedom highway’ and ‘factory girl’

On “Birmingham Sunday,” one the many highlights from “Freedom Highway,” the second solo album from Rhiannon Giddens, cultures and generations beautifully collide.
The Richard Farina folk tale, first cut by his sister-in-law Joan Baez in 1964, details the bombing of a Baptist church by the Ku Klux Klan and has become widely recognized as an anthem of the civil rights era. Giddens’ take is equally solemn, grounded in steadfast fervency but illuminated by the spotless tonality of her singing and the swelling yet subtle support of a choir. At first, it hits you like a vintage Dylan song, but one done by Sandy Denny during her late ‘60s tenure with Fairport Convention. The performance doesn’t overstate the song’s potency. Instead, it relishes in control and unwavering confidence.

“Freedom Highway” beams regularly with such brilliance. Unlike Giddens’ remarkable 2015 solo debut, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” which stressed stylistic dexterity by downplaying her own material, “Freedom Highway” is more centralized and sports eight original tunes that blend in so naturally with Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away” and the Pops Staples-penned title tune (a true Civil Rights document) that it is often difficult to tell who wrote what.

That’s mostly because of the astonishingly pure voice Giddens remains in possession of. On “Hey Bebe,” co-written with Americana journeyman Dirk Powell (who also co-produced “Freedom Highway” with Giddens), the singing glides along with the joyous but decidedly rootsy jazz/blues support of trumpeter Alphonso Horne. This is “Freedom Highway” at its merriest. But at the other extreme is the original “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a declaration of identity by a young mother and slave sung not with bluesy remorse but with subdued defiance and a touch of grace.

It’s easy to focus exclusively on the refreshingly unforced cast of Giddens’ voice, so much so that hearing “Following the North Star” revert back to the instrumental string fortitude that fueled her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a bonus. With the singer on minstrel banjo, the tune nicely compliments this sublime sophomore work from one of the country’s most gifted roots conscious ambassadors.

As a footnote. “Freedom Highway” coincides with the first CD issue of “Factory Girl,” a five song EP initially released digitally and on vinyl in late 2015. Culled from the same T Bone Burnett-produced sessions that yielded “Tomorrow is My Turn,” it similarly champions the astonishing vocal diversity that distinguished that album.

An Appalachian/Celtic spirit runs through these songs. “Mouth Music” embraces the celebratory side with Gaelic vocal acrobatics that morph into beat box worthy grooves. But the title tune is simply devastating. It’s a different kind of slavery saga, rich in Irish elegance but still saddled with unmovable oppression. Not surprisingly, Giddens sings it with a beauty as deep and pure as the song is relentlessly dire.

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