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in performance: king crimson

King Crimson: Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey, Mel Collins, Jakko Jakszyk, Tony Levin and Robert Fripp.

Anniversary tours for rock ensembles are tricky enterprises. In many instances, they become a ploy to pin a price tag on nostalgia regardless of the current performance vitality of the artist in question. Up the anniversary milestone, which means you’re also upping the median age of the players involved, and the proposition gets even more problematic. After all, no level of rock nostalgia can uphold the faulty sound and imagery of elders trying to recapture a past glory.

Then there is King Crimson, currently in the midst of a tour honoring its 50th anniversary that included a performance at the MGM Northfield Park just outside of Cleveland on Wednesday evening. An institution among prog audiences, the band has been notorious for existing in an ongoing state of reinvention, shredding lineups and repertoires as new ideas surface with founding guitarist and chieftain Robert Fripp as the lone constant.

That summation suggests Crimson, which was reactivated as a seven (and sometimes eight) member troupe in 2014 was never much for nostalgia. Yet Fripp’s current incarnation flips the entire concept of rock legacies on its ear. With a roster that boasts members introduced over past decades (saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins in the ‘70s, bassist/Chapman stick ace Tony Levin in the ‘80s and drummer Pat Mastelotto in the ‘90s along with some comparatively newer recruits), the present day Crimson seeks out portions of its back catalogue that have been left dormant for ages and presents them in programs with a smattering of new compositions. The result: a resurrection of a prog rock past that sounds anything but prehistoric.

As the Northfield Park concert emphasized, the real bottom line with the current Crimson is that it’s made up of monster players with an extraordinary level of onstage communication. Sure, the lineup sports three – count ‘em, three – drummers, all with their kits placed at the front of the stage. That revealed an immediate level of physicality as the show-opening “Hell Hounds of Krim” had all three players (Mastelotto, Porcupine Tree alumnus Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey, the latter doubling as an industrious keyboardist) playing a unison melody with two sticks in each hand. The resulting rumble sounded more like the Royal Drummers of Burundi than a prog troupe.

But there were all kinds of instances where the cues and communication onstage were as fascinating to experience as the extraordinary musicianship. Case in point: an atomic reading of “Level Five” that became a juggling act between warp speed runs from Fripp and Levin (on stick) and the drummers’ almost tribal groove that played off them. But what was spellbinding was the finale: a glimpse of Stacey, on keyboards, eyeing Fripp for the final guitar riff that stopped the whole massive skirmish on a dime. Of all the vintage fare Crimson has explored since its return five years ago, no other composition has been made so completely its own as “Level Five.”

There were loads of more subtle delights, too, like hearing the haunting keyboard intro to “Starless” wash over the crowd like a fog, watching Stacey admirably echo the great Keith Tippett during the keyboard dashes on “Cat Food” and hearing Fripp’s ridiculously treacherous guitar runs erupt out “Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part Four.”

A personal highlight: the title song from 1971’s “Islands,” one of the many forgotten ghosts of Crimson past rescued from oblivion. It offered a respite from the guitar/drum-dominate adventures for ballad-level reflection highlighted by guitarist Jakko Jakszyk’s subtle vocals, Stacey’s patiently paced keyboard lead and especially Collins’ exquisite colorings on flute and, as the tune headed for home, soprano sax.

All in all, a nearly three-hour (including intermission) journey that seemed far less like an anniversary soiree or more like the rediscovery of an exquisite prog catalog manned by the kind of musical battalion capable of bringing it back to life.

in performance: orrin evans trio

Orrin Evans. Photo by John Abbott.

It was understandable that the Orrin Evans Trio’s brief but exuberant performance at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center on Friday evening arrived with a set of comparison standards.

Pianist Evans played here as recently as December as the newest member of The Bad Plus, the Minneapolis collective with a genre and generation busting blueprint for what a piano trio should sound like. His return visit this weekend, which kicked off the third season of the Origins Jazz Series (the Bad Plus date was also an Origins booking) had Evans fronting his own trio, one rounded out by fellow Philadelphians Alex Claffy on bass and the very inventive Chris Beck on drums. So anyone who caught The Bad Plus over the winter might have been looking for stylistic or compositional similarities with Evans’ group. After all, piano trios all sound alike, right?

Not even remotely. While both groups operated within an exclusively acoustic framework, The Bad Plus utilized a more modernistic approach of slicing its sense of swing into ribbons that, once reassembled, often possessed a pacing more akin to hip hop and even techno than jazz. On Friday, however, Evans grabbed trio basics by the throat and took giddy delight in pumping them full of modal mischief and pure physicality.

Throughout a surprisingly short program that barely clocked in at over an hour, Evans was something of a prizefighter taking on long bouts of rhythmic drive built around a thick, percussive sound that fell somewhere between fun and furious. Heavy, punching runs by the left hand were embellished by Beck, whose sense of performance stamina was every bit as animated as the spirit fueling Evans’ playing. Bassist Claffy served as mediator, offering discreet, durable rhythmic support. His solos, on the other hand, were wildly imaginative, operating as lyrically vibrant and balanced compositions all on their own.

The inspiration that popped to mind regularly during the concert was McCoy Tyner, a pianist whose rich tone, modal daring and physical deftness collectively served as a template for Evans’ joyrides on piano.

There were plenty of dynamics, as well. The band shifted into ballad mode halfway through the set, allowing Evans and Beck to open their playing up with a greater sense of delicacy and reflection. Such an instance, however, underscored the program’s only real flaw – a sound mix that placed Evans underneath Beck’s propulsive drive, robbing the audience of some of the program’s more subtle piano detail.

Still, this was a fine outing, a whirlwind of jazz might and joy that burned bright and fast.

rocking the grass, finland style

Steve ‘N’ Seagulls. From left: Matias Haavisto (Herman), Janne Tuovinen (Jamppa), Tomi Tajakka (Remmel), Juha Salonen (Skubu) and Viljam Hänninen (Hiltunen).

Take a guess as to which sensation you might feel upon introduction to the music of Steve ’n’ Seagulls. Is it joy? Maybe reflection? Unrest? Trepidation? All around musical bliss?

Try displacement.

Imagine a hard rock classic like AC/DC’s “Thunderstuck,” but in the place of Angus Young’s dizzying electric guitar arpeggios, you have the same riffs replicated on banjo. Instead of metal-encrusted power chords and death rattle vocals, you have a sound falling somewhere bluegrass and polka. Finally, there’s the geographical displacement. Instead of an Aussie take on American rock ‘n’ roll, you have Appalachian-inspired, roots-savvy licks devised from deep in the heart of… Finland?

Believe it. Steve ‘n’ Seagulls’ 2014 video for “Thunderstruck” began the exportation of one of Finland’s great musical curiosities to the world. Now, after three albums, five years and countless tours that have taken the band to over 20 countries, the genre-mashing quintet is back in the heart of the Bluegrass.

“A lot of times, people seem to be surprised with our live act,” said Steve ‘N’ Seagulls vocalist, frontman, guitarist and balalaika ace Tomi “Remmel” Tajakka by phone last week from his home in Iisalmi, Finland. “A lot of people usually come see us after seeing our videos online. In the videos, the whole thing is really small and sketchy. But when we’re playing live, there is more, let’s say, energy, more of a variety of sound. People have been really surprised with the fact that we can transport them to so many different places live, if you know what I mean.”

A novelty, you say? Not when you hear the band in action. On “Grainsville,” its third and most recent album, Steve ‘n’ Seagulls give acoustic driven makeovers to a battalion of hard rock chestnuts by Van Halen (“Panama”), ZZ Top (“Give Me All Your Lovin’”), Pantera (“I’m Broken”), Pearl Jam (“Alive”) and The Beastie Boys (“Sabotage”). The temperament borders on punk at times while the music leans to bluegrass. Still, it’s the mix of instrumental prowess and stylistic cunning that wins fans over.

“Through the years, the sound and the style of the band has refined itself,” Tajakka said. “But it seems to come out pretty naturally because we come from slightly different musical backgrounds. Some of us have played more traditional music, some of us have played more modern music – acoustic, electric and heavy metal, punk, Finnish dance music, choir music. For us, it’s pretty natural to mix different styles together. Of course, there are up sides and down sides to it, meaning that writing original songs for a band that mixes a lot of different styles is kind of hard because you don’t have a specific context in which to write in. But it all feels really natural. It still feels that way after quite a few years.”

So where did this sound come from? Did Tajakka spend his youth soaking up Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers records? Not exactly.

“I grew up listening to my dad’s records and CDs at first, so there was a lot of stuff from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s and late ‘70s. I grew up with (Jimi) Hendrix, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, a lot of British bands like Deep Purple, but also some of the folkier stuff and country music.

“At some point, I really started getting into heavy metal – bands like Metallica, Pantera, stuff like that. In the early ‘90s, Music Television (MTV) really kicked in here in Finland. That changed the game for us. We were teenagers who now had unlimited access to music videos and different kinds of programs like ‘Headbangers’ Ball,” which had mainly metal music. Then suddenly grunge kicked in. So I guess we grew up as pretty usual ‘90s kids who really liked music. It was an awesome time to be a teenager interested in music. It felt like there was a ton of new music pouring in all the time.”

A few of the artists whose music Steve ‘N’ Seagulls rewired, including The Offspring’s Dexter Holland and the late Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul, have given the band a thumbs-up for their efforts through the years. That has helped provide enough impetus to push ahead with a fourth album, which it plans to record in early 2020, and even more videos for internet consumption.

“Making the videos is always a lot of fun,” Tajakka said. “We usually get together at our accordion player’s home farm, light up the barbeque and start working. Those are fun days.”

Steve ’n’ Seagulls performs at 8 p.m. Aug. 29 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets: $18. Call 859-447-8166 or go to theburlky.com.

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 grandtheatrefrankfort.org.

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 manchestermusichall.com.

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 thekentuckycastle.com.

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.

Who?

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.

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