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our man reeves

reeves gabrels. photo by mauro melis.

reeves gabrels. photo by mauro melis.

Reeves Gabrels was so assured in the wisdom of journeying down rock ‘n’ roll roads less traveled that he had no qualms in bluntly expressing his exuberance to a one time boss. For over a decade, the pioneering guitarist worked as a band member and high level musical lieutenant to David Bowie, from the latter’s elemental but experimental guitar rock troupe Tin Machine to the comparatively streamlined 1999 solo record ‘hours.’

“It kind of goes back to a conversation I had with David when we started Tin Machine,” said Gabrels, who performs Saturday at the Green Lantern with his Imaginary Friends power trio. “He had music he wanted to make and then there was the music he was making. I asked him, ‘You have full creative control. Does the record label have to put out whatever you give them?’ He said, ‘Well, yeah. They do.’ So I said, ‘Then the real problem here is not the record company, it’s your fear of rejection and your concern that people won’t like what you put out.’

“If you really have a conviction to do this kind of music and you really want to do this kind of music, then the only person in your way is you.”

In that sense, Gabrels has been fearless in his sense of guitar exploration. He can create torrents of coarse sonic dissonance one minute, open up into a spacious yet playful groove the next and also simply rock away with the loose support of youthful cohorts. From his Bowie days to his current stint as principal guitarist for The Cure (which he joined in 2012) to an adjoining solo career that is now two decades old, Gabrels has forged a potent, versed and adventurous reputation as a guitar stylist and songwriter.

“The first solo record I did was in ’95 at Bowie’s insistence,” Gabrels said. “He was like, ‘You’re always doing this stuff but you never put it out, so why don’t you put a record together and I’ll put it out on my label.’ Then I put a record together and he decided not to start the label. So I looked around and found someone to release it.

“My point is at other times in my life, I was very, like, ‘You’ve got to be this way.’ I was really obsessive about my music. I don’t think of myself as controlling, really, but I know I can be obsessive. With the new record (the self-titled Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary Friends), I just really took my hands off the wheel a bit and let the project find its own level.”

A prolific guitar stylist and solo artist, Gabrels also thrives on collaboration, as witnessed by his work with Bowie and The Cure. A particular highlight among his catalogue is a 2014 instrumental work with fellow guitar titan and one time Be Bop Deluxe chieftain Bill Nelson called Fantastic Guitars.

“That was fun to do,” Gabrels said. “I was always a huge Bill Nelson fan. I bought Presence by Led Zeppelin and Be Bop Deluxe’s Sunburst Finish on the same day. I think I was 17 or 18. I listened to Presence and then put Sunburst Finish on and kept it on the turntable for the next three weeks.

“I met Bill during the first Tin Machine tour, so I was over the moon about that. But we stayed in touch. When I played at Leeds with The Cure in 2012, we just got together and said, ‘Maybe we should do a record.’ So this was about 20 years in the making. It involved a lot of very old school recording that we did in his house over the course of a year and a half. It’s a nice little sonic romp, that record.”

While performances alongside Bowie and The Cure have placed Gabrels in front of audiences that have sometimes exceeded 200,000 on a single night, the guitarist is more than eager to engage in a current swing of small club concerts with the Imaginary Friends that will, in the case of tonight’s show at The Green Lantern, place a modest sized crowd right in his lap.

“That feedback that you get from playing in a sweaty, small place… that’s really at the core of why I do this. I welcome the heckles. I like when people yell things at me while I’m playing. We’re truly looking forward to it.”

Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary Friends perform at 10 p.m. July 25 at the Green Lantern, 497 W. Third. Cover charge is $7. Call (859) 252-9539.

one voice, many styles

michael mcdonald.

michael mcdonald.

It’s one thing to call Michael McDonald one of the most identifiable voices in contemporary music. For more than three decades, his seasoned pop-soul tenor, and the frequent falsetto extremes it reaches to, has fortified a generation of hits.

But what remains so fascinating about the singer’s body of work is the sheer variety of settings you are apt hear that voice in and the styles his vocals are often surrounded by.

Sure, there are the obvious radio classics like What a Fool Believes and Takin’ It to the Streets that retooled the radio rock of the Doobie Brothers into R&B-slanted pop during the late ‘70s. But there are also chart-topping duets with soul maestros like Patti LaBelle and James Ingram as well as fusion flavored journeys with Steely Dan where, even as a harmony or background singer, McDonald gloriously stood out.

But dig deeper into the five-time Grammy winner’s resume and you discover just how many – and how many stylistically different – artists have called upon of one pop’s most recognized voices for their recordings.

A partial list includes classicists Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell as well as newer generation indie acts like Grizzly Bear and Holy Ghost. Oh, and did we mention McDonald even sang under the closing credits of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut?

For McDonald, juggling vocal roles and genres continues to fuel a career that brings him back to Lexington for a Tuesday concert at the Opera House. Longtime fans will note the venue is just a few streets over from Rupp Arena, where the singer/keyboardist played regularly during the late ‘70s with the Doobie Brothers.

“Knowledge of one kind of music is always going to enhance your enjoyment of another,” McDonald said. “As a kid growing up, I enjoyed a lot of different kinds of music even though what I was introduced to as a kid probably would not have been the music I would listen to later as a teenager.

“My dad was a singer. Growing up with him, my first instrument was tenor banjo playing ragtime and music of another whole other era before I was born. Even as a kid, I loved the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, stuff like that. Those guys to me are still part of what I consider to be American classical music. So my tastes have always been kind of diverse.”

Then came the ‘60s, which turned the St. Louis native to the electric sounds of the day, By 1970, that music prompted a move to Los Angeles.

“Like most guys of my generation, I wanted to play rock ‘n roll,” McDonald said. “My first band kind of emulated all of the British Invasion bands. Then rhythm and blues got to be a favorite music. But I always saw a similarity in all of it. There was always something from one genre that I borrowed to approach the next one I had an infatuation with. That’s the thing about music. There is always going to be a similarity.”

That sense of musical kinship dominates a 2014 recording that reteamed McDonald with the Doobie Brothers. But the resulting album, Southbound, wasn’t a reunion as much as a refashioning as it presented new versions of Doobies classics cut with contemporary country artists.

For McDonald, that meant taking new looks at hits he popularized during his tenure with the band. Specifically, What a Fool Believes was shared with Sara Evans and Takin’ It to the Streets with Love & Theft. It also enlisted Vince Gill for guitar color during You Belong to Me, a 1977 Doobies song McDonald co-wrote with Carly Simon (it was a Top 10 hit for the latter in 1978).

“Oh, that was a lot of fun,” McDonald said of the recording. “We (the Doobies) don’t always get that many opportunities or excuses to get back in the studio because we’re always going in different directions at this point. So any time something like this comes up for me, it’s fun. But it was also an opportunity to work with some great new artists in the country scene, most of which we probably wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to get into the studio.”

Michael McDonald performs at 7:30 p.m. June 16 at the Lexington Opera House. Tickets: $85.50-$175. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to

hanging with swing king

ray benson.

ray benson.

The prospect of Asleep at the Wheel devoting an entire recording project to the music of Bob Wills seems more than inevitable. It is essentially business as usual.

For the better part of 45 years, founder, bandleader, guitarist and vocalist Ray Benson and a rotating arsenal of expert instrumentalists have been torch bearers for a brand of Western swing inspired by, along with numerous country and jazz influences, the sounds Wills and his famed Texas Playboys band created in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ’40s. Benson has cut two previous Wills tribute albums with the multi-Grammy winning Asleep at the Wheel. But for the new Still the King record, Benson wanted a fiddle driven Wills swing party that would defy the ages.

“The whole idea was you would have Asleep at the Wheel as the band along with every fiddle player under the sun,” said Benson, who brings the current Wheel gang to the Lyric Theatre on Monday for the 800th taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. “We’re just trying to let people continue to experience the really great Bob Wills Western swing music.

As fiddlers go, Still the King has a bounty of them, including Lone Star sensation Carrie

Rodriguez. But that’s just the tip of guest list. The roster also enlists such country/Americana pros as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Strait and Lyle Lovett (all veterans of Asleep at the Wheel’s previous Wills tribute records) as well as a healthy lineup of stylistically varied new generation acts that includes Brad Paisley, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers, The Devil Makes Three, Amos Lee and Kat Edmonson.

“That’s always been the purpose of these records – to get multi-generational support,” Benson said. “But we also wanted to get folks who haven’t had an opportunity to play real Western swing on a record to do that.

“We have people of five generations playing this music on this record, from one of the Quebe Sisters (the Fort Worth-based fiddle trio), who is 20 or 21 years old, right on up to Billy Briggs, one of the old Texas Playboys. He plays sax and is 92 years old.”

Just the King also chronicles one of the final recorded performances of Dawn Sears, vocalist for the all-star Nashville roots and swing troupe The Time Jumpers, who died from lung cancer in December. She and the entire Time Jumpers line-up join Asleep at the Wheel on Faded Love.

“Yeah, Dawn sang the bridge on Faded Love,” Benson said. “She just killed it. That was very sad. Of course, her husband Kenny was one of the fiddlers on the session along with Larry Franklin, my old fiddle player. There was me, Ranger Doug (from Riders in the Sky), (Louisiana fiddler) Joe Spivey, (former Asleep at the Wheel vocalist) Elizabeth McQueen. Jason (Roberts), our old fiddler, plays and sings, too. There were so many people. Ah, what a session. It’s as beautiful a version of Faded Love as you’ll hear and it’s done in the style of, I think, the most modern Western swing music.

“Then you hear the Old Crow Medicine Show (which performs the classic Tiger Rag) and you have the most basic raw version of Western swing. We’ve got this incredible array of styles and music.”

But what about Benson himself? As practiced as he is in the ways of such continually influential swing, are there elements of Wills’ music that continue to surprise and inspire?

“Absolutely. Every night. I think one of the things the audiences don’t realize – well, hopefully they do – is that this is improvisational music. So every night, I sing it a little different. I play my solos a lot different. Within the framework of the song, you get to jam quite a bit. So improvisation is not only fun for a musician, it also keeps you from being bored.

“Every night, you have to impress the people you’re playing with, impress yourself and, hopefully, entertain the audience.”

Asleep at the Wheel performs for the 800th broadcast of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at 7 p.m. March 23 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets are $20, $30. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to

Come back tomorrow to The Musical Box for more of our interview with Ray Benson.

redefining the organ

cameron carpenter.

cameron carpenter.

Flamboyant. It is almost impossible to read a review of a Cameron Carpenter performance where the word is not utilized as a critical summation to a concert sound that is wholly revolutionary.

It’s also a tag Carpenter can’t get his head around. A pioneer of the classical organ, he has literally uprooted the instrument from its cathedral roots, modernized it into a creation of his own portable design and built a repertoire around it that runs from Bach to Bernstein to Bacharach. Depending on your viewpoint, that makes Carpenter a renaissance man or a renegade.

But flamboyant? That’s a tag he neither understands nor appreciates.

“There is a continuing suspicion that the music and the personality are different, and I’ve never understood why this should seem so,” said Carpenter, via email this week from his home in Berlin. “ ‘Flamboyance’ is, at this point, a word that has more meaning as a euphemism for queer – a state which can still ill afford to allow any euphemisms.”

The current thrust of the Julliard trained, Grammy nominated Carpenter’s career is an instrument of his own design called the International Touring Organ. A digital creation utilizing samples of traditional pipe organs (as well as such offspring as the Wurlitzer), it is a modernization of instruments housed in cathedrals around the world. In Cameron’s hands, though, the most epic of organ sounds have become portable.

“The instrument behaves exactly as we – meaning, not only me, but its visionary builders, (the Massachusetts team of) Marshall & Ogletree – envisioned, and is almost anticlimatically consistent and well-behaved in this wonderful way. With a few correctible exceptions, I seem to have not totally embarrassed myself in its design, which proposes a hybridization of the mid-century prim and poetic American classical organ with its less respectable, ruder, decadent, not-too-well preserved, off-color half-sister, the much more eccentric theater organ. Their reunion has been difficult to negotiate but I think we’ve broken ground there.

“Understanding this, I am constantly revising it, usually to add more wildness, violence, vulgarity, and randomness, which any great organ must have in spades. Glorious, holy, and majestic are illusions and, as such, squarely easy to manufacture musically and acoustically. Any old electronic organ with light-up thingummies, any old racks of pipes in whatever church balcony can imply that in a ‘good enough for anyone’ sort of way. The richness and personality of real imperfection, though, is a more challenging task.”

Last year, Carpenter put the new International Touring Organ to work in the recording studio. The result was If You Could Read My Mind, a record with a repertoire as distinctive as its sound. Alongside an adaptation of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and his own Music for an Imaginary Film are organ revisions of Leonard Bernstein’ Overture to Candide, Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, the Patsy Cline hit Back in My Baby’s Arms and the Gordon Lightfoot classic that serves as the record’s title composition.

“The International Touring Organ is, actually, totally remarkable in several regards, but it’s still just an organ. It’s a conduit to a live emotional experience. It’s not actually the organ at all that I’m interested in promoting, but, of course, the music I’m making. Here you find one of the organ’s perilous paradoxes. It’s the most impressive instrument technically and physically, but miles of pipe and wire are meaningless on their own. The scale of the machine, in league with its weighty history, is observably a stumbling block to any organist who pays the usual unskeptical obeisance to it in demeanor, repertoire, and style.”

How then, does the viewpoint of many classical enthusiasts that see modifications of performance, repertoire and instrumentation deemed traditional as a form of musical heresy enter into Carpenter’s new world order of the International Touring Organ?

“I don’t care for anyone’s opinions, good or ill, other than my own,” he said. “A funny thing: there’s a lot of lip service in the collective consciousness about how great it is not to care about other’s opinions, but in practice it’s usually received as arrogance, or antisociality. Therein comes the real test of whether you care or not, of course.”

Cameron Carpenter performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Newlin Hall, Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or got to

Carpenter will also participate in a pre-concert Gallery Talk with Centre College art professor Sheldon Tapley entitled “Reinterpreting Traditional Art Forms in Contemporary Society.” The 7 p.m. discussion will be held at the Grand Foyer of the Norton Center in conjunction with Beyond the Window, an exhibition of paintings by Zeuxis artists.

critic’s pick 260: bob dylan, ‘shadows in the night’

Bob-Dylan-ShadowsOn paper, Shadows in the Night suggests a train wreck at bay. Imagine it. Bob Dylan, the pop poet laureate of several generations – whose singing, at least from a technical standpoint, is perhaps his least admired artistic trait – interpreting an album’s worth of standards recorded by Frank Sinatra, a stylist for whom vocal finesse was everything. But that’s what we have in Shadows in the Night. Now, get a load of this. The results are pretty righteous.

The reasons are two-fold. First, there is Dylan’s vocal work, which is a real jaw-dropper. Instead of the death rattle rasp displayed on his last few albums, Dylan sings here with astonishing and wholly unexpected focus. Ol’ Blue Eyes, he ain’t. But that’s not even remotely the intention. Still, there is a clarity in Dylan’s voice during tunes like Why Try to Change Me Now and especially Autumn Leaves that has been absent since the early ’70s. To hear such purpose stretched over an entire album, you would have to go back to John Wesley Harding in 1968.

Frankly, it’s hard to fathom Dylan even had this sort of subtlety and control as a vocalist left in him. Year after year, he concerts have descended into performance sketches where singing amounted to scribbling – highly emotive and immediate scribbling, mind you, but scribbling nonetheless. Let’s be clear, though, we’re not talking Michael Buble here. Place Dylan’s noir-like take on Full Moon and Empty Arms under a microscope and you hear all kinds of technical hiccups – a flat note here, an over annunciation there and a slight overall wheeze that reminds you of who is at work. But place Shadows in the Night next to latter day Dylan classics like Time Out of Mind and it sounds like the work of an entirely different artist.

What completes the vision of Shadows in the Night is its overall mood. All 10 tunes pair the primarily orchestral arrangements of the versions cut by Sinatra (and others, like Frankie Laine, who had hits with this material in another lifetime) down to fit Dylan’s combo-sized band. Even then, the group, augmented by occasional muted brass, plays at the level of a whisper. The sole dominating instrumental voice is the pedal steel guitar of one-time BR549 member Donny Herron. But this isn’t country music either. This is late night, off-in-the-distance blues speaking in a vintage pop dialect. It is half tradition and half Twilight Zone. Then, again, who else but Dylan could make Some Enchanted Evening sound so distinctively surreal?

Maybe half the thrill of the recording is its sheer sense of surprise. For a folk monument like Dylan, who you would think have played every stylistic card dealt to him by now, Shadows in the Night is the sound of something old made remarkably new.

ozzy, mavis, pryor and the blues

keb' mo'.

keb’ mo’.

At the onset his recent BLUESAmericana album, Keb’ Mo’ offers his latest assessment of the blues.

Admittedly, the song stylist born Kevin Moore has spent much of his career refining a musical voice where the blues goes hand-in-hand with pop, soul and, yes, Americana. It’s a sound that has established Mo’ as one of the most popular and visible faces of contemporary blues music. Such a voice has won three Grammys and, come Feb. 8, could earn three more for BLUESAmericana alone.

But on the album-opening The Worst is Yet to Come, the blues turn traditional – at least, in terms of narrative. The storyline details a hapless man who loses his job, car, wife and dog in quick succession.

“Even the bedbugs up and run,” he sings over a churchy, country groove.

“Pretty much I talked to these songs,” said Mo’, who returns to Lexington for an Opera House performance on Wednesday. “I sort of had conversations with them. It was like,                                                                                                                                                                                                     ‘Alright, songs. What you want to do? Where do you want to go? Who are you? What do you want to say and how do you want to say it?’ And what is interesting is I worked backwards on this record.

“Normally you go in and make a track for the record, then you sing on top of it. But on this one, I sang first and got the tempo. The vocal was always the first piece. That way the song was the thing that was always key. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of it. I monitored everything on it so as not to compromise the story in any kind of way.”

But there is also curious inspiration at work on the song, one that borrows the blues from an unobvious source. The verse about losing the wife and dog? That was triggered by a recording from the landmark comedian Richard Pryor.

“One of his albums has a skit where his woman is leaving him and Richard is begging, ‘Baby, please don’t go.’ Then after she’s gone, the dog starts talking to him. He says, ‘Richard, I love you but I’m going with her. She feeds me three square meals a day but you’re a little tardy with the food. But I’m going to leave you a little something on the floor to remember me by.’ So that’s a song where I worked backwards so I could start a story of my own. I just love that skit so much.”

Already a bluesman with considerable crossover appeal, Mo’ found himself part of numerous tribute projects in 2014. Some were grounded in the blues, others sent him to an entirely different stylistic world.

Among the latter was MusiCares benefit honoring Ozzy Osbourne and longtime pal Jeff Greenberg in May. The event placed him onstage not with one of his blues/soul contemporaries, but with Metallica.

“I was the quietest guy there,” Mo’ said with a laugh. “The event was all about recovery from substance abuse and those kinds of things. I resonate so much with all of the spiritual concepts that come through the 12 step program. I just tend to gravitate toward those people from the spiritual side, not necessarily from the substance side. I come from the side where sometimes there is nothing you can do but to lean on the spirits to get through the things you can’t control in your life.”

More recently – and, perhaps, more expectedly – was an all-star November tribute celebrating the 75th birthday of gospel/blues empress Mavis Staples that placed Mo’ in the company of Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and Gregg Allman, among many others.

“Oh, that was a blast. That was a super blast. When Mavis calls on you… man, that’s like going to the White House. It was during one of those times of the year that I would have rather been at home. But they said, ‘This is for Mavis.’ So I said, ‘Yes. I’m coming.’

“I mean, there is no other answer. I don’t care who you are. There is no other answer but ‘yes’ when people ask you to come out for Mavis Staples.”

Keb’ Mo’ performs at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets are $45.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to

big noise from wynonna


wynonna judd.

With a career spanning three decades as one of country music’s most volcanic voices, Kentucky’s own Wynonna Judd has grown accustomed to having her way in the recording studio.

In short, she is an artist who, in the preparation of her music, is unaccustomed to be told no.

“Making a record is kind of like a blind date,” said Judd, who returns to home state turf this weekend for a performance at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “You’re so excited and there is such great anticipation.

“So I had been into the studio to make this music and I let the label hear it. They went, ‘Wynonna, we’ve never heard you sound better. But we’re bored.’”

Excuse me? The artist that sold millions of records in the ‘80s as part of the mother-daughter duo The Judds while becoming one of the leaders of a new traditionalist movement that commandeered country airwaves was now boring? The roaring vocalist that took on elements of soul, gospel and rock as her solo career commenced in the ‘90s was being given a thumbs down for her new music by her own record label?

“After 30 years of this love affair with the labels, it’s been up, down and all around, right? Still, they always said the same thing. But this time, it was, ‘We love your voice and the body of work. But this is too safe. It’s just too predictable.’

“I’ve never heard this before. But I hate to admit it. At our age, we can really get in a rut, whether it’s our marriage, our job or just life in general. We get on autopilot. And I’m no different. I think what I did was I went with how I was feeling, which was pretty casual. Maybe I was looking for that comfortable sweater to put on at the end of the day. But then it was like, ‘We don’t want a comfortable sweater.’ So there’s all that money and time down the drain, and I was just really frustrated. But I think artists have to get to a place where they become frustrated because after that came the good stuff.

The “good stuff” translates into loose and live sessions with Judd’s husband Cactus Moser (formerly of the ‘80s/’90s country band Highway 101) and a revised stylistic scope that won’t be viewed by anyone – from record label reps to her faithful fanbase – as routine, predictable or boring. A single from the as-yet-untitled recording, Something You Can’t Live Without, has been released through digital outlets.

“I’m not sleeping I’m so jazzed,” Judd said. “It’s like creative insomnia all over the place. The reason is we’re making the record live. We’re doing the vocals live at the same time as the music. We’re going, as they say, old school – when you get a band together and perform instead of trying to make everything perfect. We’re making the music perfectly imperfect. It’s live and it’s raw.

“Some people get so bogged down in the slick production part of recording that the music almost never becomes human. It’s a machine. I wanted this record to feel like a personal, hand-written note. So here we go. Cactus is making me get really uncomfortable in my process, and that’s really pushing me. It’s really uncomfortable at times but it was time to do things differently.”

Little of that is likely to matter, though, when Judd returns to Kentucky on Saturday. That’s when the Ashland native’s focus on record labels and stylistic expectations will shift to a considerably more homespun level of excitement.

“I’m not just saying this, but I really do feel like Miss America when I come back. I feel like I’m related to everybody. And if I’m not related to them, I’ve either lent them money or been to their house for a meal.

“It’s a very strange and wonderful thing. I get very overwhelmed. I get very emotional. But I also wouldn’t trade it for anything. I am so grateful that I have those roots. I’m grateful for the fans, too, because without them I would have to get a real job.”

Wynonna and The Big Noise perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $38-$75. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to

critic’s pick 247: daniel lanois, ‘flesh and machine’

lanoisFlesh and Machine is the record long time enthusiasts of Daniel Lanois always hoped he would make. After three decades of applying his stylistic ambience to other artists – namely, albums that heightened or reignited the careers of U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, The Neville Brothers, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and a host of others – the producer/guitarist/song stylist now turns his sonic invention to his own music on a gorgeously textured instrumental recording.

Lanois is no stranger to solo sessions. He has been cutting them since the late ‘80s, but they have mostly yielded song oriented works rich with a mix of rootsy sparseness, rockish immediacy and atmospheric invitation. The focus of Flesh and Machine seems to be exclusively on sound – specifically, a wash of guitar, voice and contributions from a few longtime pals processed into an often orchestral whole.

In some instances, recognizing the actual source music is impossible. In others, we hear fragments of melody, beat and groove, but they are seldom sustained. It seems Lanois was intent on creating an instrumental moodpiece for the modern age that discouraged any close consideration of the sum of its parts.

The most dominate and most recognizable inspirations are the early ‘80s recordings Lanois helped design with his foremost mentor, Brian Eno.

On Two Bushas , in particularly, the music flows in as if from the cosmos – chilled and spacious at one moment, lush but cautious the next. The comparisons to the Eno years become more intentional during the album closing Forest City, a luscious, sustained celestial hum peppered by what seems like synthesized fairy dust that recalls the music of Japanese keyboardist Isao Tomita. It is a tune beautifully designed to get lost in.

But Flesh and Machine is far more than an Eno-esque tribute. After the ethereal, vocally processed album intro of Rocco (named for Rocco DeLuca, who provided the source singing), the album explodes into the The End (an ironic title for Flesh and Machine’s second track) with a squall line of ruptured guitar speak from Lanois and free form bashing from longstanding drummer/compadre Brian Blade. The album quickly cools after that, but the attack of The End provides a balance that makes the grace and calm that pervades the rest of the album all the more striking.

There are loads of other delights, as well, including the brief cosmic pop reverie of My First Love, the techno chatter of percussion and keyboards or vocals (or possibly both) on Opera and the waves of what sound like heavily processed pedal or lap steel guitar that dance about on Aquatic.

All of this makes Flesh and Machine a sort of 36 minute sonic vacation. For full effect, put your life on hold as you listen, turn off the lights and let Lanois’ fabric of earthy unrest and otherworldly calm envelop you.

critic’s pick 245: bill frisell, ‘guitar in the space age’

frisell space ageAmong Bill Frisell’s many gifts as a guitarist is the ability to provide a vibrant new voice to the roots music of his youth. In the past, that has largely been defined through jazz standards and Americana classics. Last year’s electro-chamber adventure Big Sur opened the repertoire up to a wider stylistic array of West Coast inspirations. But on the fine new Guitar in the Space Age!, perhaps his most accessible record in 15 years, Frisell expands his source material to include the pop, surf, twang and rock sounds that caught his ear as a teenager.

But anyone thinking Guitar in the Space Age! is some retro-fitting exercise needs to strap in give and this recording a full length test flight. While he doesn’t take the melodic liberties here that he has with some of his Americana explorations (2009’s Disfarmer comes to mind), the guitarist does toy with the temperament, tone and tempo of the music to make the album’s 14 songs sound like a sonic mural that is best enjoyed as a single suite as opposed to a composite of single-tune snapshots.

The warmth and color of Turn! Turn! Turn!, for instance, sounds both familiar and inviting. Fashioned far more after the jangly Rickenbacker 12 string electric colors Roger McGuinn pioneered on The Byrds’ hit 1965 version than the Pete Seeger-penned original, the song’s lyricism is elongated to build suspense for the inevitable groove that carries the tune.

Half the fun, though, is the tune’s placement on Guitar in the Space Age! between the album-opening cover of the surf classic Pipeline (which churns along at a similarly relaxed pace until the hearty beat of bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen erupts) and the wah-wah enhanced funk of the Junior Wells-popularized Messin’ With the Kid.

One of Frisell’s most trusted bandmates, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, maintains a consistently complimentary presence throughout the album, from the lazily luscious string harmonies provided on the Beach Boys classic Surfer Girl to the light, chiming interplay that propels The Shortest Day (one of only two Frisell originals on Guitar in the Space Age!). And hearing the two casually cut loose on Merle Travis’ grand Cannonball Rag is big fun.

Pinning down favorites here is mighty tough. On initial listens, the top picks are a tie between a loose, psychedelic take on The Kinks’ Tired of Waiting for You and an anthemic Telstar proudly rooted in groove. Both tunes signal that while Guitar in the Space Age! may work off of melodic designs from Frisell’s past, the very assured instrumental music that results is engineered for the future.

critic’s pick 241: john coltrane, ‘offering’

coltrane offeringOne enters into the wondrous new archival recording Offering with John Coltrane already at work. That’s the way the jazz titan’s music could often make you feel – like you were arriving late.

The saxophonist starts in an instant – before, in fact, the recording engineers begin to roll tape. There is no intro, no warm-up, no easing in of intent. The music begins full blown with 16 minutes of Naima rushing in like an ocean at low tide. Coltrane’s tenor solo hardly takes a breath for five-and-a-half glorious minutes then disappears under an extended exchange between pianist (and wife) Alice Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali. He returns in the final minutes for the only reading of the piece’s hymn-like theme, which is played as a brief coda.

Though a vital protégé throughout the performance that follows, Coltrane’s tenor sax partner in crime Pharoah Sanders sits Naima out. Can you blame him?

Offering has been available in bite-sized, bootlegged forms for years. But this new release presents us with the entire 90 minute set. Recorded on a Friday evening in a half-empty Mitten Hall at Temple University in November 1966 (eight months before Coltrane’s death at age 40), Offering is presented as less of a jazz concert and more of a spiritual affirmation.

A 26 minute reading of the 1964 ballad Crescent emphasizes, in somewhat fractured fashion, the full strengths of this unique ensemble. The warm glow of Coltrane’s tenor sax lead briefly states the tune’s luscious melody before surrendering to a scorched earth solo by Sanders. Then a subsequent piano excursion by Alice Coltrane, presented with a lighter variation of the modal mischief summoned years earlier in Coltrane’s quartet by McCoy Tyner, invites four guest percussionists to the spiritual rumble.

But the stuff of legend here is Leo. Opening with a seemingly traditional, boppish run, the music becomes so combustible Coltrane actually sings in a wordless, relenting wail that seems to strive for the notes his horn can’t reach or articulate.

There are sonic limitations to Offering’s source material. As the performance was set up with enough microphones to suit a primitive radio broadcast and not a fully produced recording that would surface nearly half a century later, the sound mix heavily favors whatever soloist was at hand. You can readily hear instruments being quickly amped up and faded out manually. That means guest bassist Sonny Johnson is all but lost outside of his contemplative solo at the onset of My Favorite Things.

But when the mighty Coltrane gains the spotlight with that spectacular tenor tone, you can practically sense the steam rising from the music. That makes Offering an exquisite remembrance of a jazz colossus conversing with the spirits. His language is his own, but all are invited to share in the rapture that ensues.

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