paul barrere, 1941-2019

Paul Barrere. Photo by Hank Randall.

I came to the music of Little Feat somewhat late in the game. The band’s reputation as a kind of hipster/hippie rock troupe from the West Coast, matching often whimsical narratives to rock melodies full of rough, rootsy authority, was already in place thanks to its first five albums. Two were cut as an initial quartet, the rest as a made-over, more richly orchestrated sextet that placed the vocals and guitarwork, each as sly and electric as the other, of Lowell George front and center.

Strict attention to the band, for me, took place after seeing it live for the first time in the spring of 1977, which roughly coincided with the release of its sixth album, “Time Loves a Hero.” Having appeared disconnected and, frankly, ill at the ’77 show at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum, George was letting his hold on the Little Feat sound slip. The “Times Loves a Hero” music was slicker, jazzier and more open to the voices that would become de facto leaders of the band from that point on – guitarist Paul Barrere and keyboardist Bill Payne.

Barrere didn’t so such change the George approach as modify it. A wicked slide guitarist, as was George, he smoothed out the creases in the Little Feat sound. The album was still full of George-level wit in songs like “Old Folks Boogie” (which Barrere wrote) and “Keeping Up with the Joneses” (which he co-composed with George). Similarly, Barrere’s vocals were more relaxed, yet full of swampy, Southern-fried comfort – a curiosity given his California roots.

George died in 1979 with Little Feat disbanding shortly thereafter. It reformed in 1988, with Craig Fuller, followed by Shaun Murphy, handling George’s vocal duties before they were eventually assimilated by Barrere. And so Little Feat has remained until today. While few of its post-George recordings caught lasting fire with fans (the 1988 comeback album “Let It Roll” being an exception), their live shows remained thrilling – a product of fusion-esque band dynamics, vintage rock and soul smarts and a performance stamina that remained undiminished until the years began taking their toll.

Drummer Richie Hayward died of liver cancer in 2010. Barrere was diagnosed with the same disease in 2015 following battles with Hepatitis C that began over two decades earlier. Barrere remained with Little Feat through this year, but opted out of a fall tour (that included a date at the Louisville Palace two weeks ago) to recover from medical treatments. He died yesterday at the age of 71.

My favored memory of Barrere was not the 1977 show. It was instead a 1990 appearance at the now demolished Cardinal Stadium in Louisville where Little Feat was opening for, of all people, Jimmy Buffett. I had zero interest in seeing Buffett but was thrilled to experience the reactivated Feat for the first time since George’s death. The sound was night and day when compared to the ’77 concert. Despite the vast outdoor setting, the band’s ensemble groove was dense but razor sharp during “Rock and Roll Doctor,” undeniably funky during a New Orleans-style makeover of “Fat Man in the Bathtub” and beautifully joyous throughout “Let It Roll” and “Rad Gumbo,” the latter two being among the most rhythmically infectious works of the post-George era.

Looking for a record of Barrere at his best? Then head right for the definitive Little Feat album, the 1978 concert chronicle “Waiting for Columbus,” which had George and Barrere in fine performance form and the already buoyant band sound bolstered by the Tower of Power horns.

So farewell, Mr. Barrere. Thanks for letting it roll so gloriously all these years.

springsteen at the movies: a heroic encore for “western stars”

Bruce Springsteen performing in “Western Stars.” Photo by Rob DeMartin.

“Come on in,” beckons the narrative voice of Bruce Springsteen at the onset his new “Western Stars” concert film. “We’re about to start our tale of a man standing by the roadside.”

With that, we are ushered into a massive, 100-year old barn on Springsteen’s New Jersey property – a venue that has been transformed into a makeshift concert venue big enough to accommodate a 30-piece orchestra, as well as an impromptu movie set. The occasion is the only live performance of his “Western Stars” album, a summer masterpiece that wraps songs of immense personal complexity and restlessness in the deceptively warm orchestral embrace of late ‘60s Americana.

Springsteen co-directed the 83-minute film with Thom Zimney. It begins a limited nationwide release, which includes a Lexington run, on March 25 (Friday).

If “Western Stars” did nothing but present the 13 songs from the album of the same name in a performance setting, it would be worth viewing, even though the music adheres far more exactly to the record’s string-savvy arrangements than his E Street Band shows do to his more adaptable rock ‘n’ roll repertoire.  Then again, “Western Stars” isn’t a rock album. It’s doesn’t even parallel Springsteen’s most potent non-rock work from the past, 1982’s “Nebraska.” That record was a stark, blackened journey into the abyss – and a willful one, at that. “Western Stars” is about surviving that kind of tumble and the difficulties in applying the lessons learned to a more hopeful life.

What makes these live performances so strong, curiously, are the non-musical moments that come between the songs. These are vignettes, many shot in the expansive outdoors of Joshua Tree, California, that enlighten the unsettled nature of the music.

The paradox this contrast sets up is often astonishing. We revel in the majesty of the strings and a richly animated vocal performance from Springsteen on the most riveting composition from the “Western Stars” album, “There Goes My Miracle,” a work that outlines the graciousness of love and the regret stirred when it helplessly slips away. Springsteen extolls love’s virtues in the narrative prelude to the song, but warns that one has to “work for its blessings.” The music then hammers the point home, with devastating efficiency, through two simple words tacked onto the title: “… walking away.”

“Western Stars” is, ultimately, an affirmation, albeit a cautious one. We can luxuriate in the sweetness of its lyricism and orchestral flair, but like so many great Springsteen works, what lurks under the surface gives the music its very humanity.

“Are we moving forward?” he asks in one of the spoken interludes early in the film. “Or are we just moving?” “Western Stars” is unquestionably an artistic step forward for Springsteen. But its greatest strength, even when providing such a revealing performance portrait of his new songs, comes from capturing the very human hesitancy, unrest and conflict that makes the film so engrossing and Springsteen’s music so unavoidably relatable.

in performance: the earls of leicester

The Earls of Leicester.

It was the last concert of the year for the Earls of Leicester on Sunday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. So in explaining the band’s eagerness in hitting the road and heading home, band founder and overall ringmaster Jerry Douglas offered a proclamation on the onset of the evening.

“We’re going to play real fast.”

A joke? And if not, a feckless excuse for getting a concert over and done with? The answers: Definitely no to the latter and sorta kinda to the former. The thing is, the whole deal with the Earls is bluegrass – specifically, the still soulful and technically audacious repertoire of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, so playing “real fast” is something of a requisite.

Yes, the Earls made quick business of things at the Lyric, cramming 25 tunes into a set that clocked in at just under 90 minutes. And while audience patrons did have to figuratively strap themselves in to keep up with the lightning pace, no one was short changed. The musicianship was typically authoritative, the harmonies were sublime (especially the frequent four-part blend that draped the more patiently paced tunes as well as the warp speed numbers) and the band spirit was bold enough to suggest no one was enjoying this wrap party of a performance more than the players onstage.

With only one exception (a fun cover of Roger Miller’s “In the Summertime”), the setlist was drawn exclusively from the Flatt & Scruggs catalog, from Charlie Cushman’s take on Scruggs’ wild shifts in banjo tuning during “Flint Hill Special” (which closed the concert) to guitarist Shawn Camp’s light and inviting Flatt-style presence as an emcee as well as vocalist to the irrepressibly joyous runs on fiddle by Johnny Warren (the son of original Foggy Mountain Boys fiddle man Paul Warren).

There were a few new faces in the lineup, too. Specifically, Ashby Frank subbed for Jeff White on mandolin while Daniel Kimbro took over for Barry Bales on bass. But the transition was seamless. “I’ll Go Stepping Too” still breezed along with effortless string music cheer, “White House Blues” still raced with delirious speed and agility and “Paul and Silas” still used the Earls’ potent harmonies to fuel an impassioned gospel feel.

That left, as Camp called him, “Uncle Flux” – the mighty Douglas. Unlike his own projects, the Earls’ sense of ensemble stamina and performance economy left minimal room to showcase his full dexterity on the dobro. But since Flatt & Scruggs dobro great Josh Graves, a musical mentor for Douglas, had to operate with similar efficiency in the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Earls’ dobro lines were delivered with a concise but very defined drive.

For those needing something just a touch more demonstrative, though, there was the instrumental medley of “Spanish Two Step” and “Steel Guitar Blues,” an astonishing display of tone and tempo where the spirit of Graves and ingenuity of Douglas merged into a singular, fiery celebration of bluegrass tradition.

Had the Earls been able to convert that kind of energy into bus fuel for the ride back home… well, let’s just say there would have quite a few startled state troopers along I-65 on Sunday night.

in performance: postmodern jukebox

Rogelio Douglas Jr of Postmodern Jukebox.

For all the concern in capturing the feel of the 1920s, a sentiment that extended to tagging its current tour as “Welcome to the Twenties 2.0,” Postmodern Jukebox didn’t seem content in staying put in any set time zone Saturday evening at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

Sure, the better part of its immensely entertaining two set, two hour concert used the a 30 year span stretching from the Roaring ‘20s to the Post-war era as a ballpark scenario for its jazz and blues re-castings of contemporary pop compositions. And, yes, with four immensely capable vocalists, six stylistically astute musicians and a tap dancing maniac, the ensemble found yesteryear a pretty cozy place to chart at least part of the evening from. But by the end of the night, the time tripping landed everyone in the present day for the most volcanically potent performance of the night.

First, the beginning – or rather, the past. The first three songs of the evening indeed roared back to somewhere around the ‘20s with a sense of vaudeville that was as pronounced as the jazz sensibility. It began with vocalist/emcee Rogelio Douglas, Jr. and tap dancer Matt Shields transforming the Michael Jackson staple “Thriller” into a slice of playful swing. Singer Dani Armstrong (who performed last night under the non de plume of Jack Dani) then injected “Toxic” with noir-seasoned textures and dynamics that were light years beyond the vocal ability of the song’s originator, Britney Spears. Then PMJ newcomer Therese Curatolo led a charge of swing that fell somewhere between tango and klezmer on a makeover of Billie Eilish’s “bad guy.” Actually, the latter’s foremost accomplishment was wiping clean the original’s vacuous attitude and robotic vocal detachment so Curatolo could inject the tune with some vampish humanity.

The rest of the program maintained the inventive, retro-inclined cabaret spirit with a few technical glitches (a muddy sound mix at the show’s onset and some intrusive rings of feedback in the second set) until the past caught up with the present during the program’s encore.

Here, Armstrong grabbed hold of the Sia hit “Chandelier” in a version that didn’t so much echo the ‘20s as simply free the song from the synthesized confines of its original version. In short, it was presented as an organically orchestrated pop work that Armstrong took to the heavens with earnest, operatic vocal drama. No, it didn’t possess any obvious atmosphere of nostalgia or even the campy pleasantries that distinguished the rest of the show. It was rather a straight-up arrangement with a commanding vocal presence that, frankly, put the original to shame. And that’s a pop effect that works like magic in any era.

in performance: amanda gardier

Amanda Gardier. Photo by Tim McLaughlin.

The performance appeal and accessibility of Amanda Gardier was established within the opening moments of a set (the first of two) Friday evening at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Club. The tune that placed the introduction in motion was “Fjord,” an original composition by the Indianapolis based alto saxophonist that revealed a respect for melody – specifically, a rolling, descending riff with a hint of Latin flavor. It affirmed an instrumental voice that was subtle, tasteful and a touch restless.

Though she would eventually establish as assured command of bop and swing, Gardier never overplayed her hand. There was a lightness in her playing that made brash, exploitive runs on the sax unnecessary. Instead, much of her set revealed an alto sound of often graceful ease, whether it was through the more boppish inclination of standards like “Beatrice” or the more autumnal luster of originals like “Smoke.”

But this wasn’t pop or fusion-esque lyricism at work. As melodically spacious as her playing was, Gardier also exhibited inventive twists of tempos and dynamics within a solo, especially through the darting, punctuated runs that ignited a nimble reading of “You and the Night and Music.”

Gardier had considerable help in piloting such an intriguing set. The prime foil within her onstage quartet was guitarist and husband Charlie Ballantine, a player with zero interest in fusion-style flamboyance in his soloing. Instead, he employed a modest touch of echo to frame solos as well as rhythmic passages, which, in their more spacious moments, nicely recalled the electric taste of the late John Abercrombie.

Such accessibility served Gardier well. As the second featured artist in the third season of the Origins Jazz Series, she is largely unknown in Central Kentucky. By exhibiting a conservable level of solo and ensemble ingenuity that respectfully honored groove and melody without surrendering to them, she offered a performance introduction that tastefully calls for a follow-up visit.

ginger baker, 1939-2019

Ginger Baker.

In the authorized 2010 biography “Composing Himself,” the late Jack Bruce offered this recollection of hearing Ginger Baker for the first time following a 1962 gig in Cambridge.

“He looked like a demon in that cellar, sitting down there with his red hair. He had this drum kit that he made himself. I never heard drums sound so good. I’d never seen a drummer like him. I knew that I wanted to play with him.”

By 1966, Bruce and Baker, along with Eric Clapton, would form Cream, perhaps the most influential rock trio, outside of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, of its day. The band cut a mere four albums over its scant three-year lifespan, but still managed to change forever the face of rock ‘n’ roll. The first three recordings, 1966’s “Fresh Cream,” 1967’s “Disraeli Gears” and 1968’s “Wheels of Fire,” remain essential listening for any aspiring rock enthusiast. Both were stylistic mash-ups born out of electric blues, although each player had his signature contribution. For Baker, who died today at the age of 80, it was the construction of an elemental groove and a seemingly limitless set of variations to keep the beat from stagnating.

Listen to “We Were Wrong,” one of the many highlights from “Disraeli Gears,” to hear this in practice. Over an otherworldly high tenor vocal from Bruce, the initial beat is held in place by a simple hi-hat cymbal. Then Bruce goes wild with a rumbling that dances around the melody bolstered by tribal-level might. You almost sense it separating from the song itself to circle listeners in a way that brings them into the resulting séance.

Baker’s career would splinter in numerous directions after Cream’s split and a subsequent one album/one year tenure with Clapton in Blind Faith, all of which held far less commercial potential than his former bands. Such a scenario largely seemed to please the drummer. There was the primitive fusion music of Ginger Baker’s Air Force, the masterful early ‘70s Afrobeat collaboration with Fela Kuti, the splendid ‘90s jazz trio with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden and myriad projects in between that included recordings with everyone from Hawkwind to Public Image, Ltd.

There was also an offstage reputation to go with his world class music, specifically an ill-tempered disposition that turned unrepentantly ugly when met by an opposing artist of equal intensity. For much of Baker’s career, that artist would be Bruce (who died in 2014). The two would play together in numerous ensembles through the decades, most of which dissolved into seas of animosity, including a short-lived Cream reunion that only lasted long enough for brief engagements at the Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall.

The only time I got to see Baker was with Bruce at a December 1989 performance at Bogart’s in Cincinnati to promote the bassist’s then-current “A Question of Time” album.

Baker agreed to serve as drummer for the tour, but reportedly never bothered to learn any of Bruce’s newer music. As such, the show was split into two sets, one involving then-current material with another drummer and a second centering on vintage Cream songs with Baker joining in.

Even then, Baker looked like an old man, despite the fact he was barely 50. His playing was still commanding, however. “Toad,” the Cream tune that was essentially a vehicle for an extended drum solo, remained the audience favorite, but his playing was equally inventive during the groove variations that fortified less obvious Cream works like “N.S.U.” and “Politician.”

Baker and Bruce were supposedly at each other’s throats the entire tour. Engaging in such conflict was probably in their contracts. But the artistic spirit that was ripe in the days of Cream, the drive that would carry both artists in markedly different directions during the ‘90s and beyond, was in fresh abundance at the Cincinnati show. That night, a legend – well, two legends – did themselves proud.

“Material and style aren’t so important,” wrote Ben Ratliff in a New York Times review of a 2013 club performance by Baker’s aptly titled Jazz Confusion band. “You’re getting the essence of his sound, up close, with two kick drums and two snare drums… and his personality.”

in performance: bela fleck, zakir hussain and edgar meyer with rakesh chaurasia

Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer. Photo by Jim McGuire.

After tearing through the absurdly treacherous rhythmic passages in a tune Indian tabla percussionist Zakir Hussain penned for longtime musical pal John McLaughlin, banjoist Bela Fleck – an artist who is not exactly a slouch when it comes to the demands of progressive music – offered a subtle confession.

“That was hard.”

Cue bassist Edgar Meyer, a Fleck compadre of several decades and an artist with an equal sense of artistic adventure and, perhaps more importantly, sense of humor.

“It’s not hard if you practice.”

That was the kind of alliance Hussain, Fleck and Meyer struck up Friday evening at the Singletary Center for the Arts in a fascinating East meets West musical summit where borders quickly dissolved and a common artistic topography was merrily explored.

Take the show-opening “Bubbles,” a tune from “The Melody of Rhythm,” the 2009 album that largely introduced the trio’s collaborative spirit. It began, as did many of the evening’s pieces, with a bowed bass passage from Meyer that danced between the plaintive and playful revealing elements of classical and folk working alongside a hearty measure of the blues. Hussain gradually added rhythmic colors on tabla until the instrument’s unmistakably Eastern sensibility took over. Then Fleck’s lead became the tune’s catalyst, establishing a tone of remarkable agility and lightness – a combination he would return to throughout the performance. The resulting music sounded, alternately, earthy and spiritual – a contemplative journey with numerous roots-driven signposts.

“That’s what this is going to be like,” Fleck told the audience at the tune’s conclusion – a promise for the evening the trio proudly kept. In short order, though, the group became a quartet with the addition of Rakesh Chaurasia on a variety of Indian flutes, including the bamboo-made bansuri. This added another voice to the group’s global fabric, enhancing vibrant runs that punctuated melodies with Meyer but also producing backdrops with mischievous colors and drone-like subtleties that underscored a meditative feel under Hussain’s playing.

For some, this might have seemed a curious mix – two popular American stylists whose strong bluegrass roots long ago became springboards for myriad outside inspirations teamed with a pair of master Indian classical artists and their penchant for collaboration. Fleck (a Lexingtonian briefly in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s) may have been the marquee draw and, to be sure, his performance did not disappoint. But the glue to this ensemble was clearly Hussain, whose sense of rhythmic adventure was at the helm of every piece performed, from works of raga-like grace to lyrically spacious pieces that emphasized the expansive expression of Fleck and Meyer.

The evening’s most enchanting moment, though, was also its most traditional and it belonged to Hussain alone. In an exhibition of konnakol vocalizing, Hussain put his percussion where his mouth was though the rapid recitation of syllables in an almost mathematical flow of meter. The result became wildly rhythmic and conversational even though the tablas were mostly left silent.

What was said likely seemed foreign to American ears. But the sense of musicality and joy exhibited needed no translation.

in performance: “it was fifty years ago today – a tribute to the beatles’ white album”

Todd Rundgren. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith.

First of all, the math was off.

The tribute tour to the Beatles’ White Album that played the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville on Sunday evening billed as “It Was Fifty Years Ago Today” fell victim to miscalculation. The day of this writing, Sept. 30, marks 50 years to the day since the U.S. release of a cornerstone Beatles recording. It wasn’t the White Album, but rather the masterpiece “Abbey Road.” The White Album, the bundle of fractured fascination that it was, came out in November 1968.

A detail, you say? Hey, this is The Beatles were talking about. Details were, and still are, everything.

What Danville wound up with a good intentioned tribute that was a year late and a few rock ‘n’ roll gems short. It was fun from a purely nostalgic viewpoint and genuinely engrossing when the veteran artists participating in it proved to be performance-fit for the occasion. When they weren’t, well…

The unlikely fivesome covered a career as old as the White Album itself. The members included Monkees mainstay Mickey Dolenz, who became a TV teen idol beginning in 1966; longstanding guitarist, song stylist and producer Todd Rundgren, who began issuing records just as the White Album surfaced; Joey Molland, the only surviving original member of the ‘70s pop group Badfinger; pop/rock songsmith Christopher Cross, whose career broke open at the dawn of the 1980s; and Jason Scheff, the bassist/vocalist who replaced Peter Cetera in Chicago and remained with the horn-driven band for over three decades.

The winners: Scheff and Rundgren. Vocally, they were far and away the show’s strongest entries. Scheff still has a durable range for lighter pop fare that nicely underscored the mounting turbulence of “Dear Prudence” and “Julia” while Rundgren hit the harder stuff – “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” and “Helter Skelter” – with the command of a rock ‘n’ roll sage. Rundgren also took the biggest risks. He was unafraid to add a vaudevillian twist to “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by shooting a squirt gun the size of a bazooka into the audience but stayed solemn for the necessary instrumental investment needed to pull off a dynamic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

The others were more problematic. Dolenz, as he was in Monkees heyday, was a performance clown who mugged his way through “I’m So Tired” and “Rocky Raccoon” without much vocal firepower at all. Molland summoned only a modest vocal charge during “Savoy Truffle” and “Revolution 1.” Cross seemed like he was in another room with quiet, distant singing that suited softer works like “Blackbird” and “I Will” nicely. But he seemed noticeably detached from the rest of the ensemble.

Each of the featured artists were allowed two songs each from their respective careers with Scheff and Rundgren again in the driver’s seat.  Though saddled with tunes he didn’t originally record with Chicago, Scheff offered authoritative takes on a hornless “25 or 6 to 4” and the ‘80s pop ballad “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.” Rundgren went right for the two 1972 hits that established his career, “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” performing both with cheery freshness. Dolenz aped his way through “I’m a Believer” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” Molland gave workmanlike readings of the Badfinger hits “Baby Blue” (which Rundgren served as producer for in 1971) and “No Matter What” and Cross offered capable but somewhat anesthetized versions of “Sailing” and “Ride Like the Wind.”

The members continually entered and exited during the evening, which offered a somewhat disjointed band spirit. Only “Back in the U.S.S.R” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which opened and closed the performance, had everyone onstage at the same time.

A recording of the White Album’s finale tune “Good Night” was played as the audience exited bringing to mind how it and the record’s only other tune sung by Ringo Starr, “Don’t Pass Me By,” were, well, passed by during the performance.

Poor Ringo. So many celebs onstage and not one of them could give the drummer some.

in performance: the mavericks/nick lowe and los straitjackets

The Mavericks. From left: Paul Deakin, Raul Malo, Jerry Dale McFadden and Eddie Perez.

Raul Malo seemed to commiserate Thursday evening at the Brown Theatre in Louisville with his audience. Specifically, he addressed a question he felt  fans have long been confronted with by skeptics of the band he has now fronted for three decades, The Mavericks.
“What kind of music do they play?”
Well, The Mavericks’ wildly spirited 90-minute outing probably didn’t make finding a suitable tag any easier, but let’s give it a try. How about Cowboy conjunto music? What that translated into, through a setlist that spanned nearly all of the band’s three decade career, was a series of songs occasionally rooted in very traditional country sentiments, but with a spacious zest that alternately shifted between accordion driven norteno and Tex Mex sounds to brassy, percussive Cuban excursions hinting at son music but with an exuberance that swelled well past obvious borderlines.
Malo, as always was at the forefront of this multi-cultural charge with a buoyant tenor voice of remarkable range and expression. As such, comparisons to Roy Orbison were not out of place. But Malo also didn’t press the point. Opening tunes like “All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down” and “Come Unto Me” allowed his vocals to soar without coercion or forced sentiment over the orchestrated rhythms of a beefed up, nine-member Mavericks lineup (the core quartet with a team of five auxiliary players lined up at the back of the stage).
But as evening progressed, Malo turned up the vocal intensity, reaching the boiling point with “Every Little Thing About You.” Pulled not from a Mavericks record but from his 2001 solo album “Today,” the song sported a powerful, descending riff that was emboldened by the band’s three-man horn team. From there, Malo hot-wired the Tejano adventure with an almost operatic drama and a tag team of guitar squalls aided by Mavericks co-pilot Eddie Perez.
Mostly, though, Malo was a blast to watch because he seemed to enjoy the show as much as the audience. A massive smile was plastered across his face throughout the evening. Match that with a sense of multi-cultural cunning that made a cover of John Anderson’s “Swingin’” sound like The Bar-Kays on a Havana holiday and Waylon Jennings’ classic “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” seem adaptable enough to include an out-of-nowhere snippet of the Traffic/Dave Mason relic “Feelin’ Alright” and you had a pop hybrid of ingenious distinction.

Nick Lowe (center) and Los Straitjackets.

Good thing, too, that Malo and The Mavericks were at the top of their game as the performance opened with a sterling 55 minute set that teamed the great British pop stylist Nick Lowe with the surf, roots and rockabilly twang of Los Straitjackets.
For Lowe, who turned 70 this year, the program was a return to past form after a series of recordings that quieted his sense of pop expression to a whispery cool. Appearing remarkably fit, physically as well as vocally, Lowe rode easily with the pop cheer (and, at times, modest cynicism) of ‘70s and ‘80s gems like “So It Goes,” “Ragin’ Eyes” and “Without Love.”
For Los Straitjackets, the long-running instrumental band with a flair for visual novelty (its members don Mexican wrestling masks during performances), the Lowe connection was an easy fit. The band dressed calliope-like party pieces like “Half a Boy and Half a Man” with a vigorous guitar drive and Lowe’s biggest hit, “Cruel to be Kind,” with a fun, lyrical freshness.
Los Straitjackets also got a chance to dig into a quartet of tunes on their own, including the chiming, big beat original “Aerostar” and a playfully riff-centric, retro-rock update of the 1970 Shocking Blue radio hit “Venus.”
It was the set’s encore finale, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that capped off the collaboration. Lowe first cut the tune over 45 years ago (although many will recognize it through a popular 1978 cover by Elvis Costello). But taken at a slower pace with Los Straitjackets providing support both complimentary and discreet, Lowe’s world-weary search for peace in a world caught in a spiritual tailspin never sounded more poignant, purposeful or timely.

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.

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