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.

in performance: patty griffin/scott miller

Patty Griffin. Photo by Michael Wilson.

For a brief instance, after referencing teenage activist Greta Thunberg, it looked like Patty Griffin was going to let loose on the headlines of the day. But the veteran Texas songstress, who is no stranger to championing a cause, instead took a breath, flashed a smile and resumed her sublime performance on Tuesday evening at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.

“No, we’re not going to get into that.”

Not that the unrest of the outside world didn’t reach into the séance-like setting Griffin and her very industrious trio summoned. During “The Wheel,” one of eight tunes performed from her self-titled 10th album, she sewed together ragged bits of guitar and percussion to color a tale that began as a stormy blues meditation (“Here’s a song about sitting in a dark room, losing track of your mind”) before coming up for air in 2014 New York with a not-so-thinly veiled recollection of Eric Garner’s death during a petty arrest (“Here’s a song about a man, about a man I never met… choked to death by a policeman for selling single cigarettes”).

The rest of the performance wasn’t nearly so disquietly or as electric. Aided by guitarist David Pulkingham (who doubled on piano) and drummer Conrad Choucroun (who also played bass, guitar and piano), Griffin offered contemplations filled with spacious ambience. While the ghostly, gospel-esque colors of her singing sometimes turned her lyrics into a blur, the overall atmosphere she orchestrated was nonetheless arresting.

Sometimes the allure was deceptively serene, as in “Where I Come From,” another work from her new album that breezed musically along like a train heading into the stillness of winter as it outlined the slow fade of the rural Maine town she grew up in. On others, like “Luminous Place,” a generous dab of echo on Griffin’s singing, along with some sparse piano/guitar accompaniment, made the music sound otherworldly.

The nods to older material were equally striking, from the ancient mandolin tone Griffin use to drive “Shine A Different Way” (from 2015’s “Servant of Love”) to the down-home jubilance of the show-closing “Heavenly Day,” which the singer confessed was really a love song to her dog (from 2007’s “Children Running Through”).

The performance was opened by Virginia songsmith Scott Miller, whose performance history in Lexington was considerable between 1995 and 2005, first as a member of the Knoxville rock/pop quartet The V-Roys and then as a solo artist.

His solo acoustic return on Tuesday offered a 35 minute set of alert works from throughout his career that pared down the cunning urgency of his electric records (the 18 year old “I Made a Mess of This Town”) while offering a vivid folk Poloroid of the floods unleashed in 1969 by Hurricane Camille (the as yet unrecorded “It’ll Never Be That River Again”). Vocally, thematically and compositionally, it was a splendid set.

It should be noted both artists made cameos during each other’s performance on Tuesday. Griffin added primal country harmonizing for Miller’s finale rumination, “Is There Room on the Cross for Me?” while Miller added some train whistle harmonica to Griffin’s otherwise solo version of “Love Throw a Line.”

springsteen at 70

Bruce Springsteen. Photo by Danny Clinch.

It was all I could do, in honoring Bruce Springsteen 70th birthday, to keep from playing my favorite Boss album, “Nebraska,” a vanguard work that celebrates its own milestone (the 37th anniversary of its release) next week. Brilliant as it is, though, a record that begins with the confession of a murderer (a character based heavily on spree killer Charlie Starkweather) whose final wish while being strapped into the electric chair was to have his girlfriend sitting on his lap, is probably not the way to usher in a birthday celebration.

Then again, Springsteen’s artistic profile is so vast and extends so far beyond what most mainstream audiences view as being definitive, that really any sideroad his music has journeyed is worthy of revisiting as he hits 70.

It could be the brassy folk charge of “We Shall Overcome” with his short lived Seeger Sessions Band, the harrowing affirmation of “The Rising” that brought the Boss into a ravaged 21st century, the folk meditations of “The Ghost of Tom Road” or the forgotten beauty of later E Street Band records like “Magic” and “Wrecking Ball.”

To most, understandably, the Springsteen legacy is constructed around his initial spree of recordings cut between 1972 and 1984 that took his music off of the Jersey boardwalk and onto the streets of America, celebrating its simplest joys, its most impenetrable restlessness and, increasingly, a view of the working world that encroached on the political.

But politics has always meant many things in a Springsteen song. It could be as global as the atomic-powered “Born in the U.S.A.” or as personal as a stroll down the boarded-up neighborhood within “My Hometown.” Perhaps purposely, those songs bookend the Boss’ best-selling album, 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.” International sales for the record now center somewhere around the 30 million mark.

In the end, though, what may the most fitting way to honor Springsteen at 70 is to simply rejoice in the sheer physicality and invitation of his live performances, many of which are now officially available digitally and on recordings. That, collectively, remains the foundation from which all the glorious extensions of his music have bloomed. The 5 o’clock jubilance of “Out in the Street,” the epic romanticism of “Rosalita” or even the escapist urgency that detonates three of his most established classics, “Thunder Road,” “Badlands” and “Born to Run.” Stick those in a birthday cake and watch the room go boom.

What I take the greatest comfort in with Springsteen at 70 is that his story isn’t anywhere near complete. His newest work, the brilliant “Western Stars,” sounds unlike anything he has previously done, a record of vivid Americana imagery and spacious but beautifully subtle orchestration. A film, chronicling the only performance thus far of the record’s serene music, will hit theatres in a matter of weeks. Plus, there is already serious talk of a new E Street Band record and tour for 2020.

So Happy 70th, Boss. I’m thankful, as they say, for the memories, but more appreciative that a few more journeys up, down and slightly off the ramps of the American badlands still await us.

in performance: matthew sweet

Matthew Sweet. Photo by Evan Carter.

It was, as Matthew Sweet termed it, a “chair show.” That meant the champion of ‘90s alternative pop was seated throughout his Saturday night headlining set at the Christ the King Oktoberfest due to lower back and knee pain and, in all likelihood, an inevitable aging process that afflicts some performers far more than the works they perform.

“But you can still rock in a chair,” Sweet added, after a smoothly electric, show-opening version of “Time Capsule.”

True enough. While Sweet’s hour-long performance had a certain sage-like quality to it that had little to do with him being seated, what was placed on display was an ample depiction of a pop stylist with a stylistic and emotive range that is often underappreciated.

As such, if Oktoberfest revelers were expecting a power pop party, they got only a sporadic one. For every jubilant blast of melodic, radio-friendly lyricism there was a trip down a darker, but often more fascinating alleyway.

Aided by his longtime rhythm section of drummer Rik Menck and bassist Paul Chastain, Sweet spent the better part of the show in the past, even though he has released three albums of new material since 2017. Specifically, 10 of the set’s 12 tunes came from the three recordings that defined his career during the first half of the ‘90s – 1991’s “Girlfriend,” 1993’s “Altered Beast” and 1995’s “100% Fun.” From that, came a four-song run from “Girlfriend” during the second half of the show that offered the best overview of the emotive breadth within Sweet’s songs.

At one extreme was “Evangeline,” whose bright-eyed melody and somewhat hapless balance of religion and romanticism reflected the level of invention that distinguished so much of Sweet’s material over 25 years ago. In all likelihood, it also formed the basis of the pop profile many audiences still carry of the artist today.

But right after that came “You Don’t Love Me,” a comparative dirge whose narrative desperation, along with a decelerated guitar-rock backdrop that fueled a lengthy quartet jam with Sweet repeating the forlorn title like a mantra, was pure Neil Young. That’s the side of Sweet some have cast aside.

The show wound up with “Sick of Myself” (one of two songs pulled from “100% Fun”) and a truckload of hook-happy riffs as well as a sense of ensemble mischief that played out through a series of false codas.

“I could do this all night,” Sweet remarked. But after the song, his hour was up and Sweet vacated the stage, his endearing though unavoidably aged pop portrait having been given its latest varnishing.

in performance: marty stuart and his fabulous superlatives

Marty Stuart. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

Four songs into a crisply paced, all-acoustic performance at Frankfort’s Grand Theatre on Thursday evening, Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives opted for efficiency. During a spry reading of “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” one of the program’s few nods to the headliner’s past hit parade, Stuart, drummer Harry Stinson (who played the entire evening on a lone snare and a pair of brushes) and bassist Chris Scruggs harmonized with old school cool around a single microphone while guitarist Kenny Vaughan added a regal solo drenched in the blues.
“Everything good?” Stuart asked the crowd after the tune wound down. Yes, indeed. Everything was just fine.
This portrait of no-frills country sentiment, traditional in design but thoroughly immediate in delivery, has been Stuart’s M.O. for much of his career, especially in the 17 years that the ultra-resourceful Superlatives have been the singer’s band of choice. For the 90 minutes that followed, Stuart and company played as a thoroughly authoritative combo that took considerable joy in exhibiting their country command. No wonder then that the singer serves as historian/commentator for Ken Burns’ “Country Music” series currently running on PBS.
Stuart and the Superlatives put history into well propelled motion during the Thursday performance. You sensed it when Scruggs’ resilient high tenor vocals ignited a reading of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” that was anything but obligatory. You heard it when Vaughan veered out of the country and into the Shadows for the surf-savvy “Apache.” It also fueled Stinson’s transformation of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” into a gleeful but still moralistic folk reverie.
Stuart had plenty of traditional country snapshots of his own to show off, as well, from the vocal flair that capped off the acoustic psychedelia within “Old Mexico” to a set of piledriving mandolin runs during an instrumental reading of “John Henry” performed as a duet with Scruggs.
Curiously, nearly half of the performance setlist was devoted to songs from “The Pilgrim,” a daring 1999 album of original music that offered a full arc of country themes (love, loss, death and redemption) that is set to be reissued in October. The record was initially a commercial disappointment, effectively ending Stuart’s decade-long tenure at MCA Records. Still, its sense of narrative and stylistic tradition remained as devout as it was diverse, even in the Thursday concert’s acoustic setting, whether it was through the honky tonk mischief of “Red, Red Wine and Cheatin’ Songs” or the sly, surrealistic “The Observations of a Crow.”
This meant the Grand audience was having to process a big chunk of music it was likely unfamiliar with. But in the end, what Stuart was offering were stories. Sure, there was expert instrumentation, effortless harmonies and a very natural blend of tradition and performance animation backing it all up. Still, what sold the songs – be they recognizable or not – was a narrative spirit as big as the Western skies yet as intimate as a campfire. And isn’t that what country music – real country music – is all about?

celebrating the sound of linda’s voice

Linda Ronstadt.

There is a moment near the end of the fine new documentary “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” that triggers an unexpected rush of poignancy. It comes as a sobering tribute from Emmylou Harris pans to an outdoor image of the present-day Ronstadt, her singing voice silenced by Parkinson’s Disease, glancing calmly with an obvious radiance still in her eyes.

After that is a performance of such subtle, heartwarming grace that it is best to omit the details for those who haven’t seen the film. It’s a fitting epilogue to a chronicle of an artistic career largely uncompromised by commercial intrusion and undeterred by the usual rock star tailspins. It is a musical life honorably celebrated.

Directed by the Academy Award-winning duo of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “The Sound of My Voice” serves as a scrapbook of the Ronstadt saga, from her days singing with her siblings as a teenager in Arizona to a California move that eventually made her one the most popular female pop artists of her generation. Of course, she was also restless enough with her sense of celebrity to forsake rock ‘n’ roll to sing opera, songbook-era standards, country music, pop duets with Aaron Neville and, most unexpectedly, traditional Mexican folk songs (mining a tradition inherited from her father).

Ronstadt’s career had no great scandals, no crippling addictions to battle and, generally, none of the self-inflicted excesses that stars of her level contend with. Even a suggested skirmish with drugs was halted before her career suffered. Her obstacles instead came from holding fast to a hearty level of genre-hopping she was continually warned would torpedo her career and being in the novel position of a female rock star in a ‘70s music industry run by men.

A generous and well-placed lineup of friends, family and accomplices offer commentary as the story unfolds with Ronstadt herself serving as occasional narrator. Especially insightful are comments from John David Souther, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Dolly Parton and Don Henley. There is also a wealth of vintage clips, only a portion of which are devoted to performances. A highlight includes Ronstadt nudging a tongue-tied Neville during a Grammy acceptance speech to thank his wife.

One of the more moving remembrances comes from Kevin Kline, who confesses to having had only a cursory knowledge of Ronstadt’s music prior to working with her on Broadway in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” He recalls being stunned by what he heard in early rehearsals. “When I heard her voice, it was just … gorgeous, musical, celestial yet earthy. Something so pure, it just made me cry.”

We don’t learn anything alarmingly new about Ronstadt in “The Sound of My Voice,” especially since she views her life and career, right up through her current existence with Parkinson’s, in remarkably unsentimental terms. But having all the elements of her career reassembled cleanly in one program with a cast of famous friends serving as tour guides makes the film immensely watchable. It is the story of a voice that, despite all of the commercial zeniths and its current state of Parkinson’s-induced silence, lived to sing. Ronstadt explains the sense of purpose and passion for why all singing voices feel that need at the film’s onset, before the party at hand even begins.

“They sing so that coming generations won’t forget what the current generation endured or dreamed or delighted in.”

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is currently playing at the Kentucky Theatre.

 

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