in performance: sam bush band

sam bush.

The first of two reviews of from performances held Thursday evening, June 20:

By this point, the home state heritage sitting at the heart of Sam Bush’s music is pretty much impossible to conceal. For his appearance last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, such Kentucky bred charm was on unavoidable display. You heard it during the nine-song set in “Bowling Green,” a new tale of farmers and fiddlers named after Bush’s hometown, as well as in “This Heart of Mine,” a 1975 classic resurrected from his early years with New Grass Revival and a prototype tune for the modern string music Bush has helped pioneer through ensuing decades.

But what was so intriguing about this WoodSongs taping, where Bush was the only guest, was how natural the blend of tradition and progression sounded. Much of that came from an expert band that included the ultra tasteful banjo support of Scott Vestal and equally resourceful guitar work and harmony singing from Stephen Mougin. Ultimately, though, the catalyst for this program was Bush himself – a still-outgoing and personable presence whose love of stage performance remained obvious. Watching him deftly switch from mandolin to fiddle to slide mandolin, all while shifting styles and musical temperaments with each tune, was where the magic came in.

For the opening “Play By Your Own Rules,” his mandolin runs became a collective call to arms for his band which then neatly dispatched myriad string music colors with Vestal doing much of the heavy lifting. The aforementioned “Bowling Green” let Bush’s fiddle lead establish a more dramatically traditional air while “I Just Wanna Feel Something” offered perhaps the evening’s most dramatic departure from the string music norm – a groove constructed around very credible blues and funk.

The highlight, though, was when Bush circled back to the sound he is perhaps best known for. On the instrumental “Greenbrier” (which, like all of the previously mentioned songs save “This Heart of Mine,” hailed from Bush’s 2016 album “Storyman”), a darting, dancing mandolin lead led the band through the kind of jazz and groove-directed drive that essentially reinvented bluegrass over 35 years ago. Last night, it was also the sound of a musical titan returning home.

 

nicole atkins addresses her inner pop star

nicole atkins. photo by anna webber.

Let’s get one question out of the way before we go any further. Who is Rhonda Lee?

The fourth and newest album by Nicole Atkins – the Jersey songstress with towering vocal chops and the pop smarts as a writer and performer to put them to expert use – is titled “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.” Alright then, who in creation is Rhonda Lee?

Ah, but there’s the key. It turns out that’s exactly what Rhonda Lee is – a creation. She is, in effect, Atkins’ fictitiously evil twin – the character who acts with unapologetic recklessness. She is, if you will, a trouble child.

“She’s the girl who always has a little too much,” said Atkins, who makes her Lexington debut on Thursday (the night before the release date for “Goodnight Rhonda Lee”) at The Burl.

“You know when you have a friend that drinks too much and you give them a different name? That’s what’s she’s like. In my family, it’s when they tell me, ‘Oh, we’re having dinner tonight. Don’t bring Rhonda Lee.’”

Turns out, though, Rhonda Lee was making her presence quite known in Atkins’ life long before she was immortalized in song. Even as the singer was rewarded with a new and happy marriage as well as a move from her longstanding New Jersey/New York roots to Nashville, she was duking it out something fierce with her uneasy alter ego. Specifically, she was battling for sobriety on top of dealing with news that her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

On top of all that, she was facing an everyday artistic dilemma – maintaining a career that had been gathering momentum since the release of her debut album “Neptune City” a decade ago. Fueling such mounting visibility was a vocal charge that regularly summoned the spirits of pop giants like Roy Orbison and encompassed inspirations of vintage pop, soul and country but with a literary flair all her own.

“I was under the delusion that it mattered to keep putting things out and moving fast – you know, the fear that things could go away if I didn’t keep moving. But for this record, I really just wanted to take my time until every song was a song that I wanted to hear, a song that told a story about my life. I feel that this is the album that taught me how to be a good songwriter.

“I’ve always been really connected to that big crooner type of singing – you know, Roy Orbison or Jay Black, that kind of stuff, as well as classic country, soul music and rock music in the 1968 kind of vein. I didn’t think it was possible for me to make a record that combined those things. It wasn’t until three years had past and I had moved, gotten married and went through rehab that I kept saying, ‘I wish I could just move forward.’

“Then, while sitting and listening to the 16 songs I whittled down from maybe 100, my husband popped into the room and said, ‘You did it, babe.’ I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘You’ve got your soul record.’ It’s funny because sometimes I can’t see when things are done until somebody else steps in and tells me.”

Among the heroes in Atkins’ corner during writing sessions for “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” was veteran rock and pop stylist Chris Isaak. Longtime friends and touring mates, the two collaborated on one of the true gems of “Goodnight Rhonda Lee,’ the epically orchestrated and ultra Orbison-esque “A Little Crazy.”

“Chris was, like, ‘Your voice has this special thing that I don’t think you utilize enough. It’s kind of your superpower.’ When we were having burgers for lunch, I came up with this chorus that was kind of Righteous Brothers-ey. Then I was like, ‘Well, what do I write it about? I’m happily married now.’ Chris said, ‘Remember that horrible relationship you had when we were touring together? You got anything from that?’ I thought, ‘I have a lifetime of stuff from that.’

“I remember having an old boyfriend saying to me, ‘You know what your problem is? You’re defined by your music.’ Well, okay. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m absolutely defined by that. It’s my life, no matter what happens. I won’t stop doing this until I can’t physically do it anymore. There’s no Plan B.”

Nicole Atkins with Joslyn and the Sweet Compression perform at 8 tonight (July 20) at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.  Tickets: $8, $10. Call: 859-447-8166 or go to theburlky.com.

in performance: forecastle saturday 2017

Greetings from Louisville. We were stationed at Forecastle through the evening hours on Saturday covering all the sounds abounding throughout Waterfront Park on the festival’s second day. Here is what we experienced.

james murphy of lcd soundsystem closes forecastle’s saturday bill.

9:59 p.m.: “You wanted a hit,” sang James Murphy as LCD Soundsystem dug into the evening dance party. “Maybe we don’t do hits.” Well, maybe they don’t. But Forecastle’s Saturday closer still offered a familiar groove sound built around a fascinating mix of programmed beats, analog synths, percussion and the wild range of Murphy’s potent vocals. With Nancy Whang still adding to the synth orchestration from centerstage, tunes like the set-opening “Yr City’s a Sucker” and the quirkily animated “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” emerged as densely arranged electronic rock pieces that heavily recalled the early ‘80s music of Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Devo and, in Murphy’s vocals, The Cure. But hits or no hits, the ensemble’s resulting music sounded proudly modern.

8:46 p.m.: As the temps cooled with the sunset on Forecastle Saturday, so did the music. The electronic drenched works of the New York collective Phantogram colored the twilight with a discreetly lush set of soundscapes. This wasn’t the usual push-button dance party, but a hybrid where founding members Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter added live vocals and guitar, respectively, to the heavily synthesized backdrops of “Destroyer” and “Answer.” Barthel’s singing was employed as a moodpiece device, a breathy though thin addition that worked best during the more overtly pop propulsion of “Cruel World” and the self-described “dance hit” groove of “Calling All.”

sturgill simpson, guitar hero.

7:55 p.m. – Meet Sturgill Simpson, guitar hero. By jettisoning the horn section that backed him onstage following the release of last year’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” album and trimming what remained of his band to a lean quartet, the Kentucky country renegade opened his evening set with a reading of “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” that roared on for 10 minutes, over half of which was devoted to long, winding guitar jams Simpson played over a thick, deliberate Southern groove. After that, the performance wound its way through psychedelic blues (“It Ain’t All Flowers”), Merle Haggard-level country reflection (“Breakers Roar”), a quietly ambient meditation that ignited into hotwired, churchy soul (“Welcome to Earth”) and a Prince-worthy guitar grind that opened out into a potent cover of the blues/boogie chestnut “Going Down.” All in all, a typically mighty and wonderfully combustible Simpson outing.

nathaniel rateliff convened an early evening soul revival.

5:50 p.m. – “Bow your heads and buckle your knees.” That was the request of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats as the young rock/soul brigade dedicated “Boil and Fight” to the late Chuck Berry, right down to the tune’s joyous riff that recalled the rock forefather’s classic “Memphis.” What defined this vibrant set wasn’t so much the traditional charm it possessed, but the tired soul revue sentiment it avoided. Buoyed by a guitar sound and vocal lead that were both beautifully ragged, songs like the new “Coolin’ Out” and the comparatively vintage “Howling at Nothing” lavished naturally within honest rock and soul smarts.

5:14 p.m. – The afternoon’s big mash-up came courtesy of K-Flay, the Illinois songstress whose set blended dour pop musings with strong colors of electronica. “It’s Strange,” her 2015 collaboration with Louis the Child, was draped in synths and rhythmic loops while “High Enough” was served as a full blown, dance savvy pop confection. An interesting mix, even though K-Flay’s voice was nowhere near as arresting or distinctive as her onstage attitude.

j.d. mcpherson proved to be an early saturday highlight.

4:10 p.m. – Forecastle officially kicked into high gear with a typically rocking set by J.D. McPherson. The Oklahoma singer/guitarist again operated from a largely traditional playbook of retro-inclined pop, soul, blues and roots rock inspirations kicked off by the swirling guitar riff of “Bossy” before bowing to the merry sax drive of “Northside Gal,” the tremolo-boosted ‘50s flavor of “It Shook Me Up” and the freeflowing vintage pop flow of the new “Desperate Love.” The bar for the day has now been set.

3:21 p.m. – In a fit of performance irony, the Portland based Closner sisters Natalie, Allison and Meegan – collectively known as Joseph – let their opening tune, “Stay Awake,” emerge from a blast of fuzzed out bass. From there, layers of ambient-inclined folk morphed into the indie power pop charge of “Canyon” and “S.O.S. (Overboard).” Appealing harmonies, impressive performance zeal but pretty standardized material.

lucy dacus opening the mast stage saturday afternoon at forecastle. all herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

2:57 p.m. –Virginia songsmith Lucy Dacus kicked off the music on the Mast Stage, the largest of Forecastle’s four performance areas, with a moody, atmospheric set full of often vulnerably inclined pop (“Map on a Wall”) that often reflected the very inward nature of her singing. Even with such afternoon reserve, it was nice to hear the guitars rev up to match the polite angst of “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore.”

 

vandaveer to be featured on new ringo starr album

ringo starr’s “give more love,” which features two songs with vandaveer, will be released in september.

Ringo and… Vandaveer?

Believe it. Among the many star guests featured on Ringo Starr’s upcoming “Give More Love” album will be the Lexington/Louisville folk/pop troupe Vandaveer. Mark Charles Heidinger (on vocals, guitar and bass), Rose Guerin (vocals), J. Tom Hnatow (resonator and electric guitars) and Robby Cosenza (drums) are featured on two of the album’s four bonus tracks, which are remakes of two Starr classics – the 1973 solo career-defining hit “Photograph” and 1968’s “Don’t Pass Me By,” originally cut for The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 album (“The White Album”). Lexington studio pro Duane Lundy produced and engineered both songs.

Vandaveer performed the same tunes at Starr’s annual Peace and Love event last year in front of the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood.

Details of the recording were announced earlier today, Starr’s 77th birthday.

“Exactly one year ago, Rosie, Tom, Robby and I jetted out to LA to help Ringo celebrate his birthday,” Heidinger posted on Facebook this afternoon. “And today, this was just announced. Still can’t quite compute.”

“Give More Love” will be released in CD and digital formats on Sept. 15. A vinyl edition will follow on Sept. 15.

 

critic’s pick: neil young, ‘decade’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in performance: bruce hornsby and the noisemakers

bruce hornsby.

After paring his signature hit “The Way It Is” down to a solo piano reflection accented lightly by mandolin, guitar and the increasingly playful backdrop of his full Noisemakers band, Bruce Hornsby surveyed the crowd at the Lexington Opera House and offered, without apology, a summation of the program’s performance philosophy.

“This is not the kind of show you can wind your watch to.”

The insinuation was that the music Hornsby and company summoned for over 2 ¼ hours favored spontaneity over ensemble tightness. In truth, the show generously dispensed both. At times, the musical clarity and technical precision was remarkably cohesive, whether it was through Hornsby’s own virtuosic runs on piano (the stylistic breath of which suggested everyone from Charles Ives to Jelly Roll Morton) to the razor sharp fills of Noisemaker drummer Sonny Emory. But the band regularly took tremendous chances, whether it was through song selection (as in the way Hornsby not only pulled out the 1995 swing-savvy nugget “Spider Fingers” on a lark the instant an audience member called for it, but the ease with which the tune to bleed into the more countrified “The Dreaded Spoon”) or in myriad instrumental passages, particularly the ones where Hornsby’s piano runs were orchestrated by the animated, Garth Hudson-like keyboard colors of J.T. Thomas.

In short, Hornby’s concert was made up equally of finesse and surprise. Well, that, and a rather remarkable catalog of songs. The performance’s first six selections, excluding a show opening instrumental mix of lyricism and dissonance that set the mischievous tone Hornsby adopted for the entire evening, all came from different albums. Some, like “Sneaking Up on Boo Radley” (from 1998’s “Spirit Trail”) established a boppish rumble that led quite unexpectedly into a fervent cover of the late Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.” Others, like “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.” (from 2016’s Rehab Reunion”) shifted the instrumentation altogether by placing Hornsby on dulcimer and Emory on washboard for music with a homier design but a feel just as playful as the rest of the set.

There were surprises, as well, as shown to by two very different relics from the 1996 soundtrack to “Tin Cup” – the Cajun-flavored “Big Stick” (with Hornsby playing jubilantly on accordion) and the gospel-esque ballad “Nobody There But Me.”

Closing the show out was what Hornsby termed “one of the five songs” from his catalog audiences recognized, “Mandolin Rain.” But even then, Hornsby was too artistically restless to play the whole tune straight. In began with the melodic appeal and general melancholy that made the song a massive radio hit 30 years ago. But at its conclusion, he shifted the music into a minor key variation that stripped away the pop veneer to reveal the work’s inherent sadness in stark, almost ghostly detail. It was the greatest noise the Noisemakers made all night, even though it played out with an eerie, sobering hush.

 

bring on the noise

bruce hornsby. photo by megan holmes.

He had led an all-star jazz trio, taken turns at bluegrass and collaborated with some of the most honored names in rock and pop. Shoot, the guy was even a member of the Grateful Dead.

But when it comes to the regal, piano-based music he makes on his own, Bruce Hornsby favors a setting where he can make serious noise. Hence, the Noisemakers, a band of diversely versed pop strategists that can match Hornsby’s virtuosic musicianship, play with a fearsome ensemble tightness and yet remain open to whatever spontaneous turns and jams that might emerge.

The Noisemakers – keyboardist J.T. Thomas, guitarist/mandolinist Doug Derryberry, saxophonist Bobby Read, bassist J.V. Collier and drummer Sonny Emory – are also the players that bring the multi-Grammy winning Hornsby back to Lexington for a Tuesday concert at the Opera House.

“The members of the Noisemakers are veterans, like me, of so many different types of gigs, from lounge gigs, frat parties with ropes to separate the dancers from the band, wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, J-Lo, Was Not Was, biker bars, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mumford and Sons, Gladys Knight, Holiday Inns, Captain Beefheart, Brandi Carlile, on and on and on.

“They are very adept at moving from one style to another at the blink of an eye or wave of a hand – in this case, my hand. They watch me closely because they know I’m restless and often looking for something new to do within a song’s performance. Also, I try to ‘entertain the band’- to keep it loose, free and improvisational every night. This approach keeps it always fresh.”

Hornsby emerged as an expert pop songsmith when the singles “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain” and “The Valley Road” made him a rock radio regular beginning in 1986. But his career has since traveled numerous stylistic paths his airwave-friendly music might not have forecasted, including two albums with Kentucky-born country/bluegrass giant Ricky Skaggs and an instrumental jazz record with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Jazz music, bluegrass music and lots of my own music have one thing in common- they’ve all been about virtuosity on the instrument. My style comes from a combination of these disparate stylistic elements and is often described as ‘Bill Evans meets the Hymnal, with some blues thrown in.’”

In 1991, Hornsby met up with one of his foremost musical inspirations, Leon Russell, to produce a comeback record for the elder artist titled ‘Anything Can Happen.’ But scan most any Hornsby record and you will likely find a song (like “Another Day” from 1990’s “A Night on the Town”) where the jubilant spirit of Russell, who died in November, beams.

“I thought I could do a pretty solid Leon imitation on the piano until I started working with him closely on the ‘Anything Can Happen’ record,” Hornsby said. “I saw that it was way deeper than I had thought. It was beautiful to actually be able to learn literally at the feet of the gospel/rock ‘n’ roll master. We were good friends for years, and I spoke at his memorial service in Tulsa last November. I’ll always miss him, very much like Garcia.”

“Garcia,” of course, was Jerry Garcia, the late guitarist of the Grateful Dead, which enlisted Hornsby as a touring member during the ‘90s. The connection was re-established in 2015 when he was asked to play as part of the Dead for a run of career-concluding concerts. The performances were chronicled on the concert CD/DVD, “Fare Thee Well.”

“The finality of these ‘last Dead concerts’ gave me a different sense of what was happening. I tried to savor certain special moments while they were happening, moments when things would really jell musically and the crowd would respond in that amazing Deadhead fashion. The ‘Fare Thee Well’ concerts were an unforgettable experience for me – such a great time playing with my old Dead cousins.”

Up next for Hornsby will be the completion of music for Spike Lee’s Netflix series based on his first movie, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (his ninth project with the filmmaker) and a record of new songs composed for orchestra.

“(It) may be the most original thing I’ve done,” Hornsby said of the latter project. “Or it may not be. But at the very least it’s surely the most dissonant and harmonically adventurous music I’ve made. So yes, I’m in a very fertile, creative place with regard to new music and musical areas to explore.”

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers perform at 7:30 p.m. June 27 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $75.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to     ticketmaster.com.

critic’s pick: steve earle and the dukes, ‘so you wanna be an outlaw’

In a modest paraphrasing of the title tune from his newest album, Steve Earle confesses a casual truth one expects his own career taught him long ago. “If you wannabe an outlaw,” he sings with a drawl that seems to drag on to an adjacent county, “you can never go home.”

Oddly enough, home is exactly where Earle winds up on “So You Wannabe an Outlaw.” In a career that has seen the veteran songsmith explore politically fueled protest songs, hip-hop flavored folk, blues, bluegrass, duet music with Shawn Colvin and more, Earle has come home to the hardest country sound he has committed to a record since the ‘80s. Fittingly, it also puts him back on a major label (Warner Bros.) for the first time in two decades and re-teams him with producer Richard Bennett, the guitarist and Nashville studio pro that helped oversee (and perform on) Earle’s breakthrough 1986 album “Guitar Town.”

“So You Wannabe an Outlaw” actually reaches back further to the famed Outlaw country movement that predated “Guitar Town.” Specifically, it celebrates the prime hero of that era, Waylon Jennings, who, like Earle, hailed from Texas but never lost sight of his Lone Star roots as his commercial notoriety in Nashville grew. How fitting that Jennings’ running buddy and fellow Outlaw legend Willie Nelson turns up for some rough hewn harmonizing with Earle on the new album’s title cut.

Lyrically, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw” is as restlessly poetic and plain speaking as any other Earle record. “News from Colorado” and “If Mama Coulda Seen Me,” however, turn the tables on traditional family yarns. The former plays out like a Springsteen song with family becoming the source of unyielding misfortune. It is spelled out and repeated in the song’s chorus like a sullen mantra (“The news from Colorado’s never good”). The latter, though, is all Merle Haggard as it imagines a dead mother’s grief at her son’s incarceration (“If mama coulda seen me in these chains, she’s be fit to be tied”).

But it’s musically that Earle’s inner Outlaw really emerges with help from a Dukes lineup that includes mainstays The Mastersons (Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore) and new hands (pedal steel guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson). Together, they galvanize a frightening portrait of Earle’s early ‘90s recklessness (“Fixin’ to Die”) and a boozy honky tonk romp with post-Outlaw star Miranda Lambert (“This is How It Ends”).

Crowning it all, though, is “The Girl on the Mountain,” a yarn of devastating heartbreak set against a sparse and unstelled musical backdrop – proof that the rambling restlessness of the tradition revisited here never knows when to be at ease. That’s the lesson Earle leaves for us – providing you want to be an Outlaw, that is.

in performance: U2/onerepublic

U2 performing Friday in Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. From left, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., Bono and Adam Clayton. Photo by Adam Creech.

LOUISVILLE – What an astonishing sight it was to witness a pack of renowned artists, performers with an already mammoth profile, dwarfed by their own work.

That occurred, in very literal fashion, last night as the members U2 stood at attention on the stage of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, their silhouetted figures mere miniatures beside the towering image representing the Irish band’s most enduring recording – a Joshua Tree.

The 11 songs making up the 1987 album “The Joshua Tree” served as a centerpiece in every sense of the term for U2’s first Kentucky concert in 16 years and its first Louisville show since 1982. Songs predating the album opened the concert, hits covering a 18 year stretch that followed the record concluded it. But at the two hour show’s thematic and musical core were the muscular, topically driven and still remarkably vital songs from “The Joshua Tree” that cemented U2’s megastardom three decades ago. Was it nostalgic? To a degree. The first three songs on “The Joshua Tree” were its biggest hits – “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You.” But by the time band got to the second half of the album (“Welcome to Side Two,” singer/frontman Bono proclaimed), the audience was faced with far less recognizable material. Within that segment, though, were some of the evening’s true gems, including a triumphant “One Tree Hill,” a brutally acidic “Exit” (the most fearsome rocker of the night) and a ghostly “Mothers of the Disappeared” performed as a prayer.

The transition of opening songs from 1983’s “War” and 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire” into the suite that made up “The Joshua Tree” was quite striking, as well. The concert began with a suitably anthemic “Sunday Bloody Sunday” played from a modest sized stage assembled in the middle of the stadium field, the kind of set up most large arena and stadium productions employ as a mid-show diversion. From there, the emancipatory “Bad” revealed the internal workings of a band accustomed to pageantry working in a refreshingly sparse, lean and elemental setting.

As U2’s most powerful affirmation “Pride (in the Name of Love)” poured fourth, the concert utilized a visual element as cinematic as the band’s music with the text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech illuminated on a video screen large enough to fill the stadium’s entire end zone. Watching that bleed into the churchy keyboard hum and chiming guitars of “Where the Streets Have No Name” was, frankly, quite chilling.

The encore section turned away from the inner snapshots of America dominating “The Joshua Tree” in favor of more universally human reflection. “Miss Sarajevo” was renamed “Miss Syria” and included the recorded vocal accompaniment of the late Luciano Pavarotti from the original recording with a new visual backdrop – a commissioned film shot at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. In the same vein, “Ultraviolet” sounded as affirmative and enchanted as ever but found a new topical life as a dedication to women activists. “Beautiful Day,” however, stayed put as a straightforward pop reflection of a simpler peace.

Now, how much as age altered U2? A little. You didn’t notice it much from guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. They continued to play with strongly efficient, heavily rhythmic and thoroughly unassuming propulsion. That was especially true of The Edge, who continued to favor patterns of shimmering, stuttering guitar runs over grandstanding solos. Even the times he dug into dirtier turf, as on “Exit” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” his playing maintained a sense of orchestral order.

You noticed the years slightly more with Bono. He didn’t reach into the vocal stratosphere or display the athletic bravado of past tours. But he was no elder slouch, either, rocking amicably with the looser tumble of “Trip Through Your Wires” while commanding U2’s overall activist involvement with the eternally hopeful “One.”

One of the show’s more curious but wonderfully complimentary nods to age came during “Red Hill Mining Town,” which boasted the band’s patient live recitation on half of the gargantuan video screen with the recorded support of a pokerfaced Salvation Army brass band on the other. The result was a performance of sagely resilience anchored by very earthy soul.

There was another grand, but totally unexpected, special effect that distinguished the concert. Once “Where the Streets Have No Name” settled into its percolating groove, accompanied by the stunning visual of a desert road shown from a behind-the-windshield perspective, a huge jet airliner soared over the stadium, seemingly within spitting distance, on its way to a landing at nearby Louisville International Airport. Guess the skies didn’t have a name last night, either.

The Colorado band OneRepublic opened the evening with an inviting 50 minute set that drew on the vocal charge of Ryan Tedder and the instrumental color of bassist/cellist Brent Kutzie for songs like “Love Runs Out,” “Stop and Stare” and “Counting Stars.” The resulting music was delivered with crisp instrumentation and ample performance vigor. It was also indistinguishable from the work of a dozen other acts that took their cue from the alt-pop aftermath of ‘90s grunge.

critic’s pick: jason isbell and the 400 unit, ‘the nashville sound’

In titling his newest album “The Nashville Sound,” Jason Isbell has presented us with a puzzler. The record, the first co-billed to his long running 400 Unit band in five years, has about as much in common with Nashville musical practices as a Godzilla movie. But over the last decade, Isbell has stationed himself as one of the most concise, literate and honestly emotive Southern songwriters of his generation. Does the fact he works out of a corporate metropolis known for its assembly line construction of shopworn sentiment suggest a new age for the Nashville artist is at hand? That’s the head scratcher.

We’ll leave such expectations to the future, though. For now, let it be known “The Nashville Sound” is not a country record, although its songs certainly frame a level of country sentiment most 9-to-5 Nashville songwriters are light years removed from. Nor is the record any kind of formulaic throwback to yesteryear when the likes of Billy Sherrill, Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins spearheaded regal Music City sounds all their own.

No, “The Nashville Sound,” is more of the same candid, articulate songwriting that began to define Isbell’s songwriting while he was still playing with the upstart Southern band Drive-By Truckers.

News releases and even interviews for the record infer a return to a louder, more elemental sound that had been lightened somewhat so Isbell’s two recent solo albums – 2013’s “Southwestern” and 2015’s “Something More Than Free” – could expand into more Americana friendly waters. That’s not exactly the case here, though “The Nashville Sound” has its high volume moments, like when wheezing buzzsaw guitars introduce and expound on the downward generational spiral within “Cumberland Cap,” which sounds likes less like Drive-By Truckers and more “Document”-era R.E.M. There is also the electric roll of “Anxiety,” where power chords bash against a restless heart (and brain) before subsiding like an electric sea chantey.

Much of “The Nashville Sound,” however, tucks its discontent and uncertainty inside comparatively relaxed melodic homesteads that would have sounded right at home on “Southeastern” or “Something More Than Free.”

The opening “Last of My Kind” takes it cue from John Prine, a master as masking inner turmoil in sunny, folk friendly atmospherics. Also like Prine, Isbell’s wordplay is deceptively simple with an accessibility as conversational and it is confessional. “Can’t see the stars for the neon lights,” he sings, channeling the mood of a smalltown loner lost in the cold, dismissive expanse of metropolitan life.

Similarly, “If We Were Vampires” and “Molotov,” despite their garish titles, reflect cautionary tales of great vulnerability expressed through a hushed acoustic arrangement (the former) and a roots-savvy sway that sounds like it was borrowed from Tom Petty or Los Lobos.

An epic summer listen, “The Nashville Sound” is an immensely appealing new chapter in Isbell’s Americana reign. But is it truly a forecast of things to come in Music City? We can only hope.

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