critic’s pick 282: yes, ‘progeny – highlights from seventy two’

yes progenyIt is perhaps an inevitability that we now view Progeny, a diamond mine find from the concert vaults of prog-rock institution Yes, as a eulogy given the death two weekends ago of the band’s bassist and co-founder Chris Squire. Call it instead a case of coincidental timing.

Progeny, in fact, arrived a full month before Squire succumbed to leukemia at age 67. But it’s hard to imagine a more fitting parting shot for the one Yes member that served in every performing and recording lineup of the band through its 45-plus year history until this summer.

Progeny is a portrait of Yes in its prime. It brings to light recordings of seven full concerts by the band performed during the fall of 1972. At the time, Close to the Edge – still the band’s finest hour – had scaled the charts and the drum chair had switched from Bill Bruford to Alan White (who still serves in Yes today). The concerts were discovered as a search commenced for the master tapes of Yes’ studio recordings for a remastering and reissuing project.

The full concert sets are available as a massive 14 disc boxed set titled Progeny: Seven from Seventy Two. For more modest budgets, there is the vastly more affordable (about $18) double disc version, Progeny: Highlights from Seventy Two. The latter is being reviewed here.

What we hear throughout the double-disc edition, which replicates a typical concert by Yes at the time, is one of the finest rosters of the band (Squire, White, vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Rick Wakeman) going for broke. You hear the abandon within with hammering introduction to Heart of the Sunrise and again as the song eases off into melodic cool. Squire is in the heat of it all, too, driving the momentum in tandem with Howe and White and luxuriating under the more symphonic grace of Anderson and Wakeman.

Most prog bands are known best for their studio work, with Yes being no exception. But this lineup nonetheless revels in the youthful gusto that ignites Progeny readings of Close to the Edge’s 18 minute title suite, the radio hit Roundabout and what stands as possibly the band’s most powerful composition, Yours is No Disgrace.

It should be noted that Progeny does not duplicate any recordings from the band’s 1973 live album Yessongs. But the sonic clarity of Progeny greatly improves on the former collection. This is the sound of ‘70s prog cut at that rare instance when commercial popularity and artistic vision met. It’s also serves, quite unintentionally, as a magnificent career coda to one of the music’s most beloved heroes.

dead again

trey anastasio, phil lesh and bob weir performing at the grateful dead's june 28 concert at levi's stadium in santa clara. photo by jay blakesberg/invision for the grateful dead.

trey anastasio, phil lesh and bob weir performing at the grateful dead’s june 28 concert at levi’s stadium in santa clara. photo by jay blakesberg/invision for the grateful dead.

The holiday weekend’s most prominent musical happening, at least from an historical pop perspective, will be the much ballyhooed finale concerts of the Grateful Dead at Soldier’s Field in Chicago.

The distinction of such an event isn’t so much the career coda itself, but how it is being marketed. In lieu of the standardized farewell tour, the surviving members – guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann – are playing a mere five concerts in two cities. The first were held last weekend at Santa Clara, Ca., near where the iconic psychedelic band got its start 50 years ago. The Chicago shows take place tonight through Sunday, almost two decades to the day (and at the same location) where the band played its last concerts with Jerry Garcia.

The figurehead guitarist died that August. For all intentions, the band dissolved with him. The four core members have toured as an ensemble a few times since then under the moniker of The Dead and, without Kreutzmann, as The Other Ones. These finale shows mark the first time they have performed as the Grateful Dead since 1995. While the members have stated these will be their final shows together, all will maintain separate careers.

Here is where the marketing savvy kicks in. This weekend’s performances – which generated over 350,000 ticket requests through advance sales – are being made available to fans worldwide through almost every media outlet available. There will be pay-for-view webcasts, on-demand viewing on satellite and cable television and even live simulcasts in over 1,110 movie theaters. For a full rundown of options, go to dead50.net.

Locally, the Dead’s performances will be shown at the Cinemark Fayette Mall tonight, Saturday and Sunday.

For those intrigued by this final chorus from the Dead, but feel less compelled to take part in all the revelry, recordings of the shows will be released on CD, DVD and Blue-Ray by Rhino Records as Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead. They are scheduled for release on Nov. 20.

This may well be the first time an official, formal concert recording (not a quickly produced, indie-manufactured “bootleg”) has earned a confirmed release date before the performances making up those recordings even took place.

Appraisals of last weekend’s Santa Clara performances – with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, pianist and longtime Dead co-hort Bruce Hornsby and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti augmenting the Dead quartet – were largely favorable. An Associated Press review by Lisa Leff of the opening concert on June 27 gave specific praise to a 20 minute version of Viola Lee Blues (cut originally for the band’s 1967 self-titled debut album) and the way it made Anastasio a key player in this brief Dead revival.

If you’re headed to Cinemark, be prepared for a long night. The June 27 concert lasted 3 ½ hours. The Fandango site said this weekend’s revelry could last as much as five hours each evening.

“I’m not sure we’re going to last five hours,” Weir told The New Yorker earlier in June. “Even back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we didn’t play for five hours on many nights, despite being famous for doing that. You do it one time and you get famous for it.”

‘Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead’ will be simulcast at 8 p.m. July 3-5 at Cinemark Fayette Mall, 3800 Mall Rd. Tickets are $12-$14. Call (859) 971-0718 or go to fandango.com.

critic’s pick 281: richard thompson, ‘still’

RichardThompson StillTo grossly paraphrase an old cliché, you can take an Englishman out of England, but you can’t always make him dance to an American tune.

On his new album Still, British folk-rock forefather Richard Thompson teams with Wilco headmaster Jeff Tweedy as producer. But on the opening She Never Could Resist a Winding Road, Thompson sings of wanderlust and all the emotional wreckage left in its wake over a gentle melody that resembles a Celtic reverie.

The singer/guitarist has traveled this path before on the brilliant Beeswing (which remains a favorite among his concert audiences). But Winding Road is more ragged. It dances and clangs more severely against its elegant framework, sounding less like a Wilco-inspired collaboration and more like a sagely take on the folk-friendly experiments Thompson engaged in with Fairport Convention during the late ‘60s.

Tweedy approaches Still much in the same manner Americana chieftain Buddy Miller approached production duties for 2013’s equally fine Electric album for Thompson – meaning, he steers clear of the main attraction to fashion a recording that is swiftly streamlined in its sense of songcraft, stylistically faithful to folk tradition without becoming mired in it and spacious enough to let the roar of Thompson’s still-potent guitar work loose. That alone makes Still a fine addition to a canon of arresting recordings Thompson has released under his own name over the last three decades.

Life and love remain touchy subjects for Thompson on Still. Despite its ultra-Celtic title, Patty Don’t You Put Me Down is a lean, guitar-dominate rumination on the kind of twisted romance Thompson has become a scholar at writing about. “In your 10 watt world, it’s beyond any pleasure you know,” he sings with ample venom, “to stick your fingers in the socket and give yourself a glow.”

Josephine reverses the tension into a largely acoustic reflection full of poetically dour detail while No Peace, No End turns more topical (“In the big chess game, there is only one winner and it’s always somebody else”) with an electric rumble both unsettled and anthemic. The latter’s monumental string-bending is expanded upon in more playful fashion during Guitar Heroes, an medley-style ode that honors a bowler-full of stylistic innovators (from Django Reinhardt to The Shadows) before Thompson adds his two cents for a coda to prove himself a worthy disciple.

The killer, quite literally, is Dungeons for Eyes, a glance into a murderous soul now viewed by society with a puzzling acceptance. “How we forgive old rivalries half forgot,” Thompson sings with learned desperation. “We smile as best we can, but I can’t let it go.” The guitar work is as stinging as the storyline, yet in under four exquisitely tense minutes the storm passes and the song is complete.

How fitting it all seems – titling an album of such calculated restlessness and turmoil Still. That’s Richard Thompson for you.

in performance: new riders of the purple sage/charlie parr

new riders of the purple sage: ron penque, johnny markowski, michael falzarano, buddy cage and david nelson.

new riders of the purple sage: ron penque, johnny markowski, michael falzarano, buddy cage and david nelson.

The standard practice of many live performances, especially the largely promotional sets presented at the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, usually dictates that featured artists devote the limited time they are given onstage to new music. Then, if the setting permits any kind of an encore, a familiar hit can be offered as an audience thank you for being an attentive test subject.

The veteran psychedelic neo-country troupe New Riders of the Purple Sage reversed that philosophy completely for the WoodSongs taping earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre. The band has two semi-new recordings to push, but devoted its entire four song allotment during the program to its most established fare – three tunes from its 1971 self-titled debut album (made when the band was essentially an offshoot of the Grateful Dead) and the Peter Rowan penned Panama Red, first cut by NRPS in 1973. Its lone new entry, curiously enough, was served as an encore.

Today’s NRPS sports two key members – longtime guitarist David Nelson and pedal steel ace Buddy Cage, who took over duties from a moonlighting Jerry Garcia in 1972. Not surprisingly, the thrust of the debut album trilogy – You Don’t Know Me, Whatcha Gonna Do and the playful drug smuggling chestnut Henry – revolved around both players.

Cage’s soloing set the tone of the performance, affirming the kind of hippie/honky tonk hybrid that still defines NRPS. But Nelson, a quietly assertive instrumentalist with a schooled sound owing equally to twang and folk-rock tradition, drove much of the set, especially the brief jam that ignited the title tune from the band’s 2009 album Where I Come From (which he co-wrote with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter) that closed out the evening.

The surprise of the program, though, was the co-billed Minnesota guitarist Charlie Parr. Sporting a roots driven sound that incorporated folk blues, country blues, a touch of rag and more, Parr offered an eclectic sampler of vigorous tunes on 12 string and National steel guitars.

Using predominantly a two-finger picking style, Parr’s playing sounded rustic but never antique or affected. In fact, tunes like True Friends and especially Over the Red Cedar, both of which employed foot stomps for a rhythm section, flew by with an ease, authority and swiftness that was refreshingly pure.

chris squire, 1948-2015

chris squire of yes.

chris squire of yes.

I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I loved ‘70s prog rock. It was pretentious, excessive and, as the decade progressed, unfashionable. And women, for the most part, hated it. So it wasn’t anything a guy was going to scores points with the girls for liking. Even at the close of the decade, when punk held prog by the throat and used it as a punching bag for everything it rebelled against, I still privately championed the music and all of its instrumental extremes.

At the head of the prog pack for nearly that entire era was Yes, and at the core of the band’s fanciful orchestration, its synth and guitar adorned arrangements and the high, otherworldly tenor of Jon Anderson was the bass guitar work of Chris Squire. On such career-defining albums as 1971’s The Yes Album, 1972’s Fragile and what remain Yes’ shining hour, 1972’s Close to the Edge, Squire made the bass as prominent and purposeful and any other instrument in the band. His sound was huge and rubbery. It was sweet enough to color Yes’ more pastoral passages but rocked like a jackhammer when the band hit full throttle, as in the elemental cosmic groove that drove the title tune from its last truly classic album, 1977’s Going for the One.

Squire died yesterday, less than two months after revealing he had been diagnosed with leukemia. He was 67.

A co-founding member of Yes, he anchored every lineup that toured and recorded for over 45 years. Admittedly, some of the later, post-Anderson outings signaled the band had finally run its creative course (although 2011’s Far From Here album was surprisingly strong). But spend some time with any of Yes’ seminal ‘70s recordings and you will experience one of the key architects of prog having a field day. His playing was as joyous, in its own way, as it was wickedly intense.

“As an individualist in an age when it was possible to establish individuality, Chris fearlessly staked out a whole protectorate of bass playing in which he was lord and master,” wrote Bill Bruford, veteran percussionist and Yes drummer up through the release of Close to the Edge, in a Facebook post yesterday. “I suspect he knew not only that he gave millions of people pleasure with his music, but also that he was fortunate to be able to do so

 

chris young looks at 30

chris young.

chris young.

Chris Young spent his 30th birthday by celebrating a bit of the old and a touch of the new.

Specifically, the Tennessee-born country star received word that his 2011 album Neon – a record that yielded the No. 1 singles Tomorrow and You – as well as three previous singles (2013’s Aw Naw and the 2014 hits Who I Am With You and Lonely Eyes) – had all achieved gold status in sales. The same day, Young turned in a fifth studio album to his record label. The as-yet-untitled untitled work is already being represented on country radio by a chart-scaling new tune called I’m Comin’ Over.

“Grinding out the end of my 20s and going into my 30s, it was pretty cool,” said the co-headliner of this year’s Red, White and Boom at Whitaker Bank Park. “We brought things in really, really good.

“I’m glad I’m Comin’ Over is the first single, because it’s a good sonic bridge between what the last record (2013’s A.M.) sounded like and what this album is going to sound like. There is some different stuff on there, and I mean not just in the songs we recorded. I mean in the sound of it. Even what I did with my vocals is a little bit different. But so far, so good, I guess. People seem to be liking the single.”

The upcoming album will also feature a guitar cameo by a country veteran (Vince Gill) and a duet with a comparative newcomer (Cassidy Pope). But perhaps most important, the record represents the latest growth spurt in a hitmaking career that has expanded in increments, not in a sudden blast of chart popularity that usually signals a short career shelf life.

“Obviously, being able to go in and make a record that I’m really happy with and am really excited about, one that I got to be a co-producer on and that I wrote most of the songs for is really big for me. But everything else is going well, too, especially from the touring side of things.

“I went over and had a big couple of shows in Australia and had some fun down there. I did some stuff in South Korea and Japan, too. This fall we’re going to do a headlining tour. On top of that we’re also going to be over in Europe for three weeks. Everything over there is already sold out, so we’re at a really good place right now.”

Young is no stranger to Kentucky audiences. He co-headlined a concert with hitmaker Lee Brice (a performer at the 2014 Red, White and Boom) last winter in Corbin. Locally, he made three consecutive visits to Rupp Arena opening shows for Alan Jackson and Josh Turner in 2010, Rascal Flatts and Luke Bryan in 2011 and Miranda Lambert in 2012. Such bills, along with the collaborations on his forthcoming album enforce the healthy state of collaboration Young said has always existed in country music.

“I think you’ve always had that through the history of country music. That’s something that is definitely there and you see continuing. I mean, it’s such a big opportunity for all of us to work together, like at CMA Fest (the CMA Music Festival held in Nashville earlier this month) or at any of the awards shows. Everybody wants to hang out and see people that they know.

“Nashville is a big town, but it’s also a small town. There are not a whole lot of places to hide. If you’re in country music, you’re going to run into everybody else. You get a chance to open for each other and play with a lot of people. You get to know everybody that way. That’s something that runs true, for sure.”

As for the duties his career calls upon that that rely strictly on his own contributions, Young feels blessed. They make for a hectic work schedule. But there are also enormous rewards that extend from the accolades of fans to his records to the still-honest thrill of concert performing.

“I don’t know if there is any way to describe all of this other than it is truly what makes me happy. I’m really lucky. I say that all the time, but it’s true. There is a lot of hard work, a lot more behind the scenes work, that goes on than a lot of people realize. But the gigantic upside is every day that I wake up, I’m working on stuff that has to do with music. I just feel really, really lucky to still be doing that.

“We talked a little bit about my career having a kind of a slow growth arc instead of a spike up and then a spike back down. I really count myself lucky for that, too. People don’t always get to have their career work that way. I’m almost 10 years into my label deal and I feel like, in some ways, this is only the beginning. There is a lot of room for me to grow.”

Chris Young headlines the second evening of Red, White and Boom at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. The concert is sold out. Music begins at 5 p.m.

in performance: john prine/amanda shires with jason isbell

john prine.

john prine.

The defining moment of last night’s sold out John Prine performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts came in the closing minutes. Never one for long goodbyes, the veteran songsmith summed up an immensely spirited two-hour performance with show opener Amanda Shires, her Americana celeb husband Jason Isbell (“our special guest and her special guest,” as Prine put it) and the three stringmen that have long served as his touring band (guitarists Jason Wilber and Pat McLaughlin and bassist Dave Jacques) for a near-euphoric encore version of Paradise.

The song remains one of Prine’s most familiar works, so its inclusion in the setlist was hardly a surprise. But given the regional resonance of the tune (it details a Muhlenberg County countryside from the singer’s youth where coal definitely did not keep the figurative lights on) and the obvious joy triggered by having a pair of new generation disciples singing along, Paradise became a celebration. The cherubic, 68 year old Prine beamed like a schoolkid after it concluded and exited the stage with a citywide smile on his face. In short, the song he should have grown the weariest of playing had become a multi-generational anthem instilled with renewed vigor.

There were loads of less obvious treats, as well. Capitalizing on the camaraderie, Prine also enlisted Shires and Isbell for a trio version of what was perhaps the least likely offering of the evening, the bittersweet title tune from his 1980 album Storm Windows. All three hammered home the chorus, Prine and Isbell swapped verses and Shires iced everything with a fiddle solo full of Appalachian gusto. From a more playful terrain came a duet version of In Spite of Ourselves played as a sparring session between Prine and Shires.

The quartet tunes with Wilber, McLaughlin and Jacques formed the basis of the concert, from the three tunes off of 2005’s Fair and Square album that began the set (Glory of True Love, Long Monday and Taking a Walk) to darker vintage fare (Six O’Clock News, Souvenirs) that reached back to the early ‘70s. But the band’s most dramatic collaboration came when the four returned to the mid ‘80s for Lake Marie, a scrapbook meditation that mixed cultural folklore, a marriage on the rocks and TV coverage of a murder in the wilderness.

“You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?” sang Prine as the song headed into its homestretch. The audience, well versed in the lyrics, shouted back the grim reply: “Shadows.” That earned a grin, too

“Thank you, class,” Prine replied.

A brief unaccompanied section by the singer, which included a calm but still discomforting My Mexican Home, concluded with Sam Stone, the harrowing saga of a displaced, drug-addicted war veteran who dies alone of an overdose. Perhaps more than any other tune in the repertoire last night, Sam Stone benefited most from the vocal creases and coarseness of age, a reflection of both its potently succinct lyrics (“Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios”) and its sadly unfortunate topicality.

“I still sing this song at every show because there are still a lot of old veterans around,” Prine remarked.

Shires’ 40 minute opening set was a delight, as well. Though possessed with a voice full of pure country charm, her songs deviated from any kind of roots music symmetry. The show opening The Garden (What a Mess) possessed an air of somber mystery that brought some of the less prog-ish songs of Kate Bush to mind while Bulletproof set a portrait of hippie legend with references of weaponry and self-preservation to a neo-Spanish lilt.

Husband Isbell, an unadvertised addition to the proceedings, was largely an accompanist, engaging in a brief but feisty electric guitar and fiddle flare-up near the end of Shake the Walls and adding tasty slide colors to Mineral Wells. But he and Shires met on equal terms for a lovely cover of the underappreciated Warren Zevon gem Mutineer.

That didn’t keep a few Isbell fans in the audience from the misreading the occasion and calling out for several of his tunes (Cover Me Up earned the most vocal requests). But Mrs. Isbell remained in the driver’s seat of this set.

“If you want to request any of Jason’s songs, you’ll have to go his show tomorrow,” Shires told the crowd. “In Chicago.”

the shires project

amanda shires.

amanda shires.

Musical artists and stylists often view their life’s work in terms of projects. That might translate into a new recording, a collaborative work or a concert tour – all requisites in establishing a lasting career.

Amanda Shires is no different. An accomplished Texas fiddler since her teens, a critically lauded songwriter of increasing visibility and a performer who has shared the stage with a number of notables – including John Prine, who she will open a sold-out performance for tonight at the Singletary Center – Shires has charted her career with a perhaps expected number of projects.

But her biggest undertaking – and, by far, her most prominent collaborative work – will get an inaugural public viewing later this summer. In short, she and husband (and fellow Americana music champion) Jason Isbell are expecting their first child. Until then, the other, more musically inclined projects demand attention. That includes tonight’s performance with Prine.

“Aside from being eight months pregnant, the shows have been as great as usual,” Shires said. “I just have to aim my bow in a different direction so I don’t hit myself. That’s about it.”

Shires hopes to begin work on her next recording, a follow-up to 2013’s acclaimed Down Fell the Doves, as early as August with help from producer Dave Cobb. Aside from his work with such Kentucky country notables as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, Cobb is also the producer for Isbell’s 2013 Grammy nominated Southeastern album as well as his new Something More Than Free, which is due out next month. Isbell will also contribute to the upcoming Shires sessions, continuing a fruitful artistic alliance on top of a healthy marriage.

“In Jason, I have somebody that I can trust to give me an honest opinion that’s not motivated by anything other than wanting to do what’s best for the song or what’s best for the music, you know? So if I take something and play it for him, I know he won’t suggest anything to make what I do more easily digestible for folks. He encourages me to say what I want to say without fear. I kind of write weird songs, but he doesn’t try to tell me about what might or might not be appealing for the masses.

While there is often a noir-like elegance and spaciousness to Shires songs, including Down Fell the Doves’ sublime The Garden (What a Mess), there is also a folk essence that sounds comparatively earthy and intimate. Such qualities abound on a version of Warren Zevon’s Mutineer she recorded with Isbell on an EP titled Sea Songs. The two also performed the tune during the final weeks of The Late Show with David Letterman (the now-retired TV host has been a vocal fan of Zevon and Isbell).

“We started playing that song a year ago when we toured in Europe,” Shires said. “I was playing it in soundcheck and Jason was like, ‘That would be a good song to do as a duet.’ We’re both in love with Warren Zevon’s music, so playing it on Letterman seemed serendipitous. It was magical. It was one of those things that makes you feel like you were just supposed to do it.”

The couple is similarly enthusiastic about Prine’s music, so much so that when Shires was nabbed as an opening act for tonight’s performance, Isbell wanted to join in. As such, Shires said Isbell is planning on tagging along tonight as a surprise guest and accompanist for her Singletary set.

“We just both love John Prine so much. If Jason knows I’m playing with him, he’s like, ‘Hey, I want to come, too.’”

Amanda Shires with Jason Isbell will open tonight’s sold out 8 p.m. performance by John Prine at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

critic’s pick 280: kacey musgraves, ‘pageant material’

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material“I’m not exactly Miss Congeniality,” Kacey Musgraves sings with youthful but knowing country candor in the title tune to her outstanding new album Pageant Material.

Building on the uncompromising lyrical tradition that distinguished her Grammy winning 2013 major label debut Same Trailer Different Park, the Texas born singer offers spin after spin on themes of family, smalltown life and restless romance that have long been staples of country music. But as attractive as her music is – from the effortless country lilt of her singing to the gentle arsenal of strings, twang and folkish charm adorning the new album’s 14 songs – Musgraves is a subtle rebel.

The storylines champion a human level of imperfection that ring out any sense of false sentimentality. What is left is often humorous, frequently plain speaking but, all above all, astonishingly real. So, no – congeniality is not the name of the game on Pageant Material.

As was the case with Same Trailer Different Park, Musgraves is nothing short of masterful when it comes to turning a phrase. “Just because it don’t cost a lot don’t mean it’s cheap,” she sings of the hard won pride pervading the travelogue time piece Dime Store Cowgirl. The uncomfortable rural confinement of This Town is later revealed just as matter-of-factly when she admits her community is “way too small for secrets” (“What goes around, comes around at Friday’s football game”). Best of all are the ways she outlines the bonds in Family is Family, a snapshot of a loyalty strong but jagged enough to outlast divorce, prison and perhaps even a medical emergency (“They may smoke like chimneys, but they’ll give you their kidneys”).

Musically, Pageant Material is assured but often very modest in presentation. Sure, the album opening High Time screams to be a single with its girl group snap, sweeping orchestration and prairie whistling, not to mention an appealing humility (“You don’t need a thousand dollar suit to take out the trash”). But much of the rest of Pageant Material is scaled down in design, from the Beatles-esque riff that gently propels Miserable to the radio ready love song Late to the Party to the lovely but longing finale waltz Fine.

Everything converges, however, on Biscuits, a country mantra embracing not the cheap pandering and contradictory sentimentality of modern Nashville, but a kiss off of sorts that suggests tending to your own affairs or, as Musgraves puts it, “hoe your own row.” What that yields is affirmed in an absolutely golden chorus phrase: “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.”

Such are the irregular but sobering snapshots of life offered by, as confessed in the liner notes of Pageant Material, the 1991 finalist for Miss Tater Tot at the Golden Sweet Potato Festival in Musgraves’ hometown of Golden, Texas. The accolades then were probably meager. On Pageant Material, she gets the tiara.

in performance: party knullers

fred-lonberg-holm.

fred-lonberg-holm.

On paper, a duo consisting of cello and drums would seem to dictate at least some kind of mimicry of a conventional rhythm section with cello being a serviceable stand-in for bass. But for that to happen, the musicians involved would have to subscribe to rhythm in the first place. Given the free-form exploits of Party Knullers, the duo of Chicago-based cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Norwegian percussionist Stxl Solberg, such a point is moot. Their music is no more based on rhythm than their instrumental duties are limited to support duties for other players, as is often the case, even in jazz circles, with a rhythm section.

Last night at Mecca before an audience that was modest in size but strong in terms of attentiveness, Lonberg-Holm and Solberg operated essentially as conversationalists. Sometimes that meant spacious improvisations full of strident exchanges. In other instances, the playing of each artist was complete unto itself with a vocabulary as vast and challenging as the music that fueled the jagged dialogue sections.

That was especially true of Lonberg-Holm. Aided by pedal effects that colored and corroded his playing, as well as a performance style that incorporated unconventional taps, scrapes and phrasings, his improvisations operated with essentially two voices – one organic and one electronically enhanced. Each proved as distinctive as the other. But the most fascinating segments of last night’s concert came during the several occasions when those voices could be differentiated simultaneously. While one couldn’t exactly view these moments as examples of harmony, the sounds did offer a fascinatingly textured make-up that enhanced both the tension and expression of the improvisations.

Though equally inventive his playing, Solberg also possessed a surprisingly exact tone, whether he found various shifts in register within the way he snapped a mallet stick against a drum head or the more assaulting sounds created by scrapping the drums with plastic forks, among many other unexpected as well as obvious percussive devices. For example, there was just as much engagement within the chatter of woodblock and cowbell and even the comparatively expected rattle of a snare.

There were also several instances where the sounds seemed almost otherworldly, like when Lonberg-Holm’s cello elicited a sampler of pedal produced belches and croaks, or when Solberg’s drumming brought these fractured dialogues to a slow but petulant boil.

Additionally, there was space within this music – lots of it. It was so prevalent, in fact, that when the first of six improvisations came to a close, no one in the meager sized crowd applauded. It wasn’t out disinterest and dislike of the concert to that point. Rather, the open-faced structures of these duo performances made it tough to tell when a piece had truly concluded.

But the reverse was true during Gold, a brief finale tune concluding the first set that had Lonberg-Holm switching to guitar. The fanciful, echoing colors he summoned brought the orchestral playing of Bill Frisell to mind.

Just try getting any of that from a rhythm section

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