critic’s pick: the old 97’s, “graveyard whistling”

The Old 97’s play as if the devil was truly on the band’s tail at on the onset of the new “Graveyard Whistling.” Against a frantic electric shuffle, a wall of guitar distortion and Rhett Miller’s reverb soaked vocals, the veteran Dallas troupe sound like the Son of the Pioneers crossed with Link Wray. It’s pop. It’s punk. It’s an Americana dervish. There is even a spot-on title to top off the intro tune’s electric Western mayhem – “I Don’t Want to Die in This Town.”

The results also continue a trademark sound that has distinguished the Old 97’s for just shy of 25 years. It’s remarkable the band – Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples – has carried on so long without a personnel change and with its overall sense of musical purpose intact. Not all of “Graveyard Whistling” matches the night train propulsion of “I Don’t Want to Die in This Town,” although “Good With God,” a piledriver of a collaboration with Brandi Carlisle that pins its turbo twang to a saga of a restless but proudly unapologetic protagonist (“I’ve got a soul that’s good and flawed”), comes close. Mostly, “Graveyard Whistling” is immensely spirited, darkly hued, ragged alt-country tinged fun with a lyrical menace that always keeps the Old 97’s cruising somewhere in the shadows.

Miller remains at the helm for most of this mischief. For the better part of the band’s history, he has been a quirky assimilation of cross-generational inspiration that falls somewhere between Buddy Holly and David Byrne. That mix surges to the surface on “Jesus Loves You,” a tune that bears a melodic similarity to the Holly classic “Everyday” although the music here has been revved up to a fearsome shuffle. The lyrics are a hoot, too, outlining the overtures of a come-on artist facing insurmountable competition for the affections of his intended (“You say Jesus love you, but what about me?”).

Similarly clever is “She Hates Everybody,” which essentially flips the narrative to detail a romance where a connection is made at the expense of the rest of humanity (“I miss her when she’s gone, my misanthrope”). Here, the drive downshifts to a jamboree groove that provides the tune the necessary lyricism to become one of the season’s most peculiar but inviting sing-a-longs.

Think that’s wild? Then get a load of the album-closing “Those Were the Days,” a play-by-play of hoodwink adventures that begins by crashing a retirement home (“We ate some Jello, we ate some Vicodin and tap danced for the old folks, and they all thought we were crazy”) before a chemically-enhanced tour of Central Park (“We floated off the grass into the galaxy”) bleeds into a “doo-doo-doo” chorus of pure pop confection.

That’s “Graveyard Whistling” in a nutshell – a journey that begins like a demon locomotive and ends by tripping to the stars. In short, the Old 97’s are merrily rocking on.

the whole oates

john oates.

In the introduction to his forthcoming memoir “Change of Seasons,” pop-soul celebrity John Oates states his mission succinctly – to tell both his personal story as well as that of his remarkable 45 year friendship and artistic alliance with Daryl Hall.

“Daryl has his own unique and powerful story,” Oates writes. “One day he may choose to share it… or maybe not. But until then, I can only offer my own story.”

That is exactly what Oates does over the course of 400 pages in an immensely readable chronicle that traces not only a storied pop career but also an absorbing personal saga that runs from a childhood spent outside of Philadelphia to recent time in Nashville with renewed emphasis on a solo career. There are personal lows (divorce, financial devastation) and highs (the birth of his son) and an unexpectedly moving chapter devoted to his dog. It is the story of an especially full and prolific life, one Oates is eager to share. He will do so, ahead of a spring book tour, with a performance and reading for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday at the Lyric Theatre.

“You know, I’ve kind of had an interesting life,” Oates said. “Obviously, people know me for the pop success I’ve had with Daryl. I understand that, but at the same time, I’ve done a lot of other things people aren’t so familiar with. So it was a chance for me to tell my story.

“One of the biggest challenges was, ‘How do I tell my personal story without it being the Hall and Oates Story, which has been so much a part of my outer life. So it really was an interesting challenge to weave my own personal story and at the same time not ignore the fact that I spent my whole adult life in this incredible musical partnership.”

The idea for “Change of Seasons” began through a series of interviews conducted with author and journalist Chris Epting, even though Oates’s own passion for writing has never been limited to music.

“I’ve always looked at myself as a writer,” he said. “I was a journalism graduate from Temple University and I’ve always known I would write a book. I just didn’t know it was going to be a memoir. But I’ve always written prose alongside the music I’ve made.”

Still, there is little denying the enormous level of stardom Oates achieved with Hall. In one of the most engaging chapters of “Change of Seasons,” Oates outlines the many artistic riches that came the duo’s way in 1985 – specifically, a mammoth tour supporting its “Big Bam Boom” album, an acclaimed performance at the Apollo Theatre with Motown legends David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick (chronicled on a subsequent live recording) and participation in the iconic Live Aid benefit and charity single “We Are the World.” In the aftermath, citing “there was no place to go but down at that point,” Hall and Oates turned the hit machine off and went on hiatus.

“If you really want to isolate that episode, it becomes really symbolic of who I am as a person and who Daryl is,” Oates said “I don’t think people ever really knew we were very private people even though we were so commercially successful. We’re people who really care about our own personal integrity. Even though the pop songs and the stupid MTV videos – well, the silly MTV videos – kind of gave it this lighter than air quality, the reality was we were very committed and very dedicated to what we were doing. Every decision we ever made was based on what would allow us to keep making music for the rest of our lives, whether it was successful on a grand scale or a small scale. It didn’t matter to us.

“That scene, where we stepped back from this immense commercial success in 1985, was not the smartest thing to do from a commercial point of view, a business point of view or a monetary point of view. But it didn’t matter because we made a conscious decision to make sure we could somehow sustain this on one level or another. And that’s what we’ve done.”

John Oates and John Michael Montgomery perform for the WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour on 6:30 p.m. March 6 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets: $25. Call 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

critic’s pick: rhiannon giddens, ‘freedom highway’ and ‘factory girl’

On “Birmingham Sunday,” one the many highlights from “Freedom Highway,” the second solo album from Rhiannon Giddens, cultures and generations beautifully collide.
The Richard Farina folk tale, first cut by his sister-in-law Joan Baez in 1964, details the bombing of a Baptist church by the Ku Klux Klan and has become widely recognized as an anthem of the civil rights era. Giddens’ take is equally solemn, grounded in steadfast fervency but illuminated by the spotless tonality of her singing and the swelling yet subtle support of a choir. At first, it hits you like a vintage Dylan song, but one done by Sandy Denny during her late ‘60s tenure with Fairport Convention. The performance doesn’t overstate the song’s potency. Instead, it relishes in control and unwavering confidence.

“Freedom Highway” beams regularly with such brilliance. Unlike Giddens’ remarkable 2015 solo debut, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” which stressed stylistic dexterity by downplaying her own material, “Freedom Highway” is more centralized and sports eight original tunes that blend in so naturally with Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away” and the Pops Staples-penned title tune (a true Civil Rights document) that it is often difficult to tell who wrote what.

That’s mostly because of the astonishingly pure voice Giddens remains in possession of. On “Hey Bebe,” co-written with Americana journeyman Dirk Powell (who also co-produced “Freedom Highway” with Giddens), the singing glides along with the joyous but decidedly rootsy jazz/blues support of trumpeter Alphonso Horne. This is “Freedom Highway” at its merriest. But at the other extreme is the original “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a declaration of identity by a young mother and slave sung not with bluesy remorse but with subdued defiance and a touch of grace.

It’s easy to focus exclusively on the refreshingly unforced cast of Giddens’ voice, so much so that hearing “Following the North Star” revert back to the instrumental string fortitude that fueled her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a bonus. With the singer on minstrel banjo, the tune nicely compliments this sublime sophomore work from one of the country’s most gifted roots conscious ambassadors.

As a footnote. “Freedom Highway” coincides with the first CD issue of “Factory Girl,” a five song EP initially released digitally and on vinyl in late 2015. Culled from the same T Bone Burnett-produced sessions that yielded “Tomorrow is My Turn,” it similarly champions the astonishing vocal diversity that distinguished that album.

An Appalachian/Celtic spirit runs through these songs. “Mouth Music” embraces the celebratory side with Gaelic vocal acrobatics that morph into beat box worthy grooves. But the title tune is simply devastating. It’s a different kind of slavery saga, rich in Irish elegance but still saddled with unmovable oppression. Not surprisingly, Giddens sings it with a beauty as deep and pure as the song is relentlessly dire.

cruising with lake street dive

lake street dive: mike olson, rachael price, bridget kinney and mike calabrese. photo by danny clinch.

You can have the best players, the sharpest singers and the keenest songs. The members of Lake Street Dive can attest, as they are in clear possession of all that. But in the end, nothing really matters if the band chemistry isn’t there.

For the Boston bred quartet, an underlying friendship not only formed the foundation of a buoyantly infectious sound rooted in pop, rock and soul essentials. It has also grounded Lake Street Dive as it worked its way from dingy bars (like the one in Minneapolis the band is named for) to prestigious concert halls around the world.

“Yeah, we were friends long before we were any good at making music together,” said Rachael Price, whose commanding vocal presence is the catalyst of Lake Street Dive’s huge, celebratory sound. “The friendship was what actually propelled us forward because we got along so well.

“I mean, we have generally always enjoyed each other’s individual musicianship and what each of us brought to the table. But it takes a lot to figure out how all those elements work together. The chemistry among us personally has always been really, really stellar. There has always been a familial vibe between us. It’s been that way since the beginning, really, and has only gotten stronger. But we’ve worked on that, too.

“It felt sometimes like we were spending more time as business partners that we were on our friendships. That when we decided, ‘Let’s make sure we’re honoring our friendships as well as what we can do to keep this whole operation running.”

Though Lake Street Dive came together in 2004 while Price, bassist Bridget Kearney, guitarist and trumpeter Mike Olson and drummer Mike Calabrese were attending the New England Conservatory of Music, an ensemble commitment to working as a full time troupe came much later.

“We’ve been a band for 12 years but have been a serious, working band for about four,” Price said. “Only a couple of years before that could we have said, ‘Yes, we have a sound.’ Prior to that, it was complete exploration. I mean, we still don’t know exactly the type music that we play. But it was, like, this really weird exploration for the first handful of years. We were just throwing darts at the musical board and trying anything.

“No one was writing songs in a specific way. No one was playing in a specific way. There was just a love of The Beatles and Motown and music from that time. That was what started gearing us in that direction and applying the treatment of that type of music to the songs we were writing.”

Among the first signs of national infatuation was a 2012 youtube video of the band gathered around a single street corner microphone singing a decidedly bluesy version of the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back.” A year later the band was at New York’s Town Hall performing as part as the all-star, T Bone Burnett-curated “Another Day, Another Time” concert. Criticial acclaim began to pour in with the release of 2014’s “Bad Self Portraits” album and the rigorous touring and plentiful television exposure that followed. The Dave Cobb-produced “Side Pony” album solidified Lake Street Dive’s star status in 2016 as both a recording and touring act.

“For me, singing is one the purest forms of artistic expression,” Price said. “I don’t play an instrument with any proficiency, but I think singing is a very, very quick and direct way to the human heart. For me, personally, it’s also the most direct way to reflect what my own feelings are. I’ve always felt the most like myself and at the most peace with myself when I’m singing. Sometimes, I might be, ‘I don’t know what I feel.’ But if I’m singing, that’s like how I want things to be.

“I started singing when I was pretty young and fell in love with jazz – specifically, Ella Fitzgerald. This was when I was five or six. I would listen to her constantly and copied everything she did. That set me on a path of doing that with a lot of singers. Then I got heavily into soul music. Honestly, even at five, I’m pretty sure I would have told you, ‘I’m just going to be a singer.’ That’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Lake Street Dive performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 28 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester. Tickets are $20 in advance, $23 day of show. Call 859-537-7321 or go to ticketfly.com.

critic picks: son volt, ‘notes of blue’ and ryan adams, ‘prisoner’

At the dawn of 1996, Lexington received introductions from two acts pinned to a booming alt-country movement. Downtown at the long demised Wrocklage, Son Volt, Jay Farrar’s roots driven offshoot of Uncle Tupelo, had showcased the music of its debut “Trace” album. Over at Lynagh’s Music Club (also historically defunct), a pack of electric country-rock ruffians from North Carolina called Whiskeytown, fronted by a then-unknown Ryan Adams, were playing the occasional weekend gig as an opening act for local bands.

This month, the latest recorded chapters from Farrar and Adams have arrived to reaffirm their keen ability to give voices of very modest comfort to unsettled souls.

“Notes of Blue,” the newest album by the newest Son Volt lineup (of which Farrar is the only mainstay), begins with deceptive calm and a familiar air of despondent faith. “Don’t get down when the cavalry doesn’t arrive,” sings Farrar in “Promise the World” with his usual plaintive candor. “That’s only in Hollywood and they didn’t get it right.” The music moves leisurely along with an easy country demeanor aided beautifully by the pedal steel accents of Jason Cardong that follow the thread of such recent Son Volt records as “American Central Dust” and “Honky Tonk.”

But there is nothing complacent about “Notes of Blue.” The storm rolls quickly in for “Static,” a tune that seems to purposely reach back not just to the “Trace” days but to Tupelo’s crankier exploits with a volatile guitar riff that bounces about with relentless glee. There are also acoustic driven reveries (“Back Against the Wail” and the wonderfully impressionistic “Cairo and Southern”) and a ‘60s style blues noir epilogue (“Threads and Steel”) that fill “Notes of Blue” with acres of robust color.

Adams’ new “Prisoner” is a mash-up of his two most recent albums, 2014’s “Ryan Adams” (a departure from the reflective tone that marked his Cardinals-era Americana records into Neil Young-like electric immediacy) and 2015’s “1989” (a sometimes turbulent song-for-song re-imagining of Taylor Swift’s hit album of the same name and material). But at the core of the unlikely blend sits an inevitable truth – that Adams writes great songs as readily as you or I make a sandwich.

In short, pop rules on “Prisoner,” from the anthemic ‘80s charge of “Do You Still Love Me?” to the breezier rhythmic embrace of “Anything I Say to You Now” to the gentler echo of “We Disappear.” Lyrically, though, Adams is still potently restless. “Wish I could explain, but it hurts to breathe,” he sings as the album’s last minutes tick away. “It didn’t fit in my chest, so I wore it on my sleeve.” Then comes the coda – a squall of jagged, emotive guitar to tell us again what a glorious prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll Adams still is.

back into the blues game

lil’ john burton. photo by timothy duffy.

The mission of the Music Maker Relief Foundation has long been to preserve the blues-roots traditions of the South. That includes assisting the musicians from the region that have helped cultivate those sounds through the decades.

Trombonist Lil’ John Burton, who doubles as emcee for the long-running Music Maker Blues Revue, is among those artists even though he hails from an entirely different Southern region – specifically, the Southside of Chicago. But it was a lifelong pursuit, even when playing with blues icons like Junior Wells and B.B. King, to head to the real South where the blues, and Music Maker, took root.

“I came up in the projects in Chicago, so it was a little rough,” said Burton, who will perform with the Music Maker Blues Revue tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “The idea was to get the hell out of there. So my mother had me play the horn as a deterrent, to be out of the gangs.

“Because I was a little kid then, when I got out of school, I would take the horn and go to the candy store. I’d be playing for my schoolmates and the candy man would give me candy for pay. I thought, ‘Oh, wow.’ Then as I got older and older, the candy turned to money. After that, I never looked back.”

Upon relocating to Atlanta nearly 20 years ago, Burton teamed with Music Maker, the North Carolina-based organization whose intent on enforcing Southern blues tradition meant locating a generation of musicians whose careers – and, quite often, lives – had been forgotten.

“They give everybody a platform when they wouldn’t normally have one,” Burton said. “Some of the musicians have fallen on bad times and haven’t recorded in years. Music Maker gives them the opportunity to, as they say, get back into the game.”

That involved the formation of the Music Maker Blues Revue, a rotating lineup of players whose credits includes tenure with Ray Charles, Clarence Carter, Bo Diddley and many others. The ensemble has given Music Maker its most visible performance presence outside of the South. The organization has also undertaken ways of financially assisting these players in day-to-day needs, from assisting with healthcare to helping with housing and basic transportation. For Burton, that meant helping cover the costs of hip replacement surgery.

“Yes, they did. Yes, they surely did. We’re looking out for a friend of ours now. His name is Eddie Tigner. He’s been with Music Maker quite a long time and is 90 years old. He was supposed to come to Kentucky with us, but he’s not able to because of an illness that keeps him from traveling. But he’s one of the superstars of Music Maker (Tigner’s diverse resume runs from work with blues pioneer Elmore James to the vintage vocal group The Ink Spots). He’s here in Atlanta now, so Music Maker takes good care of him. Everybody is looked after at Music Maker. Everybody.”

As emcee of the Revue as well as one of its performing members, Burton takes pride of introducing his fellow blues journeymen to audiences throughout the United States and Europe.

“I love having that responsibility because I do feel like I’m guiding the train. It’s wonderful to introduce these great, great musicians each night. It’s an honor and a privilege. I get such a thrill out of introducing them and then listening to them just explode like they do onstage.

“It’s a pleasure because these Music Maker artists are phenomenal. They didn’t just get to this point. They have years and years of experience and all have real kind hearts. They’re all really beautiful people, so we have a good time together. We’re like a big family.”

The Music Maker Blues Revue performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $20-$28. Call 877-448-7469, 859-236-4692 or go to nortoncenter.com.

larry coryell, 1943-2017

larry coryell.

The sudden passing on Sunday of guitarist Larry Coryell at age 73 marked the passing of a generational pioneer in jazz music, even though his gifts as an instrumentalist far outweighed his reputation.

Coryell has rightly been viewed as one of the guiding forces in fusion, an electric offshoot of jazz that made the music instantly accessible to a rock generation already immersed in stylistic revolution during the late 1960s. Indeed, Coryell albums like “Space,” along with his earliest works fronting the funk/fusion troupe The Eleventh House, were as genre defining as any of the Miles Davis offshoot projects led by Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Curiously, his music always seemed more reactionary than the work of those contemporaries. But it wasn’t jazz Coryell was rebelling against. He met the boogie-centric jam groups earning airtime on FM radio on their own turf and wildly outdistanced their level of musicianship while still retaining a jazz sensibility. In many ways, Coryell’s electric music had more in common with the jazzier experimentation of Frank Zappa than anything the Davis camp was conjuring.

But for my money, the real magic came in the recordings and performances that went acoustic. Between 1977 and 1979, Coryell released six remarkable acoustic albums. Some were expert collaborations with other guitarists similarly pigeonholed by their electric work (Steve Khan, Philip Catherine and a young John Scofield). But the best were two solo sessions from 1978 – “Standing Ovation” and “European Impressions,” both of which scream for reissue treatment.

Fast forward two decades and you have what may be Coryell’s finest overall recording, 1999’s “Private Concert.” Despite the title, this was a studio date of solo and multi-tracked “duets” displaying Coryell’s acoustic brilliance on Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Brother K.”

It was with these acoustic records that Coryell’s stylistic mash-ups of jazz, blues, swing and Eastern music giddily collided in a sound both daring and delicate.

Coryell was wildly prolific through the rest of his career, even as far as completing a weekend engagement at New York’s Iridium club the night before his death. He was also an extrovert on and offstage, suggesting the animation he invested in his playing carried into his everyday life. Or vice versa.

“Everything here is true… I think,” Coryell inscribed to me in a copy of his autobiography “Improvising: My Life in Music” following a Louisville concert in 2007. Coryell may have been referencing the descriptions he penned about music in his book. But the music itself? Coryell didn’t need to doubt himself. Every note was true.

 

hal ketchum: country dreamer

hal ketchum. photo by john lacker.

Songs aren’t always finite things to Hal Ketchum. A major presence on country radio during the 1990s through hits like “Small Town Saturday Night,” “Hearts Are Gonna Roll” and “Mama Knows the Highway,” he says his compositions don’t always come from real world inspirations – or even the real world, for that matter.

“Sometimes, I dream these things,” said Ketchum, who performs Thursday at Willie’s Locally Known. “They literally just come in a dream form, but it’s been really, really fantastic to explore the options. At the same time, there is no such thing as a song that’s finished. They can take a while to write but the more you play them, the more you’ve just got to let them go.”

Today, Ketchum operates outside of country music convention as an indie artist whose music gains as much admiration from Americana audiences as the Nashville mainstream. Similarly, his itinerary isn’t of full band concerts. The bulk of his touring schedule, including his Lexington performance, leans to stripped down duo presentations with longtime guitarist Kenny Grimes

“I used to travel with a full band and it just wasn’t very cost effective. So it’s really nice to do this with Kenny. He’s my best friend. We’ve been doing this for 35 years. Working with him has just been fantastic.”

Ketchum does have a new album to showcase titled “I’m the Troubadour.” But the big news isn’t so much that the record is his first full studio work since 2008 or his first release after a 17 year alliance with Curb Records. No, the headline here is that there is new music from Ketchum at all.

Following the release of 2008’s “Father Time” album, Ketchum was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis, a spinal cord inflammation that brought paralysis and a near end to any kind of career.

“I was paralyzed from the neck down,” he said. “I was blind. So I moved to New Mexico, to Santa Fe. I rented a little adobe casita and just had to really work everything out. I had no feeling in my arms, so I had to learn to play guitar again. It was pretty tough for awhile.

“But I’m like the Black Knight,” he said, alluding to the character in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” whose loses both legs and arms in a battle but refuses to concede defeat. “It was only a flesh wound.”

Today, Ketchum resides again in the Hill Country of Texas. A native of Greenwich, New York, he moved to the Austin region in the early ‘80s before his escalating career took him to Nashville the following decade.

“I grew up in upstate New York, so I’m a Yankee by birth but a Texan by choice,” Ketchum said. “Today, I live in paradise. This place we bought – five acres on a hill in Comal County… I mean, the sunrises and the sunsets here are all just absolutely magical. I feel really happy.”

Musical lifetimes spent in Texas and Tennessee might suggest Ketchum’s prime musical inspirations hailed from the world of country music. He is quick to point out otherwise.

“I have three musical heroes – Van Morrison, Van Morrison and Van Morrison. He’s truly the most creative man I’ve ever met.

“I got to do a show with him. We were playing Dublin one time in a pub and it was absolutely incredible. When I was soundchecking, I was playing ‘I Miss My Mary’ (an original composition from Ketchum’s 1991 album “Past the Point of Rescue”) and he just stood there and listened. He’s a very engaging guy. He said, ‘Did you write that song?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I did.’ We got along so well. It was fascinating. He’s absolutely my hero.”

Though he is proud of his hitmaking career, Ketchum said he feels little kinship to the country music emanating from Nashville today.

“I think it’s pretty much a wasteland. It’s just a bunch of tailwagging. I sound like a crotchety old man, I know, but I’m not impressed with it at all.

“But I still feel very creative and very much alive with what I’m doing. I just celebrated 25 years of being a member of the Grand Ole Opry, so I’m just very blessed to be doing what I do for a living. It’s all good, man.”

Hal Ketchum performs at 8:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Drive. Tickets: $30. Call 859-281-1116 or go to willieslocallyknown.com.

in performance: ben vereen

ben vereen.

In referencing a career retrospective video that prefaced his “Steppin’ Out” performance last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, Ben Vereen seemed almost apologetic. The opening turned back the years to when the singer/dancer/actor’s younger self was deftly moving and grooving in Broadway musicals, cabaret outings and even television programs.

“All that dancing and carrying on you saw there… there will be none of that tonight,” Vereen said later in the evening. Turned out that wasn’t much of an issue.

At age 70 and with back surgery just a few months behind him, Vereen had earned the right hold off on the hoofing. But that hardly meant the veteran performer settled for a subtle evening. Backed by a jazz trio, Vereen offered songs and stories as “gratitude” for audience support during his 50-plus year career in a performance that ran tirelessly for two hours without an intermission.

This newest version of “Steppin’ Out” is essentially a large scale cabaret show with equal measures of song and talk. But there were curious differences in the program and typical cabaret sets. Opening with “Magic to Do,” a signature tune from “Pippin,” which earned Vereen the second of his two Tony Awards, the set was surprisingly loose in design. But the rest of the show wasn’t entirely the kind of overview the opening video suggested. There were obvious nods to his Broadway tenure, from a medley of tunes featured in “Hair and “Jesus Christ Superstar” to an efficiently moving “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked,” which Vereen served in a decade ago. But some of the music and a lot of the talk strayed from his own career to broader streams of inspirations. Just one quick tale from his work with Bob Fosse? That seemed a bit of a crime, but Vereen seemed to connect with the crowd through stories of personal and professional survival. Guess we can add the title of motivational speaker to his extensive list of occupations.

The show highlight was entirely unexpected – a duet of “Misty” with drummer Marc DiCianni adding lone accompaniment mostly through hand percussion. In was a moment of reflective, reserved beauty in a show that displayed its emotions as openly and brightly as a Broadway marquee.

critic’s pick: chuck prophet, ‘bobby fuller died for your sins’

Chuck Prophet states what pretty much every pop fan has been thinking near the half way point of “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins.” The song in question states its proclamation succinctly in its title, “Bad Year for Rock and Roll.” It begins by with a quick send off to David Bowie and works outward from there. But Prophet isn’t out to eulogize, at least not in any overt way. Musically, the tune is all celebratory and joyous, starting with a sunny guitar lick that would have been right at home on Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” before blooming into a melodic stride of pure pop confection.

That kind of dichotomy runs throughout “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins.” Loss is outlined with rock ‘n’ roll applied as a means of salvation. The title tune references the champion pop star who died mysteriously at age 23 in 1966. The music bounces along with a charge that purposely recalls Fuller’s best known hit, “I Fought the Law,” but there is no mistaking the turbulence underneath. “They say someone’s gonna have to pay for the price of love,” sings Prophet, even as the music’s anthemic feel roars along, creating a mood that is nostalgic, but darkly so.

Part of the song’s charm – and the album’s, for that matter – is Prophet’s ability to humanize mythic figures. Such is the unassuming impetus behind “Jesus Was A Social Drinker,” an altogether respectful parable (although some won’t see it that way). “Jesus wasn’t Irish, just imagine if he was,” sings Prophet with sly, Tom Petty-like reserve over a leisurely, rolling groove. “He might have written poetry and verse and enjoyed a pint of Guinness every day for lunch.” Reflecting a more manufactured myth is “If I Was Connie Britton,” a saga where the popular TV actress symbolizes a glamour-filled Nirvana (“If I was Connie Britton, I’d be forgiven for my sins. I’d never read a tabloid once. I’d wear turquoise to the gym”).

Sadly, rock ‘n’ roll can’t reclaim everyone. “Bobby Fuller Died For You Sins” ends with perhaps the angriest song Prophet has committed to a recording. On “Alex Nieto,” he outlines the 2014 police shooting of an unarmed security officer on Prophet’s home turf of San Francisco. “Alex Nieto was a pacifist,” Prophet hollers like a turbo charged mantra over truly wicked guitar riffs, giving rise to a protest song of epic emotive scope.

It’s an unsettling coda to an album that enforces Prophet’s effortless feel for pop music’s power, fun and grace. Unfortunately, folks like Bobby Fuller and Alex Nieto inhabited a world that was never as forgiving the rock ‘n’ roll that seeks to offer solace.

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