in performance: phoenix friday finale

Anthony D'Amato headlined the final Phoenix Friday concert of the summer earlier tonight at Phoenix Park.

Anthony D’Amato headlined the final Phoenix Friday concert of the summer earlier tonight at Phoenix Park.

One was a local favorite, the second a Nashville song stylist with a regional connection and the third a Jersey boy who couldn’t count Mother Nature among his fans. That was the bill earlier tonight for the fifth and final installment of WUKY’s Phoenix Friday series of free concerts at Phoenix Park. Actually, it was an encore of sorts as the series was initially slated to wrap up a four show run in August.

Up first was Lexington’s own Justin Wells, the guitar force behind the now disbanded Fifth on the Floor (“We made a pittance but we had a blast”). Wells channeled the electric drive of his former band into a solo acoustic set that boiled over with boisterous blues intensity (“Going Down Grinnin’”), wary country sensibility (“The Highway Less Taken”) and tough love road stories (“The Dogs”). There was also a very dark makeover of Dire Straits’ “So Far Away” that was not for the skittish. “There will be a lot of happy songs after my set,” Wells said almost apologetically.

Nashville song stylist and one time Frankfort dweller Derik Hultquist followed with a set that could indeed be termed happier. But it was more of a stylistic detour than anything else, with songs pulled mostly from his new “Southern Iron” album that employed a backup quartet to flesh out music drenched in heavily atmospheric pop. Hultquist’s high and hushed vocals distinguished songs like “One Horse Town,” “Garden of Roses” and “Devil’s in the Details.” But the primarily ingredient to this mood music was actually guitarist Steve Page, whose layers of ambience added hearty doses of chill to Hultquist’s cinematic pop.

Headliner Anthony D’Amato whittled Hultquist’s broader pop soundscapes down to leaner, rootsier and more narrative heavy songs that reflected the traditions of his native New Jersey. Tagging Bruce Springsteen might seem like an overly easy comparison, but there was more than a passing nod to the Jersey cool of the Boss’ early records in “Good and Ready” and a show of lean rock ‘n’ roll smarts within the smart riffs that propelled “Rain on a Strange Roof” and the loose jamboree shuffle underscoring the show opening “Was a Time.” But “Ballad of the Undecided” brought the show to an abrupt close. Actually, the beginnings of an evening storm did. The rain quickly dispersed the crowd, leaving a bemused D’Amato, who was clearly just getting warmed up, with a premature shutdown.


the retelling of a legend: the beatles live again in “eight days a week”

eight-days-a-week-the-touring-yearsAs the demands of stardom begin to mount in “Eight Days a Week,” Ron Howard’s immensely enjoyable new Beatles documentary, Paul McCartney is asked the weighty question of his band’s place in Western culture. “It’s not culture,” he replies dismissively. “It’s a good laugh.”
No doubt the answer was an honest one at the time as the Beatles’ formative years as a touring act, the focal point of the film, abounded with good cheer – that is until, as the present day McCartney narrates, performance life got “complicated.”
“Eight Days a Week” doesn’t abound with many hidden secrets into the band’s staggering popularity, especially from 1964 through 1966, when its performance profile hit its zenith and then its breaking point. Instead, it is a glorious retelling of a fabled pop saga. Fans that grew up the Beatles’ music will undoubtedly sense a nostalgic vibe that comes from watching a familiar rock phenomenon unfold. Younger fans will likely marvel at the detail within Howard’s telling of a tale they may only be casually acquainted with. Curiously, rock scholars and Beatles die-hards may wind up the happiest given how completely “Eight Days a Week” outlines the Beatles’ early years, whether its through nicely restored footage they’ve seen a thousand times or scrappier, previously unseen segments (mostly from overseas shows) that flesh out the pageantry.
The film begins with a brief primer on the Beatles’ work-a-day beginnings – specifically, a performance regimen that hones the band’s skills as live performers even as its early ‘60s music creates a stir. “Eight Days a Week” really gets cranking, though, when it hits 1964 with the Beatles’ performance debut in North America. McCartney remarks how wary he was of heading Stateside for fear failure or indifference here would do irreparable damage to an already mounting global popularity. Starr, however, views the maiden voyage to America as an open invitation, one where New York was opening its collective arms to the band before it even landed for the famed Ed Sullivan Show appearance.
“It was like, ‘Come on down, boys.’”
The central topic among the historians, musicians, activists and comedians interviewed in the film is that the world largely viewed the Beatles then as a bubble ready to pop. But the film’s overall presentation details a band maturing at a rate no one, not its critics and especially not its fanbase, could keep up with. Such seeming conflict is hesitantly confessed by Elvis Costello, who registered how initially taken aback he was by an initial listen to 1965’s “Rubber Soul,” the album the Beatles cut in the midst of all the performance hysteria that clearly signaled a move away from the more outward pop cheer of the band’s early music.
The bubble doesn’t so much burst as implode. It’s not the audience that gives up on the Beatles. Rather, it’s the band’s dissolution with the manic hysteria surrounding its live shows and the very public demand it remain the same living portrait of pop innocence it was in 1964. “It was like being a politician,” says John Lennon in an archival interview. “You were on 24 hours a day.”
The film takes the saga up through the studio creation of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles’ first album after retiring from performance duty and an affirmation of how stardom would only ascend for the band without the demands of touring.
Most already know this story. But just as “The Compleat Beatles” did so expertly in the ‘80s and “The Beatles Anthology” did with such inclusive detail in the ‘90s, “Eight Days a Week” offers a new generational portrait of the innocence and dissolution that forged the Beatles into a pop music colossus. In short, it is a story well worth repeating.
A footnote: screenings of “Eight Days a Week” come with a bonus – a restored print of “The Beatles at Shea Stadium,” a chronicle of the August 1965 performance that may stand as the greatest visual performance document of the band. “Eight Days a Week” details the highs, lows and tolls taken during the Beatles’ concert years. “Shea Stadium” is, in effect, the end result – a 30 minute capsule of pop hysteria and improbability all made incredibly real.

in performance: bela fleck and chris thile

Bela Fleck (left) and Chris Thile performing last night at the Opera House. Herald-Leader photo by Tom Eblen.

Bela Fleck (left) and Chris Thile performing last night at the Opera House. Herald-Leader photo by Tom Eblen.

“Why don’t you just grow up?”

Those were the words a bemused Bela Fleck offered Chris Thile three songs into a wildly adventurous performance of banjo/mandolin duets last night at the Lexington Opera House. The remark was a kind of playful chiding from a string music elder to an eager disciple. It came after Thile heaped praise on Fleck’s genre-busting 1995 album “Tales from the Acoustic Planet,” a record the former championed “when I was 15.”

The age crack aside, the comment followed a blistering reading of the “Acoustic Planet” leadoff tune “Up and Running,” where the two traded rhythmic jabs both playful and pensive, juggled warp speed solos of astonishing precision and shifted the string music patterns from more stereotypical bluegrass surroundings to something more akin to jazz and swing.

The entire make-up of the 2 ¼ hour performance (excluding intermission) followed a similar flight pattern, using the more jazz-like variant of bluegrass often dubbed new grass as a template. The show opening “Riddles in the Dark” (from a 2001 Thile solo album, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” that boasted Fleck and many of the banjoist’s new grass contemporaries as guests) embraced the form with joint rhythms that began with the spry acoustic expression of bluegrass but quickly deviated into string music dashes of maniacal speed and intensity.

But, again, decades-old new grass was only the template. The music the two explored cruised across numerous stylistic terrains and down multiple avenues of their respective careers.

A second set performance of “Cheeseballs in Cowtown” (another “Acoustic Planet” gem) possessed a country swagger within the melody that the two repeatedly ripped open and jury-rigged with the kind of dizzying interplay that wouldn’t have been out of place on a vintage cartoon soundtrack. “This is the Song (Good Luck),” the closing tune to Thile’s 2010 album with Punch Brothers “Antifogmatic,” was a discourse in dynamics with the music slowed to a folkish cool before evaporating completely (but briefly) so only the mandolinist’s whispery singing remained. Best of all was “Metric Lips,” a Grammy nominated Fleck tune from his ‘80s tenure with New Grass Revival that worked off an initial mandolin groove before spinning off into jig-like runs and jazz-friendly improvising.

There were several new and unrecorded tunes that seemed to purposely shove the two into even more technically demanding turf although “The Ghosts of Industry” downshifted with a lighter tone and temperament before splintering into showers of sparse, brittle notes from both players and even brief free-form runs.

It should also be noted that contrasting but complimentary performance stances were at work onstage. Fleck, 58, exhibited a largely stoic stage presence while Thile, 35, seemed positively elastic, bobbing almost every joint in his lanky frame, even while seated. Capping it all off was the kind of spontaneous (make that scattered) between-song banter that ensured this program of astonishing acoustic music was hardly a slick, perfunctory affair. That was underscored by another Fleck remark that came before the two paid their traditional bluegrass dues with an encore cover of Bill Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow” and after a piece of Thile’s ear monitor fell to the stage floor.

“Was that part of your brain?”


in performance: fastball

Fastball, from left: Joey Shuffield, Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo.

Fastball, from left: Joey Shuffield, Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo.

Yesterday’s storms may have short circuited the live music schedule for the second and final night of the Christ the King Oktoberfest. But with a delay of only 40 minutes, clearing skies and temps that shed the previous evening’s sauna like conditions for a touch of autumn cool, Fastball got to work with an hour long set of efficient, good natured power pop.
With its founding ‘90s lineup still intact – guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Tony Scalzo, guitarist/vocalist Miles Zuniga and drummer Joey Shuffield along with an auxiliary bassist – the band didn’t re-write the book on pop innovation or even stretch the limits of their material past efficient, single-length tunes (save for the occasional but brief guitar jam).  As a result, the material presented during the hour long performance, as was the case with the previous evening’s headlining Oktoberfest show by fellow ‘90s-bred pop-rockers Gin Blossoms, didn’t vary all that much. Fastball’s favored a little more by way of dynamics – the luxury of having two lead singers, the guitar riffs that percolated during the instrumental “Tanzania” and even the rhumba-esque sway of the band’s signature hit “The Way.” Mostly, though, the repertoire set up chances to play spot-the-influence within its conventional but appealing designs of vintage pop. Cases in point: the Beatle-esque harmonies behind the hit “Fire Escape,” the bright melodic terrain of “Sooner or Later” and the ska-like groove underneath “Loves Comes in Waves.”
Last night was also Zuniga’s 50th birthday. Even though the rains from earlier in the evening whittled the crowd down to roughly a third the size of what turned out for Gin Blossoms, those on hand serenaded the guitarist with the expected “Happy Birthday” and seemed more than up for tagging along with Fastball’s smart and enthusiastically delivered pop parade.

bela fleck and chris thile dig into ‘big talk’

bela fleck and chris thile. photo by devin pedde.

bela fleck and chris thile. photo by devin pedde.

Among the inviting aspects to the numerous musical duos Bela Fleck has engaged in over the years has been the balance of play and challenge. He could be duking it out on banjo with jazz piano giant Chick Corea, longtime bassist pal Edgar Meyer, banjo mentor Tony Trischka or, in his most favored setting of recent years, banjoist wife Abigail Washburn. The results, though stylistically different in each configuration, have always led to music as rich in its sense of play as it is in stylistic innovation.

For one-time Lexingtonian Fleck, though, there is something else he looks for, an attribute he found in his newest duo with mandolin maverick, Punch Brothers founder and soon-to-be Prairie Home Companion host Chris Thile.

“It was so long from when I became a professional before anyone younger than me could kick my ass,” Fleck, 58, said. “Chris was the first one to show up that was young, that I saw from a beginning musician who turned into a phenomenon, that was stronger than me in many areas. That is what makes me want to work with somebody, by the way. They have to be better than me at stuff.

“Chick has seen that with me. I was a big fan of his since I was a kid. I sent him a recording of my first album, which had ‘Spain’ on it, one of his tunes. I let him know I was a big fan, that he had helped shape me as a musician. At a certain point, we got together when I was in my 30s and did ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’ (Fleck’s 1995 return to acoustic music after a string of progressively minded albums with his fusion band The Flecktones). He found a collaborator who knew his music inside out so much that it came out in my playing. That made it very easy us to play together, but it also inspired some new, fresh ideas. That is what Chris is doing for me.”

For Thile, one of the most heralded acoustic musicians of his generation, Fleck provides the same source of elder inspiration that Fleck received from Corea.

“As a musician, you are what you eat and I ate a whole lot of Bela Feck music,” said Thile, 35. “So that manifested itself as a component of my overall musical picture. Obviously that component is incredibly familiar to Bela, so as we play together I think we can cut straight to the chase in a way that maybe that two musicians are seldom able to.

“Bela has been one of my biggest heroes. Just his ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’ record alone … I mean, he was a hero even before that. I was seven or eight years old when ‘Drive’ (Fleck’s acclaimed 1988 solo album) came out. That record was so big for me and so big for so many acoustic musicians. But when ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’ came out, I wore it out. I learned every note. It had a profound impact on me as a musician, as has just about everything Bela has ever done. So this duo project is a true thrill.”

While the duo performances Fleck and Thile have undertaken represent a new project for both players, their alliance is an established one. Thile played on Fleck’s classically inclined 2001 album “Perpetual Motion” and guested on the 2003 Flecktones’ multi-disc opus “Little Worlds.” But the collaboration essentially began when the banjoist and several of his string music contemporaries (Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, among others) performed on Thile’s “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” a 2001 record that embraced the jazz-like innovations on bluegrass instrumentation that Fleck had helped pioneer decades earlier.

“It used to be I would see folks, like a bunch of people that loved Punch Brothers, that didn’t know where some of the roots of that music came from,” Fleck said. “That would bother me a little bit. But now I’m kind of thrilled. The idea that I could be part of a great American music like bluegrass that was growing, expanding and finding a way into the modern world is a wonderful thing.

“There have been times, especially times connected to when I lived in Lexington (during the late ‘70s) where I wasn’t sure what I was doing was such a great thing. There were things about the traditional side of bluegrass that were being lost and I felt some shame about that. I was one of those people on the edge of the music pushing it out into other areas, although that was my natural bend. I was just being truthful to myself. But then seeing people like Punch Brothers and all the wonderful new musicians coming around nowadays makes me feel like they’re still getting the essence of what the thing is about and how the music needs to move forward and thrive.”

Added Thile: “We speak a very similar dialect because Bela had such a strong impact on me. There is a lot of understanding. It’s like, ‘I hear you. I got you. I know exactly what you mean. Here, let me comment on that. Allow me to interject.’ It can be one of those easy, free flowing conversations like when you meet someone with whom you have a lot in common. The conversation just goes to a deep place really quickly because small talk isn’t necessary. It’s already understood.

“I think musicians work the same way. Oftentimes, there is a lot of musical small talk you’ve got to get through before you can get deep with someone. Because of the music Bela has made and its position in my life, we can dispense with the small talk. We get right into the big talk.”

Bela Fleck and Chris Thile perform at 7 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $55, $75. Call 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to

in performance: gin blossoms

Gin Blossoms: Jesse Valenzuela, Robin Wilson, Bill Leen and Scotty Johnson.

Gin Blossoms: Jesse Valenzuela, Robin Wilson, Bill Leen, Scotty Johnson.

“Okay, now play the other one.”
Trust me on this, that’s not the kind of audience response any band wants. But that was a remark overheard last night at the Christ the King Oktoberfest as the Gin Blossoms wrapped up “Allison Road,” one of the jangly pop confections that defined the band’s commercial heyday nearly 25 years ago.
Now, there were two primary ways one could interpret that remark – three if you counted the abundance of Oktoberfest beer, which seemed to intensify the crowd chat level at this free performance. But alcohol among concert patrons seldom offers much by way of artistic insight into a show, so we’re really back to two.
The first explanation might have been that the Gin Blossoms had only a modest library of recognizable hits to begin with, which is partially true. Outside of music from the career defining 1992 album “New Miserable Experience” (which contained “Allison Road”), there was little in the performance that would have been recognizable to anyone but the most ardent of Gin Blossoms fans. The opening “Follow You Down,” which was pulled from 1996’s “Congratulations, I’m Sorry” came close, but the sound was so awful at the show’s start (horrible bass distortion, a buried vocal mix and volume that dropped dramatically once you walked more than 100 feet from the stage) that it’s a wonder anyone deciphered anything.
The comment’s other possible meaning could have been a reference to the fact the songs within the Gin Blossoms catalog tended to sound the same. Robin Wilson’s vocals were clear and exact (providing you were able to worm your way close enough to the stage to where the band didn’t sound like it was playing underwater) and the melodic hooks within the material were plentiful. As such, tunes from the Gin Blossoms’ most recent album, 2010’s “No Chocolate Cake,” didn’t sound at all removed from the “New Miserable Experience” fare. A few of the (comparatively) newer songs, like “Dead or Alive on the 405,” allowed guitarist Scotty Johnson to modestly toughen the sound.
The former reason was likely what the well-lubricated patron intended. But “the other one” actually turned out to be a triumvirate of ‘90s hits that took the show down the home stretch. “Found Out About You,” “Til I Hear It From You” (a 1995 soundtrack single) and the moderately less wistful “Hey Jealousy” defined the sort of mid tempo, highly melodic pop that served as the blueprints for the rest of the set – the rest, that is, save for workmanlike but unremarkable covers of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Tupelo Honey” that bookended the hit parade. That’s when you knew the Gin Blossoms had fully played their hand.

in performance: eric church/kacey musgraves/cam/maren morris

Kacey Musgraves and her luminous band performing for Red, White and Boom last night at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Kacey Musgraves and her luminous band performing for Red, White and Boom last night at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

We still have all of the fall and a hefty chunk of winter to go in 2016, but the year’s defining country concert moment may well have revealed itself last night as the Red, White and Boom Festival began its weekend-long run at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. It came when Kacey Musgraves, flanked by a stage filled with neon cacti and band members with literal suits of lights, eased into a version of “Crazy” that turned the familiar tune into an uneasy, cowgirl lament colored by harmonica and the star-of-the-moment’s subdued but eerily arresting vocals.

But hold your horses, buckaroos. We’re not talking about that Patsy Cline hit. No, this was the 2006 Gnarls Barkley single of the same name, a soul-brewed confession that Musgraves turned into what could only be described as a whole other kind of crazy.

Not country enough for country, you say? Please. Musgraves shelled out country cunning by the barrelful last night. It’s just that much of it was beautifully askew. Want songs of domestic togetherness? There was the Musgraves original “Family is Family,” a dinner plate full of in-house dysfunction. Want back porch philosophy? There was “Biscuits,” a kitchen table answer to existentialism (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”). Want honest-to-goodness country music curve balls? Then you should have heard how a declaration of independence like “Step Off” melted into the light summery reggae strut of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” There was also the set closing cover of “These Boots Are Made For Walking” that was initially delivered like an elegant country death threat before blowing up into a hullabaloo. Naturally, Musgraves’ own boots lit up for the occasion. They were even brighter than her band members’ suits.

Eric Church during his headlining set for Red, White and Boom.

Eric Church during his headlining set for Red, White and Boom.

Headliner Eric Church kept the party going with a differently festive intent. In what he claimed was his final concert of 2016 (don’t worry, he has already announced a major 2017 trek starting in January where he will be one of the first arena-level country acts to tour without an opening act), the singer and songsmith went very electric. His set boasted a huge sound that ran from metal-esque thunder and precision to anthemic, heartland inspired rock ‘n’ roll. Interestingly enough, Church’s songs retained a pronounced country element, whether it was through the Rolling Stones-style honky tonk drive of “Drink in My Hand,” the way his band coated the country picking of “Cold One” in iron-coated riffs or the folkish deflation that dominated the storytelling singing of “Give Me Back My Hometown.”

But Church was also in a nostalgic mood, reflecting on an initial visit to Red, White and Boom a decade ago before launching into the title tune of his debut “Sinners Like Me” album. Similarly, he sifted through a grab bag of oldies at the onset of the show (“The Outsiders,” “Country Music Jesus,” “How ‘Bout You” and the aforementioned “Sinners Like Me”) before setting into the sparse, country-folk tinged title tune to 2015’s “Mr. Misunderstood.”

The whole repertoire – new tunes, old tunes, fiercely rocking electric fare and more elemental country works – were performed with ample gusto and, more importantly, a relaxed sense of joy. It was the work statement of a star artist luxuriating more than ever in the artistic freedom his music has accorded him.

Maren Morris.

Maren Morris.

The program began with late afternoon/early evening sets from Cam and Maren Morris, which meant three of the bill’s four featured acts were women. Take that, bro country. But both performances seemed incomplete. Morris came across as an astute song stylist, but an often unremarkable singer who really didn’t show much by way of dynamics or range until “Once” and “Second Wind” cracked the set open.



Cam, formerly the West Coast folk-pop artist Camaron Ochs, was the exact opposite – an artist with a commanding vocal presence but a largely shopworn selection of songs that didn’t really stray from formulaic and at times pandering country-pop (one tune, “Fireball Whiskey,” encouraged the audience to “be your drunken self”) until “Burning House” meshed in more streamlined country sentiments to close the set.


in performance: friends & neighbors

Friends & Neighbors. From left: Andrew Roligheten, Oscar Gronberg. Jon Rune Strom, Thomas Johansson and Tollef Ostvang.

Friends & Neighbors. From left: Andrew Roligheten, Oscar Gronberg. Jon Rune Strom, Thomas Johansson and Tollef Ostvang.

On paper, one might expect a pack of jazz improvisers from the Nordic regions to be just the thing to cool down yet another balmy August evening. To be sure, some of the hour-long Outside the Spotlight performance by the Norwegian/Swedish quintet Friends & Neighbors earlier tonight at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacob Niles Gallery offered a semblance of a chill factor. But the band’s charm ultimately couldn’t be climate controlled. For every hushed, contemplative exchange within the front line of tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Andre Roligheten and trumpeter Thomas Johansson, there were eruptions within the rhythm section, blasts of free and fractured improvisation and the construction of melodies that would bounce about briefly before being dismantled and reassembled.

Touring behind its just released third album “What’s Wrong?,” Friends & Neighbors proved to be a pack of keenly diverse musical personalities that luxuriated in working off of and against one another. Double bassist Jon Rune Strom, for example, regularly played with pressure cooker-like intensity (save for a brief instance where he colored dialogue between Roligheten and Johansson with sinuous bowed playing) while pianist Oscar Gronberg was giddily animated, be it through rough and rumble free exchanges (during “Mozart,” among other tunes) or sustained rolls within the new album’s title composition that were played only with his left hand and a mischievous grin. Drummer Tollef Ostvang was the utility man, complimenting the restless and often deconstructed melodies with the light accents of a gong one moment and brush-on-snare static the next. The looser improv sections let Ostvang intensify his drive.

The show opening “Fool Pay” introduced many of these colors and strategies with a spry, Zappa like horn melody that would state itself, dissolve into dissonance and then re-emerge with all kinds of fragmented rumbles and beats working around it. But it was “Melting Snow,” as its title suggested, that presented the greatest sense of cool. Even then, though, Roligheten couldn’t help but disturb the solace with assorted pops and squeals on bass clarinet. Such touches enforced the fact that even during its most wintry moments, Friends & Neighbors was still prone to starting a fire or two.

in performance: moontower music festival

Patterson Hood, left, and Mike Cooley lead Drive-By Truckers' set last night at Masterson Station Park for the Moontower Music Festival. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Patterson Hood, left, and Mike Cooley lead Drive-By Truckers’ set last night at Masterson Station Park for the Moontower Music Festival. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

The last rays of a fabulous late August sunset had just slipped away as Mike Cooley launched into “Made Up English Oceans,” kicking off a muscular co-headlining set by Drive-By Truckers for the Moontower Music Festival last night at Masterson Station Park. Alternating songs, as has always been the case with the band, with fellow guitarist and vocalist Patterson Hood, Cooley set into motion a performance that crammed assorted tales of Southern solemnity and unrest into an atypically brief hour long session. While Truckers shows are usually twice that length or more, the band wasted not a moment in showcasing their sagas of the new South and the very old sentiments that inhabit them.

Hood quickly countered “English Oceans” with a Clash-like revision of “The Righteous Path,” a portrait of sobering Southern pride (“I got a couple of big secrets I’d kill to keep hid”) before Cooley answered again with “Ramon Casiano,” a wild tale of militia men self-appointed as makeshift (and somewhat shifty) border patrol officers.

There were just a few words of greeting from Hood and a song or two that decelerated the set’s highly electric charge into more folk derived but equally restless reflection, like “The Guns of Umpqua” (one of several tunes, like “Casiano,” previewed from the Truckers’ forthcoming “American Band” album). But the set’s emotive turbulence was always in play, reaching a zenith with the show-closing “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” and its torrential guitar storm from Hood and Truckers utility man Jay Gonzalez. Then, as if with the snap of the fingers, the set was over.

Andy Hull, center, performing with Manchester Orchestra.

Andy Hull, center, performing with Manchester Orchestra.

Manchester Orchestra closed out Moontower with a sound that huge, exact and more than a little temperamental. Frontman Andy Hull actually began the set by mock-crooning the chorus of the Neil Diamond classic “Sweet Caroline,” which was part of a very odd mash-up of music played DJ-style between acts. The song could not have been less Manchester-like, despite the clarity of Hull’s high tenor vocals. But after a moment, the band’s bludgeoning sound came barreling out in the form of “Pride,” placing Manchester’s high decibel angst in motion.

As musically tight as the set was, Hull and company seemed especially loose onstage, whether it was through a curious interlude tune about baseball celeb Barry Bonds or Hull’s joking claim that the new album the band was about to begin recording sessions for was going to be “hip hop oriented.”

Those antics aside, Manchester played like a bulldozer with a massive arc of sound that propelled tunes like “Pensacola,” “Pale Black Eye” and “Everything to Nothing.” What was remarkable was how ordered the music was. This wasn’t something sloppy post punk free for all or metal head brawl, but a set of downcast rock ruminations that were as potent as they were precise.

Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, center, performing with Orleans Avenue.

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, center, performing with Orleans Avenue.

Troy Andrews, known professionally as Trombone Shorty, preceded the two headline acts with an hour of heavy rock-infused funk. While Andrews is a new generation musical ambassador of New Orleans, little of his set seemed rooted in Crescent City tradition. Instead, he opted for a highly physical crossover sound that drew upon more mainstream soul sources, like the James Brown medley of “Lose My Mind” and “Keep It Funky.”

The real magic, though, came when Andrews simply let things roll on trumpet and, of course, trombone. Original tunes like “The Craziest Things” didn’t always fan the abundant musical flames of his band, Orleans Avenue. But when the focus shifted to instrumentals, Andrews and his two-man saxophone team engaged in furious, syncopated exchanges that turned the musical gumbo at hand into a proud groove sound that was distinctly their own.

southern musings from an american band

Drive-By Truckers. From left: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Photo by Danny Clinch.

Drive-By Truckers. From left: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Photo by Danny Clinch.

It began pretty much the way any Drive-By Truckers album did. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley – the Georgia-born band’s frontmen, singers, guitarists and writers – composed a set of songs independently of each other, then discovered ahead of recording sessions how like minded their work was.

“I think ‘Southern Rock Opera’ (the troupe’s 2001 double disc opus that defined a rock ‘n’ roll vision almost defiantly removed from what had been considered Southern rock) was the only one that we actually had conversations about as far as what that album was going to be beforehand,” Cooley remarked. “Every time since then, I’m writing some stuff, Patterson is writing some stuff and we come together and wind up pretty much on the same wavelength without actually having had a conversation about it.

The Truckers’ forthcoming “American Band” album (due out Sept. 30) was no different in that sense. But what separated it from 10 preceding studio recordings was how pointedly it viewed the world outside of the South. If the band had ever created what could be called a topical record, “American Band” would claim the title.

“So much of what we have seen, not just in recent years, but over the last 20 or 30 years, the whole time we’ve been playing together, are these things that just keep happening and keep happening and nobody seems to be able to get a grip on just why or what a solution looks like. So we couldn’t help but comment on it and examine it from our own perspective and maybe try to carve out some vision of what a solution looks like, of what ‘better’ actually looks like. I don’t know if we found it or not. But it was more about trying to learn for ourselves than it was saying anything to anybody else.”

Hood’s song “What It Means” has already made selected rounds online with an easygoing musical stride but a volatile storyline torn from headlines of police killings across the country and the racial divisiveness uprooted in their wake. “We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten,” he sings. “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but the core is something rotten.”

Cooley’s songs are not no less confrontational. On “Ramon Casiano,” the national view moves to immigration-fueled paranoia and militia groups that subsist on it. Unlike “What It Means,” the music on “Ramon Casiano” is all rocking, Neil Young-like guitar grit.

“I was examining what seemed to be a whole phenomenon with these right wing militia type guys,” Cooley said. “They seem to be obsessed with the Mexican border, and that’s not just a new thing. One Saturday morning, I turned on the TV and they’re doing a story on these guys who go down to the border and take all their guns and basically pretend to be patrolling the border because the government isn’t doing it.

“It seems every time you turn around, what everybody is afraid of is coming across the Mexican border – Ebola, ISIS, you name it. I found out about this militia group in Southern California in the early 1960s that claimed to have knowledge of Chinese troops amassing on the Mexican border. So there is a long, long history of people with that mentality.”

Hood and Cooley have never been shy when speaking their minds in song, just as the Truckers have long embraced a wide-open Southern view that differs altogether from the more conservative stance adopted by many country and rock artists of the region. It’s just that on “American Band,” the songs have stated the Truckers’ attitude in a succinct and often blunt manner.

“We always do this,” Cooley said. “This is not really new territory for us, but it’s the first time that it’s been this obvious. It’s the first time it’s been on the surface. But I could go back and almost go song by song and point out what some of the same political undercurrents were in all this music from our past. It just wasn’t right out there in plain view.

But what do the Truckers’ Southern fans (and, more exactly, non-fans) think of such a stance?

“Right now the only gauge you have to go on is what people are doing on social media,” Cooley replied. “I don’t do that. I’ve never even used Twitter or Facebook. I just stay away from it. Mainly, I don’t trust myself to not be overcome in a moment of passion with a little tequila behind it and make a fool out of myself.”

Drive-By Truckers perform at 8:40 p.m. Aug. 27 as part of the Moontower Music Festival at Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road. Tickets: $49, Call 859-230-5365 or go to

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