critic’s pick: leonard cohen, ‘you want it darker’

leoanrd-cohenFor the second time this year, I wrote a review of a recording by an artist of note who died between the time my piece was completed and when it was published. It happened in January with David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and again this week with Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker.” I wrote this last weekend. Cohen died, at age 82, yesterday. Didn’t change a word. Didn’t need to.

I’ll offer a more complete appreciation of Cohen’s remarkable career here at The Musical Box later today….

“I’m leaving the table,” utters Leonard Cohen early into his remarkably ruminative “You Want It Darker” album. “I’m out of the game.”

Cohen has pulled this trick before, especially in a prolific career renaissance that has seen the release of three studio albums and four concert records since 2009 (and that doesn’t even include additional archival releases). He loves, in his whispery bullfrog voice, to paint songs as parting shots – remembrances of love and faith served with an eerily calm that borders on the unsettling. Cohen could be singing, in a largely half-spoken manner, about an affair or the apocalypse. The delivery makes each indistinguishable from the other, especially when you factor in the light, funereal music that hangs over Cohen’s work.

“You Want It Darker” is, gloriously, more of the same.

At age 82, Cohen has every right to take stock of his own mortality. But that’s not necessarily what “You Want It Darker” is about. More than perhaps any other subject, Cohen sings about release – spiritual, emotional and physical. With that, though, comes a price. On “Treaty,” the rebirth of a snake, despite the obvious religious imagery, is considered, knowing that any transformation must include the creature’s very earthly venom. “Born again is born without a skin,” Cohen sings. “The poison enters into everything.”

Conversely, the gypsy dance air of “Traveling Alone” is a song of farewell to a romance. While all parties seem to seek dissolution, not everyone seems capable of fully implementing it. “I know you’re right, about the blues. You live some life you’d never choose.”

As narrative heavy and poetically driven as Cohen’s music has always been, “You Want It Darker” is also one of the most musically arresting works of his career. Credit much of that to son Adam Cohen, who produced the album, and especially veteran producer Patrick Leonard who arranged and even authored some of the musical dressings which culminate in a string quartet-driven reprise of “Treaty” that closes the recording.

These elements also merge on the album-opening title track. Co-written by Leonard, the work introduces the record’s arching quest for release by professing darkness before any resolution of light. The first sound you hear is an ancient choral ensemble. Then a looping beat percolates as Neil Larsen’s churchy organ colors in the atmospherics. Finally, Cohen enters – a quiet, scarred voice addressing doom and comfort as naturally as the song depicts spiritual yearning and human dismay. It is a captivating slice of music that, in all its dark, hushed beauty, embodies the temperament of the present day Cohen.

“A million candles burning for the love that never came,” Cohen sings. “You want it darker. We kill the flame.” Then, almost under his breath as the chorus is completed, Cohen caps the mesmerizing incantation with three words that remind us what we’re hearing is, after, still pop music.

“Hey, hey, hey.”

 

in performance: blind boys of alabama/dirty dozen brass band/roomful of blues

the blind boys of alabama.

the blind boys of alabama.

“We want you wake up,” urged Jimmy Carter, 84, last night at Heritage Hall as the Blind Boys of Alabama served up some serious 21st century gospel to cap off a three-act, roots-rich benefit concert for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass called, aptly enough, Big in the Bluegrass.

Though the venue was more than half empty, those in attendance heeded the call. At its core, the group’s sound was all Southern gospel, full of dynamics and drama, but its music regularly dipped into secular songs – albeit ones with strongly spiritual themes and inclinations. As such, the Blind Boys’ headlining set began with a run of tunes popularized by the Impressions (“People Get Ready”), Norman Greenbaum (“Spirit in the Sky”) and Blind Willie Johnson (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), all of which seemed to fit the group’s ragged but immensely devout harmonies. Similarly, the most moving song of the evening sounded heavily traditional, but wasn’t. It was a patient, engrossing reading of the Chi-Lites’ “There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table”) that gave the Southern slant of the Blind Boys’ gospel vision a very worldly glow.

Opening the evening were two miniature sets – about 30 minutes each – by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Roomful of Blues.

Making its second Lexington appearance in less than three months, the Dirty Dozen was all about loose, party-favored fun. It performance was a mix of the band’s New Orleans street parade heritage and James Brown level funk, a blend mirrored in a closing medley of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Dirty Old Man.” While the thrust of the performance was the group’s front line horn trio, it was baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis who proved to be the MVP, summoning wildly scorched solos but also colors that fueled the music’s more punctuated grooves and, during times when sousaphone wasn’t enough, bass patterns.

The opening performance by Roomful of Blues was, in comparison, scholarly. It too was fronted by horns, but the band’s blend of jump blues, swing and soul was clean and exact, yet still fiercely soulful. “It All Went Down the Drain” was full of playful, brassy sass, “I Would be a Sinner” offered a 12 bar blues variation that veered joyously into swing and “Two for the Price of Ten” triggered industrious sparring between trumpeter Doug Woolverton and pianist Rusty Scott. It all made for a convincing enough appetizer to suggest a headlining show by this veteran Rhode Island ensemble needs to head our way soon.

living again in the reel world

Reel World String Band. From left: Sharon Ruble, Sue Massek, Karen Jones, Elise Melrood, and Bev Futrell. Herald-Leader staff photo by Mark Cornelison.

Reel World String Band. From left: Sharon Ruble, Sue Massek, Karen Jones, Elise Melrood, and Bev Futrell. Herald-Leader staff photo by Mark Cornelison.

Bev Futrell remembers when the Reel World String Band first played in New York. Already noted nationally as a topically inclined ensemble of music making women from Central Kentucky, the band had Futrell’s then-five year old daughter in tow when it arrived at the club it was to play. At the bar, however, was a social worker who didn’t exactly approve of blending parenting with performing.

“The owner talked to us about it, so we, as band, said we just wouldn’t go up for a second set. But he finally offered us his office upstairs, so she was able to stay and sleep up there.”

Then the memories poured out.

“We were actually onstage when the owner was talking to us,” banjoist Sue Massek recalled. “We walked off the stage.”

“We were like feminist lawyers,” added fiddler Karen Jones with laugh. ‘We were like, ‘This is an affront to working women.”

“That,” Futrell said, “was our first gig in New York City.”

So how does her daughter, now 40, view the experience of being among the many longtime fans of Reel World’s folk, protest and Appalachian themed music?

“She feels like she has five mothers,” Futrell said. “And that’s just fine with her.”

While Reel World will turn 40 next year, its members – completed by bassist Sharon Ruble and pianist Elise Melrood – make no secret that the band’s duty as a fully active performance entity is essentially complete. In the spring, it donated a drove of archival material to the University of Kentucky Libraries to essentially put the wraps on its career. Reel World performs a reunion show of sorts this weekend at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, but there will be little pageantry tied to the event. There is no new recording to promote and no real celebration planned relating to the impending anniversary.

Instead it will offer an opportunity to play music with two long established friends, the Grammy winning folk/country/swing duo of Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, as well as one new acquaintance. The latter is Sam Gleaves, 24, a Virginia native now living in Berea who toured overseas this past summer with folk veteran Peggy Seeger. Gleaves cites Reel World as a vital artistic influence. The band views his inclusion in Sunday’s concert as a generational and artistic “passing of the torch.”

“I loved hearing Reel World and Cathy and Marcy together about four or five years ago,” he said. “I loved that combination and wanted to hear it again. I seriously think all the ladies in Reel World have been real inspirations to me. It’s been wonderful to get to know them all as friends.”

The Reel World inspirations being, in effect, bequeathed to Gleaves, were initially realized when the band formed in Lexington in 1977. With local clubs nearing the end of a bluegrass boom that had dominated the region just a few years earlier, Reel World arrived as a string band in terms of instrumentation. Its music, though, largely took its cue from older, pre-bluegrass sounds and mountain harmonies with a pervading sense of social and political consciousness. Bluegrass bands sang of family, faith and lost love. Reel World did, too. But it also addressed, among other subjects, women’s rights, coal workers’ rights and environmental awareness.

“Bluegrass was pretty much male oriented back then,” Futrell said. “We were looking at the music from a new perspective. Our harmonies were really different. Also, for a lot of the bluegrass festivals, we were considered too political.”

“When you see a banjo, you’re thinking bluegrass and not necessarily folk or old timey music,” Jones added. “But that’s okay. It’s all culturally based and pretty closely tied with old time and traditional music. Of course, then we added piano which took us totally out of bluegrass.”

The gradual downshift in Reel World’s visibility in recent years is largely attributable to a focus on other activities. Futrell and Jones perform in TDH4, the newest incarnation of their Tall, Dark and Handsome group. Massek remains an active writer and playwright, Ruble has immersed herself in photography and Melrood plays with the local jazz trio Paper Moon. Still, what has fortified the Reel World members through the years was a personal and professional bond that will carry over into Sunday’s concert and whatever sporadic performance activity the band may or may not involve itself with in the future.

“I don’t know if this is unique to other women or not,” Futrell said. “But the only other group I can think of that stuck together so long was (43 year old vocal group) Sweet Honey in the Rock.”

“For me, it was all about having a purpose for what we did,” Massek said. “But working together has always been such a dear experience for me.

“It wasn’t really ever for the money, either” Melrood added. “That was a good thing. We were really fortunate that we were able to keep it going without having to depend on it for our livelihood.”

The financial compensation for its musical journey was also referenced by Jones when recalling the creative drive sparked by the band’s work with the Tennessee-based, grassroots driven Highlander Research and Education Center early in its career.

“When we came back from Highlander, people who were our mentors said to go back home and find work to do. So we did a once a week thing at the Fishnet (the long defunct downtown music venue and restaurant) where we had a theme each night. It was all social justice stuff, but the Fishnet always let us do whatever we wanted.”

The cover charge for those performances, Jones said, was $2.

“Our price hasn’t really gone up much since then.”

Reel World String Band with Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer and Sam Gleaves perform at 6 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets: $15. Call 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

still feeling the spirit of the century

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left to right: Ricky McKinney, Paul Beasley, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Joey Williams. Photo by Cameron Witting.

The Blind Boys of Alabama. From left to right: Ricky McKinney, Paul Beasley, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Joey Williams. Photo by Cameron Witting.

For an artist who has spent nearly his entire life singing in the same gospel quartet, Jimmy Carter never thought much about retirement. But at age 84 – along with a career that spans the entire seven decade lifespan of the Grammy-winning Blind Boys of Alabama – he senses the day will eventually arrive to abandon performance life.

Luckily for everyone, artist and audience, that day is not at hand.

“Never used to think about retiring, but I do now,” Carter said before erupting into sagely laughter. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m going to stay out here as long as I possibly can. I don’t know how long it’s going to be, but I’m feeling good. My health is fair. I’m a diabetic, but I’ve got that under control. So as long as I can hold out, I’ll be here.”

Though the Blind Boys of Alabama began singing together as children in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, the last 15 years ignited a crossover into the secular marketplace with a long roster of non-gospel artists as collaborators. That has led to high profile tours with the likes of Peter Gabriel, joint recordings with Ben Harper and, subsequently, a string of five Grammy Awards.

What sparked the extraordinary renaissance was the 2001 album, “Spirit of the Century” – a record that mixed spiritually themed secular songs (Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” the Rolling Stones’ “Just Wanna See His Face”) with traditional gospel (“Good Religion,” “Soldier”) and a diverse guest list of contributing artists that included blues veterans John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite, American guitarist David Lindley and British bassist Danny Thompson. The record opened the Blind Boys up to a huge fanbase, much of which had never heard their singing up to that point. It also won the group its first Grammy.

But the “Spirit” tune that sparked the most attention was a wild mash-up of the spiritual and secular – specifically, a version of “Amazing Grace” sung to the weighty melody of the decidedly non-gospel “House of the Rising Sun.”

“We didn’t want to record that because the arrangement was too much like ‘House of the Rising Sun’ for us,” Carter said. “But we had a great producer in California, John Chelew, who said, ‘Well, let’s put in on there.’ I think that song was what won us the Grammy. Now we never miss a night playing that song.”

Aside from a 2014 holiday album with bluesman Taj Mahal (“Talkin’ Christmas”) that Carter doesn’t sound fully taken with (“It came out okay, but not as good as I thought it would”), the Blind Boys’ last recording was 2013’s “I’ll Find a Way,” produced by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The album boasted a guest list that included My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus and, on a stirring version of Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” Vernon himself.

Carter said the alliance with Vernon proved fruitful once he and the Blind Boys got to know each other.

“Our manager came to us one day said, ‘How would you all like to make a record with Justin Vernon?’ I said, ‘Well, fine. Who is he?’ I was embarrassed because I didn’t know him. But after we met and after we talked, we went to his house. He had a studio in his house. In Wisconsin. In November. To us, it was very cold, but he had a warm house and a warm heart, so everything worked out good.

“We enjoy collaborating with secular artists, but there has to be an agreement that if we need to change something to fit our fervor, we are able to do that. A lot of times, people come to us with songs that are too secular for us. We’re gospel singers, you know? We can’t go too far out, so sometimes we have to change some words. But most times with these collaborations we have, the guys know what we’re looking for and usually present the music in a gospel way where we can use it.”

Curiously, Carter said that one of the ideas being considered for the next Blind Boys’ recording is a repertoire that does away with secular tunes altogether.

“It’s just in the talking stage. We’ve been collaborating with so many people, but I think it’s time that the Blind Boys just go back to basics, back to what brought us here, which is singing traditional gospel music. I think we should go back to that and see how it will work. I think it’s time for us to show the people we are still the Blind Boys of Alabama.”

 

Big in the Bluegrass featuring Blind Boys of Alabama, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Roomful of Blue. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at Heritage Hall in Lexington Center, 430 West Vine St. Tickets: $35-$150 at ticketfly.com.

in performance: eric johnson/gonzalo bergara quartet/emma moseley

eric johnson. photo by max crace.

eric johnson. photo by max crace.

Probably the most dazzling aspect of Eric Johnson’s solo acoustic performance at last night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center was its overall lack of flash. An Austin, Tx. guitar giant known largely for blissed out, psychedelic departures from conventional Lone Star blues rock, Johnson focused largely on the unplugged material from his new “EJ” album. That meant finding a more compositional center to his song structure and a more fluid, streamlined guitar sound.

It also involved more folkish construction. Early Simon & Garfunkel proved a heavy inspiration. The duo’s work was addressed directly during a set opening cover of “Mrs. Robinson” that deconstructed the tune’s melody to the point that only fragments of the chorus were recognizable through all the harmonic mischief. Less obvious was the unrecorded original “Divanae” which was bolstered by shades of ‘60s-era British folk along with the stateliness of Paul Simon’s phrasing from the same period. “Once Upon a Time in Texas,” however, was likely more in line with what guitar aficionados in the crowd were anticipating. Despite an overall summery stride, the tune explored deeper percussive flourishes and greater tension within the composition’s artful but lyrical turns.

But this was by no means Johnson’s show exclusively. Also on the bill was the Gonzalo Bergara Quartet, a string band boasting an appealing infatuation with the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt – especially his Quintette du Hot Club de France-era music with Stephane Grappelli. That group was largely the model for an ensemble giddiness piloted as much by Houston/Austin violinist Leah Zeger as by Buenos Aires-born guitarist Bergara. While much of the set also covered material by The New Hot Club of America, a larger ensemble that includes Bergara and Zeger, several quartet-recorded works yielded the group’s most dramatic moments. Among the highlights: the mash-up of styles, tempo and harmony within “Nightmare No. 2” and the joyous Django drive and pizzicato playfulness of “December.”

Finally, there was an interlude by 16 year old guitar Emma Moseley, another Austin-ite, who offered instrumental variations within a Stevie Wonder medley (“Isn’t She Lovely” and “Superstition”) that were full of astonishing (and simultaneous) displays of rhythm and lead melodies. Mosley also tackled Tommy Emmanuel’s “Antonella’s Birthday,” revealing a level of dynamics, inward confidence and overall artistic maturity that proved remarkable for an artist so young.

 

eric johnson goes acoustic

eric johnson. photo by max crace,

eric johnson. photo by max crace,

The album title should be a tip off. It’s called simply “EJ,” the initials of the Grammy winning guitarist, studio perfectionist, multi-genre composer and vocalist who made it – Eric Johnson.

Two letters, an efficient but purposeful representation of an artist – that’s what we’re provided. Give a listen to the recording and what you hear is essentially the same. Instead of the intricately crafted and keenly produced electric music that has made Johnson part of a long line of heralded Texas guitar-slingers, we have music made primarily with acoustic guitar, voice and, perhaps most surprisingly, piano. Yet it sounds as complete and inventive as any record Johnson has made. Longtime fans may consider it a surprise. Johnson considers the project long overdue.

“Actually, I think I should have done something like this a lot earlier. I was going to do an acoustic record years ago but got sidetracked by a bunch of electric projects, so I put it on the back burner. All of a sudden, it’s something like seven years later. I think now is an okay time, but I wish I had made at least one record like this years ago.”

An Austin native, Johnson’s music has long differed from many of the guitar giants to emerge from Lone Star country during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Less overtly blues-rooted, he began making noise, literally and figuratively, with a fusion band, The Electromagnets. By 1986, his second album, “Tones,” solidified a sound blending psychedelia, jazz undercurrents, rockish foundations and vocals that often seemed meditative. But there were also detours through country, soul and, yes, blues. “Cliffs of Dover,” which mixed several of those styles, won Johnson a Grammy in 1991 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

While there have been nods to acoustic music on past albums, it was “EJ” that allowed Johnson to focus on it exclusively. Similarly, his current tour, which brings him to the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday, departs from his usual electric combo performances for solo acoustic music.

“I wanted to record stuff that was more performance oriented,” Johnson said. “So much of this record occurred live in the studio. Some people are still going, ‘Well, what’s this?’ They’re wondering why I’m not playing electric guitar, but I think this is a good step for me.

“Playing solo, though, is a totally different discipline. I’m not as used to it as I am playing with a band, so it’s a little bit of a challenge. I’m trying to learn to play these songs as well as I can live, which is a lesson in itself. It’s a little more demanding when you’re by yourself, where you have to try to nail everything. I’m getting there, though, slowly but surely.”

While some of the sensibilities within the repertoire of “EJ” are a natural fit, like a quick picking, harmonically altered version of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Mrs. Robinson” and the album closing original “Song for Irene” (both played as instrumentals), Johnson pulls from sources both unexpected (a giddy, swing-savvy take on Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise) and electric. From the latter world comes Jimi Hendrix’s “One Rainy Wish,” which is reworked for piano, acoustic guitar and a light, limber rhythm section without losing any of the psychedelic fancy from the original 1967 version.

“There was some fooling around with different songs that I like. That was one that I thought kind of worked out, that I got a good performance on. But Hendrix’s music has such great songwriting that you can interpret it different ways and it can still work. I thought it intrinsically had this swaying, jazz feel to it. He’s playing these really full chords and doing this kind of swing thing, so it kind lent itself to maybe a different feel.”

Johnson is so taken with the acoustic adventures of “EJ” that he is already making plans to record a sequel. Mostly though, he sees the album as an additional means of opportunity and expression awarded to him by a four decade-long career.

“I find myself having more realizations of what ways I can present my music that can make it more impactful, more meaningful. So that’s what I’m trying to do. We just want to leave the door open for things to happen and try not to get in the way of ourselves.”

Eric Johnson performs at 6:45 p.m. Nov. 7 for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Also performing are the Gonzalo Bergara Quartet and Emma Moseley. Tickets: $20 public, $5 student. Call: 859-252-8888, 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

critic’s pick: marillion, ‘F.E.A.R.’

marillion-fearAlas, being a family publication, the full title to Marillion’s new album can’t be referenced here. Excluding the beginning expletive, it translates to “Everyone and Run,” but the abbreviation really tells the story.

The recording offers a set of topically turbulent and inwardly unsettling works – three extended suites buoyed by three shorter pieces – from the veteran British prog band. It’s also a beaut of a record, one that is as sonically majestic as it is lyrically distressing.

The problem many audiences have with prog bands, especially vintage ones like Marillion, is the perception their music is a bloated mesh of indulgent musicianship with narratives intended on fancy that skyrocket into pure pretentiousness. But ever since vocalist, frontman and lyricist Steve Hogarth changed the face of the band from a Genesis clone into a more socially and poetically aware unit in 1989, Marillion has largely steered clear of prog’s stereotypical excesses. In fact, it has managed to release three true classics under his stewardship – “This Strange Engine” (1997), “Marbles” (2004) and “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” (2012). “F.E.A.R.” may well prove an addition to the list.

Lyrically, this is a record about a Brexit-beaten Great Britain, although the references to big money and its suffocating effects on democracy (“The New Kings”) and a shamed society unwilling to face up to the realities of refugee migration (“El Dorado”) aren’t that far removed from controversies on these shores. “I see myself in them,” Hogarth sings in the latter suite. “The people at the borders, waiting to exist again.”

The shorter “Living in Fear” is, despite the title, more hopeful. Written as a prayer of strength and peace with a touch of defiance (“Will you let one lost soul change what we stand for? I don’t think so”), the tune works itself into a choral lather with a “yeah, yeah” chant that reflects subtle pop smarts as it courts a sense of hippie-dom.

The highlight, though, is the least politically inclined work on the album. “The Leavers” takes its cue from the band’s own existence as touring musicians, viewing society as two classes – the leavers, who surrender to curiosity and travel, and the remainers, a steadfastly content (or are they?) legion of homebodies.

All this doesn’t even take into account how strong “F.E.A.R.” is sonically with keyboardist Mark Kelly and guitarist Steve Rothery at the helm of beautifully orchestrated backdrops with Hogarth countering with vocals that suit the music’s anthemic drive while regularly downshifting to hushed senses of world weariness.

Marillion has never been a band that has been on everyone’s radar. “F.E.A.R” may not change that. But it’s a record of the times that counters its dour world view with music of rich beauty and dimension. In short, there is nothing to be afraid of here.

david crosby on the election

david crosby.

david crosby.

On Halloween Day, I spoke with two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee David Crosby for an advance story on his Nov. 19 performance at the Norton Center for the Arts. Nearly all of our conversation centered on his current music, specifically the tunes making up the “Lighthouse” album he released earlier this month, along with discussion about his 50 year recording and touring career.

Being that Crosby, 75, has been such a vocal social and political commentator through his music since the 1960s, I could help but ask him his feelings regarding the impending presidential election. As our feature piece on the Norton Center concert won’t run for another two weeks, I’m sharing Crosby’s brief election comments here.

A note: I did not ask him specifically about any candidate. My question was simply this: “Would you please share your sentiments on this election season?

Here was Crosby’s reply:

“I don’t think there is any more dangerous person to this country than (Donald) Trump. I think he is a terrible person, and I also think he is not very bright. It would be a disaster. So I’m going to vote for Hillary (Clinton). I would have picked somebody completely other than the both of them. But I think Trump is truly dangerous. He does not have control over himself and he’s not an adult. I think it would be a disaster to let him run the country.”

 

in performance: bob dylan

bob dylan. photo by william claxton.

bob dylan. photo by william claxton.

As Bob Dylan croaked and crooned through a bewildering performance last night at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, it was difficult not to feel a sense of displacement. At heart, this was a rock show that overshadowed much of his famed folk pedigree. The songs, however, often sounded like they were musically and thematically caught in a time warp.

A fascinating but askew case in point came late in the 100 minute show with the fittingly titled “Long and Wasted Years.” One of four works pulled from 2012’s “Tempest” album (Dylan’s most recent recording of original compositions), it detailed a protagonist forsaken by love and family and, as a result, left to feel suitably scattered in a desert-esque purgatory. “Whadaya doin’ out there in the sun anyway?” sang Dylan, 75, with bemused, fractured glee. “Don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out?”

It was a bit removed from the socially penetrating narratives that likely won Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature this fall. Or was it? Earlier in the set, he ripped through the title song to 1965’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album, a work where everyone from Biblical sages to bluesmen to gamblers converged on a stretch of road running from Minnesota to Louisiana. A half-century on, even with the purposely scrambled version Dylan served up last night, the song constructs a Twilight Zone of sorts that assembles characters from varying times and circumstances.

In terms of repertoire, Dylan focused on either very early songs or very recent ones. That meant a three decade period (from roughly 1966 to 1996) was ignored, save for a coarse, melodically rewired reading of the “Blood on the Tracks” romantic meditation “Tangled Up in Blue.” None of that mattered, however, as pretty much everything sounded antique. The recent works from “Tempest,” together with the dark jubilee tune “High Water (for Charley Patton)” from 2001’s “Love and Theft,” harkened back to an almost minstrel minded era rooted in blues variations. Music from his newest recordings (2015’s “Shadows in the Night” and 2016’s “Fallen Angels”) were actually covers of Sinatra-era pop tunes. Finally, the early Dylan songs within the set, most of which were penned 50 or more years ago, were, by definition, of a different vintage.

The Sinatra-inspired material was the big curiosity as they reined in the corrosive wheeze that is Dylan’s usual weapon of vocal attack. No one is going to mistake him for ol’ Blue Eyes, mind you. But it was nonetheless intriguing to watch Dylan grab the microphone stand and lean to the side to play crooner on classics like “I Could Have Told You,” “All or Nothing at All” and, perhaps fittingly, “Autumn Leaves.” But in the hands of his band, particularly pedal steel guitarist and BR5-49 alumnus Donnie Herron, the tunes sounded less like pop relics and more like mystic prairie lullabies.

As for his own back catalog, Dylan has always considered it ripe for plundering. By playing piano for most of the performance with a suggestion of ragtime and barrelhouse color, Dylan awarded some of his more foreboding works – in particular, “Desolation Row” – a curiously hopeful glow.

But when the setlist turned to a “Tempest” tune like “Pay in Blood,” all bets were off. The sentiments went adrift again with a rhythmic drive as hardened and unforgiving as the lyrics. “I pay in blood,” Dylan sang, briefly breaking into a toothy grin. “But not my own.”

in performance: dierks bentley/randy houser/drake white and the big fire

dierks bentley.

dierks bentley.

“We’re a long way from The Dame,” remarked Dierks Bentley two songs in to his Rupp Arena return last night. From a literal standpoint, of course, the long demolished Main St. rock club located where the CentrePointe project now resides, was just a few blocks away from the cavernous Rupp. But The Dame was where Bentley essentially introduced himself to Lexington in 2004. So figuratively, the singer has indeed traveled far since then with a trio of possible wins at the annual Country Music Association Awards awaiting him next week.

The celebratory feel of last night’s Rupp outing – his fourth appearance at the venue, a stat he worked into a verse of the road anthem “Every Mile a Memory” late in the show – was mixed with a touch of honest gratitude for the venue, right down to a remark about the absence of Rupp’s famed “Big Bertha” speaker cluster. The good natured vibe carried over into the music, too, with a set launched by a pair organically designed, bluegrass-savvy works, “Up on the Ridge” and “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go).”

The set quickly morphed into the kind of rockish drive indicative of contemporary inclined country with barroom themed works like “Am I the Only One,” anthemic pieces such as “Hold On” and every curiosities that included the title track to the singer’s recent “Black” album that matched Americana sentiment with the U2-like guitar chatter of Brownsville native Ben Helson.

But it was Bentley’s attitude that essentially sold the performance. The usual bro country machismo and modern country pandering were absent from the show. Instead, it relied on honest physicality, drive and musical gusto.

A similar sense of earnest cheer also pervaded the show-opening set by Drake White and the Big Fire. While some of their tunes tended to possess a shopworn country-rock feel, “That Don’t Cost a Dime” proved a novel stylistic mash-up of rural boogie, country swing and even reggae (via a chorus snippet of “Stir It Up”). Throughout, though, White’s vocals reflected a vintage swagger reminiscent of bands like Old Crow Medicine Show.

The antithesis of both Bentley and White was the artist sandwiched between them on last night’s bill, Randy Houser. A singer boasting a booming voice tailor made for arenas but little understanding of dynamics or artistic humility, Houser mistook vocal potency for artistic ingenuity. What resulted were bludgeoning performances of “Boots On” and “My Kind of Country” full of puffed up self-importance. Even the solo acoustic “Like a Cowboy” was a one man vocal stampede packaged with its own dramatic pause so the audience could bask in the strenuous feat that had just been executed.

The crowning touch to what may have been one of the more preposterous country performances to hit Rupp Arena in recent years, even more so than the video and lighting blitzkrieg that suggested Houser might have been imagining himself as headliner, was a bizarre remark the singer made following “How Country Feels” – specifically toward the hearty crowd adulation awarded to it.

“Well, that doesn’t suck at all.”

Sure, this was probably just a backhanded way of sounding appreciative. But one couldn’t help but imaging a different audience response fashioned as a response to such a classless quip.

“Wanna bet?”

 

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