in performance: the earls of leicester/early james and the latest

The Earls of Leicester, from left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales.

During the closing moments of the Earls of Leicester’s sublime bluegrass summit last night the Opera House, banjoist Charlie Cushman stepped to the front microphone to offer a stunning bit of trivia. He stated it was 49 years ago to the evening that bluegrass forefathers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, whose music largely forms the repertoire for the Earls (hence the band name), ended their pioneering musical alliance.

But the six member ensemble, under the direction of dobro colossus and one-time Lexingtonian Jerry Douglas, has made a mission out of rekindling audience interest in Flatt & Scruggs music by recording and performing it with a deftness both artful and playful. Last night, that legacy leapt to vibrant life with the opening strains of “Salty Dog Blues” and didn’t subside until Douglas reprised the famously mad bluegrass dash melody of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on dobro after Cushman had set the tune’s mischievous spirit in motion.

In its most immediate terms, the approach the Earls took to the Flatt & Scruggs catalog was a presentation of scholarly taste. Douglas has long been known as an instrumental thrillseeker. But the musicians surrounding him were no less versed, especially fiddler Johnny Warren, a direct link to Flatt & Scruggs’ famed Foggy Mountain Boys band (where his father, Paul Warren, also played fiddle).

Similarly, Cushman was regularly in the driver’s seat, propelling the jubilant group charge of “Will You Be Lonesome, Too?” while navigating the tricky tuning shifts of “Earl’s Breakdown” with giddy assurance. Then there was guitarist Shawn Camp, whose vocal work underscored the cheer and soulfulness of Flatt & Scruggs’ music, even during devout gospel numbers like “Get in Line Brother.”

But none of this meant the Earls treated the performance as some kind of academic exercise. While the compositional efficiency of  these tunes precluded the sort of monster soloing Douglas reaches for with his more progressive minded projects, a luxurious glimpse was nonetheless revealed when he honored the great Josh Graves, the Foggy Mountain Boys’ dobro ace (and one of Douglas’ prime influences) during the instrumental turns of “Spanish Two Step.”

But perhaps the most moving and purposeful moment came when Douglas, Camp, Warren and mandolinist Jeff White stood around a single mic to sing “Reunion in Heaven,” a Flatt & Scruggs gospel song that dates back to the early 1950s. The Earls sang the tune in December at the funeral of mandolinist Curly Seckler, the last surviving member of the Foggy Mountain Boys. Douglas and his mates did more here that merely offer a tribute. They utilized the bluegrass tradition that defines the Earls’ very existence to provide such extraordinary vintage music with a whole new sense of purpose and place.

A bonus to last night’s program was an opening set that introduced a fine acoustic guitar and upright bass duo from Birmingham, Ala. called Early James and the Latest. The modus operandi here was pure blues – ghostly, rapturous, meditative blues (as shown by the set-opening “Dig to China”) along with merrier, rag-inspired juke joint works (typified by “Taste of Sin” and “Gravy Train”). Both extremes were fleshed out with wiry and often eerie authority through the vocals of guitarist James and orchestrated by the subtle but very complete bass support of Adrian Marmolejos. Keep an eye and ear out for these guys.

just like sister ray said

The Lexington musicians of Sister Ray. Clockwise from left, Robby Cosenza, Sam McWilliams, Willie Eames, Scott Whiddon, Tim Welch and Kim Conlee. Photo by Matt Goins.

Scott Whiddon figures maybe 10 to 15,000 people, in total, saw the Velvet Underground perform, an estimate given credence by the sluggish sales the New York band posted for the four studio albums it released between 1967 and 1970.

But the Velvets – Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and (following Cale’s dismissal) Doug Yule – were cultural icons of the rock underground during its day and an overwhelming artistic inspiration to successive generations of bands that followed in its wake. So it’s hardly surprising the Velvets’ influence also reaches to Lexington.

For the third time in as many years, Whiddon, bassist from the local indie pop troupe Palisades, and a like minded crew of musical pals (guitarist/vocalist Tim Welch, guitarist Willie Eames, drummer Robby Cosenza, keyboardist/vocalist Kim Conlee and violinist Sam McWilliams) will offer their own takes on Velvets music – from the psychedelic street sounds of their 1967 Andy Warhol-produced debut (“The Velvet Underground and Nico”) to the raw experimental grind of their 1968 follow-up (“White Light/White Heat”) to the comparatively relaxed and almost poppish stride of their first post-Cale record (1969’s “The Velvet Underground”) to the more streamlined electric charge of what became Reed’s last album before departing for a solo career (1970’s “Loaded”).

The six will perform as Sister Ray on Saturday at the Green Lantern. The band’s name comes from the title to the cacophonous, lo-fi 18 minute riot of a song that concludes “White Light/White Heat.”

“I remember being 13 or 14 years old and spending the weekend at a friend’s house,” Whiddon said. “Their older brother came home from college with one of the compilation albums by the Velvets, one that focused mostly on the first record. It was tremendous. It was one of the first steps where those songs got into the DNA of how I thought about the world.

“From the Velvets, you can follow a path to a lot of noise bands, you can follow it to R.E.M., you can follow it to Yo La Tengo.”

As is always the case with any local act, the challenge of mounting a Sister Ray performance centers largely on logistics. All of the members juggle duties in other bands (in many instances, several other bands) as well as family responsibilities and assorted day job demands. But that doesn’t prevent the yearly Sister Ray outings from maintaining a familial feel or diminish the band’s devotion to the Velvets’ music.

“One of the things that just makes me smile is how musicians of this caliber, whenever we do this sort of thing, are willing to make the time and effort to take part,” Whiddon said. “The first thing is that. Then there is the fun part, of course. We get to play songs that we love that perhaps made a mark at some point in our lives when we were falling in love with music.

“But you also have to live up to all of that. You know you want to play really, really well and you want to honor that tradition. So it’s always fun, but it’s also a question of presenting this music to people who also love those records.”

Sister Ray: An Evening of Music by the Velvet Underground performs with DJ sets by Matthew Clarke tonight, Feb. 17, at 9:30 at the Green Lantern, 497 W. 3rd. Admission: $8.

in performance: rudresh mahanthappa with the osland/dailey jazztet

rudresh mahanthappa. photo by ethan levitas

It began more like a séance than a jazz concert. With the rhythm section of Lexington’s Osland/Dailey Jazztet playing under him last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts Recital Hall, Rudresh Mahanthappa played an Eastern-infused wail in a register so low and open, one had to do a double take to confirm it was indeed coming out of an alto saxophone. The tune, “Bird Calls #1,” was the leadoff piece from a 2015 album (“Bird Calls”) Mahanthappa cut of original music based on composed and improvised melodies by Charlie Parker. But what surfaced here seemed more like something from the church of John Coltrane. Then the music collapsed into “On the DL,” which took a lyrical nod from Parker’s “Donna Lee” but accelerated at such a treacherous gallop that Mahanthappa’s dizzying solos soared past you like mile markers on a highway. What resulted was a muscular jazz sound that was an aural thrill ride, full of warp speed solos undercut by muscular, though often unexpected senses of swing.

A globally acclaimed jazz bandleader, educator and instrumentalist (he was named Alto Saxophonist of the Year in Downbeat magazine’s International Critics’ Poll six out of the last seven years), Mahanthappa used much of the 90 minute performance with the Osland/Dailey Jazztet as his band to redress the music of “Bird Calls.” In fact, six of the set’s nine tunes were pulled from the album. On the record, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill was the second horn player and Mahanthappa’s primary musical foil. Last night, University of Kentucky jazz pro Miles Osland, a second alto sax man, co-piloted the fun. Despite the mirroring instrumentation, there were remarkable contrasts revealed within the playing, from the criss-crossing solos within “Chillin’” to the artful tempo shifts during “Maybe Later “ that keenly accelerated the swing as the tune concluded.

Perhaps the most curious tradeoff took place during one the evening’s few journeys outside of “Bird Calls.” For the 2010 piece “Playing with Stones,” bassist Danny Cecil used an extended bass solo rich in texture and expression that enhanced the composition’s ominous ambience before Mahanthappa and pianist Raleigh Dailey played solos off each other.

A sumptuous ballad, “My Sweetest,” along with a playful, punctuated outro snippet titled “Man, Thanks for Coming” (which returned the repertoire to “Bird Calls” with references to Parker’s “Anthropology”) wound the set down with the former favoring a slice of ensemble reflection that faded into a playfully aggressive solo from Mahanthappa and the latter exhibiting a brief but potent reprise of the rhythmic twists and animated turns that colored so much of this enchanting performance.

headhunting through the years

The Kentucky Headhunters: Doug Phelps, Greg Martin, Fred Young and Richard Young. Photo by Joe McNally.

As he discusses the current and future doings of the Kentucky Headhunters, Richard Young tosses out a factoid that very much plays into the Metcalfe County band’s considerable past.

It deals directly with longevity – specifically the realization that guitarist Young, sibling drummer Fred Young and guitarist Greg Martin – have been making music together for 50 years. That chunk of time takes the alliance that began touring in the Glasgow region as Itchy Brother through the official formation of the Headhunters and its electric mix of blues, boogie and modern country in 1986. That’s when bassist/vocalist Doug Phelps signed up, making him, with a mere 32 year tenure, minus a brief mid ‘90s split, the youngster of the band.

“I’ve seen all four of us sit in with different people at jam sessions,” Young said. “So all of us individually, we’re pretty good. But, boy, when you put the four of us together, it’s a powerful thing that just seems to make people happy. It’s really good music.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think the band plays great. But there’s just this kind of happiness that happens when we’re together that transcends to the audience. It’s just a fun band. I mean, you can tell none of us has any kind of hang ups about ourselves. It’s always been about the band.”

Here’s a recap for any Kentuckian new to the Headhunters. Once the Itchy Brother era ended, the Headhunters blasted onto charts in 1989 with a solid one-two punch via a very rocking cover of Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” and the original tune “Dumas Walker.” That combo earned a truckload of awards, including a Grammy.

But changes quickly took hold. Phelps, along with his lead vocalist brother Ricky Lee Phelps, exited as the band expanded its musical scope to emphasize inspirations that have long played into their music – namely, blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. Two albums with longtime Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson (1993’s “That’ll Work” and 2015’s posthumously released “Meet Me in Bluesland”) typified the growth. Doug Phelps rejoined the Headhunters in 1996.

“We’re so proud of what we achieved in those early years,” Young said. “That was a great foundation, but it was just a part of what the band was. Now, we’re really open and can do anything. It’s not really about country, rock, blues, jazz, rockabilly or anything. It’s about the Headhunters and how we’ve evolved over the years. You know, we’ve got the same bag of tricks we had in 1990. We carry those with us as well as the ones we’ve created lately. So it’s a very, very good place to be for us right now.”

Recent Headhunters activities have centered on the 2016 album “On Safari,” although the big news for the band has been a renewed willingness to tour overseas. Young resisted such travels in the past due to a fear of flying. Convincing him to make the journey for British and European shows in recent years was son John Fred Young, drummer for Black Stone Cherry, the rock troupe whose global popularity has been considerable.

“Black Stone Cherry twisted my arm after 34 years of not flying, so I got on an airplane to go over to Europe. When the Headhunters were Itchy Brother, we would go back and forth to New York and it just terrified me. John Fred said, ‘Daddy, this is ridiculous. You guys would have a whole new audience over in Europe just waiting for you. You’re going to get your butt on an airplane and you’re going to go over. We’ll even set up the shows for you.’ So all of a sudden, I’m a world traveler.”

Young said the immediate future for the Headhunters includes a live album, a possible studio record of blues-oriented music and, as always, a wealth of touring. The band performs Saturday at the Manchester Music Hall with Martin slipping into town tonight to play with his side project band, The Barren County Stumblers, at Lynagh’s Irish Pub.

“We’ve been so blessed to be able to do everything we’ve ever wanted to do,” Young said. “What’s great about that is we’ve found out some of the hardcore blues people will check out a few of our country songs from the early days while we’re turning country music fans onto the blues. It gives you a special worth that you’re not only out making a living doing exactly what you want to do, but that people are also taking to it. I guess you could call the Headhunters a musical education program.”

The Kentucky Headhunters, Those Guyz and Dustin Collins perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $20-$60. Call: 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com/event/the-kentucky-headhunters.

meshing cultures, bands and generations, rudresh mahanthappa redefines jazz

rudresh mahanthappa. photo by ethan levitas.

With each recording he cuts and every band he take to a stage with, Rudresh Mahanthappa reveals different views of a musical persona that can best be described as globally expansive.

In 2015, the composer, educator and bandleader  – as well as Alto Saxophonist of the Year, as voted on by Downbeat Magazine’s International Critic’s Poll six out of the last seven years – channeled, dissected and reassimilated the music of Charlie Parker into an audacious album called “Bird Calls.” Last fall, Mahanthappa followed with “Agrima,” a stylistic turnaround that meshed jazz, Indian classical music and electronics. As he prepares for his Kentucky debut on Saturday, Mahanthappa discussed plans for a future project that involves a straight ahead jazz trio of sax, bass and drums fashioned after Sonny Rollins’s classic 1958 album, “A Night at the Village Vanguard.”

“Look at my discography and you will see every album is different,” Mahanthappa said. “Almost every album has a completely different band, so I’m always trying to shake things up for myself and change the vehicle as much as I can. My musical personality stays the same, I guess, but different scenarios bring different things out of me.”

Mahanthappa’s personal history is as culturally rich and varied as his music. Born in Italy to Indian parents, he grew up in Boulder, Colorado, initially absorbing the pop sounds of Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn on the radio before cutting his teeth in area jazz and even Dixieland bands.

“I knew every track with a saxophone solo that was being played on Top 40 radio, whether it was Men at Work or Supertramp or the sax solos on (Bruce) Springsteen records. I learned them all. That was my first kind of ear training, trying to learn by holding my mono tape recorder up to the radio so I could learn the saxophone solos.

“The players in the Boulder bands were all twice my age but they took me in. I was butchering Charlie Parker solos, but people gave me a chance. Those experiences were really important. It was the welcoming aspect that really mattered. I felt like I belonged someplace. Not that I didn’t belong in my family. It was just a way to really be a musician with other musicians.”

Curiously, Mahanthappa’s exploration of his Indian heritage came much later in his decidedly American upbringing.

“The elements of Indian music came from a place of trying to engage my ancestry in a way that was really meaningful. I don’t speak my parents’ language. I didn’t grow up around any other Indian families. Beyond the limits of my immediate household, I was figuring out how to create an Indian-American culture on my own and with my brothers. For me, in particular, music was the most effective way of describing that, defining that and communicating that. I feel a lot of the music I play is a by-product of me getting to know myself.”

Today, Mahanthappa’s heralded career is balanced with duties as the head of jazz studies at Princeton University. That ties in to his performance on Saturday at the Singletary Center, where he will team with University of Kentucky jazz pros Miles Osland and Raleigh Dailey in their Jazztet.

“It’s nice to go to these places I’ve never been before and play with the locals who have developed a real scene in their part of the country. I think it’s very important to the relevance of this music to engage as many of the communities as possible and not just show up to do the gig and take off. There’s a lot more to it than that.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa performs with the Osland/Dailey Jazztet at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Singletary Center for the Arts Recital Hall, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $13 public, free in advance to University of Kentucky students. Call 859-257-4929 or go to etix.com.

grammy post mortem 2018

U2 performing by the Hudson River during last night’s Grammy Awards telecast. Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images.

The young celebs dressed up and relished stardom, but with U2 singing on the Hudson, Emmylou Harris eulogizing Tom Petty with Chris Stapleton and Patti LuPone again showing Broadway who’s boss, last night Grammy Awards ceremony largely belonged to the vets.

Our annual Grammy post mortem focuses, with only a few exceptions, on the broadcast’s parade of live performances. Frankly, outside of Stapleton’s win for Best Country Album, none of the actual awards really mattered. Here’s what I experienced from the couch:

+ Kendrick Lamar: The show opening “XXX” sported a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by U2 and askew commentary by Dave Chappelle for an unsettling snapshot of the times. Far more moving, though, was Lamar’s acceptance speech later in the program for winning Best Rap Album – a gleeful acknowledgement of inspiration over material reward.

+ Lady Gaga: A stoic, sobering reading of “Joanne” and “Million Reasons” with producer/guitarist Mark Ronson as prime accompanist.

+ Tony Bennett and John Legend: From the presenters’ podium, the cross generational singers celebrated with a verse of “New York, New York” before presenting Best Rap/Sung performance to Lamar and Rihanna for “Loyalty.”

+ Little Big Town: The Taylor Swift-penned “Better Man” is a fairly routine country-pop confection, but vocalist Karen Fairchild made the tune her own.

+ Best New Artist: Alessia Cara won out of the dullest pack of nominees for this category in decades.

+ Jon Batiste and Gary Clark Jr.: The duo gave the Grammys some serious schooling in the essentials by honoring Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in a medley of “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Maybellene

+ Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee: The monster Latin hit “Despacito” became a dance party bathed in pink and blue neon. Bored me silly, but fans that streamed the song 10 million times last year undoubtedly hold a different opinion.

+ Childish Gambino: The hit “Terrified” worked nicely as a slice of after hours R&B led by Gambino and JD McCrary doing battle in the vocal stratosphere.

+ Pink: A simple, dressed-down delivery of “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” that properly placed the operatic clarity of Pink’s singing front and center.

+ James Corden, Sting and Shaggy: The three teamed for a New York version of Car Pool Karaoke only to be ridiculed by everyone in the subway. “Whose stupid idea was this?” muttered Sting, eyeing Grammy host Corden. Hysterical.

+ Bruno Mars and Cardi B: Pity anyone who shares the stage with the tireless Mr. Mars. All the finesse in this athletic take on “Finesse” belonged to him alone.

+ Sting and Shaggy: A reggae-fied “Englishman in New York” nicely celebrated the Grammys’ return to the Big Apple with Shaggy’s “Don’t Make Me Wait” as a somewhat ragged bonus.

+ Rihanna, DJ Khaled, Bryson Tiller: In presenting the generic party piece “Wild Thoughts,” DJ Khaled proved himself the most intrusive and disposable performer of the night.

+ Best Country Album: Chris Stapleton’s “From a Room, Vol. 1” was the only sensible choice, but that didn’t mean the Grammys could have muffed it and awarded Kenny Chesney instead. To everyone’s great fortune, that didn’t happen. Kentucky country ruled.

+ Maren Morris, Eric Church and Brothers Osborne: A country alliance paying tribute to those who died in concert shootings/bombings in Las Vegas and Manchester. Very well intentioned, but the vocal blend was a train wreck. So this is what Nashville sounds like without autotuning? Yikes.

+ Kesha: An affirmation of identity and independence laced with thunderous retribution, “Praying” was brought to potent, elegiac life with the sisterly help of an all-star chorus.

+ U2 : Performing “Get Out of Your Own Way” by the Hudson River with the Statue of Liberty towering over them, the Irish band, bundled in winter garb like they were 35 years ago for the “New Year’s Day” video, championed the Dreamers. Still relevant after all these years.

+ Elton John and Miley Cyrus: A gruff, cross generational performance of one of Sir Elton’s greatest works, “Tiny Dancer.” Serviceable.

+ Patti LuPone: Here’s your freakin’ Grammy moment – LuPone, at 68, belting out “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” with a vigor, grace and drama that should have dropped the jaws of every other performer at Madison Square Garden last night. Poor Ben Platt. The “Dear Evan Hansen” star’s take on “Somewhere,” the first part of a Broadway tribute, was dwarfed.

+ Sza: Not getting it. A perfunctory performance of “Broken Clocks,” which was already an unremarkable pop-soul exercise to begin with.

+ Record of the Year: Bruno Mars for ‘24 K Magic.’ We’re now three hours into the ceremony, so forgive me for being underwhelmed.

+ Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris: Two solid-as-oak country spirits singing Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” to preface the “In Memoriam” tribute. Two guitars, two voices. Nothing else needed.

+ Logic: His suicide prevention prayer “1-800-273-8255” came out of “In Memoriam” as a photo of Chester Bennington loomed over a stark stage. Point made.

+ Album of the Year: Bruno Mars again for ‘24 K Magic.’ A gracious acceptance, a powerhouse artist, a big so-what of a win. And at three hours and 34 minutes, that’s a wrap.

in performance: anteloper/josh berman

josh berman.

Outside the Spotlight quietly celebrated its 15th anniversary last night with a double bill performance at the Farish Theatre that showcased two disparate – and, at times, almost conflicting – versions of the improvisational music scope that has long been the thrust of the concert series.

First up was a sublime solo cornet set by Josh Abrams. For roughly 45 minutes, the Chicago instrumentalist and composer offered a striking sampler of tunes (most of which came from his 2015 album “A Dance and a Hop”) that underscored a fascinating balance between blues and bop related compositional lines and free improvisation. Distinguishing works like “Hang Ups” and “Time” was a rich, lyrical tone that often darkened and expanded as it stretched into appealing, atmospheric registers before softening as resulting phrases splintered upon re-entry.

There were times Berman added punctured honks of airy resonance and an instance where a small, thin sheet of metal was held to the bell of the horn to create a rippling, percussive effect. Mostly though, what was most arresting was the subtle immediacy of the performance. Berman was clearly working without any preconceived playbook of solos and ideas. His improvisations, though assured, were wonderfully complete and spontaneous reactions to the tunes’ fully composed sections. The audience responded with a level of studious quiet so sustained that the mere taps of Berman’s fingers on the horn could be heard as he played.

A second set by trumpeter Jaimie Branch and Jason Nazary – billed collectively as Anteloper – was considerably more problematic as both artists doubled on analog electronics that weighed down their performance almost from the onset.

Branch is a gifted improviser on the horn, but with the exception of a few brief instances late in the duo’s hour-long set, she offered only fractured trumpet phrases repeated over the electronics with minimal variance. Ditto for Nazary, whose workmanlike playing revolved around succesive rhythms that gave little insight into any kind of soloing demeanor. There was an allure to some of the more sinuously textured moments the two created. But with a single, uncredited piece taking up the entire hour, the electronic ambience of the music became burdensome and static.

in performance: alan jackson/lauren alaina

Alan Jackson performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

“I’ve come here to play you some real country music.”

Those were the rather comforting words Alan Jackson used to greet a crowd of 9,500 last night at Rupp Arena. But the veteran Georgia-born hitmaker didn’t exactly have to stretch his stylistic reputation to keep his promise. The just-shy-of-two hour set offered a confident, no frills and, at times, astonishingly laid back grab bag of ballads, shuffles and non-threatening party pieces. All were set to the lead of unassuming and conversational tenor vocals that have aged quite nicely over the nearly three decades Jackson has been sending songs up the charts. Ditto for his band, the Strayhorns, a troupe of quiet instrumental scholars with remarkable picking skills and an even a greater sense of taste in knowing when and when not to show them off.

What distinguished the performance from the dozen or so other times Jackson has played Rupp since his debut there as an opening act for Randy Travis in 1991 (all subsequent visits have been as a headliner) was how much the country music environment has shifted around him. With the touring retirement of George Strait, Jackson is now the genre’s reigning elder traditionalist. But the crown hardly sits heavy on him. From the assured swagger of the show-opening “Gone Country” to the sit-down solemnity of “Here in the Real World” to the easygoing sentimentalism of “Remember When,” Jackson dispensed songs with simple, unaffected candor and a host of between song stories that came across convincingly as back porch confessions of sorts.

Sometimes the music heated up, as in a nicely electric take of “Summertime Blues” keenly timed to counter winter doldrums. In other instances, it moved with pure honky tonk flair, as typified by the still sterling drive of “Don’t Rock the Jukebox.” Curiously, one of the biggest delights was a brand new tune, a sagely bit of reflection titled “The Older I Get” that Jackson performed for the first time last night. In less practiced hands, the song would have been dowsed in angst-heavy pathos. Jackson, however, performed it with a cool but very knowing assertiveness, making the work a striking new snapshot in his real world country canon.

Lauren Alaina opened last night’s Rupp show.

From stylistic standpoint, show opener Lauren Alaina sounded like she came from another galaxy. The 23 year old singer understandably favored a far more contemporary slant to her songs, most of which she wrote or co-wrote. Musically, a frequent coupling of electric banjo and loop-style percussion grooves underscored her songs. But what drove everything was a turbo-charge vocal wail that rather cleanly ignited songs like “Georgia Peaches,” “Next Boyfriend” and the self-image anthem “Road Less Taken.” The latter threw the career of this one-time “American Idol” runner up into overdrive last year.

But the show stopper was “Three,” a reflection of childhood aspirations dashed and realized. More specifically, it was Alaina’s honestly emotive introduction to the tune that sparked the set. The audience nicely kept her in check, however. Prior to shedding a few tears, she explained she had recently learned to play piano for when she performed the song. That triggered a good natured and very audible wisecrack from the audience – “So don’t screw it up.” That defused the drama, sent the singer into a fit of laughter and cemented a rather arresting moment within a very earnest set.

summer’s coming: forecastle announces initial 2018 lineup

What better way to inject some warmth into the teen temps of a winter day than to dream of summer. This morning’s announcement of the preliminary lineup for the 2018 Forecastle lineup did just that with Chris Stapleton, Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse headlining the charge.

Forecastle has always offered an impressive and diverse make-up of music through the years, one that often gets augmented by announcements of appealing support acts in the months leading up to the festival (which, this summer, runs July 13 through 15). But it’s tough to recall a lineup that was this strong right out of the starting gate.

Sure, many of the artists have extensive performance histories in Louisville – including Kentucky country/soul traditionalist Chris Stapleton (who played a show on Forecastle’s stomping ground at Waterfront Park last fall) and Arcade Fire (who played there in 2007, ironically with one of last year’s Forecastle headliners, LCD Soundsystem, as an opener). But when the first name on the bill after the row of headliners is Jason Isbell (who played the Louisville Palace as recently as December), you know your roster is packing dynamite.

Scan just a little further and you will find country upstart Margo Price (who plays a sold out show of her own on Saturday at Headliners Music Hall). Then you have Forecastle returnees like The War on Drugs, Jenny Lewis and Louisville’s own Houndmouth fortifying the fun.

Outside of the Louisville connections, it will be interesting to see (especially since the actual performance schedule hasn’t been released) if two pairs of acts that have collaborated on past projects will cross paths during their Forecastle stays. Specifically, we’re referring to Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, who released the way cool duo album “Lotta Sea Lice” in October, along with Punch Brothers and I’m With Her, the progressive string troupes that spent last summer together on the American Acoustic tour.

Add in T-Pain, Father John Misty, Lucero, (Dan) Tyminski and about three dozen other already confirmed acts and you have the makings of one of the hottest Forecastles ever. That new alone should add a little July to your January.

Tickets go on sale for Forecastle at 10 a.m. Jan. 19 through ticketmaster.com and forecastlefest.com.

 

in performance: the lexington philharmonic with byron stripling

byron stripling.

The Lexington Philharmonic spent the final hours of 2017 in glorious disguise. With a guest conductor, a heavily altered instrumental design and an exclusively non-classical program, it operated very much as a jazz orchestra. Given the “Jazz Night” theme promoted for last night’s Opera House performance, that was to be somewhat expected. But instead of a standard pops-style presentation, this was a complete, evening-only makeover.

First off, musical director Scott Terrell yielded the conductor’s podium to Ohio jazzman Byron Stripling, whose boisterous spirit set the mood for the evening the moment he walked onstage. But by juggling duties as vocalist and trumpeter (the first with an operatic, deep and exact tenor; the second with similarly precise and expressive tonality), as well as serving as emcee and, to an extent, raconteur, Stripling’s time at the podium turned out to be somewhat limited.

But this was a very different Philharmonic in operation. By deemphasizing percussion and much of the woodwinds outside of saxophones, the orchestra was dominated by strings and brass with the further unorthodox addition of a piano-bass-drums rhythm section to propel a very purposeful sense of swing. While that obviously changed the entire musical fabric of the orchestra, it didn’t compromise the program’s abundant joy and luster.

Though Stripling, Miche Braden and tap dancer Ted Louis Levy traded off vocal duties, one of the evening’s highlights was when the jazz orchestration was let loose on its own to explore to the gorgeous dynamics within Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” With so much of the performance devoted to Jeff Tyzik-arranged swing classics immortalized by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, hearing the Ellington chestnut’s more subtle beauty nicely showcased the range of the realigned Philharmonic.

Stripling, Braden and Levy all had numerous standout moments. Stripling effortlessly channeled the blues-packed drive of the Calloway signature tune “Minnie the Moocher” while Braden offered a more regal sense of sass with the help of a hearty also saxophone solo from veteran Lexington jazzman Miles Osland (who played an integral part in the Philharmonic’s jazz transformation throughout the program) on the Bessie Smith/Billie Holiday popularized “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” Levy’s deft tap work also ignited a highly animated take on the Depression Era pick-me-up “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile.”

The vaudeville-style antics and attitude adopted between songs by the three guest artists wore thin at times, but that’s a minor quibble. The jazz age fun summoned by a performance that clearly took the Philharmonic way outside its comfort zone was largely shatterproof. Here’s hoping for another such detour before the next New Year is ushered in.

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