in performance: james taylor/bonnie raitt

Bonnie Raitt. Photo by Marina Chavez

Even the headliner at Rupp Arena knew who really ruled the evening.

As he got down to business on Wednesday with a near-two hour, hits-laden show full of sublime and unavoidably sentimental tunes spanning over five decades, James Taylor remarked to the audience of 7,200 that one of the greatest pleasures of his nearly-concluded tour was watching his co-billed pal Bonnie Raitt “steal the show every night.”

Count Rupp as one of those nights. Oh, nothing against Sweet Baby James. At age 70, he still exuded a good-natured folk-pop exuberance that serviced tunes as varied as the show opening reverie “Carolina in My Mind” and the tropically jovial “Mexico.” His vocal work – with a few rare, reedy exceptions – has aged remarkably well, too, as did his way with an orchestrally inclined 11-member band that included, get this, a pair of champion Frank Zappa alums (drummer Chad Wackerman and trumpeter Walt Fowler).

But the divine Ms. Raitt – who, amazingly, was making her Rupp debut – took this night home in her hip pocket. At 69, her vocals revealed a regal glow, assimilating, as they have throughout her career, a balance of blues, soul and rock ‘n’ smarts. Similarly, her guitar work – a gorgeous, slide-savvy tone that ignited the set opening “Unintended Consequence of Love” – would serve as rocket fuel throughout the concert.

The sheer scope of what Raitt packed into her hour-long performance was, frankly, astounding. It ran from a slow, swampy revamping of the INXS hit “Need You Tonight” and a solo acoustic blues reading of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” to a cool but decidedly torchy take on her own 1991 hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

But the showstopper was clearly “Angel from Montgomery,” the John Prine classic Raitt is largely responsible for introducing to the world (she recorded it in 1974, three years after Prine, but before many audiences were familiar with the song). She gave it a solemn but emotive delivery draped with a kind of tasteful world weariness that yielded a sense of scholarly humanity.

There was also an obvious level of camaraderie between Raitt and Taylor at the show. Taylor began the evening with an extended and heartfelt introduction of Raitt that nicely set the pace for the program’s overall charm that carried over into segments when the two artists sat in on each other’s sets at their conclusions – Taylor during Raitt’s career re-defining take on John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” and Raitt as a co-pilot for Taylor’s encore segment that blasted off with a jovial reading of “Johnny B. Goode.”

Again, don’t get the idea that Raitt’s triumph demeaned Taylor’s showing. His set offered a few nice setlist surprises early on – namely, 1970’s “Sunny Skies,” the autumnal title tune to 1974’s overlooked “Walking Man” album and the fatherly snapshot “First of May” (one of the only tunes in the set to venture beyond the ‘70s).

But it was with two very familiar 1970 works, played back-to-back late in the show, that the emotive extremes of Taylor’s writing came into view.

The first, “Sweet Baby James,” remained a quiet anthem of child-like expression, a cowboy lullaby that unfolded with still-vital innocence. After that came “Fire and Rain,” Taylor’s career-making single – a curiosity, given how the song is a eulogy full of blunt sadness that the singer communicated at Rupp with conversational reserve. In the end, that just made the musical impact all the more devastating.

 

down the road from renfro: dale ann bradley returns to the kentucky music hall of fame

Dale Ann Bradley.

Dale Ann Bradley recalled the first thing she did upon being informed of her 2018 induction to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. She cried. Simple as that. Then she cried some more.

“I think I cried for a couple of days there,” said the five-time International Bluegrass Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year who returns to the Hall of Fame in Mount Vernon for a concert this weekend. “I don’t know if I could even describe what it was like.

“You think about these things growing up in the hollers. You think, ‘Well, someday, I’d like to play the (Grand Ole) Opry. Someday, I’d like to make a little 45 record. You don’t really think it will happen, but you can dream about it. So for things to happen to me, such as being in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, I don’t know. I feel blessed because Kentucky artists are special. All of them show what the state has to offer. When you’re describing that in writing or music, it shows the deep sense of faith and endurance that this area has had through the years.”

The Hall of Fame performance will cover where Bradley’s career has been and, more importantly, where it is headed.

The past is referenced by the fact the Hall of Fame is located just down the road from Renfro Valley, the long running performance venue where Bradley, who grew up between Pineville and Harlan (“just off 119”), cut her professional teeth before beginning a six year stay as a member of the New Coon Creek Girls.

“This concert will be a coming home party in a lot of ways because it’s been so many years, other than the induction, since I’ve been a part of anything going on there. There is no price tag to put on the time that I’ve spent at Renfro Valley. Had I not had that place to work on my music and my friendships, I don’t know what I would have done. It definitely is precious to me. I think it’s a precious place in Kentucky. I hope people will take a look at what Renfro Valley has done for country music, folk music, bluegrass music and gospel music.”

But the Hall of Fame show also marks the start of the next chapter in Bradley’s career. It will help launch the promotion of a new album, “The Hard Way,” which is set for release on March 22. Like so many of her solo recordings, “The Hard Way” is highly traditional in its string band sound but diverse in terms of source material.

From one corner comes an update of the 1967 Bobbie Gentry hit “Ode to Billy Joe” that retains the original version’s stark narrative potency in outlining the lingering effects of a rural suicide. Then we have “Pretty Dark Hearted Emma Brown,” a work co-penned by Bradley and her brother that fits securely into the Appalachian corral of dark balladry defined by greats like Ralph Stanley. Finally, there is an update of “Ripple,” a Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter classic from the 1970 Grateful Dead album “American Beauty” that underscores that band’s often neglected folk and bluegrass ancestry.

“Their ties to bluegrass were huge,” Bradley said. “I think the Grateful Dead took it to a big percentage of audiences all over the world. What you got was real in Garcia’s playing and Bob s writing. That song is so deep, so spiritually deep. From the time I was a little kid, when I first heard it, I would cry. Then I got to listening to the lyrics and really saw how they fit into a spiritual life. I’ve designated that song to be played at my funeral. I want it to be kind of my epitaph.”

Bradley emphasizes that no one needs to count on hearing “Ripple” in such a setting anytime soon. With a career that has earned her a pair of Grammy nominations as a solo artist (for 2015’s “Pocket Full of Keys”) and as a band member (for the sophomore album by the all-star female bluegrass collective Sister Sadie), Bradley plans to be an active bluegrass ambassador for years to come. But that role has also reaffirmed a few life lessons along the way.

“I feel like, in this last decade, I have really found the desire to do what I feel like we’re here to do, which is to love and be kind. Maybe walk in somebody else’s shoes just a little bit there and you might be able to help them and certainly not push them down. That’s what’s come full circle for me – knowing that those are the right things.”

Dale Ann Bradley performs at 7 p.m. March 1 at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 2590 Richmond St. in Mount Vernon. Tickets: $20, $30. Call 606-256-1000 or go to eventbrite.com.

live from berlin, it’s los lobos

Los Lobos: Conrad Lozano, Steve Berlin, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas.

What sound or reflection is revealed when you think of Los Lobos?

Is it the fervent roots-driven rock ‘n’ roll behind the “How Will the Wolf Survive?” album that broke the East Los Angeles band through to a national audience in 1984? Maybe it was the cover of the 1958 Latin-fortified Richie Valens hit “La Bamba” that Los Lobos made a radio staple again in 1987. Perhaps you picture the band’s love of Latin-based music, from Mexican folk tunes to fully realized cumbias and Tex Mex romps. Then again it could be the electric fare it gleefully warps with a discreet dash of psychedelia.

Truth to tell, it’s a little of all that, coupled with a band spirit that has the three-time Grammy-winning Los Lobos still running with its original membership intact and a sense of musical diplomacy that makes its myriad stylistic preferences work within one massively expansive ensemble sound.

“I’d like to think everybody feels like they have ownership and input,” said Los Lobos keyboardist and saxophonist Steve Berlin. “I know I do. That’s one way to keep things alive, where nobody gets upset about not having their voice heard. It’s always been a very collegial atmosphere. Nobody in Los Lobos gets persnickety about ownership. That’s one way to keep a band together for so long.

Berlin is, in essence, the “new guy” in Los Lobos with an affiliation of a mere 35 years. He co-produced the band’s first two major label recordings, the 1983 EP “…And a Time to Dance” and the aforementioned “How Will the Wolf Survive?” with a then little known T Bone Burnett, becoming a full-time band member with David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Louie Perez in 1984.

“It was definitely an adjustment on a lot of levels,” Berlin said of joining. “I had never played any Latin music at all, so there was a little bit of a learning curve. But that was the fun part. I got to open and enter a world I knew very little of that became the story of the rest of my life.”

With the exception of a few auxiliary changes in the drum seat, which was vacated when Perez switched from percussion to guitar in the early ‘90s, the Los Lobos roster has not changed since Berlin came on board. Its music, however, has bloomed in numerous directions. While “La Bamba” may remain at the core of the band’s commercial appeal, its recording catalogue has been critically lauded through the years, especially on comparatively recent albums like 2010’s “Tin Can Trust” and its most recent work, 2015’s “Gates of Gold.”

“I’m proud of everything,” Berlin said of Los Lobos’ album output. “We’ve kept a pretty high standard of quality through the years. There are always ups and downs, as there are with anything, but I feel very good about what we do. I can’t say I spend a lot of time listening to our records, but I’ll be someplace and somebody will put one on and I’ll think to myself, ‘That sounds pretty good.’”

When asked if he had a personal favorite among the recordings, Berlin cited 1996’s “Colossal Head.” It was the second of three albums co-produced in the ‘90s by Mitchell Froom and served as the band’s final release for Warner Bros. Records. Los Lobos came into recording sessions after composing an exhaustive amount of music for the soundtrack to the 1995 Robert Rodriguez film “Desperado.”

“We were empty,” Berlin said. “We didn’t really have any material because of the way Robert makes movies. For an hour-and-a-half long movie, he wants three hours of music. I’m not kidding. That’s just the way he likes to operate. He effectively sucked us dry, so we were in the recording studio with nothing. No songs. No ideas. David said, and I remember this very clearly, ‘Well, what would (blues legend) Jimmy Reed do?’ And we just kind of went from there. That whole record was about little riffs that turned into something without really thinking about it. We were responding to the moment.”

For its current tour, Los Lobos is presenting a career overview of sorts. Through the years, it has toured as either an electric unit centered largely on rock and psychedelic leaning music or as an acoustic group with heavier focus on Latin roots inspirations. Since last fall, it has been designing concert sets that offer both.

“We still rock pretty hard when the situation demands it and keep things quiet when the situation calls for that. I think for a bunch of guys in their 60s, we do pretty well.”

Los Lobos performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 28 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $30-$65. Call 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com.

in performance: dierks bentley/jon pardi/tenille townes/hot country knights

Dierks Bentley. Photo by Jim Wright.

Perhaps the most concise way of summarizing Dierks Bentley’s return concert to Rupp Arena on Thursday evening is by viewing it as a set of before and after portraits.

The “before” image was the least telling of the two. It came at the stroke of 7 p.m. when the country star donned a mullet wig, ‘80s style shades and a bit of an amateur hour/lounge lizard stage persona. Here, Bentley transformed himself into the hapless Doug Douglasson, lead singer of a cover band called Hot Country Knights with a repertoire that stuck to ‘90s era country hits like Travis Tritt’s “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and Sawyer Brown’s “Some Girls Do.”

What transpired was fun and very purposeful deconstruction with Bentley… er, Douglasson… and pals squabbling for the spotlight and high-stepping through some imploding chorus line choreography. It was half Louvin Brothers and half Marx Brothers, but mostly an intriguing (and quite rare) glimpse of a country celebrity willing to let loose and poke fun at himself.

The “after” shot arrived at 9:30 when Bentley, sans the hijinks and costuming, got down to business with an energetic set that emphasized the anthemic and affirmative lyrical bent of his last five albums.

The show-opening “Burning Man” set the mood with layers of syncopated ensemble might, a tasteful vocal roar from Bentley and orchestral guitar color from Brownsville native Ben Helson that would regularly propel much of the program’s drive.

At times, Bentley and his band allowed the lyrical sway of his narratives to trigger some of the show’s more intriguing instrumental passages, as with the brief but arresting bluegrass-esque breakdown that concluded “The Mountain.” In other instances, the lyrics triggered conversational turns in Bentley’s singing, especially during the back-to-back affirmations “Living” (his newest single) and “Riser.”

That’s not to say these “after” images didn’t loosen things up at times. “Am I Only One,” in fact, was sung with Bentley walking the length of the arena floor, slapping hands with some of the 5,200 fans on hand, while enroute to a second stage late into the show. The party material didn’t slide into country convention, save for “Somewhere on a Beach,” a weirdly conciliatory nod to Kenny Chesney-like pop. Other than that, the mullet-wearing class clown and the affirmative yet assertive country star managed an impressive balancing act.

Sandwiched between Bentley’s sets were performances by California singer Jon Pardi and Canadian newcomer Tenille Townes.

Pardi had a rough night. His performance was fine – a strong slab of electric honky tonk tunes (“Night Shift,” “Paycheck” and the new “Heartache Medicine”) highlighted by an assured, if not entirely distinctive vocal command. Musically, it was a more focused and traditionally accented outing than Pardi’s opening set for Miranda Lambert a year ago at Rupp. But onstage sound problems, which did not seem evident from the audience, got the better of the singer, causing him to tear out his ear monitors, blast the set as “probably the worst performance of the tour” (an estimation he later rescinded and apologized for) and even halt his show momentarily.

Townes took to Rupp with a big beat and even bigger bell bottoms for the electric “White Horse.” Her brief set reflected a voice that sounded more the product of ‘90s alternative pop than contemporary country (think Blind Melon had it come from Nashville). But the mix was appealing nonetheless, from the good-natured cheer of “I’m Gonna Find You” and “Where You Are” to the cautious professions of faith revealed within the eulogy of “Jersey on the Wall.” “If I ever get to heaven,” Townes sang in the latter tune, “I got a long list of questions.”

grammy post mortem 2019

Alicia Keys and Michelle Obama at the Grammy Awards, Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Unlike the Grammy Awards, we know how to keep a lid on things. We have limited our annual post mortem of the three-and-a-half plus hour televised carnival to 10 vital takeaways. Here is what it all boiled down to for The Musical Box.

+ Michelle Obama may just have been biggest pop star of the night. As part of an entourage that included Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett Smith and show host Alicia Keys, the former first lady barely got five words out on a reflection of Motown music before the crowd went wild, sending the Grammys’ assertion of female star power into the stratosphere.

+ After Camila Cabello began the ceremony with a multi-story dance-pop block party version of “Havana,” Kacey Musgraves brought the Grammys back to earth with a stunning and sparse reading of “Rainbows” accompanied only by piano that proved a complete antithesis of the usual Grammy glitz. The mood didn’t last. The show quickly shifted to a performance of Janelle Monae’s Prince-meets-Kraftwerk blowout of “Make Me Feel.”

+ Non-rapping rapper Post Malone continued to confound as a song stylist, opening with a solo acoustic reading of “Stay” before turning to the dance-pop groove of “Rockstar” as he seemed to wander through the illuminated bowels of the Staples Center. He eventually resurfaced to jam with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with Anthony Keidis looking a lot like that creepy actor from “Manos, Hands of Fate”) on “Dark Necessities.” Though a sloppy summit with no one coming off as a Caruso, it was nonetheless a fun genre-bashing mash up.

+ Anna Kendrick introduced a salute to Dolly Parton that included the Divine Ms. Dolly singing Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” with Maren Morris and Miley Cyrus (with the lyric about “getting high” glaringly whited out), a capable duet exchange with Cyrus on “Jolene” and an anthemic take on “Red Shoes” with Little Big Town where Parton’s vocals agelessly soared. The highlight, though, was watching Kacey Musgraves make musical mincemeat out of an ill-prepared/ill-matched Katy Perry during “Here You Come Again” before Parton joined in to take full ownership of her own tribute.

+ Sure, it would have great to have Kentucky’s own Chris Stapleton walk off with Country Album of the Year for the third time, but you will get no argument from me in handing the trophy over to the great Kacey Musgraves for the second time. In an age where country has shamelessly strayed further than ever from its homegrown roots, Musgraves, for “Golden Hour,” now rejoins a list of Grammy winning country album winners that includes Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Sturgill Simpson. The Album of the Year win was the real surprise, especially to Musgraves. It didn’t take a lip reader to decipher her on-camera reaction: “What? What? What?”

+ Alicia Keys was already in the running for Coolest Grammy Host Ever, but she fully earned the title with an ambitious performance overview that used the dual piano playing of the late (and shamefully blacklisted) Hazel Scott as an inspiration. From there, she offered a hit parade that went from Scott Joplin to Roberta Flack to Nat King Cole to Lauryn Hill to Jay Z and more. Effortless and stunning.

+ Who would have expected the most to-the-bone assessment of the music business and the Grammys themselves to come from Drake? After winning Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan,” he delivered an eloquent but pointed dismissal of awards and high profile accolades. “If you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown, if there are people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain and the snow, spending hard earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this. You’ve already won.” The Grammys responded by immediately cutting to a commercial.

+ Introduced by her nine year old grandson, Diana Ross remained a way-larger-than-life presence during a medley of two songs that spanned nearly 25 years of her post-Supremes solo career – “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch.” It was hardly a spotless vocal exhibition and the run of motivational banter that wound up with the singer wishing herself a happy birthday (she turns 75 next month) grew tiresome. But you expected subtlety from the still uproarious Ms. Ross?

+ Hard to fully grasp Lady Gaga’s performance of “Shallow.” It’s a killer song that lit the rock and soul fuse of “A Star is Born.” Here, she backed up the song’s potency with a vocal command few could have imagined when her career began to gain traction nearly a decade ago. So why all the histrionics and posing in a performance that, visually, bordered on the cliched? In a perhaps unanticipated manner, what you saw wasn’t necessarily what you got. Then again, that’s always been the way with Gaga?

+ Also choosing to de-glam from the Grammys was Brandi Carlile. She let the potency of “The Joke” speak through the lean drive of her band and projections of the song’s chorus lyrics onto a screen behind her. But the key to this prayer for marginalized souls was that voice – that booming, clear vocal bravado that Carlile sent to the moon and back by the song’s conclusion. In recent pop history, only k.d. lang has displayed anything that can match it. Carlile may have even outdistanced her.

in performance: steep canyon rangers/eric bolander

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left, Nicky Sanders, Barrett Smith, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Mike Ashworth and Graham Sharp. Photo by Sandlin Gaither.

It was with no small degree of irony that the Steep Canyon Rangers began their highly engaging performance last night at Manchester Music Hall with their two newest members going it alone – namely, drummer Mike Ashworth and bassist Barrett Smith. The rhythm section initiated a subtle groove that brought the rest of the Grammy winning North Carolina bluegrass troupe to the stage, turning the resulting momentum into the rhythmic sway of “Stand and Deliver.”

Wait a minute. Bluegrass bands have rhythm sections? Well sure, just not normally ones anchored by drums, as was the case with the continually evolving Rangers. Over the course of a one hour, 45-minute set, Ashworth didn’t simply embellish the grassy textures that more expected string instrumentation gave to tunes like “As I Go” and the encore finale of “The Speed We’re Traveling.” He also set up a driving jam (quickly commandeered by mandolinist Mike Guggino) during “Let Me Out of This Town,” provided Fairport Convention-esque Celtic propulsion under fiddler Nicky Sanders on “Take the Wheel” (where Smith took a guest turn on lead vocals) and dug in for a drum solo underscored by mandolin that eventually enlisted all of the Rangers for a giddy percussion romp.

While Ashworth’s prominence (augmented by his solid harmony singing throughout the performance) represented the biggest stylistic leap the Rangers have taken since their last Lexington visit in 2014, the rest of the show relied on essentials, like the juggling of lead vocal duties between guitarist Woody Platt and banjoist/songsmith Graham Sharp. Platt was at home with the easy country lyricism of “When She Was Mine” and a nicely relaxed cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” while Sharp employed more conversationally smoky vocal colors for “Simple at Me.”

All of these elements converged during the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love” that placed the train whistle fiddling of Sanders, the joint vocals of Platt and Sharp and some wild ensemble dynamics that gave the music an almost respiratory rhythm within a single bluegrass statement that both bowed to tradition and dashed madly away from it.

Local hero Eric Bolander opened the evening with a very appealing 50-minute trio set that utilized cellist Seth Murphy and drummer/harmony vocalist Ben Caldwell for an Americana mix that placed restless folk confessions within Southern fried frameworks. What resulted were songs like “The Road, “Fly” and the new “Montgomery Hill” that were rustic, rootsy and often elegant.

the modern tales of steep canyon rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left: Michael Ashworth, Graham Sharp, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Nicky Sanders and Barrett Smith. Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither.

During the recording of their most recent album, “Out in the Open,” the Steep Canyon Rangers played around a single microphone in much the same way a traditional bluegrass band would have 50 or 60 years ago.

That might not seem like earth shattering news save for the fact the Grammy winning North Carolina sextet – lead vocalist/guitarist Woody Platt, banjoist/vocalist Graham Sharp, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, bassist Barrett Smith and percussionist Michael Ashworth – isn’t exactly what one would call traditional. It encompasses an Americana blend that reaches generously but respectfully outside the bluegrass norm. The string band instrumentation is scholarly and confident enough to still be viewed as bluegrass, but the songs – many of which are penned from within the band – possess an almost vintage folk and country inspiration that harkens back to such songwriting stylists as Gene Clark and Vern Gosdin. The Rangers’ appeal, however, has proven inviting enough to forge an unlikely alliance with comedian/actor Steve Martin that has served as a second career of sorts over the past decade.

“We grew up in an area where there was a lot of mountain music and old-time music,” said Platt, who will perform with the Rangers on Saturday at Manchester Music Hall. “I don’t think any of us really absorbed a ton of that or got really focused on it until we were in college, but it was around. There was a square dance every Thursday night right across the street from our house with a bluegrass band, but each member of our band comes from a non-bluegrass background, meaning saxophone players, choir singers and drummers.

“We were sort of a melting pot of influences and I think that comes through in our music. There was a time when we dove into traditional bluegrass head first. Now we’ve been around and have evolved naturally so everybody’s other musical interests and influences are creeping into our version of what I still like to call bluegrass.”

Making the traditional approach to recording the decidedly non-traditional “Out in the Open” all the more curious was the band’s choice of producer – Joe Henry. In addition to his own immensely atmospheric recordings, the veteran song stylist has produced records for such far-ranging artists as Rodney Crowell, Hugh Laurie, Ani DiFranco, Bettye LaVette, Joan Baez, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.

“We walked into the studio and there’s this guy immaculately dressed with this sharp hat on,” Platt said. “He just immediately set the vibe for a cool, laid back but kind of spiritual approach to making a record. It was never overbearing. He taught us a lot about how he viewed recording. It’s hard to explain until you experience making a record with Joe how impactful he can be without being overly pushy. There was such an easy way about him that really set the mood.”

Cementing the Rangers’ appeal outside of bluegrass circles has been the ongoing partnership with Martin, which has included numerous recordings and performances in front of amphitheater and arena audiences that might have otherwise never heard the band – or, for that matter, bluegrass music.

“I think all bands hope for a break in their careers,” Platt said. “What that may be is a certain song, a certain show or a certain collaboration with a different artist. I never saw one of the biggest breaks we would have coming from a movie star/comedian. It’s kind of bizarre, but it was natural from day one. We played one little jam with Steve and 10 years later we’ve never stopped talking about music.

“People may have gone to see Steve who weren’t bluegrass fans. They were just fans of his career and him. Then all of a sudden, he’s playing bluegrass with the Rangers. We’ve seen that help us when we’ve gone back to those markets. People have come to our shows and said, ‘I saw you with Steve.’ So that’s been a really great thing. Also, just working with Steve and watching him work a crowd and play a big show. That’s given us a ton of great stage experience that we’ve been able to carry into our shows.”

Ahead for the Rangers in 2019 will be a retrospective album of material re-recorded with the Asheville Symphony, continued work on a record of new music and ongoing stage work with Martin and fellow comedian Martin Short.

“There is potential when you’re getting close to the end of your second decade as a band to sit back and coast. I feel we’re more focused now than we’ve ever been. It’s an exciting time for the Rangers.”

Steep Canyon Rangers perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $21-$36. Call 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com.

cincinnati’s bunbury music festival announces 2019 lineup with fall out boy, greta van fleet as headliners

Greta Van Fleet will be one of the just-announced headliners at this year’s Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati. From left, Josh Kiska, Jake Kiska, Danny Wagner and Sam Kiszka. Photo by Travis Shinn/courtesy of the artist.

Just when you thought winter was at its worst, along comes the lineup for the first major regional music festival of the summer.

Fall Out Boy, Greta Van Fleet, The 1975, Girl Talk and Run the Jewels will be the headline acts at the eighth Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati. Set to run May 31 through June 2, the event will again be held at Sawyer Point and Yeatman’s Cove along the Ohio River.

While Fall Out Boy and The 1975 are both returnees (having played Bunbury in 2014 and 2017, respectively), this will be the festival debut for band-of-the-moment Greta Van Fleet, the Michigan quartet led by brothers Josh, Jake and Sam Kiszka that has received considerable attention (and a far amount of criticism) for sounding eerily like Led Zeppelin. The band has received four nominations, including one for Best New Artist, at next week’s Grammy Awards.

This year’s Bunbury Music Festival will also include performances by NF, Machine Gun Kelly, Awolnation, Stone Temple Pilots, Sublime with Rome, Dashboard Confessional, Clutch, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Lovelytheband, Blue October, Bayside, Streetlight Manifesto, The Aces, Poppy, Joywave, Jeremy Zucker, Jukebox the Ghost, Flora Cash, Reignwolf, Witt Lowry, Lauren Sanderson, The Clarks, Shaed, Halfnoise, Great Good Fine Ok, The Blue Stones, The Candescents, Common Kings, Bülow, Tropidelic, You vs Yesterday, Taylor Janzen, Radattack, The Orphan The Poet and more.

While specific performance schedules will be announced at a later date, general admission weekend tickets are already on sale for $189 along with several, more expensive VIP packages. For more information, go to bunburyfestival.com.

the southern roots of the marcus king band strengthen

The Marcus King Band, From left: Jack Ryan (drums), Dean Mitchell (saxophone), DeShawn Alexander (keyboards), Marcus King (guitar), Stephen Campbell (bass) and Justin Johnson (trumpet/trombone). Photo by David McClister.

Marcus King recalled some advice received in his youth. It came from his father, a noted South Carolina guitarist and the third of four generational representatives of Southern roots music within his family. It might have dealt with music, it might have spoken to something larger, but the younger King took it to heart.

“Growing up in a musical family, I learned certain situations to look out for,” King said. “Find the right people that will do right by you and it can really be a beautiful thing. People like my father, he told me to be on my toes. And that’s a good way to be.”

For King, a stunning blues and soul stylist, guitarist, vocalist and bandleader who at age 22 has a become highly heralded roots music ambassador, that meant surrounding himself with a band that brings to mind the brassy warmth of Muscle Shoals soul, the churchy reverence of Southern gospel and a roaring guitar sound, matched by an equally gritty vocal might, that places him in the higher ranks of a new generation rock and roots movement.

But on his new “Carolina Confessions” album, that meant bringing another A-league player onto his team – producer Dave Cobb, whose seemingly omnipresent role in modern Americana music and more has placed him in the company of such Southern mavericks as Jason Isbell as well as a series of masterful Kentucky-bred artists led by Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and, more recently, Dillon Carmichael.

“Dave has a really good ear for songwriting and for what is going to play well,” King said. “What Dave keeps in mind is the overall flow of a record. He has these really cool studio tricks that I don’t want to get into too much. I don’t want to give out the secret recipe, but Dave just knows how to work with a band. It’s not about just looking at an artist, myself, with hired guns. He treats us equally as a group, which is how we like it. That’s what we want. He pushed everybody.

“Some members (of the band) liked that more than others, but Dave Cobb and I really hit it off. He’s become a dear friend of mine. He really helped use the studio as another voice on the record.”

Of course, having Cobb’s production home, the famed RCA famed Studio A in Nashville, didn’t hurt in the creation of “Carolina Confessions” (“As soon as we walked in, we felt there were a lot of friendly spirits in the room”). Mostly, though, Cobb helped fulfill King’s mission for the record – to create music that emphasized songwriting over King’s proven forcefulness as a guitarist and singer. In doing so, what emerged was more of an ensemble sound that underscored the tasteful orchestration of hornmen Justin Johnson and Dean Mitchell along with the sleek organ colors of DeShawn Alexander. More than King’s three previous albums and EP discs, “Carolina Confessions” was truly the work of the Marcus King Band, not just King himself.

“I don’t know if it was a conscious decision as much as just an organic happening along with the recording process,” King said. “We wanted to focus a bit more on songwriting and composition. That’s what we wanted on this record to highlight for the band. The other records focused a little bit more on musicianship and just the rawness of the sound. But on this one, we wanted to focus more on the songs. By doing that, I think we showcased the musicianship of the band as a whole. That allowed us to show our strength in working together on a common goal.”

The new album continues the traction created by a very fruitful touring year in 2018 that saw the King Band being invited as a guest for Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheel of Soul Tour during the summer. That collaboration almost seemed inevitable, as co-leader and guitarist Derek Trucks, now 39, began gaining national notice, as did King, during his teen years.

“The thing with somebody like Derek isn’t so much about any direct advice he gives. It’s more about the stories he tells. I look at Derek like an older brother. You listen closely enough to these heroes, these legends, talking about their career and you can hear the lessons that are being taught. Those are the kinds of people I’ve always been drawn to.

“I don’t like direct orders being sent my way. That’s never really been my bag. People that I’ve become good friends with, like Derek, those people just have good stories to tell. If you listen close enough, you pick up a lot of life advice and musical advice. It’s all right there.”

The Marcus King Band and Magnolia Boulevard perform at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester Music Hall. Tickets: $12, $15. Call 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com.

rayland baxter find inspiration in unexpected kentucky retreat

Rayland Baxter. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Seeking solace and sanctuary in some form of geographical retreat is nothing new for artists. For centuries, many have created some of their most lasting works in remote and even foreign settings away from the masses. The locales could be as plush as an oceanside villa or as isolated as a country cottage.

Rayland Baxter found his in Kentucky, but it’s not the kind of retreat you might expect a song stylist still in the early stages of his career to find inspiring. After all, how enticing would you think an abandoned rubber band factory near the Kentucky/Tennessee border might be?

For five months, the Nashville-based songwriter used one in the Simpson County city of Franklin to compose nearly all of the music on his third album, “Wide Awake.” The record brings the more contemplative alt-country soundscapes and storylines of his first two albums into broader, power-pop territory. Given how cheery much of “Wide Awake” wound up sounding, the Southern Kentucky factory dwelling must have been accommodating.

“A friend of mine lives in Franklin,” said Baxter, who performs Jan. 24 at The Burl. “He had a place that was once this rubber band factory. He was like, ‘Hey, Ray. I hear you’re looking for a place to live for awhile and write. I’ve got a place that I’d like for you to come up and check out.’ So I checked it out. It was free. It was quiet. It was perfect. It was in the wintertime, so I didn’t know how long I was going to stay out there, but I got up there and it became like my bird’s nest. I could do everything I needed to do. I could keep to myself. This was from the end of October 2016 to early February 2017.

“I wanted to write tight songs. There are a million different ways to say ‘I love you,’ a million different ways to describe the wind blowing through the trees and a trillion bazillion different ways to look at the world and yourself. So I just wanted to keep on doing what I thought felt natural. I wanted to write nice melodies and some words I would never get sick of singing. That was it. That was the objective.”

To get the full effect of Baxter’s stylistic expansion on “Wide Awake,” start at the finish line with the quiet morning affirmation of “Let It All Go, Man.” Then let the album rewind to its opening track, “Strange American Dream,” which typifies the record’s more pop-inclined disposition. Lyrically, the songs are like kin. Musically, they travel more diverging stylistic trails.

“That all just happened in the studio, really. I wrote some pop forms on the guitar. For everybody that was in the studio, that was just what came together. It’s what everybody decided to play in support of the song. I mean, Butch Walker (the producer for “Wide Awake” who has overseen albums for Weezer, Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco) is a pop guy, but he’s got grit. He’s got this cabin-in-the-woods kind of thing about him. I don’t know. I have no other explanation for it other than every time we were done tracking, we liked what happened. It was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool, that’s it.’ Also, it’s just the third album, you know? They’ll be more.”

Helping Baxter out on pedal steel guitar during the sessions was an esteemed musical vet – his father, Bucky Baxter. The elder Baxter played extensively with Bob Dylan during the ‘90s and was a frequent visitor to Lexington during the late ‘80s as a member of Steve Earle’s band, the Dukes.

“Well, he’s a part of my project of life,” the younger Baxter said of his dad. “But I’m really his project, I guess. He’s been on every album of mine. He played on ‘Feathers & Fishhooks’ (his 2012 debut album), ‘Imaginary Man’ (the 2015 follow-up) and this new one.

“He tried to get out of it, too. He was like, ‘Oh, Ray, I’m not really well rehearsed. You should call Lloyd Green (now 81, who has recorded with everyone from Johnny Cash to Paul McCartney). Here’s his number. That was great, too. But my dad had to play on this record. I mean, he’s my dad. It’s a dream situation. I’m beyond fortunate to have his opinion about music.”

Rayland Baxter/Illiterate Light performs at 8 p.m. Jan 24 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.

Tickets are $15, $18 at theburlky.com.

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