in performance: festival of the bluegrass (sunday)

Dry Branch Fire Squad. From left: Brian Aldridge, Jeff Byrd, Tom Boyd and Ron Thomason.

Taking in the Sunday session of the Festival of the Bluegrass is akin to watching a circus leave town. What you face upon entering the Kentucky Horse Park is a mass exodus with buses pulling out, camp sites breaking down and the main stage/big top, which had been alive with the sounds of Town Mountain a mere nine hours earlier, entering its final stages of dismantlement.
But tucked away under a tent at the opposite end of the field remains the festival’s last order of performance business – a three act gospel program headlined by Dry Branch Fire Squad. In many ways, this is the antithesis of the entire four day event – a presentation built around intimacy and music that, when it works, reverts to a pre-bluegrass string sound that wears its spiritual cast devoutly but with refreshingly minimal fanfare.
Therein sits the rustic and unfussy magic Dry Branch chieftain Ron Thomason creates every year, including his quietly but profoundly moving set from this morning that completed the festival. Dry Branch’s music remained steeped in rural, roots-driven songs and spirituals that didn’t call attention to themselves any more than the band’s antique harmonizing or Thomason’s Will Rogers-level storytelling did. As a result, what was delivered was a set scholarly in its understanding of gospel, bluegrass and, frankly, humanity, but also unspoiled to a degree that highlighted the music’s inherent timelessness.
You heard it with the understated turbulence of “50 Miles of Elbow Room” and “Jesus on the Mainline” that simply would not have translated on the festival’s already-vanished mainstage. It was evident in the effortless, familial quartet harmonies that illuminated the sadly relevant “You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor.” It also percolated in the turns Thomason took on mandolin, guitar and banjo.
As always, Thomason delighted as a raconteur. He related his storytelling to sermonizing, but none of his tales were terribly moralistic and certainly weren’t judgmental. In fact, two of the hour-long set’s most dramatic passages came from stories that had nothing to do with Sunday worship.
The first dealt with the final moments he shared with an aged show horse (Thomason is a veteran horseman as well as musician) before it was to be euthanized. The other was a performance of “He’s Coming to Us Dead,” a highlight also of past Dry Branch shows, that was performed solo on banjo. With roots that go back to the Spanish-American War, the song details the return of a soldier to his family at a train depot. But the title reveals the true nature of the homecoming.
Both instances moved Thomason and several patrons to tears. What resulted, though, wasn’t any sort of emotional manipulation, but rather a human reaction that was subtle, honest and endearing – as was all of Dry Branch’s sublime performance.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass (saturday)

Town Mountain. From left: Zach Smith, Jesse Langlais, Bobby Britt, Robert Greer and Phil Barker. Photo by Sandlin Gaither.

Which acts took top honors last night at the Festival of the Bluegrass? Why, the same ones that have been headlining the event’s Saturday evening slots for decades.

The festival’s reigning kings of Saturday night remain the members of Town Mountain, the Asheville, North Carolina troupe that inherited headlining status three years ago. Though the band plays locally, usually in rock clubs, once or twice during the year, the festival is where Town Mountain’s continued artistic and performance growth is best revealed. That was certainly the case last night.

Much of its late evening set leaned heavily on new material from the forthcoming “New Freedom Blues” album due out in October. But what fascinated most was how the songs placed into renewed focus already familiar strengths. Case in point was guitarist/vocalist Robert Greer. What “Witch Trials in Arizona” and “Lazy River” brought out were elements of traditional high lonesome color in his singing mixed with a winding, country vigor that enforced the song’s storylines. These qualities have always been there, but last night’s performance, together with the fresh compositions, strongly underscored them.

Then there was the general clarity and taste that the rest of the band brought to the set, especially fiddler Bobby Britt, the chief engineer of Town Mountain’s instrumental drive both in his own dizzying solos and in the more subtle colors he supplied under the leads of older music like the band’s popular cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”

The other Saturday night special was The Seldom Scene, the band that bequeathed headlining status to Town Mountain. With roots to the festival that are longer than the tenures of all the band’s current members, it’s easy to dismiss The Seldom Scene as being a bit long in the tooth. To be honest, some of the band’s sets at the festival over the years have been. Not so, last night. Fortified by new banjoist/fiddler Ron Stewart (whose many previous credits include an extended stay with JD Crowe and the New South), the Scene sailed through an early evening set highlighted by the giddy waltz within “Through the Bottom of the Glass” and the show opening blues of “Muddy Waters” (tunes that reach back to the band’s mid ‘70s catalog) as well as a starkly dramatic reading of Merle Travis’ coal mining requiem “Dark as a Dungeon” by guitarist/vocalist Dudley Connell that, amazingly, had some audience members dancing.

The highlight in a set that continually honored the past without succumbing to it was the 1974 instrumental “Appalachian Rain” that Stewart played as a light, spacious bit of darting blues dedicated to the tune’s composer, the now-retired founding Scene banjoist Ben Eldridge.

The acts before and between the two Saturday chieftains were opposites of each other in style, intent and delivery.

Staunch traditionalist Larry Sparks proudly championed bluegrass’ gospel and country heritage during a late afternoon set. “I don’t have to change,” he told the crowd, referencing a 50-plus year career that began during the final years of the Stanley Brothers. “And I won’t.”

With that, Sparks’ strong-as-oak tenor singing ignited “New Highway” and bolstered the a capella “I Don’t Regret a Mile,” both title tunes to late career gospel albums that revealed an unwavering resilience to contemporary intrusion. Ditto for Sparks’ country-esque hit “John Deere Tractor” and the wildfire instrumental “Katie Hill” that illuminated the giddy stride of his Lonesome Ramblers band.

The odd act out was Nashville’s Hogslop String Band, which played between Seldom Scene and Town Mountain. Versed as a square dance group and promoted as an old-time string band, the quartet seemed in search of a sort of primitive traditionalism that groups like Old Crow Medicine Show have efficiently adopted in recent decades.

There was an obvious disconnect in presenting that mission last night, however. Clawhammer banjoist Daniel Binkley and especially fiddler Kevin Martin were up for that challenge, offering an earnest, edgy drive to tunes like “Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia” and “Greasy Coat.” But Casey “Pickle” McBride, who played the single-string washtub bass, spent much of his stage time boasting of his inebriated state, which seemed to, at times, understandably perturb his bandmates. “Boy, you’re making a fool of yourself,” remarked guitarist/vocalist Gabriel Kelley at one point. Yes, he was.

In an evening dominated by artful and decisive bluegrass command, this set was amateur hour.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass (friday)

The Cleverlys. Clockwise from top left: DVD Cleverly, Cub Cleverly, Sock Cleverly, Ricky Lloyd and Digger Cleverly.

You got the sense the kids staged a takeover as the Festival of the Bluegrass’ Friday night lineup got underway at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. That’s an exaggeration, of course. But with usual Friday headliners Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out unable to take part this year, the festival took the almost radical step of allowing a local band to top the bill – not just that, but a still somewhat-young troupe with strong regional and mounting national followings.

The band is question last night was The Wooks, the Central Kentucky string outfit with myriad inspirations, many of which were placed on full performance display. Though the Wooks have been recording with former JD Crowe protégé Rickey Wasson in Clay City of late, much of its set was devoted to its still-popular and progressively-minded debut album “Little Circles.” The fare shifted from the brisk sweep of “Out of Mine” (which set the pace for much of the performance) to the woozier, waltz-inclined sway of “County Girl” to a cover of “Atlantic City” that owed more to The Band’s mandolin-driven 1993 version than to Bruce Springsteen’s somber 1982 original.

Fortified by the instrumental drive of its two newest members, mandolinist Harry Clark and banjoist George Wagman, the Wooks began previewing new music in the middle of the set through tunes geared alternately to jam-style accessibility and traditional finesse.

The Wooks still lean heavily on cover tunes to flesh out their sets. Last night, some worked better than others. The traditionally inclined “Down the Road” (a staple of Wasson’s tenure with Crowe) and a spirited take on John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream” fit nicely within the band’s cross-generational matrix. But a few Grateful Dead-leaning works – in particular, “Franklin’s Tower” – seemed a little static aside from a durable vocal lead by bassist Roddy Puckett. Though still a young band, The Wooks have matured well past the point of having to rely on such overly familiar jam band staples to flesh out setlists.

Before that was one of the festival’s all-time great curiosities, the Arkansas pseudo-family band known as The Cleverlys. The quintet that continually referred to itself as a trio was, on many levels, a comedy act that translated contemporary pop, rock and even hip hop tunes into bluegrass excursions. As an example of its irreverence, The Cleverlys opened the set with an instrumental that revealed considerable chops among all five members followed by a brief, choral-style salute to Bill Monroe. Then the band jumped off the stylistic cliff by playing “Gangnam Style” complete with Korean verses and beatbox-style percussion.

In the 90 minutes that followed, The Cleverlys provided string band reworkings of the Blackstreet/Dr. Dre mashup “No Diggity,” Yes’ 1983 comeback hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and Beck’s ‘90s moodpiece “Loser.” Curiously, guitarist/frontman Digger Cleverly led the band through a straight-faced version of Herb Pedersen’s “Wait a Minute,” a tune long ago adopted as a performance centerpiece by The Seldom Scene.

“You must have been starved for that,” Cleverly remarked after the song concluded without jokes or a drastic stylistic makeover. “Especially after all that junk we’ve been playing.”

The elders had their say when the evening began with the return of Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time. The Lawrence County native, making his first festival appearance in nearly two decades, went right for the narrative jugular of bluegrass – meaning he sang a lot of songs about death. There was plaintive and poetic death (“Where the Mountain Lillies Grow”), remorseful death that even spiritual salvation can’t redeem (“Pud Marcum’s Hangin’”), the metaphorical death of traditional country music (“Murder on Music Row”) and, at its most extreme, the death of a chicken destined for a skillet (“Yardbird”).

While much of his material – and, at times, delivery – generously leaned to country as much as bluegrass, Cordle proved an amiable and open frontman, whether he was delivering the hapless road reverie “Highway 40 Blues” or celebrating string music’s communal disposition with the new “Bluegrass Junction.” Both were light, inviting works highlighted by sterling dobro playing from Kim Gardner that pulled Cordle and company above the levels of murderous elegance that inhabit many of his songs like dinner guests.

in performance: jerry douglas

Jerry Douglas.

“It’s funny to be playing here,” remarked Jerry Douglas from the roof of the Kentucky Castle last night just as the first hints of sunset appeared beyond the battlement-style walls. “I mean, I’ve been driving past this place all my life.”

The 14-time Grammy winner and long acknowledged pioneer of the resonator guitar known as the dobro, Douglas knows the Castle for the mythic property it has long been recognized as, having lived in Lexington in the mid 1970s as a member of JD Crowe and the New South. Coincidentally, he drove by it again exactly one week ago while en route to visit his parents in West Virginia. His longtime friend, John McEuen, would kickoff Concerts in the Castle series there in a matter of hours, but during Douglas’s afternoon drive-by, rainstorms had reached tempest level.
The McEuen concert prevailed, but Douglas’ show last night was the first in the series to utilize the Castle’s roof. With not a storm cloud in sight, a sold out crowd before him and a summer sun slowly setting stage right of where he playing, the initiation of the region’s grandest and most unlikely concert venue was complete.

To that end, Douglas did not disappoint. A cornerstone player in a fruitful new grass music generation during the ‘70s and ‘80s, longtime member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, leader of the scholarly Flatt & Scruggs tribute troupe The Earls of Leicester, frontman for a fusion-flavored band that bears his name and a session musician on countless recordings, the well journeyed Douglas played last night alone. Armed with a lone dobro, he dug into an astonishing array of compositions that touched upon elements of traditional bluegrass and Americana, shifting the repertoire between his own sterling instrumental compositions and an array of covers that touched on works by Leadbelly, Chick Corea, Paul Simon and Tom Waits.

He interspersed the 90 minute program with stories that reflected a sense of wry and aloof humor, including a tale that outlined his embarrassment over a Leo Kottke-like melody that briefly erupted out the otherwise reflective “A Peaceful Return.” Pulled from one of his most underrated albums (1989’s “Plant Early”), the tune largely encapsulated the charm of Douglas’s playing. It presented a lyricism reflective of new grass’ at-times pastoral spirit interspersed with instances where the music’s simmering tension couldn’t help but explode.

The same thing happened during a medley of tunes that grew out of Flatt & Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Rock.” The playing adhered to the kind of traditionalism that distinguishes the Earls of Leicester. But at several instances, the winding turns in Douglas’ wiry slide playing seemed to grab hold of notes before shaking them vigorously. You could practically see the reverberations emanating from the music.

During the title tune to his 2017 album “What If,” performed as sunset was in full glory at the Castle, the more progressive ingenuity of Douglas’ playing was placed front and center. On record, the composition is orchestrated by horns, fiddle and a rhythm section. On his own, the dobro weaved its way and out of a series of loop-style arpeggios that created an almost Philip Glass-like effect.

Everything came to rest in a medley of Paul Simon’s “An American Tune,” which underscored the most tranquil phrasing within Douglas’ playing, and Chick Corea’s “Spain,” which revisited the rhythmic jazz playfulness that ignited Douglas’ pioneering music decades ago.

And the setting? Just lovely. Though sold out, the performance maintained an inviting sense of intimacy. And the sound? Remarkably crisp, especially for an open air setting.

As with last week’s McEuen concert (which was held under a tent at ground level due to the inclement weather), those attending seemed as much enamored with the Castle’s atmosphere than the artist playing there. Sure, there were plenty of bluegrass stalwarts on hand familiar with Douglas’ connection to the music and his place within that music’s legacy. But there also were many who seemed to be taking in the concert purely as a social activity. And that’s fine, because more than a few of them left seemingly (and, in all likelihood, unexpectedly) taken by the music they had experienced.

“Is he a rock star?” one patron commented to another upon exiting.

Yes, ma’am, he is. Jerry Douglas is a rock star fit for a Castle.

in performance: tim mcgraw and faith hill/caitlyn smith

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

“I don’t talk much,” said Faith Hill after the first round of last night’s cosmopolitan country summit at Rupp Arena with hitmaker husband Tim McGraw.

Ever the dutiful partner, McGraw offered a quick reply to the contrary that we can’t reprint here.

Ah, love among the country royals. It’s not what you think, and neither was the couple’s two hour Soul 2 Soul concert before a crowd of 9,500. If you expected this to be an evening of love dovey duets and complimentary crooning, you were likely disheartened. McGraw and Hill represented musical styles that are almost purposely incompatible. More than that, they played to those differences, whether their duets danced upon the brink of breakup (as in the angst heavy “Angry All the Time”), presented the singers with their backs to each other (the 2006 hit “Like We Never Loved At All”) or maintained a strict man-up demeanor (the 2017 hit “Speak to a Girl”).

More to the point, half of the program had the two artists performing separately. Collaborative sections opened and closed the evening but extended solo sets were placed in between. What we learned from the couple’s alone time was this:

Hill, at age 50, still possessed astonishing vocal power along with the will (and, perhaps, need) to show it off. That suited the anthemic stance of songs like “The Way You Love Me,” “Free” and “Stronger.” There was little, if anything, that could viewed as country in all of this, as witnessed by her take on “Piece of My Heart,” the soul manifesto that served as successive hits for Erma Franklin and Janis Joplin in the late ‘60s. Such vocal firepower also left little room for subtlety (the pure pop confection “This Kiss” was about as calm as things got). But for sheer performance and vocal stamina, the years have done nothing to diminish the artist Hill’s husband introduced only as “Mrs. McGraw” and “my wife.”

Mr. McGraw, 51, was far more easygoing onstage and fueled by a stronger, more defined country muse. He wasn’t half the singer Hill was, but the reedy tone of his voice equally suited the ultra-modern honky tonk gusto of “Real Good Man,” the breezier sway of “Shotgun Rider” and the worldly affirmations “Humble and Kind” and “Live Like You Were Dying.” McGraw’s performance was also loose enough to insert an impromptu acoustic cover of “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a 1988 hit by his “favorite Kentucky singer” Keith Whitley, into an otherwise regimented and choreographed set.

The show came with considerable high tech pomp, as well, that played out mostly through lights, lasers and video displays. So it was refreshing to see McGraw and Hill venture separately into the crowd – during “Mississippi Girl” for her and “Something Like That” for him – as closing time approaced. How nice, after all the pageantry, to find country royalty middling amid the minions.

The evening opened with a vastly less established country couple. Minnesota songwriter Caitlyn Smith offered an appealing half-hour, six-song set with husband Rollie Gaalswyk shunning the spotlight on rhythm guitar. Probably a wise move. Smith’s performance revealed commanding dynamics, from the slow and spacious “Before You Called Me Baby” to the giddier rumble of “Contact High.” Topping that was a potent vocal wail that sounded like a rootsier version of what Hill unleashed later in the show. An impressive outing.

in performance: john mceuen

John McEuen.

“I’ve never played a castle before,” remarked John McEuen, as a twilight mercifully free from the storms that pounded Lexington and Versailles throughout the day, settled in over the Kentucky Castle. “It’s kinda fun.”
Yeah, it kinda was. The acclaimed banjoist best known for his extended tenures in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (he left the group for the second time in December), offered a loose fitting career retrospective that used his fish-out-of-water profile of a string music stylist from Southern California playing in the heart of the Bluegrass as a focal point.

McEuen established his traditional music credentials at the onset of the two hour performance, running through a swift solo banjo medley of the instrumentals “Soldier’s Joy,” “Arkansas Traveler” and “Turkey in the Straw,” coloring their familiar melodies with an antique air that made them sound even more old-timey in design and demeanor than they already were.

That led to introductions of three backing musicians, two of which were fellow Nitty Gritty Dirt Band alums – bassist Les Thompson (a founding member who departed in 1973) and guitarist/mandolinist John Cable (a brief inductee from when the group was known simply as the Dirt Band in the late ‘70s). The other, the extremely animated guitarist, vocalist and mandola player Matt Cartsonis, has recording and/or touring credits with Warren Zevon, Steve Martin and the Austin Lounge Lizards.

It was tough to gauge just how familiar the near-capacity audience was with McEuen’s work. Case in point: He was met with unexpected crowd quiet when he brought up the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s breakthrough 1970 country/bluegrass/rock mash-up album “Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy.” Everyone bolted to attention, though, when McEuen played the record’s hit cover of “Mr. Bojangles.”

There were numerous career twists and turns which then took McEuen to guitar, mandolin and even fiddle. While McEuen’s occasional turns at lead vocals were serviceable as best (Cartsonis and Cable rightly handled the lion’s share of the singing), his musicianship never short of scholarly – from the beefy banjo tone and wicked tuning turns navigated within the Earl Scruggs staple “Earl’s Breakdown” to the more progressive mix of waltz and jazz phrasing that propelled “Acoustic Traveler,” one of several tunes played from McEuen’s newest recording, 2016’s “Made in Brooklyn.”

But the show-stealer in this kickoff to a performance series aptly titled “Concerts at the Castle,” was – no surprise – the Kentucky Castle itself. Last night, the stage, artist and audience were all situated under a huge tent to keep out rains that finally ceased a few hours before showtime, so getting a full sense of venue’s splendor was difficult (although it helped fashion the set-closing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” into a literal tent revival). Still, for those (myself included) catching their first glimpse of this almost mythic Central Kentucky property from the inside, the setting proved functional, spacious and majestic.

The day’s storms also kept the concert from bring staged, as was initially planned, on the castle’s main roof. But the silver lining in presenting it at ground level held, aside from the safety factor, was a view that was subtle but quite magical. What the audience saw behind the stage was the castle’s battlement-style wall – specifically, the other side of the wall that has faced Versailles Road, enchanting and often perplexing passers by for nearly 50 years.

Last night, the wall’s main gate was open, music poured forth and the rains retreated. All was right in the kingdom.

in performance: triptych

Triptych. From left, Matt Ulery, Zach Brock and Jon Deitemyer.

The definition of a triptych is an alliance of three artistic parts linked for a common purpose or vision. That explains perhaps how any jazz trio operates, but it is understandably true for Triptych, the band Lexington violinist Zach Brock has designed with bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Jon Deitemyer. Of course, there is a common, unified voice at work here. But judging by its late set last night at Tee Dee’s Lounge, there is nothing obvious about the music that voice constructs.

In other words, Triptych doesn’t operate as a standard bop-inspired jazz unit, although there were fragments of that sound within the trio’s expansive musical vocabulary. Overall, though, Triptych sounded more restless than that.

For the Ulery tune “Cavendish,” that meant utilizing a skittish, mischievous melody that would regularly shift tempos and rhythms the way a vintage Dave Brubeck composition might. On Brock’s “Cryface,” a tune that took its unlikely inspiration from the facial contortions actress Claire Danes summoned to express strife on the TV series “Homeland,” it meant juggling an accessible, almost fusion-esque melody with improvisational passages that included a largely free intro from Brock and, later, playful sparring between the violinist and Ulery.

An almost impromptu cover of Clifford Brown’s “Sandu,” however, began with a touch of indecision – as in, an extended onstage conference between the three players as to what tune was actually going to be played. The piece’s attractive blues sway eventually settled in, but not before some engaging instrumental free-for-alls gave the formulating rhythms a brutish, almost Monk-ish feel.

What was arguably the highlight in a continually engaging set was Deitemyer’s “Cheyenne,” a work that dialed back the ensemble sound for more wistful, lyrical glides colored by Brock’s pizzicato plucking on violin and the subtle blues fabric Ulery and Deitemyer created as a duo.

Triptych heads into the studio next week to cut the original tunes from this set, the concluding performance in the inaugural season of the Origins Jazz Series. It will be interesting to hear how such an arsenal of rhythmic ideas will transfer to the more ordered documentation of a recording. My bet is the music will still rock the joint.

in performance: mavis staples

Mavis Staples.

Mavis Staples isn’t one for letting an opportunity pass her by.

During one of the few moments where she was able to catch her breath during a show rich with revivalistic vigor last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the Grammy-winning gospel/soul vocalist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee gave the audience a gentle verbal nudge to the merchandise table, knowing that Mother’s Day was just a few hours away.

“Y’all can shop for mama right here.”

Judging by the often rapturous sounds that surrounded the 80 minute performance, however, Staples had no need to hawk anything to do with her music. If you didn’t sense the soul and spirit in a show like this, then, brother, you are lost.

The concert was divided between classics Staples sang with her esteemed family band The Staple Singers decades ago and works from her solo career – specifically, tunes from several recent Jeff Tweedy-produced albums.

In short order, though, it was almost beside the point where the material originated. In Staples’ hands, everything became a source of ageless, gospel-esque joy. At 78, she recognizes the limits of her still-potent vocal range, which gave a sagely but soulful cast to Staples Singers classics like “Come Go With Me,” a contemporary affirmation like Benjamin Booker’s “Take Us Back,” Tweedy’s more ominous “Who Told You That” and, in the setlist’s wildest extreme, Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” whose underlying spiritual cast became bluntly obvious within Staples’ rueful delivery.

But the clear highlight was “Freedom Highway,” the Staples Singers tune that served as an anthem of sorts during the civil rights movement. It was hard to tell which was more chilling – Staples’ ageless vocal might that roared regally over the lean groove of an instrumental trio and two backup vocalists or the story and subsequent tent revival testimony she summoned after the song’s completion. In plain speaking detail, she described not only how she and her father and siblings were jailed for their participation in the era-defining Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery, but her family’s way of coping with the crisis.

“We’d go to jail, get out and start all over again.” Amen to that.

in performance: todd rundgren’s utopia

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. From left, Todd Rundgren, Willie Wilcox and Kasim Sulton. Photo by Danny O’Connor.

Three songs into a tireless performance with his band Utopia last night at Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre, Todd Rundgren congratulated the audience for surviving what he called “The Blizzard.” In strictly non- meteorological terms, he was referring to the program’s first half hour of music, a set that revisited his prog days of roughly 45 years ago.

It was a stunning segment, too – a triad consisting of “Utopia Theme” (which stretched on for a good 15 minutes through layers of synthesized and percussive frenzy as well as Rundgren’s scholarly power chords and soloing on guitar), an edited instrumental version of “The Ikon” and the anthemic “Another Life.” This was as complex and daring a set of tunes as Rundgren, in his 50 years as a touring artist, has ever presented onstage. The fact that he approached the works, both vocally and instrumentally with such ageless vigor (he turns 70 next month) was something of a triumph and marked, right from the onset, this performance as a winner.

It was a challenging winner, mind you, especially for those who know Rundgren only through his smattering of pop hits that reached rock radio during the ‘70s. But it was a winner notwithstanding.

Just as Rundgren is a stylist with multiple profiles, so is Utopia – a band that, outside from a few brief reunion runs, has been dormant since 1986. In its initial guise, billed as “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia,” it was a thrillseeking prog-pop brigade that extended the synthesized rock its leader paraded on one of many creative zeniths – 1973’s “A Wizard, A True Star” album. But the later band, billed simply as Utopia, was a more democratically inclined quartet that shed the complexities of the former lineup in favor of straight up power pop. This tour unites the latter lineup of Rundgren, bassist/vocalist Kasim Sulton and drummer/vocalist Willie Wilcox with new recruit Gil Assaya serving as an 11th hour replacement on keyboards for Ralph Schuckett (who was sidelined due to health reasons).

But here’s the curious part. This Utopia lineup is the first to extensively explore the repertoire of both bands. As such, after “The Blizzard” medley settled, so did the band into an array of simpler pop fare that shuffled vocals duties between Rundgren, Sulton and Wilcox. In the end, this Utopian gang covered tunes from nine of the band’s ten albums (1980’s “Deface the Music” was the only exclusion).

That meant tackling a fair amount of obscurities, like 1977’s “Communion with the Sun,” which was essentially a bridge between Utopia’s prog and pop camps, as well as intriguing covers that were staples of the earlier Utopia’s mid ‘70s shows (The Move’s “Do Ya” and, oddly enough, the “West Side Story” affirmation “Something’s Coming”).

It was all efficiently and energetically performed. Sulton and Wilcox held up their vocal ends easily on “Set Me Free” and “Princess of the Universe,” respectively, while rookie Assaya proved an expert pinch hitter, neatly executing the near symphonic keyboard lines created by Shuckett and Roger Powell but appearing very much at ease alongside the Utopian vets.

In the end, though, this was Rundgren’s show and not just because the band reverted back to its “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia” billing for this tour. As a guitarist, his playing remains remarkably urgent, whether it was through the elemental riffs he rifled out during “Hammer in My Heart” or the soaring (but way too brief) solo coda applied to “Just One Victory” that concluded the performance. And as referenced earlier, his vocals revealed remarkably little wear from the years. They were still buoyant enough to make a pop confection like “Love is the Answer” sound rich and purposeful and aggressive enough to propel the most elemental of rock offerings, such as the joyous, post-punk flavored “Love in Action.”

It was, in short, a program that offered the best of two Utopias – dual images of a band that remains an integral ambassador from Rundgren’s spacious pop cosmos.

in performance: steve earle and the dukes

Steve Earle.

After winding up the anthemic, pop-savvy sway of “Waiting for You” earlier tonight at Renfro Valley, Steve Earle shook his head, beamed a grin and offered a remark that was tantamount to an apology.

“It was the ‘80s.”

Why the self effacement for one of his own works let alone one of his performances? It might have been that the long forgotten song was one of the 10 compositions that made up “Copperhead Road,” Earle’s 1988 breakthrough album. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the record’s release, he devoted the first half of the concert to a complete performance of the album. That meant digging into the lesser known nuggets – the “chick tunes,” as Earle dismissively described them. But with the electric flexibility possessed by the current lineup of his longrunning Dukes band, Earle turned an exercise in nostalgic appeal into an expansive overview of how his storied career began connecting with a major audiences outside the country spectrum.

The five tunes constituting the album’s first side were, as Earle suggested, stronger. It offered haunting remembrances of Reagan-ism in the country carny yarn “Snake Oil” along with grim glimpses of a country just coming to grips with the post-Vietnam era. The popular title tune, which began the album and tonight’s performance, connected as much for its drug-smuggling danger element as for its more desperate, but humanistic profile of a Vietnam vet on the edge. More effective, though, was the less obvious “Johnny Come Lately,” with its Celtic mandolin/accordion jig delivery.

Earle offered insightful stories to go with the tunes, as well, including a reference to Irish upstarts The Pogues (which played on the recorded version of “Johnny Come Lately”). Color me skeptical, but my guess is this was the one and only time the band will ever get a shout out on a Renfro Valley stage. Another story, oddly enough, explained how the Oak Ridge Boys were the Nashville force largely responsible for getting Earle the recording contract that created career defining albums like “Copperhead Road.”

The rest of the program steered closer to the present with a setlist that boasted the similarly jig-worthy “The Galway Girl,” a heavily traditional country duet with Eleanor Whitmore of the The Mastersons (who served as members of The Dukes as well as the show’s fine opening act) on “I’m Still in Love With You” and a quartet of tunes from last years “So You Wannabe An Outlaw.” The latter concluded with the brooding electric doomsday call of “Fixin’ to Die,” which, in turn, bled into an equally foreboding, but highly faithful cover of “Hey Joe.”

Funny. Such a dark conclusion to the concert brought Earle and the Dukes back to the mean streets they know so well. Three decades on, they still can’t stay away from Copperhead Road.

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