critic’s picks 242: mike auldridge, jerry douglas and rob ickes, ‘three bells’ ; the earls of leicester, ‘the earls of leicester’

three bellsOn his own, Jerry Douglas has revolutionized the repertoire of the wiry resonator guitar known as the dobro, taking the resulting music down unexpected jazz and Americana side roads.

But within a band or collaborative context, the one-time Lexingtonian has favored the instrument’s most familiar setting – bluegrass. Of course, it helps that two of his most visible affiliations – a groundbreaking ‘70s stay with JD Crowe and the New South and his current tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station – have approached bluegrass with the same expansive thinking in terms of style and direction that Douglas has brought to the dobro.

Two simultaneously released new Douglas-led recordings explore such stylistic extremes. Three Bells is a summit with two other dobro journeymen, Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes. The self-titled debut of The Earls of Leicester, as the title perhaps doesn’t immediately imply, embraces the bluegrass legacy of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

Three Bells is something of a destiny record, one with an urgency underscored by the fact that Auldridge was battling cancer during the 2012 recording sessions. He died three months after their conclusion.

There is no rhythm section or additional accompaniment of any kind on the record’s 11 tracks. On paper, that might seem like a static game plan, but Three Bells exudes all kinds of rich, acoustic color.

The opening cover of Silver Threads Among the Gold is beautifully conversational in its casual tradeoff of lead melodies and subtle, percussive rhythms while The Three Bells, a 1959 country hit for The Browns with roots that stem to Edith Piaf and the Andrews Sisters, possesses pining instrumental harmony full of light, efficient expression.

earls of leicesterThe Earls of Leicester, on the other hand, stands as one of the most traditionally minded adventures of Douglas’ largely progressive career. A cross-generational band made up of Douglas contemporaries (mandolinist Tim O’Brien, Union Station bandmate/bassist Barry Bales, fiddler Johnny Warren), a distinguished elder (veteran Nashville banjoist Charlie Cushman) and a youthful frontman (guitarist/vocalist Shawn Camp), the Earls freshen 14 staples from the Flatt & Scruggs canon, from the robust dobro/vocal holler of Big Black Train that opens out into banjo-led merriment to the gorgeous gospel eulogy of the album-closing Who Will Sing For Me.

Two dobro spirits pervade these records. Auldridge obviously guides Three Bells with a quiet desire for widening the instrument’s stylistic scope, a skill long mirrored in the solo recordings of Douglas and Ickes. What an outstanding victory lap this album is for such a mammoth career.

On The Earls of Leicester, the silent pilot is the late Josh Graves, the dobro giant that drove Flatt & Scruggs’ greatest records and served as Douglas’ foremost formative influence. How epic it is to hear Graves’ royal inspiration edging on such dutiful subjects.

in performance: chris thile and edgar meyer

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chris thile (left) and edgar meyer.

How telling, really, can a song title be? In the case of the wonderfully crafted concert by Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, the answer would have to be a resounding “not much.” Given the largely genre-less nature of their repertoire, naming a composition seemed as debilitating as restricting the resulting music to a specific style or mood.

But that’s not to say there wasn’t fun to be had with the whole titling process. When introducing I’ll Remember For You, a piece of warm, wintry intimacy, a reference was made to the tune’s presence on the duo’s new Bass & Mandolin album, a record named for the instruments Meyer and Thile have long held virtuosic command over. The joke, however, was that I’ll Remember For You diverted the two to piano and guitar, respectively.

Then there was Tuesday, a piece filled with dizzying string runs, bits of freer exchanges that allowed the players to stylistically butt heads before opening out into more lyrical dialogue and a captivating double bass coda from Meyer. Thile noted the irony in playing a piece called Tuesday on a Wednesday night. Meyer added that both evenings are essentially the same, making the Tuesday title seem “a little more reminiscent.”

Finally, there was a new work built around a feathery blues/jazz exchange that broke off into grassy mandolin dashes and emotive bowed bass colors before the tune’s full lyrical thrust accelerated like a locomotive. Thile let the Norton Center shout out title suggestions after the music concluded. The winning entry – for the night, at least – was Land Dolphin.

Such onstage mischief with titles also pointed the way to an inherent performance playfulness in the bass/mandolin (and more) music of Meyer and Thile.

Sometimes, such animation was subtle, as in the show opening Why Only One? There, the music began with a mandolin melody that danced about like a ballet before bowed bass stepped like a fussy parent to give earthy punctuation to the dialogue

But on This is the Pig, the music became almost slapstick with a giddy barnyard groove that bloomed into the kind of friendly musical fire than only develops when such askew kindred spirits collide.

bass talk with edgar meyer

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edgar meyer (left) and chris thile.

The day after his current duo tour with Chris Thile kicked off in Vancouver, Edgar Meyer is hesitant about giving himself a favorable review.

“I should have played a little better,” he said in a phone interview after the tour moved on to Seattle. “But the people were nice.”

Such a perfectionist’s appraisal perhaps befits a musician of Meyer’s considerable standing. An acknowledged virtuoso of the double bass, he is recognized as one of the primary instrumentalists to discover common ground between bluegrass and classical worlds. Such a description, though, marginalizes his artistic achievements, which include collaborations with such similarly minded string players as Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor as well as recordings that have placed him alongside the versed Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, the acclaimed crossover cellist Yo-Yo Ma and, on a 2000 album, himself by arranging a series of Bach cello concertos for the double bass.

His collaboration with mandolinist Thile seems to be a going concern, however. They began playing together 15 years ago and released their second album of duets, Bass & Mandolin, earlier this month. The title cuts to the chase of their music’s instrumental makeup even though it leaves the door open for exactly what stylistic direction that music will take. Meyer credits Thile, 20 years his junior and possessed with a similar bluegrass-bred dexterity and blindingly deft musicianship, for expanding the already considerable stylistic reach of their playing.

“Chris might as well be my teacher,” Meyer said. “I learn from everything he does. He is a person of unique and very unusual ability. He is very thorough, and he’s always looking around the corner to see what’s possible. I learn from him every day. That’s a lot of the fun of it.”

Bass & Mandolin comes just a year after a national tour the two players engaged in as part of a multi-stylistic string ensemble called The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan and vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. The group, which released a self-titled album in 2011, continued a chamber-like variation of Americana music that earned Meyer a Grammy Award for the 2000 recording Appalachian Journey (with Ma and O’Connor).

“Things with Chris are very defined just by having a bass and mandolin,” Meyer said. “We enjoyed the collaboration with Yo-Yo, Stuart and Aoife. So Chris and I talked about bringing a couple of elements that were more from that project, the biggest difference being some of the lyricism. I’m not sure we necessarily achieved that. I think we were still being very much ourselves.”

When asked who of the two might favor such lyricism on Bass & Mandolin, the same critic that gave Meyer such a non-congratulatory appraisal for the previous night’s concert re-emerges.

“Chris brings a lot of that. I don’t know if my nature does.”

What Meyer does experience in his duo music with Thile is an expansion of the genre-free musical expression that has fortified much of his career. While the resulting instrumentation may touch on bluegrass, classical, jazz and more, the intention is never to be stylistically specific.

“This is the way music evolves,” Meyer said. “Once all these different elements of music are in your brain, they don’t want to stay in their own little room. They want to get in there and talk to each other. Chris and I find that type of thing to be inevitable and natural, not that there isn’t value in things that are more traditionally, or otherwise, defined.

“Take bluegrass, for instance. People look at that as something sacred. The irony of that is when Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs defined bluegrass, they were mashing a lot of stuff together. So at the very moment all these things are real sacred cows, the music itself becomes fundamentally a fusion.

“I’m just pointing that out because this is a natural process. There is always tension – and you hope there is tension – between trying to hang on to certain elements and also trying to let the music move forward, recombine and redefine. If there is no tension, there is no interest.”

Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer perform at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

blues from the mud

For Pops - Mud and Kim hi-res by Sam Holden

kim wilson and mud morganfield. photo by sam holden.

That the late blooming blues singer Mud Morganfield would be asked to record a tribute album to father McKinley Morganfield, better known as the Delta/Chicago roots music pioneer Muddy Waters, would seem inevitable. Adding the harmonica talents of Fabulous Thunderbirds founder and frontman Kim Wilson, an avowed Waters disciple, seemed a cinch to heighten the authenticity of such a project.

But For Pops (A Tribute to Muddy Waters) is actually the end result of an unexpected collaboration and an equally unlikely career.

To start with, Morganfield shared little of his youth in the company of his father and didn’t professionally pursue an inherent love of blues music until 2005. As for teaming with Wilson, that was done exclusively for the tribute album. The two barely knew each other before recording sessions began.

Still, For Pops sounds like the work of seasoned blues pros that have been playing together for years. The link between Morganfield’s booming, bass-heavy singing and Wilson’s effortlessly soulful blues harp work can’t help but recall the champion recordings Waters cut decades ago with harmonica great James Cotton.

The catalyst for the project was David Earl of the indie blues label Severn Records, which issued Morganfield’s Son of the 7th Son album as well as the Thunderbirds’ On the Verge.

“What would have been my dad’s 100th birthday was coming up,” Morganfield said. “Dave made phone calls to different people because Kim and I were both on the same label – his label. They asked us to hook up and do something. We had met each other on the road. But these recording sessions were really the first chance we had to talk. We became great friends.”

There were two keys to making For Pops sound pure and robustly blue. The first was the song selection. Morganfield wanted to avoid a simple recitation of warhorse Waters tunes like Hoochie Coochie Man, Got My Mojo Working and Mannish Boy in favor of a slightly less obvious repertoire. As a result, For Pops mixes a few familiar gems (Trouble No More), several underappreciated classics (most notably, a fervent take of Blow Wind Blow) and some comparative obscurities (My Dog Can’t Bark).

“The songs were a combination of choices by me, Kim and Dave Earl,” Morganfield said. “We would try to stay away from Mojo and Hoochie Coochie Man, that kind of stuff. People have done it a million times. We were just trying to get down to the nitty gritty Delta blues sound that pop did.

“Just for the record, I saw my father very little growing up. I was at an early age when he and my mother broke up. I mean, pop was a great dad as far as taking care of me financially. But I didn’t study much of his stuff back then. As a matter of fact, every song on the album I sung off a sheet in front of me. Didn’t even know the lyrics to them. I just sang them as the band played the songs, so it’s as real and raw as you can get.”

For Pops is also an exploration of the link between Delta-based vocals and the harmonica sounds that have long supported them. That was what brought Morganfield and Wilson together in the first place, but it also served as a point of discovery for the singer when it came to his father’s music.

“For a lot of years, I could never figure out why my dad loved Little Walter, James Cotton and all those great harp players so much,” Morganfield said. “It took me quite a long time to understand that if you don’t have harp player, the music is not really traditional blues.

“You could put all the horns in there you like. But if you don’t have a harp player, man, you just don’t got no blues.”

Mud Morganfield and Kim Wilson perform for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at 6:45 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Also appearing will be Angaleena Presley. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 252-8888, (859) 280-2218.

mouthing off

smashmouth

smash mouth: michael klooster, steve harwell and paul de lisle.

In the years leading up to the late ‘90s popularity of its radio hits Walkin’ on the Sun and All Star, Smash Mouth could have been any kind of band it chose to be. That’s because the California troupe had already given a test drive to nearly every pop sound under the sun it was soon to be walking on.

“The original lineup really was four very different personalities,” said bassist and co-founder Paul De Lisle. “Everyone played the way that they played and it worked. You can’t predict chemistry, I guess.

“Steve (Harwell, Smash Mouth’s vocalist and frontman), he listens to country music. But when he was in high school, he listened to modern rock. But he’s kind of an alternative rocker, too. He’s a real serious music fan. He just likes what he likes. Same with me, too. Now, dealing with the different influences does come into play. You put a band together and go, ‘Okay, I’ve got three of the hottest musicians out there.’ But then one of them is a jerk. Then another isn’t working out in a different situation.’ You never know. But for the four of us at the very beginning, it just clicked. None of us were that great by ourselves. But together, it just worked. There was that intangible thing going on, you know?”

Of course, it could also be said the time was right for an unapologetically fun performance pack like Smash Mouth when its double platinum debut album Fush Yu Mang was released during the summer of 1997.

“The ‘90s was such a wide open time,” De Lisle said. “Nirvana kind of opened the floodgates. That wasn’t just for punk rock bands, either, because grunge bands were essentially like pop-punk bands. But that was the case for alternative music, in general. There was the whole ska-punk thing going on, too. It was like anything was alternative.

“That whole era was great for us because it was also a song oriented time for radio. That was our thing. For us, it all came down to songs. There were always labels – alternative this, grunge that. But the reason Nirvana was great wasn’t because they were a grunge band. It’s that their songs were better than everyone else’s. It was the songs. Period.

“Our whole goal was to remain song oriented. We were trying to write hit songs that were pop songs. That was the craft we’re trying for, but it was a hard thing to do. We were trying to write songs people would like but that we also liked. Our record collections growing up were filled with punk rock, but it was more the pop-punk stuff. We always liked bands like the Buzzcocks more than, say, the Sex Pistols. We were just always song oriented. We didn’t want to jam. We just wanted to write good songs.”

Roughly a dozen musicians, most of them guitarists and drummers, have entered and exited the Smash Mouth ranks since the band formed in 1994. While keyboardist and 17 year member Michael Klooster along with two comparatively recent recruits – guitarist Sean Hurwitz and drummer Jason Sutter – round out the band’s current lineup, Harwell and De Lisle have been with Smash Mouth for its entire 20 year history.

“Steve and I are like brothers,” De Lisle said. “The other day we were in this restaurant. I can’t even remember what we were talking about. But the waitress came up and said, ‘You guys are either brothers or have known each other a long time.’

“We talk like an old married couple. We bicker at each other. There are times I just want to ring his neck, but I love the dude. We’re really good friends. Always have been.”

Smash Mouth performs at 8 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

in performance: turtle island quartet with nellie mckay

tiq plus nellie

turtle island quartet plus one: mateusz smoczynski, david balakrishnan, nellie mckay, mark summer and benjamin von gutzeit.

“Nothing says ‘Jamaica’ like a string quartet,” remarked a giddy Nellie McKay last night at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort before diving into a reggae uprising called Carribean Time.

Perhaps not. Then again, when the ensemble by your side is the Turtle Island Quartet, a troupe that came across equally last night as a chamber, swing and world music troupe, such stylistic non-sequiturs seemed almost routine. Over the course of two 45 minute sets, these two already multi-directional acts matched wits to create a program full of wildly disparate pop fusion.

For Turtle Island, the instrumentation of a traditional string quartet became an open playing field full of bright jazz expression, as in the show opening Windspan, a tune penned by Yellowjackets saxophonist Bob Mintzer. Similarly arresting was the lighter swing of John Carisi’s Israel, where cellist Mark Summer plucked his instrument with the solemnity and groove of a double bass. But the quartet’s main attraction was violinist David Balakrishnan’s Guruvayoor, where an Eastern-leaning drone sprang to life as a vibrant dance piece that balanced chamber and Celtic accents. All three tunes are featured on TIQ’s upcoming album Confetti Man

McKay was the pop scholar – a song stylist capable of bracing original work, as shown by two very different second set affirmations, Beneath the Underdog and Mother of Pearl. The skies opened after that with McKay channeling the likes of Loretta Lynn (the hapless maternal anthem One’s on the Way) and Billie Holiday (through a lullaby-like reading Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans).

When the co-billed artists played together the boundaries were blurred even further and the traditions grew more askew. McKay didn’t prove to be a technically dazzling singer, but the strong emotive sway of her vocals and the general cabaret-like demeanor of her delivery were heightened considerably by the quartet’s support, whether it was through the dance hall tipsiness of Kurt Weill’s Alabama Song, another beautifully elegiac nod to Holiday with I Cover the Waterfront and the playful Marlene Dietrich vamping during Black Market.

But on the show closing cover of I Remember You, McKay’s vocal and piano work seemed to emerge like a frail spirit from the shadows of the strings before disappearing back into them with a sense of subtle but elegant mystery.

critic’s pick 241: john coltrane, ‘offering’

coltrane offeringOne enters into the wondrous new archival recording Offering with John Coltrane already at work. That’s the way the jazz titan’s music could often make you feel – like you were arriving late.

The saxophonist starts in an instant – before, in fact, the recording engineers begin to roll tape. There is no intro, no warm-up, no easing in of intent. The music begins full blown with 16 minutes of Naima rushing in like an ocean at low tide. Coltrane’s tenor solo hardly takes a breath for five-and-a-half glorious minutes then disappears under an extended exchange between pianist (and wife) Alice Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali. He returns in the final minutes for the only reading of the piece’s hymn-like theme, which is played as a brief coda.

Though a vital protégé throughout the performance that follows, Coltrane’s tenor sax partner in crime Pharoah Sanders sits Naima out. Can you blame him?

Offering has been available in bite-sized, bootlegged forms for years. But this new release presents us with the entire 90 minute set. Recorded on a Friday evening in a half-empty Mitten Hall at Temple University in November 1966 (eight months before Coltrane’s death at age 40), Offering is presented as less of a jazz concert and more of a spiritual affirmation.

A 26 minute reading of the 1964 ballad Crescent emphasizes, in somewhat fractured fashion, the full strengths of this unique ensemble. The warm glow of Coltrane’s tenor sax lead briefly states the tune’s luscious melody before surrendering to a scorched earth solo by Sanders. Then a subsequent piano excursion by Alice Coltrane, presented with a lighter variation of the modal mischief summoned years earlier in Coltrane’s quartet by McCoy Tyner, invites four guest percussionists to the spiritual rumble.

But the stuff of legend here is Leo. Opening with a seemingly traditional, boppish run, the music becomes so combustible Coltrane actually sings in a wordless, relenting wail that seems to strive for the notes his horn can’t reach or articulate.

There are sonic limitations to Offering’s source material. As the performance was set up with enough microphones to suit a primitive radio broadcast and not a fully produced recording that would surface nearly half a century later, the sound mix heavily favors whatever soloist was at hand. You can readily hear instruments being quickly amped up and faded out manually. That means guest bassist Sonny Johnson is all but lost outside of his contemplative solo at the onset of My Favorite Things.

But when the mighty Coltrane gains the spotlight with that spectacular tenor tone, you can practically sense the steam rising from the music. That makes Offering an exquisite remembrance of a jazz colossus conversing with the spirits. His language is his own, but all are invited to share in the rapture that ensues.

return to turtle island

Turtle-Island-Quartet

turtle island quartet, from left: david balakrishnan, mateusz smoczynski, mark summer and benjamin von gutzeit.

About seven years ago, the genre-busting Turtle Island String Quartet dropped the “String” from its name. It was perhaps an incidental detail to some. The lineup still adhered to the requisite string quartet instrumentation of cello, viola and two violins. But after nearly three decades of journeying though bebop, swing, bluegrass, folk, Euro-classical, Indian classical and a handful of other musical styles and strategies, the time came to remind the world Turtle Island was anything but a conventional string ensemble.

“Because of the way the group is constructed, a string quartet with four members equally grounded in jazz improvisation and classical technique, you’re automatically dealing with musicians who are rebels,” said TIQ violinist and founder David Balakrishnan. “We’re talking about rebels in the sense they are doing something unique with their instruments.”

Underscoring that notion was the first album released under the modified TIQ moniker, 2007’s A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane – a baker’s dozen of tunes

penned or popularized by the legendary saxophonist. Among them is the entirety of Coltrane’s immortal A Love Supreme album and shorter psalm-like pieces such as the gorgeous Naima. The later was first recorded by Turtle Island for its sophomore album Metropolis in 1989. Ironically, the year also marked one of the last times the quartet performed in Central Kentucky. Its long overdue return comes Tuesday with a collaborative concert featuring pop-cabaret songsmith Nellie McKay at the Grand Theater in Frankfort.

“We try to make a point about music in the 21st century,” said Balakrishnan. “We’re saying you can have a group like Turtle Island playing in a string quartet covering this range of stylistic material that is trying to find its own identity inside of that. But the music also tells a story beyond the elements of those styles.”

With those varying styles takes has been a roster of equally diverse TIQ collaborators. The list includes guitar great Leo Kottke, Cuban jazz clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, jazz pianist Kenny Barron, the Manhattan Transfer and the Parsons Dance Company. McKay is an intriguing addition to the club. A songwriter of exacting wit and emotive clarity, she also possesses a scholarly command of song traditions that stretch from Loretta Lynn to Ella Fitzgerald.

“You know, string quartets… we’re pretty heady,” Balakrishnan said. “Now, Nellie goes into more of an indie-pop territory. She’s cutting more of the middle of the grain and yet she’s got that kind of ’30 s-revisited thing, as well. She’s like the second coming of Marlene Dietrich. Nellie is so into her. It’s really fun to watch. I think she probably dreams about her.”

The collaborative program TIQ and McKay will present on Tuesday, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, is fashioned after the German Weimar cabaret of the late 1920s but extends its repertoire across continents for songs by Billie Holiday and Billy Strayhorn.

The alliance will also carry over to the new TIQ album, Confetti Man, which has McKay singing a Balakrishnan arrangement of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit Send Me No Flowers (most famously recorded by Doris Day in the 1964 film of the same name).

“In some ways, Turtle Island’s game face is to prove we can solo over Coltrane tunes and survive,” Balakrishnan said. “And we really take pride in that. But Nellie is coming from a different place. There is this incredible theatrical side to her. She’s a songwriter and she’s carefully crafted how she puts all this music together in the Nellie McKay style.

“Some of the stuff I love the most is when we’re playing a chart like Send Me No Flowers. It’s a very sparse, dreamy thing. What I get from Nellie is she sounds sweet with a certain amount of sarcasm, a certain in-your-faceness that’s right below the surface.

“Nellie is such a joy to hang with. She is fresh and completely spontaneous in the way she lives and makes music.”

Turtle Island Quartet with Nellie McKay perform ‘A Flower is a Lovesome Thing’ at 7:30 p.m. Sept 23 at the Grand Theater, 308 St. Clair in Frankfort. Tickets are $30-$45. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org

in performance: the fixx

TheFixx_PressPhoto3

the fixx: dan k. brown, jamie west-oram, cy curnin, adam woods and rupert greenall.

“Prepare to be mesmerized,” said Cy Curnin early into an unexpectedly complete and vital sounding performance by The Fixx last night at the Christ the King Oktoberfest.

Normally, such a remark could be chalked up to standard rock star boasting made even more idle by the fact the veteran British pop band has been out of the commercial limelight for close to three decades. But on multiple levels, Curnin proved he and the Fixx have earned bragging rights.

The bottom line: Curnin was physically and vocally fit, the band (operating with the same lineup that became an MTV hit in the ‘80s) played with vigor and mature purpose and the sound mix was refreshingly crisp, especially for an Oktoberfest show. Add in a repertoire that balanced ‘80s radio hits (Saved by Zero, One Thing Leads to Another), deep catalog obscurities (1983’s Running, 1988’s Subterranean) and a healthy quartet of tunes from its best album in 25 years (2012’s Beautiful Friction) and you had a show that way outdistanced the usual oldies act entertainment billed for a community festival.

The sound was the real stunner, partly because the first third of the previous night’s Oktoberfest performance by the Smithereens sounded like the band was playing on a different block. But here the balance was astonishingly clean, offering decisive balance between the array of keyboard orchestrations by Rupert Greenall and the library of rhythm phrases by guitarist Jamie West-Oram. Hearing the two’s playing form a trance-like backdrop behind Curnin’s conversational vocals during the title tune to Beautiful Friction underscored the fact that the Fixx entered the into the program last night as a band that viewed its entire sound and song catalog as being completely of the moment.

Of course, it was very much the band’s ‘80s hit parade that kept Oktoberfest packed last night. Even there, surprises surfaced. Stand or Fall, the 1982 single that largely introduced The Fixx to America, was a kaleidoscope of clean guitar, keyboard and vocal colors while the encore finale of Secret Separation weaved in the chorus of the Tina Turner hit Better Be Good to Me (the 1984 single featured Curnin and West-Oram) to cap a performance that was as much an affirmation as it was pop history lesson.

in performance: the smithereens

smithereens 1

the smithereens: jim babjak, severo jornacion, dennis diken and pat dinizio.

After 34 years together, The Smithereens still wear intentions and inspirations openly. Once a tepid sound mix was readjusted last night at their Christ the King Oktoberfest performance that initially had the band sounding like it was playing a few blocks away, you got to hear exactly how openly.

The better portion of the New Jersey quartet’s 1 ¾ hour set was centered on very elemental tunes established by clever guitar hooks and adjoining pop melodies, as on the 1986 breakthrough hit Behind the Wall of Sleep (which, curiously, opened the performance) and the comparatively forgotten 1994 gem Miles from Nowhere.

From there, singer/guitarist Pat DiNizio, guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken (all founding Smithereens members) and Kenny Howes (filling in for bassist Severo Jornacion) fleshed out the music with a wealth of pop references. Some were generalized, like the power pop drive that fortified the Babjak tune One Look at You (from Smithereens 2011). Other songs with a modestly greater level of urgency and/or melancholy, like 1989’s Blue Period, possessed the sort of post-punk pop that would have been right at home on an early Elvis Costello album.

Then there were the instances where The Smithereens’ pop influences were unapologetically exact. Between 2007 and 2009, the band recorded entire album-length tributes to The Beatles and The Who. Understandably, those cornerstone acts were referenced repeatedly last night.

For example, a sometimes surf-style cover of The Who’s Tommy instrumental Sparks was placed side-by-side with one of The Smithereens’ most overlooked hook-heavy hits, House We Used to Live In from one of its most underappreciated albums (1988’s Green Thoughts). That medley led into a pair of highly faithful Beatles covers – a pop-centric reading of Please Please Me and a poetically melancholy It’s Only Love.

The show passed by other pop outposts, as well, including the dark, Doors-like bass groove that propelled Blood and Roses and the snippets of Free’s All Right Now and The Who’s Behind Blues Eyes that goosed the show-closing A Girl Like You. Such a mash-up brought an entire pop universe to the doorstep of a tried and tested Jersey band with a rock ‘n’ roll heart the size of Texas.

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