in performance: moontower music festival

Patterson Hood, left, and Mike Cooley lead Drive-By Truckers' set last night at Masterson Station Park for the Moontower Music Festival. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Patterson Hood, left, and Mike Cooley lead Drive-By Truckers’ set last night at Masterson Station Park for the Moontower Music Festival. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

The last rays of a fabulous late August sunset had just slipped away as Mike Cooley launched into “Made Up English Oceans,” kicking off a muscular co-headlining set by Drive-By Truckers for the Moontower Music Festival last night at Masterson Station Park. Alternating songs, as has always been the case with the band, with fellow guitarist and vocalist Patterson Hood, Cooley set into motion a performance that crammed assorted tales of Southern solemnity and unrest into an atypically brief hour long session. While Truckers shows are usually twice that length or more, the band wasted not a moment in showcasing their sagas of the new South and the very old sentiments that inhabit them.

Hood quickly countered “English Oceans” with a Clash-like revision of “The Righteous Path,” a portrait of sobering Southern pride (“I got a couple of big secrets I’d kill to keep hid”) before Cooley answered again with “Ramon Casiano,” a wild tale of militia men self-appointed as makeshift (and somewhat shifty) border patrol officers.

There were just a few words of greeting from Hood and a song or two that decelerated the set’s highly electric charge into more folk derived but equally restless reflection, like “The Guns of Umpqua” (one of several tunes, like “Casiano,” previewed from the Truckers’ forthcoming “American Band” album). But the set’s emotive turbulence was always in play, reaching a zenith with the show-closing “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” and its torrential guitar storm from Hood and Truckers utility man Jay Gonzalez. Then, as if with the snap of the fingers, the set was over.

Andy Hull, center, performing with Manchester Orchestra.

Andy Hull, center, performing with Manchester Orchestra.

Manchester Orchestra closed out Moontower with a sound that huge, exact and more than a little temperamental. Frontman Andy Hull actually began the set by mock-crooning the chorus of the Neil Diamond classic “Sweet Caroline,” which was part of a very odd mash-up of music played DJ-style between acts. The song could not have been less Manchester-like, despite the clarity of Hull’s high tenor vocals. But after a moment, the band’s bludgeoning sound came barreling out in the form of “Pride,” placing Manchester’s high decibel angst in motion.

As musically tight as the set was, Hull and company seemed especially loose onstage, whether it was through a curious interlude tune about baseball celeb Barry Bonds or Hull’s joking claim that the new album the band was about to begin recording sessions for was going to be “hip hop oriented.”

Those antics aside, Manchester played like a bulldozer with a massive arc of sound that propelled tunes like “Pensacola,” “Pale Black Eye” and “Everything to Nothing.” What was remarkable was how ordered the music was. This wasn’t something sloppy post punk free for all or metal head brawl, but a set of downcast rock ruminations that were as potent as they were precise.

Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, center, performing with Orleans Avenue.

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, center, performing with Orleans Avenue.

Troy Andrews, known professionally as Trombone Shorty, preceded the two headline acts with an hour of heavy rock-infused funk. While Andrews is a new generation musical ambassador of New Orleans, little of his set seemed rooted in Crescent City tradition. Instead, he opted for a highly physical crossover sound that drew upon more mainstream soul sources, like the James Brown medley of “Lose My Mind” and “Keep It Funky.”

The real magic, though, came when Andrews simply let things roll on trumpet and, of course, trombone. Original tunes like “The Craziest Things” didn’t always fan the abundant musical flames of his band, Orleans Avenue. But when the focus shifted to instrumentals, Andrews and his two-man saxophone team engaged in furious, syncopated exchanges that turned the musical gumbo at hand into a proud groove sound that was distinctly their own.

southern musings from an american band

Drive-By Truckers. From left: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Photo by Danny Clinch.

Drive-By Truckers. From left: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Photo by Danny Clinch.

It began pretty much the way any Drive-By Truckers album did. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley – the Georgia-born band’s frontmen, singers, guitarists and writers – composed a set of songs independently of each other, then discovered ahead of recording sessions how like minded their work was.

“I think ‘Southern Rock Opera’ (the troupe’s 2001 double disc opus that defined a rock ‘n’ roll vision almost defiantly removed from what had been considered Southern rock) was the only one that we actually had conversations about as far as what that album was going to be beforehand,” Cooley remarked. “Every time since then, I’m writing some stuff, Patterson is writing some stuff and we come together and wind up pretty much on the same wavelength without actually having had a conversation about it.

The Truckers’ forthcoming “American Band” album (due out Sept. 30) was no different in that sense. But what separated it from 10 preceding studio recordings was how pointedly it viewed the world outside of the South. If the band had ever created what could be called a topical record, “American Band” would claim the title.

“So much of what we have seen, not just in recent years, but over the last 20 or 30 years, the whole time we’ve been playing together, are these things that just keep happening and keep happening and nobody seems to be able to get a grip on just why or what a solution looks like. So we couldn’t help but comment on it and examine it from our own perspective and maybe try to carve out some vision of what a solution looks like, of what ‘better’ actually looks like. I don’t know if we found it or not. But it was more about trying to learn for ourselves than it was saying anything to anybody else.”

Hood’s song “What It Means” has already made selected rounds online with an easygoing musical stride but a volatile storyline torn from headlines of police killings across the country and the racial divisiveness uprooted in their wake. “We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten,” he sings. “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but the core is something rotten.”

Cooley’s songs are not no less confrontational. On “Ramon Casiano,” the national view moves to immigration-fueled paranoia and militia groups that subsist on it. Unlike “What It Means,” the music on “Ramon Casiano” is all rocking, Neil Young-like guitar grit.

“I was examining what seemed to be a whole phenomenon with these right wing militia type guys,” Cooley said. “They seem to be obsessed with the Mexican border, and that’s not just a new thing. One Saturday morning, I turned on the TV and they’re doing a story on these guys who go down to the border and take all their guns and basically pretend to be patrolling the border because the government isn’t doing it.

“It seems every time you turn around, what everybody is afraid of is coming across the Mexican border – Ebola, ISIS, you name it. I found out about this militia group in Southern California in the early 1960s that claimed to have knowledge of Chinese troops amassing on the Mexican border. So there is a long, long history of people with that mentality.”

Hood and Cooley have never been shy when speaking their minds in song, just as the Truckers have long embraced a wide-open Southern view that differs altogether from the more conservative stance adopted by many country and rock artists of the region. It’s just that on “American Band,” the songs have stated the Truckers’ attitude in a succinct and often blunt manner.

“We always do this,” Cooley said. “This is not really new territory for us, but it’s the first time that it’s been this obvious. It’s the first time it’s been on the surface. But I could go back and almost go song by song and point out what some of the same political undercurrents were in all this music from our past. It just wasn’t right out there in plain view.

But what do the Truckers’ Southern fans (and, more exactly, non-fans) think of such a stance?

“Right now the only gauge you have to go on is what people are doing on social media,” Cooley replied. “I don’t do that. I’ve never even used Twitter or Facebook. I just stay away from it. Mainly, I don’t trust myself to not be overcome in a moment of passion with a little tequila behind it and make a fool out of myself.”

Drive-By Truckers perform at 8:40 p.m. Aug. 27 as part of the Moontower Music Festival at Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road. Tickets: $49, Call 859-230-5365 or go to moontowermusicfestival.com.

new voices from manchester orchestra

Robert McDowell (left) and Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra.

Robert McDowell (left) and Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra.

Andy Hull was looking forward to some down time. He had spent over a decade establishing Manchester Orchestra as a formidably intense indie rock presence that knew how to surprise an audience – like re-imagining the band’s unrelentingly angst ridden “Cope” album from spring 2014 as a lean, largely acoustic session (“sort of a skeletal, angelic twin brother,” as Hull called it) titled “Hope” that was released that fall. What was to follow was supposed to be a break.

Then Hull was contacted by Daniels – namely, filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. The team was familiar with Manchester Orchestra, having directed a video for the title tune from the latter’s 2011 album “Simple Math.” This time, Daniels wanted Hull to be part of its team by scoring the recent offbeat movie “Swiss Army Man.” But there was a catch. The duo didn’t want Hull to use conventional instrumentation. That immediately struck the song stylist as ample reason to take a break from his break.

“I was pretty thrilled at the challenge,” Hull said. “We were going to be on our fifth album, Manchester was. At a certain point, it can be tough to find inspiration and tough to find something new without really looking for it. So I saw this score as a way to totally expand my brain and the way I looked at music. It really felt like that. I mean, it ended up being like a school with the stuff we were learning.

“A really fascinating thing it taught me was how songs don’t have to traditional in structure in order to be moving or emotional. It was a little scary and overwhelming, but in the middle of all that we found inspiration that allowed us to keep pushing forward.”

What Hull and his longtime Manchester co-hort (and brother-in-law) Robert McDowell did was emphasize computerized treatments of Hull’s voice peppered by vocal help from “Swiss Army Man” stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. The result is a wildly ambient quilt that alternately recalls Brian Wilson, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno along with heavily reimagined stabs at “Cotton Eyed Joe” and the “Jurassic Park” theme.

“It’s so cool to be able to create in a totally different environment without any real instruments. It was mostly voices and effects creating a piece of work that, when it’s played by itself, is something I’m proud of and would put up with any record I’ve put out. It’s something I’m proud to have in my discography.

“Robert and I certainly had to re-learn how to talk to each other about our music. There were no longer chords or verses where we could say, ‘Go back to that.’ It was more like, ‘Go back to the ‘ba-ba-ba.’ We would get frustrated learning all that stuff. Ultimately, it really influenced us heading into our next Manchester record. It became like, ‘How far can we experiment with sound?’”

There sits the big question. Hull, McDowell and the rest of Manchester Orchestra will begin recording the band’s next album the day after its Lexington performance this weekend at the Moontower Music Festival. Have the adventures and innovations of “Swiss Army Man” influenced the way Hull will approach that new music?

“I can think of a big way it has. I don’t know if the next record will be of a certain temperament, but the soundtrack certainly struck an ambitious nerve. We want to make a really live record, something that we’ve never really sounded like before, and sort of dive deeper into the intent without having to be super, super loud.

“The soundtrack was a great advancement. It was like, ‘We can really convey the emotions we want to with just our voices.’ So certainly if we add instruments in the correct way, we can experiment and sort of open songs to put some soul into them.”

Even though the soundtrack is credited to Hull and McDowell, the former said the project has only served to strengthen the band spirit within the entire Manchester Orchestra lineup.

“We feel really excited. All the guys have been super supportive of all the soundtrack stuff, realizing this is best for everything with the band. But I know everyone is excited to start this album. We’re super confident in this material. We want to make something really, really great and we’re going to work really, really hard until we have the best possible record we can. That’s the goal for everyone involved.”

Manchester Orchestra performs at 10 p.m. Aug. 27 as part of the Moontower Music Festival at Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road. Tickets: $49, Call 859-230-5365 or go to moontowermusicfestival.com.

toots thielemans, 1922-2016

toots thielemans.

toots thielemans.

I heard the playing of Toots Thielemans, who died yesterday at age 94, before I ever knew who he was or understood the importance and extent of his musical history. I was about 11 and remember being transfixed whenever the theme to the then-popular film “Midnight Cowboy” came on the radio. It boasted a slow, elegant melody performed on, of all things, harmonica. It was one of the loneliest sounds I had ever experienced. But there was also a lightness and warmth to it that countered the desolate feel with comfort.

That was the sound of the Belgian musician born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans but who was forever known simply as Toots.

It took a few years to understand Thielemans’ astonishing career, playing alongside the likes of jazz titans such as Charlie Parker, George Shearing and especially Benny Goodman. But Thielemans never stood on accolades. His playing also graced comparatively contemporary recordings by pop stylists (Paul Simon, Billy Joel) as well a newer jazz voyagers (Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Lovano) that introduced him to successive generations of fans. But his playing was a constant. While he never again sounded as lonesome as he did on “Midnight Cowboy,” Thielemans’ musicianship always possessed a lyrical sweetness that was unwavering.

A versed guitarist and whistler (as witnessed by his signature song “Bluesette”), Thielemans also had a performance affinity for pianists. Two of his recordings that especially resonated with me paired him with two cross-generational piano voices – Bill Evans (on 1979’s “Affinity,” one of Evans’ final studio recordings before his death the following year) and Fred Hersch (on the underappreciated 1989 concert album “Do Not Leave Me”).

I got to see Thielemans play just once, at a University of Louisville concert in 2010 backed by another great pianist, Kenny Werner. Thielemans was a spry 88 at the time. The program ranged from Brazilian music (Luiz Eca’s “The Dolphin”) to a medley of Frank Sinatra hits. But the harmonica tone was as exotic as it was steadfast, transporting the instrument from more expected folk and blues domains to a very different musical paradise. In the hands of Thielemans, the harmonica was a voice of and for the world.

bobby hutcherson, 1941-2016

bobby hutcherson.

bobby hutcherson.

No instrument defines swing and bop’s sense of pervading cool better than the vibraphone. It is the ice cube in the proverbial jazz cocktail, a touch of chill that differs from all other percussive sounds. As a melodic device, it exudes clarity and elegance. To that end, no one played the vibes with more persuasive invention than Bobby Hutcherson. The great instrumentalist and composer died Monday at age 75.
There were giants before him, like Red Norvo, Kentucky’s own Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson. There others than came in his wake, like Gary Burton and a legion of new generation stylists that include Stefon Harris. But Hutcherson’s brilliance began in bop with a series of sterling Blue Note albums than spanned a remarkable 12 year period (1963-75), a stretch where artist and label both weathered shifts that steadily urbanized their music.
The early Blue Note records were things of beauty. A personal favorite from that era was 1965’s “Dialogue,” mostly because it showcased Hutcherson’s stylistic restlessness (it was rooted in bop-flavored cool, but would regularly jump off into waltz structures and free-style excursions). A hearty guest list (saxophonist/flutist Sam Rivers, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Andrew Hill) helped, but nothing matched Hutcherson’s gliding beauty when a vibes solo presented itself.
Later albums for the label were hit-and-miss, but early ‘70s collaborations with reed player and flutist Harold Land were standouts recorded just as Blue Note hit the crossroads of jazz and more R&B leaning appeal. The best of those works was 1970’s “San Francisco,” which wonderfully chronicled a stylistic changing of the guard. With a young Joe Sample on piano and electric keyboards, the record embraced groove but kept Hutcherson’s mix of boppish fancy and improvisational prowess in the driver’s seat.
As is often the case with musical artists whose career and performance stamina continue long enough to outlast trends and entire musical eras, Hutcherson settled on a largely traditional sound for his final records. 2007’s aptly titled “For Sentimental Reasons” boasted a repertoire dominated by standards set to the relaxed interplay of a quartet. But the exchanges between Hutcherson, sounding lighter and more fanciful than ever, and pianist Renee Rosnes sit at recording’s luscious core.
All three records should be considered essential listening for anyone intrigued by, but unfamiliar with, Hutcherson’s music.
“When you become involved with jazz, you’ve already received your reward,” Hutcherson told me in an interview prior to a Louisville concert with the SF Jazz Collective in 2005. “The thrill comes from being inside this world of music, of being tossed around inside the moment.”

in performance: joe walsh

joe walsh.

joe walsh.

Joe Walsh is such a paradox. Always has been. But in the 46 very odd years since his first recordings, you would think his rock ‘n’ roll image and the considerable ingenuity of his talent would have discovered a finer balance. Judging by his performance last night at the Louisville Palace, such was not the case.
The good news is that he sounded great, which is probably all that matters. Backed by a 10 member band that included two keyboardists, four backing vocalists and a few stellar West Coast names (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, drummers Joe Vitale and Chad Cromwell), he set about showcasing the hearty endurance of his career within the show’s first two songs – “Walk Away” (his 1971 hit with the James Gang) and “Analog Man” (the title tune to a 2012 solo album, his most recent recording). His voice was strong and expressive while his guitarwork was bold enough to lead the troupe through extended and engaging instrumental breaks during many tunes. Most notable among the latter was the James Gang relic “The Bomber,” which sailed through elongated psychedelic passages that touched trippingly on Ravel’s “Bolero” and the comforting melody of Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate Into the Wind” before resettling into the central tune’s crashing intro riff.
All of that effortlessly enforced the fact that Walsh, at age 68, is still a rock force of scholarly ability. So why, after all these years, does he still feel compelled to maintain the dimwitted stoner schtick between songs? When not playing, he rambled, often unintelligibly, about assorted misadventures and general forgetfulness. Decades ago, that seemed like a comic act designed for the Cheech & Chong generation. Last night, it just came across as juvenile put on, as if playing the fool was a base audience expectation.
Hopefully, anyone who bought into the spiel was equally enticed by the guitar roughhousing and prog-ish orchestration that highlighted obscurities like 1972’s “Mother Says” or the ensemble charge and clear-headed vocal command built within more established fare like “In the City” and especially “Turn to Stone.’ Those are instances that truly defined Walsh’s greatness, not the class clown antics that now serve him like a proverbial ball and chain.

in performance: dirty dozen brass band/chico fellini

Kirk Joseph (left) and Efrem Towns performed for Crave Lexington last night at Masterson Station Park.  Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Kirk Joseph (left) and Efrem Towns performed for Crave Lexington last night at Masterson Station Park. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Crave Lexington couldn’t have chosen two more disparate acts to close out its first day at Masterson Station Park. Playing into sunset last night was New Orleans’ famed Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a favorite among local audiences that inches further away from its homeland heritage with every visit. Then gears shifted dramatically as Lexington’s own Chico Fellini mixed power pop, post punk, glam, psychedelia and more in its first formal stage outing in nearly five years.

The Dirty Dozen’s set was all sloppy fun that was far more concerned with retro funk and soul than native Crescent City grooves. Operating without tenor sax man Kevin Harris, which trimmed the band to a scant six members (The Dirty Half-Dozen?), the band placed the heavy lifting on trumpeter/flugelhornist Efrem Towns (who, in his more rambunctious moments, played both instruments simultaneously), baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis and trumpeter Gregory Davis.

The latter, on the band’s splendid Columbia albums of the’80s and ‘90s, was a prolific composer, fashioning often complex rhythms that expanded New Orleans jazz traditions. Last night’s show, though, was a loose – as in extremely loose – array of soul covers (“Superstition”), rootsy rumbles (“Lil’ Liza Jane”) and assorted jam vehicles that probably didn’t challenge the band the way Davis’ music did in the old days. “Use Your Brain,” delivered late in the night, was an exception and nicely approximated the joy and invention of vintage Dirty Dozen workouts. But even when rocking away in pure party mode, the Dirty Dozen offered an abundantly spirited soundtrack for a late summer Saturday night.

Emily Hagihara and Chris Dennison of Chico Fellini.

Emily Hagihara and Chris Dennison of Chico Fellini.

Despite its extended hiatus, Chico Fellini has lost none of its fighting form. The quartet played last night with a urgency and tightness that befitted a band that has never lost favor with (or interest in) stage work. Vocalist Chris Dennison still sang with remarkable drama and range, guitarist Duane Lundy continued to pilot tunes with efficient hooks and extended solos laden with psychedelia and even blues, Emily Hagihara remained the utility expert juggling duties on bass and percussion while regularly serving as a vocalist of regal beauty and drummer Brandon Judd kept all of the set pumping with a vitality that regularly revealed a preference for a playful backbeat.

The band’s original tunes, specifically “Electrolyte” (which highlighted Hagihara’s percussive colors) and “Hot” (where Dennison’s giddy range reflected the mood swings of a young David Byrne) were delivered with impressive clarity and drive. A selection of covers – the Iggy Pop/Kate Pierson convection “Candy” and, more robustly, a full tilt delivery of the David Bowie/Queen classic “Under Pressure,” rounded out Chico’s accomplished return to active service.

 

in performance: “the promised land”

tpl-postcardPossibly the greatest everyman charm of Bruce Springsteen’s songs has been the ability, in wholly rock ‘n’ roll terms, to seize a moment in motion. During the ‘70s, it embraced a mix of youthful zeal and restlessness. In the ‘80s, darker realities and a sense of desperate nostalgia came into play as adulthood intruded. Since then, his compositional scope has grown worldly and more world weary, a celebration of dreams attained and shattered.

Last night’s “world premiere educational workshop presentation” at the Singletary Center for the Arts of “The Promised Land” by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre strived to construct a narrative that links at least some of Springsteen’s songs and themes within a modern stage musical format. That’s a risky proposition, since Springsteen songs are so known and revered. Despite a bounty of youthful cheer and intent, little in this work-in-progress production illuminated its source material or conveyed a storyline that was even remotely in line with the exactness of Springsteen’s works.

There were numerous production issues – erratic singing voices and very unsteady acting that rendered a considerable portion of the first act unintelligible, as well as staging that seemed to dictate that, for maximum drama, actors must stand in stoic, chorus line fashion when singing. There were some nice exceptions – specifically, the female leads Ashley Jackson and Susanna White as well as some commanding second act singing from Darian Sanders that struck a character balance between acting and vocalizing largely lacking in the rest of the cast.

But the real problems with ‘The Promised Land’ were with design. The book by Adam Max and Alex Wyatt was a lightweight and, frankly, contrived vehicle full of sometimes astonishingly clichéd lines (“What are the neighbors going to say?”) that did little more than dumb down songs of scholarly completeness and detail. “Dancing in the Dark” muted and sung as a lullaby? “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” as a fight song for firemen? “Born to Run” as a combination hissy fit and self-help exercise for a disgruntled writer?

The production got especially problematic when it incorporated 9/11 late into the second act in order to utilize some of Springsteen’s sobering and very specific works from “The Rising” (the closest the show came to modern entries as much of the music relied on ‘70s and ‘80s Springsteen songs). Granted, it is next to impossible not to be moved by the severity of the occasion and its lasting sense of loss and tragedy. But “The Promised Land” seemed to pump the setting for cheaply earned, sentimentally provoked response.

That, in essence, is the problem facing anyone attempting to shoehorn songs of such human detail into a conventional stage musical setting. Springsteen’s music possesses more genuine energy (something the entire show achingly lacked), purpose and depth than anything this very pedestrian storyline brought to it.

Someday, perhaps, a production will surface that can properly compliment such astounding music. For all its good intentions and youthful spirit, last night was not that day and “The Promised Land” was not that production.

in performance: bryan ferry

bryan ferry.

bryan ferry.

Watching Bryan Ferry, one of the founding fathers from the prog side of Euro-pop, holding court in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, ground zero for country and Americana music, may represent the ultimate in culture clashes. Even a patron seated next to me on Tuesday night as a rare North American tour by Ferry hit Music City seemed bewildered. “How many people in Nashville even know who this guy is?”

Point made. Much of the healthy turnout seemed familiar with the veteran British singer and song stylist only through his early to mid ‘80s music, when a de-glammed version of the vanguard pop army Roxy Music decamped into darker, textured and more ambient inclined songs – all traits he carried over into a revamped solo career after Roxy ceased operations as a recording group in 1983.

But Ferry carried on as if Nashville was one of his key fanbases from previous decades with a neatly orchestrated nine-member band that ably fleshed out the dense, arty arrangements of his music and a setlist that wasn’t afraid to promote deep cuts from long lost albums as much as hits. After all, those who knew Ferry through the 1982 Roxy swan song record “Avalon” and the 1985 radio hit “Slave to Love” (which accounted for the bulk of the crowd) needed an understanding how just how extensive Ferry’s pop history was.

Make no mistake, the evening was a history lesson. After opening the show with two groove-directed songs from his newest album, 2014’s “Avonmore” (the title tune and “Driving Me Wild”), Ferry jettisoned everything from his catalog that post-dated 1987. That effectively eliminated three of the four-and-half decades Ferry’s recordings encompass. But the 15 year spread that remained was examined thoroughly.

From the earliest days of Roxy Music came giddy pop hits (“Virginia Plain,” “Re-Make/Re-Model”), quirkier, more prog-laced works (the noir-like “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” ominously performed with the band in silhouette, and the lost post-disco requiem “Stronger Through the Years”) and few complete surprises (1973’s “Beauty Queen,” which opened with summery lyricism before exploding into storm-trooping arena rock).

The solo career fare was more diverse, tracing Ferry’s pop roots as well as his stylistic evolution. Those songs reached back to the traditional pop wistfulness that distinguished his 1974 cover of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and the lean piano-led reflection of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Thick Twice, It’s Alright.” The Ferry the crowd seemed to know made himself known early in the show when “Slave to Love,” with its thick keyboard and percussion-dominate soundscape, was dispatched. But there were again surprises, like a pair of  tunes from 1987’s Patrick Leonard-produced “Bete Noire” (the dark tango-infused title tune and the spiraling meditation “Zamba”).

At 70, Ferry’s voice has thinned a bit. Then again, he has spent much of his post-Roxy career as a kind of hushed, ambient crooner whose voice was less of a lead instrument and more part of an ensemble fabric. There were old band hands on board (guitarist Neil Hubbard, a co-hort since 1979) and vocalist Fonzi Thornton (a Ferry mate since “Avalon”). But newer members called upon to handle the vast instrumental terrain established by the Roxy material (Australian reed player Jorja Chalmers and especially Danish guitarist Jacob Quistgaard) helped Ferry blur time lines and geographical boundaries, making a sound fashioned in Europe decades ago seemed fresh and vital in boot-scooting Nashville.

in performance: wheels of soul tour featuring tedeschi-trucks band/los lobos/north mississippi all-stars

dereks trucks and susan tedeschi.

dereks trucks and susan tedeschi.

At the halfway point of last night’s Wheels of Soul summit at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati, an old adage – the one about a unison force being greater than the sum of its parts – was reborn. In the midst of a scorching and unassuming set by Los Lobos, out marched Susan Tedeschi, half of the evening’s headlining Tedeschi-Trucks Band. Initially, she sang harmony with Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo on “Burn It Down,” a taught but beautifully pensive rocker she cut with the band in 2010. That alone was a highlight, a showing of artistic kinship of co-billed artists working in solidarity. Then Tedeschi took the lead as the TTB’s three member vocal crew joined the Lobos team and served up a beautifully anthemic rendition of the Marvin Gaye soul classic “What’s Going On.” The results made for a performance home run on all levels. It underscored, in a frank and sad way, the song’s enduring topicality. But it was also a grand show of musical hands, a united front of two powerhouse acts crossing generations and creating a performance of big-hearted musical might.

All three Wheels of Soul acts – the North Mississippi All-Stars opened the evening – delivered sets of distinct, absorbing power. The All-Stars, especially frontman/guitarist Luther Dickinson, offered an expansive, maturing view of their famed “world boogie” sound. Los Lobos remained a pack of stonefaced maestros, dispensing with artful and articulate rock delicacies without seemingly breaking a sweat. Tedeschi-Trucks again asserted itself as a vital rock and soul revue, but with a slightly more streamlined sound and heavier reliance on late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock, soul and psychedelia.

But the moments where members of the three bands swapped cameos in each other’s sets offered the show’s biggest surprises and most genuine thrills.

Trucks and Dickinson traded guitar breaks during the All-Stars’ version of the Howlin’ Wolf blues nugget “I’m Leaving You (Commit a Crime)” that were refreshingly free of the usual clenched teeth, blues-rock angst and were instead utilized as layers in a colorful, rootsy fabric. Later, after the Gaye celebration, Lobos were backed by the Tedeschi-Trucks horn section for a set-closing “Mas y Mas” that rocked with rich, brassy urgency. Then Dickinson returned for a series of wild, sinewy guitar exchanges with Trucks during TTB’s set that fueled the big beat pop soul charge of “I Want More” before dissolving into instrumental ambience that quoted the Allman Brothers Band’s “Little Martha” (but sounded more like Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way”) before coming to rest with the gentle but torchy “Midnight in Harlem.”

Three bands on a single bill creating the rock and soul equivalent of a block party – midsummer Saturday nights seldom offer better.

 

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