critic’s pick 286: amy helm, ‘didn’t it rain’

amy helmAs soon as the studied cool and rich, rootsy drive settles in on Amy Helm’s sumptuous debut album Didn’t It Rain, you sense a welcome though unexpected sense of stylistic displacement.

A native of the Woodstock region of New York, the singer possesses a singing style steeped in Southern gospel-soul as well as a pure roots rock immediacy that sounds like it was conjured on the West Coast at the dawn of the ‘70s. Her tone is assertive but sweet while the delivery is wildly confident yet unhurried. In the case of a tune like Sky’s Falling, the great R&B empress Ann Peebles comes to mind. But you could probably find a vintage inspiration to pin to any of the dozen songs that make up Didn’t It Rain, eight of which the singer wrote or co-wrote. But Helm dresses this music with a voice that uses those inspirations simply as reference points. The album’s effortless poise, vigor and soulfulness ae all her own doing.

The drum rumble of the album-opening title tune nicely sets the mood with a bone rattling groove and colors of slide guitar that rain like buckshot over a punctuated melody. Helm’s singing is churchy to the point of being incantatory with a gliding wail full of grit and grace. The party just gets hotter from there.

Among the general influences that greet you is the kind of Bonnie Raitt/Little Feat rock and soul feel that Warner Brothers Records cooked up in California over four decades ago. Part of that is unavoidable. Feat co-founder Bill Payne guests on Sky’s Falling, but also helps orchestrate the glowing soul affirmation Rescue Me on piano with subtle shades of gospel that Helm sings gloriously to.

Bassist Byron Issacs, Helm’s bandmate in the great New York Americana/soul troupe Ollabelle, doubles as producer. He also pens several tunes here with Helm, the best being Heat Lightning, a commanding rocker that employs a nasty, jagged guitar riff to trigger to a country shuffle that sets up Helm’s soul-savvy vocal lead.

There is, of course, a prime guiding spirit throughout all of Didn’t It Rain – the singer’s legendary father Levon Helm. Drum tracks cut by the elder Helm prior to his death in 2012 are featured on three songs including a rapturous version of Martha Scanlon’s Spend Our Last Dime. You even hear his voice, raspy but defiantly robust, kicking the tune off. The resulting music unfolds like a country waltz with daughter Helm proudly piloting the ensuing celebration.

Didn’t It Rain may mark Helm’s arrival as a solo artist. But her extensive work in Ollabelle and her father’s final recordings (and famed Midnight Ramble performances) have fashioned her into something of a roots-rock scholar. Such wisdom flows richly and openly on this sublime record.

the summer of lera lynn

lera lynn.

lera lynn.

There are probably other grand titles you can give the season now heading into the home stretch. But if you’ve been tracking the blossoming career of a certain Nashville by way of Georgia by way of Texas songsmith and the rather explosive turn it is now taking, you might agree we are in the midst of The Summer of Lera Lynn.

The headline performer at this weekend’s Well Crafted Festival at Harrodsburg’s Shaker Village, Lynn began creating serious indie commotion in 2014 with the release of her sophomore album The Avenues. The recording boasts richly emotive and often darkly atmospheric songs that touch on elements of Americana, country, pop and more with a decidedly noir cast.

One especially smitten fan was David Letterman, who summed a Late Show performance by Lynn of The Avenues’ David Lynch-ian snapshot of country-esque longing Out to Sea with a proud boast. “Remember, you heard it here first.”

But next week, Lynn will expand on that exposure with the release of True Detective: Music from the HBO Series. It includes a set of newer songs produced by T Bone Burnett that are leaner in design and more quietly disruptive than her music from The Avenues. The singer has already been featured in a recurring role as a dour songstress performing in the series’ dank dive bar The Black Rose. Her performance of My Least Favorite Life, which played under a scene featuring True Detective stars Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell was especially arresting.

While the tune is also a highlight of the soundtrack, the album’s first single, The Only Thing Worth Fighting For, features a pair of very different celebs. It was jointly penned by Lynn, Burnett and Rosanne Cash.

“On the plane to LA, I was kind of having a pep talk with myself before my first session in the studio with T Bone,” Lynn said. “I was kind of saying, ‘Okay, Lera. It’s time to deliver. Get it together.’ It was intimidating, obviously, but he and Rosanne were both great – just really sweet and easy to work with and encouraging. Really, it was a dream come true.”

“It’s all thrilling in that I’m able to perform now for more people and connect with more people. I mean, the process itself was obviously thrilling, as well. But on the other side of that, it’s also exciting just to see people responding to the work that I’ve done previously by coming up after the shows and buying records. It’s all of that.

Lynn admitted Burnett encouraged her to explore her “dark side” when composing the True Detective songs. But such terrain isn’t foreign to her. She took a few strolls there when making The Avenues.

“It was actually a very natural process. I think it’s an element that has been present in my music for years. It’s just that it’s the thing people don’t think they can market, plus no one has ever really encouraged me to do it until now. I think that’s why T Bone chose me to do the True Detective music, because he could see that peaking through. He wanted to really highlight that. But it was fun. It’s an easy thing, the dark side.”

One might suspect with the True Detective soundtrack still a week away from release that Lynn wouldn’t be rushing back to the recording studio anytime soon. In actuality, she’s already there working on music for what will become her third album. But the collaboration with Burnett and Cash on the True Detective music has opened a new perspective on songwriting she says will play out on her next recording.

“I think the songs I did for True Detective have given me a greater confidence in doing what I find inspiring rather than what I find to be marketable. So with the new record, I’m trusting my instincts even more and digging a little bit deeper into the territories that I have hinted at in my previous records.

“There was a time in my life when I thought, ‘To be an artist, you have to be in pain.’ Usually to be in pain you have to be involved in drama. A certain part of that is true. I still experience pain and drama. But I think the writing process also involves drawing on other people’s stories and maybe implying my own feelings as they relate to something I’ve experienced. It’s just different for every song.”

But what of the music itself, the dreamscapes that ooze from one genre to another to create a sound that is introspective in its hushed beauty but cinematic enough to bring the corners of a shadowy but popular television series to life? For that, Lynn credits her upbringing – specifically, a household ruled by a rotating musical set list.

“I grew up with my mom playing Vince Gill and then skipping to Joni Mitchell and then Michael Jackson. I think that’s what most people do, really. I mean, why would you limit yourself to one thing?”

While translating that to her own songs has become second nature, finding a place for her stylistically disparate songs might be seem arduous if she had to answer to the whims of major record label marketing. Luckily, as a still-independent artist, she doesn’t.

“It’s difficult to find a balance between business and art. But I think the best thing you can do as an artist is to try not to think about what’s marketable and just do what moves you the most because chances are that’s what is going to move other people the most, too. That’s always been my M.O.”

Lera Lynn performs at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 8 as part of the Well Crafted Festival at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Road in Harrodsburg. The festival begins at 12 noon. Admission: $25. Call (859) 734-5411 or go to

critic’s pick 285: miles davis, ‘miles davis at newport 1955-75: the bootleg series’

miles davisOf the dozen or so boxed set anthologies chronicling the career of Miles Davis issued after his death in 1991, the new four-disc Miles Davis at Newport 1955-75: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4 is perhaps the most intriguing.

The other sets tended to focus on one band, one era, one tour or even unreleased material related to one specific recording. Newport centers at an event traced through time, and when it comes to jazz, Davis was a time traveler and then some. They didn’t call him Miles for nothing.

What this means is that by chronicling segments of eight different performances at the Newport Jazz Festival over a period of two decades, we are presented in as encapsulated a form as any box set can capture, Davis’ astounding jazz voyage, from the his ‘50s era of acoustic cool to his ‘70s rebirth as a fusion and funk renegade. The package offers plenty for Davis die-hards, too. With a whopping collective running time of 296 minutes, Newport boasts nearly four hours of unreleased performances.

Still, it’s the stylistic metamorphosis that stands out. The first disc has Davis introduced by no less a jazz icon than Duke Ellington before launching to a version of Hackensack that places Davis’ serene trumpet runs alongside the modal mischief of the tune’s composer, Thelonious Monk. This performance has been well chronicled already, but as a time piece within the larger canon of Davis’ Newport history, it is an integral introduction that bears repeating.

Fast forward a decade and we have the prize of the package – a full disc devoted to previously unissued sets from 1966 and 1967 of the great Davis quintet featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and the especially devilish drum colors of a young Tony Williams. The diplomacy of these performances is often astounding. While the unison swing of All Blues is a thing of beauty, the ’67 ingenuity fortifying Shorter’s Footprints lets the pure musical cunning of Davis and pianist Hancock loose. The ensuing drama is Newport’s clear high point.

Davis goes electric for the rest of the package which is where the real transformation begins. The music becomes more groove-centric (and, in some cases, more static), but the sense of adventure, especially in a 1969 set featuring a young Chick Corea going wild on electric piano and a series of 1973 rumbles with saxophonist Dave Liebman, never relents.

A brief 1975 version of the percussion-heavy Mtume is the only real instance where the sound quality dips to actual bootleg level (an oddity, given how it’s the most recent recording in the set). The rest of Newport sounds like a dream. It’s a jazz journey of fearless and epic proportions.

in performance: reeves gabrels and his imaginary friends

reeves gabrels and his imaginary friends: kevin hornback, reeves gabrels and jeff brown. marc pisapia is subbing for brown on the trio's current tour.

reeves gabrels and his imaginary friends: kevin hornback, reeves gabrels and jeff brown. marc pisapia is subbing for brown on the trio’s current tour.

Few champion guitarslingers place their tricks, technique and pure performance savvy on such intimate display as Reeves Gabrels did last night at the Green Lantern. The ‘90s axeman for David Bowie and current guitar chieftain for The Cure, Gabrels let a handful of die hard fans literally stand by his side during a loose but musically ferocious set that blasted away for nearly two hours.

Bolstered by a power trio called the Imaginary Friends that included Louisville-bred five string bassist Kevin Hornback and drummer/harmony vocalist Marc Pisapia, Gabrels employed very elemental designs – namely, basic rock, pop and blues melodies – to ignite solos and jams of far greater complexity.

Show opening run-throughs of Continue and Wish You Were Her set the show’s pace with tight trio interplay, a guitar sound full of bright and exact tone and a performance attitude that, while extremely focused, seemed open and playful.

It was during skirmishes like Zero Effect, one of six tunes performed off the new Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary Friends album, that the guitarist seriously opened up. Though the core of the tune was built around an elemental riff of pure pop intention (the Aerosmith hit Sweet Emotion came to mind), the music bloomed into an extended jam of lighter and neatly layered psychedelia.

Ditto for the show closing Yesterday’s Gone (from Gabrels’ 1999 solo album Ulysses) that worked off a bouncing groove to a create a richly textured ambience that seemed to disengage and float above the tune’s rhythmic structure as the music progressed.

The setlist served as an impressive retrospective of sorts, too. It reached back to the punkish brawl of Bus Stop, a work co-penned with Bowie for the 1989 self-titled debut record by Tin Machine, but also wound its way through the rugged power trio exchanges of Problem (from Gabrels’ first solo record, 1995’s The Sacred Squall of Now) and a radical transformation of the country chestnut Bright Lights Big City (rewired for the Imaginary Friends record) that mutated into a serving of turbulent, purposeful blues.

Such were the delights that surfaced as a guitar titan let fans get up close and personal.

in performance: eagles

Don Henley (left) and Glenn Frey performing last night with the Eagles at Rupp Arena.

Don Henley (left) and Glenn Frey performing last night with the Eagles at Rupp Arena.

Early into last night’s three hour Eagles marathon at Rupp Arena, Glenn Frey seemed pleased with both the veteran California band’s return to its country-folk roots as well as the attentive enthusiasm the crowd of 17,000 greeted the initial tunes with.

“Not bad for a bunch of 40 year olds,” he said.

The joke, of course, was on no one. The Eagles are emeritus members of a vibrant West Coast scene from the ‘70s. Such an alliance automatically added a few more decades onto the ages of its members as well as a good number of the fans that showed up last night.

But if you consider the remark was instead directed at the songs themselves, then it was spot on. With only one exception, the entire program, billed majestically as History of the Eagles, focused on material from the six studio albums the band issued between 1972 and 1979. The lone outsider was the Timothy B. Schmit-sung Love Will Keep Us Alive from the 1994 reunion record Hell Freezes Over. With apparently little interest in bringing its history lesson to the comparative present, the 2007 double album Long Road Out of Eden was ignored completely.

Presented in more or less chronological order, the 27 or so songs making up the concert were split into two hour-plus sets. The first was devoted to its flagship country-folk sound while the second was predominantly rock ‘n’ roll produced when the Eagles fully embraced their ‘70s rock star celebrity status.

The first set was understandably more reserved, but it also offered more surprises as it didn’t rely strictly on hits. Band founders Frey and Don Henley entered from opposite sides of the stage to begin the evening, appropriately, with Saturday Night, a forgotten piece of harmony rich pop-folk from the Eagles’ 1973 album Desperado. Then came the evening’s most welcome surprise – the addition of original Eagle Bernie Leadon, who offered a nice homage to the great Dillard & Clark duo by singing Train Left Here This Morning, a lovely country meditation refashioned for the Eagles’ self-titled debut album from 1972.

Leadon remained onstage for the rest of the first set, which carried the band through tunes from 1975’s One of the These Nights (his last album with the Eagles). Following Henley’s keen reading of the Western outlaw saga Doolin Dalton, the show essentially became a hit parade, although the teaming of Leadon with his replacement, Joe Walsh, and the expansive guitar support of Steuart Smith nicely bolstered Already Gone and the set closing Take It to the Limit. The later placed Frey on vocals in place of the absent Randy Meisner, who reportedly declined an invitation to also rejoin the band for this tour due to health reasons (he left the Eagles in 1977 and was replaced by Schmit).

The second set was perhaps less enchanting mostly because the two albums it drew from, Hotel California and The Long Run, largely jettisoned the country-rock sensibilities of the earlier recordings. But this was also the part of the program that unleashed Walsh, the only band member last night that steered outside of the Eagles catalog to revisit his own hits. Playfulness abounded during his 1970 James Gang gem Funk #49, as well as 1978’s Life’s Been Good, which ruled radio during the three year gap between Hotel California and The Long Run.

Walsh also goosed some of the more stoic Eagles originals during the second set, particularly The Long Run’s Those Shoes, with the same talk box guitar effects that have distinguished his own work.

Saved for encores, Hotel California’s title tune and Take It Easy were performed, as was the entire concert, was a relaxed and ageless efficiency. Yes, the Eagle elders held up well during their first Rupp showing in two decades. But in the end, it was the 40 year olds that truly kept the crowd happy and involved.


our man reeves

reeves gabrels. photo by mauro melis.

reeves gabrels. photo by mauro melis.

Reeves Gabrels was so assured in the wisdom of journeying down rock ‘n’ roll roads less traveled that he had no qualms in bluntly expressing his exuberance to a one time boss. For over a decade, the pioneering guitarist worked as a band member and high level musical lieutenant to David Bowie, from the latter’s elemental but experimental guitar rock troupe Tin Machine to the comparatively streamlined 1999 solo record ‘hours.’

“It kind of goes back to a conversation I had with David when we started Tin Machine,” said Gabrels, who performs Saturday at the Green Lantern with his Imaginary Friends power trio. “He had music he wanted to make and then there was the music he was making. I asked him, ‘You have full creative control. Does the record label have to put out whatever you give them?’ He said, ‘Well, yeah. They do.’ So I said, ‘Then the real problem here is not the record company, it’s your fear of rejection and your concern that people won’t like what you put out.’

“If you really have a conviction to do this kind of music and you really want to do this kind of music, then the only person in your way is you.”

In that sense, Gabrels has been fearless in his sense of guitar exploration. He can create torrents of coarse sonic dissonance one minute, open up into a spacious yet playful groove the next and also simply rock away with the loose support of youthful cohorts. From his Bowie days to his current stint as principal guitarist for The Cure (which he joined in 2012) to an adjoining solo career that is now two decades old, Gabrels has forged a potent, versed and adventurous reputation as a guitar stylist and songwriter.

“The first solo record I did was in ’95 at Bowie’s insistence,” Gabrels said. “He was like, ‘You’re always doing this stuff but you never put it out, so why don’t you put a record together and I’ll put it out on my label.’ Then I put a record together and he decided not to start the label. So I looked around and found someone to release it.

“My point is at other times in my life, I was very, like, ‘You’ve got to be this way.’ I was really obsessive about my music. I don’t think of myself as controlling, really, but I know I can be obsessive. With the new record (the self-titled Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary Friends), I just really took my hands off the wheel a bit and let the project find its own level.”

A prolific guitar stylist and solo artist, Gabrels also thrives on collaboration, as witnessed by his work with Bowie and The Cure. A particular highlight among his catalogue is a 2014 instrumental work with fellow guitar titan and one time Be Bop Deluxe chieftain Bill Nelson called Fantastic Guitars.

“That was fun to do,” Gabrels said. “I was always a huge Bill Nelson fan. I bought Presence by Led Zeppelin and Be Bop Deluxe’s Sunburst Finish on the same day. I think I was 17 or 18. I listened to Presence and then put Sunburst Finish on and kept it on the turntable for the next three weeks.

“I met Bill during the first Tin Machine tour, so I was over the moon about that. But we stayed in touch. When I played at Leeds with The Cure in 2012, we just got together and said, ‘Maybe we should do a record.’ So this was about 20 years in the making. It involved a lot of very old school recording that we did in his house over the course of a year and a half. It’s a nice little sonic romp, that record.”

While performances alongside Bowie and The Cure have placed Gabrels in front of audiences that have sometimes exceeded 200,000 on a single night, the guitarist is more than eager to engage in a current swing of small club concerts with the Imaginary Friends that will, in the case of tonight’s show at The Green Lantern, place a modest sized crowd right in his lap.

“That feedback that you get from playing in a sweaty, small place… that’s really at the core of why I do this. I welcome the heckles. I like when people yell things at me while I’m playing. We’re truly looking forward to it.”

Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary Friends perform at 10 p.m. July 25 at the Green Lantern, 497 W. Third. Cover charge is $7. Call (859) 252-9539.

robert earl keen reschedules lyric concert

robert earl keen.

robert earl keen.

Looks like you better put those muddy boots back on the porch. There will be no Texas troubadouring with Robert Earl Keen on Wednesday.

The popular Lone Star songsmith has postponed his July 22 concert at the Lyric Theatre. In an email notification sent out earlier tonight, the reason given was “last minute changes to Robert Earl Keen’s tour.”

The rescheduled date is Nov. 19 with a 7:30 start time. All tickets for this week’s originally scheduled show will be honored when Keen performs the bluegrass-inspired tunes from his new Happy Prisoner album this fall.

For more information, call (859) 280-2218.

living with the nashville rash

dale watson.

dale watson.

On a 1995 tune called Nashville Rash, Dale Watson roared on unapologetically about being “too country now for country,” a remark that underscored just how vast the distance was between his brand of hard core honky tonk and the wave of pop attitudes that were already overtaking the roots-driven music he grew up with.

Today, the veteran Texas singer takes an opposite view. Longtime fans shouldn’t fret, though, as the heavily traditional country sound descended directly from giants like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings remains his steadfast style. But the distance between that music and the Nashville norm has him modifying his perspective.

“What’s happened in the 20 years since I wrote Nashville Rash is that now I’m actually not country enough in terms of the new definition of what country is. I am so light years away from what country music has become that I’m not country enough for country.

“You know what? That’s a good idea. I hear a song coming on.”

A regular Lexington visitor in the mid-to-late’90s at Lynagh’s Music Club when his recording career commenced, Watson’s honky tonk vocabulary remains devoted to tradition on two of his newest albums, 2013’s El Rancho Azul, which vastly upped his national exposure through considerable critical praise and television appearances, and this summer’s Lloyd Maines-produced Call Me Insane. But for an artist with such a scholarly command of country tradition, one may find a few surprises scattered among his list of musical heroes.

“Three stand out in my mind – Elvis (Presley), Johnny Cash and Dean Martin.”

Dean Martin? One of today’s most versed country traditionalists finds inspiration in the cocktail swigging, ‘60s swinging swagger of Dean Martin?

“Oh yeah,” Watson said. “I loved his voice right off the bat. But when I watched The Dean Martin Show, you could tell he had fun. He sang great, but he had so much fun onstage.

“That’s our main objective as a band today. Our only rule is to have fun. That’s it. We remind each other of that when we get onstage. Just last night, one of the cats said that right before we went on. He said, ‘Alright. Number one rule.’ The road can really get to you, but it just takes one guy to go, ‘Alright. Number one rule.’ It perks you right up.”

While his music hasn’t changed over the years, Watson has done a lifetime of hard living since those ‘90s shows at Lynagh’s. Following the 2000 death of his fiance in a car accident, Watson dropped into a personal tailspin of alcohol and drug abuse. Following a year-long recovery, he recounted the whole devastating saga in the tribute album Every Song I Write is for You and a 2006 documentary film titled Crazy Again.

“Hey man, I survived living,” Watson said. “It’s not easy sometimes. Most of the time, in my case, I was my own worst enemy – a lot of times, really. But if you can survive yourself, at the end of the day, you have a pretty healthy outlook on life. I know I’m happier these days than I ever have been.

“The documentary was my way of fulfilling a promise. I wanted to let people know what I’ve been through. I thought that was really important. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve had so many people come up to me and tell me how that particular documentary or album helped them out. It makes you feel good to share something like that.”

While Watson certainly doesn’t maintain the commercial profile of today’s country stars (he continues to call his music “Ameripolitan” as opposed to country), the favorable reception to El Rancho Azul and Call Me Insane represent subtle breakthroughs, spreading the word on serious country tradition for an devout and expanding fanbase.

“It is weird, you know? To be the age I am (52), having been in the business so long, and now having some success is scary. I’ve been banging my head against the wall for so long that it’s strange to finally have the breaks start coming. It’s an unusual place for me.”

Dale Watson and his Lonestars with the Coralee and the Townees Trio perform at 8 tonight at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N.Broadway. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to

in performance: forecastle (day 2)

jim james of my morning jacket performing last night at forecastle in louisville. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

jim james of my morning jacket performing last night at forecastle in louisville. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

“Roll the dice, set sail the ship,” sang a jubilant Jim James last night at the onset of My Morning Jacket’s homecoming/headlining set at Forecastle in Louisville. It was an apt greeting for such a nautically themed festival. But James was all about celebration as the tune, Believe (Nobody Knows), kicked off the last of several impressive performances by Kentucky rooted artists that highlighted the festival’s second day.

My Morning Jacket was easily the most prominent homegrown act of the bill and rewarded a crowd that had baked in 90-plus degree heat all afternoon with a set rich in summery sentiment, from the chiming guitars that propelled Mahgeetah to the mix of psychedelia and reggae-fied groove underscoring Off the Record to the almost militaristic strut of Compound Fracture. The latter, along with Believe, was pulled from the newest MMJ album, The Waterfall.

sturgill simpson.

sturgill simpson.

Logistics were in the audience’s favor last night. Jackson native and one time Lexingtonian Sturgill Simpson wound up a far reaching country-rooted set on a second stage just minutes before MMJ closed out the day on the mainstage.

Simpson’s performance came with plenty of roots savvy ingenuity. The set opening Sitting Here Without You summoned the spirit of Waylon Jennings, both in the rumbling tenor of Simpson’s vocals and in the tune’s sense of rambling fortitude. A few stabs at what the singer termed as “bluegrass” were really jet-speed honky tonk romps (including the sly Railroad of Sin), while later tunes (Some Days and the Sunday Valley favorite Sometimes Wine) strayed from concise country parameters into generous electric jams.

john medeski performing with the word.

john medeski performing with the word.

Perhaps the most under the radar Kentucky entry of the day was John Medeski. Though raised in Florida, he remains a Louisville native. Currently on a workman’s holiday from the avant-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, the keyboardist yesterday was co-piloting the sacred steel/jam band hybrid music of The Word.

It was often an uphill climb for Medeski’s organ and electric piano work to be heard over the electric wailing of guitarist Luther Dickinson and pedal steel powerhouse Robert Randolph. But despite a lopsided mix, the resulting blend of gospel, funk, soul and even country sounded suitably festive. Especially arresting was Medeski’s Rhodes-style keyboard colors during Glory Glory, one of only two vocal tunes (sung ably by bassist Chris Chew) in an otherwise instrumental performance.

chris stapleton

chris stapleton

The other Kentucky returnee was Lexington-born, Paintsville-raised Chris Stapleton, whose late afternoon country set was even more roots hearty than Sturgill’s performance.

Stapleton pens tunes of hard country sentiment with regularly subtle melodies. The title tune to his recent debut solo album Traveller – along with the record’s highlight tune, the proudly assertive Fire Away – were fine examples that distinguished his performance. The songs’ quiet intensity made them curious picks for a large outdoor festival. But Stapleton enforced them, along with his popular cover of Tennessee Whiskey and the more robustly rockish original Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey (cut when Stapleton was with his former band, The Steeldrivers, which perform at Forecastle today) with singing that owed as much to vintage soul as hard-bitten country.

There was also plenty of fine Forecastle music yesterday from bands without Bluegrass ties. They included

+ a tireless set by the husband and wife duo known as Shovels & Rope that offered blasts of big beat pop on such guitar/drum dominant tunes as Bridge on Fire and Hail Hail.

+ a lyrical though occasionally static performance by the Philadelphia band The War on Drugs that was a throwback of sorts to the metronomic cool of ‘80s alternative rock.

+ a punkish, politically themed outing from Conor Oberst’s recently reformed Omaha collective Desaparecidos weaved around brutish tunes like The Underground Man and Te Amo Camilo Vallejo.

+ a sampling of multi-generational soul from the New Orleans-based troupe The Revivalists that combined brassy bits of vintage R&B with song structures owing greatly to hip hop.

in performance: neil young + promise of the real

neil young.

neil young.

“We’re glad Mother Nature is cooperating with us for the time being,” remarked Neil Young last night at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center. Indeed, the evening did a 360 from the storms that ripped through Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley earlier in the day. But while the skies cleared for a spectacular summer evening, the ever-wily Young was brewing up some turmoil of his own.

Backed by the youthful Promise of the Real quintet, the same band that fortifies Young’s wild new protest album The Monsanto Years, the double Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee offered a two hour-plus retrospective that moved through the years as readily as it did a series of diverse musical temperaments that reached several epic, electric crescendos with his new performance compatriots.

The program nodded generously to solo tunes, folk ensemble-infused works and torrential rock ‘n’ roll jams. That’s a lot of musical traffic to cover, but Young traveled through it all, at age 69, as tirelessly as the Promise of the Real members, all of which were easily half his age, if not younger.

As opening solo set dispensed with the hits – specifically, After the Gold Rush, Heart of Gold and Old Man – in quick but soulful succession. But the reading of Mother Earth (Natural Anthem) that followed, with Young seated at a portable pipe organ, was a foreshadowing of the environmental and agrochemical strife that sat at the heart of the Monsanto Years music.

Curiously, Young saved six of the seven songs performed from the album for the second half of the show, preferring to preface the new material with midtempo Americana staples like Out on the Weekend and Unknown Legend that would have fit neatly into a Farm Aid set.

Then came the evening’s most potent musical cloudburst, a still-venomous Ohio that Young dedicated to the four students killed four hours away and 45 years ago at Kent State University. “They were,” Young said with pokerfaced candor of the protesting students, “a threat.”

The songs from The Monsanto Years were left to fend for themselves without further commentary, from the whistling reverie of A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop to the corporate greed grind of Big Box (“too big to fail, too rich for jail”).

Bigger noise, however, surrounded three extended romps recovered from three different decades – 1969’s Down By the River, 1972’s Words (Between the Lines of Age) and 1990’s Love and Only Love. Here, Young cut loose with long, jagged guitar runs that delighted the multi-generational audience as well as the Promise of the New disciples onstage with him. Watching co-guitarist Lukas Nelson beam an electric grin as Young traded Black and Decker solos with him during the closing sparks of Down By The River was the Kodak moment of the night.

Perhaps fittingly, as the rumbles of Love and Only Love faded away, the distant thunder of a second band of storms began to brew. Mother Nature, it seemed, didn’t cherish the thought of being upstaged.

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