bluegrass queen in new country

rhonda vincent.

rhonda vincent.

Rhonda Vincent already had a handle on what was to be her newest bluegrass recording when she got the call to sing at the Grand Ole Opry the night after George Jones died. “They asked everyone on the Opry that night to sing a George Jones song,” Vincent recalled. “So I picked When the Grass Grows Over Me. Never sang it before, but I love the sound of steel guitars. The song just went so well.

“Then it occurred to me to have six bluegrass songs and six country songs on my album. It was kind of a gamble, but these styles seem to correlate with audiences. The record wound up debuting at No. 1 album on the Billboard bluegrass charts and got a Grammy nomination. So I guess it was a good move, but you don’t know that when you’re going into a project like this.”

It’s hard to imagine Vincent being anything but confident as she constructed the 2014 bluegrass/country hybrid album Only Me. Sure, she has been billed regularly as the Queen of Bluegrass thanks to a string of recordings with her longrunning band The Rage and a sackful of Grammy nominations and International Bluegrass Music Association awards. But as an artist who cut her musical teeth in a touring family band that regularly performed traditional country tunes, she was well versed in the sound of old school Nashville. Maybe that’s why country greats like Alan Jackson, Keith Urban and Dolly Parton, among many others, have enlisted Vincent for their recordings.

“Bluegrass has always been the sister to country music,” said Vincent, who performs a free convocation concert with The Rage at Berea College on Thursday. “There are so many similarities. When I was growing up in a musical family, the music that we did was considered country music, even though it might have been acoustic. To me, it was really all the same. That’s what this CD is an illustration of. There may be steel guitar. There may be banjo. The music is still me.”

While the Opry tribute to Jones may have triggered inspiration for Only Me, Vincent had already retuned her sense of tradition on a 2012 collaborative record with country music veteran Gene Watson titled Your Money and My Good Looks.

“The project with Gene gave me confidence. I knew there was an audience for this music. It upsets me when people say country music is dying. Country music is not dying. There are still fans of the traditional country music style. There are fans of the more contemporary country music style. They’re just aren’t many people making recordings and songs that bring something new to the table.

“For most people, if they want to listen to traditional country music, they’ll go put on an old George Jones album or an old Merle Haggard record. I want these fans to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to put on the new Rhonda Vincent album and hear new recordings of the traditional country music style.”

What surprises most about Only Me is how regularly country and bluegrass mingle. In theory, the two styles are grouped separately on the album. But the title song, which boasts help from Willie Nelson, along with an update of the vintage country duet We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds (performed on Only Me with Daryle Singletary) wind up among the bluegrass songs while Jerry Irby’s Drivin’ Nails, which Vincent cut over a decade ago with the Rage as a bluegrass romp has been retooled and cast among the country material.

“The obvious thing would have been to have Daryle Singletary on the country side and have Willie on the country side, but I wanted to do something really different. And as for Willie, he fits in anywhere. He’s the universal artist. He could sing with anyone and still be himself. He doesn’t alter his voice at all but always seems to blend so well. I was so amazed and so excited to work with him.”

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage perform at 8 p.m. March 12 at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College. Admission is free. Call (859) 985-3359 or go to berea.edu/convocations.

in performance: natalie macmaster and donnell leahy

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

The promise by Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy to transport a Sunday afternoon audience at the EKU Center for the Arts to Cape Breton, the Canadian headquarters of Scottish inspired fiddle music, didn’t initially sound too fetching to some in attendance.

“Canada? Really? After this week?” remarked one patron seated nearby who was likely still in thaw mode following the 18 inches of snow that buried Richmond three days earlier. But much like the abundant sunshine and 50 degree temps that were defrosting the city yesterday, the mix of contemporary and traditional jigs, airs and reels offered by MacMaster and Leahy made Cape Breton seem especially inviting.

Presenting a program titled Visions from Cape Breton and Beyond, the husband and wife duo offered an understandably varied representation of the island’s fiddle traditions. MacMaster is a Cape Breton native and one of the great modern champions of her homeland’s dance hall inspired music. That was especially evident during vibrant string blasts supported only by piano. Leahy grew up in Ontario with a mother who was a Cape Breton step dancer. So, needless to say, everyone’s feet were flying yesterday, from the stars of the show to three of their six children (all of whom were also wickedly adept fiddlers for their young ages) to band members.

Of course, the program did mention the music would venture “beyond” Cape Breton. As such, several medleys were full of multi-stylistic charm. The show opening St. Nick’s, merrily shifted between Celtic flavored fun and Americanized swing while The Chase allowed in classical and even gypsy flavored accents.

But the most richly emotive tune was also the one truest to Cape Breton itself. During the centuries old Scottish air Hector the Hero, MacMaster downshifted to explore a melody of simple, sterling beauty. Fittingly, a simultaneous video backdrop depicted Cape Breton not as some coastal branch of the Great White North, but as a retreat of rolling green countryside that could have passed for Scotland itself.

The visuals, and the lovely music they accentuated, may have been intended as a beckoning from a far away land that suggested an even farther away land. Yesterday, though, it was hard to view Hector’s mix of green hills and plaintive fiddle lyricism as anything other than an invitation to spring.

the family that fiddles together

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

natalie macmaster and donnell leahy.

It’s a sobering state of affairs to suspect, just after marriage, that you and your beloved don’t really make beautiful music together after all.

Donnell Leahy, fiddler and leader of the celebrated Celtic family band from Ontario that bears his surname, thought as much in a very literal sense once he and the acclaimed Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster tied the knot in 2012.

“It was just after we got married,” Leahy said. “Someone taped a house party set we played. In listening back to it, we just didn’t sound very good together. Each of us were covering up the other’s styles. It was just this big jumble. But what we found was that if we write together or learn a tune together, things sorted themselves out.”

Just over 12 years and six children later, the first couple of Canadian Celtic music will release their first ever collaborative album this spring – an appealing mix of traditional, contemporary and original fiddle-saturated tunes titled simply One.

The title, of course, implies unity. But before exploring the project, or the tour that brings MacMaster and Leahy to the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond on Sunday, there was the matter of solidifying common ground between their differing fiddle styles. After that came an even mightier task – the logistics of plotting a recording and tour for two artists with separate careers and a joint household.

“We have very different styles,” Leahy said. “Natalie is a Cape Breton player. She grew up in Cape Breton listening to Cape Breton fiddlers. I grew up in Ontario without that kind of style around me. But I listened to my father play the fiddle. I listened to the radio. I listened to accordion music because I had a friend who was an Irish accordion player. Any Cape Breton music I heard came from my mother playing it on the piano.

“Natalie and I intended on recording together for awhile, but I had projects planned and she had projects planned. Then babies started to arrive. It just kept getting delayed and there was never any time. Basically, this project should have been done eight years ago. It got to the point where we said, ‘Okay, this is ridiculous. We have to record.’ So we put everything else aside and said, ‘This is what we’re doing’ and made it happen.”

Enter a totally unexpected guest to serve as the project’s producer – Bob Ezrin. Over the last four decades, the fellow Canadian has produced such high profile records as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Kiss’ Destroyer, Lou Reed’s Berlin, Peter Gabriel’s self-titled solo debut and all of Alice Cooper’s career-defining albums from the early ‘70s.

That begs the question of how things went in the studio when a veteran rock producer takes on a Celtic fiddle album.

 

“Bob called us up,” Leahy said. “He heard that we were making a record and said he would like to be involved, so we met. He brought such a great attitude and, of course, all that experience. But he also brought great ears. He brought honesty and a great sense of arranging.”

Then there is the family situation. Who tends to the children back home when mom and dad are fiddling around on tour? Simple. No one is because the kids are part of the road crew.

“Our duties at home are on the road,” Leahy said. “We bring all the children with us, which is really the only way we could do this. The kids love it. They love the music and they love the excitement of being on tour with swimming pools and tour buses and new cities.

“We home school our children, as well, which is necessary for our lifestyle. But we get the schoolwork done quickly so the day is left for us to see museums and check the hockey scores.”

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy perform at 3 p.m. March 8 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets: $23-$36. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to ekucenter.com.

critic’s pick 264: robert earl keen, ‘happy prisoner – the bluegrass sessions; steve earle and the dukes, ‘terraplane’

robt earl keenIn the liner notes to their two newest recordings, Texas-bred troubadours Robert Earl Keen and Steve Earle outline the appeal of two linked yet different musical turfs that remove them from their Lone Star roots.

For Keen’s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, the draw was a mix of urgency and intimacy. “I like to imagine sitting on the floor watching the guitar player curled around his instrument, strumming for his life,” he writes.

The resulting music on Happy Prisoner is a compromise of sorts. Beefing up his veteran band with some primo progressive string music pals (vocalist/songsmith Peter Rowan, banjoist Danny Barnes, fiddler Sara Watkins) to take on a repertoire that constitutes a bluegrass sampler (Old Home Place, East Virginia Blues, Footprints in the Snow), Keen summons a back porch feel as warm and whimsical as his own music.

But Keen’s ace-in-the-hole trait, however, has long been an ability to take to songs of desolation and loss as readily as his more bemusing tunes. As such, he offers powerful yet understated deliveries of outlaw ballads both classic (the immortal Long Black Veil) and contemporary (the Del McCoury by-way-of-Richard Thompson hit 52 Vincent Black Lightning). The lighter fraternal cast of T for Texas with longtime Lone Star running buddy Lyle Lovett is an extra fun bonus.

steve earleEarle has distanced himself from his home state – at least, geographically (he currently resides in New York) – but not its musical reach, as shown by the seasoned drawl of his singing and the often specific inspirations he has embraced (typlified by Townes, his Grammy winning tribute album to Texas songwriting great Townes Van Zandt).

Terraplane adjusts that vision somewhat and scoots it over into blues territory, wherever that may be. “They run so deep and dark and close to the bone that folks walk around every day with the blues as though it were perfectly natural for a human being to go on living with a broken heart,” Earle writes in the Terraplane notes.

That translates neatly into the album’s 10 original songs, which summon senses of restlessness, loss, lust and eerie independence. The latter fuels Acquainted with the Wind, a dark rambler’s affirmation set to a jagged electric romp colored by the guitar and fiddle accents of the Mastersons (the husband and wife duo of Chris Masterson and fiddler Eleanor Whitmore) and the rustic rhythms Earle summons on mandolin.

Equally evocative are Baby’s Just as Mean as Me (a congenial lovers’ spat performed as a rag-flavored duet with Whitmore), The Usual Time (an Elmore James-meets-Carl Perkins style saga of troubled desire) and especially Better Off Alone (a romantic postscript beset by loss and magnified by an absolutely evil guitar groove).

All offer shades of blue enhanced by a master storyteller’s uncompromising candor.

in performance : cameron carpenter

cameron carpenter.

cameron carpenter.

The only costume change a very all-business Cameron Carpenter allowed himself last night at Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts in Danville was the between-set exchange of a long sleeve shirt covered in fashionable graffiti for a black t-shirt with the Centre logo embossed in glitter.

“I’ll be sure to wear this next week when I give a master class at Harvard.” Such was one of the pokerfaced quips the Julliard-educated, Grammy nominated artist peppered a two hour display of his remarkable international touring organ with.

While humor played a modest role in the performance, Carpenter’s plan of action was implementing a largely classical repertoire to showcase a self-designed instrument that was essentially a digital hybrid of a traditional pipe organ and the comparatively contemporary theater organ.

The instrument, along with several massive banks of speakers (including one augmented with large, horn-shaped resonators) cut imposing figures onstage and created rich waves of sound, especially on organ pieces like Bach’s Toccata in F Major, that circulated to fill every corner within the Norton Center’s Newlin Hall.

But as distinctive as the gadgetry was, it was Carpenter’s technical command and sense of playfulness that made the program so engaging. The show opening treatment of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and the second set-closer, Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, were performed with scholarly cool, despite the compositional storm the latter brewed into, that made the music seem more inviting than imposing.

The more playfully devilish side of Carpenter’s performance profile emerged during Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture. Here, the Wurlitzer half of the international touring organ presented itself with an accent resembling a calliope. Together with Carpenter’s exact but highly animated phrasing, the piece took on an almost cartoon-like quality.

The program happily strayed from classical works, as well. A second set medley of George Gershwin tunes was designed, according to the mohawked organist, to “let my inner nerd run free, not that it hasn’t already.” But the performance turned decidedly summery for an encore of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse chestnut Pure Imagination that briefly brought to mind the subtle, lyrical playing of an altogether different organ pioneer, Booker T. Jones.

All that and a Centre shirt, too – kind of makes you wonder if Harvard will be hip enough to handle it all next week.

black keys, avett brothers to headline bunbury

the black keys, dan auebach and patrick carney, will headline this summer's bunbury music festival in cincinnati.

the black keys, dan auerbach and patrick carney, will headline this summer’s bunbury music festival in cincinnati.

Another sign of summertime revealed itself yesterday. Specifically, the initial performance lineup of the Bunbury Music Festival was announced along with concert dates for the event that are a month earlier than in recent years.

Confirmed Bunbury acts in 2015 include The Black Keys, The Avett Brothers, Snoop Dogg, The Decemberists, Old Crow Medicine Show, Father John Misty, Walk the Moon, Manchester Orchestra, Kacey Musgraves, The Devil Makes Three, Reverend Horton Heat, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and many others. Performance times are to be announced.

As in its three previous years, Bunbury will be presented on multiple stages throughout Sawyer Point and Yeatman’s Cove along the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati. But for 2015, the festival has been moved from mid July to June 5, 6 and 7. That distances it further from the competing Forecastle in Louisville, which has already announced a lineup that includes Sam Smith, Modest Mouse, Widespread Panic and the city’s own My Morning Jacket and Houndmouth on July 17, 18 and 19.

The Buckle-Up Festival, Bunbury’s country/Americana sister event, won’t be back this year. According to its website, the event will return in 2016. Both festivals were acquired by PromoWest Productions last fall.

Tickets for Bunbury and Forecastle are on sale through ticketmaster.com. For additional info on each event, along with full lists of confirmed acts, go to bunburyfestival.com or forecastlefestcom.

redefining the organ

cameron carpenter.

cameron carpenter.

Flamboyant. It is almost impossible to read a review of a Cameron Carpenter performance where the word is not utilized as a critical summation to a concert sound that is wholly revolutionary.

It’s also a tag Carpenter can’t get his head around. A pioneer of the classical organ, he has literally uprooted the instrument from its cathedral roots, modernized it into a creation of his own portable design and built a repertoire around it that runs from Bach to Bernstein to Bacharach. Depending on your viewpoint, that makes Carpenter a renaissance man or a renegade.

But flamboyant? That’s a tag he neither understands nor appreciates.

“There is a continuing suspicion that the music and the personality are different, and I’ve never understood why this should seem so,” said Carpenter, via email this week from his home in Berlin. “ ‘Flamboyance’ is, at this point, a word that has more meaning as a euphemism for queer – a state which can still ill afford to allow any euphemisms.”

The current thrust of the Julliard trained, Grammy nominated Carpenter’s career is an instrument of his own design called the International Touring Organ. A digital creation utilizing samples of traditional pipe organs (as well as such offspring as the Wurlitzer), it is a modernization of instruments housed in cathedrals around the world. In Cameron’s hands, though, the most epic of organ sounds have become portable.

“The instrument behaves exactly as we – meaning, not only me, but its visionary builders, (the Massachusetts team of) Marshall & Ogletree – envisioned, and is almost anticlimatically consistent and well-behaved in this wonderful way. With a few correctible exceptions, I seem to have not totally embarrassed myself in its design, which proposes a hybridization of the mid-century prim and poetic American classical organ with its less respectable, ruder, decadent, not-too-well preserved, off-color half-sister, the much more eccentric theater organ. Their reunion has been difficult to negotiate but I think we’ve broken ground there.

“Understanding this, I am constantly revising it, usually to add more wildness, violence, vulgarity, and randomness, which any great organ must have in spades. Glorious, holy, and majestic are illusions and, as such, squarely easy to manufacture musically and acoustically. Any old electronic organ with light-up thingummies, any old racks of pipes in whatever church balcony can imply that in a ‘good enough for anyone’ sort of way. The richness and personality of real imperfection, though, is a more challenging task.”

Last year, Carpenter put the new International Touring Organ to work in the recording studio. The result was If You Could Read My Mind, a record with a repertoire as distinctive as its sound. Alongside an adaptation of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and his own Music for an Imaginary Film are organ revisions of Leonard Bernstein’ Overture to Candide, Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, the Patsy Cline hit Back in My Baby’s Arms and the Gordon Lightfoot classic that serves as the record’s title composition.

“The International Touring Organ is, actually, totally remarkable in several regards, but it’s still just an organ. It’s a conduit to a live emotional experience. It’s not actually the organ at all that I’m interested in promoting, but, of course, the music I’m making. Here you find one of the organ’s perilous paradoxes. It’s the most impressive instrument technically and physically, but miles of pipe and wire are meaningless on their own. The scale of the machine, in league with its weighty history, is observably a stumbling block to any organist who pays the usual unskeptical obeisance to it in demeanor, repertoire, and style.”

How then, does the viewpoint of many classical enthusiasts that see modifications of performance, repertoire and instrumentation deemed traditional as a form of musical heresy enter into Carpenter’s new world order of the International Touring Organ?

“I don’t care for anyone’s opinions, good or ill, other than my own,” he said. “A funny thing: there’s a lot of lip service in the collective consciousness about how great it is not to care about other’s opinions, but in practice it’s usually received as arrogance, or antisociality. Therein comes the real test of whether you care or not, of course.”

Cameron Carpenter performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Newlin Hall, Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or got to www.nortoncenter.com.

Carpenter will also participate in a pre-concert Gallery Talk with Centre College art professor Sheldon Tapley entitled “Reinterpreting Traditional Art Forms in Contemporary Society.” The 7 p.m. discussion will be held at the Grand Foyer of the Norton Center in conjunction with Beyond the Window, an exhibition of paintings by Zeuxis artists.

in performance: the hot sardines

the hot sardines. from left: joe mcdonough, evan "sugar" crane, jason prover, alex raderman, "miz" elizabeth bougerol, evan "bibs" palazzo, "fast" eddy francisco and nick meyers.  photo by leann mueller/decca records.

the hot sardines. from left: joe mcdonough, evan “sugar” crane, jason prover, alex raderman, “miz” elizabeth bougerol, evan “bibs” palazzo, “fast” eddy francisco and nick meyers. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

“We’re going to dedicate this one to your weather,” said Hot Sardines singer “Miz” Elizabeth Bougerol last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond.

With that, the New York swing troupe devised a quiet killer of a jazz delicacy that seemed to glow from the inside out. It began with a serving of piano blues and bowed bass from bandleader Evan “Bibs” Palazzo and Evan “Sugar” Crane that lingered like a dark lullaby. Brass eventually oozed in before Bougerol gave the brewing music a stark but decidedly torchy turn. A trumpet coda from Jason Prover brought everything to a boil before a final ensemble blast let the air out and brought this subtle but deceptively intense display to a close.

The tune, fittingly enough, was Summertime. While this was perhaps the one tune in the 90 minute show least indicative of the Hot Sardines’ studious swing, it made for the most distinctive and captivating performance of the evening.

The rest of the program generated more of party atmosphere with a mix of standards penned or popularized by Fats Waller, Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby and others along with band originals that used pre-World War II swing and jazz as their home bases before taking a number of inventive stylistic strolls.

The wilder turns included an instrumental version of Blue Skies that became a fun performance vehicle for tap dancer “Fast” Eddy Francisco, a revision of The Jungle Book’s I Wanna Be Like You sung by Bougerol in French (but fortified with enough American jazz sass to make the resulting music sound more French Quarter than French) and a set closing Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen that curiously placed most of the band’s eight members on their backs on the stage floor, including reed player Nick Meyers. His concluding clarinet solo sounded like it had erupted out the venue’s basement.

The one member who did not wind up horizontal during the song was a very pregnant Bougerol. When asked by an audience member when her baby was due, the singer dryly replied, ‘Well, if we don’t get this song started…”

sardines and swing

the hot sardines. top to bottom: jason prover, nick myers, joe mcdonough, evan "sugar" cane, alex raderman, evan "bibs" palazzo. left: "miz" elizabeth bougerol. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

the hot sardines. top to bottom: jason prover, nick myers, joe mcdonough, evan “sugar” crane, alex raderman, evan “bibs” palazzo. left: “miz” elizabeth bougerol. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

At a glance, it would be easy to view the Hot Sardines in strictly revivalist terms.

You have a New York bred band with a singer reared in France, Canada and the Ivory Coast wielding a repertoire that reaches back to the ‘20s,’30s and ‘40s for inspiration. Then you hear sounds that come from as nearby as Harlem and as remote as Paris and New Orleans. At the forefront of the band’s music – and, in particular, its self-titled major label debut album – is vintage swing. But gypsy and creole accents, all kind of jazz spirits and bountiful performance immediacy are also at work. The result is a sound that hints heavily at the past but possesses an undeniable here-and-now vitality.

In short, while the music is not contemporary, it’s not a museum piece either.

“That is the take we really hope people will have about the album and the music we perform live,” said Hot Sardines pianist, bandleader and co-founder Evan “Bibs” Palazzo. “The music isn’t dusty in the way we approach it because we know it so well. Our attitude about the music is that it’s universal and perfect for the 21st century. It’s very joyous. The way we express joy may be a little different than how people are used to, but there is no mystery to it. It’s what we love and we play it how we feel it.”

The Hot Sardines formed when Palazzo’s wife placed a Craiglist ad seeking a jam session with enthusiasts of vintage “hot” jazz. That introduced the pianist to Parisian-born singer “Miz” Elizabeth Bougerol. In turn, that led to a pack of like-minded jazzers that included a tap dancer (“Fast” Eddy Francisco) and, eventually, an itinerary heavy on subway busking, bar gigs and open mic nights.

Enter a rave-like performance phenomenon – an underground speakeasy movement, to be exact – that quickly earned the Hot Sardines a cultish but devout following.

“You would go online, get a password and then an address comes to your email for where you need to go on a given Saturday night,” Palazzo said. “It was usually a warehouse in deep Brooklyn, somewhere non-descript. But 300 or 400 people in their 20 and 30s would come out dressed like it was the ‘20s. When you walk in, these places would be decked out like a nightclub. There was burlesque, cocktails, the whole nine yards. We kind of cut our teeth by discovering this circuit. Eventually, other people came to these underground events, like Lincoln Center, for instance. So, really, our reputation and our opportunities flowed from that.”

Flash forward to late 2014. Balancing residencies in such noted New York venues as Joe’s Pub with international touring, the band released The Hot Sardines, an album on Decca/Universal boasting classic jazz works by Fats Waller (Honeysuckle Rose), Sidney Bechet (Petite Fleur) and Victor Young (I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You) as well as similarly structured originals (the Bougerol tunes Wake Up in Paris and Let’s Go.

“Elizabeth always says we’re old souls. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know my parents and her parents played this music for us in our formative years, so it definitely formed our understanding of music from the get-go.

“Now here we are with a lifelong hobby that has turned professional. Every night we get to have the greatest party with a great group of people. It’s a very social music with a real romantic sense to it, too, that may be a little bit lacking in music today.

“I see a lot of couples coming out and it’s always the same scene. The ladies are into the whole thing – the outfits, the fishnet stockings – and they’re dragging along their guys who are usually just wearing their business suits with maybe a fedora. But by the time the night’s over, they think it’s pretty awesome. All of that draws me to this music.”

The Hot Sardines perform at 7:30 tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to www.ekucenter.com

critic’s pick 263 : the mavericks, ‘mono’

mavericks monoNeed a shot of warmth, soul and cheer after the winter assault of recent weeks? Then slip on Mono, the fabulous new album from the Mavericks, and proceed directly to track no. 2 – a ballroom-sized party piece called Summertime (When I’m With You). Percolating with a groove that falls somewhere Cuban pop and Jamaican ska, the song comes fortified with summery brass, the towering vocals of Raul Malo and a spring-like attitude that shines so brilliantly that ol’ man winter has no choice but to scram.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Mono finds the Mavericks having braved some turbulence of their own. The record is the band’s first release without founding bassist Robert Reynolds who was let go last year because of an opiate addiction. Interviews with Malo and the other band members stress the firing was difficult and painful for all involved. While its aftermath is never directly felt in the 11 songs Malo wrote or co-wrote for Mono, one may sense an echo of the split in the lyrics to Let It Rain (“Oh, let it rain, so it can wash away sorrows and pains”) and especially Out the Door (“The cards are on the table, the deal is up and gone”). But even in these instances, the warmth and elegance of the music override any dour sentiments, from the light guitar and accordion sway that dances under Malo’s Roy Orbison-like singing on the former tune to the finger-popping drive that recalls vintage Dwight Yoakam on Out the Door.

The latter reference is one of the few country accents on Mono. Though the Mavericks began life as a country outfit, the reliance on Malo’s Cuban roots, encyclopedic pop command and colossus voice long ago gave a global cast to the band’s music. Mono stays the course.

The opening All Night Long boasts a huge Havana strut indicative of Marc Anthony (save for the fact Malo is by far the stronger singer), Fascinate Me stands as a sterling slo-mo crooner and the closing cover of Doug Sahm’s Nitty Gritty (the only non-Malo tune on Mono) swaps cultures in favor of champion Tex Mex fun and some suitably spicy guitar fire and Augie Meyers-inspired keyboard colorings from Eddie Perez and Jerry Dale McFadden.

But the crescendo of Mono (and, yes, the entire album was recorded gloriously in exactly that) comes with (Waiting for) The World to End, a cleverly astute view of mortality (“Just live your life until you die, my friend”) set to an unavoidably infectious groove beset by brass and piano.

It’s a fitting highlight. Having survived a split with one of their own, the Mavericks make the apocalypse sound and seem like a veritable day at the beach. What could be a better respite from winter than that?

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