in performance: red, white and boom 2018

Brad Paisley. Photo by Jim Shea.

Can one detect a country music artist’s influence by the t-shirt they’re wearing? Let’s take a quick check of the artists corralled into Rupp Arena last night for round two of Red, White and Boom 2018 to find out.

Florida-born Jake Owen donned an Aerosmith tee and wound up bounding about the stage with the tireless physicality of a gymnast. A spike haired bass guitarist for Chase Rice wore a Metallica shirt, which added to a set already ripe with ample rhythmic crunch (and click tracks and rockish pop and song scenarios R. Kelly might happily call his own). Show opener Ashley McBryde chose a Grateful Dead shirt – and, frankly, any stylistic connections between that and her music eluded me.

The point is that the artists setting up last night’s Boom episode showed considerable stylistic disparity that often drifted far from what even progressive fans might call country music. All of that made headliner Brad Paisley – dressed in logo-less black – sound decidedly old school in comparison.

Paisley, once a Rupp regular but now an infrequent guest playing his first show at the venue in over six years, plotted a course for the familiar – meaning amiable and largely upbeat songs (the introductory “Mud on the Tires” and the unlikely roll-in-the-cosmopolitan-country-hay yarn “Ticks”) dressed with equally sunny vocal leads.

But with Paisley, everything always comes down to the guitar work. No other arena-level country artist can match his level of musicianship (although Keith Urban comes close at times). For songs like “Last Time for Everything,” his playing sounded like a hybrid of Nashville picking tradition a la Chet Atkins beefed up with the bravado of Britain’s more schooled and tasteful fretmen (Mark Knopfler and Richard Thompson come to mind). Sure, the overall playful aspects of Paisley’s performance – the feux cell phone duet with Carrie Underwood on “Remind Me,” the video pastiche with members of the veteran country troupe Alabama for “Old Alabama” and even the more sobering video showdown with John Fogerty on “Love and War” – added to show’s balance. But Paisley sounded best, by far, when his fingers did the talking.

Owen’s preceding set took top honors for boundless energy. Lyrically, songs like “Beachin’” and “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” leaned toward the pedestrian. But there was such a marked and consistent physical drive to Owen’s performance – which included a brisk lap around the arena floor – that it was tough to knock the audience friendly feel of his set. The singer upped that mood with a solo acoustic reading of the late Kentucky country star Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”

Before that came Kane Brown, a singer with a back story of childhood strife no country song would dare depict (save for his own autobiographical “Learning”). Curiously, tunes like “Found You,” “Hometown” and especially “Pull It Off” were really modern dance-pop party pieces with a vocal cool that bordered on the automated. Last night’s audience of 8.500 ate them all up. But any serious country elements were, to these ears, undetectable.

A preceding set by Rice sounded almost as foreign. Bolstered by a pair of guitarists that favored warp-speed Eddie Van Halen riffs and the type of coerced headbanging that seemed more a product of Spinal Tap than Metallica, Rice let his lack of concern for stylistic pigeonholing be known during the royal come-on song “Ride” and the outlandishly rockish “Lions.”

McBryde, in her second Rupp outing in under a year, delivered the earthiest set of the evening, recounting tales of rural country misadventure (“Rattlesnake Preacher”), broader social myth-busting (“American Scandal”) and hapless domestic displacement (“Tired of Being Happy”) with a vocal command as natural, insightful and arresting as her material.

in performance: george clinton and parliament-funkadelic

George Clinton.

How appropriate that one of the most telling and emotive performance glimpses of George Clinton would also serve as his Lexington parting shot.

During the closing moments of an uproarious two-hour concert last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the only (so far) regional booking on what is being promoted as a farewell tour, the funk patriarch stood beaming amid a stage flooded with members of his vast Parliament-Funkadelic entourage and patrons invited up from the audience. As everyone behind him (roughly 30 or so eager followers) barked out the pop-boppish chorus to “Atomic Dog,” Clinton flashed a smile of childlike glee. Then as the celebration kicked into overdrive, he blew the audience a kiss, faded into the grooving masses and disappeared.

One could dissect this performance, relish over the song selection and even fault it at times on technical precision. But it terms of sheer soul and spirit, it was endless fun and a sublime example of what a potent motivational force Clinton still is in concert.

At age 77, the P-Funk headmaster understandably paced himself onstage. He sat for probably one-third of the show, but even then he was openly involved with the joy and action playing out before him. When you think of it, his prime performance role has long been that of cheerleader. As a vocalist, he shouted a few choruses but left most of the vocal duties to other band members. Clinton didn’t play an instrument, but with a P-Funk ensemble that averaged about 16 musicians and singers, he didn’t need to. Still, his presence last night was an integral element to the music, much of which he has written, co-written and produced over the past 50 years.

Clinton spanned much of that tenure at the show’s onset by inserting the chorus of the 1970 Funkadelic relic “I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody’s Got a Thing” into the opening “I’m Gon Make U Sick O’Me,” a song from a Parliament album (“Medicaid Fraud Dogg”) released earlier this summer.

The repertoire occasionally dipped far enough into the past to illuminate what used to be a marked difference in stylistic temperament between Parliament and Funkadelic. That was demonstrated most generously on the 1971 Funkadelic instrumental “Maggot Brain,” once a showcase for the late guitarist Eddie Hazel, but now a wondrous vehicle for Blackbyrd McKnight. With the band whittled down initially to a trio, McKnight stoically stormed through the tune’s psychedelic slow-burn, a blast of raw blues and soul-inspired introspection. Clinton sat behind him, flashing more broad smiles like a justifiably proud father figure.

More popular – and, ultimately, more streamlined – funk party pieces like “Flash Light,” “One Nation Under a Groove” and “Cosmic Slop” blurred the boundaries of the two bands into the more familiar P-Funk hybrid.

It wasn’t a polished affair. The performance possessed a coarse immediacy with a spaciousness that allowed one song to unexpectedly crash headfirst into another. Similarly, the onstage traffic was heavy with band members exiting and entering constantly, often during songs.

But all that added to the merriment. Operating as a sort of mash-up of Frank Zappa, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, this funk circus proved jovial and infectious to the end, setting the stage for a grand and gracious exit for its rightly honored ringmaster.

aretha franklin, 1942-2018

Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.

Some friends and I had gathered at Josie’s for breakfast this morning. We discussed bad movies, politics and getting old – the usual rubbish. Then the five or six televisions in the eatery tuned to almost as many different news stations all switched to a breaking topic.


We knew the passing of Aretha Franklin was imminent, given reports of her failing health and subsequent hospice care. But that didn’t lessen the blow. If you saw a train coming at you, even in slow motion, would that lighten the fury and devastation of its ultimate impact?

Bearing the often touted but still rightly earned title of Queen of Soul, Franklin was the kind of artist whose influence upon modern music simply cannot be understated.

As a vocalist and soul music stylist, she was unparalleled. She could take a gospel staple like “Amazing Grace,” a watershed Carole King tune like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” or a classic work by one of her contemporaries, like Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and make them sound remarkably like-minded. The blend of stamina, soul, grace, joy and intensity within her vocals was so assuredly balanced that Franklin made any song she sang her own. But there was always emotive variety. Her performances could be as soothing as a whisper, as persuasive as a preacher or as unrelentingly forceful as a battering ram.

As a woman artist that came to prominence during the ‘60s, she was also a towering voice of independence. There were others, of course, who strayed from roads to stardom created solely on image. But Franklin was as strong as oak when it came to standing up for herself, her music and her career. “Respect” wasn’t just a song for her. It was a mantra forever ingrained into her entire artistic being. No wonder so many women continue to champion the song 50 years after it became a hit.

There was humor, too. It’s tough to forget her single, show-stealing scene in John Landis’ 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.” That’s where Franklin played the owner of a soul food restaurant that led a diner dance hall routine centered around “Think” as a defiant ultimatum to her husband (played by Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who died in June). Of course, that followed her matter-of-factly pegging the film’s lead characters, Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) as “two honkies dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants.”

But Franklin’s departure runs deeper than that. She was one of the last connections this generation had to the vanguard soul music fashioned by Atlantic Records and its subsidiary labels during the late 1960s – a stable of artists that included Redding, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and many others. Their music, of course, has been thankfully immortalized on recordings. But there will simply never be another sound to equal that Atlantic era’s sense of natural, impassioned R&B.

My favorite Franklin song? That’s easy. It was the title tune to the first Aretha album I ever bought – “Spirit in the Dark.” Released in the fall of 1970, its sound was slightly looser and less produced, but was in no way less fervent. Composed by Franklin, the song is essentially a gospel work fashioned during a time when the youthful idealism of the late ‘60s had vanished, leaving a social fabric weather-beaten by Vietnam and racial strife. But like many great gospel works, it opens with a quiet glimmer of hope before eventually boiling over with tent-revival style jubilation.

“Tell me, my brother, brother, brother, how do you feel?” Franklin sings as the song gathers steam. “Do you feel like dancing? Then get up and let’s start dancing.”

That might seem less empowering than the chorus of “Respect.” But for today, the day the Queen has left us, it is comforting advice. After all, when the spirit in the dark comes out into the light and invites you to dance, don’t ask. Just start moving.”


in performance: david byrne

David Byrne. Photo by Jody Rogac.

During one of the first greetings he gave the audience last night at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati, David Byrne proudly came clean. He admitted, without prejudice to modern pop technology, that every note, beat, melody and backing vocal fueling his beguiling one-and-three-quarter hour performance, was produced organically and in real time by a band that often rivaled the head Talking Head himself for crowd attention.
That’s because the 11 members of Byrne’s ensemble – over half of which were percussionists – were as much of a portable fixture as Byrne. Operating from a stage completely barren of platforms, monitors or anchored equipment of any kind, the musicians – all dressed in matching grey suits, all barefoot – became a performance composite of marching band, dance squad and street parade crew. The show, in fact, stayed put only at its onset, when Byrne was seated alone onstage at a table pondering a model of a human brain the way Hamlet pontificated over the skull of Yorick. The tune this set up was “Here” – curiously, the finale song to Byrne’s new “American Utopia” album.
Singer/dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba slipped onstage during the opening and remained Byrne’s tireless performance lieutenants for much of the evening. The bulk of the rhythm section was introduced during the riotously joyous “Lazy” (an obscure bonus track from 2004’s “Grown Backwards”) before the full percussive might of the band fell in line for the 1979 Talking Heads dervish “I Zimbra.”
That the band remained in constant motion (often, choreographed motion) was dazzling enough. But the fact it sounded so clear, vibrant and, frankly, resourceful, added a true sense of fascination. Take for instance the transformation of two “American Utopia” tunes that proved to be vast improvements on their studio versions. During “I Dance Like This,” the robotic chorus originally constructed around pulsating synthesizers was propelled by three members of the percussion team tapping out beats on the single-string berimbau. Earlier, for “Everybody’s Coming to My House” (arguably the new album’s most arresting tune), the entire melodic structure opened up with rich vocal and keyboard textures.
As for Byrne himself, he remained something of a pop wonder. At 66, he sang with unblemished clarity and verve, whether it was during the jubilant “Every Day is a Miracle” (also from “American Utopia”) or a densely patterned but modestly streamlined take on Talking Heads’ turbulent “The Great Curve.” It was also a kick to watch a discreet lighting effect produce a colossus-sized shadow of the singer during the Talking Heads obscurity “Blind” in a way that brought to mind similar hijinks from the vanguard concert film “Stop Making Sense.”
While there were hints of topical protest, especially during the encore cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Taimbout” (where Byrne and the entire band reverted to percussion), this was a purposely good natured, even polite program. You could tell just how keenly Byrne was minding his manners when he half apologized for a lyric in the “American Utopia” tune “Dog’s Mind” that referenced “doggy dancers doing duty.”
“By that, I meant obligation,” Byrne sheepishly told the crowd. “Not the other kind.”

in performance: montgomery gentry

Eddie Montgomery onstage last night for Montgomery Gentry’s performance at Manchester Music Hall. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

“It’s so awesome to be home, baby,” shouted Eddie Montgomery five songs into a fun and suitably scrappy sounding performance last night at Manchester Music Hall.

But the show was far from a mere homecoming. This was the first Montgomery Gentry outing on Lexington turf without co-frontman Troy Gentry, who died 11 months ago in a helicopter crash. So while the sizeable audience turnout knew what to expect musically, it was really anyone’s guess as to how this homegrown outfit, one that got its start in local clubs two decades ago and before that as band brethren to elder sibling John Michael Montgomery, would sound with one of its chieftains gone.

That’s a query last night’s show couldn’t entirely answer. The immediate state of affairs relating to a Gentry-less Montgomery Gentry, though, seemed quite hopeful. Montgomery has always been a jubilant performer, serving as much as a cheerleading foil to his now-departed partner as he has as a frontman and singer. The latter attributes came front-and-center last night near the onset of the performance with “Lonely and Gone,” a song that reached back to Montgomery Gentry’s 1999 debut album, “Tattoos & Scars.” The tune let Montgomery’s loose, smoky tenor free against a modestly churchy, mid-tempo backdrop. It was perhaps the most concise and expressive vocal showing Montgomery would present all evening.

The song also offered a somewhat reserved contrast to the more electric, Southern rock-rooted flair that powered such anthemic works as the swing-savvy “All Night Long” and especially the dark and sobering “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm.”

But these were all shades of the Montgomery we knew – a musical spirit that, thankfully, doesn’t appeared to have been impaired by the loss of his onstage partner. That Montgomery’s performance gusto was still roaring proudly was easily the more encouraging aspect of the concert.

The bigger question sat with how Montgomery Gentry was going to deal with the bulk of tunes Gentry sang or shared lead on. To that end, several members of the six-member Montgomery Gentry band (half of which were guitarists) stepped in to handle the high end harmonies on the show-opening “Where I Come From” and especially the tireless party piece “Hell Yeah.”

Especially telling was a reworked version of “Roll With Me,” a power ballad and longtime Gentry concert showpiece from 2008’s “Back When I Knew It All.” Last night, keyboardist Eddie Kilgallon took over vocal duties in a faithful performance that didn’t get built up as a tribute but stood as one all the same.

That was the most overt adjustment to the repertoire. The rest of the 90 minute set integrated band members more gently – a verse or chorus here, a harmony line there. The rest relied on Montgomery’s high spirits, from the reminiscences he gave of his Central Kentucky friends before launching the group’s biggest hit “My Town” late in the evening to his crowd instruction on the tipsy chorus to “Drink Along Song,” one of two tunes pulled from the “Here’s to You” album, which was completed only days before Gentry’s crash.

So the big takeaway from last night’s show was that Montgomery Gentry, for now, seems to be fine with one engine running and an able support staff taking on extra duties. What the future holds is a tough call. This is group that was built as a partnership with two different but oddly complimentary personalities sharing leadership duties equally. There was enough of Gentry’s spirit on hand last night to rekindle that balance onstage. But how this will play out should Montgomery choose to carry the band name on for another album with his singular persona running the show sets up an altogether different dilemma.

For now, though, there is ample reason to celebrate Montgomery Gentry as a still vital and entertaining performance entity. Even if one of the guests of honor was unavoidably absent last night, it was inspiring just to have everyone else home again.

in performance: saturday at forecastle 2018

Margo Price, the new Queen of Forecastle, performing this afternoon at Waterfront Park in Louisville. Herald-Leader staff photo by Alex Slitz.

LOUISVILLE – Kentucky native Chris Stapleton was the headliner. But this typically diverse Saturday at Forecastle belonged to a pair of hearty country upstarts – Margo Price and Brent Cobb. At temperatures swelled to 94 before much of the music even started,  the day eventually gave to very welcome cloud cover, a minimalist symphony, a hip hop celebration and the arrival, 40 minutes late, of the guest of honor.

Here is how this summer Saturday at Forecastle played out.

10:51 p.m.: Chris Stapleton. Here we hit the day’s only snag – a 40 minute delay due to “technical difficulties.” That didn’t detract from Kentucky native Stapleton’s rustic country allure, though. His electric works, like the show-opening “Midnight Train to Memphis,” possessed a dark, swampy atmosphere that the scratchier recesses of Stapleton’s singing brought to ominous life. Other tunes, like the bluesier “Nobody to Blame” or the more raggedly country “Hard Livin’,” were performed with a more sobering and soulful accent.

9:40 p.m.: The War on Drugs. If you didn’t see everything playing out onstage, you would have sworn a recording was slipped on the sound system as The War on Drugs played. Its music, all cleanly arranged with ample spaciousness, had the sheen of a studio album. Never was that more noticeable than when guitarist/vocalist Adam Granduciel led the Philadelphia band through “Lost in the Dream,” a work that deconstructed the ensemble’s electric preferences for largely acoustic orchestration.

9:17 p.m.: T-Pain. Want to know how extreme a culture shock can be? Try strolling from a stage where the Forecastle Orchestra was in the home stretch of its Terry Riley bliss out to the Ocean Stage where rap colossus T-Pain introduced himself with two extra-long expletives. His set, a mixture of live rapping, disposable singing and a quilt of DJ-moderated sonic stock footage, was a technical mess. But the audience went nuts over resulting tunes like “Can’t Believe It” and “I’m Sprung.”

8:45 p.m.: Forecastle Symphony. With Louisville Orchestra conductor/music director Teddy Abrams choosing to become part of the ensemble fabric by playing clarinet, this performance of Terry Riley’s still-fascinating minimalist composition “In C” was spellbinding. The orchestra’s cyclical patterns of mallet percussion, winds and strings proved the ultimate chill station for weary festival goers. Most sat on the ground as they watched, some even laid flat and let the intoxicating, textured sounds wash over them.

8:12 p.m.: Houndmouth. With its hometown of New Albany sitting across the river – and, in essence serving as a stage backdrop – a realigned Houndmouth made its case for pop stardom. With vocalist/keyboardist Katie Toupin gone but a new instrumental makeup at work that included dual saxophonists, the band stepped forever into the pop landscape with “Golden Age” (the title tune to a new album due out in August) and “Strange Love.” But older fare like “Say It” and “Hey Rose” produced a more nuanced and natural pop voice.

7:20 p.m.: Jenny Lewis. With the evening came relief by way of suddenly overcast skies, a semblance of a breeze and a wonderful pop sampler of a set from Jenny Lewis. Capable of cruising with the woozy reflection of “Happy” (from her 2005 collaborative album with the Louisville reared Watson Twins), tripping back to her days with Rilo Kiley for 2004’s “sadly still relevant” “Portions for Foxes” and returning to the crisply defiant 2014 gem “She’s Not Me,” Lewis proved she is still a daring pop voyager.

6:37 p.m.: Jimmy Eat World. In contrast to most of the acts on the four stage Forecastle roster, Jimmy Eat World was something of a pop elder. But with three of its founding members still on board, including the very amiable Jim Adkins on vocals, little has changed with this Arizona combo. Its devotion to rock solid pop melody was still as solid as its tireless performance spirit. That explains why band staples like “Sweetness” and “The Middle” sounded as bright and appealing as when they were hits 17 years ago.

5:30 p.m.: Margo Price. It took about half of the show-opening “Don’t Say It” for Price’s vocals to pop up in the sound mix. That qualified as a serious infraction, given the effortless tone, force and country zeal this Nashville renegade summoned as the set progressed. From the Nashville rebuke of “Cocaine Cowboys” (one of two songs that sent Price to the drum kit to detonate a jam) to the Kentucky themed charge within a cover of Guy Clark’s “New Cut Road,” Price earned rights to be crowned the new Queen of Forecastle.

4:40 p.m.: Pvris: Pronounced “Paris,” this very nocturnal sounding, clad-in-black troupe possessed neat, though somewhat static pop orchestration that recalled several post New Wave acts from the ‘80s. Lead vocalist Lynn Gunn served as a much as cheerleader as band chieftain, and certainly those near the front of the Boom stage responded enthusiastically to tunes like “You and I.” Everyone else seemed more modestly invested in this afternoon dose of midnight.

4:13 p.m.: Hiss Golden Messenger. This North Carolina collective fronted by MC Taylor often operates from a poetic, folkish foundation. On the Boom stage, though, it became contemplatively electric with tunes like “Call Him Daylight” and “I’m a Raven (Shake Children)” that worked off a front line of three electric guitarists that often sounded like an ambiently inclined Dire Straits. Taylor seldom sang above a grumble, making vocals serve as little more than another color in the band’s sonic fabric.

3:35 p.m: The Spencer Lee Band. And just like that, the ceiling caved in. Kansas-born song stylist Lee led off the lineup on the primary Mast stage with a pop-soul band augmented by brass but also a self-involved stage and vocal presence. The mood nicely cooled for the candid and patiently paced “River Water.” Then came something called “Best Sex,” which was as sophomoric and pretentious as its title suggested.

3:02 p.m.: Brent Cobb. Forecastle’s secondary Boom stage got underway with an expert set by this unassuming South Georgia songsmith and compositions that blended an authentic sense of country songwriting, albeit with a few unexpected twists (like the sly “Down in the Gulley,” where a grandfather’s pump house is mistakenly raided for being a moonshine distillery) and a sleek sense of Southern soul (suggested within the Little Feat-meets-Sturgill Simpson charm of “When the Dust Settles”). A fine kickoff.

in performance: chuck prophet and the mission express

Chuck Prophet. Photo by Karen Doolittle.

“You’ve got your problems, I’ve got my problems,” remarked Chuck Prophet last night in the midst of a rock ‘n’ roll excursion full of joyous involvement at Willie’s Locally Known. “But I’ve got the microphone.”

That was merely a cordial reminder that the San Francisco song stylist was still the ringmaster of his own concert circus. But it was also a measurement of Prophet’s own investment in the art of performance, which last night was considerable. Armed with a broad love of pop sentiments, from the massive ‘60s hullabaloo pageantry that propelled the show-opening “Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins” to the West Coast garage rock glitz within a cover of the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action,” which ended the evening, Prophet inhabited fully the jubilant, immediate musical landscape he staked out with his long running Mission Express band.

At times, the mood became revivalistic, as during the mock self-pitying sermonizing that oddly brought a snippet of the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit “Lodi” together with the hapless 2014 Prophet original “Wish Me Luck.” In other instances, the show luxuriated in pop’s bottomless sense of fancy, as in “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp),” which alternated between a chorus of deceptively dismissive playfulness (“Who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding dong?”) and lyrics of more unsettled introspection (“Wake me up if I should drift away; I don’t want to miss a thing”).

The Mission Express, bolstered by Prophet’s wife, Stephanie Finch, on keyboards and harmony vocals, more than matched the vigor the bandleader was detonating during songs like “Run Primo, Run,” “Rider or the Train” and “Killing Machine.” But what made the entire performance so vital and fun was just how tirelessly present Prophet was. This wasn’t a veteran artist playing favorites and running through the motions. This was a session of live rock ‘n’ roll lit up like fireworks.

Who else could have sung an ode to “the greatest centerfielder of all time” (“Willie Mays is Up at Bat”) and made it sound like the salvation cry of an eager rock ‘n’ roll generation? Then again, Prophet had the microphone. It was entirely his game.

in performances: the pretenders

chrissie hynde of the pretenders. photo by jill_furmanovsky

Anyone doubting the current vitality and validity of Chrissie Hynde should have stuck around for encore time last night at the Louisville Palace. Armed with her current batch of Pretenders, the singer ripped into “Thumbelina,” a 1983 gem that roared with a monstrous, percussive shuffle (courtesy of the band’s only other surviving original member, drummer Martin Chambers) and an electric bravado that sounded like a cross between Merle Haggard and Iggy Pop (courtesy of Son Volt/Pogues alum James Walbourne, possibly the most animated guitarist to pass through the Pretenders ranks).  But it was Hynde that lit the fuse by singing the lyrics in a kind of sly howl where post punk urgency and neo-country narrative crashed head on. Does that sound like an artist going through the motions to you?

Hynde looked the part, too. Dressed in black t-shirt, jeans and thigh-high boots, the 66 year old “proud grandmother” looked fit enough to take out the front row of the Palace with just a few punches. One can only imagine, then, how an audience patron near the front of the stage felt after breaking the performance dictum of no camera or cell phone use to earn a personal rebuke from Hynde during “Down the Wrong Way.” There was no further confrontation, though. None was needed. Hynde succeeded in letting everyone know who was boss.

Beyond that, she was an enthusiastic, spirited and fearless chieftain. It took the show-opening “Alone” and “Gotta Wait” (both 2017 tunes) for her voice and the sound mix to find a compatible balance. But by the time “Back on the Chain Gang” commenced five songs in, the familiar – and, frankly, ageless – clarity of her singing surfaced.

What gave the 90 minute performance such spark was the same thing that has made the Pretenders, despite scores of personnel changes, such as an enduring act. Last night, it sat in Hynde’s stylistic prowess. The post punk vigor of the band’s initial albums was still in abundance, especially in a riotous “Middle of the Road” that plowed along like a locomotive with a culminating harmonica break by Hynde serving as a train whistle. But the singer also revealed repeatedly a well-schooled degree of pure pop smarts. You heard it in the sleeker, slower reflection of “Let’s Get Lost” (another tune from 2017’s “Alone” album), the summery stride of the 1986 hit “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and especially in the evening’s biggest surprise, “Hymn to Her,” an affirmation Hynde sang with only Carwyn Ellis’ church organ-like keyboards as support.

But when it came to rock ‘n’ roll, Hynde was equally in command. On the Bo Diddley style “Break Up the Concrete” as well as the effervescently chunky “Precious” (tunes cut over 35 years apart, but performed as encore tunes last night), her sense of drive never waned. In short, Hynde confidently showed, as she has for four decades, that the Pretenders are the real deal.

in performance: tyler childers

tyler childers. photo by melissa stillwell.

If there was a moment last night at Manchester Music Hall that defined the transformation of Tyler Childers from home state songsmith to progressive Americana celebrity, it came late in the program following a jubilant roadhouse transformation of the breezy country reverie “Feathered Indians.” As the music settled, the crowd roared. And roared. And kept roaring. This wasn’t just tipsy barroom acknowledgement of a favorite tune. What transpired was a full blown acknowledgement of Childers as an artist of status that local clubs could no longer contain.

And make no mistake, Manchester Music Hall could in no way contain the outpouring of popularity the Lawrence County artist now enjoys. Last night’s performance – the first show in a two night engagement that has been sold out for months – was packed to uncomfortable excess, turning the venue into a sauna amid a sound mix that was muddy and uneven. But Childers was on home state turf again for what, in all likelihood, will be his last round in the clubs. The fact tickets went on sale earlier in the day for a two night New Year’s stand at the Louisville Palace underscores the kind of bigger venues that will likely serve as Childers’ concert home for the foreseeable future.

The sweaty, sound-compromised conditions notwithstanding, Childers’ performance exhibited refreshingly minimal fanfare. His songs, strong on rural narrative and draped in an electric sound that bordered on outlaw country if you substituted Appalachian inspirations for all the Texas ballyhoo, were remarkably plain-speaking. That held true for compositions Childers has been playing for years (the sublimely descript but emotionally tenuous “Shake the Frost”), tunes from his 2017 breakthrough album “Purgatory” (highlighted by the exquisite country affirmation “Universal Sound”) and a few presumably newer entries (including “Ever Loving Hand,” a portrait of homesickness with a devilishly whimsical undercurrent).

All were anchored by Childers’ conversational vocals and the loose fitting honky tonk accents of a band that boasted continually spirited fiddle and guitar support from longtime Central Kentucky favorite Jesse Wells. The same held true for a few choice cover tunes – a suitably mischievous take on the 1975 Dr. Hook novelty “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and a darker, more turbulent take on Charlie Daniels’ “Trudy” (a coincidental pick, as Daniels was likely playing the tune himself a mere hour away last night at a Renfro Valley appearance).

Mostly though, the show was a right of passage, a final close-up of a Kentucky artist who cut his musical teeth in Lexington clubs before graduating to bigger halls in larger locales. Childers will undoubtedly be back. But in this kind of intimate – albeit, sweaty and cramped – setting? Unlikely. He has answered the call of the Universal Sound and is being rewarded. And honestly, how cool is that?

Tyler Childers performs again at 7 tonight at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. The concert is sold out.

in performance: rhiannon giddens

Rhiannon Giddens.

Just before finishing a stylistically and thematically stunning set last night with “Freedom Highway” at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, Rhiannon Giddens bowed her head, buried her face in her hands and went silent. When she looked up a few moments later, tears filled her eyes. “I can’t believe we’re having to go through this (expletive) again,” she told the audience.

Clearly, this was not a planned part of the program, although the crowd seemed to be right in step with Giddens. “Freedom Highway,” after all, was a gospel call to activism and equality, an anthem of the civil rights era written and popularized by the Staple Singers. But it seemed, at this instance, the marches of 50 years ago – or, more specifically, the purpose behind them – came into uncomfortable proximity with present day events. As Giddens reminded us, the walk along the Freedom Highway is no less complete now than it was in the 1960s. After apologizing for the sudden burst of emotion, she turned her focus to the tune and turned the testimony of Pop Staples into a blast of revivalistic soul. Together, it all made for a display of remarkably candid performance honesty.

The rest of the show? It was pretty cool, as well, as it reveled in songs that highlighted the potent clarity and pitch of Giddens’ vocals along with songs that reflected a more figurative voice through songs of social (and often historical) urgency.

The former was typified by the title tune to 2015’s “Tomorrow is My Turn” album that replaced the lustrous atmospherics Nina Simone gave to the song in 1962 with a sense of regal reserve that was almost defiantly Giddens’ own creation. At the other extreme was the Odetta-popularized “Waterboy,” still a showcase for the breadth of Giddens’ vocal stamina, from its huge, country-esque hollers to sleeker, bluesier grinds.

The remainder of the repertoire gave voice to her voice, from the simmering, banjo-fueled cover of Ola Belle Reed’s “Gonna Write Myself a Letter” that opened the evening, to Giddens’ own “At the Purchaser’s Option,” (a show of personal strength and identity sung from the perspective of a slave) to the double-whammy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe tunes (“That Lonesome Road,” “Up Above My Head”) that closed the concert. The latter songs lifted the heart while underscoring the fact that Giddens was hardly alone in her renewed push down today’s Freedom Highway.

Next entries » · « Previous entries

Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | About Our Ads | Copyright