Picks of the Weekend: December 13 – 15

December 12, 2013

By Don Heckman

 Los Angeles

Mike Stern

Mike Stern

- Dec. 13 – 15. (Fri. – Sun.) Mike Stern Quartet. Guitarist Stern moves convincingly across jazz styles with ease. And he’s backed by a band – featuring Randy Brecker, Anthony Jackson and Dave Weckl – that is equally versatile – and swinging. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.

- Dec. 13 – 15. (Fri. – Sun) “Christmas with Gustavo.” The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays the Nutcracker Suite (complete), under the celebratory baton of Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel. Disney Hall.  (323) 850-2000.

- Dec. 13. (Fri.) Don Menza Quartet. Saxophonist Menza is high on the list of first call players, regardless of style. This time out, she steps into his own musical spotlight. Vibrato. Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

- Dec. 13. (Fri.) The Oak Ridge Boys. Christmas Time’s A Comin’” with the iconic country group presenting their own warm and fuzzy Christmas celebration. Valley Performing Arts Center (818) 677-8800

April Williams

April Williams

- Dec. 15. (Sun.) The Ron Jones Influence Jazz Orchestra and April Williams. “It’s A Big Band Holiday.” Christmas music in a big jazz band setting, with Ron Jones 21 piece big band, featuring holiday classics sung by tuneful April Williams. Vitello’s. (818) 769-0905.

San Francisco

Sheila E.

Sheila E.

- Dec. 13 & 14. (Fri. & Sat.) Sheila E. Birthday Celebration. Singer/percussionist Sheila Escovedo is a compelling performer who is as musically gripping as she is entertaining. Yoshi’s San Francisco.  (415) 655-5600.

Chicago

- Dec. 13 – 15. (Fri. – Sun.) The Fred Hersch Trio. Pianist Hersch’s playing recalls the engaging aspects of the jazz piano trio style that reaches back to Bill Evans. The Jazz Showcase. (312) 360-0234.

 New York City

Fourplay

- Dec. 13 – 15. (Fri. – Sun) Fourplay. With Bob James, keyboards, Chuck Loeb, guitar, Harvey Mason, drums, Nathan East, bass, Fourplay continues to maintain its well-deserved reputation as a world class contemporary jazz ensemble. The Blue Note. (212) 475-8592.

 Copenhagen

- Dec. 15. (Sun.) Love & Peace. The Music of Horace Parlan. Bop piano stylist Parlan has had medical problems intruding on his playing in recent years. But his music is being keep alive in Copenhagen by the American/Danish ensemble of Bob Rockwell, tenor saxophone and Doug Raney, guitar, from the U.S. and Jesper Lundgaard, bass, Henrik Gunde, piano and Aage Tanggaard, drums, from Denmark. Jazzhus Montmartre. +45 31 72 34 94.

 Tokyo

Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack

- Dec. 14 & 15. (Sat. & Sun.) Roberta Flack. Singer/songwriter Flack may be in her mature years, but she’s still singing with the vitality of a gifted young artist. Hopefully she’ll include “Killing Me Softly” and ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in her program. The Blue Note Tokyo.+81 3-5485-0088.


Live Music: Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby at Royce Hall

October 22, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby brought their bluegrass collaboration to a CAP UCLA concert at Royce Hall on Friday night, playing to a very appreciative if not overflowing crowd. Backed by the amazing six-piece Kentucky Thunder bluegrass band, Skaggs and Hornsby took on music ranging from Bill Monroe to Rick James.

At first notice the pairing of Hornsby and Skaggs seems a little odd, a pop figure and a country/bluegrass guy teaming up. But upon further inspection we see that Skaggs is from rural Kentucky and Hornsby from Virginia. Their common geography indicates why both of these guys grew up with a huge love and respect for bluegrass music. Bluegrass originated in that region of the country under the influence of one Bill Monroe. Skaggs and Hornsby both soaked it up from the beginning. While Skaggs took a path true to his roots as a bluegrass musician, Hornsby branched out into jazz, blues, and rock ‘n roll while maintaining his love for bluegrass. Their trains crossed in 2000 while they were recording a tribute album of Bill Monroe’s music, Darlin’ Cory.

Ricky Scaggs and Bruce Hornsby

Ricky Scaggs and Bruce Hornsby

Most folks west of the Mississippi would first know of Bruce Hornsby through his enormous popularity as a solo artist in the late 1980’s as well as his work with the Grateful Dead family, Don Henley, and Spike Lee. He is a remarkably versatile pianist and he hails from Virginia, where many musical styles coexist and cross-pollinate, he incorporated everything he liked the sound of into his style.

Ricky Skaggs is a bona fide country music and bluegrass icon in his own right. He has played with luminaries ranging from Bill Monroe to Dave Brubeck to Brian Setzer, and has dozens upon dozens of hit singles and industry awards. Skaggs has a tremendous, yet charismatically down to earth onstage presence. But the bottom line is that he can plain burn it up on the mandolin.

Hornsby and Scaggs with Kentucky p

Scaggs and Hornsby playing with Kentucky Storm

It’s not surprising that these two top-shelf players with gregarious musical instincts and unlimited ability would pool their talents. It’s also not surprising that they would enlist a group of top shelf players to flesh things out. Their presentation was a warm night of concise but winsome story-telling and impressive musicianship. As the show progressed we became more and more impressed with the musicianship of fiddler Andy Leftwich, multi instrumentalist (banjo and dobro) Justin Moses, and flat-picking monster guitarist, Cody Kilby. Several times, Kilby’s high speed runs summoned up an image of sparks between the strings and the frets.

Most of all on Friday, stompin’ bluegrass was only the departure point. With the instrumentation and song selection, the evening evolved into much more than that. For an eight-piece ensemble playing a style of music that often moves at a fast pace it was curious indeed that there was no percussion onstage , save for the piano.

Ricky Scaggs

Ricky Scaggs

There were, however, a whole lotta strings up there. Not by accident, the picked attack of 4 guitars, banjo, fiddle and the thump of one bass cleanly suggested snares and toms. As he sang, Skaggs would vamp his strings quickly to clarify the skipping snare effect. This is the sort of detail that an old pro like Skaggs throws in routinely to pick the arrangement up a notch or two and it’s simple beauty.

Bluegrass music has always delivered the goods for showcasing hot pickers of banjoes, mandolins, and guitars alike. On Friday there were 3 guitars (at times 4), a mandolin, a banjo, a fiddle, a bass, and a piano. To the left there was the rhythm section consisting of two rhythm guitars, and bass. To the right were the soloists on fiddle, guitar, and banjo. And holding court at center stage we had Skaggs on mandolin and Hornsby seated behind the grand piano. From this area came the stories and the cues.

Hornsby’s piano was the game changer and the agent of change for this group. Presenting musical avenues like an octopus at center stage, Hornsby served up a banquet table of atmosphere and harmony for the guys to work with above and underneath him. While the Kentucky Thunder feature ace players, Hornsby’s clever and somewhat jazzy meanderings opened up the sound and drove the group at a refreshingly different angle on the standards and covers they played.

Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby

While still instantly recognizable, Rick James’ “Superfreak,” was given a very entertaining bluegrass makeover. The treatment featured a twangier bounce to the bottom end riff and the tasty stringed interplay above.

If we didn’t realize it then, we certainly know now that Hornsby’s mega hit from the 80’s, “The Way It Is,” has a superb set of chord changes for everyone to stretch out over, and melodically so. The jam went on for several very satisfying minutes and could have even gone longer without losing steam.

There were also moments of haunting Celtic inspired harmony in songs like “Darlin’ Cory,” as well as light lyrical playfulness in “The Dreaded Spoon,” ( a wistful Hornsby tune about going to the Dairy Queen with his dad as a kid).

On “Columbus Stockade,” a pretty standard bluegrass piece, bassist Scott Mulvahill was allowed a solo spot to shine in the style of jazz bassist Charlie Haden. The ease with which this band weaved the juxtaposed styles together was nothing short of great.

It must be noted, too, that Royce Hall is beautifully suited for the sound of a large acoustic ensemble. The ambience in the place was remarkable Friday, with the soft acoustic sounds so powerfully layered and so neatly mixed that we could easily focus in on the different instruments. The sound was crisp enough to actually hear fingers vigorously pounding the fingerboard. In addition to the clear sound, the music itself swelled and contracted for a fine sense of dynamics. It turned out to be a most impressive musical tapestry that Skaggs, Hornsby and the Kentucky Thunder weave. Play on, gents!

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Live Music: Steve Martin, the Steep Canyon Rangers, the Preservation Jazz Band and Madeleine Peyroux at the Hollywood Bowl,

August 9, 2013

 By Don Heckman

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Madeleine Peyroux

When singer Madeleine Peyroux opened Wednesday night’s jazz show at the Hollywood Bowl there was at least a mild sense of actual jazz in the air. Peyroux has had considerable success in the jazz world, even though she has ranged across different genres with varying degrees of success.

A far more powerful jazz vibe followed with the arrival of the Preservation Jazz Band, with its deep roots in traditional New Orleans jazz and an impressive ability to mix dynamic jazz rhythms with engaging jazz vocals.

So far, so good, creating an authentic link to the music one expects to hear in the Bowl’s Wednesday night jazz shows.

But the climactic set of the night made it very clear that the real orientation of the Wednesday series is broader than jazz, and perhaps best viewed as a far-ranging evening of American music in many forms.

Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Raiders

Steve Martin and Banjos

Steve Martin and Banjos

Which only partially describes what happened when Steve Martin, Edie Brickell and the North Carolina- based Steep Canyon Rangers. Martin, of course, has had a hugely successful career as a comedian, actor and TV star. But his occasional appearances over the years as a banjoist gradually made it clear that he was a serious musician as well. And improving with each banjo-playing performance.

It was no surprise that Martin sprinkled his performing passages with numerous examples of his whimsical, and often bizarre humor. And given the audience’s ebullient responses, it was easy to sense that many had been drawn to this Bowl program by Martin’s presence rather than the potential to hear some prime jazz.

Still, there was no faulting the empathic musical interaction between Martin and the Rangers, with the frequent addition of Brickell’s soaring vocals. And, listening to the irresistible rhythmic swing of the blue grass rhythms and the imaginative melody-making,something that possessed qualities very close to jazz began to seem present in the air.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

The jazz heads in the crowd may have hoped for a more predictable mainstream jazz event, with more performance time for the inimitable Preservation Band.  But what they experienced was even more fascinating, as Martin, the Rangers and the Preservation Hall musicians presented a consistently compelling presentation of the musical dialect – via improvisation and rhythmic propulsion – that is the common expressive language of so much American music. Call it a fascinating evening of musical Americana at its best.

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Preservation Hall Band photo by Bonnie Perkinson

All other photos by Faith Frenz


Live Country Music: Brantley Gilbert, Jack Ingram and Rachel Farley at the Greek Theatre

July 22, 2013

By Mike Finkelstein

On a perfect Friday evening, KKGO radio hosted a triple bill bonanza showcasing the new sound of country music at the Greek Theatre.  What transpired was lovingly devoured by one of the most enthusiastic and attractive crowds you could hope to see.  It was beautiful. The bands rocked and the crowd rolled all night long.  They played like pros, looked current, sported any image they wanted to, and delivered their tunes with conviction and energy.  Still, the curious thing about this big event country show was that it looked and sounded so very much like a classic southern rock show.

Brantley Gilbert and his band were top billed and delivered a high-energy set of, let’s face it, southern rock.   Their sound was driven by 3 snarling guitars, huge bottom end bass sound, and hard-hitting drums.   The crunch and punch in their sound would have to have been inspired by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchett, or the Outlaws.    Lynyrd Skynyrd is a worthy model to base a southern rock sound on.  But, seriously, LS may have been country personalities, but they were not a country band.

Gilbert’s band had such a curious assortment of looks going on that one had to wonder if it was just an accident.   Bassist Jonathan Waggoner and lead guitarist Jess Franklin both had hippie length hair and beards, looking like vintage 70’s musicians (think Allman Brothers Band, 1970).  Drummer Ben Sims had a gigantic striped Mohawk.   Gilbert himself wore a black ball cap very low, so that it pretty much covered his eyes to make him look a bit sinister.  Cowboy hats and Nudie suits are not required under this tent.

Brantley Gilbert

Brantley Gilbert

Brantley Gilbert hails from Georgia and he let us know several times that he is one proud redneck.    He sang with a throaty twang about brawlin’ in “Take It Outside,” partying out in the woods in “My Kind of Party,” taking the law into his own hands in “Read Me My Rights,” running moonshine in “Hell on Wheels,” crazy love in “My Kind of Crazy,”   and old fashioned county pride in “Country Must Be Country Wide.”

Jack Ingram and his Beat-Up Ford Band (as in a Ford pickup truck) were second billed and played a winsome set of straight ahead boogie styled southern rock.  They too, owed much of how they do what they do to bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band.  Ingram’s sound featured a generous amount of walking bass and his two lead guitarists often split themselves into slide and unison lead lines a la the Allman Brothers.  In the end, there wasn’t anywhere close to the amount of improvisation and straight blues in the arrangement to continue the comparison with the Allmans.   There weren’t a whole lot of rock guitar licks here that we haven’t heard before.  And they were definitely not country sounding guitar licks, just straight-ahead rock all the way.  But they were played with panache and to be sure the presentation rocked.

Jack Ingram

Jack Ingram

Ingram is forty-two years old and performed in a black t-shirt that said “Kristofferson,” in a nod to classic country singer and songwriter Kris Kristofferson.  His approach onstage is earnest, appealing, down to earth, and positive.  A recurring lyrical theme from him concerned the inevitability of things going wrong in life and how one must “Keep on Keepin’ On.”  He also humbly told us the story of how it felt to go from playing s#$&hole bars in Dallas to having a #1 record, “Wherever You Are,” on the country charts.  He was clearly blown away by his improbable turn of good fortune.  Gotta like this guy, as he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he is clearly all about writing the best music he can.

It’s fun, and rather unavoidable now, to consider what the term country actually refers to.   We all know labels can be non-descriptive, limiting, or even pointless.  But the point of labeling something is to let other folks know what they’re getting.   Country music has, from the beginning, suggested that we will likely hear a sparse, snare-based drumbeat, with very clear, clean guitars, often pedal steel guitars, and words that are entirely audible.   Style wise, cowboy hats and western wear in one form or another are part of the package, too.  Styles and fashion change like everything does, but classic country music by the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings or even Red Sovine is unmistakable for its sound.   Lyrically country music has always been the place to find great story telling in a song and innumerable descriptive tales of woe and heartache.

Friday’s show satisfied the audience big time, but in the name of perspective, it really didn’t sound like country music.   It owed most of its sound to southern rock and AC/DC.   The old-school, cornerstone country artists may get lip service from the new country gang but little to none of that was musically apparent on Saturday.  Not that it matters.  Clearly the audience identifies with country style and attitude.   The girl sitting next to me mentioned that the new country music is more wholesome and likable than what rock has become.    I get it, too – many rock ‘n rollers are so over the top in image and their crazy lifestyles that it turns a lot of people off.    In the rock arena we have old rockers still touring and young rockers who come across as too extreme and too dysfunctional to want to listen to.  It doesn’t speak to young people like it used to.

During the 90’s many people must have begun wondering, “Can we just rock without all the distraction? “ How about we just rebuild classic rock from the ground up and then call it something else?  If we build it the people will come.

The new country is simply classic rock, cleaned up quite a bit, and marketed squarely to young people as “country.” But the name “country” has been taken for years because it refers to something much different, and to market rock ‘n roll music as country music is not unlike the emperor’s new clothes.   Face it folks, it’s still rock ‘n roll, and we still like it.   But it’s really southern rock played by country folks.

Rachel Farley

Rachel Farley

When you have an audience full of hot young women in boots and miniskirts singing along with the music, they have bought in.  So, the young men will surely follow and your prospects are very good.  Thirty years ago, young ladies were doing the same thing…at an Aerosmith or Cheap Trick show.   It’s all good, just call it what it is.

Rachel Farley opened the show to a good reception with an upbeat set of, yes, southern-sounding rock (although hers was the only one of the three to use keyboards). Was it really any wonder that her lead guitarist stuck the guitar solo of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” into her last number?   No, not at all.  Farley is only eighteen, and an energetic performer who can deliver the power vocals… so the future looks mighty bright for her.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


A Twist of Doc: The 2013 NAMM Convention Performance Highlights

February 1, 2013

 By Devon “Doc” Wendell

The 2013 NAMM (National Association Of Music Merchants) convention took place in Anaheim California between Thursday, January 24th and Sunday, January 27th. Despite throngs of inebriated metal heads roaming the Anaheim streets, instrument booths in the convention hall, and thousands of music merchants packed into the Anaheim Convention center like sardines, there were several stellar musical performances by some legendary names and innovators in the music industry, especially in the jazz and blues categories.

Here are some of 2013 NAMM’s many concert highlights:

On Friday night, Hammond Organ presented its two-plus hour “Hammond Soul Summit” Concert at The Anaheim Marriot, which featured some of the instrument’s greatest and most influential practitioners.

Dr. Lonnie Smith

Dr. Lonnie Smith

Kicking off the show was the legendary jazz and funk Hammond B3 pioneer, Dr. Lonnie Smith performing with the incredible Chester Thompson (Tower Of Power and Santana) and Larry Goldings (Al Jarreau, Maceo Parker, John Mayer).  The three organ titans performed a loose and funky rendition of Smith’s classic “Keep Talkin’.”  Backed by a dynamic rhythm section (Jay Didimo on drums and Jack Maher on electric guitar), Smith and Thompson began swapping bluesy organ licks, trying to upstage one another, pushing the exchanges to ecstatic heights. The energy was electric and took the predominately rock loving NAMM audience back to school. Goldings soloed on an acoustic piano preset on his electric keyboard, playing jazz-fueled gospel chops while Thompson and Smith comped rhythm changes and walking organ bass lines behind him. Unfortunately, they were only allotted time to play one number.

Marty Grebb

Marty Grebb

Up next, Marty Grebb (Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Etta James) took the stage, backed by some of the greatest session players in the world (Reggie McBride on bass and Alvino Bennett on drums) with special guest, 12 year old blues guitar virtuoso, Ray Goren.  After a Jimmy Smith-esque blues shuffle showcasing the young Goren’s fiery electric blues guitar runs and Grebb’s down-home B3 style, another guest was introduced — Marty Grebb’s old musical partner from the Buckinghams,  Dennis Tuffano, on vocals.  Together, Tuffano and Grebb sang The Buckinghams’ 1967 hit “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

Though it was hard for Tuffano to come close to topping Grebb’s soulful, Ray Charles- inspired vocals, he proved to still have the fire. This was the most nostalgic and exciting moment of the convention. Goren played some tasteful B.B. King style licks with the maturity of a musician 3 times his age, proving that he’s definitely someone to watch out for.

Larry Goldings

Larry Goldings

Larry Goldings returned to the stage with his trio (Jack Maher: guitar, Jay Didimo: drums), performing a brilliantly original arrangement of the Sonny Rollins classic “Doxy.” Golding’s imagination, fluidity, and inspiring skills incorporated many of Rollins’ saxophone lines in his organ solo and made it look easy.

Although many hard-rock acts dominated the main stage throughout the convention, Nick Smith And Friends performed a set of pure jazz at 4:00pm on Saturday.  Tonight Show keyboardist Smith was joined by an all-star band consisting of Marvin “Smitty” Smith: drums, Cory Jacobs: keyboard, Trevor Ware: Upright bass, James Manning: Electric bass, Antonio Julius: trumpet, Ray Fuller: guitar, and Kamasi Washington on tenor sax.

Nick Smith

Nick Smith

Performing a set of hard-bop originals such as “Alternative Way,” “Slow But Surely” (a masterful tribute to Thelonious Monk), and “Tony Williams” (a salute to jazz drum legend Tony Williams), Nick Smith And Friends proved to be one of the most consistently brilliant jazz bands around today.  Amazingly (believe it or not), Nick Smith played with the syncopation and humor of Monk and virtuosic energy and fluidity of McCoy Tyner in what I can already predict will be among my top ten performances of 2013. Marvin “Smitty” Smith’s bombastic drumming pushed the entire band to play beyond their comfort zone, which is what true improvised jazz is all about. And Kamasi Washington’s playing brought to mind the adventurous spirit of a young Wayne Shorter or mid-60s Joe Henderson.

Even the band’s final tune, “Yeah” (which was a slight venture into funk/fusion) felt fresh and fun without the typical clichés of those genres. Nick Smith And Friends’ too short set was filled with an understanding and love of the history of hard-bop, modal jazz, with just a hint of fusion.  Later that evening Muriel Anderson’s “All Star Guitar Night” was presented by Yamaha guitars, and a benefit and silent auction for The Music For Life Alliance took place at The Anaheim Marriot’s Platinum Ballroom.

Though the big name acts like Stanley Jordan, Robben Ford (who received The Guitar Player Certified Legend award at the event) and host and performer Muriel Anderson were the big name draws of this “exclusive” event, it was some of the lesser known names who were the most interesting of the long showcase.

Mimi Fox

Mimi Fox

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Jazz guitarist Mimi Fox performed elegant and thoughtful versions of Wes Montgomery’s “Four By Six” and Chic Corea’s “Five Hundred Miles High,” using open harmonics and sweeping arpeggios, all while playing lead and rhythm simultaneously. It was easy to see why Fox has been sought after by Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall, and Branford Marsalis, among others.

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Ian Ethan Case

Ian Ethan Case

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Ian Ethan Case is a young guitarist with a style that is both sonically and visually original and unorthodox in all the best ways. Case’s performance at this showcase surely had many six-stringers rethink the possibilities of the guitar. Case plays a double neck acoustic guitar in a unique and percussive manner, strumming the six string side of the guitar with one hand, while fretting chords and lead sequences on the 12 string side with the other hand, over the neck of the guitar while occasionally thumping his fists on the instrument’s body, creating polyrhythms. One must see this to believe it. His ideas were endless, playing a style that had elements of country, acoustic rock, and bluegrass, but is a completely unique sound nonetheless.

Case’s ballad “Anthony’s Lullaby”, dedicated to his infant son, had a dream-like, dissonant yet dark, melodic quality to it. It was refreshing to witness a guitarist who has created his own style and is not emulating a host of other players.

Vocalist Toots Hibbert and guitarist Carl Harvey are know for their work in the prolific reggae band Toots And The Maytals, but their acoustic, Delta Blues renditions of the Maytals’ classics “Reggae Got Soul” and “54-46 Was My Number” was a brilliant departure for these two men from the reggae world.  As both men strummed acoustic guitars, with Harvy playing an occasional piercing lead, Hibbert’s vocals sounded like a cross between the late Reverend Gary Davis and Richie Havens.  Their country blues arrangements gave the songs new fire and soul. This was pure blues without any of the affectations that many guitarists of other genres who try to conquer the blues are often guilty of falling back on.

James Hill

James Hill

Ukulele master James Hill and bassist Bakithi Kumalo (bassist on Paul Simon’s Graceland album) brought some much needed humor to this event, performing a witty reading of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” with Hill singing and playing the chord changes on ukulele and Kumalo playing the funky bass line on a small, short scale bass.  The sound of Hill playing those syncopated minor ninth chords on a ukulele made his performance one to remember for a long time. Although Hill is a skilled musician, it’s rare and refreshing to see an artist at an event like this who doesn’t take himself too seriously and isn’t afraid to show it.

So that’s it for my NAMM 2013 highlights. At a huge event like this, it’s quality over quantity as there were hundreds of performances during the four day convention.

Like most of the NAMM attendees, I’m exhausted yet already curious about next year’s lineup of showcases and events.

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To read more reviews and posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.


Live Music: David Grisman and David Lindley at Royce Hall

November 6, 2012

By Mike Finkelstein

The David Grisman Sextet rambled through a CAP UCLA performance at Royce Hall on Friday night, playing to a warm and delighted reception from a smaller than anticipated crowd.   Still, it was a hugely satisfying night of music with none other than David Lindley opening up the festivities.

David Grisman

Both Grisman and Lindley are good friends, of the same basic hippie vintage, and are longtime keepers of the flame for mastery of their acoustic instruments and fine original acoustic performance.  You can also sense, in their long gray hair and beards, as well as their repartee with the audience, that both have retained their hippie personae.  And it certainly is captivating and reaffirming to see someone so completely in control of their instrument as both men were on Friday night.

There was enough room in Royce that the promoters invited the audience to come as close to the stage as they needed to get the right spot.    And the open space wasn’t only limited to the stage.    There were small and few amplifiers, a small drum kit, flutes resting on a piano bench.  Much of the stage was peripherally left bare and there was no backdrop.   It gave a very stripped down feel to the evening but the music was well suited to the setup.

David Lindley

Programs like CAP UCLA (Center for the Art of Performance UCLA, formerly UCLA Live) specialize in presenting performers –such as David Grisman and David Lindley — who depend on subtle acoustic nuances to make the connection with an audience.  Royce Hall is one of the calmest sounding big halls you’ll ever hear a performance in.   At times Friday, you could literally hear a pin drop … or hear a pick rub each wind of a mandolin string.  Remarkable.  So when Grisman and his five band mates hit the stage they were in their element and beaming gleefully.

Grisman’s band consisted of mandolin (Grisman, himself), acoustic bass (Jim Kerwin), guitar (Grant Gordy), fiddle (Mike Barnett), drums (George Marsh) and flute (Matt Eakle).   Basically he took the string foundation of bluegrass music, minus the banjo and, because there is a lot of traditional jazz in his original material, he added flute, too.   His compositions are very chordy but structured and directional.   You couls hear quite a bit of the Django Reinhardt/Stephan Grappelli influence in many of their arrangements — such as “Bluegrass at the Beach.”   The music was structured like traditional jazz but played on bluegrass instruments.

What really impressed was the way the band swatted around the musical focus between them like it was a game of hacky-sack, with Grisman presiding and nodding intensely every turn of the way.  Each player came alive when it was his turn to step out in front and solo.

Grisman himself would lurch into and out of his runs with flying fingers.  It’s quite entertaining to watch a large guy like Grisman work the neck of a little ol’ mandolin like it was a toy.

Gordy flatpicked superbly, and Eakle had a way of grooving to the music and prancing with his flute that at times suggested Ian Anderson.   He also had several great tonal moments with a massive bass flute that lay in waiting on the piano bench.

The rhythm section of Kerwin and Marsh has been with Grisman for more than twenty years and their comfort with the format really showed.   Though their solos were not long, they were melodically meshed with the tune and they always featured tasty dynamics, and contrasted speeds and volumes.   Every player in the band had the sort of soft touch to go with the speed that gives the best acoustic music its appeal.  And they all appeared to be enjoying the moments big-time.

Grisman told several small stories during the evening as he provided personal background and culled songs from a career that now spans five decades.   He alluded to the now old school practice of learning one’s instruments from a.) buying and listening to vinyl records and b.) watching people play live to steal their techniques.   Now, instructional videos on the internet make it all so available.   But seeing the process through organically makes a person that much more connected to the music.   Grisman learned all he could from Bill Monroe in person and from records and he recounted to us that Monroe eventually implored him to work up his own style, which we now know as “Dawg music.”   It turns out to have been sage advice.

David Lindley opened the show with a 45-minute set of deadpan humor and downright amazing playing on stringed instruments ranging from lap guitars to a proper lute.  These instruments were all tuned to beautiful open chords and with a slide in his hands they sounded huge and simply majestic at times.

There was one tune about the virtues and tangential possibilities of Excedrin and Lindley ended his set with a jaw-dropping instrumental workout in which he played gritty, hot shot, country blues on a lute! It made one wonder whether some unknown folks — back in the day when the lute was in its prime — might also have figured out how to make the thing talk this way.  We may never know, but Lindley surely proved it can be done.

To read more posts and reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE

Photos courtesy of CAP UCLA.


Live Bluegrass: Earl Scruggs in a UCLA Live Concert at Royce Hall

November 11, 2011

By Mike Finkelstein

Last weekend, UCLA Live presented legendary banjo picker Earl Scruggs and his band at Royce Hall in a well attended, if not sold out show.  As banjo players go, there simply hasn’t been one more influential than Scruggs throughout his long career.   Scruggs is now 87 years old and suffice it to say that he vaulted the instrument’s popularity from a mainstay in southern folk music to iconic status in bluegrass music throughout the world.    If one thinks of the most well-known banjo songs, the Beverly Hillbillies’ “Ballad of Jed Clampett,” and “Foggy Mountain breakdown” from Bonnie and Clyde usually surface very quickly.   These songs put Scruggs’ three finger banjo picking style in the ears of millions of people on a very regular basis.

After the band had walked unassumingly onstage, Scruggs and his banjo were escorted to center stage and the show began. To his right was son Randy on flat picked guitar and to his left was son Gary on electric bass, vocals, and basically doing emcee duties for the evening.   Earl Scruggs has always surrounded himself with outstanding players onstage and Saturday night’s show was no exception as his six-piece band deftly delivered the set. The band also included Grand Ole Oprey fiddler and all around journeyman Hoot Hester, longtime Scruggs drummer John Gardner, Dobro man Jimmy Stewart, and Keith Sewell on hot licks Telecaster guitar.

Earl Scruggs

At its core the bluegrass format features crisp musicianship so that each voice can be heard clearly using instruments that contrast and stand out next to each other.  In this case, the rhythm section was actually rather Spartan with Gardner using brushes on a minimalist drum kit.  The drums never got truly loud, they just nudged the band to keep the music skipping along.    The bass thudded along with a padded tone, evoking a standup bass or at times an old-time, wash-basin rig of rural origins. One could even make the case that this band had a four piece rhythm section.  The drums and bass meshed beautifully with the added tone of Randy’s acoustic guitar and Stewart’s Dobro resonator guitar.

The main soloists were Hester and Sewell and their work was remarkable.   Hester, in a perfectly fitting Western hat, carried his end of things with panache.  His fiddle work was super smooth, making quick complex runs look routine.   Electric guitarist Keith Sewell,  looking casually confident in jeans and a sport coat, was a lead player among lead players.  His lines were intricate with counter-harmonies and dazzling speed converging to wow both the guitar players and the non-players alike.   What stood out from within what Sewell put into his lines was the sheer clarity of it all.   He, too, made it look and sound disarmingly easy to be such a monster on one’s instrument while avoiding flashiness.

There is something about a well-conceived arrangement of instruments at a manageable live volume that sounds organically grand and Scruggs’ band had this working for them on Saturday night. Every song featured several instrumental breaks and as the program gathered momentum the contrast between the instruments became compelling.   In the middle of this beautiful swirl sat Earl Scruggs, picking and vamping away.   In terms of soloing, he picked his spots wisely, pacing himself without going overboard.   Not surprisingly, he really did let if fly for his signature tunes “Jed Clampett,” “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Orange Blossom Special.”

Given the talented ensemble backing him, it was a treat to anticipate which tasty cover would be next.   The entries were sometimes over a century old and at other times often familiar, coming from sources ranging between Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Blind Boy Fuller.   But one rarely gets to hear them done this way.

In a set list chock full of high points, the old Joe Maphis tune “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music),”  was a standout for its poignant description of a good friend who just cannot get out of the bar room lifestyle — a heartbreaking set of words.

   A home and little children mean nothing to you
A house filled with love and a husband that’s true
You’d rather have a drink with the first guy you meet
And the only home you know is the club down the street

“In the Pine,” a traditional tune from the mid/late 1800s, and popularized (somewhat) almost 20 years ago by Kurt Cobain, resounded as the band played up its twangy side and its rural roots.   Bob Dylan songs, too, have always lent themselves well to bluegrass arrangements and on Saturday the band went with “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

Also noteworthy was the chance to hear “Sitting On Top Of The World,” a stoic blues standard, receive the bluegrass treatment from a band of aces.   Hester’s and Sewell’s playing over the 4-piece rhythm section peeled back another layer or two of the elegance this song presents.

Randy Scruggs and his dad appeared throughout “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” the legendary bluegrass album coordinated by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. On Saturday Randy gave us a beautiful flat-picked rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” from that collection.

All in all this gig was as much about the band as it was about Earl Scruggs but he is such an influential player that every musician onstage owed quite a bit of their own musical direction to him.  Yes, indeed.

The cleverly named local country/rock trio Merle Jagger opened the show with an impressive if short half hour set.  They came onstage looking like they might have unloaded their gear from a hay wagon, and the bass player’s cabinet had most of its vinyl siding peeling away from the wood. No matter, their music is all-instrumental, featuring long unison and counter-harmonic scalar runs between bass and guitar.  Stephen Andrews’ style, in particular, on a vintage P-bass was buttery smooth and quick, a savory mix of tone and technique.  Their instrumental approach is appealing but their lines are catchy enough to beg for a vocal above them.   Just wondering about that…

Photo courtesy of Nashville Portraits.

To read other reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


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