Christine McVie, 1943-2022

Christine McVie, circa 1987.

When word of Christine McVie’s passing was announced on Wednesday, the first album I reached for was Tusk. Released in the fall of 1979, the double-album opus was a crossroads work for Fleetwood Mac, the vanguard pop brigade McVie had already devoted nearly a decade of service to.

Tusk was to Fleetwood Mac what the famously nicknamed “White Album” was to The Beatles – a scrapbook that revealed a celebrated act in splinters. There were instances where they played like the band that sent its preceding album, Rumours, into the stratosphere two summers earlier. Much of it, though, thanks in large part to Lindsey Buckingham’s stewardship, drew vivid distinction between Fleetwood Mac’s three vocalists. Stevie Nicks’ gossamer songs were draped in layers of melancholy while Buckingham’s own work struck a balance between punkish immediacy and Brian Wilson-esque lushness. And then there was McVie, steadfast as ever, singing the kinds of leisurely love songs just as assuredly as she had long before Buckingham and Nicks joined the band in late 1974, making Fleetwood Mac a global pop juggernaut.

McVie’s songs opened and closed Tusk. Such placement speaks volumes for the respect the rest of Fleetwood Mac must have placed on her kind of level-headed artistic temperament. Sure, McVie’s songs didn’t take many risks. Her more poppish works were sunny and efficient while her quieter entries were elegant and reflective. All were, almost without exception, upbeat love songs. Buckingham may have been the rocker and Nicks the makeshift mystic. McVie, though, stood by with an unwavering sense of pop romanticism colored by a voice that was as warm and calmly expressive as the tunes she wrote.

It’s easy, of course, to view McVie, in retrospect, as a buoy of sorts for Fleetwood Mac, a mark of stability in a band that, prior to the arrival of Buckingham and Nicks, boasted a revolving door personnel of guitarists and singers, and, afterward, often became a warzone of personal and professional extremes.

McVie could rock out when she chose to, which was usually in Buckingham’s company. The Rumours hit “Don’t Stop” (a McVie composition) was indicative of the fun they could cook up. It is perhaps of little surprise that the last studio album released during her lifetime was an untitled 2017 duet project with Buckingham. Of course, come 2018, Buckingham was fired from Fleetwood Mac, earning soap opera-worthy headlines that had become almost routine for the band. McVie soldiered on – a seemingly unshakeable, cordial and inviting pop presence. In short, she was the eye of the Fleetwood Mac hurricane.

McVie released three solo albums, the finest by far being the pre-Fleetwood Mac Christine Perfect (her maiden name before marrying – and later, divorcing – Mac bassist John McVie). Released in 1970, the record is as unassuming a presentation of the singer’s blues roots as the later Fleetwood Mac music was of her pop preferences. There was also a brief period where McVie added largely uncredited keyboard work to the band’s final two blues albums with co-founder Peter Green. But it was from 1971’s Future Games (still one of Fleetwood Mac’s most underrated albums) on that her quiet vocal command and inviting sense of pop appeal took hold and grew.

So what does McVie leave behind? Well, a profile as one of the most respected yet unassuming female co-leaders of a globally championed pop institution, for one thing. McVie never seemed to outwardly call attention to that role. She simply lived it. And when the appeal of such a profile faded, she quietly bowed out, as McVie did for nearly 15 years beginning in 1998.

But there is also a treasury of some of the most modestly constructed pop songs you’re likely to hear from a superstar act, whether it was through the breezy electric piano design of the Future Games gem “Morning Rain,” the late ‘70s mega hits (“Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me” and “Don’t Stop”) or any number of non-single delights that adorned Fleetwood Mac albums both classic and forgotten.

The Rumours requiem “Songbird” is the song many fans re-embraced, with good reason, after McVie’s death at the age of 79 was announced this week. The one that sticks with me, though, was the Tusk finale “Never Forget.” It’s cheery, fun and quietly endearing in a way that so much of McVie’s music and artistic presence was. But the title? Well, it now seems alternately redemptive and ironic.

I mean, really. Forget Christine McVie? Not a chance.

A few minutes with S.G. Goodman

S.G. Goodman. Photo by BK Portraits.

On this November afternoon, S.G. Goodman is far from the Western Kentucky terrain that has long served as home. She is instead strolling through a cathedral and graveyard in Scotland – Glasgow, to be exact – awaiting load-in for one of the final performances of a three-week European tour.

In her words, she is “killing time in the cemetery.”

The overseas run is cementing something of a banner year for the songsmith who grew up along the Mississippi River in Hickman and resides today just outside of Murray. But she hasn’t been home much of late. The summer release of her sophomore album, “Teeth Marks,” has brought about a near non-stop regimen of touring.

There have been a few Kentucky-bound shows in the mix, like a Lexington club date with Son Volt in late April at The Burl (where she will play again this weekend), a Louisville festival outing at Bourbon & Beyond in mid-September and – most notably, perhaps – an unannounced cameo for the Kentucky Rising benefit at Rupp Arena in October alongside a songwriter pal from the Eastern part of the state – Tyler Childers.

Mostly, though, 2022 has been about furthering the familiarity of an esteemed Kentucky songwriter, one whose ruminations on love – its fragility, its resiliency and the alternating mounds of wreckage and strength left in its aftermath – form the emotional bedrock of “Teeth Marks.” The recording also earned considerable notice outside of the Bluegrass.

In a June feature published in the New York Times, Stephen Deusner offered this appraisal: “With her sharp eye for character and scene and her arresting voice — which sounds like it could be emanating from a century-old 78 — Goodman, 33, is the latest in a wave of Kentucky artists who divine inspiration from their home state.”

“You’re never in control of how somebody receives what you do, so all of that is a surprise,” Goodman said by phone from Scotland. “I think my personal philosophy of making music is just to serve the song, trust that process and let it speak for itself. I think I did that on ‘Teeth Marks.’ I worked with wonderful people who helped complete that vision with me. I’m proud of it, but that’s about all I can say about it. I don’t really have a lot to say about how people receive it or not because I’m not really in control of that.

“Some of the songs on this record were written years before the pandemic hit. There was a lot solitude and inward looking going on. I feel like the overall theme of ‘Teeth Marks’ is just the marks love leaves behind – ones that are self-inflicted, society-inflicted or maybe even romantically inflicted. It’s something that’s pretty universal. Everybody wears the marks of either how well they’ve been loved or how maybe they’ve experienced the lack of it. It’s an easy album to sing because it’s really hard to be a karaoke star with something that’s not true to yourself. That’s what makes this album pretty easy to stand behind. I would like to believe that’s the reason why other people have connected with it, too.”

Growing up a farmer’s daughter in Western Kentucky within a strong churchgoing family, Goodman’s exposure to the possibilities of songwriting expanded – along with the poetic but plain-speaking detail that would soon distinguish her own work – when she attended nearby Murray State University.

“When I went to college, I started being around people my own age who were having fun and building community out of music. I found an undeniable power that made me want to be involved in that just because of the communal aspect.

“As far as lyrics and how somebody can stir you with words, with just how they say something so simply, I would say people like Townes Van Zandt were important, He used very simple language to describe a pretty universal feeling. It’s as powerful as some of the great Southern writers like (William) Faulkner or Eudora (Welty) or (Flannery) O’Connor or any of those people. These same themes have been written about a million times. It’s just so interesting how right now in 2022, I’m really writing about the same themes that have been written about forever. It seems like there is an endless well of how you can still connect people with simple imagery. That’s pretty fascinating to me.”

The rise of Goodman’s visibility and popularity as an artist also meant sharing an aspect of her personality in a public way that was long known to her inner circle of family and friends – that she was gay. Goodman is open to discussing her sexuality, but is wary of those who give that part of her profile more scrutiny and attention than her music.

“Representation is a really important thing. I know that because I came from a pretty isolated rural community. There have been generations of people before me that have sacrificed so much for me to be able to complain about it being a talking point. I do that respectfully because I believe that is what they fought for. As long as people continue to put focus and emphasis on my sexuality more so than me being a songwriter, then my work will always be viewed through the lens of my sexuality and not the words themselves. That has to be understood as something that is a little bit disheartening.

“I do so much understand the importance of representation, and I’m not ashamed of who I am. But because of that, I’m being constantly othered. And that’s not the point anymore. It never was the point. Nobody fought to be othered.”

The identity Goodman endorses is one that embraces her Southern heritage, particularly one that honors the inspiration of writers and song stylists that have given the region an enduring cultural voice.

“The Southern region has endless imagery, themes and beautiful stories to continue writing about for as long as Southern people exist. There are so many writers that will tell you to write what you know, and that’s what I know. I will never be able to erase my identity as a farmer’s daughter from the Mississippi River. I mean, why fight it? I’m proud of it.”

But is there any danger of that Southern spirit thinning the more she carries her music out of Kentucky? Will it diminish at all by, say, taking a walk through a Scottish cemetery? Goodman laughs at the suggestion.

“If my accent starts slipping just a little bit, all it takes to fix it is one phone call home.”

If you go: S.G. Goodman performs at 8 p.m. Nov. 26 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. William Matheny opens. Tickets are $15 through theburlky.com/events.

In performance: Frode Gjerstad Trio with Steve Swell

Frode Gjerstad (left) and Steve Swell performing Saturday evening at the President’s Room of the Singletary Center for the Arts for the 20th anniversary of the Outside the Spotlight series. Photo by Walter Tunis.

Sometimes the free improvisational music experienced at an Outside the Spotlight show all but demands you have fun whether you are prepared to do so or not. At the 20th anniversary concert for the ongoing free jazz-and-more series – in this case, a cross-continental summit between the Norwegian rooted Frode Gjerstad Trio and New York trombonist Steve Swell on Saturday evening at the President’s Room of the Singletary Center for the Arts – the usual sense of dynamics were at work. The ebb and flow of free improvisation shifted from a coarse whisper to a full ensemble roar with solos operating as conversations that were sometimes collaborative but often private and singular.

In the midst of this – specifically, an untitled 40-minute improv that took up much of the performance – the pokerfaced Swell took out the mouthpiece from his trombone and tapped it against his instrument to create a percussive sound that was altogether otherworldly. As if to signify playtime was over, he reinserted the mouthpiece by slamming it back into place with the palm of his hand.

Just your typical OTS night of fun and danger.

But what makes a show like this extra inviting, especially for those who have followed the series through the years, is the familiarity of the players making this seemingly abstract music. All the members of the Gjerstad Trio have been frequent OTS flyers. Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, in particular, has brought his muscular sound to Lexington in OTS shows by over a half-dozen different groups. For Saturday’s performance, he was often directing traffic, be it the temperamental dialogue created between Gjerstad (who alternated between alto saxophone and clarinet) and Swell or full quartet adventures. Nilssen-Love remains a player of great physicality, but this performance revealed considerable stylistic breadth. During the first improv, two of his drum heads served as work desks of sorts littered with assorted gongs, sticks and shakers. By the improv’s end, his playing had been whittled down to two sticks rattling out staccato chatter on a small metal dish. The resulting music floated, hammered and resonated before coming to a dramatic yet efficient stop.

Presto. Nearly 40 minutes of improvisation came to a halt.

Gjerstad has also been a semi-regular of OTS, mostly through performance with this very trio (some augmented by Swell, some not). At age 74, he maintains an unassuming presence onstage, fitting his solos and duet exchanges with Swell so seamlessly into the quartet’s ensemble fabric that one often didn’t notice when he shifted from alto sax to clarinet. That changed late into the evening’s second untitled workout (a mere 20-minute improv) where the group members slowly slipped out of the fray to where the only sound left standing was an unaccompanied Gjerstad clarinet solo. It entered like a distant siren and swelled into a stream of hushed, breathy passages and thicker, coarser outbursts before a slap on the bass by Strom brought the solo to its conclusion.

There were lots of other brilliant moments, like the tension and grace that danced alongside each other when Strom played bowed bass and the variance of timbre and toughness Swell created by bowing up and down, as if dancing, during his more aggressive performance moments.

It all added up to another grand OTS adventure, a glowing progressive pearl within the Lexington artistic mainstream.

A few minutes with Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band 2022: Ross Holmes, Jimmie Fadden, Jeff Hanna, Bob Carpenter, Jaime Hanna and Jim Photoglo.
Photo credit: Jeff Fasano.

There is a moment on the newest album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a sampler of Bob Dylan covers aptly titled “Dirt Does Dylan,” where the years simply recede. On “The Mighty Quinn,” the opening chorus is sung by all six members with an effortless but rustic fortitude. What comes to mind isn’t so much a new shade of a Dylan classic, but a welcoming shadow of the Dirt Band’s own majestic past – specifically, a throwback to the cross-generational country-roots sound summoned on the group’s seminal album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

“The front of ‘The Mighty Quinn’ is the six of us sitting around one microphone singing the first chorus,” said Jeff Hanna, guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and co-founding Dirt Band member. “Then we did an edit and cut it into the full band. It jumps right at you when the drums and bass kick in. That was really fun.

“Conceptually, we kept thinking about the records that we loved. The Band had such a huge impact on us. When we were making that ‘Uncle Charlie’ album (the breakout 1969 Dirt Band album “Uncle Charlie and his Dog Teddy”), The Band were like our Beatles. Then you sort of roll that into the ‘Circle’ sessions where we all sat, literally, in a circle. Sometimes it required a little separation because you don’t want the amps bleeding into the drums or vice versa. But there was that organic feeling. Even if that technically was not what was going on, that was always the goal.”

The first “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album was released 50 years ago this month, a milestone work that teamed the then-current Dirt Band members, all in their mid-20s at the time, with an all-star lineup of country-roots legends championed from the previous generation that included, among many others, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff. Two similarly designed sequel albums were issued in 1989 and 2002. Much like “Dirt Does Dylan,” the records serve as a chapter within a career-long exploration that began for the Dirt Band in 1966. The journey has taken the Southern California troupe from its jug band beginnings to its early ‘70s tenure as a new generation roots music ensemble to a late ‘70s run-in with pop stardom on to an ‘80s acceptance by country music fans through to its current status as a respected torchbearer of Americana music.

“We started talking about the Dylan record in the middle of 2019, before any of us could have seen this cloud (COVID-19) that was on the horizon,” Hanna said. “Someone in our management company suggested, ‘Have you guys ever considered doing a single source songwriter record?’ Of course, Dylan’s name was the first to come up. It was like, ‘Well, yeah. This is in our DNA.’ For me and Fadden (Dirt Band drummer/harmonica ace Jimmie Fadden, the only other founding member still on board), we grew up in the exactly the same musical environment, which was the folk scene in Southern California in the mid ‘60s when we were both still in high school. I went to see Dylan play across town. He played a high school in Long Beach called Wilson High. It was like four bucks to get in. That was an epiphany seeing him live. It had a really, really huge impact.”

“Dirt Does Dylan” is also the first album to feature the Dirt Band’s current six-member lineup. The roster is split evenly between long-timers (Hanna, Fadden and keyboardist Bob Carpenter, who joined in the late ‘70s) and a trio of comparatively new recruits that include fiddler/mandolinist Ross Holmes, bassist Jim Photoglo and Hanna’s son Jaime Hanna on guitar.

“It’s a big sense of pride, obviously, standing onstage next to my son. The fun factor is really high, and these guys really enjoy themselves. You’ve got to be reminded of that sometimes. It can be a slog when you’re doing one nighter after one nighter.

“Jaime and Ross really have brought a lot of youthful energy, enthusiasm and vigor to our band that has been very inspiring. It just feels really good. There’s lots more smiling and laughing going on now. When a band has been together this long, it’s nice to have that shot in the arm.”

But as work on “Dirt Does Dylan” commenced in 2020 in the midst of the COVID lockdown, two key Dirt Band inspirations took leave of the world.

One was Texas songsmith Jerry Jeff Walker, whose cherished composition “Mr. Bojangles” became a career defining hit for the Dirt Band in 1970.

“It was a total accident to even find that tune,” Hanna said. “I heard part of it in the car driving home from a rehearsal when we were working out tunes for the ‘Uncle Charlie’ record. I came in the next day and said, ‘Man, I think I found the final piece of the puzzle.’ I was describing it, saying how the song was about this old man and his dog. Jimmy Ibbotson (long-serving multi-instrumentalist who exited the Dirt Band in 2005) said, ‘I know that tune.’ Turns out he had a 45 record of it that was all scratched up in the trunk of his car behind a spare tire or something, so we learned it from that.

“Man, the use of the mandolin and the accordion together in the right context just tugs at your heartstrings in the best kind of way. There’s nothing corny about what we did on ‘Bojangles,’ but because there was no internet back then to look things up, we listened to the scratched-up record and missed a couple of the words. It still became an unexpected hit for our band.”

The other artist the Dirt Band, and everyone, did adieu to in 2020 was John Prine, the masterful songwriter who was one of the first headline casualties of COVID. Aside from being touring partners and longtime friends of Hanna and his bandmates, Prine re-recorded his 1973 tune “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” with the Dirt Band for the second “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album.

“Any room you walked in, if John was in it, he was having the best time. And I don’t mean lampshade-on-your-head best time. He was just enjoying himself. He always had this big grin. John had cancer a couple of times, but the guy was like, ‘Yeah man, I’m lucky. I still get to do this.’ That’s a life lesson for all of us.”

Such are the snapshots from the adventures of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Now 75, sharing the stage with his son along with musicians of varying decades of camaraderie, Hanna views his career in understandably historical terms. But he also cherishes the fact its final chapter hasn’t been outlined, much less written.

“It has been, and continues to be, a great run. And the friendships we made? They’re just incredible. It’s been rewarding, but more than that, we’ve worked with the stuff that feeds your soul. That’s the best part of it, you know?”

If you go: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Nov. 18 at the Lexington Opera House has been postponed due to the illness of a band member. The rescheduled date is to be announcd.

A few minutes with Chris Kael of Five Finger Death Punch

Five Finger Death Punch. From left: Andy James, Zoltan Bathory, Ivan Moody, Chris Kael and Charlie Engen. 
Photo by Travis Shinn.

Chris Kael can’t help but beam when discussing his latest tour with Five Finger Death Punch, one that curiously pairs the veteran metal band with country stylist Brantley Gilbert. The trek brings the bass guitarist and his mates back to Rupp Arena this weekend. It will then criss-cross the United States for six weeks before winding down in Las Vegas.

LexVegas and Las Vegas – cities Kael proudly calls “my two hometowns.”

Just in case you’re unaware of the thundering music of Five Finger Death Punch, which recently hit the top of the Billboard hard rock albums chart for the seventh time, Lexington native Kael is the imposing looking chap with the Titanic beard. He has been hammering down bass duties for the platinum-selling, Vegas-based band for over a decade. Prior to that, though, you would have found Kael gigging around Lexington clubs, working as a disc jockey at WRFL-FM and generally preparing for a serious shot out West at a music career.

“I remember the first time I played Rupp Arena with Death Punch,” Kael said “We were staying at the Hyatt on one of the top floors. I could look down and see where the Wrocklage used to be, which is where I really cut my teeth. And there was Breeding’s and the Millennium (all long-since-defunct music venues). Those were the spots that propelled my career into what it’s become today.”

Kael made the leap about 20 years ago, but Las Vegas was initially planned as a stopover, not a final destination. Newly married, he detoured through Vegas to celebrate his honeymoon before heading to Los Angeles to relocate.

“Los Angeles was actually the target as to where I was going to go,” Kael said. “We were moving out there to pursue the musical dream. But as soon as we flew into Las Vegas, my wife was like, ‘I love this place. It’s gaudy. It’s tacky. It’s fun. I want to be here.’ I was like, ‘Whatevs.’ So we eventually went out to L.A., but I just didn’t feel there like I did in Las Vegas. Looking back at it now, the universe definitely directed me towards Las Vegas for the opportunity to join Death Punch. In April, I will have been in Vegas for 20 years. I got the gig with Death Punch 11 years ago.

“Las Vegas is a city with all kinds of entertainment options available every single day. So being in a band from Las Vegas, you walk into these places knowing that people have seen everything. That causes us to elevate our game in songwriting, in production, the pyro, the lights and all that stuff. Growing up on Iron Maiden and Kiss… we’re still trying to outdo those stage shows. Luckily with the technology, we are molding our own image up there so that others will hopefully someday emulate what we’re doing right now.”

This fall Five Finger Death Punch is giving young bands – not to mention a continually growing legion of fans – plenty to emulate and enjoy. That’s because the band is essentially touring behind two albums. The first is the August-released “AfterLife,” its first record since a changing-of-the-guard in the lead guitar position – Andy James in for Jason Hook. The other is “F8,” a similarly hard-charging work that made it into stores a mere two weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown wiped out all opportunities to promote the album in March 2020.

“Being unable to tour behind ‘F8’ was very frustrating,” Kael said. “At that point, that was my favorite record we had done. I was super excited about getting out and playing those songs. But at the end of the day, we were still able to work by getting into the studio. If you didn’t find your hustle during the pandemic, then you didn’t have it in you. Luckily, all five of us, for sure, had the hustle and got right to work. Originally, we were going to do some videos and just create content, but I was like, ‘Nah, let’s get back to doing what we do but take our time doing it.’ So we were able to get ‘AfterLife’ put together.”

Now comes the really curious part. How does such a seriously ear-crunching outfit like Five Finger Death Punch find itself on the road this fall with a country singer?

The alliance, as it turns out, isn’t a new one. Gilbert teamed with the band for a 2018 cover of the Kenny Wayne Shepherd hit “Blue on Black” that also enlisted Queen guitarist Brian May as well as Shepherd himself.  Proceeds from the recording benefited the Gary Sinise Foundation to aid wounded veterans and first responders.

“When Brantley Gilbert’s name first came up, he was described to me as the Five Finger Death Punch of country,” Kael said. “I checked him out and as much as his music is country, it’s also got a hard rock vibe to it. When we did the ‘Blue on Black’ cover, he and I just really hit it off and became friends. You’re always looking to expand audiences. We’ve got this massive audience that’s supportive all the way around the world, but you still look for other areas of opportunity to continue to grow.

“Molding these two styles into one package… it’s different, but there are certainly elements that tie in together. Brantley has got kind of a hard rock country, hard rock heavy metal kind of thing going on, so it’s going to be fun. And the tour is selling ridiculously well. As good as we knew it was going to be, it seems to be outshining and outperforming even what we were anticipating.”

What Kael is especially anticipating, though, is playing again in the city he used to call home and reconnecting with family and friends who supported him before becoming “a big fish in a big pond.”

“I love playing Rupp Arena. It’s the hometown crowd. I think I have a day off the day before we play Rupp, so I’ll be able to see friends, settle into the hometown a little bit for a day, maybe eat at Joe Bologna’s.

“Lexington, and really the entire region out there, has been very supportive of my musical endeavors right from the very beginning. It helped my songwriting skills, helped me to be creative and put what I did in front of a crowd when we played places like the Wrocklage and Breeding’s. Kentucky gave me the confidence and support to get out and move out to the big pond. But at the end of it all, I’m still Chris from Lexington and the Big Blue Nation.”

If you go: Five Finger Death Punch, Brantley Gilbert and Cory Marks perform at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine. Tickets are $29.50-$129.50 through ticketmaster.com.

Jerry Lee Lewis, 1935-2022

Jerry Lee Lewis.

His music, his playing, his entire artistic persona – wrap them all together, light a match and you had one of those great balls of fire Jerry Lee Lewis famously sang about.

Throughout his career, especially in the mid-1950s when rock ‘n’ roll was still largely uncharted territory, Lewis was the pop equivalent of a trapeze artist working without a net. He embraced an art form that was reinventing pop music and then let his own bravado electrify it even further.

Lewis didn’t do so with a guitar, either. He didn’t do it with a swing of the hips. He did it with a piano, turning a decidedly stationary instrument into an atomic barrelhouse weapon that produced an unrelenting sound reflecting the emotional investment of gospel. But this was anything but church music.

That Lewis lived the life his songs suggested was an understatement. How he made it to age 87 before taking leave us is miraculous. But the recklessness he lived with constantly was also the key to his lasting prominence as a key rock ‘n’ roll architect.

I only got to see Lewis perform once. He played at the long-since-demolished Breeding’s on Main Street, then located across the street from Rupp Arena. The year was 1987. Tickets were $20, which was considered a fortune at the time. His show barely clocked in at 30 minutes.

Still, it was Lewis – The Killer, as he had long been called. That night, Lewis was not for a second going to let anyone walk away thinking he was a museum piece. After two numbers where he fingers pounded the piano like jackhammers, creating the kind of unfettered rock ‘n’ roll exuberance artists half his age couldn’t muster, he addressed his audience. Musical credentials re-established, Lewis briefly wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and beamed. At first, he said nothing, glancing instead confidently with an “Any Questions?” smile. Then he took the microphone and proudly introduced himself – not as Jerry Lee Lewis, but with a title only an artist of his swaggering and unapologetic extreme could get away with.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am the original (expletive).” Suffice to say, the taboo word was 12 letters long. The first six rhymed with “brother.”

“He’ll get no argument from me,” I thought to myself.

Sure, what made Lewis’ music rock was the concise construction of his best-known hits (“Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and my favorite, 1958’s “Breathless”) and the volcanic musicality surrounding them. But let’s face it. What sold Lewis was attitude. His persona was perhaps even more combustible than what we were presented with in Elvis Presley. It was more in line with what Little Richard was selling. Lewis’ music was packed with raw, dangerous nerve, a quality that likely made him an intense threat to parents throughout America.

But just try imagining rock and pop music without him. Artists as seemingly far afield of Lewis’ music as Neil Young openly championed him while others – Elton John being the most obvious – made no secret of co-opting some of Lewis’ piano-pounding hijinks into their own performance personas.

It hasn’t stopped either. On the day of Lewis’ death came the release of “Million Dollar Quartet Christmas.” The holiday album has members of the long-touring, Tony-nominated musical “Million Dollar Quartet” – based on the short-lived ensemble of Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins – singing seasonal tunes. Jared Freiburg is featured as Lewis. BR549 co-founder Chuck Mead produced.

Yep. The Killer even played Broadway.

But aside from a concert stage, it was on a movie screen that Lewis’ uncompromising personality was perhaps best put on display. Around the time of his Breeding’s show, Lewis was portrayed by Dennis Quaid in the 1989 film “Great Balls of Fire.” One of its most engaging scenes involved a discussion between Lewis and evangelist/double first cousin Jimmy Swaggart, played by Alec Baldwin. The talk centered around salvation and whether or not Lewis was going to keep faith with the heathen rock ‘n’ roll music that had made him a star.

“The time has come for you to choose,” Swaggart said. “Will you choose the gold-paved road of the devil? Or the rocky path of the Lord?”

“Cousin,” Lewis replied, “my road was paved a long time ago and there ain’t nothing I can do about that.”

In performance: Noah Garabedian Quartet

Noah Garabedian Quartet at Base249 on Sunday. From left, Carmen Staaf, Noah Garabedian, Jimmy MacBride and Dayna Stephens. Photo by Walter Tunis.

Noah Garabedian seemed pleased, not to mention surprised, by what sat before him at Base249 – specifically, a near capacity crowd taking in live jazz on a Sunday evening. Not only that, the bassist was as unfamiliar with Lexington as the audience in attendance seemed to be with him.

But that was what made this Origins Jazz Series performance so special. Serious jazz on a Sunday from a New York bassist/educator of Armenian descent being absorbed by an actively attentive audience? What else could you hope for on a night out at the close of a weekend?

Backed by the same trio of players that support him on his new “Consider the Stars Beneath Us” album – saxophonist Dayna Stephens, pianist Carmen Staaf and drummer Jimmy MacBride – Garabedian offered a two-set program filled with wonderful dynamics. It opened with the meditative feel of “Alice,” a piece dedicated to Alice Coltrane even though it boasted a sway that better reflected the mood of one of her great collaborators, Pharoah Sanders. “Petty Things” later brought Stephens to the forefront with a punctuated but playful groove before “Petrichor” let the melodies dissolve into a gentle autumnal rustle.

The music gained intensity in tempo and general thrillseeking temperament during the second set, even though it was ushered in with Stephens’ hushed tenor lead on “RR.” A sense of rhythmic wanderlust was cemented during “Expectation. Regret,” a mood taken home by the way McBride’s brisk drum rolls rode merrily over and around a joyous joint riff piloted by Staaf on the show-closing cover of Joanne Brackeen’s “Tricks of the Trade.”

Garabedian was an unassuming presence throughout the evening, providing alert and complete solos along with a level of ensemble leadership that was both assured and, judging by the times he said he was deviating from the setlist, spontaneous.

A relaxed environment for active listening and the kind of music that was worth devoting your attention to in the first place made for a Sunday evening well spent.

Film review: “In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50”

Robert Fripp from “In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50.”

As the camera pans out from the stage to an appreciative post-performance audience in a scene from Toby Amies’ documentary “In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50,” we hear the voice of Robert Fripp defining the role, and eventual impact, of music in his life.

“What it does for me… it changes my state. What price will I pay to maintain that connection? Everything.”

This is just one of the topics that distinguish this remarkable film. It’s less the conventional checklist of an artistic history and more the story of life and music and how they relate. And the generations of artists that have made up Crimson for over a half century? As Shakespeare famously pronounced, “Merely players; they have their exits and their entrances.”

Okay, “merely” gives short shrift to the remarkable creativity Crimson members have brought to the band through music that has been alternately elegiac, electrically inventive and volcanically intense. But that’s not really what “In the Court of the Crimson King” is about. It instead presents the band as a circus of sorts with Fripp – Crimson’s founder, guitarist and lone remaining original member – as ringmaster. Past members are interviewed, most detailing Fripp’s eccentricities and demands – some favorably, others less so. And, yes, you get a sense of history here, from the band’s late ‘60s beginnings to its fractious ‘70s lineups and reinvented ‘80s run. But the film is more concerned with presenting Crimson in what were then current snapshots – specifically, through interviews and brief performance snippets from tours in 2018 and 2019.

There are a few fascinating detours, like undercutting a segment of Fripp commentary with visuals of couples dancing formally in the rain on the streets of Poznan, Poland and interviews with a perhaps unlikely Crimson fan – an Oslo nun by the name of Sister Dana Benedicta. The latter even offers a brief bit of spiritual counseling. When asked by Amies if there was a short-cut to heaven, she replies simply, “Love.”

The prevailing setting is a band approaching its 50th anniversary. But underneath the celebration sit stories of mortality that “In the Court of the Crimson King” captures with remarkable intimacy. Early on, we are let in on the advancing Stage IV colon cancer drummer-turned-keyboardist Bill Rieflin was battling. From that point on, the film chronicles a life facing an impending and unavoidable expiration. Rieflin is both candid in his observations (he references being “unhappy and in constant pain”) and gracious in the reshuffled priorities presented of a working musician facing his final days.

“If you want to ask me what music is or what it does or what it can bring into the world,” Rieflin says with a disarming sense of calm, “I think it can restore grace, if only for a moment.”

Reiflin died during the course of the film’s completion. But there is another loss, highlighted with less detail only because the passing occurred after production wrapped up. In a devastating exchange of interview segments, co-founding Crimson member Ian McDonald and Fripp outline the aftershock of the former leaving the band prior to the end of its first North American tour in 1969.

McDonald: “I used to beat myself up. I used to regret leaving Crimson when I did, after the first album. But then life has a way of playing out. I can’t regret it anymore.”

Fripp: “Ian couldn’t take a decision. And he doesn’t know that. And the only decision he took was the wrong one.”

McDonald died in February 2022.

Then there is the matter of Fripp’s own mortality. At 76, and with Crimson seemingly retired from public service (but we’ve thought that before), he appears artfully animated throughout the film, admitting fearlessness should he be the next Crimson-ite called home.

“Do I have any fear of death? None whatsoever. Why? Because consciousness is a continuum. I might move to the next room. Fine. That’s not a concern. There is a party waiting for me.”

Film review: “Ron Carter – Finding the Right Notes”

Ron Carter in “Finding the Right Notes.”

Around the half-way point of “Finding the Right Notes,” Peter Schnall’s engrossing and insightful PBS documentary on jazz bassist Ron Carter, a groove is unleashed. As with all things musical Carter has associated himself with in a career that has spanned over six decades, it is cool and elegant, efficient and quietly assertive.

It developed out of a 2017 quartet concert given at the Blue Note in New York in honor of the bassist’s 80th birthday. The groove’s host tune is “Loose Change,” a Carter original introduced some 30 years earlier on a live album cut with the late sax legend Joe Henderson and drummer Al Foster at another famed New York jazz haven, the Village Vanguard. On this newer filmed version, though, Carter turns the work inside out. Instead of the bass inhabiting a band’s rhythmic pulse, his onstage mates – trumpeter Roy Hargrove, saxophonist Javon Jackson and pianist Donald Vega – lock down the light, entrancing groove as Carter leads with a solo. It’s a soulful and seemingly effortless compliment to the ensemble charge that lasts barely a minute but sounds robust and complete as the tune winds down. The right notes, at least from this TV audient’s view, were indeed found. And not one of them were wasted.

Along with the necessary biographical emphasis, including the sadly familiar accounts of traveling and touring during his early years in a country steeped in racism, there are meditations on the future from Carter. Turning 80 during the course of the film’s creation catches those fascinating moments. Sure, you hear all about Carter’s years with Miles Davis’ famed second quintet, a tireless work ethic that has led to his playing being featured on over 2,200 recording sessions and a steadfast persona that exudes warmth but commands respect. But there are also the moments when Carter wonders, with genuine uncertainty, what the future holds.

“Every change I get to play the bass, I find a new order of notes that I didn’t find last week,” Carter says during one of several very candid interview segments with Jon Batiste. “For me, that’s successful.”

Time marches on, though. Since the film’s completion, Carter has turned 85 and has shown few if any signs of slowing down while ambassadors of several jazz generations have left us. Trumpeter Hargrove died a year following the performance of “Loose Change” featured in this film. He was 49.

Then there are the losses “Finding the Right Notes” captures with shocking immediacy, like the out-of-left-field admission during a filmed conversation that Carter’s son Myles had died. No details are offered as the film progresses, but the loss is registered as quietly and profoundly in Carter’s eyes as his music is when his fingers touch the bass strings.

Several jazz luminaries – most of them, like Herbie Hancock, being contemporaries of Carter – are interviewed throughout “Finding the Right Notes.” The most intriguing of the pack, not surprisingly, are other bassists – including such high profile artists as Stanley Clarke, Christian McBride and Victor Wooten.

“In most fields, jobs you have, you hit 65 and 70 and go, ‘Okay that’s it,’” Clarke remarks. “You go sit on a boat and hang out. With music, especially with guys that are good at it and have the love for it, they just don’t stop. I think Ron will do it probably till the end.”

“I’d like to think part of what I’ve learned is that everybody is equal,” Carter tells a group of students near the conclusion of “Finding the Right Notes.” “Until they play the wrong changes. Then they’re not so equal. My job is to make that wrong stuff sound great. And I’m not too shabby at that.”

In performance: Jeff Tweedy

Jeff Tweedy.

Jeff Tweedy was all over the fact that his sold-out solo concert Wednesday evening at the Kentucky Theatre was part of the venue’s 100th anniversary celebration.

“I was here for the grand opening,” he remarked, tongue firmly in cheek. “Thanks for having me back.”

To be truthful, this actually was something of a return engagement. The performance – an inviting, intimate and often introspective overview of the Chicago songsmith’s entire career – was his first Kentucky Theatre outing since 1995 and his first Lexington show anywhere since 2003. Both of those performances were with his long-running band Wilco. On Wednesday, it was just Tweedy alone in a showcase of songwriting that was placed front and center. With Wilco’s sense of electric invention absent, the tunes’ reflection, emotional desolation and often startling vulnerability positively glowed.

The fact Tweedy revealed a vocal gusto far greater in dynamics than the whispery flourishes that often color his songs on record certainly enhanced the narrative drama. But what remained the most startling aspect of the program was how masterfully designed the confessional and conversational tone of his songs were revealed to be in a solo acoustic setting.

You heard it in the very uneasy homesickness that poured forth from “Gwendolyn” (from Tweedy’s 2020 solo album “Love is the King”) as well as in the stunning sense of abandonment at the heart of “Orphan” (from 2019’s “Warmer”). “I watched until he was an empty room,” Tweedy sang, referencing the infirmity and eventual passing of his father. “He rests between how it is and how it seems. Where I can’t see him.”

Tweedy joked that some of his more sobering songs have yielded concert bookings for “celebrations.” Be that as it may, the Kentucky Theatre return was far from an evening of despondency. The set also made room for the goofy “Passenger Side” (from the 1994 Wilco debut record “A.M.”) and the still-enchanting sing-a-long folk revivalism of “California Stars” (one of several tunes on 1998’s “Mermaid Avenue” album utilizing then-unpublished lyrics by Woody Guthrie).

There were some serious deep cuts along the way, too, including a giddy throwback to Tweedy’s pre-Wilco alt-country days with Uncle Tupelo (“New Madrid”) and another familial lament cut with the all-star Americana-and-more troupe Golden Smog (“Please Tell My Brother”).

The bulk of the 90-minute program, however, was devoted to music from two cornerstone Wilco albums – the band’s newest work, “Cruel Country,” and the 2001 career-redefining masterwork “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”

Eight songs were pulled from “Cruel Country,” all stripping away the often rustic Western ambience of their recorded versions so their raw and often unsettled sentiments were laid bare. Such casual but genuine drama surfaced at once during the show-opening “I Am My Mother,” another snapshot of parental loss. “I can’t mend every broken fence,” Tweedy sang. “I’m a new man, but I am still my mother.”

Since “Cruel Country” was only released digitally this year (vinyl and CD editions are scheduled for January), its music seemed new to the Kentucky crowd. That was hardly the case with the five songs offered from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” From a heavily deconstructed “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” to the encore finale of “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” the audience treated the tunes as if they were Top 10 hits.

It should be noted the audience played a major role in the emotive clarity of this performance. While some understandably hollered responses and requests during Tweedy’s animated between-song banter, the theatre became exquisitely quiet once the songs commenced. A similarly attentive setting greeted a very enjoyable six-song opening set of atmospheric, ‘70s-flavored folk by St. Louis-turned-Topanga songstress Le’Ponds. There is no question that such an atypically active listening environment added to the stark but vivid narrative vitality of the entire evening.

Of course, a few patrons couldn’t help but express their excitement. When Tweedy discussed the fragments of inner dialogue going on in his head as the concert progressed, an eager fan shouted, “We love you.”

“No, I didn’t hear that,” he replied with poker-faced candor. “I would never say something that nice to myself.”