Walter Tunis: Randall Bramblett is staying above Sea Level

His solo career has soared on a hybrid Southern rock sound

Contributing Music WriterJune 28, 2012 

Randall Bramblett last performed in Lexington in September 2010.

  • THE WEEK THAT WAS

    BoDeans at Buster's: The task before the BoDeans — specifically, frontman Kurt Neumann — last weekend was a mighty one. The mission? To take 26 years' worth of expert pop and Americana-driven rock 'n' roll crafted for the distinct harmonic blend of Neumann and co-founder Sammy Llanas, and credibly reinvent it now that the latter singer has flown the coop.

    The answer was an absorbing 100-minute performance that unveiled an industrious seven- member Llanas-less lineup, a smattering of new songs from its fine new Neumann-led album, American Made, and an assortment of cleverly rearranged older works.

    The new lineup didn't offer a dramatic stylistic detour. Instead, it simply cemented a more relaxed and orchestrated sound that the BoDeans adopted on several recent independent recordings. At the forefront of the music — even more so, in some cases, than Neumann — was fiddler Warren Hood and co-guitarist Jake Owen. Their playing helped ignite healthy ensemble jams during the chestnut tune Fadeaway that sandwiched a tough-knuckled shuffle between two sections rich in dub and reggae grooves.

    But add longtime BoDeans keyboardist Michael Ramos, who bolstered much of the program with accordion accents that shifted from Cajun-flavored spice to Dropkick Murphys-level Celtic spunk, and the show truly began to kick. Case in point: American, one of four strong tunes from American Made that possessed a fervent but refreshingly non-jingoistic narrative and a pumped-up roots-music drive that further empowered fiddle and accordion.

    Neumann wore the crown of rock 'n' roll elder with unassuming distinction. Among his craftier moments included the transformation of Good Work — a true smoker of a tune from the band's late-'80s shows — into a leisurely mix of traditional honky tonk and Chicago blues.

    Having taken a serious hit in the personnel department a year ago, the reconstituted BoDeans offered music that seemed less the product of an aging band running without a co-pilot and more the work of a flight team of seasoned vets and industrious newcomers. All appeared to enjoy the ride equally.

The Randall Bramblett Band

7 p.m. July 1 at Natasha's Bistro & Bar, 112 Esplanade. $20 in advance, $24 at the door. (859) 259-2754. Beetnik.com.

The music of Randall Bramblett was introduced to me in late 1974 via a concert recording by Gregg Allman. Then a wildly popular — and highly bankable — rock personality, Allman chronicled a high-profile tour with a 24-piece orchestra and the day's top Southern musicians on a two-album set titled simply The Gregg Allman Tour.

One of its highlights was the Allman original Queen of Hearts. There, amid an elegant setting of blues, swing and strings, were a pair of luscious saxophone solos by Bramblett.

That, of course, only illuminated Bramblett's instrumental smarts. After two solo albums that wouldn't hit my ears until many years later, he resurfaced with keyboardist and Allman cohort Chuck Leavell in the Southern fusion ensemble Sea Level. During the course of four albums in as many years— the best, by far, being 1997's Cats on the Coast and 1998's sublime On the Edge — Bramblett offered songs with vivid Southern imagery, soul and, at times, desperation. Several of the best tunes (This Could Be the Worst and Living in a Dream) were first cut for Bramblett's previous solo records. But within the spacious, keyboard- dominated world of Sea Level, the music sounded entirely new.

I caught glimpses of Bramblett in performance essentially by accident in the ensuing years alongside Steve Winwood. The first was during a tour promoting Winwood's underrated 1990 album Refugees of the Heart. The second was a 1994 reunion outing by Winwood's groundbreaking band Traffic. In fact, Traffic's televised performance for its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a decade later sported only three players: Winwood, the late drummer and Traffic co-founder Jim Capaldi and Bramblett on organ. The trio's jam-savvy version of Dear Mr. Fantasy more than justified Traffic's place in the Hall of Fame.

But it wasn't until 1998 that Bramblett's solo career began in earnest. The release of See Through Me triggered a string of extraordinary solo albums that saw his writing rapidly evolve and mature. The catalog of solo work that followed, which culminated with 2008's Now It's Tomorrow and 2010's The Meantime, represents Bramblett as a writer of literate, expansive Southern detail and a composer who dismisses the common view of "Southern rock" in favor of a schooled but coolly authoritative assimilation of rock, soul, jazz and, at times, gospel.

Lexington has received a few visits by Bramblett over the years, although Sunday marks his first full-band performance and his first concert of any kind since September 2010. If you caught any of those previous shows, you know the emotive and stylistic command of his music. If not, well, let's just say you really need to be at Natasha's on Sunday. This guy is one of the greats.

Go Fourth

The ideal July Fourth musical bill will require you to split the holiday between two cities.

First up is CD Central's annual offering of free local music Wednesday at Phoenix Park. This year's lineup is especially strong. It presents bands featured in the "10 in 20" video/recording project (10in20.net). The lineup: The Fanged Robot (11 a.m.), Oh My Me (noon), Coralee and the Townies (1 p.m), Englishman (3:30 p.m.) and Matt Duncan (4:30 p.m.).

For evening festivities, we suggest a quick drive to Louisville for a rare regional performance by reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. A pioneering stylist for more than 40 years, Cliff performed a new song (One More) last month on The Late Show With David Letterman with astounding vigor. The free performance caps a full evening of music at Waterfront Park that begins at 5 p.m. Cliff should hit the stage about 8:45. For more info, go to Waterfrontindependencesfestival.com.

(FYI, if you're looking for the annual Red, White and Boom Independence Day concert, it's not on the Fourth of July this year. Featuring Josh Turner, local singer Lauren Mink and more, it will be July 7 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.)

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