Walter Tunis: Mark the night on your Mayan calendar

Cosmic Charlie's is ready to send the world out with a big bang

Contributing Music WriterDecember 20, 2012 


    Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Buster's Billiards and Backroom: Jason Isbell certainly had time on his side last weekend, when he returned to Buster's fronting a quartet lineup of his band, the 400 Unit.

    First off was the fact that the Alabama-bred Americana songsmith was fresh off an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman. There, he performed Outfit, a country-esque rocker about home and humility from his days with Drive-By Truckers that is enjoying a second life as a centerpiece tune on Isbell's fine new album, Live From Alabama.

    Then there were the maturity and confidence levels Isbell has reached as a solo artist and the complementary ways in which the 400 Unit — augmented at this show by Texas violinist Amanda Shires — addressed his songs. The show-opening Go It Alone, though marred by a muddy sound mix that was quickly corrected, reflected a swampy drive indicative of the Truckers. But on Tour of Duty and Alabama Pines, two very different homecoming stories, the music took decidedly country turns.

    There were also strong but streamlined shades of Muscle Shoals soul by way of the Candi Staton hit Heart on a String (which nicely retained its vintage R&B feel despite the absence of the horn section that deliciously dressed the tune up on Live from Alabama) and New Orleans funk with a suitably second line-flavored version of Hey Pocky Way (with 400 Unit drummer Chad Gamble on lead vocals).

    The timing aspect also offered a sense of perspective. Granted, much of the 1¾-hour performance was devoted to a present-day artistic portrait of Isbell. But the program was also very much at peace with the past. There were five songs from the Truckers days (all taken from the albums Decoration Day and The Dirty South). Among them was the Neil Young-flavored Never Gonna Change, into which Isbell injected a funkified update of Jimi Hendrix's Stone Free.

    The Young inspiration surfaced more literally in a faithful, show-closing reading of his Crazy Horse classic Like a Hurricane. It was as though a blast of cool air soared in from the West Coast and ran smack into Isbell's distinctly Southern sense of rock and soul. Needless to say, a merry storm ensued.

The First and Last Annual Absolute End of Everything Extravaganza featuring Ford Theatre Reunion and Friends

7 p.m. Dec. 21 at Cosmic Charlie's, 388 Woodland Ave. $10. (859) 309-9499.

This weekend's live music picks come with a qualifier.

Should the world end Friday, as possibly indicated by the ancient Mayan calendar, and the Earth becomes a dead orb of ruins floating through the cosmos, there is a good chance the music venue of your choice will experience a disruption of concert activity.

So I heartily recommend that, before attending any music-related activity this weekend, you call ahead and ask a representative of the club or concert hall whether they will be open or if there will be a change in hours of operation due to the obliteration of the planet.

They will appreciate your concern.

Cosmic Charlie's certainly seems to be buyin' into the Mayan. Friday, the club will host an apocalyptic celebration called The First and Last Annual Absolute End of Everything Extravaganza.

Headlining and curating the event will be the Ford Theatre Reunion, the animated carnival/vaudeville troupe that describes its songs as "circus freak music for circus freak people." But the Extravaganza also boasts nearly a dozen other local and out-of-town acts that cover ska, electro-swing, burlesque, acrobatics, juggling, belly dancing, puppeteering and more.

On the bill are The Rough Customers, Jack Holiday and The Westerners, Vourteque, the Deadly Sins Burlesque featuring Miss Trixie DeVille, the Tinderbox Circus Sideshow, Miss Mousie, Robbin Marks Magic, Holly Price and Helen Aerialaddict, Ut Gret and Rakadu Gypsy Dance.

In short, this is not exactly the kind of show one finds in Lexington at any time of year, much less on the weekend before Christmas.

"Well, we figured it's the end of the world, so we've got to go all out," said Ford Theatre Reunion mainstay accordionist Eric Myers. "Over the past year or so, we've been on the road an awful lot and have met some amazing people from all over the country that are of a like mind when it comes to performance and spectacle and the kinds of shows we like to put on. We found out there were people doing the kind of thing that we're doing.

"This provided a perfect opportunity to bring in some of our friends from out of town. We've got performers coming in from Chicago, North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana. On top of that, we've put together a bill that also features some of the local people we've been involved with for a long time."

Friday's performance, aside from marking the end of the Earth, also winds up four fruitful years of performance service for Ford Theatre Reunion. The group came to local prominence after organizing "freak show" carnivals in the Buster's parking lot during the first two years of the Boomslang festival.

"We actually started doing this at Common Grounds about four years ago. At the time, we never thought we would be able to find enough of an audience for us to take what we do on the road. We've gone through a lot of lineup changes and a lot of musical changes since then, but so much of that audience base is still there."

In recent years, the group has created two full-length albums from the fractured bits of folk, ragtime and swing that decorate their songs, along with some of the narrative elements that pepper its live shows (described by Myers as being "along the lines of carnival barkers on a pier announcing puppet shows as you walk by"). A third is in the works. But therein sits a puzzle. What becomes of a recording project if civilization isn't around to hear it?

"We're thrilled about the album," Myers said. "Unfortunately, the world is going to end before we can get it out."

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