Walter Tunis: 2013's most memorable live shows

Contributing Music WriterDecember 26, 2013 

The Avett Brothers played Rupp Arena on Nov. 23. The North Carolina-based band has frequently performed in Lexington.

PAUL HOOPER

If you had nothing but television to guide you, 2013 would go down as a year when country music ruled the commercial roost and the artistic advancement of contemporary pop was halted by something called twerking.

Luckily, live music is just that: a performance art that was ignited not on TV screens, but in venues throughout Lexington over the past 12 months. Some concerts played to arena-size crowds; others had only handfuls of die-hards and the simply curious at dance studios and theaters to cheer them on. All were equally vital.

Here is a scrapbook of recollections from a few of the finer moments. It's not a Top 10 list, mind you, but a simply an overview of 10 outstanding concerts that took place in 10 performance venues within Lexington during 2013.

WALTER TUNIS' MEMORABLE SHOWS

Richard Thompson Electric Trio at the Kentucky Theatre (April): When Thompson chooses to favor electric music in a performance setting, one can be easily overwhelmed by his remarkably versed guitar play, especially when he evokes Jimi Hendrix by playing a cover of Hey Joe. Luckily, the veteran songsmith's extraordinary compositions remained at the helm of this keen mix of vintage British folk-rock and contemporary Americana.

The Engines at Mecca (April): The Outside the Spotlight series of free jazz and improvisational music performances finished off its 12th season this fall. Its strongest outing of the year came in the spring, when The Engines — a quartet of Chicago instrumentalists who have all performed here previously in other ensembles — convened for music that shifted from cool balladry to blasts of improvisational immediacy.

Sturgill Simpson at Cosmic Charlie's (May): The modest indie awareness generated around the roots country musings of Breathitt County native Simpson was one of Kentucky's great unsung breakthroughs of 2013. The former vocalist for the Lexington alt-country troupe Sunday Valley channeled several epic inspirations (Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley) but he offered a rustic, restless country voice that was very much his own.

Alison Brown at Willie's Locally Known (June): Brown is a masterful stylist (and chief of Compass Records) who continues to use banjo-based bluegrass as a springboard for explorations into folk, pop and jazz. But this return outing at Willie's also bolstered a weeklong celebration leading up to the Festival of the Bluegrass called Best of Bluegrass, or BoB, that became one of the year's great music outreach events.

Buddy Guy at the Lexington Opera House (June): With only weeks to go before his 77th birthday, Chicago blues giant Guy returned to ignite the inspirations of musical forefathers Muddy Waters and Little Walter with electric bravado. But the resulting music was more in keeping with '60s psychedelic rock than traditional blues. As was Guy's way, everything was served up with a joyous gospel-like fervor.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Buster's Billiards and Backroom (August): In the eight months since his previous show at Buster's, Isbell released the finest album of his young solo career, Southeastern. He performed the better part of it here with solemn vigor, along with favorites from his days with Drive-By Truckers (Never Gonna Change) and a killer encore cover of the Rolling Stones' Can't You Hear Me Knocking.

California Guitar Trio at Natasha's Bistro (October): For its first Lexington sellout, guitarists Paul Richards, Bert Lams and Hideyo Moriya ran the gamut from Bach to Brubeck but left room for fine original works (The Marsh) and hybrids (the cowboy-infested Doors mash-up Ghost Riders on the Storm). That the trio was so unassuming about the stylistic borders it crossed made the music even more fun.

Jerry Douglas at the Lyric Theatre (November): Few artists have become as synonymous with the instrument they play as Douglas has with the dobro. For this rare visit to his former hometown outside of performances with Alison Krauss and Union Station, Douglas used the dobro as the lone instrumental color for an evening of Leadbelly-based roots music, Chick Corea-inspired jazz and Josh Graves-directed bluegrass.

The Avett Brothers at Rupp Arena (November): Throughout the past decade that Lexington watched the Avetts grow from a novel club act to an arena-size hit, the level of songcraft in the group never seemed on par with its instrumental ingenuity. But with a strong new album (Magpie and the Dandelion) to promote, this Rupp return presented an Avetts outing that sounded, at long last, complete.

Arturo Sandoval and the University of Kentucky Wind Symphony at the Singletary Center for the Arts (December): It started as a program dominated by classical music. But the jazzman in Grammy-winning trumpeter Sandoval couldn't be harnessed. By the show's conclusion, he was wailing away on Duke Ellington's Caravan and playfully commandeering the UK Wind Symphony for an impromptu and jubilant master class on the art of jazz spontaneity.

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