Walter Tunis: Louisville quintet brings songs from its new EP

Contributing Music WriterFebruary 27, 2014 

The 23 String Band comes to Cosmic Charlie's on Friday night.



    'Night': Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville: The tune that best brought the Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt song cycle Night to quiet but exquisitely emotive life was also the instance where the largest number of contrasting inspirations intersected.

    The tune was Billie Holiday's Don't Explain, a work sung by Americana stylist Merritt with tasteful, torchy reverence. But the performance wasn't fashioned after Holiday's original version, even though the elegantly desperate tone of Merritt's vocals more than once summoned Lady Day's divine sadness. Instead, this reading took its cue from Nina Simone's smokier, more spacious interpretation. Merritt sang the blues of Holiday, and Dinnerstein, one of today's most heralded classical pianists, played them. The resulting music seemed almost emancipating as each artist stepped modestly away from the sounds and styles with which audiences have most readily associated them.

    The 14-song suite, performed in its entirety, formed the bulk of the 90-minute concert. There were a few extras, including Schumann's In the Evening, which introduced the unhurried yet beautifully rich touch of Dinnerstein's playing, and a pair of haunting, fragile-sounding tunes from Merritt's 2012 album Traveling Alone (Small Talk Relations and Spring). But the program was essentially an evening of Night.

    There were highlights galore within the suite, from a version of Schubert's Night and Dreams that concluded with hushed wails on a pair of harmonicas by Merritt that sounded like softened calls from the wilderness, Dinnerstein's romantic but exploratory runs through The Cohen Variations (a deconstruction of the Leonard Cohen staple Suzanne) and a plaintive reading of the Johnny Nash pop-reggae hit I Can See Clearly Now served by Merritt as a morning prayer that ushered Night into the dawn of a "bright sunshiney day."

    The show stealer, though, was the Merritt original Colors, where lyrics of almost prophetic uncertainly ("What will I know tomorrow that I do not know today?") were complemented by single-note chimes plucked by Dinnerstein directly from the piano strings like a harp. It was one of the many moments that gave Night its very luminous presence.

The 23 String Band, The Tillers

10 p.m. Feb.28 at Cosmic Charlie's. 388 Woodland Ave. $10. (859) 309-9499.

Take in the music of the 23 String Band and you might suspect the Louisville quintet has a separate style and sound for every string in its name.

On any given night, the ensemble might dig into Jimmy Martin-esque tradition, John Hartford-flavored roots serenades, jazz-like jams rooted in the new grass movements of the '80s and '90s, European swing, scores of harmonic inspirations and more.

The band has made a few friends in Lexington, as well — particularly at the Festival of the Bluegrass (which it has played the past two years) and at the debut of Crave Lexington in September.

On Friday, the 23 String Band returns to Cosmic Charlie's to show off tunes from a new EP titled Bangin' and Clangin'. The five-song recording includes a few tasty covers (St. James Infirmary, Sitting on Top of the World) along with tunes that have become staples of the band's live shows since the release of its 2011 sophomore album Catch 23 (Valentines Love Bouquet, Leave Everything to Me).

Bangin' and Clangin' also expands the musical vocabulary as well as the actual size of the 23 String Band. The record augments the group's core lineup with a team of horn players and drummers.

The Cincinnati folk, blues and roots country trio The Tillers will open Friday's show.

Worldwide 'WoodSongs'

The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour goes global this week. On the bill at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Center, 300 East Third Street, for Monday's taping will be Senegalese guitarist, vocalist and composer Habib Koite. A keeper of the storytelling tradition of the nomadic griots, Koite designs songs that also reflect the percussive and contemporary sounds of his homeland. Additional inclusions of flamenco and Afro-Cuban accents have prompted some writers to dub Koite's music as "pan-Malian."

WoodSongs will pluck the program's other guest act from the Great White North. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (which also likes to go by the abbreviated name of BaRK), is a group led by Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson, each an all-star in their native Canada. Linden has been especially visible over the years thanks to recordings and performances with the likes of T-Bone Burnett, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and especially Bruce Cockburn. BaRK is currently touring behind its eighth and newest album, South.

As usual, reservations for WoodSongs tapings are highly encouraged. (6:45 p.m. (859) 252-8888.

Solo Joseph

In the mid-'80s, when there wasn't a jam band movement per se, Jerry Joseph was enough of a notable within the Rocky Mountain club scene that then-novice groups like Widespread Panic were enlisted as opening acts at concerts by his band Little Women.

Joseph never matched the growing commercial appeal many of his contemporaries enjoyed when jam music became a subgenre of sorts in the mid-'90s, but his records with The Jackmormons and as a solo artist still helped solidify a lasting fan base.

Currently, Joseph is touring behind a self-titled acoustic album that retools songs from his years with Little Women, The Jackmormons and the more recent Stockholm Syndrome (the all-star unit that also included Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools). He performs Tuesday at Cosmic Charlie's. (10 p.m. $6.)

Family banjo

Separately, they have long been pioneering voices for the banjo. But on Tuesday, the husband and wife team of Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn become a banjo tag team for the ages with a duo performance at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair Street in Frankfort. In Tuesday's Living section and on, the couple discusses life on the road with their infant son Juno in tow. (7:30 p.m. $30-$50. (502)

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