Walter Tunis: Like many stars before him Brian Owens came to R&B from church

Contributing Music WriterMarch 20, 2014 

Brian Owens has a devout following in St. Louis


    Pablo Ziegler Quartet with Stefon Harris at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville: Nearly every piece performed by Pablo Ziegler's remarkably understated quartet played out like a suite. A central theme or mood would introduce most tunes. From then on, the music was like a car chase, bounding around numerous shifts in tempo and temperament — some of which were quite abrupt — before arriving home again. It was then that you could appreciate how exhilarating the journey was.

    Ziegler is widely seen today as the torchbearer of "nuevo tango," the jazz-like, small-combo variation of tango music formulated decades ago by Argentine composer Ástor Piazzolla. Ziegler was Piazzolla's pianist for more than a decade, which explains why the concert program was split evenly between original compositions and works by Piazzolla.

    The clipped, beautifully exact melodies of Piazzolla were echoed in the spare, mischievous playing of Hector del Curto on bandoneon, the Argentine version of the button accordion that was the composer's signature instrument. But that was only part of the fun. With the help of American vibraphonist Stefon Harris, a guest for roughly two-thirds of the concert, Ziegler used the bandoneon colors as guideposts for tunes that were in constant emotive motion.

    During the Ziegler composition Bajo Caro, the ensemble mood became almost elegiac before left-hand piano rolls opened out into a gleeful lyrical stride. The music became more fragmented on Piazzolla's Chin Chin through band skirmishes that included a brief four-mallet run on the vibes from Harris that affirmed the tune's inherent cool along with sleek, punctuated rhythm by Ziegler, bassist Pedro Giraudo and guitarist Claudio Ragazzi.

    At the core of these exchanges was a sense of playfulness that triggered the giddy melodic jabs of La Rayuela. Such instances also recalled the animated piano/vibes duets of Chick Corea and Gary Burton as much as the great Piazzolla.

    There were other stylistic joyrides, including the classically inclined Fuga y Misterio and the darker, more spacious Blues Porteno. But it was Buenos Aires Report that best displayed the template for all of the genre-jumping — a boldly colored, effortlessly executed piano blast that balanced Piazzolla's compositional elegance with Ziegler's boundless musical ingenuity.

Brian Owens, Northside Sheiks

8 p.m. March 21 at Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. $10. (859) 281-1116.

Like so many of the great soul vocalists who preceded him, Brian Owens grew up in church.

That's where his father, a minister, learned to sing. That's also where a young Owens discovered the power of live performance. Admittedly, the hours spent devouring records by the likes of Nat King Cole, The Temptations and Wilson Pickett, among others, also helped.

Together, those inspirations worked to formulate a talent that has won a solid fan base in St. Louis, where Owens lives.

With that audience came something of a dual career.

One avenue has been focused heavily on Owens' original songs: the '60s- and '70s-informed R&B that makes up albums including 2012's Moods and Messages and the new EP disc, Preach. The other has placed Owens alongside the pioneers he has long cherished. Through what he calls the Master Series, Owens has devoted entire performances to the music of pioneers including Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and Bill Withers, and non-R&B greats including Johnny Cash.

That explains the makeup of Owens' Lexington debut performance Friday at Willie's Locally Known. One set will promote the singer's own compositions. The other will offer the Master Series in miniature by way of music popularized by another artist who discovered his passion for singing in the church: Sam Cooke.

Lexington's roots, blues and soul ambassadors, The Northside Sheiks, will open the show.

Blind Boys of Alabama

8:30 p.m. at Northern Kentucky University' Greaves Hall in Highland Heights. $30. 1-888-428-7311, (859) 572-6369.

The prime road trip show of the weekend takes us to the campus of Northern Kentucky University on Friday for an evening with the multi-Grammy-winning Blind Boys of Alabama.

The Blind Boys have largely redefined the repertoire and visibility of spiritual music over the past 15 years.

Their musical makeup is staunchly traditional, with vocals and harmonies born of Southern gospel. But since their first Grammy-winning album, 2001's Spirit of the Century, the 70-plus-year-old ensemble — still with co-founding member Jimmy Carter — has found spiritual inspiration in select songs by Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Ben Harper and other decidedly non-gospel artists.

Friday's show will probably be based on the Blind Boys' 2013 album, I'll Find a Way. It's a beautifully reserved record produced by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, and it features songs by acts ranging from the '70s soul troupe The Chi-Lites to the contemporary indie-pop outfit Field Report.

But the Blind Boys aren't above a surprise or two, either. At a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour in November at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center in Lexington, the group offered an unassuming but powerfully emotive cover of the Velvet Underground's Jesus as a tribute to Lou Reed, who had died a few weeks earlier.

Speaking of 'WoodSongs'

Monday's taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric, 300 East Third Street, will feature the exquisitely indefinable roots music-and-more troupe Donna the Buffalo. For more than two decades, the band has playfully meshed old-time folk with pop, zydeco, reggae, Americana-leaning country and more. An overlaying groove-centric drive has made such a mix appealing to jam band audiences, too.

Pianist/composer/vocalist Eliza Rickman will round out the WoodSongs bill. (6:45 p.m. $10. Reservations recommended: (859) 252-8888.

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