Walter Tunis: Revitalized NRBQ to play at Southgate, WoodSongs

Contributing Music WriterJune 19, 2014 

NRBQ from left: Casey McDonough, Conrad Choucroun, Scott Ligon and Terry Adams.



    Drive-By Truckers at Buster's: Sometimes you can't help saving your best trick until the end of the night. That's essentially what happened as Drive-By Truckers began to call it an evening last Friday.

    Up to that point, the venerable Athens, Ga., troupe, which has long been the antithesis of the conventional Southern rock band, had already put in a solid night's work. It heaped on 2½ hours of rough-cut, guitar-saturated rock 'n' roll, along with all the scorched solos and meaty riffs such music triggers. But the band's songs, now solely the products of guitarist/singers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, regularly soared beyond all that by exploring dark urban myths and even darker rural realities.

    Sometimes the songs were threadbare in their sense of desolation, as in Hood's Pauline Hawkins, one of six grim tales from the Truckers' fine new album English Oceans. In other instances, the mood was more forgiving and hopeful, as in A World of Hurt (another Hood tune, this one from 2006's A Blessing and a Curse).

    Cooley's songs, while every bit as detailed, were told in more conversational terms, as with the bittersweet English Oceans parental reflection Primer Coat or the jagged country postscript A Ghost to Most from 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark that offered a more introspective restlessness ("Talkin' tough is easy when it's other people's evil"). Sadly, the show's sound mix wasn't always kind to the lower end of Cooley's singing, causing entire verses of his lyrics to be lost.

    But it was the show-closing Grand Canyon that smoked everything. A remembrance for longtime band cohort Craig Lieske, the song was one of the few instances where the Truckers told their story in largely sonic terms.

    The tune's power came in waves. An initial ripple effect of guitars splintered into freeform electric chaos that ended with each player leaving the stage one-by-one, paring the music down to Brad Morgan's solemn drum foundation and a layer of purposeful feedback that rang out after his exit. Part eulogy, part musical anarchy, Grand Canyon was a grand finale in every respect. If you left early, you pretty much missed out.


■ With Rob Fetters. 8:30 p.m. June 20 at Southgate House Revival, 111 E. Sixth St.. Newport. $25. (859) 431-2201.

■ For WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour with Sundy Best. 6:45 p.m. June 23 at Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St. $20. Reservations recommended: (859) 252-8888.

The beginnings of NRBQ stem back to January 1966, when a teenage Terry Adams formed the band in Louisville.

Technically, the initials stood for New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, but Adams and the succession of players who filed in and out of the band during subsequent decades never bothered with such formalities. Onstage and on record, they were always NRBQ.

To die-hard fans, they were simply "The Q." Good thing, too, because at shows, Adams and company were as keen on pulling out roots-informed R&B as they were vintage country, elemental funk, Space Age jazz and, of course, some of the most wicked rock 'n' roll on the planet.

Absent from this part of his home state for nearly a decade, Adams brings to Kentucky a revitalized NRBQ (which now features guitarist/vocalist Scott Ligon, drummer Conrad Choucroun and bassist Casey McDonough) for two different performances in the evenings ahead.

The foursome plays a full concert on Friday at the Southgate House Revival in Newport. Psychodots guitarist Rob Fetters will open with a solo acoustic set. Then on Monday, the new Q will share a WoodSongs bill with another Kentucky-bred star attraction, the country pop duo Sundy Best.

NRBQ will be promoting its third album in four years, Brass Tacks, which was released Tuesday. The record blends songs by Adams, Ligon and McDonough and stylistically shifts, in true Q fashion, from wide-eyed pop (Sit on My Lap, Waitin' on My Sweetie Pie) to Adams' long-standing fascination with the cosmic-themed jazz and funk of Sun Ra (Places Far Away) to a cover of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Getting to Know You done up with the kind of quirky joy and reverence that only NRBQ can provide.

Gordon Lightfoot

8 p.m. June 26 at UK's Singletary Center for Arts, 405 Rose St. $40-$60. (859) 257-4929.

For over a half-century, the steadfast folk-rock music of Gordon Lightfoot has inspired generations of fellow artists. Perhaps you know a few of them.

Among the giants who have recorded his songs are Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, The Replacements, Sarah McLachlan, Sandy Denny, Tony Rice and a few dozen others. This spring, fellow Canadian Neil Young cut two of Lightfoot's cornerstone works, Early Morning Rain and If You Could Read My Mind, for his new album A Letter Home.

But no one covers Lightfoot quite like Lightfoot himself.

At age 75, his singing shows some wear, but his 2012 concert album, All Live, still presents an impressive combination of songs, thinned but still vital vocals and the light orchestration of band members, several of whom have been with Lightfoot for decades.

A top recommendation from the 40-plus years of Lightfoot recordings? Just about any of his early '70s albums for Warner Bros. would work. I'll go with 1971's Summer Side of Life, largely because of the current seasonal appeal. Sundown from 1974 better befits late summer, 1972's Old Dan's Records would get the nod were it autumn and 1970's breakthrough Sit Down Young Stranger (re-titled If You Could Read My Mind after the single broke open Lightfoot's career) remains the unrivaled winter pick.

On Thursday, folk-rock's man for all seasons returns to the University of Kentucky's Singletary Center for the Arts.

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