Walter Tunis: Another life for Catawampus Universe; Delfonics ready for Opera House

Contributing Music ColumnistAugust 14, 2014 

  • Catawampus Universe

    When: 10 p.m. August 16, 17

    Where: Cosmic Charlie's, 388 Woodland Ave.

    Tickets: $15 each night. (859) 309-9499 or

  • The week that was

    Dawn Landes at the Well Crafted Festival in Harrodsburg: Dawn Landes had to realize just how closely the opening night audience at the inaugural Well Crafted Festival was following her performance. When she introduced a tune (the pensive Bodyguard) by saying, "This is a little song about a robbery," a crowd patron, without skipping a beat, shouted back, "Were you involved?"

    Granted, the folk/Americana accent of her songs and the often wistfully confessional nature of her lyrics are very audience-friendly attributes. Adding to that, though, was the performance setting. The Louisville-born, Brooklyn-based songstress was the last of four acts to perform in Meadow View Barn at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County.

    In other words, the show was set in the most inviting and remote part of an already inviting and remote festival site. An atypically cool midsummer evening didn't hurt either, but the barn setting provided an informal, intimate atmosphere for Landes' music — especially tunes from her fine 2014 album, Bluebird.

    Backed by a trio of Lexington pros dubbed the Kentucky Gentlemen — guitarist/pedal steel player Tom Hnatow, bassist Blake Cox and drummer Robby Cosenza — Landes delivered a 50 minute set that worked its way from songs of studious reflection, revelation and despondency to a finale of rockish celebration highlighted by a jacked-up cover of Tom Petty's Southern Accents.

    The Bluebird tunes fell into the former class. Tryin' to Make a Fire Burn Again, the best of the new selections, used Hnatow's pedal steel accents as embellishment to the uneasy grace of Landes' singing, which recalled the subtle but dark emotive cast of Natalie Merchant's early solo records.

    Heel Toe turned such a sound on its side by setting the music to a jagged, neo-waltz melody. Pull such intensity back into a more traditional country context and you had the repressed emotive drive of Oh Brother which escaped in beguiling, mantra-like choruses. And for pure country fun, there was a sisterly cover of Dolly Parton's Longer Than Always with Lexington's own Coralee, whose preceding set with her longstanding Townies band worked an emotively similar but stylistically different country soul vibe that sounded equally sweet at this barn party.

Clichéd as it undoubtedly sounds, the idea of reforming Catawampus Universe all but came to Joel Crisp in a dream.

"I just woke up one day and all of a sudden, there was no question," says Crisp, who currently works as a photographer and videographer in San Diego. "I called the guys and emailed them and said, 'What do you think about doing a Catawampus reunion someday?' Of course, I meant like a year-and-a-half in the future, once we had a chance to rehearse and everything. Everybody wrote back really quickly, saying, 'Let's do it.' Dave (Farris, the band's long-time drummer) was like, 'I can get Saturday night, Aug. 16, booked.' So it's on."

Formed in 1990 out of the experimental groove music collective Red Fly Nation, Catawampus Universe grew into one of the most popular and, subsequently, busiest bands in Lexington. Driven by soul, funk, thick percussive grooves and guitar patterns that bordered on jazz and jam excursions, Catawampus would pack local music haunts and, eventually, regional and national clubs.

The band would go on to record five albums, including a summit with famed Parliament-Funkadelic/Talking Heads keyboardist Bernie Worrell (Celebration of the One). But after years of relentless gigging and flirtations with the national recording business, the group amicably dissolved in 2002.

"You know, it's intense driving all night in a van with a bunch of guys," Crisp says. "It's just very intense. It's cool for a month and maybe even a few years. But when it starts to be a decade of grinding and all night drives all the time, then it starts to be, like, 'Man, what happened to the music?'"

Then Crisp vanished.

"After Catawampus, I kind of drifted down to Mexico for a couple of years and met my wife," Crisp says. "She's from San Diego and we moved back up here. We've been married six years.

"I was so disillusioned by the music business. So I just cut myself off from it and wouldn't even talk about it for several years because I just felt the business was a machine, a hamburger grinder that's just meant to milk art out of people. So it took me a long time to get my head back around to writing songs again. But I haven't played a gig in 12 years."

While Crisp has removed himself from Lexington, the other mainstay members of Catawampus — including drummer/percussionists Farris, Tripp Bratton and Tim Welch, guitarist Willie Eames and bassist Steve Cherry have remained active in scores of local bands. Guitarist Eric Belt now resides in Atlanta but will take part in this weekend's reunion shows, as will Mecca dancer Teresa Tomb, a regular Catawampus contributor.

"These guys, Dave Farris and the rest, they're such incredible players," Crisp says. "They're like a Muscle Shoals unit with really, really serious truckloads of soul. People should be flying to Lexington to record with them. I really do think that."

Grooving on the Delfonics

Of the many vocal groups to emerge out of a blooming Philadelphia soul-pop scene in the mid 1960s, the Delfonics are among the most enduring.

The group's popularity was established by a string of late '60s/early '70s hits that included La-La (Means I LoveYou), Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time) and Ready or Not Here I Come (Can't Hide From Love) penned by Delfonics founder William Hart, who continues to perform with the group today, and Philly soul entrepreneur Thom Bell.

Hart and his current Delfonics lineup will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Lexington Opera House. For tickets, $45-$75, call (859) 233-3535 or 1-800-745-3000 or go to

Walter Tunis is a Lexington-based music writer.

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