It was a year when serious rock ’n’ roll returned to Rupp Arena, a Central Kentucky hero sold out two nights at the Opera House and a pair of Lexington festivals lit up the summer.
All are included in these scrapbook-style remembrances of 10 local concerts performed in 2016. This assembly is not intended to represent “the best” of what played out in Lexington venues over the past year. It’s merely a sampling of the great music that abounded, a few glimpses of living art in a year that many people seem anxious to wash their collective hands off. In a dark and divided 2016, these were the sounds that — locally, at least — helped carry the day.
Warren Haynes (February): With the largely acoustic Americana band ChessBoxer backing him, Haynes went heavy on tunes from his recent album, “Ashes & Dust,” but he fashioned this Opera House performance as a fine career retrospective that also covered music cut with Govt Mule, the Allman Brothers Band, Phil Lesh and Friends, and more. Not surprisingly, Haynes’ continually inventive guitar work was always at the helm.
Old Crow Medicine Show (March): A two-night stand at the Singletary Center for the Arts allowed Old Crow’s renegade string sounds to get reacquainted with Lexington after a decade away from all local venues. Understandably, the return revealed considerable stylistic growth, shedding some of the punkish drive of years past in favor of a more tempered, varied and fully orchestrated sound that was deliciously restless.
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Pearl Jam (April): Thirteen years, almost to the week, since their last Rupp Arena outing, Eddie Vedder and company returned as a rock institution that has lost none of its verve or nerve. Other arena-rock tribes might surround themselves in pageantry. Pearl Jam, which was just named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Tuesday, invested itself in a sense of unified purpose for three hours, from the slow-opening charge of “Lightning Bolt” to the searing finales of “Baba O’Riley” and “Yellow Ledbetter.”
Sturgill Simpson (May): All kinds of country stylists (Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam among them) played the Opera House throughout 2016. But a sold-out two-night engagement featuring the Versailles-reared Simpson unquestionably created the greatest buzz, with complete performances of his last two albums in a wildfire performance that boasted a New Orleans horn section and a streamlined, encore-less set list.
Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Chico Fellini (August): What a grand summer night at Crave Lexington this was at Masterson Station Park: a soiree with the street-parade pride of New Orleans and the return of one of Lexington’s most prized glam-pop enterprises. The Dirty Dozen stuck to basics with horn-heavy jazz-funk romps, while the Chico crew mixed vintage originals (“Electrolyte”) and a prized cover or two (“Under Pressure”).
Drive-By Truckers, Manchester Orchestra, Trombone Shorty (August): The third annual Moontower Music Festival at Masterson Station Park revealed remarkable growth, with sets by three diverse headliners. Drive-By Truckers previewed topical electric fare from its album “American Band,” Manchester Orchestra steamrolled through headstrong rockers like “Pride,” and Trombone Shorty served up hearty Crescent City funk.
Kacey Musgraves (September): Eric Church was the Friday headliner of the revamped Red, White and Boom at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. But Musgraves was the show-stealer, balancing kitchen table existentialism and family dysfunction in a set that boasted hits by Gnarls Barkley, Bob Marley, Nancy Sinatra and herself. In a field of country corn, Musgraves stood as a beacon, blending tradition, invention and subtle kitsch.
Bela Fleck and Chris Thile (September): Two generations of string-music virtuosos, each bluegrass rooted but with modern visions that incorporated generous doses of jazz, classical and pure musical whimsy, squared off in this often-astounding duo concert at the Opera House. It was the whimsy that won out: a level of spontaneity, interplay and skewed playfulness that made the technical complexity of the program all the more remarkable.
Doyle Bramhall II (October): Texas guitar slinger Bramhall, in an ultra-rare regional performance (one that drew fans from Missouri and Illinois), focused largely on the new at Willie’s Locally Known. Specifically, he served up compositions from his 2016 album, “Rich Man,” along with well-placed covers by Johnny Guitar Watson and Bill Withers that blended Lone Star soul and blues with psychedelia.
J.D. McPherson (November): Stronger even than his Breeders’ Cup Festival show from 2015, this performance by McPherson and his immensely flexible band offered a mix of post-punk pop, vintage soul, buzz-saw guitar fun and more at Willie’s Locally Known that made for one of the more efficiently energetic club shows of the year. Highlights included the ska reinvention of “Oil in My Lamp” and the engaging guitar chatter of “Head Over Heels.”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.