It was a year of volatile activity for live music in Lexington.
What that translated into was change. Some of it was the sometimes violent shift in club activity marked by the November closing of Willie’s Locally Known a year after ownership publicly pleaded for business, the delayed opening of the third location for Cosmic Charlie’s and the uncertain future for Al’s Bar in the wake up the venue being put up for sale.
There were shifts in proven concert activity, as well. The long-running Troubadour Concert Series largely moved away from presenting shows at the Opera House and focused on a new bluegrass-based series of outdoor shows at the Kentucky Castle.
Rupp Arena, which has largely been a sleeping giant for concerts in recent years, jumped back into the fast lane by booking shows from Justin Timberlake, Chris Stapleton and the Eagles, among others, and has Paul McCartney and Pink on deck for 2019.
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But even with the ups and down, there was considerable diversity not just in the touring artists that found their way to Lexington, but in the performance spaces serving as their home. So we close 2018 by looking back at the bright spots, namely, 10 splendid concerts staged at 10 different Lexington venues. These were the sounds abounding in town over the past year.
Rudresh Mahanthappa with the Osland-Dailey Jazztet
Singletary Center for the Arts, Feb. 10
In remarkably unassuming fashion, saxophonist/educator Mahanthappa combined Eastern-infused wails, the spirit of Charlie Parker and ingenuity of the University of Kentucky jazz brethren Miles Osland and Raleigh Dailey for a performance that was part jazz séance, part multi-cultural summit.
Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, May 12
At 78, what Staples dispensed wasn’t so much a concert as a program of living history. Within the highly appropriate setting of the Lyric, that history ran from the worldly funk of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” back to the Staple Singers’ Civil Rights Era anthem “Freedom Highway” for a show both sagely and soulful.
Kentucky Castle, June 7
The first performance in the new Concerts at the Castle series to utilize the Kentucky Castle’s rooftop offered a blissful and virtuosic insight into the solo dobro music of one time Lexingtonian and 14 time Grammy winner Douglas that ranged from Flatt and Scruggs classics to Leadbelly tunes to his own remarkable compositions.
Manchester Music Hall, June 29
Lawrence County native Childers affirmed his hard won celebrity status during the first evening of a sold out two night engagement. His music still possessed an approachable but immensely literate rural country sensibility, but the devout, sardine-packed crowd indicated Childers’ days as a club artist were at an end.
Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express
Willie’s Locally Known, July 7
After two decades of sporadic Lexington visits, San Francisco song stylist Prophet affirmed his status as a voice of Petty-esque and, at times, even Springsteen-ian vigor by pumping up his own expert tunes and a few choice covers (the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action”) with equal immediacy.
Niles Gallery, Sept. 17
One of the quiet delights of the concert year was this session for the Outside the Spotlight series within the intimate setting of the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery. Here, the Norwegian jazz quartet Cortex balanced restless grooves with an abundance of free but studied improvisations that were abstract but approachable.
Noam Pikelny and Stuart Duncan
The Burl, Oct. 12
This rare sit-down show at The Burl emphasized two things. The first was the perhaps obvious talents of cross-generational bluegrass instrumentalists Pikelny and Duncan and the sheer aural playfulness they summoned on banjo and fiddle. The second was what a beautiful sounding room The Burl still is.
The Wood Brothers/Nicole Atkins
Kentucky Theatre, Oct. 24
Watching the Wood Brothers cap off two hours of folk-blues, soul and New Orleans flavored jams with Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train” and their own barnstorming blues-rock mash-up of “Honey Jar” was one of the big concert thrills of the year. Then again, Nicole Adkins’ Roy Orbison-level pop charge rocked, too.
Chris Stapleton/Marty Stuart/Brent Cobb
Rupp Arena, Oct. 27
Sure, the excitement of having the Lexington-born country hero on home turf for a sold- out Saturday night at Rupp was immense. The magic at the heart of this performance, though, was the full lineup. From top to bottom, this was the strongest country bill to play Rupp in decades. Maybe ever.
The Bad Plus
Lexington Children’s Theatre, Dec. 9
This was one of the underdog hits of 2018 – a still new concert enterprise (the Origins Jazz Series), presenting a show at an untested venue for jazz concerts (Lexington Children’s Theatre) by a new lineup of a trio with strong cross-generational appeal (The Bad Plus). The childlike encore of “Flim” asserted what a hit all of it was.