500 Miles to Memphis/NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon/Eric Bolander/Noah Smith
8 p.m. Feb. 8 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. $10. theburlky.com.
At the onset of “The River,” the lead-off track to the new “Blessed be the Damned” album by 500 Miles to Memphis, the music swells thematically and sonically with the reverence of a baptismal service. Vocals raise with choral-like majesty, the lyrics yearn for cleansing and renewal and the barest of rhythmic foundations — a simulation of hand claps, almost — prepare us for what is to come.
Then the music opens up with pure electric fire. Over a galloping, anthemic cowpunk charge, the Cincinnati band recalls the early days of the Old 97s (which isn’t exactly a coincidence since “Blessed by the Damned” was produced by John Pedigo, who also oversaw the Old 97s’ recent seasonal album, “Love the Holidays”) crossed with a Decemberists-inspired sense of expansiveness. Like the rest of the music that follows on the album, “The River” balances musical purpose and potency without ever losing sight of its dark country muse.
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The band — vocalist/guitarist Ryan Malott, bassist/vocalist Noah Sugerman, lap steel guitarist David Rhodes Brown, guitarist Aaron Whalen and drummer Kevin Hogle — has been a frequent Lexington visitor ever since forming in 2003. That includes local shows that reach back to the early days of the long-demolished Dame location on Main.
This weekend, 500 Miles to Memphis leads a bill of three trusted and similarly minded acts — NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon and Eric Bolander (both local favorites) and fellow Buckeye Noah Smith — to celebrate the release of “Blessed be the Damned.” Instead of the 500-mile trip to reach the heart of this music, you only have to travel as far as The Burl.
Jeff Parker and Company
6 p.m. Feb. 9 at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, 303 Bluegrass Lane in Clay City. $15. meadowgreenmusicpark.com.
What would winter be without a visit to one of the region’s most inviting concert venues, the Meadowgreen Appalachian Music Park (formerly the Meadowgreen Park Music Hall) in Clay City? Its annual autumn-to-spring series of Saturday night bluegrass performances remains a vital part of the string music calendar, but never more so than during the winter months when touring bluegrass acts tend to shy away from the road.
This weekend, the Hall hosts one of Central Kentucky’s own, Madison County mandolinist Jeff Parker. Though little known, perhaps, as a bandleader. Parker’s resume is extensive. Following nearly a decade of performance service at Renfro Valley, he joined the Lonesome River Band for a five-year run. By 2007, he began a tenure with Dailey & Vincent that would last 12 years before the itch came to start his own ensemble. Jeff Parker and Company is rounded out by banjoist Joey Cox, guitarist Colin Ray, fiddler Robert Russell and bassist Andy Brown.
Dove Creek will open the Saturday concert. Upcoming dates at Meadowgreen Park roster for 2019 include shows by Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time (Feb. 16), the Larry Stephenson Band (Feb. 23), Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers (March 2), Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver (March 9) and The Grascals (March 23).
Get the jump on Valentines Day with two prime Feb. 13 concert picks.
Here at home, we have veteran indie folk stylist Martin Sexton playing The Burl, 375 Thompson (8 p.m., $25 and $30 at theburlky.com) with Chris Trapper opening. The same night up at the Southgate House Revival, 111 E. Sixth St in Newport, we have an ultra-rare regional show by British guitar great Albert Lee, who has toured and recorded with Eric Clapton, The Everly Brothers, John Prine and many others in between cutting an extensive catalog of his own multi-genre recordings (7:30 p.m.; $27.50-$30 at southgatehouse.com).
The week that was
+ Steep Canyon Rangers/Eric Bolander at Manchester Music Hall: It was with no small degree of irony that the Steep Canyon Rangers began this highly engaging performance with their two newest members going it alone — namely, drummer Mike Ashworth and bassist Barrett Smith. The rhythm section initiated a subtle groove that brought the rest of the Grammy winning North Carolina bluegrass troupe to the stage, turning the resulting momentum into the rhythmic sway of “Stand and Deliver.”
Wait a minute. Bluegrass bands have rhythm sections? Well sure, just not normally ones anchored by drums, as was the case with the continually evolving Rangers. Ashworth didn’t simply embellish the grassy textures that more expected string instrumentation gave to tunes like “As I Go” and the encore finale of “The Speed We’re Traveling.” He also set up a driving jam (quickly commandeered by mandolinist Mike Guggino) during “Let Me Out of This Town,” provided Fairport Convention-esque Celtic propulsion under fiddler Nicky Sanders on “Take the Wheel” (where Smith took a guest turn on lead vocals) and dug in for a solo underscored by mandolin that eventually enlisted all of the Rangers for a giddy percussion romp.
The rest of the show relied more on essentials, like the juggling of lead vocal duties between guitarist Woody Platt and banjoist/songsmith Graham Sharp. Platt was at home with the easy country lyricism of “When She Was Mine” and a nicely relaxed cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” while Sharp employed more conversationally smoky vocal colors for “Simple at Me.”
All of these elements converged during the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love” that placed the train whistle fiddling of Sanders, the joint vocals of Platt and Sharp and some wild ensemble dynamics that gave the music an almost respiratory rhythm within a single bluegrass statement that bowed to tradition while dashing madly away from it.
Local hero Eric Bolander opened the evening with an appealing 50-minute trio set that utilized cellist Seth Murphy and drummer/harmony vocalist Ben Caldwell for an Americana mix that placed restless folk confessions within Southern fried frameworks. What resulted were songs like “The Road, “Fly” and the new “Montgomery Hill” that were rustic, rootsy and often elegant.