Music News & Reviews

The gas-tank bass is back

Split Lip Rayfield and the Brassknuckle Boys

8 p.m. July 18 at The Dame, 367 Main St. $10. (859) 231-7263. www.dameky.com.

During that nebulous 10 months between the closing of Lynagh's Music Club in 2002 and the opening of The Dame, nights at the now defunct High on Rose with Split Lip Rayfield were mighty, mighty sweet.

The quartet (and sometimes trio) used bluegrass instrumentation, a brutish stage attitude that better befit a young Reverend Horton Heat, and a repertoire that swept the dust out of every imaginable corner of what could be termed "string music."

And then there was the bass — an instrument handmade by co-founding member Jeff Eaton that used the gas tank of a Mercury Marquis, a broad stem of hickory wood and a lone string of weed-whacker wire. The band affectionately referred to the beast as "the stitchgiver." Fans simply called it "stitch."

Long before bands like the Avett Brothers redesigned string sounds into new pop, jam-band and rockish joyrides, Split Lip Rayfield had one of the most dangerous string-band sounds around.

The band eventually graduated to The Dame's stage, playing a killer opening set for the Rev in December 2004 and a headliner show on Valentine's Day 2005. Yep, nothing says romance like hot-wired bluegrass, a gas-tank bass and such loving odes as A Little More Cocaine Please, How Many Biscuits Can You Eat? and Redneck Tailgate Dream.

Real life, however, has a way of fortifying or destroying even the most resilient of bands. In early 2006, not long after Split Lip Rayfield had celebrated its 10th anniversary, guitarist, vocalist and co-founder Kirk Rundstrom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He was able to continue playing through December 2006, but he died in February 2007.

The remaining three members — Eaton, mandolinist Wayne Gottstine and banjoist Eric Mardis — continued. The loss of Rundstrom might seem detrimental to Split Lip Rayfield's all-acoustic sound (not to mention its ensemble spirit), but the band had toured extensively as a trio in the past. It began as a three-piece and become one again when Gottstine temporarily gave up touring in 2005.

Now Split Lip Rayfield is back with its first post-Rundstrom album, the indie I'll Be Around. Initially, the album seems more rooted in bluegrass, from the Old and in the Way turns of Hobo Love Song to the slow-brewing banjo that runs through Fallen. But I'll Be Around shifts gear for country music salvation and warp-speed strings of Devil Lies as well as the zombie grass of The High Price of Necromancy.

The wistful, neo-jazz drive of the title track is pretty cool, too. But nothing compares to when Split Lip Rayfield is in full turbo string mode, singing about life, death and the deep consequences of both.

In short, strings fly when the Lip rips.

Master Musicians Festival

6 p.m. July 17 and 1 p.m. July 18 at Somerset Community College, 808 Monticello St., Somerset. $20 Friday, $25 Saturday. 1-866-972-9686, (606) 677-2933.

The impetus behind Somerset's Master Musicians Festival has always been to honor the stylistic elders of Americana music by placing them on bills with new-generation artists who are carrying on with their inspirations.

Friday night, the festival will showcase a giant of an influence in an especially topical manner.

The featured artist will be Richie Havens, the singer and guitarist who began fusing folk, pop and soul into a sound uniquely his own more than 40 years ago. That's where the timeliness comes in. Havens was largely introduced to the pop world through his performance at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, the landmark concert event that celebrates its 40th anniversary in mid-August.

Havens was the first performer to hit the Woodstock stage. By the time his set concluded, he had fashioned a chantlike tune called Freedom out of the percussion and guitar foundation to the spiritual Motherless Child.

Since then, few artists have been so closely associated with Woodstock as Havens, even though he continues to create new music. His latest album is 2008's Nobody Left to Crown.

Havens performs at 8:45 p.m. Friday at the Master Musicians Festival.

Featured acts on Saturday will include The Greencards (5:45 p.m.), The Felice Brothers (7:15 p.m.), Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Review (9 p.m.) and The Duhks (10:45 p.m.).

For a complete schedule of festival performers, go to www.mastermusiciansfestival.com.

The 23 String Band

9 p.m. July 17. The Green Lantern,497 West Third St. $5. (859) 252-9539.

Among the guests at last year's Master Musicians Festival was The 23 String Band, a Cumberland Valley quintet with its own healthy spin on pre-bluegrass country and "old time" music.

Performing Friday night at The Green Lantern, the five-member band (guitarist Chris Shouse, banjoist Curtis Wilson, mandolinist Dave Howard, fiddler Scott Moore and bassist Owen Reynolds) uses traditional string-band instrumentation but tends to deflect familiar musical formulas.

Its version of Hesitation Blues, for example, is essentially devoid of blues in favor of an open, pop-folkish feel that brings to mind the early work of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Girls, however, follows a giddy string-band route with ensemble backing vocals that sound like a cross between broken doo-wop and vaudevillian pop.

Eleni Mandell

9 p.m. July 21. Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade. $10. (859) 259-2754. www.beetnik.com.)

For years, the music of Eleni Mandell remained in the background. Her songs popped up during episodes of Six Feet Under, Friday Night Lights and True Blood. She even sang Cole Porter's I Love Paris for a Hardee's commercial featuring Paris Hilton. That, as they say, is business.

For the real thrust of Mandell's considerable pop smarts, dig into the Los Angeles songsmith's fine new album, Artificial Fire. Personal favorites are Right Side, which sounds like a young Chrissie Hynde raised on '60s AM radio singles, and Personal, with its broader, bittersweet pop orchestration. There's also a fine pensive streak on Artificial Fire's title tune and the slinky Needle and Thread.

A veteran of six albums and with a devout fan base that sits just outside the mainstream, Mandell comes our way for a performance Tuesday at Natasha's Bistro.

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