Music News & Reviews

Mountain Heart veers off bluegrass's well-worn path

Mountain Heart

7 p.m. Jan. 9 at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, 303 Bluegrass Lane, Clay City. $15. (606) 663-9008. www.kyfriends.com.

During the past decade, we have come to know Mountain Heart as an industrious bluegrass brigade full of familiar faces (including longtime Renfro Valley singer Steve Gulley and one-time Alison Krauss mandolinist Adam Steffey, both of whom have left the band), a feverish sense of traditionalism and a willingness to veer into uncharted musical territory.

So imagine the sense of surprise that came from viewing a 2009 performance clip on YouTube of today's Mountain Heart lineup, which adds — dare we say it — keyboards to its string band sound for a cover of Stevie Wonder's Superstition.

A sellout? Not by what the video revealed, although the true test won't come until we see a full performance of Mountain Heart's unexpected stylistic expansion. And son of a gun, we're in luck. The band plays this weekend as part of the Meadowgreen Park Music Hall's annual autumn-to-spring concert series in Clay City.

Actually, if you've heard Mountain Heart's fine 2007 concert album, Road That Never Ends, the stylistic leaps between the traditional and the contemporary seem natural. Cut after singer/guitarist/keyboardist Josh Shilling replaced Gulley but before Jason Moore took over for Steffey, Road That Never Ends cements Mountain Heart's tireless picking ingenuity on the warp speed Devil's Courthouse, a tune originally penned by fiddler Jim Van Cleve for his splendid 2006 solo recording, No Apologies. Ditto for the jubilant vocal inspirations propelling the a cappella Gospel Train.

But late on the album, Mountain Heart nods to its Georgia heritage by taking on the Allman Brothers Band staple Whipping Post. Moore kicks off the jam with the same meaty slab of a bass riff that Berry Oakley used to trigger the original 1969 version, while Shilling takes to the keyboards to mimic some Hammond organ blues might.

Admittedly, a lot of bluegrass fans don't readily take to such bold deviation from the string band norm. But this isn't some crass kind of country-pop crossover. Bluegrass has often opened itself to outside inspiration during the past few decades, whether it was through the jazzy advancements of David Grisman and Darol Anger or the multidirectional recordings of Béla Fleck and Sam Bush.

Mountain Heart — completed by banjoist/band co-founder Barry Abernathy, mandolinist Aaron Ramsey and guitarist Clay Jones — reveals a similar sense of adventure while adhering solidly to tradition. The modern touches, especially on songs like Whipping Post, might seem huge. But then again, it takes a big sound to move a Mountain.

Higher Vision will open Saturday's Clay City show.

If you are eager to check out Mountain Heart's expansive sound but can't make the date, don't fret. The band will perform at Jim Porter's, 2345 Lexington Road in Louisville, on Jan. 15 (8 p.m.; $15 in advance, $18 at the door). Additionally, it is scheduled to perform in Lexington at the Festival of the Bluegrass on June 12.

Hot Club on a cold night

Having played a holiday hootenanny at Buster's last month and a New Year's celebration at The Green Lantern last week, Lexington's own circus-style vaudeville attraction, The Ford Theatre Reunion, is ready for its first gig at Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade, on Saturday. But this won't be just another night out for Ford Theatre. The ensemble will be presenting a program called The Hot Club Cabaret, a mix of vaudeville, burlesque and carnival-style serenades dominated by wheezy keyboards, clarinets, accordions (or, as the band terms it, "disccordions"), violin and more. The Hot Club Cabaret also promises fire eating, belly dancing, juggling and contortionism along with "mind-boggling curiosities." Fire eating on a winter weekend? Now that sounds cool indeed. (9 p.m. $10. (859) 259-2754. www.beetnik.com.)

David Grier in Frankfort

Here's a delightful surprise of a show for so early in the year. Esteemed bluegrass-bred guitarist David Grier is back in the region for a solo concert Friday at Kentucky Coffeehouse Café, 235 West Broadway, Frankfort. (8 p.m., $10).

Though honored as guitar player of the year three times by the International Bluegrass Music Association and with a family heritage rooted heavily in bluegrass (his father picked banjo for Bill Monroe), Grier's recordings are often very progressive stylistically. His newest album, Evocative, reflects a light pop-folk air in many of its instrumental tunes. There is also an all-star guest list helping out that includes bassists Victor Wooten and Byron House, fiddlers Stuart Duncan and Andrea Zonn, and banjoists Noam Pikelny and Scott Vestal. For reservations to Friday night's show, call (502) 875-3009.

Interludes

■ For more than 25 years, Virginia native Ron Short has explored the musical and storytelling traditions of Appalachia as a playwright, musician, songwriter, actor and director with the long-running Roadside Theatre, and through numerous recordings for Whitesburg-based Appalshop. Next week, Short brings a rustic, roots-savvy string band called the Possum Playboys to the region for two performances. The ensemble performs at Al's Bar, 601 North Limestone, on Thursday (9 p.m., $5) before heading to the Kentucky Coffeehouse Café on Jan. 15 (8 p.m., $10).

■ Cellist Ben Sollee and guitarist Daniel Martin Moore will preview music from their upcoming Sub Pop album Dear Companion at Monday's taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour (6:45 p.m., $10). Kentucky author, playwright and occasional music writer Silas House, who shares the duo's views against mountaintop-removal coal mining, will also be on hand. Sollee and Moore discuss Dear Companion in detail in Sunday's Life + Arts section. Call (859) 252-8888 for WoodSongs reservations. www.woodsongs.com.

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