Music News & Reviews

Songsmith Phil Lee covers a lot of emotional terrain

Alt-country songsmith Phil Lee plays the Millville Community Center on Friday night.
Alt-country songsmith Phil Lee plays the Millville Community Center on Friday night.

Phil Lee

8 p.m. Aug. 27 at Millville Community Center, McCracken Pike in Woodford County. $10. (859) 533-2029.

Mortality can be such a fickle thing when it comes to popular music. Take the case of Nashville songsmith Phil Lee.

Heralded as one of Nashville's great unsung songwriting heroes since a blooming alt-country scene began to infiltrate the indie-pop and corporate country ranks in the mid-'90s (although his various genre-hopping jobs in the music industry extend back nearly 40 years), Lee bills his new album, So Long, It's Been Good to Know You, as his "first posthumous release." He's also calling his current concert trek, which includes visits at Millville this weekend and Natasha's Bistro and Bar in October, as the "I Saw Him Before He Died Tour."

Well, judging by the expertly understated songs on So Long, Lee is very much a member of the here and now. Although often noted for the human humor of his songs, So Long leans heavily on sobering narratives, from 25 Mexicans (in which a band of illegal immigrants have packed themselves into the house that the singer grew up in) to the ghastly Sonny George (an account of an accidental homicide of 11 children at the hands of a trucker, eerily bringing to mind images of the 1988 Carrollton bus crash).

But the stories aren't always dark and definitely don't stay affixed to morose musical settings. The Tatterbug Rag sounds like early-'70s Neil Young wrapped in Brook Benton-style soul. Lee also uses the generous creases in his singing voice, which recall late-'70s Bob Dylan, to offer a thoroughly hapless self-appraisal.

"I used to be my own best friend," he sings. "But I got to hanging around myself too much."

Lee surrenders completely to comic relief, however, on Where a Rat's Lips Have Touched, a decrepit sing-along that celebrates rodent loathing with a bizarre Celtic/Mexicali stomp.

Can't make it to Lee's performance Friday night at the Millville Community Center near Frankfort? Then mark Oct. 1 on your calendar. That's when Lee hits Lexington for the first time in ages for a gig at Natasha's Bistro.

Thad Cockrell

9 p.m. Aug. 28 at Natasha's Bistro and Bar, 112 Esplanade. $10. (859) 259-2754.

Speaking of Natasha's, the bistro brings the great melodic Americana songsmith Thad Cockrell back to Lexington on Saturday.

Last here in 2005 with a pair of performances at The Dame (one was a solo opening set for Alejandro Escovedo, the other an extraordinary duet performance with Whiskeytown/Tres Chicas songstress Caitlin Cary), Cockrell maintains a light, emotive storytelling persona in his songs that occasionally recalls stylist Josh Rouse but without all of the European references.

After the release of Begonias, an exquisite 2005 album with Cary, Cockrell moved to Nashville from North Carolina, but then he moved back to the Carolinas before the release of the independent album To Be Loved, a 2009 collection of secular and non-secular love songs that sometimes hint at the emotional conflict between the two.

The living Dead

Jerry Garcia died 15 years ago this month. His passing officially put an end to what we knew as the Grateful Dead, but it only enhanced the often-obsessive popularity of Garcia's music in and out of the band. Among those who continue to make Grateful Dead music a living vocation is Lexington drummer Dino English, who is a touring member of the long-running Dark Star Orchestra.

This weekend, the personnel surrounding English will be different, but the mission will remain the same. For a performance Saturday at Cosmic Charlie's, 388 Woodland Avenue, billed simply as "Grateful Dead Music Live," English will play alongside guitarist Stu Allen of JGB (the performance remains of the Jerry Garcia Band) and members of The Schwag/Dead Ahead, a popular St. Louis-based Dead tribute collective. (9 p.m. $10. (859) 309-9499.

Those eager to hear English in his usual Dead tribute setting with the Dark Star Orchestra won't have long to wait, either. He performs with the band on Sept. 11 at the Terrapin Hill Harvest Festival in Harrodsburg.

The Krewe crew

From a very different jam-band land comes Toubab Krewe. Based in Asheville, N.C., the quintet uses the West African music of Mali as a foundation. The band's new album, TK2, is due for release Sept. 7. It uses several West African languages, including Bambara and Wolof, along with Malian instruments, including the harp-like kora. Those sounds groove alongside American accents of slide guitar and electric bass to produce a jam-band drive with an especially worldly scope. The Krewe crew performs at Cosmic Charlie's on Sunday. (9 p.m. $10 in advance, $12 at the door.

Raul Malo on 'WoodSongs'

There are fewer more distinctive pop music voices than Raul Malo. Introduced to mainstream America via the renegade country ensemble The Mavericks, Malo possessed an operatic pop tenor that was on the scale of classicist Roy Orbison. The Mavericks' deep Cuban groove produced hits including Dance the Night Away, but then corporate Nashville signed off. Now championed by Americana and pop audiences, Malo continues a solo career that capitalizes on inspirations of his Cuban heritage.

For his visit to Monday's taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main Street, Malo will preview the multi-stylistic slant of his upcoming album, Sinners & Saints. It's a beaut of a record, too. The title track's mix of bordertown trumpet, wicked guitar twang and surf-savvy grooves sounds like a cross between Herb Alpert and Los Straitjackets. Other highlights include an epic country take of the vintage Rodney Crowell tune 'Til I Gain Control Again and a regal Cuban makeover of Los Lobos' Saint Behind the Glass.

Louisville songwriter and instrumentalist Brigid Kaelin, who wound up onstage playing musical saw alongside Elvis Costello a few summers ago at the Palace, also will be featured at the WoodSongs taping. (7 p.m. $10. (859) 252-8888.