Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: It's jam time in January

Umphrey's McGee, which is celebrating 15 years together, returns to Buster's Thursday night.
Umphrey's McGee, which is celebrating 15 years together, returns to Buster's Thursday night.

The home stretch of January has never seemed to offer much cause for celebration. But it is as good a reason as any for extending your weekend well into the week ahead.

Bluegrass, jam-band grooves, one-man-band madness and a date with your Voodoo Daddy are all heading our way. Needless to say, a mere weekend can't contain it all.

Here are the sounds that will abound.

The weekend at hand

A pair of proven local and regional names will share two different stages on Saturday.

Patrick McNeese has long been known as a prolific and highly animated visual artist. But he has been equally engaged in Americana, folk and jazz-inspired music over the decades, as a solo performer and bandleader. Having debuted a new ensemble last weekend featuring several high-profile pals (percussionist Tripp Bratton, keyboardist Tom Martin, bassist Scott Stoess and violinist/vocalist Maggie Lander), McNeese now brings the gang to Natasha's Bistro and Bar, 112 Esplanade. (8 p.m. $5. (859) 259-2754.

The same evening, Tommy Brown and County Line Grass will headline at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, 303 Bluegrass Lane in Clay City. A versed five-string banjoist and a staunch bluegrass traditionalist, Brown has become, over the past decade, one of the most popular homegrown draws in the venue's weekly concert series. Ma Crowe and the Lady Slippers will open. (7 p.m. $10. (606) 663-9008.

Umph Day

If Wednesday is Hump Day, then Thursday is Umph Day — or at least it will be next week. Umph Day is strictly a yearly event at Buster's Billiards and Backroom, 899 Manchester Street. It marks the return of jam-band favorite Umphrey's McGee.

The Chicago ensemble, known for the jazz and prog-leaning tendencies within its instrumental jams, seldom made its way to Lexington as its national fan base blew up. Thursday, however, marks the third Umphrey's McGee performance at Buster's in as many years. (9 p.m. $20 in advance, $25 day-of-show. (859) 368-8871.

Umph Day carries with it an added sense of pageantry this winter as Umphrey's McGee is continuing to celebrate its 15th anniversary.

The members formed the band in December 1997 while students at the University of Notre Dame.

There is no new recording project to honor the milestone. Instead, the band is still touring behind its fine 2011 album, Death by Stereo.

Dirty old blues

For a guy who dubs himself a "dirty old one-man band," Scott H. Biram sure gets around. He has toured Europe 15 times in seven years. In fact, one of his more recent overseas treks took him to Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia. Regardless of where he plants his footstomping shoes, though, Biram dishes out a brand of growling, gutbucket blues and jagged, juke-joint folk and soul that sounds like it could have been played on a street corner at the height of the Great Depression. But then there is that whole twisted rural punk attitude that makes Biram's music so distinctive.

On Tuesday, Biram returns to town to wake up the neighbors at Willie's Locally Known, 805 North Broadway. (8 p.m. $8 advance, $10 day of show. (859) 281-1116.


Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall in Clay City: You have to be one seriously confident bluegrass commando to open a Kentucky performance with The Old Home Place, a tune that has essentially served as a theme for J.D. Crowe and the New South for close to four decades. Up the ante if you discover the recently-defunct New South's final vocalist, Ricky Wasson, sitting in the audience.

That was the scenario as Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out got the first of two Saturday evening sets underway at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall in Clay City.

But then again, the veteran bluegrass troupe proved resourceful enough to take full possession of a stylistically far reaching repertoire during the set. Take Pretty Little Girl from Galax by Kentucky songsmith Bill Castle (who, curiously enough, was also in attendance). The increasingly rustic tenor of Moore's vocals, the old-timey tone of Justen Haynes' fiddle colors and the almost Celtic inclinations of a melody line that recalled the folk staple Shady Groves provided the tune (penned for IIIrd Tyme Out's 2009 Prime Tyme album) with a vividly traditional feel.

Then there was the cherished Bill Monroe instrumental Bluegrass Special, which strayed from familiar arrangements as a fiddle tune into a wild exercise in string band democracy. Shuffling elements of jazz and swing, IIIrd Tyme Out's version actually placed most of the heavy lifting on longtime mandolinist Wayne Benson, whose animated playing fueled much of the arrangement's rhythmic drive and swagger.

Straying perhaps the furthest from bluegrass convention was a cover of John Denver's Take Me Home Country Roads, an early '70s country-folk radio hit served here as an unassuming vehicle for the conversational ease of Moore's singing. Working cleaning off supporting vocals from banjoist Steve Dilling and under-the-weather bassist Edgar Loudermilk, Moore placed the tune's rural imagery and light country lyricism at the forefront without letting the song disintegrate into heavy sentimentalism.

For a band that has continually juggled traditional and contemporary inspirations, IIIrd Tyme Out opted for more of the former in this neatly executed performance. Perhaps that's because the set bypassed the more extreme country and pop tunes from the band's recordings. But mostly, the band has simply developed a spacious, inviting ensemble voice of its own for songs that crossed as many generational divides as they did stylistic ones.

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