Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: What Willie's is giving us: two top-notch acts

Paul Burch, joined by his band, WPA Ballclub, is scheduled to play Willie's Locally Known on Saturday.
Paul Burch, joined by his band, WPA Ballclub, is scheduled to play Willie's Locally Known on Saturday.

Town Mountain

8 p.m. May 3 at Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. $10. (859) 281-1116.

Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub

8 p.m. May 4 at Willie's Locally Known. $10.

The first is a bluegrass troupe from Asheville, N.C., that has been gathering accolades from some high-profile contemporaries. The other has kept quieter but equally engaging company as he forged a sound rooted in vintage pop, rock and country. Together, they make a seriously compelling Derby Weekend lineup at Willie's Locally Known.

On Friday, the club plays host to Town Mountain, a string-music quintet with strong ties to traditional bluegrass. That inspiration has been beautifully upheld on albums including Steady Operator (2011) and Leave the Bottle (2012), both of which were produced by Del McCoury Band alumnus Mike Bub. But the group's bountiful roots-country spirit also has earned the vocal support of Americana celebs such as Woody Platt of the Steep Canyon Rangers and Jim Lauderdale.

Then there have been the exquisite curveballs Town Mountain has thrown our way. Leave the Bottle overflows with expert original tunes, including the Jimmy Martin-style Lawdog, but one of the unexpected highlights is a cover of Loaded. The brilliant groove tune was written and first cut by the decidedly non-bluegrass Wood Brothers.

The current Town Mountain lineup consists of lead vocalist/guitarist Robert Greer, mandolinist Phil Barker, banjoist Jesse Langlais, bassist Jon Stickley and fiddler Bobby Britt.

Come Saturday, Willie's welcomes the return of Paul Burch. The Nashville song stylist and multi instrumentalist used to play annually at Christ the King Oktoberfest but has been largely absent from Lexington venues in recent years.

Burch is often categorized as an Americana artist, but his musical roots can hardly be contained to that genre. During the past 15 years, his solo records have boasted guest appearances by Mark Knopfler, C. Scott Chase of Lambchop, Kelly Hogan, Tim O'Brien and bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley.

To get a serious taste for just how stylistically spacious Burch's music can be, give a listen to his sublime 2009 album Still Your Man, which featured O'Brien, Hogan, keyboardist Jen Gunderman and bassist Dennis Crouch as members of Burch's band WPA Ballclub.

Within the record's 14 tunes are sunny but soulful blues shuffles (It Ain't Right), Cajun-spiced grooves (Down to the Black Market), New Orleans-flavored piano romps (Honey Blue) and numerous reflections of vintage pop (Lead Me On, Waiting for My Ship and Vena Amore) that recall the scholarly but regally reserved music of Nick Lowe.

Burch's newest album is a full collaboration the pioneering cowpunk pioneers known as the Waco Brothers titled Great Chicago Fire.

There you have it: two deserving but perhaps unlikely weekend shows to add to your Derby doings.

Sky riding

What distinguishes the music of Blue Sky Riders, the trio that will serve as the lone guest at Monday's taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third? For starters, there is the group's star attraction, Kenny Loggins. A celebrity hitmaker during the '70s and '80s, he now teams with two prominent songwriters out of Nashville — Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman — to create the harmony-rich music of Blue Sky Riders. The WoodSongs set will showcase music from the Riders' debut album Finally Home (7 p.m., $20). Call (859) 252-8888 for reservations.


The Jeremy Kittel Band at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville: Near the conclusion of a performance full of technical cunning, scholarly variety and especially keen ensemble intuition, Jeremy Kittel held his violin outward so everyone in the audience at Weisiger Theatre could see the damage from his performance exploits.

Specifically, the instrument's bridge was bent at a severe angle. That's kind of like a swimmer discovering he has broken his arm before a final competitive lap.

Luckily, nearly all of the heavy lifting was behind Kittel at that point.

He comes from a growing line of instrumentalists who use bluegrass inspiration — or, in his case, a variant of it — as a launch pad for compositions and improvisations rooted in jazz.

The compositional side favored lyrical warmth that retained a more plaintive side of bluegrass, as shown by The Curious Beetle Medley, which played nicely off the gentle antique tones of hammer dulcimer provided by Simon Chrisman. The show-opening Flight of the Mastadon played more extensively with timbre, tempo and harmony, with Kittel, cellist Nathaniel Smith and mandolinist Josh Pinkham shifting lead, rhythm and even percussive duties.

In terms of sheer fun and invention, nothing beat the chamber-style reimagining of the Jimi Hendrix anthem Hey Joe, which stripped the dulcimer of its fanciful charm and turned the song itself into a patient, folky meditation.

But what might be interpreted as strictly Americana inspiration in Kittel's playing is actually more global in nature. The performance regularly embraced traditional Irish music, be it overtly (as in the richly detailed The Foxhunter's Reel) or more discreetly (as in a new untitled piece Kittel said was informed by the soul singing of Al Green and Bill Withers, even though it seemed to rely more on Celtic finesse).

With the bridge out, so to speak, the Kittel band encored not with a final blast of cross-generational, cross-continental string music, but with its lone vocal number — namely, a retiring reading of Gillian Welch's Hard Times.

After an evening of genre-hopping, globe-trotting and all manner of instrumental mischief, the group shut down the show with unaccompanied four-part harmony. How curiously fitting.