Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: Female artists, including Natalie Merchant, lead varied lineup

Natalie Merchant performs with the Louisville Orchestra on Saturday.
Natalie Merchant performs with the Louisville Orchestra on Saturday.

This weekend, the women get to have their say. It can be argued that they get their say every weekend. But during the next several evenings and into the week ahead, female artists will command the spotlight in a variety of musical settings, venues, even cities.

One is a pop veteran who will perform with the Louisville Orchestra. Several others from around the city, region and country will convene at Natasha's over multiple evenings to showcase new recordings that touch on folk, bluegrass and Americana. And in my The Week That Was review, we hear from a Norwegian vocal artist and her place in the often abstract music of a stunning jazz ensemble.

Here is the roll call:

■ Amazingly, it was 28 years ago this fall that Natalie Merchant made her local debut as vocalist for the then-unknown 10,000 Maniacs. The band opened for R.E.M. at the University of Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum with only one album to its name. Within a year, the band — and Merchant, especially — became critical favorites, setting the stage for a career the singer carries on today.

A performance Saturday with the Louisville Orchestra at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts' Whitney Hall, 502 West Main Street in Louisville, expands on newer chapters of Merchant's music, specifically the large-ensemble songs from her recent album Leave Your Sleep. The concert is the latest in a series of collaborative projects that have placed Merchant in the musical company of Philip Glass, Wynton Marsalis, David Byrne, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Billy Bragg and Wilco, The Chieftains and, continuing its long alliance, R.E.M. (8 p.m. $20-$65. 1-800-775-7777.

■ Dominating a busy weekend at Natasha's, 112 Esplanade, will be two evenings of record-release shows. Friday belongs to Newtown, a band formed by Frankfort fiddler/vocalist Kati Penn that features husband Junior Williams on banjo and harmony vocals. Newtown's sound has tightened and matured over the years — its sets were highlights of the Friday evening lineup in June at the Festival of the Bluegrass). Read more about Newtown on Page 8. (8 p.m. $10. (859) 259-2754.

Then Saturday, the ensemble now known as TDH4 heads to Natasha's to introduce its new album, Dust Devils on Our Heels. Many might know TDH4 as Tall, Dark and Handsome, the side project trio assembled by guitarist/ vocalist Bev Futrell and fiddler Karen Jones (both of the Reel World String Band) and mandolinist George Neel. With the revised name comes an addition to the ranks. Bassist Ricky Baldwin, an alumnus of the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars, now makes the group a quartet. Dust Devils takes full advantage of the new lineup with music that balances folk songcraft, traditional country singing and a touch of jazzy interplay. (8 p.m. $8.)

■ The focus at Natasha's shifts to bluegrass on Thursday with the return of The Claire Lynch Band. The celebrated guitarist, vocalist and songsmith has a relatively new album to her credit, the outstanding historically themed Dear Sister (released in May). But Lynch is packing an even newer prize this fall: her third trophy as the International Bluegrass Music Association's female vocalist of the year. Bluegrass is Lynch's specialty, but much of the music of Dear Sister is rooted in folk and Americana, especially the Civil War-set title tune and her version of Pierce Pettis' That Kind of Love. (9 p.m. $18.)


VC/DC at Mecca: Late into the last of three fascinating, untitled improvisations, a distant crackle surfaced in the music of the Norwegian/Chicago quartet VC/DC. One hesitated to call it a glitch in the sound mix, as there was no sound mix. But given that two of the group's four members used modest amplification, it was easy to chalk up the meager disturbance to an unsettled monitor or speaker. But, no, the crackle was one of the very purposeful vocal accents utilized by Stine Janvin Motland, a stylist who carried enough cunning and creative phrasing to blend in expertly with such improvisational greats as clarinetist Frode Gjerstad and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, VC/DC's lone American.

Throughout an all-too-brief 45-minute set — the latest installment in the Outside the Spotlight Series — Motland used myriad vocal sounds to match the music's spontaneous creation and execution. Quite often, what came out of her mouth didn't approximate a human voice. Sometimes it sounded like Morse code. Sometimes it sounded like a gust of wind. And there were several instances when the tone of Motland's voice, whether intentionally or not, mimicked Lonberg-Holm's electronically enhanced cello lines so closely it was tough to tell what sound was emanating from which musician.

What was striking about the performance was that no one soloed. There were several passages in which players would drop out, but never did one artist go it alone. It was also clear that, despite Motland's striking presence, Gjerstad — whose preference for fiercely intense playing but leisurely paced ensemble excursions has been adopted by VC/DC — was the band's guiding force.

Sometimes there would be enough symmetry for a groove, especially within the snare percussion offered late in the set by drummer Stale Liavik Solberg. In other instances, Gjerstad would slice through the solace of the more contemplative passages with blasts on bass clarinet that could shatter glass. And, as with the best OTS shows, silence became a welcome ally, creating codas that lasted only a beat or two but operated like punctuation at the end of an oratory. It was a device, equally spontaneous in nature, that made the music preceding it sound all the more astounding.