The sound of the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers is the sound of the rowdiest of hootenannies in the biggest barn full of dancers, singing along to the music. Yet, they blur the traditional, swirl it around with the modern sound of electric guitars, the haunting voices of Beth Walker, Jory Bowling and others for a unique fusion of amazing music.
Filling the stage with eight members, the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers creates a massive sound, each musician masterful in his skill.
Beth sings most of the songs, with harmony from Jory and some other members. The full band consists of Beth Walker on vocals, Joel Serdenis on mandolin and vocals, Travis Young on banjo, Ben Vogelpohl on drums, Will Rush on bass, Jeoffrey Teague on electric guitar, Thomas Usher on percussion and vocals, and Jory Bowling on guitar and vocals. Together they create an impressive wall of sound.
Their songs, like their sound, varies from song to song and between singers. Beth and Jory carry most of the leading vocals, both having incredibly powerful and unique voices. Jory’s deep voice resonates, and Beth wails with a strong, steadfast voice. Others take some songs too such as Joel. The music, like the band’s long career, has changed and shifted as members change, as their genre is hard to define. Somewhere where Prog grass, bluegrass, country, rock and blues all mix together with the culture of the hills of Kentucky.
“The sound shifts and changes as new people comes in,” says Travis Young, one of the original members of the band that started eighteen years ago. Over two decades the lineup has changed often and their five CD’s vary from each other quite a bit. This latest CD, The Sentence, is strongly influenced by the addition of Jory Bowling and his songwriting. The different members take turns with songwriting as well, including Travis, Joel, Beth and Jory.
The Blind Corn Liquor Pickers CD release show at the Burl
The Blind Corn Liquor Pickers are a testament to the love of making music. Anyone who knows about music performing knows it is not easy to get eight musicians in the same place at the same time. And dividing the spoils by eight makes no one wealthy, for certain. Weekly rehearsals, with several members of the band driving hours from their homes outside of Lexington so they can give their fans a high-quality performance, is a devotion. Their passion shows as soon as the show starts. “We put lots of time and energy into making a set we are very proud of,” says Beth.
The room was full that Saturday night at The Burl. Warmed up well by the Solid Rocket Boosters, followed by Senora May and Johnny Conqueroo, the Liquor Pickers took to a welcoming stage by 11 that night.
Filling the stage with the band and the room with their sound, the excited fans were amped up and ready to enjoy the gift of music the band offered. The new CD was six years in the making, many in the crowd knew the words to the songs and sang along with joyful devotion.
Representative of their diversity as musicians, The Sentence is a tapestry of the various musicians in the band, and no matter who is singing lead the rest of the band often joins together in a chorus that inevitably is joined by the crowd, and the entire room resonates with the pleasure everyone is having. That is the joy of the Liquor Pickers, the inevitability of moving your feet and dancing along, because that is what this music is made for. Singing of moonshine and mining and the trials of life as you journey down its road, the band creates the rhythm of working folks, and exactly the jubilation you need to dance it off on a Saturday night surrounded by a hundred or so of your fellow kinfolk dancing by your side, singing along to those hillbilly blues.
That is the sound of the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, that blend of the old ways and the modern reality, and the folks trapped in the in-between.
From the devotion of their fan base, their “family” as they call them, the Liquor Pickers took it upon themselves to create the Moonshiner’s Ball five years ago, as a way to celebrate the music of Kentucky, back before Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers put recent Kentucky music on the map.
A celebration of local talent is the foundation of the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers. They are a celebration of music, and their festival is the result of that love of music, love of Kentucky, and love for their fans who have loyally cheered them on for two decades.
“I’ve been waiting for this night for so long; I’m so glad you’re all here!” Senora May told the crowd that gathered from the front of the stage all the way to the back of The Burl to celebrate her first CD release.
Lainhart is titled in honor of her maiden name, and many of the songs speak on the theme of family.
Senora May’s music is soft and easy on the ear. It envelops you with a warmth that is familiar and welcoming, even if you’ve never met her. With guitar picking that trickles along like a brook, her voice has the fluidity of a flowing brook. Senora is a child of the hills – the gorgeous backdrop on the cover of her CD is the backdrop to her life and her music.
“I am inspired most by nature, second by people. I can’t explain it. It’s just my process to be in awe of my surroundings, my emotions dictate which direction the song might turn, but I am initially inspired by some sound, or visual directly before me or triggering my memory. If I hear a cardinal or a mourning dove, or I see limbs broken and scented from deer, that triggers something in my mind.”
The title song Lainhart begins with sounds of farm life that distort into sounds of war. Written when her brother Levi left for Marine boot camp, the song is a tribute to him but also to her family and the life they live in the hills of eastern Kentucky.
Ambient and significant sounds are in several songs on the album, a sonic tapestry of her story. It’s a story of family and love and distance and work of all kinds. Senora was joined onstage at The Burl by Josh Nolan on guitar and toy piano and John Isaacs on drums.
Senora May performing at The Burl
The album tells the story of a woman coming into her own. The wife of TylerChilders, Senora May’s music is certainly influenced by being the wife of an actively touring musician.
“Through the deliberate arrangement of my album, I hoped for people to navigate the loss, the support, pride, and then self-discovery and bliss through solitude. I would have surely lost myself through turn points of this project, if I hadn’t encountered the self preservation piece.”
She lives in peace with the solitude of her home, without electricity amongst the hills she grew up with, fostering her independence and her art, including music, graphic art, painting, stained glass, fibers, as well as other mediums.
Her song “By My Lonesome” is an anthem for the independent natural woman, confident in this solitude and strengthened by her abilities. Senora brags that she can skin any animal properly and teach another to do the same. A true child of the hills, she lives the authentic life she sings about, and her voice and lyrics roll as naturally as the fog in the hills at sunrise.
“Only Want You” plays to the background of coyotes yelping as she sings of a wife missing her husband who is out on the road while she listens to the crickets sing around her at home in the hills. Tyler has been touring for most of their marriage, especially so in the last year or so, and this experience certainly influences her music.
“Missing him when he’s gone is always there, I try to stay busy enough that it doesn’t become a problem. When I let my emotions interfere with my productivity, I call him and we talk about it and he’ll do the same. We have a really good relationship in that way. But yes, I would say quite a few of our songs have no option but to be inspired by our missing of one another.”
Her CD release was quite a success: a full house at The Burl with Tyler home to watch the whole thing. The crowd was treated to a spectacular natural light show as thunder and lightning blasted outside, knocking out some of the lights as she played. Loyal fans turned on their phone flashlights to illuminate her with love, singing her words back to her. The whole CD was inspired by her fans, “I put Lainhart out, for my fans who have bugged the hell out of me. I put it out for my family and friends who love me and have convinced me of my capabilities.”
The week after Senora May’s CD release at The Burl in Lexington, she played the early morning stage Saturday at the Kickin’ it on the Creek festival in Irvine, Kentucky, in her native Estill county. Senora was quite at home as the sun rose up over the ridgelines of the holler where the stage sat, the fog burning away with the day’s rising heat. She roused folks from their tents with her songs, luring them into the sunshine with her mesmerizing and sometimes haunting voice.
Senora May performing at Kickin' It On The Creek
A completely different scene than at The Burl, the festival takes place deep in a holler in Estill and Lee County, where Ross creek winds through the bottomland between two ridges. A long slightly-horrifying-to-drive gravel road takes you right to the house of Byron Roberts, a friend of Senora’s family who recalls the day she was born. Roberts has hosted the festival at his home for the last five years.
The festival is a reunion of sorts for Eastern Kentucky musicians.
The whole feel was that of family, which Senora’s music embodied as she sang up on a stage adorned with flowers her father had grown and picked for her set. Local and homegrown, with love of family. It was the perfect setting for Senora May’s music, which helped bring the day of music to fruition, and would be brought to a head later that night by her husband Tyler.
Folks gathered around with sleepy eyes and happy smiles and cups of coffee as they sang Senora May’s words back to her, one of her favorite parts of making music and sharing it with others.
“I like the way I feel when I’m singing and people are singing along. I like to hear that my lyrics have helped someone in some way.”
It was clear during these two shows, her crowds like it just as much.
Cara Blake Coppola is a contributing writer for UnderMain and a book author. Video by Derek “Doc” Feldman.
It’s a given: when Magnolia Boulevard takes the stage, the crowd immediately starts dancing. Whether their songs swing from folky to blues or funk, the crowd is always movin’ and shakin’ with this band. The organic connection between band and audience is part of the energy that is propelling Magnolia Boulevard along a path of promise. And somebody is paying attention to this. Only two years old, the band has already gained the attention and sponsorship of Paul Reed Smith guitars.
The Burl filled quickly on this August Friday evening in anticipation of a three-band lineup. Warmed up by Boscoe France, another PRS band that got the crowd moving with some astounding guitar work, everyone was ready to keep going when Magnolia Boulevard took the stage. The opening jam made the audience bubbly and perfect for when lead singer Maggie Noelle stepped up to the mic and began singing.
Compared often to Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt or Janis Joplin, Maggie’s deep and flawless voice commands the room. With Gregg Erwin on guitar, John Roberts on bass, Ryan Allen on keys and Todd Copeland on drums, Magnolia Boulevard creates a solid platform of funky jams in support of Maggie’s voice and soulful lyrics.
Magnolia Boulevard - Call on Me - Video by Red Barn Radio
Each instrumentalist is a master of his craft. The keys converse with the guitar, the bass slaps out its funky beat and the drums keep them all going. It’s impressive. The crowd happily takes it all in as they dance together. This is the vibe the band loves best.
“What we experience is genuine, and the crowd experiences that…the crowd’s got a lot to do with it too,” said bassist John Roberts. “The crowd is a member of the band, if you keep coming we’ll keep putting it out there. You gotta feed off that energy.”
The crowd clearly agrees with these sentiments. And they aren’t the only ones. After playing at Wilcutt Guitar’s 50th-anniversary show, in a slot right before the PRS guitar presentation, Magnolia Boulevard managed to capture the attention of Paul Reed Smith himself.After their set, and the good luck of Maggie winning the prize PRS guitar out of the raffle, the connection was made. As Gregg had predicted to Paul Reed Smith, “you’re gonna fall in love with Maggie.”
Before they knew it, PRS was flying the whole band to Baltimore to play at their music festival and to record some songs at Smith’s personal studio. During that brief four-song set that was “easy” according to the band, Paul Reed Smith was apparently found standing off to the side, all by himself, mesmerized by the band during their performance. They hope to fly back out to continue working toward a full album under Smith’s guidance and sponsorship.
A creole of folk, bluegrass, funk and rock, Magnolia Boulevard serves up variety from song to song, but the sound of the band is its own, and even the blusier, funkier, slightly darker songs still make the crowd dance. The soul is obvious, and deep, and each instrument holds an equal place in the songs. Balanced. Some songs belt out a near Prince and the Revolution style funk, while others bemoan the deeply felt sorrow of blues. Then they slide funky-like into a jam-band piece that sends the vibe of the room into a frenzy.
Most of the lyrics are written by Maggie or Ryan, but Gregg has written some songs as well. Maggie claims to be “the baby of this band” in terms of professional musical experience. She clearly adores her band family. “I am grateful for this, I am learning so much in this process, they are great teachers.”
Magnolia Boulevard - Jezebel - Video by Shaker Steps
It is not common enough to see local musicians with great talent get the recognition they deserve. The music game isn’t an easy one, for sure. “Be prepared to work for it,” John comments. He and Todd go back to previous bands such as Tribe called Lex and have been immersed in the scene for a while. To be picked up by PRS and have such sudden success is a dream come true. They have been playing festivals and shows all over the region, including Master Musician Festival in Somerset and FloydFest in Virginia.
What’s next? “The stars,” Maggie smiles back. Here’s hoping, y’all…
Listen to Cara’s backstage conversation with members of Magnolia Boulevard:
The cover photos for the Big Fresh’s sophomore LP release entitled Sweeps denote a certain image, a picture of nostalgia for a time when some of us were in our foundational age, young children surrounded by neon colors, living through the country’s desperate grasp on the wholesome ideal of the fifties while we heard about the Cold War on the huge TV that sat as the central focus in every house of privilege.
Their photos are intentionally set to look like the TV Guide covers of those days, when sitcoms were the unifying force for us all, what was talked about the next day at school, what folks looked forward to from week to week. As we were kids then, it seemed simpler times.
The sound is all Big Fresh. The techno, synthesizer-heavy lightness of the eighties, the vocal harmony of backing vocals, the electronic sound that was emblematic of those times. Here’s a sampling:
Cosmos Song featuring Reva Russell English
Hottie Tottie featuring Ryan Hover and Chris Dennison
Uh Oh featuring Per Sunding and Karen Hover
Additional songs on the Sweeps EP include The Voices featuring Ken Stringfellow, and I Found Out featuring Tim Welch.
Yet the singers and musicians in Big Fresh are grown now, with kids of their own, and the experience of growing up to know that those really weren’t simpler times, that there is no simple time, gives Big Fresh the authority to claim and redefine this music as their own. “I Found Out” is a perfect example of this, a song that feels light and airy but seems to be discussing an angst only earned by living.
Big Fresh is a large collective of Lexington musicians, including Daniel Coy, Jeremy Midkiff, Ben Fulton, John Ferguson, Dave Farris, Nick Coleman, Ben Phelan, Faith Diamond, Bryan Gore, Brian Conners Manke, Matthew Clarke, Kate Drof, Kim Conlee and Trevor Tremaine. All of these people are also in ATTEMPT, and several are in numerous other bands as well. For John Ferguson, however, Big Fresh is “The project that is most near and dear to my heart…Big Fresh is specifically pop songs that are a little easily digestible.” These bands, along with Italian Beaches and Jeanne Vomit-Terror, all share members and are all putting out LP’s on the Desperate Spirits label, which they started.
Desperate Spirits is a local creation by the above mentioned, where they put out vinyl LP’s from their collective band of madly talented musicians. Sweeps is one of three albums they will have produced this year, not bad for a labor of love being done by working folks with a passion for music. They choose to produce “Vinyl artifacts” instead of putting out music digitally, which has its benefits and perks of course, “but to have this object, this artifact, you’re creating something that can be archived into history somehow. Even if we’re doing it for ourselves, there’s this physical thing we can hold.”
The album is the second of a set, the first Big Fresh LP called Fall Preview was released last year. The new LP Sweeps is a bold follow-up to the first. Each song, while resonating Ferguson’s vision of lighter, pop type songs, shows diversity between the songs, each one holding its unique place in the group. “Cosmos Song” features the female vocalists in the band, layering electronic songs in a haunting, enveloping way that wraps through the speakers. The LP starts and ends with “Hottie Tottie” and “The Voices”, respectively, more upbeat electronic sounds with robotic vocal overdubs, but then lead into and out of the more existential songs in the middle. Diverse and vibrant, the whole LP is a masterful orchestration of the surface level optimistic consumerism of the 80’s matched with the more accessible daily struggle of the daily life of jobs, kids and life.
Reflecting their lives as parents and to appease an audience of the same generation, Big Fresh will have their record release as a brunch,at 1 p.m. on Sunday, August 19th at The Burl. The Doodles food truck will be there and it is an all ages show.Big Fresh hopes to be “mindful of how difficult late night shows are, how exclusive those shows are. Such a niche audience, we would like to branch out to other opportunities.”
After the record release, Big Fresh will be playing Sept. 8th at the Tahlsound Festival on Southland Drive, another daytime show that is all ages friendly. Ferguson spoke at length about what a supportive community Lexington is for the diverse talents of the folks on the Desperate Spirits label. “Lexington is great in that way in that everyone kind of supports everyone else. It is a very inclusive and supportive community.” The variety of shows that people around town can enjoy speaks to this inclusion.
The Master Musicians Festival 2018 sprawled over the sunbaked rolling hills of the Somerset Community College Campus. Food truck aromas followed the nose through booths offering crafts and tie dye t-shirts. Good humored folks laughed and danced and sweated in the sun while an incredible line-up of musicians poured out hearts, souls and talents from the festival’s pair of stages.
The Eastwood Stage stage, nestled in the trees down a slight hill from the big main stage where headliner John Prine would play later that Saturday, was home to the local acts that were performing between main stage sets. Hosted by Eastwood Records, the second stage gave “the little guys a spot down here in the valley,” musician John Clay quipped when he opened his set.
Click on image for Cara’s chat with John Clay | Photo by Cara Blake Coppola
Wesley Allen founded Eastwood Records in Louisville four years ago, to honor his father, nicknamed “Eastwood” from his hometown of Eastwood, KY. In that time, he has come to represent some up and coming names in Americana within the mostly Louisville scene. Having a fond love for Louisville and Kentucky music, Allen “felt like it doesn’t get enough attention and I wanted to be the guy who changed that and put that out there.”
Allen’s good friend Nathan Paul Isaac works in both camps, so the connection between the Festival and Eastwood Records was a natural fit. “I owe that dude a lot,” Allen laughs. The opportunity to put his musicians on a bill with such a remarkable Americana line-up was a great choice to make. “It brings an amount of exposure that you would have to pay thousands of dollars for anywhere else. The fan base that comes to this festival is heavily Americana, so to have three of my top Americana bands get to play here and get represented at festival with somebody like Amanda Shires or John Prine, you would have to beg for it, they literally just offered it to me. It’s a no brainer.”
John Clay, who plays on Eastwood Records as a lead act but also plays drums for several other bands on the bill, has been with Wesley since 2016. He’s been on tour for awhile playing drums with Colter Wall, and Nick Dittmeier before him, but is finishing working on two albums with Eastwood Records to be released soon.
John Clay and the Boxwine Prophets | Video by Cara Blake Coppola
John Clay sings with a soft warble to his voice, only to send his voice sailing loudly out over the hills in the next note. It’s an authentic voice that is powerful and feels like it belongs in those hills. He starts one song with a booming a capella that has a touch of twang and a load of truth. When he covers a TVZ song, folks get up and start dancing, despite the heavy July heat. His rocking honky tonk songs make people leave the cool comfort of the shade to move in the sunshine.
Asked how it feels to share the bill with John Prine, Clay searched for an answer. “It’s very shocking. A lot of my friends are on this bill. Most have been directly inspired by his music. To see your name on a bill with someone like that, it’s hard to explain.”
That seemed to be the sentiment of all the musicians I had the opportunity to talk with that day. It is surreal to be at home in such a friendly community as Somerset, nestled in the hills you walk daily, and to be doing what you love so much, in such astounding company. Everyone I talked with that day was walking in a sunshine- filled daydream.
Dave Ernst, who opened the Eastwood Stage that Saturday, was still reeling in the completion of his set with his band The Early Favorites. “It’s Amazing, my first time to the event. Blown away with how cool and friendly it is down here. It means alot. This place is amazing, stages are great, setting is wonderful.”
Coby Langham was the next to play the Eastwood stage after Grayson Jenkins of Lexington finished his set on the main stage. Coby and the Citizens Band, named for Langham’s truck driving career, filled the stage as the day was still getting moving.
Coby and the band nailed their set, singing solid Americana songs into the hot afternoon. Some songs were more playful, getting folks to tap their feet and move in spite of the heat, others more heavy like with lyrics like “a mountain of pills to swallow these hills.” His song “Sober Bible” was a sad, mournful tune about loving someone with an addiction. His songs sing of truth and life and the real poetry of real life. The harmonies were sweet, even pretty to contrast the dark lyrics that hit home to too many.
Coby Langham and the Citizens Band performing at the 2018 Master Musicians Festival | Video by Cara Blake Coppola
The parking lots were filling and people were setting up their chairs for a day in the shade. You could hear the music of the main stage from the second stage, so many settled in for the day amid the hammocks and children’s games thoughtfully constructed by the Festival. Golf carts whizzed by all day providing rides to and from the parking lots for everyone. Hot wooden benches were covered in soft woven blankets for comfort. Free water was given out everywhere. The festival felt very comfortable and welcoming, something mentioned by all of the musicians we interviewed.
After his set at the merch table Wesley Allen manned steadfast all day long in the heat, Coby and his band were happy and sweaty and enjoying their part in the festival. “This is the biggest thing we’ve done yet. It was the easiest ‘yes’ I’ve ever said to anything. To be here with John Prine, we’re going bonkers. It’s a real big deal for us.”
Later that night, John Prine took the stage and every musician mentioned was in the crowd. Prine’s music rang out over those hills to the love and adoration of everyone in the crowd. It was a great set, he played his classics “Dear Abby” and “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore,” along with several songs from his new CD Tree of Forgiveness. He started and ended his whole set with “Paradise” while the crowd joined in with nostalgic love. The musicians who were so grateful to share the bill with him joined in.
Like Coby Langham said, “It’s a real big deal for us.”
When JoAnna James begins to sing, you tend to hold your breath. She captures the attention of the crowd as she whispers her voice into motion, and soon she has drawn the room into her craft. Her voice carries you along as she powers into the chorus, and when she hits those notes…those notes, you only then notice that you hadn’t been breathing because you have to gasp.
I first heard JoAnna’s voice at the first Leonard Cohen Tribute at Soulful Space. She sang “Ballad of a Runaway Horse” and “Anthem” with masterful skill. That treat was repeated at the second encore performance at The Lyric on April 28. One of the highlights of the evening, JoAnna’s voice shifted easily from the slow, meditative sound of “Ballad” to the gypsy-like rhythm of “Anthem”, singing Cohen’s famous line, “that’s how the light gets in” with the spellbinding effect that certainly would make the late singer-songwriter proud.
Produced by Anita Courtney and Purple Carrots Productions, the Cohen tributes were both sell out performances that brought together a diverse array of local musicians to offer their personal tributes to the master. On April 28th, the doors of the theater were thrown open to ventilate the heat as JoAnna and the others joined in verses of “Hallelujah” that spilled out into the streets. JoAnna took the lead on the final verse and belted out a righteous final farewell to Leonard, bouncing her powerful voice off the walls of that historic theater with a stunning, goosebump-inducing crescendo.
Joanna James performing with Richard Young (bass) and Anna Hess (violin) at the original Leonard Cohen Tribute concert
JoAnna came into music as a young girl when her grandpa picked up a violin for $100 from a nun in Mankato, Minneosta, near her hometown of St. Paul. The middle of five kids, her siblings refused the instrument and Joanna was given the violin and lessons with a kind teacher she greatly admired.
Joining orchestra in high school, JoAnna happened upon the guitar, songwriters who played the likes of Lilith Fair, and a book of tablature for Nirvana Unplugged. By 14, she was playing a three-hour gig in a Wisconsin bookstore to a full house. From there, her career has taken her across the country several times over and brought her into songwriting collaboration with a variety of musicians and labels.
JoAnna cowrites and collaborates on songs with many, including Josh Grange, pedal steel player for Sheryl Crow, and Jessy Greene, who has toured with Foo Fighters and Pink, all friends from the “small Minnesota music scene.” She first hears the song, she says, and then finds different processes for integrating the lyrics and music. Inspired by “that” teacher, Mr. Hanlin, who taught her “the connection between music and poetry,” JoAnna is highly adaptive, whether meeting strict deadlines for toplining gigs or musing through a stream-of-consciousness for her own original songs.
Motivated by friendship and a sad but necessary goodbye, Anita and JoAnna are pairing up once more for a show featuring JoAnna before she leaves the bluegrass for the mountains of Colorado. Moving to be closer to family, the show on July 27th at First Presbyterian Church Chapel on North Mill will be JoAnna’s big send-off. She will be joined by several stellar local musicians including Anna Hess and Richard Young, who accompanied her at both Cohen tributes, and Lee Carroll on keys. Maggie Lander will join with backup vocals. The show will be a combination of musicians as well as covers and originals, some solo, some with accompaniment.
“For me, to produce a show, it needs to meet 3 criteria,” says Anita Courtney of Purple Carrots Productions: “feature great musicians in an intimate setting that pays the musicians well.JoAnna’s show checks all the boxes. The chapel is beautiful, has great acoustics and seats 100 people. I call JoAnna the ‘goosebump girl’. She gets inside a song, really tries to understand it, feel it and convey that to the listeners.”
Anita is very excited about the combination of musical talent that will be on stage with JoAnna for the show. “Lee Carroll’s stellar piano, Maggie Lander’s beautiful vocals and the professional and soulful string instrumentalists—Anna Hess on violin and Richard Young on bass—and I think we will all be gobsmacked.”
“Gobsmacked” was the compliment Anita received after the Cohen tributes, and she ensures an all-JoAnna James show will be equally effective. The intimate setting of the chapel, JoAnna’s powerfully subtle voice, and a cast of stellar musicians guarantee that she is right. JoAnna feels strongly the power music induces, and she hopes for that exchange on the 27th.
“My biggest hope is what I always hope for with a show…that some sort of cycle of exchange happens, cause that’s what music is, it’s this experience through time, and to share it with these people who are willing to give you their time and attention. I hope that people can walk away with some kind of good feeling and catharsis. That is my hope.”
The lineup at The Burl on a Friday evening in May was packed with a triple header of local musical talent for the fifth year anniversary of Alcatraz Shakedown. Following Magnolia Boulevard and preceding the headliner, Short & Co. took the stage and took over the room with some face melting blues and guitar work.
Jeremy Short is the front man for Short & Co, his first band as frontman and lead vocalist and guitar. A lifelong musician who previously played as guitarist and backing vocalist for others, including Sasha Colette and the Magnolias, this band and their first CD, Lost in a Spin, is his first foray as lead guitarist and songwriter, which he claimed to be “brand new, incredibly challenging and a steep learning curve for sure.” All who listened that night and have his newly released CD can agree, this is a good thing.
Jeremy Short can play the blues. And I’m not talking just playing. Playing a guitar is one thing, using that guitar to channel the essence that is The Blues is another thing. It requires a master of the craft. Short is undeniably a master of the guitar, and The Burl’s welcoming wooden walls were happy to embrace his music and his sound that night.
From a family of devoted musicians and singers, Short was raised surrounded by the voices of his family singing in harmony. As a child he lived with his grandmother, who had a piano at home and played at church, and his grandfather, the preacher of the Methodist church in Wolverine, Kentucky, a small town in Breathitt County Short describes as “on the way to Hazard.” He thought everyone started Sunday dinner with the family by singing praises, “that was normal to me”. While no one in his family took their talent to the stage before him, Short grew up with a love of music and harmony. That is quite evident when Short & Co. takes the stage.
Short & Co: (L-R) Corey Heim, bass; John Clay, drums, vocals; Jeremy Short, guitar, lead vocals
Joined on stage by Corey Heim on bass and John Clay on drums and vocal harmonies, Short & Co. sounds like much more than three people up there. Their vocal harmonies were tight. John Clay, a seasoned musician and vocalist out of Louisville, kept a solid back beat of drums while also matching his voice to Short’s with tight precision. The bass gave that solid foundation and held it while Short sunk down into deep, solid confident blues solos.
Whether using his slide or not, Short is quite familiar with the neck of a guitar. Playing it with ease and soul, he ran up and down the neck creating slick blues licks while the drums and bass danced behind him. Ranging from a more Chicago style song then into a poppy sounding song that echoes his love of all Steely Dan guitarists, his set ended with a song that had a Rockabilly sound to it. Covering “Dead Flowers” by The Rolling Stones rounded out the set, giving a deep variety of great guitar led music for the crowd that night, which danced enthusiastically all night long.
His mastery of the craft of the guitar solo has earned Jeremy Short enough attention to be invited to attend Tyler Childers’ panel during Bonnaroo this summer, discussing the guitar solo during the festival. He will also be appearing at the Bluegrass BBQ festival in downtown Lexington. His new CD can be purchased at shows, or on his website at shortandcompanymusic.com.
The world of audiophiles and lyric lovers mourned greatly on November 7, 2016, the day Leonard Cohen died. Leaving behind a legacy of songs known and loved by millions, Cohen left a gap in the world of beauty with his passing. Out of a desire to emulate the gift that he was and share it with her community, Anita Courtney felt a strong pull to put on a tribute show for Cohen.
She did. It was a huge success. And now, she’s preparing for an April 28th redux. More on that in a moment.
“Well, he was ready to go, and he left us so much,” Courtney recalls saying to her daughters when they told her the sad news back in November, ’16. Her first thought was to organize a tribute. The idea was shared with others, namely Lynn Motley, Diane Arnson Svarlien and Marlon Hurst, and together they planned the first Leonard Cohen tribute. On November 11th of last year, the concert took place at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church as part of the First Presbyterian Church Music for Mission series.
Adam Luckey and Sherry Sebastian of the Sherry Sebastian trio. | Photo credit: Kopana Terry
“It went beyond our vision…” Courtney states about the first sell-out tribute show. Choosing a variety of musical styles that would emulate Cohen’s catalog with creative diversity, the lineup of local talent was a broad representation of some of the area’s finest musicians. Twelve acts performed that night, each performing one or two songs from Cohen’s lifelong supply of songs and poetry.
Beyond a program that featured everything from a psychedelic/blues rendition of “You Want it Darker” performed by Doc Feldman and Art Shechet, to a jazzy, seductive version of “Everybody Knows” by Paper Moon Jazz Trio, the greatest beauty of that night was the creative variety the artists put into their songs. The evening ended with a rousing sing-along to Cohen’s most mainstream song “Hallelujah” with artists taking turns with verses. The entire crowd joined in, and Cohen’s words rose to the heavens from that church.
Carlotta Abbott was a member of that first crowd. “I had no idea we had this kind of talent in Lexington,” she kept whispering to her friend between each set. “Each performer, I was covered in goosebumps, it just went on and on throughout the evening.”
Thrilled by the talent that stood before her all night long, Abbott was one of the folks who helped encourage Courtney to have an encore. The talent was spectacular, but the feeling of community and coming together was something she took away from the evening. “The group sing-along, it was a coming together, a unifying experience, it felt wonderful…”
The Four Leonards performing Cohen’s “My Oh My” at the first concert
When the evening was complete, Anita Courtney rested on her laurels and knew that beauty could never be recreated. The night was a total success. Mission beautifully accomplished. But…the phone kept ringing. The emails kept coming. People were insisting that it be done again. “People were using words like ‘I was devastated I couldn’t get in’ or ‘I was heartbroken I missed it’.” The demands were sending a clear message: this tribute had to be done again.
So, Halleluja! Leonard Cohen Tribute Encore is coming!
Sponsored by UnderMain, the 7 pm, April 28th concert is being staged this time at The Lyric Theater. With only a few exceptions due to schedule conflicts, the artists of the original performance will return. This time with more space available, the $15.00 tickets will guarantee a great seat in a historic theater that offers amazing acoustics, and Cohen will be praised once more.
“The Lyric has heft and history, and a solidarity with the themes Cohen sings about. The Lyric has soul, and Cohen has soul,” Marilyn Robie commented, one of the performers that night who will be singing “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “The Land of Plenty” with her group Navi’im.
Nevi’im – Tom Green, Marilyn Robie, Kim Berryman-Smith, Margie Karp, Benjamin Karp—performing at the first Leonard Cohen Tribute | Photo credit: Kopana Terry
For those of us who are avid disciples of Cohen’s music and poetry, his words will resonate in a timeless manner, and we are grateful to be able to gather together to celebrate his diverse collection. Many people relate to Cohen’s “pan-spiritualism” and his lifelong struggle to find the truth, despite religious boundaries.
“…he sought truth, his songwritings were investigations. When he found something that was true he polished it to be able to say it well,” says Courtney. Quoting Cohen she added, “When you’re moved by someone’s music it means they were unable to hide themselves.”
Leonard Cohen didn’t hide from his fans and colleagues. He gave all of himself, as a sellout crowd at Louisville’s Palace Theater discovered when on the very doorstep of his 80th year, Cohen gave them not one, not two, not three, but four very generous encores.
This creative generosity can be heard in his last album “You Want it Darker,” released October, 16, 3 weeks before his death. This truth is what calls so many musicians to want to emulate Cohen, to give him homage for mastering the craft. All who will take the stage on the 28th for the second time are grateful for the opportunity. And those who filled the seats will do so again – joined, it is hoped, by the many who regret missing the original tribute concert, all happy for that chance to experience community around the poetry and music of the great Leonard Cohen.
The room at Elkhorn Tavern greets its visitors with an inviting warmth as embracing as the tantalizing aroma of BBQ and the fire burning in the fireplace. Closing out the cold and freezing rain pelting the bustling Distillery District on Manchester Street, the room is full of happy, warm folks listening to the Marble Creek Rangers. Between the smell of food, the charms of the fire, all the people glad to be there and loving the music Eric Cummins and his band were providing, it was the perfect place to be on such a cold, dark night.
The Marble Creek Rangers lead is Eric Cummins, who pulled the band together mostly from his other two bands, the more electric sound of the Eric Cummins Band, and the beloved Allman Butter Band. The Rangers are a more acoustic sound, but very eclectic, hitting everything from Johnny Cash to Gillian Welch, The Allman Brothers, Billy Joe Shaver and Alejandro Escovedo in their covers, mixed with originals mostly written by Cummins, with a fast, upbeat bluegrass sound. But even those are not just Bluegrass.
“We cut a wide swath,” Cummins says of his band’s diverse tastes and talents. Joined by Martie Clough on bass and harmony, Brandon Bowlds on mandolin and harmony, Mike DeLong on drums and Don Rogers on fiddle and singing, the Marble Creek Rangers are a powerhouse of solid musical talent.
The room was full of people grateful to be off work on a cold Friday night. UK had just won the game, their colors were adorned on sweatshirts and hats throughout the room, the playoffs played silently on the television behind the bar, and the feel in the room was so comfortable. The Elkhorn Tavern serves food ordered at the bar, everything from beer cheese plates to BLT’s and Hot Browns. Serving a diverse selection of spirits, including their own brands of several kinds, the Tavern gives the feel of an old neighborhood pub. The stone walls, hardwood, classic bar candles burning and animal trophies adorn the space, and the Rangers fit perfectly by the closed tasting room.
The drums were nestled back in the corner, Eric’s back was to the door and the sound of the band resonated and filled the space. Everyone seemed happy: happy to be there, happy the game was won, happy the band was playing high-quality songs with a good vibe.
Eric’s voice is solid, he can shift from Johnny Cash to Gillian Welch to Bruce Springsteen smoothly. His band is tight and has his back at every step, with every note. The fiddle and the mandolin partner perfectly, taking turns with their parts and making the music so alive folks were dancing around the room. Whether two-stepping or just shaking it where they stood, it was clear they were quite pleased with what they heard.
“Our best gigs come when folks are music lovers out in the crowd,” Eric later commented, and that synergy was clear on this recent night at Elkhorn. Musicians and crowd exchanged energies, and the friendly staff handing out delicious plates of food and good drinks made the fit quite pleasant.
The Rangers feed off the crowd as well-seasoned musicians do, and reflected that in their playing. They are the kind of band that can play steadily to a crowd full of talking people but still command their attention enough that they all join in on the chorus. Their songs are recognizable, and the originals they bring into the mix perfectly with the sound. Eric and the band do not do setlists for gigs. Rather, they have a treasure trove of songs they all know and have played together, and even more they could fall into with Eric’s lead should he feel inspired to do so. That is the beauty of a well-seasoned band of great musicians.
Fellow musicians have called Eric fearless in the past, winging gigs with faith in his musical talent and his bandmates. “In everything I do I like the element of danger. If it works out it’s a big thrill, like ‘hey we did it!’…people don’t mind seeing you be human. That’s the fun thing about getting off your couch and going to see someone play…something will happen.”
After a long life where he attempted music full time, even busking down in Florida, and realized it wasn’t a solid “business plan” for a man with a family and wanting a home, he began working at Wilcutt Guitars on Southland Drive and has worked there ever since. He knows many successful rock stars through his work but is happy to be a local musician who makes music with his friends after work is done, and gets to play for receptive crowds like the folks at Elkhorn last night.
Cummins on Lexington…
“That’s the rewarding thing for me at this point: to go and play well and have fun making music with my friends.”
Eric plays regularly around town. You can catch The Eric Cummins Band at Parlay Social in downtown Lexington and the Paddy Wagon in Richmond regularly. The Allman Butter Band is playing The Burl on March 31st, and Marble Creek Rangers will be back at The Elkhorn Tavern later this month and are playing Inclusion Palooza at the Moondance Amphitheater April 21st.
After the Elkhorn show, Cara sat down for a chat with Eric Cummins:
WRFL, at 88.1 on the FM dial, has been fulfilling its mission in Lexington for an incredible thirty years. Next weekend, March 2nd through March 4th, WRFL will be throwing an epic party in celebration of thirty years as a pivotal force in Lexington.
Photo by Arden Barnes
WRFL was started back in 1988, when “College radio was a vibrant media platform for punk rock and alternative music culture,” says Phillip Kisling, the station’s promotions director. After a year of research and fundraising by Kakie Urch, lovingly referred to as their “punk rock godmother”, WRFL hit the airwaves to offer Lexington “a source of music, news and other programming not regularly found through other media outlets in central Kentucky.” In doing so, the station has been foundational in the education and training of many of Lexington’s broadcasters, sound engineers, and music producers, fulfilling the first part of their mission, “to provide its members with professional training and guidance in radio operations management, program development, and quality broadcast performance.”
For thirty years, WRFL has been providing a creative and informative outlet for Lexington and has helped greatly in fostering a sense of community around town in the music and art we celebrate. While affiliated with UK, WRFL works with the entire community, accepting interns from many area colleges. Students in fields such as broadcasting, journalism, marketing, business, engineering, music or art can find a place to learn their career with hands-on training and encouraged creativity.
Being a DJ at WRFL is an opportunity many around Lexington can claim. They have an open door policy at the station: as long as folks commit to three training weekends and some studio time shadowing an experienced DJ, anyone in the community –not just UK students, can host a show of any theme as long as the content complies with FCC and UK stipulations.
Featuring everything from social activism, to mental health issues, LGBTQ topics, to Russian radio, WRFL is a blank canvas that encourages the creativity of the community to thrive. “We’re really an open door, despite being in a basement,” Ben and Phil joked, and are excited for when the studio gets to move into the new Student Center that is currently under construction.
WRFL has provided that “bridge or handshake” between UK students and the city where they may be finding themselves for the first time. Kisling spoke of how he hated Lexington when he arrived as a UK undergrad from Louisville: “It wasn’t until I found WRFL that Lexington opened up to me.” The station became an introduction to Lexington’s alternative music and art scene, and in turn, many of those musicians and artists have appeared in the studio or have been a dj themselves.
All of this successful collaboration, creativity and love for commercial free radio will culminate in the 30th Birthday Bash for WRFL happening over an entire weekend at The Burl. The lineup for the venue is to celebrate WRFL, and will feature a special draft from Blue Stallion Brewery, a mango IPA called “The Only Alternative Left”, celebrating the station’s motto.
Kisling and Allen are very excited to bring such a big name to Lexington, offering their supporters and audience a chance to see a band they would normally have to travel a long distance to pay much more money to see at a bigger, less intimate venue. There is an after party for that show as well, featuring Hell Bent Hearts, Just a Test, and The Yellow Belts.
Saturday’s festivities begin during the day at the Downtown Arts Center, where thirty years of DJs will reunite and celebrate at a free, family-friendly exhibit of Rifle Magazine, the station’s program guide. The evening will be back at The Burl headlining Cults, with openers Ellie Herring, Hair Police and Devine Carama, along with an after-dance party with DJ’s.
The next day they are hosting a “Hangover Brunch” and are bringing in all the nostalgia, with bands that were playing when WRFL was first hitting the airwaves all those years ago, featuring Ten Foot Pole and Nine Pound Hammer, along with the younger phenoms of Johnny Conqueroo. That brunch also promises to feature a collaboration between the generations when some of the original musicians will be performing with their own musical kids, as the generations pass the baton and the great music keeps on playing.
Such a magical celebration the folks at WRFL have put together for us, a celebration of thirty years of alternative music on commercial free airwaves, a collaboration of some of the best and hardest working creative minds in town. For thirty years WRFL has held true to the mission, and next weekend’s celebration promises to be an incredible apex for the “Only Alternative Left.”
Listen to Cara’s conversation with Phillip Kisling and Ben Allen:
Nestled in the middle of downtown Lexington, once a week on Wednesday nights Red Barn Radio broadcasts and live- streams original music to the world. Sending Kentucky’s rich treasure of music to the masses, Ed Commons and the folks at Red Barn Radio represent and support a different local and regional artist each week they broadcast. On January 10, folks gathered inside ArtsPlace in downtown Lexington to see Chelsea Nolan take her turn at the mic.
A native of Stanton, Ky, Nolan is a recent voice that has skyrocketed out of Eastern Kentucky over the last year, and she is taking her place among the group of massively talented singer/songwriters from the region. “I feel like I got on a rocketship, and then I got in a slingshot and they flung me into outer space.” Starting with her first solo gig back in October 2016, Chelsea soon was making a name for herself.
“I was drumming for people and being in the background, and being the support. I am a drummer before I am a singer or a songwriter, and I feel that I’m good at supporting people too. It just hit me one day that I had my own songs to sing.”
Photo by Derek Feldman
Songwriting is very personal for Chelsea. Her songs come from personal experience, and phrases and ridiculous things that folks say around her. She is always listening and gathering lines here and there from the people in her orbit. Her songs become an emblem, a story being sung of the hills and the people who live in them and make music with her. She says songwriting for her is like doing a puzzle. “Once I’ve got all the corners together it just falls in, and I’ve got no control over it. Thirty minutes max is probably what I have in a song, start to finish once I’ve got everything I need. If I have to force it it doesn’t’ have to be written. It has to be natural and real. I put myself into strange situations, just so I can get some ammo. It’s bigger than me.”
Music has always been a huge part of her life, and the life of her family, a Stanton staple. Brother Josh Nolan is a strong singer and songwriter, as well, and played Red Barn Radio previously.
“A couple years ago watching my brother do this, I was teary eyed the whole time. It’s such a good opportunity, so many people listen to Red Barn. That anyone thought of me to do that is crazy. I am excited and humbled.”
As soon as Chelsea begins to sing, you can hear why her music career has gained such momentum. Her songs are real, and true, and well-crafted. And she is hilarious. Not just in lyric, but between songs she has the crowd laughing until our faces hurt. She takes us along on an easy ride with her. Sometimes it gets real, just a little heavy, such as “That Old Town”, when she sings of the pills and the depression all-to-present in many small towns in the hills. But more often you find yourself bouncing along with her as your foot can’t stop tapping and you can’t stop laughing. Her southern accent bites with a sarcasm that is brilliant, and her verses often end with a twist of wit.
She tells stories between her songs, of hollers and ponds glowing with sunset; of friends singing together; and of love. She sings of driving backroads and watching the lightning over the hills. Her songs are for healing and for laughing, and they tell of real lives that anyone, Kentuckian or not, can relate to.
“I don't care if people know my name, I just want to be able to do this. I want to share what’s on my heart with other people, because it's on my heart for a reason. I want to be able to help other people with their stuff, because this has helped me with mine. I want to sing as much as I can, as loud as I can, to as many people as I can.”
For the first half of her set, Chelsea was accompanied by Kristofer Bentley providing a homegrown percussion beat on the cajon while Chelsea played the guitar and sang.
She was resolute that night, playing in spite of coming down with the flu that has afflicted so many this winter. She refused to miss the chance to play Red Barn Radio. Barefoot, with a thermos of tea close by, she sat astride a stool and poured her soul into her songs.
Performing thirteen originals and two covers that she made her own, Chelsea kept the crowd enraptured. With her bluesy, soulful voice and thick country twang that tells her stories with a realness that is refreshing. Her guitar picking is perfect and she can’t help but bop along to her own beat and you can’t help but join her. Between the songs, host Brad Becker asked questions that gave Chelsea an opportunity to charm the crowd and listeners around the world with her tales.
She’s fun. Real fun and real good.
That night was an apex for Nolan. Red Barn Radio, in it’s 16th season of sending original music around the world on various radio stations, also live-streams their shows and is compiling video for a thirteen-episode season on local television. To play Red Barn and sit between those bourbon barrels and get to tell your story to the world is a great opportunity. Having accelerated their viewership with their You Tube videos of Tyler Childers, Red Barn Radio is a big part of the national and global conversation being had about Kentucky’s excellent treasure of music and musicians.
Chelsea Nolan has earned her rank among that group of musicians we are proud to call ours. Standing her ground among a pack of mostly guys, she keeps everyone laughing with her unique and well sung songs that provide a refreshing take on the stories the hills have to share with the world. As she says herself, “I am in a beautiful situation.”
Listen to Cara’s conversation with Chelsea Nolan:
Listen to Cara’s chat with Red Barn Radio’s Ed Commons:
Music isn’t just music for hip hop artist Devine Carama, it is everything. It is the backdrop to his drive, to his work, and to his life. He raps about a mission that he believes with all his heart, and his life’s work reflects that daily.
Friday night, the first of December, a diverse group of musicians took the stage at The Burl to embody and play for Devine’s mission about community. His non-profit Believing in Forever was hosting a Coat to Keep the Cold Away fundraiser that night, sharing the donations with The Nest and the Reindeer Express. All the funds for the show went to the charities, and cover could be paid in a new coat or toy for donation. The trade off for the act of kindness was a line up of some of Lexington’s finest musicians, boasting a wide variety of genres of high quality music.
Robert Frahm started the night with his tight guitar slinging skills, followed by Sunny Cheeba. Joslyn and the Sweet Compression went next and set the stage for Devine Carama, the headliner of the show and the organizer from the Believing in Forever non-profit. Devine Carama was followed by The Summit and the Johnny Conqueroo. Devine was on the other side of having recently performed a 24-hour Hip Hop for Hope marathon in front of the Fayette County Courthouse.
For the past four years, Devine Carama’s winter season has centered around the Coat to Keep the Cold Away campaign. The first two years, his organization raised funds and collected coats for low income kids and families in the Central Kentucky area. Last year they expanded to Eastern Kentucky as well and bought and delivered 1500 coats to kids who needed them. This year, the requests reached nearly 2800. So Devine went to work. He did the 24 hour marathon and raised almost $4,000 for new coats, but it wasn’t enough. Thus, the beautiful night of music at The Burl that Friday evening.
Joslyn and the Sweet Compression are a great act to follow. They always leave the crowd happy and moving and loving life and everyone in it. From there, Devine took the stage solo. His DJ wasn’t able to be there that night, so he used pre-recorded beats as his backdrop. He did a short intro about who he was and why were were all there that night, and then, he let the words go. Oh man, all those words…
Divine Carama | Photo by Derek Feldman
For twenty minutes Devine Carama slayed lyrics upon lyrics. His rhymes were tight and flowing and talked about so much, about what is real. About life on the streets and about poverty and disenfranchisement and unarmed black men getting shot and community and Africa and about so much. His lyrics are dense and vast and you follow along with him, line by line, as he tells you what it’s all about. He calls to the crowd and they answer along, following the beat with him, moving in time to the rhyme.
“Poetry and lyrics are so important for me…” Devine commented, speaking of the early days of hip hop and of “Diverse complex parallel rhyme schemes, when it really mattered, and substance.” He wants his lyrics to speak about the truth of the struggles he sees in his community and America daily, “things that are going on in the world. Charlottesville, a lot of unarmed black men dying, Trump in office. You rarely hear them mentioned in hip hop. I come from the era of Public Enemy and NWA” when hip hop artists spoke out against the subjects that “will be in the history books.”
His lyrics are packed full of these themes. It’s astounding, how someone can remember all those words, to stand up there and preach and say all the lyrics with emphasis and pathos. To remember and to move, to instill the message in the hearts of the crowd below. The fog on the stage mixed with the cold air from outside and swirled around Devine as he shared his poetry and his passion with the room. The bass bounced against the walls and moved The Burl to a beat it wasn’t as familiar with, and it liked it. You could tell. The room danced that night, from one performer to the next, and the feeling was real good.
Taking a break after twenty minutes, Devine spoke to the crowd about his non-profit, Believing in Forever, which was founded in 2014. Their mission is to inspire education, community service, mentoring and expressive art. They hold nine in-school mentoring programs, called Impact 859. Sons of Single Mothers is another aspect, which recently received a grant from State Farm. They also hold Youth Open Mics, do Philanthropy projects such as A Coat to Keep the Cold Away, motivational youth speaking, and mentoring. They try to inspire strength in the next generation in ways that are “a little different than the norm.”
Mainly, Devine Carama wants all the forgotten, disenfranchised folks out in the community to know that there are people who do see them, who do care. Those are the people he raps about in his hip hop songs, those are the people he works tirelessly for to give them the comfort of a new, warm coat that fits well, and the comfort of taking the time to help with homework, and mentoring them through the difficult choices and consequences life brings. Even free haircuts earned for good grades. And a place to express themselves through spoken word and song as well. All of these things build community, and community is what Devine is all about.
Believing in Forever had a goal to reach, those 2800 coats that had already been requested from all over central and eastern Kentucky. The goal was not quite met after Friday night, so, driven as he is, Devine committed to another hip hop for hope marathon. This time, for 48 hours. For two days straight he would sit outside in the cold and rap his hip hop lyrics every hour, on the hour, for twenty minutes or so each time. Even in the cold, dark night, at 4 and 5 am, he was out there rapping. That was the point, he commented, “The commitment- even when there’s not a lot of people around. [It] symbolizes those families that are struggling that not everyone knows about. Every hour on the hour…Every hour.”
I sat with Devine outside the courthouse during hour eight of his 48 hour marathon. It was a sunny day at 3pm, but the wind was blowing cold, driving the dry, dead leaves around in circles, and after thirty minutes I was frozen cold and couldn’t feel my hands. He had forty more hours to go. He rapped outside to the traffic driving by. Folks honked in support, or walked by to greet him and shake his hands or donate to the cause. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergran Grimes stopped by to visit. And there were several interviews — including mine:
Music is a strong force within a community. Whatever the genre, it can move people to act and to gather and to commune. When that music is joined with action, it can move mountains. Devine Carama channels his music from his soul, and imbibes it with his passion for community. When he puts that music to work for his beliefs, magic can happen. The magic of a kid getting a great new coat for Christmas, and the relief his parents or guardians feel with the gift of a stranger. The magic of a kid who passes a tough test because members of the community spent their free Saturday with him, working hard on helping him pass. When he does, he gets rewarded and praised and gets a new haircut. These are the differences that matter, this is the real magic of community. Devine Carama embodies that in everything he does.
“With the music I think its always about unearthing truths or emotions that are often suppressed in hip hop music. I’m an agent of change when it comes to that I am the voice that you don’t normally hear in hip hop music. The boy that doesn’t have a father, the young teenage girl who was molested. The underserved black kid that lives in a city that 90 percent don’t look like him. I want my music to be that, and I want my music to be uplifting to those who don’t have a voice.”
Best Friend Bar is the quintessential classic college bar, nestled on the corner of Euclid and Woodland Ave. The geometric insides boast jutting ceilings covered with colored Christmas lights and shiny stars that hang year round. Posters and stickers from shows and bands past adorn the painted black ceilings and bathroom stalls. A small merch table is stuck back against a slanted wall, and band equipment is bundled up on the other side. Patrons clad in lots of black leather mill around the bar, getting ready for the three-act set as they order local drafts and burritos from Girls, Girls, Girls Burritos. The Jettisons are set to play second in a fully stocked night of promised punk music headlined by Sarasota’s Rational Anthem.
The Jettisons | Photo by Derek Feldman
The Jettisons is an amalgamation of four other previous bands from the Lexington area, a sort of supergroup of punk musicians. Brad Hagedorn, the drummer, and Travis Rosenbalm, the guitarist, were from Middle Class Mischief. They joined with Tom Blankenship, someone Travis had been wanting to do music with since Tom’s time in The Loaded Nuns and Slagsmiths. They all wanted Beth Jenkins on vocals. Her previous work in the ska band The Rough Customers boasted her vocals, a sound they all wanted for their new band. Cory Hanks, from Those Crosstown Rivals, was brought in for bass, and The Jettisons was born.
Musicians who have been part of the scene, each brings their own personality to the band, which they call truly democratic. “Definitely the most collaborative band I’ve ever been in,” says Tom, “…there is no established leader of the band, it’s a collective.” The musicians get together with a riff and a beat and record it. They hand it off to Beth, and soon she comes back with lyrics and they then pull it all together. When they had some songs compiled, they went into the studio with Jason Groves at Sneak Attack Studios and recorded an EP.
They all laughed about the experience and the astonishment when Groves put Beth in the drum booth to record her vocals. Once they heard the result, however, they were collectively in awe of both Grove’s recording skills and Jenkin’s vocal talent. “He’s worked with me before,” Beth jokes.
When they take the stage after local opening band Test Passenger and hit that first note, you can understand why. Beth’s voice is incredibly powerful and so direct. She wails up into high notes with flawless accuracy, then in the next breath screams out her gut-punching lyrics, only to go back to singing like she’s in a musical. Impressive. The band backs her with exact synchronization, their heads slamming in classic punk style, instruments slung low as they fill the small stage, their lead woman out front, in amongst the loyal crowd, the sound filling the small room and making the windows rattle.
Beth’s lyrics chanted and screamed, sung out like an aria, Tom and Travis adding perfectly timed responses to Beth’s calls, the chanting like prayers, and the crowd joins in. Small but fervent, the crowd slams and bounces and dances and pushes each other guidingly back into the middle where one dancer bounces and slams into Tom…while he’s playing guitar. A true audience participation show, a true punk show, the crowd and the band become one with the beat, and Beth’s voice guides them all.
The shambled room and the DIY sound gear is part of the charm of Best Friend Bar, in walking distance from most of the UK dorms. The air smells of the amazing burritos from Girls, Girls, Girls Burritos, a co-business with BFB, operated out of a door next to the bar. Amazing grilled burritos and quesadillas, chips and dip are served out of the door – your ideal edge-of-campus business. The punk vibes fit perfect that night, and the camaraderie and joy the crowd clearly felt were good for everyone.
Beth Jenkins, The Jettisons | Photo by Derek Feldman
“You don’t necessarily have to have a really big crowd at a punk show. Enthusiastic really matters…I’d rather see two people moving than fifty people not,” the band agreed. Dancing with their audience, Beth and Tom draw the crowd in on the floor while the band diligently keeps the beat behind, Brad’s drums the sidewalk they dance upon, Hank’s bass the beat of their steps. Travis and Tom support Beth out front, and the joy and experience and tight musicianship of the collective are quite clear.
Tom and Beth joke between songs, with the band, and with the crowd. The feel of the set is fun. Just damn fun, and they’re out there to have fun. This isn’t the punk I remember from the early days. These aren’t young kids who hate the establishment. Beth says, “Old punk is about trashing something, destroying something. Fuck this, fuck that. There is something to rebuilding. There is something to bringing something back.” And that is what The Jettisons clearly get across to their audience.
The term “posi-punk”, or Positive Punk, is the subgenre they have chosen,
“Posipunk…is maybe an overlooked subgenre, it’s something that a lot of us who grew up listening to this kind of music maybe should start leaning towards…in times like these” Beth comments, “let’s talk about rebuilding. Let’s talk about the rebuild.”
Travis agrees, “There’s never been a more important time to be positive, at least in my lifetime, as far as society goes.”
Their songs try to touch on this idea, to come together. To stay positive. A new song that will be on their second CD, a full-length album they hope to get out soon, Beth wrote for Travis when he was struggling with anxiety. “Watch the Sky” is a positive song that she wrote for Travis to understand that he was not alone. That is what The Jettisons want to convey in their lyrics.
The Jettisons having a big ‘ol time at Best Friend Bar | Photo by Derek Feldman
With that powerful message, along with Beth’s astounding voice, and the collective talent of the guys backing her, The Jettisons are creating a new wave in Lexington’s punk scene.
Formerly an old Methodist Episcopal church built in 1866, the Southgate House Revival in Newport, KY has been remade into an amazing live music venue, just up the road from Lexington.
Photo by Scott Preston for Cincygroove.com
Offering an opportunity for local Lexington talent to expand their circles a bit, often to open for a national touring act they admire, Southgate creates a unique and gorgeous space for musicians and fans to share their time together. As opening band for the San Francisco touring legends The Flamin’ Groovies, NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon were the first of three bands to take the stage in the Sanctuary Room at Southgate.
Opening for a legendary band such as the Groovies was a gig that Nate, aka NP Presley, was proud to add to his band’s roster. “Southgate calls us repeatedly, and they ask us to open up for bands we really respect. I’d rather play for a band we really respect and look up to.”
The Sanctuary room is exactly what it suggests, the room where Episcopalians once gathered in worship, stained glass windows now flanked by acoustic paneling, pews removed from the wooden floors to make way for tables and chairs, and the organ piping now the backdrop for the fully stocked bar. The stage is set where the altar should be, and the choir’s balcony above is now a green room for the musicians who meander back and forth in what must be the coolest view from a green room, ever.
Southgate House Revival
Churches, I believe, make amazing live music venues, as they are made to project sound and music so perfectly. The walls seem to agree with the evolution, and the Southgate House is no exception. The side of the room boasted heavily visited merch tables for all three bands, and the fans filed in, devotees to a certain groove, and many greeted each other as friends. The room soon boasted a promising crowd, with room in front of the tables for a dance floor. NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon were the first set of three that night, to be followed by Tiger Sex, and then the headliner the fans were collected to see, The Flamin’ Groovies.
As I’ve noted in previous columns of shows past, the opening set has to be one of the toughest. You have to get the crowd’s attention as they’re filing in, greeting others, buying merch, ordering drinks and settling in for the headliner most have come to see.
NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon are devoted fans of The Flamin’ Groovies, and routinely cover their song Teenage Head. They had the opportunity to open for one of their idols, and their reverence and respect for that assignment, to warm up the crowd and get them ready to worship when the time came, was met with a devotion that was apropos for the building. They played their thirty minutes in full force and with great joy, drawing from their most recent CD “Broken Fantasy” as well as past works, and the crowd responded beautifully.
N.P. Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon is a big band with a long story. Boasting eight members, they are headed by NP Presley, aka Nate. Nate is the distant cousin to Elvis Presley, his mother was Elvis’ cousin and also a Country and Western singer in Nashville. NP recalls as a young boy being woken up by his father to watch his mother perform live on TV, then going back to bed. Jesse Garon, Elvis enthusiasts may know, was Elvis’ twin brother who died at birth. Nate sees the band’s name as an homage to “the spirit of rock and roll.”
NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon at Southgate House Revival
When they take the stage, the full band is an impressive display, Nate and others dressing to the nines from their brilliantly shined shoes to their neckties. Heather’s eyes are masked in black outlines that are mystical and beautiful and match her alluring voice. Eight in number, including NP Presley on vocals and guitar, Heather Parrish on vocals, Tex Dynamite on lead guitar and vocals, Matt Sigler on guitar, Chris Childers on bass, David Lee Hinkle on keys, Joe Linville on baritone sax and Whitney Mehringer on drums, together they create a well orchestrated and powerful sound.
While the name of the band and even the nice suits suggest a rockabilly sound, the sound of the band is quite diverse, as their tight thirty-minute set demonstrated. “We want to avoid defining our sound. I have metalheads who love us, gospel kind of people who love us, I meet hippies who like us, bikers like us cause we’re the sound of what it’s about really, freedom.
“We’re trying to be a big band…so far people have been really cool about it.”
They segued easily from rockabilly to punk to rock to even a gospel sound. NP dominates the vocals, with Heather Parrish on tightly emphatic harmonies, but for more than one song they literally switched places, mics and all, and Nate backed up Heather, with other band members adding in tight four and five-piece harmonies on several songs as well.
The elevated stage with that gorgeous archway backdrop was a beautiful setting for their sound. They filled every corner of the stage with their large presence and gave every bit of themselves while they were up there.
Presley, Mehringer and Parrish
Heather’s powerful voice rose up and around NP’s deep lyrics, filling them in like a well-wrapped package. Keys and sax slide in around the music, and the drums keep a strong beat going, making the crowd move along. NP and Heather are up there preaching, telling the crowd their story, and making sure it drives home. They want their crowd to be in it with them.
“My hope is to see people cutting loose, not worrying about the problems that are weighing them down every day,” NP said. “Because this is where I go to get rid of the problems I have…its really nice to see people in awe out there, stopping dead in their tracks with wide eyes and they didn’t expect what was happening. You want people to enjoy themselves. I do this to get away from reality, and I hope people can leave all the bad parts of their reality behind and enjoy the good parts, in the few minutes we get to make music.”
Taking full advantage of their half hour, the band moved with well-rehearsed precision from one song to the next. “The River Styx” was a deep, gothic song that told a story freighted with warning. Heather’s voice added a haunting quality that commanded the room. “Idle Dreams” had a southern gospel sound that was heavy with keys, the band joining in as a chorus that suited the setting of the old church.
NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon at the Southgate House Revival
The set was over too soon, but the band filled every second of it with some righteous rock and roll. The energy they exuded to the crowd was contagious, and the audience was begging for more when it was done. Happy to have headed north a bit to open for an amazing night of music for some of their idols, N.P. Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon represented Lexington quite well that night.
Listen to Cara’s conversation with N.P. Presley and the band:
And just like that, on a sultry October night, Willie’s Locally Known was filled with a damn funky beat.
Joslyn and The Sweet Compression, consisting of a diverse group of Lexington musicians, set the mood and laid the musical red carpet for Joslyn Hampton to take the stage and display her impressive vocals. Trumpet, sax, keys and drums joined guitar and bass to fill those wooden walls with some tight, high-quality music.
They started out with an instrumental, letting trumpet, then sax take the lead, each musician feeding off what the others had done before him, and then, Joslyn took the stage.They had to make a big sound, see, to match her voice. Good lord, that voice.
Dancing with the beat between her verses, the entire package is a tight assemblage. Beckoning the roots of R&B, Joslyn and the Sweet Compression rock out originals and sprinkle in a few covers.
Joslyn and The Sweet Compression at Willie's
It is a masterful scene, each musician clearly exceptional individually; collectively they give the audience a taste of great quality. Joined on stage by her step-father Marty Charters on guitar, Smith Donaldson on bass, Rashawn Fleming on drums, Stevie Holloman on a double set of keys, Joe Carucci on saxophone, and Jeffrey Doll on trumpet, Joslyn owns the room with her deep, solid and flawlessly consistent vocals. Joined with backing harmonies by Rashawn and Stevie, her singing quickly got the crowd up and dancing.
Raised singing in the church with her father’s family and her grandmother Vivian, Joslyn’s life has been one of singing. She received a partial scholarship to KSU and was in their Concert Choir, and took vocal lessons for a few years practicing opera, which she loved. That skill and training are clearly evident as her songs complimented her vast range of skill, moving her voice up and down the scale with ease.
As for influences, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, and Jill Scott are Joslyn’s big 3.
Marty cites Sly and the Family Stone, Chaka (a major point of intersection), The JB’s, Junior Wells and the Beatles. Also high on his list is Ohio funk hero Roger Troutman and his band, Zapp.
Personally speaking, nothing gets this music voyeur happier than a band that is clearly having a good time up on stage.Talent helps, of course, and skill, but it’s gotta be fun to really draw the audience in, even if the music is sad in tone. The Sweet Compression, with their fearless leader at the mic, is clearly having a wonderful time up there. The range of the songs they play is diverse, moving smoothly from funk, to R&B, to reggae, then sliding nicely into a slower soul song, Joslyn’s voice never faltering. The backing harmony supports her so well, and you can hear the church background in her skill set.
Like most musicians, Joslyn has to struggle to make time for music between her duties as a Security officer at UK. “Go to sleep, go to work, go to a gig, go back to work…that’s my life.” Joslyn and the Sweet Compression has existed for about a year, and their entity as a band was created somewhat backward from the usual.She and step-dad Marty pulled some songs and lyrics together and then headed straight to the studio with Duane Lundy at Shangri-La. After recording their CD, they then decided to form a band to get the music out into the clubs.
Starting from scratch, excepting Marty and Smith, The Sweet Compression evolved into the band of troubadours that rocked the stage at Willie’s in their current form.“I enjoy seeing the growth and process of everyone, including me…We know each other so well that we kind of fall into the right thing…we all get along…I think we’re bound to get far.” Joslyn has a strong affection for her band and the support they’ve given her; “those are my boys.”
The next step, they hope, is to spread out in “little circles” to surrounding cities like Louisville, Cincinnati, and further. They’ve gotten their foot in the door already and will play Headliner’s in Louisville to open for the Victor Wooten Trio, of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones fame. The band is excited to spread their sound outside of Lexington, but is so grateful for the response they’ve had in the short year since they released their debut CD and began playing out around town.
They recorded a live video at The Burl awhile back and were so impressed by the love they received from the crowd. “I was very, very surprised by the positive response we’ve gotten from the community…it’s been enlightening and humbling.” She wasn’t certain that their sound would resonate with the community, “I didn’t expect it to really pop for everyone, but it really has.” When they recorded at The Burl, the folks came “right up front”. “It’s like a high, it’s an energy from the crowd that feeds you…Your heart kind of just explodes.”
After a solid hour of funky soul songs, Joslyn takes a break to cool down while the band goes off on another instrumental melody that keeps the crowd bopping. The trumpet and sax have a chance to flash their talent together, the bass and keys keeping the foundation strong. A well-played jazz or soul instrumental jam always sounds to me like a conversation; guitar talking to bass, drums answering with keys, the horns adding emphatic expletives along the way.The Sweet Compression is fluent in that language, clearly.
Then Joslyn takes the stage again, and the magic continues.
Sliding into a Chaka Khan cover of “Ain’t Nobody” the crowd takes the dance floor again and the room moves together in one solid groove while Joslyn hits those high notes with breathtaking precision. An Amy Winehouse cover of “Valerie” then merges into a Stones cover of “Gimmie Shelter”, hitting Merry Clayton’s notes with the same bone-chilling intensity. She then slowed the room down with a bluesy song that lets her slide her voice way high on the register, blowing the crowd’s mind.
Their greastest skill, just behind that of her incredible voice, is their ability to work the room; to engage the crowd and make them an equal part of the experience.
It can be difficult, sometimes, to play a gig at a restaurant.You have to earn your place amongst the competition of the alcohol and the delicious BBQ. Your music, if you want the crowd to move and feel the vibe you are creating, has to rise above the savory vapors of the food and libations, yet mix with it to create an all-encompassing sound that makes the folks want to get up and dance away their food coma. Joslyn is the perfect fit for that need; her R&B sound, her smooth vocals, the sweet sound of the musicians’ conversation behind and within her created the perfect mix.
Willie’s danced that night, as it likes to do; those wooden walls absorbing the smell of brisket along with the bass and the sax and keys and her gorgeous voice to serve the audience a complete package.
The inaugural celebration of PeteFest on the Jones family nature preserve in Louisville was at once a celebration and a time for sad reflection. Pete Jones, for whom the Festival is named, took his own life last December.
On the day I interviewed Youngeun Koepke it had been exactly nine months to the day when she heard the terrible news of her good friend.
“Pete was seeking help, but we just didn’t know the severity of his depression.”
Nestled in the 90 acre Nature Preserve owned by Pete’s family, PeteFest began on Friday the 8th of September as folks started filing into the Jones’ fields and setting up their tents for the weekend.One field was designated for RV’s and tents, with brilliant solar lights erected throughout the fields by the engineering family and their friends.A wooded path lit by LED flashlights smartly zip-tied to trees led campers to the venue, a beautiful shiny party nestled in the trees.
Lights were strung everywhere, so when the sun began to set the woods were festively aglow.Bubbles and glow necklaces were bandied about by happy children, sharing the joy on the wind as the bubbles and the lights and the music mingled to put folks in a great mood.
But, of course, there was sadness.
Pete is gone, and the festival would never have existed, but for suicide.Koepke noted, “Last night as we were all celebrating, we all said ‘Pete would LOVE this…He is so proud of us, and he is with us. He is here.”
And that is the point of PeteFest.To not forget; to not brush depression, anxiety, and suicide under the carpet, but to bring it all out into the open, to talk about it and to listen to those suffering from it.
“Stomp the Stigma” is the PeteFest motto, because “we need to start talking about this.” The event’s mascot is an elephant, representing the University of Alabama white elephant of Pete’s alma mater, as well as the obvious “elephant in the room” symbolism.
The statistics are that someone takes their life every twelve seconds. “I lost a dear high school friend when I was 21,” Koepke shared, “But it has shaped me; when I heard the news about Pete I knew I had to do something.We are losing an entire generation of people. The ones suffering the most tend to be the ones who are the most loving, and giving. In his last message, Pete said he wants to help mankind. We are getting the message out there for him.”
That message was loud and clear at PeteFest.All the bands performing had been invited by members of the Pete Foundation, and many of the bands gave toasts and had touching things to say about Pete, his family, and PeteFest itself.Glasses were raised throughout the weekend to toast Pete, his parents Jeff and Molly Jones, and his siblings Jeff, Jack, Matt, and Michelle. Counseling and understanding were offered throughout the festival, and the entire Sunday lineup featured local young musicians from the area who chose to sing and speak out to “Stomp the Stigma”.
The Pete Foundation is focused on reaching youth, so they can save adults like Pete.The organizers want people to be educated to understand the signs of severe depression and anxiety which can so easily lead to suicide. Pete had gained weight before his last days, and had been sleeping more and more; the signals too often become clear in hindsight.The Pete Foundation wants them recognized before they end in tragedy. The answer to that is education.They have already partnered with the University of Louisville where they held a “pre-Fest for Pete Fest” to address anxiety, depression, and suicide on the college level.
Next, they hope to work with local school systems to address youth and perhaps prevent the next loss.
Friday night held a great lineup, and the music carried the crowd into the wee hours. Those who wanted rest simply had to foray back across the illuminated path through the woods to the campsite, where the music was within listening distance, but not overwhelming.
Saturday dawned as a beautiful day, the nine-month anniversary of when Pete Jones took his own life. His family and friends gathered together to begin day two of PeteFest.Morning yoga was offered on the smaller stage, and counseling for anyone who felt the need to share or discuss their own anxiety, depression or suicidal tendencies.PeteFest volunteers in logo t-shirts sporting elephants dotted the festival grounds as the crowd slowly filled the space yet again.
The first band to take the stage that lovely day was The Local Honeys, consisting of Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs.
The Local Honeys | Photo by Derek Feldman
The Local Honeys are quickly gathering a following in the Eastern Kentucky area and beyond.The first two female graduates of Morehead’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, Stokely and Hobbs boast a wealth of instrumental knowledge.Starting with Linda on fiddle and Montana on banjo, they both switched to guitar at some point, changing instruments between songs, and playing each with impressive adeptness.They also invited Appalatin’s Jose Oreta to join in on stand-up bass.
The Local Honeys with Jose Oreta | Photo by Derek Feldman
The Honeys adhere to the old-time music style, writing many of their own songs to add to the canon of traditional Appalachian music.Linda’s “Cigarette Trees” is a scathing song lambasting coal companies for devastating the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.
Those hills and the surrounding cities of Lexington, Louisville, and Huntington, WVA are their stomping grounds, but The Local Honeys are bringing the traditional music of Appalachia to the masses as well.There is a strong call for their music, they say, and they joke that of all the graduated accountants, teachers or other graduates with more “academic” degrees they know, they are the only ones they’re aware of who are using their degree (“A bachelor’s in Bluegrass,” they quipped), working full-time in the field of their education.
“We don’t have to compromise for anything, it’s very rewarding to make a living in a time when art is not valued,” Stokley said. “We’ve been given a platform, especially in Kentucky, to play music. People are accepting and curious about their heritage…we’re playing the home music of Kentucky but we’re taking it to audiences far and wide.”
But PeteFest isn’t just about the music.It was never just about the music. Linda shared her own personal struggle. “My father committed suicide when I was 8 years old… I have started to understand more and more what it is like to live with people with mental illness.It has definitely affected my art, and Montana’s as well.”
Their first CD includes a song she wrote about her father, “Keep my name, live and let be.”
Scott Whiddon | Photo by Derek Feldman
Their perfect placement in the line up of PeteFest was an excellent start to the day.They were the first of many bands to play that day, followed by Lexington’s Scott Whiddon on the next stage, and later the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers held the crowd’s attention as they danced to more bluegrass and festive songs, and all raised a glass to toast Pete and his family.
Blind Corn Liquor Pickers | Photo by Derek Feldman
The Curio Key Club finished out the big Saturday night lineup, a supergroup of Louisville musicians who performed Paul Simon’s Graceland in full.
There are many festivals we are blessed with the opportunity to attend in Kentucky.They all have purpose and meaning in their own unique ways. But PeteFest was different. The purpose and the meaning were woven throughout the entire festival, from the intelligently designed lighting by the Jones family of engineers, to the handmade benches and tables that were constructed on the property for the festival itself.The gate boasted a handmade marquee of the bands, painted chalkboards and twine that gave a personal feeling; a feeling of the love and care that clearly went into creating a beautiful, safe, inviting space for anyone to express or learn about the struggles in this world from anxiety, depression, and suicide.Bubbles were handed out to kids to blow at their leisure, hammocks strung between trees and under lights as folks settled in for the day. The beautiful VIP tent was open for the musicians and the press, looking like an Arabian palace with blowing plants and low, comfortable chairs for hard-working photographers to sit in the shade and rest from wrestling with their heavy equipment.
The Jones family and the Pete Foundation worked very hard to create PeteFest.They labored over the smallest details, as one would at a memorial.Every aspect was a reflection of their love for Pete, and their desperate mission to prevent others from having to suffer that loss in their lives.
Pete’s last message before he took his own life was that he wanted to help “advance mankind.”That is the legacy that the Jones family and the Pete Foundation for Depression Prevention hopes to achieve in his memory.
The first PeteFest guaranteed they are already off to a wonderful start.
The day of the 2017 Moontower Festival arrived as if it was custom-ordered by the folks who would soon fill Masterson Station park. A perfect blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, and a beautiful breeze like a hug from an old friend. A great day for a live music festival, for certain. As early planning for Moontower ’18 gets underway, here’s a look back on this year’s event.
Photo by Derek Feldman
The Moontower Music Festival has been evolving for four years, making adjustments from lessons learned and improving with each version. Festival co-producer and consultant, David Helmers:
Last year’s beer fiasco of overly foamy warm beer from the keg was addressed with an occam’s razor approach, cold beer and cider in cans. Perfect. Adding art installations and an architecture installment among the tents of vendors, games of cornhole and that hamster ball deal that kids and adults alike were rolling around in, the festival was so much more than just the music.
David says the festival is meant to have something for everyone:
But oh, the music.
A little bit of everything for everyone, the two side by side stages were run consistently, with one band starting up almost immediately after the last one finished, with a few exceptions for stage setup. The day began under that perfectly sunny sky with local folks on the smaller stage: Daisy Helmuth’s band People Planet, followed by The DeBraun Thomas Trio, and Warren Byrom and The Fabled Canelands.
Vita and the Woolf then took over the large stage with her “Florence and the Machine”-like sound, while Tyler Childers began to set up on the second stage, his growing group of disciples loyally cheering his sound check.
Tyler Childers (left), James Barker (right) | Photo by Derek Feldman
Childer’s rousing set was followed by Elise Davis, Blackfoot Gypsies, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, The Record Company, Todd Snider with a full east Nashville Band, the Eastside Bulldogs, The Travelin’ McCoury’s, Cherub, Benjamin Booker and the headliner with their phenomenal light show, Umphrey’s McGee. The bands comprised a full spectrum of musical style, from funk to rock to bluegrass.
Benjamin Booker | Photo by Derek Feldman
Elise Davis | Photo by Derek Feldman
The music literally flowed all day long from the first note to the last, with few breaks in between.All the booths, food and vendor, games and alcohol, were well within ear shot of the music so any wandering was still rewarded with music all the while.The food pavilion offered quite a variety of food options, from Thai to Burgers, Bubble Tea to tacos; the choices were plenty. The hydration station kept folks energized and kid’s squirts guns well loaded, and colorful tents dotted the field as everyone settled in for a long, beautiful day of music.
Local bands included Warren Byrom and The Fabled Canelands, which that day consisted of Cecilia and Josh Wright, Scott Wilmoth, and Sam Meyer. Warren had missed last year’s festival when one of his bands, Small Batch, performed and was happy to be able to play this year.
Warren Byrom | Photo by Derek Feldman
“Felt great about our set, it was really fun. The sound is amazing. They’ve done a good job with having the two stages side by side.The crowd just kinda moves twenty feet over.It’s a perfect day, Kaelyn (Query) and her crew did an awesome job.” Here’s the full conversation:
Warren led his band through music from his new CD Heavy Makes You Happy and his first release, The Fabled Canelands, as well as songs from his upcoming CD which he has underway.Moontower Music Festival precedes his appearance at the Brooklyn American Fest in September, as well as some solo gigs as he settles in to finish his third album.
Byrom sees the great value in a festival like Moontower for the small but thriving city of Lexington. “It’s helped, there’s a really good turnout for this festival and it’s getting some National traction.”Sharing a stage with the likes of headliner Umphrey’s McGeewhich had a three-night run at Red Rocks Amphitheatercoming up on its tour schedule, indicates the national attention Moontower is earning.
Photo by Derek Feldman
By the time the sun set on that beautiful day, a perfect crescent moon arose over the fields, so perfect and glowing orange it almost looked like another creation by the UK artists and architects, made just for the festival itself.Umphrey’s McGee delivered a spectacular light show. Surreal is too tame a word, and when joined by the glowing necklaces, hula hoops, and glowing balls being juggled, the night ended in a colorful swirl of happy Lexingtonians and musicians who graced our fair city for one blissful day.
The Friends Meeting House in Lexington is a simple, beautiful space; a quiet A-frame housing a room of sparse furnishings and amazing acoustics.Elias Gross chose this space for a viola recital he created as a farewell before he leaves the musical community of Lexington to pursue a Master’s Degree in viola at the University of Delaware.His friends and fellow musical colleagues gathered together in the peaceful space to celebrate the nine years Elias Gross has helped mold the musical community of Lexington.
Receiving his Bachelor’s in Arts Administration in Music at the University of Kentucky, Elias was denied the recital performance music majors usually have when they graduate.So, he held his own.
Each song in the program was prefaced with an explanation of its selection for this final Lexington recital, placing the music in a more personal context.
He began with Bach’s Prelude, Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, a sorrowful, mournful tune that conveyed the deep resonance only the viola can create.His fingers moving deftly like hitting keys on a piano, the song filled that serene room with music that seemed quite fitting for the space.
Elias prefaced the second selection, Spell No. 7 by Alexsandra Vrevalov, with “It’s real weird, you’re gonna love it.” It was certainly weird, with intentional movement of the bow up and down the neck of the viola.Elias creates a full, physical emoting as he plays, making even breathing seem so relevant for a piece played on strings.His bow performs acrobatics as he moves between simple strokes to finger picking and to deep double string strokes that resonate around the room.
He then eased into a duet with Melissa Snow-Groves on piano, Meditation by Paul Hindemith, a short sweet harmony that they blended beautifully.From there he added Richard Young on the upright bass. Together they played and sang Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel. This was followed by Tom Waits’ Ol ‘55 which Elias played and sang as a piano solo.
The trio came together once more and blended a variation on Pachabel’s Canon into Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice.They sang together with the tight harmony of a chorale, and Melissa kicked it up a beat to a near-rockabilly sound.
Elias then launched into his final solo, Keep in Touch by Nico Muhly – “another weird one,” he joked. It was a very surreal song, and included electronic elements of a mostly tribal type beat that was played through a laptop and speaker supporting Elias on his viola. The experience was quite intense and transcendental, and seemed to take over his whole person as he played, as if he were channeling the composer in that moment.
According to the program notes, “Keep in Touch is a lament, a sort of chaconne divided up into sections by more freely-composed cadenzas for the viola. But the chaconne, a musical form based around a repeated cycle of chords, is not only the domain of composers like Bach and Purcell, one is as likely to hear the form on a Nina Simone record. And Antony Hegarty, the bluesily androgynous vocalist we hear in the electronic component of this piece, is a performer from the Simone school.”
Elias’ passion is to make the viola, and classical music more accessible to the community; to benefit everyone around him with all that classical music has to offer, and to make sure the music is always played. That came through clearly as the notes resonated around that wooden room with its asymmetrical window.
In his recital program Elias quoted Zoë Madonna of Q2 Radio as noting: “Cast into the larger world, the viola is as a wanderer in an intimidatingly loud and large landscape, humming sometimes in concordance with the current, sometimes fighting against it.”
The viola is often overlooked for the flash and glory of the violins in an orchestra, or the commanding depths of the cello.The pieces written for a viola solo take the deeper resonance of the instrument and put it out front, and often the result exemplifies the hidden space where the viola resides, and perhaps those who play it. It is a different path, often fighting for its own place in the quartet, or the orchestra.
Elias allowed himself to channel that message to his audience.The overall effect in that tranquil space on Price Avenue was quite mesmerizing.
Elias has spent the last nine years in Lexington, not just receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in Arts Administration from UK, but also helping to expand the Central Music Academy as well as the Chamber Music Festival.Central Music Academy provides free music lessons for children of low income, and has given over 20,000 free music lessons in its existence.
Elias taught viola and violin to kids, keeping a studio of five to seven students for several years. “I definitely could have benefitted from CMA as a kid”. He said teaching music to students is what helped him find his passion again, having let his playing of music “suffer” during his pursuit of an administrative degree. “Teaching was really what kind of got me to get my priorities back together…seeing what they demand of me…I can’t just be one thing, that’s just not who I am, but if I was able to spend a lot of my time teaching I would be really happy.”
He explains that he is drawn to teaching because he truly believes in the beauty and lessons that Classical music has to share with the world.
Elias also is executive director of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington which is about to share classical music with the city of Lexington for ten days.Having expanded from one weekend to ten days, the Festival presents classical music in a variety venues to make it more accessible to the public.Elias’ favorite piece of the whole, while he loves it all, is the Concert series that he moved to Al’s Bar after Natasha’s Bistro closed.
He believes that the world of Classical music has got to undo some of “these rules we’ve made ourselves” in order to bring the music out into the world and keep it alive. Different venues mean different crowds and a greater “marketing” of the music he loves, says the arts admin grad. “If we figure out how we can tear down our concert walls a little bit, and figure out who can be our allies in the music community that we could really tie it all together…I think that the stage is really important, but I think if the music is being heard and loved, then it really doesn’t matter where it is.”
Under an August sun in the peak of the sultry Kentucky summer, a gathering of great music, interesting art, inspired design and fun-lovin’ people will all come together in Lexington, Kentucky’s Masterson Station Park. For the fourth year, the Moontower Music Festival will fill the air of Central Kentucky with a wide menu of spectacular musical talent.
The brain child of Kaelyn Query and her event management company LexEffect, Moontower Music Festival started four years ago with just four bands and 1,000 folks in attendance.This year, there will be two stages with fourteen bands in rotation, and Query hopes to top the 7000 who attended last year’s festival.
The desire to “present a new event for Lexington, Kentucky that would fill a niche” was the driver behind the festival’s origin, according to David Helmers, Kaelyn’s partner in creating the Moontower Music Festival for the last two years.
“We didn’t really have a popular music festival here in town” before Moontower, he said, and that’s what the festival is all about: bringing amazing music right into Lexington’s “backyard.”
Festival organizers have obtained a special noise ordinance waiver to allow them to extend the show until 11:30pm this year, in order to accommodate the sunset and the phenomenal light show that Umphrey’s McGee is promising as the headlining act. And there are other new additions to this year’s plan for the ever-growing festival, according to Query and Helmers.
Besides bumping up the food options – nearly 20 food trucks will be on hand, free cold water and more shade tents will be available to fend off that Kentucky sun. Four beverage vendors will be on site this year. West Sixth Brewing and Rhinegeist will be serving cold beer and ciders in cans, Lover’s Leap Vineyards will offer wine, and Old Forester Bourbon will be selling bourbon beverages, including bourbon slushies.
Moontower Music Festival is a grass roots, organic, home grown effort that is intended to include the entire Lexington and Central Kentucky community. A festival that is family, pet and all ages friendly, it also is bringing together different areas of the community into a collective celebration.
This year, the festival has partnered with the UK College of Design and Architecture to create a summer internship opportunity for design students. Developed offsite all summer, the winning design will be installed as the stages go up and will be on display during the festival. Helmers is hoping this program continues and each year they can display a new Moontower installation.
Also joining in the fun is the UK Art Museum, which will be setting up an onsite art museum with pieces that follow a musical theme.Some special pieces were commissioned just for the event, and festival goers are encouraged and welcome to view the artwork during the day.
Collectively, Moontower Music Festival and its partners have put together a community-wide event for the people of central Kentucky. Encouraging attendees from all ages and their dogs, they are hoping folks take advantage of the mass of talent available for this day in late August, right here in Lexington. “It’s an important cultural event for Central Ky that we hope is accessible to the community at large.”
Moontower Music Festival is a home-grown, central Kentucky celebration of music, art, design and fellowship. Gates open at 11 am on August 26th, and the show continues all day until 11:30 when Umphrey’s McGee and their light show bring things to a grand finale.The ticket price increases as the date gets closer so folks are encouraged to purchase early ($45.00 now, $60 at the gate).Children 12 and under are free, pets are welcome, water is free.
On a bright sunny day near a splashing fountain, folks gathered with their kids and dogs and variety of good foods to eat outside on a Friday night.A white tent sat beside the fountain where kids cooled their bare feet, pink flowers hanging down and twisting in the breeze.For the sixth year in a row, Rhyan Sinclair and her bandAll The Little Pieces began to warm up to play the Richmond Center Summer Concert Series.
On a beautiful day for outdoor live music, everyone clustered together in the shade and waved at familiar faces. Rhyan and her band soon took to the stage next to her ornately decorated merch table, joined by Jeff Bender on bass, Harlan Cecil on guitar, Sherri McGee on drums, her mom Toni Karpinski on backing vocals, and Brandon Bowker on guitar, harmonica, and backing vocals for a few songs.
Unique to her often country repertoire, Rhyan started her set with a cover of Jack White’s “Seven Nation Army.”Joined in amazing talent by Harlan Cecil on guitar, the two young novices rocked that song with her voice and his electric guitar. She then took the set into diverse directions, playing originals that she wrote and also co-wrote with her mother along with other covers that are staples of her sets, including Loretta Lynn’s Sin City, Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, and her picks from the songbook of her main musical muse, Dolly Parton.
Off stage, Rhyan is a quiet, thoughtful soul, but as soon as she straps on the rhinestone guitar strap that matches her silver cowgirl boots, her musical persona takes over and you would swear Dolly herself is up on that stage. Capturing every subtle nuance that Dolly has, Rhyan is clearly in her most natural environment on that stage.
But she is not limited by genre.Not at all.She moves her band effortlessly from country, to rock, to an awesome almost punk version of “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles, a Dolly-esque cover of Neil Young’s “Mother Nature” and even a blues traditional by Albert King “Down Don’t Bother Me”.
Then right back to some country spunk, she belts out Lee Hazelwood’s “These Boots Ain’t Made for Walking,” Lefty Frizzell‘sIf You Got the Money, and Dolly’s Applejack.Rhyan is well in tune with her band, whether seasoned musician or young prodigy like herself, All The Little Pieces is a tight band that clearly finds great joy backing Rhyan and all her talent.
Homeschooled since first grade, Rhyan has devoted her life and education to her passion for music.She writes and composes her own songs, and has already recorded and released three CD’s, all of original songs.
Her latest CD, The Legend ofLavinia Fisher, is a concept album inspired by a ghost tour in Charleston, SC, where she learned of Livinia, the first female serial killer in the US. She helped create a video to accompany the dark, southern gothic Livinia’s Song. Inspired by her love for Tim Burton, the video pairs well with her voice and lyrics for the song.
Rhyan is also the host of the Kentucky branch of Balcony TV, which her step-father Julian Karpinski produces.
They record interviews and performances of local and touring bands on various balconies around the area.This opportunity has allowed Rhyan to meet and collaborate with other local musicans.
Rhyan sings in a trio with other local musicians Melanie Bailey Pauley and Whitney Acke, covering Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Linda Ronstadt in near flawless renditions of the three original women. She also produces a Holiday Benefit for the Foster Care Council every winter that gives her the opportunity to work with other local musicians.Rhyan is hoping to work with more local musicians in the future, and has recently started collaborating on songs with her mother, Toni Karpinski, who also sang at the Richmond Center gig.
It’s clear that Rhyan Sinclair has a very bright future.Not just for her voice, which is extraordinary in a way that gives you goosebumps when she sings.But she is clearly a well-rounded musician in all ways. Her lyrics and verses compliment her voice and tell a story of someone you really want to know better.
Rhyan is fortunate to be able to focus so much of her talent into her musical career. Homeschooling “allows me to let the music and the art be such a big part of my life, and I’m so thankful for it.”
Maintaining her own website, managing her career with the help of her parents, recording songs and recording videos to accompany them, one thing is for certain, her focus: “Always music.”
Rhyan Sinclar is a Kentucky talent who will endure and go far in the music world.
Sometimes, there’s just that singer with that voice. That is Derek Spencer, the man behind The Rooster’s Crow.
With a deep, soulful voice that immediately demands a crowd’s attention, Spencer’s lyrics draw you into a world of spirituality and sin, and a life of a different, lost time.
Infusing his image-rich lyrics with an Eastern Kentucky upbringing in the small town of Beattyville, Spencer’s music delivers the room to a time of moonshine and stills, Bibles and damnation, and rich a capella hymns that echo through the hills of Appalachia.
Having had various incarnations over the last eight years, The Rooster’s Crow met in its most recent and steadfast form on the night of July 1 at Willie’s Locally Known to debut Winter’s Limbs, a CD encompassing the first era of Derek Spencer’s musical career.
With Maggie Lander on fiddle and harmony vocals, Chip Minks on bass and Spencer’s cousin Justin Wall on drums, Derek and the band gave the packed house a fun, loud, tight quality night of great Eastern Kentucky talent.“I think for a couple of country boys and girls, we did pretty good.”
Growing up in a small town of 1,100, Spencer was the boy by his mom’s side in a tiny fundamentalist congregation ministered by his uncle.His mom “was the lady in the church that always sang a little louder than the rest of the congregation, and she had a beautiful voice.”He gives credit for his love of singing to his mother and that voice, rising up over the others in the a capella hymns.This influence is the foundation for his music in The Rooster’s Crow.
“I’ve always had a passion for old-timey, Scotch-Irish music, and the concepts that are associated with it.Some kind of spirituality, which, being from Eastern Kentucky I’m very familiar with. It’s a big part of Appalachian culture…people’s religion. And I’ve always, like so many people from the area, had a conflicting relationship with it. I think these songs are just a manifestation of that. There is a big presence of God but there’s a big presence of doubt, too.”
Many of Spencer’s first songs took the form of poetry until he discovered Jean Ritchie and realized he could more fully express himself through music.
“Eleanor’s Ghost” was his first song and poem; the tale of a lamented murder of passion, and the inevitable haunting that became of it.Murder ballads are Appalachian gold, and heavily prevalent in The Rooster’s Crow repertoire.
From there Spencer fell heavily into the songs of Townes Van Zandt, which opened his mind to the power of rich lyricism – and his songs are full of them.
Also working on a solo record that he hopes to begin recording soon, Derek Spencer follows in the footsteps of his idols with a trove of intense songs.
Winter’s Limbs is the culmination of Spencer’s first eight years of writing and performing his songs. His band has performed them together and were clearly excited to share the CD with a crowd.The room was full of fans and family and friends, and many stood behind the tables the entire show to move with the rhythm, and dance with Derek and Maggie and the band as they made music for everyone.
With Lander on backing vocals and fiddle their voices blend to create a dark, spiritual world that takes you with them. For a few songs Josh Nolan joined the proceedings on guitar and vocals, crowding the stage with solid talent. A few covers were shared as well, including Johnny Cash’s “If You were a Lady” as an encore.
It was a good night for Derek Spencer. The house was packed until the last song was played; merch was sold; CD’s signed; and lots of friends got hugs.
“It went really well” he commented after, with a humble smile. Another gem in Lexington’s rich music scene.
Folks, check your favorite live music calendar, get out of the house, enjoy and support. There’s something for everyone in Lexington’s music scene.
On July 22nd at The Green Lantern, Lexington will be treated to a unique show of some of the city’s best and diverse talent.The occasion is the official release of Scott Whiddon’s first solo CD project, In Close Quarters with the Enemy.
Scott is among the many who have come to proudly call Lexington home.A professor at Transylvania in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication program, Scott has been an active part in the local music since he moved here in the mid-2000’s. A member of Palisades, along with Neil Bell and Mark Richardson, Scott has also been in The Wags, and has performed with other locals at several fundraising shows around town over the last few years.
The new album of originals is a “batch of songs that kind of didn’t fit” with any of the other projects.So, he decided he needed a solo record. “I’ve always been a band guy…but I’ve always been a band guy in someone else’s band.”
Produced and recorded with J. Tom Hnatow, along with Robby Cosenza and Cecilia Wright, In Close Quarters with the Enemy showcasesWhiddon’s strong literary and composition background. The title quotes the Walt Whitman poem, Democratic Vistas. His voice is low-key, a much softer timbre than is found in the music he plays with Palisades.He tells the listener a story, carrying through vivid images and visceral sensory descriptions that one can almost feel, touch, and taste.
Listen: Faster Than We Hoped
Scott is a storyteller, and his songs are stories that invite the listener along with an easy approach.His soft steady voice creates a picture, like the Catskill mountains in “Holidays.”The light guitar creates a pace for walking along with him as he describes the setting, the “empty pools and rusted carousels.” The listener can feel what the characters feel. His guitar is joined comfortably with the music of Hnatow, Cosenza and Wright, creating a setting and mood for each song.
Whiddon speaks reverentially of Hnatow and Cosenza and Wright, as a brain trust of talent that provided a foundation for his songs, which is fitting, as Whiddon speaks often in carpentry metaphors.In tribute to his father, the maker of the door he used for a desk, which is the name of Scott’s artistic website (ADoorforaDesk.com), he sees songwriting and creativity as a craft.“You get a hammer and a nail and a saw, and you make a thing…”
“I don’t believe in inspiration,” says Whiddon, “I just don’t. I think it’s a bullshit word.” Rather, he sees creativity and songwriting as a craft. “I try to block off “x” amount of time every day, and that time can wax and wane depending on what’s going on. You sit there, at the same place, with the same tools every day and you throw your antennae up.”It’s a commitment, and you have to be willing to put in the work. “For me it’s all about craft, rather than any sort of inspirational artistic mysticism,” he says.
Scott has been putting together shows with his fellow local musicians to benefit Habitat for Humanity, honoring the elder Whiddon’s dedication to the organization’s works in the last decade of his life.The first was a Velvet Underground charity show at The Burl with Robby Cosenza, Kim Smith, Tim Welch, Willie Eames and Sam McWilliams. Two months ago he held a Pink Floyd show at Cosmic Charlie’s, recreating the entire Dark Side of the Moon album with Kevin Holm-Hudson, Mark Richardson, Thomas Hatton, Jim Gleason and others.More Habitat benefit shows will follow, with two already in the works.
Scott attributes much of his contribution to adeep bench of talent in such a small city, with so many great songwriters, technicians, musicians. Considering the “Ratio of talent to numbers…we’re lucky.”
Come out and support some of this Lexington talent on Saturday July 22nd.The Volare String Quartet will open the evening with a set of experimental classical music.Then Scott will take the stage, solo at first, later to be joined by Cosenza, Hnatow,Wright and Jimmy Early of Frigid Kitty. Italian Beaches will close out the night; a unique line-up curated by Whiddon himself.
The Green Lantern is located at 497 W 3rd St. Lexington, Kentucky
(Photo credit: Ann Sydney Taylor Photography | Album Cover by Neil Bell)
In a setting that once knew no electricity, in pastoral a village that was built by hand and faith and love and rang out with the a capella songs of the unique Shaker faith, on a picturesque sun-soaked day, the serene landscape suddenly came alive with the electric sounds of rock music. Starting his set down on one knee, twisting the knobs of his sound-shaping foot pedals to send a drone-like rhythm bouncing off the two-hundred-year-old buildings, Josh Nolan commanded the attention of the blissing crowd and took over the soundwaves for his part of the fourth annual Well Crafted Festival.
Josh Nolan band at Well Crafted Festival | Photo by Cara Blake Coppola
Born and bred in Stanton, Kentucky in the foothills of the Red River Gorge, Josh is the essence of rock and roll.His sound is pure and real, and just damn rockin’.His premiere CD Fair City Lights opens with Josh’s main instrument, his guitar, strumming hard chords while his deep voice delves into a story you are immediately sucked into as you start moving your hips and head to the beat.It just rocks, and then keeps getting more intense. “If you’re gonna do me wrong, do it right”. Lyrics as smooth as Springsteen, with the gravelly gentle voice to match, Josh Nolan is a solid sound.
Multi-instrumental from a young age, most of the instruments and all the vocals on the CD are Josh himself. At Well Crafted, however, Josh appeared with his band consisting of Chris Brown on bass and harmony vocals, Riley Mulholand on lead guitar, Ryan Allen on keys, and Josh Anglin on drums. Well Crafted is a daytime festival, Josh and his band took the stage mid-day as the sun filtered through the trees. People clustered like cows under the shade trees, filling their customized Well Crafted glasses filled with cold craft beers and ciders as delicious smells from the various food trucks wafted by in the warm air.
For four years, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hillin Harrodsburg has hosted Well Crafted, one of the prettiest festivals in the Bluegrass. The site is nestled in the village itself, and the rolling landscape provides a gorgeous backdrop; the addition of amazing music and local craft beer is almost too much. Having previously boasted artists such as Ben Nichols (of Lucero), Lera Lynn, Langhorne Slim, Margo Price, Kelsey Waldon, and John Moreland; this year’s lineup was another offering of great music.
Main Stage at Well Crafted Festival | Photo by Cara Blake Coppola
Every year, Well Crafted provides two stages. The main stage hosts larger touring bands, often with one or two local bands included.The second, smaller stage presents all-local artists displaying original songs, with a few personalized covers thrown in. The stages alternate so there is never a gap in music during the day. This year’s local stage hosted David Napier, Chelsea Nolan, Senora May, Ethan Hunt and Brian Combs, each winning over the crowd with unique and meaningful original songs that testified to the wealth of musical talent we have here in the Bluegrass area.
Some folks say America is apple pie and fireworks. I don’t know about that; not exclusively anyway.To me, it is cold drinks and rocking live music out in the sunshine on a summer day. The crowd at Shaker Village that day definitely agreed.
Mixing in a few new songs from a promised second CD, Josh and his band hit all his crowd’s favorites from Fair City Lights.The beat brought out the dancers into the sun, and the band responded in that beautiful relationship between bands that love to play live and the folks who love to be in their crowds, singing back every word they may know, moving with joy to the musical energy the band gifts to them.
The mixture is truly addicting to the festival goer. So true are the memes and jokes about the devotion to being in a favorite band’s crowd; of selling plasma for concert tickets; of knowing every word and singing them back during the shows; of knowing the musicians you love and buying them a beer and thanking them for the work they do. Well Crafted this year was a serene backdrop to witness that love.
Josh Nolan and his band are friends, neighbors, family; he and his sister Chelsea, who played the local stage, know and play with several other of the musicians there that day, and the intertwining of the relationships, both personal and especially musical, made for a very comfortable, familiar and extremely talented reunion that represented some of the region’s best. A patchwork of phenomenal Appalachian talent, and just darn nice people as well.
Josh Nolan | Photo by Cara Blake Coppola
Josh is in the midst of producing his second CD with plans to release it early next spring. He is self-producing in his home studio and hopes to tour not just regionally but nationwide.“I’ve put all my life into this.I’ve spent a lot of time and women and love and houses…I’d like to make it my profession. It’s a long road…I don’t understand the business but maybe one day I will.I’m trying to get a gang of people together who understand different parts of it, take over the world and whatever.”
Josh Nolan is a musician. Some folks in this gig do it after work, on nights and weekends when their life affords it; but some make it their entire lives.Josh has the talent and the drive to do that, and to take his love for and songs of the hills he grew up in out in America, to share his stories and his rocking sound and hopefully come back home to the hills often to recharge and write new songs and see old friends and family.
For Josh, songwriting is very personal, very spiritual. “Even if it’s not a personal song, it’s a personal process.” It is an “organic” process that he likens to serious fishing. “It’s like fishing.They’re always there, you’ve got to know where to find them, and they always move so you can’t just go to one place, you have to know how to do it.You have to know what you’re doing.You have to know how to tie the lure and throw it in your bucket. It’s easy to miss a song”
I wish Josh many successful fishing expeditions. And America loves and needs more great festivals like Well Crafted, with friends dancing in the sunshine and simply feeling good.
When you are in the absence of any light, in absolute darkness, you sway.Apparently, the body cannot stand erect, it sways in some primordial need to find its center.When we humans are lost and blind, we find an internal music, and we sway. Thatnotion became inspiration when it came time for Melanie Pauley and Chris Floyd chose a name for their band, The Sway, which had their first CD premiere at The Burl this last Thursday.
Their CD, which followed an EP done last year, both at Shangri La studios with Duane Lundy and Tom Hnatow, is a creation of love for The Sway, in every way.An engaged couple who have three kids between them, music was not the foundation of their relationship, but soon evolved into becoming a driving force in their busy lives as parents. Inevitably as they spent more time together, they shared their love of music with one another, and then his guitar met her voice, and The Sway was born.
A guitar player for years, Chris Floyd, formerly of VooDoo Symphony, had written songs solo, but they weren’t quite complete. Melanie, a church and wedding singer from childhood on, had been writing lyrics and melodies, but hadn’t found the music.Then his music found her words, and serendipity did her thing; they were a perfect match.Evenings would pass by sitting out on her back stoop writing songs after kids were in bed, sometimes three songs in one night. As engagement and cohabitation evolved in their relationship, writing songs became only more convenient, and the momentum carried them all the way to Thursday night.
Another proud creation of the studio production services of Tom Hnatow and Duane Lundy at Shangri La Studios, Floyd and Pauley could not say enough about the strong sense of community and support they experienced there during their first real studio experience. Studio musicians Robby Cosenza and Blake Cox created and played the parts for the drums and bass that are on the CD with Chris’ guitar, with Tom Hnatow on keys, though on Thursday Chris’ former bandmate Kyle Morgan sat in on keys. Maggie Lander also plays violin and cello on the CD, and played violin Thursday for the opening. The studio time that went into the creation of their baby Everything That Happens Here was an amazing experience for Chris and Melanie.
“They were able to take our songs and really make them grow to what they are, put some muscle to them” said Chris, noting how humbled they were when Robby and Blake and Maggie insisted on joining in on their premiere night. That offer, he said, solidified the strong feeling of support and community they felt during the entire recording process, how much fun they had in the studio creating and loving their CD into being.
That fun and sense of family was more than evident Thursday night. The crowd was warmed up by the soulful songs of Derek Spencer, then followed by the enigmatic Kristofer Bentley, before The Sway took to the stage. They started out as they had first started, just Chris and Melanie up there, her voice and his guitar.And they began.And though just two, that guitar helped lift Melanie’s amazingly powerful voice and soon the room was filled with the strength of their connection through music.
Later joined by Maggie on fiddle, then Robby and Blake and Kyle, soon the house was full and the sound was powerful. The lyrics to their songs are clear, and often as easy to hear as a morning conversation over coffee. The comfortable intimacy of their life comes through the lyrics. The singing, though.Melanie Paulie has a voice that makes you sit up and take notice.Reminiscent perhaps of Joan Osborne, Janis or KT Tunstall, her voice is quite astounding. Chris knows her well, and his smooth, intricate guitar playing accompanies her perfectly.
Add in the professionalism of the Shangri La musicians, and the musical backdrop they created for The Sway.They create the easel that holds the canvas, the altar that supports the ritual. That energy took over and soon the stage was full and the crowd was in awe, and those musicians were all having fun up there.
The songs they have written have a depth to them, a maturity perhaps that comes with life and kids and a melody that reflects that wisdom.“
Dive In” has an intricacy of songwriting and Melanie’s voice that is intense, and the crowd cheered heartily after she mastered that one.Life and other Fleeting Things is a sweet song written for their three kids, pictured on the CD art that is a combination of Melanie’s concepts and the talent of Cricket Press. In Blackbird her voice searches out with confident desperation with notions of loss and perhaps anger.
In a grand ending that included all members back up on stage, Melanie absolutely slayed Ramble On by Led Zeppelin and brought the whole damn house down.A powerful ballad song on any night, she took Plant’s part and completely owned that song.The whole crowd joined in, the stage full of energy, and the night came to a blissful end right after.
From there, The Sway has plans to take their baby and “get out of town” to play their music regionally in Louisville and Cincinnati, playing for folks they do not know, sharing their music as far and wide as they can, and sooner than later, getting back into Shangri La with their new musical family to keep the momentum going. “I’m addicted, I want to record another one” says Chris. And Melanie notes that they already have songs toward a second CD.
The momentum and energy of Thursday night will surely carry this talented couple far and wide.Lexington has another amazing local band to be quite proud of.
Listen in on Cara’s conversation with Chris and Melanie before showtime at the Burl:
If you’re going to have a bar and music venue in Lexington, you need one that works in the rain.I’ve seen more shows during storms than not, because, well, it’s Lexington.It rains four seasons here, and life has still got to go on.Musicians must play on, and folks need to hear the music.Luckily, The Burl works in the rain.The dampness soaks into those wood walls and makes them sweat delicious vapors.Tables are brought in so folks can sit and relax and watch the rain pelt the luminescent stained glass tree behind the stage that holds two inviting guitars and two chairs.As the room fills in, Maggie Lander moves to the stage, takes a seat, tunes her guitar and gets ready to start the show.
Opening for the headliner Elizabeth Cook, and followed by hilarious storyteller Darrin Bradbury, Maggie holds the crucial task of starting the night off right, establishing the tone.It’s a tough gig, the opener.The crowd is still filing in while the opener is pouring their soul out on stage, drinks are being ordered and coats are shed.That night rain had to be wiped from glasses and dabbed from eyelashes.
Tough spot to take.Maggie, working solo this particular evening, takes it with grace and style, and her solid and confident voice quickly fills the room and making everyone want to focus, settle down and listen to her stories.
A native of Henry County, Maggie Lander had a childhood most of us only dream of; two siblings and a big farm, school work and violin lessons, catching fish and crawdads and hunting for arrowheads when the work was done.She speaks of her youth with a happiness and joy that the image suggests. Having started young with the guitar, she quickly moved on to violin, then cello, piano and mandolin.Her strong musical background has created opportunities for studio work and gigs utilizing all her instruments, including her voice.Violin is her dominant instrument, but she uses her guitar for songwriting.
Her songs are personal, mostly autobiographical in background.Songwriting for Maggie is a way of healing and release. To “create something that reaches people and in the end can be a cathartic way of healing for me… Suddenly you just feel so much better afterwards.You can only carry things for so long and you just have to get it out.”
(Image by Ben Keeling)
The emotions driving her songs are evident when she takes the stage. Maggie engages the audience and pulls them into her story.Her solid guitar playing creates a foundation of melody to walk along as she holds your hand and tells you what happened.She played her new song, “All in my head” which is very biographical, about “The point where I’m at in my life. I finished it and then a weight just lifted.”
A sad tale of loss and confusion, her new song captured the audience and broke their hearts. You can hear why the weight lifted for her when she wrote the song – it clearly “exorcised the demon” when she wrote it.Writing songs is like that for Maggie Lander. “99.9% of the time it just knocks me over the head, falls in my lap.”Songs tell her to “sit down and shut up…get a guitar, get a notebook and just do it.”
The room was full by the end of Maggie’s set, and all were pleased.The attention from the crowd was humbling, she later commented; how intense but nice it is to have full awareness from the full room.She received many accolades as she left the stage for the next act. The room, and the rain, and the dried-off crowd of pleased customers and listeners all mixed with the savory smells from the food truck to create a very pleasant evening of listening to amazing songwriting.Maggie started that night off just right.
The show had already begun to exceed expectations when I was asked to leave my shoes at the door.The Source on High is a peaceful space, used for yoga and meditation. In a side room: sensory deprivation tanks invite one’s restless soul.Punched-tin lights hang from the ceiling and beneath their glow we settle in on pillows and woven blankets.
Before us: a promising array of instruments, silently awaiting the Lexington band, Frigid Kitty.
They do not remain silent for long. It’s early on a Sunday evening in April. This is not your typical night of live music at a bar; not at all.Every month, the fantastic diversity of music available in this city excites me, whether at a festival, an established venue, someone’s living room, or a yoga space, Lexington provides.The Source on High is just such a promising space.
Frigid Kitty takes the stage, with Kim Smith at its center.She introduces her bandmates, a new and different arrangement of Frigid Kitty for this special evening.Along with Kim on keys, flute and guitar are her husband Chris Smith playing bass and guitar, Sam McWilliams on guitar and vocals, and guest Garret Spear playing percussion and flute.
While the first song emphasizes Kim’s keyboard skills, the immediate impression is of a beautiful layering of instruments. It’s a notable characteristic found throughout this collection of songs. Smith’s keys are joined by McWilliam’s gentle guitar picking, the bass carries the foundation while the cajon drumming provides cadence and momentum.Throughout the set, each musician changes instruments at least once, showing adept musical versatility.At one point we’re treated to a flute duet with between Kim and Garret.
The music Frigid Kitty performs on this night is quite ethereal, and fitting in this unique space.As the springtime sun begins to set, the lights provide a subtle glow as the room becomes enclosed in a softening darkness.The orchestral arrangements of the instruments drift and mingle like an impressionistic painting.The lyrics, a collaborative effort from Chris, Kim and Sam, are conversational, carried easily along by the arrangements.
The set ends with Kim back on lead vocals and guitar, singing “Keep it to Yourself”, a Smith original with a cute, flirty, old-time sound that brings the set to a close with a light, easy vibe.
Cara chatted with Kim about the show and what made it special…
The effect of this marriage of music and performance space is surreal.The Frigid Kitty set is followed by the twelve string dexterity of Sarah Louise, and finally the spiritual creativity of Everyone Lives, Everyone Wins.
In retrospect, magic happened that night at The Source, and beauty was created.Lexington never fails to deliver to those who seek such in the various spaces around town.
Kim Smith has played in many of these spaces.Her life has been a long journey of music, even when she set such pursuits aside to explore academia and travel. The conversation moved beyond the immediate…
Raised by accomplished musicians, her father a band director, her mother an orchestra and chorale director with her own piano studio, Smith is a musician by definition.She moves effortlessly between piano, flute, guitar, and cello, having played piano and cello as a child. She sings and plays in a growing collection of bands, including her own Frigid Kitty.
Formerly the keyboard, flute player and vocalist in the now-defunct Bear Medicine, in the last year Smith has immersed herself in numerous musical projects around town.Besides Frigid Kitty, Smith is in Big Fresh (click to listen to the new song, Paralyzed.) She fills us in on the band’s latest project…
Desperate Spirits- LR: John Ferguson, Trevor Tremaine, Rob Theakston, Kim Smith
She also is a member of ATTEMPT.Sharing several members, these two bands host a wealth of musicians who all contribute diverse talents.Trevor Tremaine, John Ferguson, David Farris, Nick Coleman, Dave Cobb and Ashley Smith all join Kim Smith in ATTEMPT, while Big Fresh consists of John Ferguson, Ben Fulton, Ben Phelan, David Farris, Nick Coleman, Faith Diamond, Brian Connors Manke, Bryan Gore and Matthew Clarke.With some crossover in members, both groups coexist and will be heading out on a large, eleven person tour this June to include performing with Lexington’s beloved Matt Duncan and his band in NYC.
Here’s more on the tour…
Big Fresh and ATTEMPT are both represented by Desperate Spirits, a label started by Kim Smith along with John Ferguson, Trevor Tremaine and Rob Theakston.The label is releasing several EP’s this year for both bands as well as Italian Beaches.
In addition, Smith also keeps in touch with her classical roots as a member of The Rosemont Trio.
Kim Smith is a force to not be contained, and she represents the Lexington music scene with adept ease.With her hands in numerous projects that help foster and collaborate with so many other local musicians, she is a pivotal aspect of the strength of our city’s live music scene.With her bands, the label she has helped start to help other local musicians get their music out into the world, the lessons she teaches weekly to children and adults seeking more music in their lives, as well as side projects such as the local all-female LP she is organizing to raise money for Planned Parenthood, Kim is one of those women who just keeps on persisting, and doing Lexington proud.
You can catch Kim Smith with Big Fresh at Al’s Bar Block Party on April 29th, and ATTEMPT will be playing the Tahlsound Music Festival on Southland Drive in May.
Frigid Kitty hopes to be in the studio this year working on their first CD.
In the end, perhaps the greatest part of the foundation of my love for this beautiful, small city is the knowing that on any given night, there is great quality music hiding in every corner. On a March Saturday, as the sun set hidden behind grey clouds over the dark, occluded Lake Fontaine, the Lake Shore Village Clubhouse began to light up. Within was the promise of an evening of music that boasted some of Lexington’s finest musicians.
Nestled in the corner of glass windows and backdropped by one of the prettiest views in the city, the Patrick McNeese Band settled down to a full backline of instruments to entertain the eager guests.Folks had filed in with serene smiles, carrying offerings of delicious homemade foods of every origin.Bottles of wine lined up on the counter, which was quickly overloaded with a delicious bounty. I felt quite settled in for a blissful evening, definitely one of the luckier Lexingtonians on that beautiful cloudy night.
Patrick took to his stool and his guitar, and his band followed suit. Tom Martin on keys, Tripp Bratton on a full set of drums back in the glass corner framed by waves all around; Miles Hanchett on bass and Jesse Pena on lead guitar. I was surrounded by some of my favorite instruments: Patrick’s pretty electric-acoustic that he uses as much as a percussion instrument as a guitar; Tom’s Roland and Nord keyboards; Jesse’s Fender Strat; Miles’ ’85 Gibson Explorer bass. Notably absent on this particular evening due to a scheduling conflict was violinist/vocalist Maggie Lander. The instrumentation in the Patrick McNeese Band is perhaps its greatest quality, though the lyrics are in great competition. They are a solid package, indeed.
The sofas, chairs and even the overly shaggy rug covered with pillows soon filled to a comfortable capacity as we all nestled down with plates of goodness and cups overflowing.
The band started off their long list of McNeese originals with “Lucky Boy”, a tight, layered piece with ethereal keys that invite thoughtful drums and guitars. Patrick began his lyrics, singing in his characteristic style, layering his words of poetry and imagery sometimes above, sometimes with the instrumentation.
Patrick’s lyrics are almost conversational; he paints an image for his listener that is a visual story.Like his own paintings, colors and shapes form to create “a theater in the mind.” The band is the vision of McNeese, his love for the “collaborative, multi-layered aspect of music” apparent as the master musicians delved deep into their craft. The conversation that took place between them was tight, yet fluid and smooth, “which comes out of a jazz approach.”
L-R: Jesse Pena, Miles Hanchett, Tripp Bratton
Martin sat next to McNeese on his double keys and joined in the conversation, with Pena sending in warm, buttery sounds from his Fender electric.
The sun began to set as Lexington traffic sped by across the lake, off on the horizon. Waterfowl glided by on the lake. The band was soon backed by darkness as McNeese moved his players into “Light Up the Night.”Bratton sometimes offered backing lyrics along with his amazing drumming, bouncing his voice off the glass windows now black and reflective. Hanchett’s bass wrapped the players together, providing a foundation. The crowd couldn’t help but be moved.
The near orchestral arrangements, which touched upon so many genres of music, some Latin, some Middle Eastern in sound, certainly jazz and blues, even a touch of country, create staging for McNeese’s provocative lyrics, a flow of spoken word and layered images that trip around the notes with practiced ease.
McNeese creates a sound for his audience that draws the room together.The positive house show environment of willingly captive attention fed the band beautifully, and all were grateful.
Viewed from his perch behind the keys, Martin enjoyed the reaction. “To look up and see how people are responding to the music; there is something very rewarding about being at a keyboard and making a sound and seeing a positive response to it.The whole idea is to move people and allow them to escape with something.”
Moving into a phase in their musical careers where the band has decided to perform almost exclusively for intimate shows such as this one, and to focus more on getting back into the studio with Duane Lundy over at Shangri-La to create the band’s third album and Patrick’s sixth, this night was special and unique. The audience had come to listen and in many cases to lose themselves in the music. This created a welcoming canvas for the band to paint McNeese’s lyrics and music. “A beautiful example of community in a small, intimate way,” he later reflected.
An artist in many forms, that is the beauty of the thing for McNeese,“That is the joy of the artist, giving birth to something.It’s a very maternal process, nurturing and passing something from inside to the outside world.”
Performing before a small, intimate house show completes the package for his lyrics and music, and the musicians agree.Weary perhaps of crowded, loud bars and competition from now ubiquitous televisions, or standing solo in corners or at pianos in hotel lobbies, these experienced musicians appreciate the settled quiet of clubhouse setting.The attentive audience.The sincere appreciation. As Martin said, “Music in its best environment is that organic connection between player and the listener. It’s almost existential without the listener.”
What transpired that Saturday night was a special gift. A night of balanced perfection; dedicated, seasoned musicians of great quality, lyrics and music from a foundation of a life of music and art, a room filled with eager and attentive friends who brought food and drink and joy. The dreamlike music wrapped around us all and together we shared in the band’s creation, the evening itself a work of art.
Indeed, all were quite fortunate to be there and share in the experience.
Manchester Music Hall, formerly Buster’s, is the largest venue in Lexington next to Rupp Arena; the vast space holds up to 1100 concert-goers. As such, the venue attracts regional and touring bands such as Lucero, Sundy Best and Friday night’s headliner, The Steeldrivers.
Formerly the backing band to Chris Stapleton, the Steeldrivers are big; so big they can sell out MMH, including the VIP seating for those willing to pay a bit more for a photo with the band.They are a big group with a big following and a big crowd to fill every room in every city they play.
But that’s not what this article is about.
This is about what that means for Lexington’s local music scene.It means that two excellent local bands are able to fill in the bill and open up for this big touring act providing some of our beloved local musicians the opportunity to play in front of 1100 happy-to-be-there folks who may never have heard their music before. These bands get the chance to sell their sound and songs as well as their merchandise and CD’s to the eager crowd as they warm up for the headliner they came to see.
Eric Bolander and his band, and the local bluegrass sensation The Wooks, did exactly that.They took the chance to ride the wave the night promised, and man did they deliver.
Photo by Derek Feldman
By 7pm, the VIP seats in front are filling in, the standing room area is slowly filling with an eager audience, the drinks are flowing and the fried goods out on the food truck are warming up the cold night.MMH has blocked off an area outside with barricades and filled it kindly with outdoor space heaters for their customers, who gather around like cows to a shade tree in the deepening cold, waiting for their food to cook while they smoke outside.
It’s time for Eric Bolander to warm up the crowd musically.
Photo by Derek Feldman
Taking the stage with Seth Murphy on cello, Trenton Jenkins on banjo and Ben Caldwell on backing vocals, Eric led his band into a fun, very welcoming intro set. “You kinda thrive on it. It’s nice to see when you get several hundred folks in front of you”, says Bolander of the vast crowd he faced. He previously opened the night for Sundy Best at MMH as well.
That’s the burden of the opening act; to work the room, warm them up, make them happy they are there and hopefully make them happy you are there.He was successful.That crowd was ready to love some good music, and Eric entertained them with his original songs, as well as a great cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain”, performed with the right amount blues and twang to make the song his own.
Using Murphy’s cello instead of a lead guitarist, the sound mixed with Jenkin’s banjo to create a unique blend with Bolander’s voice.Perhaps surprising, coming from his large frame and presence, the art teacher and ten-year veteran of the KY National Guard has a beautiful, sweet voice that owns both ends of his vocal range.He sang of wooing his now wife, mama to his new little girl, and opened the night with his tune “Honeysuckle” with its notions of protection and love.
Between songs, Bolander warmed the crowd up proper, getting them excited for the two acts yet to come, helping them remember they are so happy to be there, and thanking them with sincere gratitude for their enjoyment of his music, “great folk, bluegrass music with kind of a bluesy spin,” as Bolander describes his sound. Then smoothly, they ended their set and welcomed to the stage, band number two, Lexington’s rising bluegrass phenoms, The Wooks.
Listen to more of Cara’s conversation with Eric Bolander:
Still riding their own wave after winning the Band Contest last summer out at Colorado’s RockyGrass, The Wooks have been actively playing and touring ever since.Consisting of Morehead’s Jesse Wells on fiddle, Roddy Puckett on bass, Arthur Hancock on banjo, CJ Cain on guitar and Galen Green on mandolin, the bluegrass group mixes originals with some standard covers their fans have come to love, including Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and Robert Earl Keene’s “The Road Goes On Forever”.Winning the band contest opened many doors for the Wooks as Jesse Wells’ commented, “I personally didn’t realize what a connection that was, evidently a very prestigious thing.”
Photo by Derek Feldman
The Wooks have a tightness on stage, the evidence of seasoned musicians who have played together on the road for some time now, with a mutual passion for music that makes their instruments dance.
The Wooks are something of a powerhouse of Lexington musicians, and they all contribute to the songs, both vocally and lyrically.They brag on each other on stage, Arthur introducing CJ’s songs, CJ introducing Arthur.They dance around each other as they play, clearly having as much fun on stage as the crowd is down below.Each song brings hoots of celebration as the fans in the crowd recognize it and thank them for playing it.
Listen to Cara’s conversation with Jesse Wells:
The growing crowd is slowly soaking up more merchandise from the local folks, Wooks t-shirts and koozies, Eric Bolander’s trademark mason jar insignia on his shirts and CD’s.The opening bands were successful.By the time the Steeldrivers take the stage, the room is packed full, the audience satiated with good food, cold drinks, loaded down with Merch from two excellent opening acts that satisfactorily filled them with quality music they loved.
Many of the members of the crowd had not come to see Eric Bolander or The Wooks. Some did, but most were there for the headliner.However, Lexington musicians like these thrive on quality and good musical talent, and their gifts filled that large room, recently remodeled to give the large warehouse space a warm, comfortable and clean feel with great acoustics.
When folks pay up to see these larger regional or national acts when they come to town, they are supporting local musicians as well. “A lot of people are coming here who are fans of the Steeldrivers, fans of them who don’t necessarily follow local music or our music” say The Wooks.Yet, they are fans now.
Eric Bolander and band, and the Wooks now have planted their musical seeds in 1100 sets of ears, many for the first time.Two local bands were able to ride the wave of the bigger band, and the gift of music was shared with a grateful crowd.All good, all around.
It was quite serendipitous that Mark Aaron Evans was ready to do a hard open for the new National Avenue location of Cosmic Charlie’s just as Born Cross Eyed was about to celebrate twenty-five years as a band. The two had become fast friends back in the days of The Fishtank before the old Cosmic Charlie’s came into being. It was all too appropriate for these two momentous occasions to align as one long weekend of a music genre that has become a Lexington staple. This fusion created a very magical first night, and Lexington came out in droves to celebrate and support.
Evans has a full plate of booking responsibilities, scheduling bands not only for Cosmic Charlie’s and the Burl in Lexington, but also Zanzibar and Headliners in Louisville.
I arrived early at the new venue in Lexington’s Warehouse Block district. The relocation is a demographic shift from just off the UK campus to walking distance from Lexington’s Kenwick neighborhood, a magnet for young professionals and families. As the band sound checked in the background, I spoke at length with Mark about the new space, his vision and this special weekend:
The new Cosmic Charlie’s is quite an elevation from the old location, which, while nostalgic and comfy for many, could lack in decorum.Especially those bathrooms.The new location is sparkly, squeaky clean and openly inviting.
The different colored lights that make the surface of the bar twinkle reflect in the shiny silver lights above.The front of the house boasts a pin ball machine and a juke box. The sound booth is tucked against the wall and the open floor is the perfect space for the dancing that had to occur.Born Cross Eyed, like the band it emulates, makes you just want to dance.And dance we did.
For twenty-five years, Lee Owen, Joey David, Chris Fuller, and Mark Vanderboegh have been covering the Grateful Dead in Born Cross Eyed, the “by-product of a bunch of deadheads sitting around a living room, really” according to the band.“We were all running around the Dead shows together all around the country.”
Their mutual love for the band and the lifestyle easily mixed with their musical talents and back in 1991 became the long enduring Lexington legend.Celebrating twenty-five years of gigs, festivals and full dancing, happy crowds, they were joined this Anniversary weekend with newer members Brandon Bowlds (bass), Jenny Adkins (vocals), and John-Paul Nowak (drums). During the Saturday night performance, drummer Dino English, of Dark Star Orchestra fame, joined the band for the big one-year celebration.
The fresh new room filled quickly Friday night, and when the band took the stage around 10:30 pm everyone in the front half of the floor was immediately dancing.The music flowed smoothly from one song to the next, each one bringing cheers from the crowd like an old friend returned home.That’s the draw of the Dead and the good cover bands like Born Cross Eyed.It is ritual.To cover those songs with such ease and musical precision brings joy to the crowd like a Sunday revival.
“It’s a huge community. I mean it’s our monthly meeting, some people have a bridge club, I have a Grateful Dead cover band…It’s like our church…there is a spiritual component to the Grateful Dead,” says lead singer Lee Owen of his baby.
The crowd agrees; these shows, of which I have attended many, fill with familiar faces and new strangers, but there is a strong sense of community and connection through the love of the music.The lyrics are echoed by the crowd like hymns and creeds, the knowing of what is to come, and sinking down into the words and the rhythm, bumping off the crowd as everyone moves with gentle ease; this is the service. That is the ritual.Born Cross Eyed is the officiant, and they deliver what the crowd wants and needs.
Brandon Bowlds (bass), Lee Owens (guitar)
Lee Owen on lead guitar and Brandon Bowlds on bass is a tight combination, the two also played together in Bluegrass Collective and their experience is obvious.
Jenny Adkins, Brandon Bowlds, Lee Owen
Jenny Adkins adds in high harmonies along with Joey David on rhythm guitar and vocals, and the front line flows smoothly from song to song, covering all the eras of the expansive Grateful Dead history.
The crowd dances and sings along, appreciating the masterful skill of the drums, the keys and sax, those guitars wailing out the tunes.
The house was packed. The women’s bathroom was a constant streaming conversation appreciating the pretty new décor and cleanliness. The drinks flowed cold from the taps.Next door, Rolling Oven and Locals provided food that Evans is happy to allow inside.They also encourage delivery from Girls, Girls, Girls Burritos, their former business mates at the old Fishtank, now Best Friend Bar.
The music kept going, past 2am.As the night got older, the crowd got younger. Older Deadheads went home to kids and early mornings while the twenty-something Deadheads took their place and kept the dancing going.The vibe stayed the same, as it does at Dead shows.The music creates the vibe, and the crowd responds accordingly.
It was a magical night.When the band moved into the crowd for a picture with the audience behind them, it was nothing but love.Love for the skill with which they make the music, Love for keeping the legend going all these many years, Love for being such a nice group of guys who clearly share the connection.
It’s all about the connection. Connecting with the music, the crowd. Connecting with each other on stage to produce the tight layered harmonies and chords and notes. Connecting with the lyrics to infuse them as Jerry and Pigpen once did. Connecting folks in Lexington to come out in the cold night and support these hard working musicians doing what they love. Local businesses connecting with one another and helping each other thrive, as the newly revamped block on National Avenue is doing. It all came together quite beautifully Friday night.
I was 18 when I bought my first Leonard Cohen tape and slid it into the car stereo of my Dad’s old Buick. Was This What You Wanted? began to play, and the whole world of one naïve Catholic Italian girl from Buffalo changed.
Music has that power, and that whole tape of the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony had a powerful influence on me as an audiophile. Lyrics suddenly became the most important part of a song, and Cohen was certainly one of the great sages of lyrical construction.
On the night of the election when I opened my newsfeed and learned that the great poet had gone to his reward, as my mother says, I felt an immense grief. I had to do something.
My simple Facebook suggestion to put on a show in tribute to Cohen resulted in a rapid response from musicians in town interested in getting involved. Clearly, so many of the local musicians I admire were as brokenhearted as me over the loss of this great, influential artist.
So, I found myself organizing a Leonard Cohen Tribute at The Burl, where my friend Bryan Minks gave us a Monday night to simply have a stage where we could pay tribute to a man to whom we all felt a strong musical connection. We decided to pass the hat for donations, and someone suggested we send anything collected to Standing Rock to help the water protectors in their struggle. The event began to take form.
The 28th of November was a damp and dreary night in Lexington, Kentucky, and the UK Wildcats were playing on tv. I wasn’t sure what to expect for turnout, but the room was already filling at 7:30. I placed candles on the tables as promised, and the first band began setting up. The intent was simply for each singer or group to choose two Cohen songs, perform them in their own way, and we would hopefully move smoothly from one set to the next, working Nolan Dunn too hard as he skillfully modified the soundboard for each different performer.
The Northside Sheiks (photo above) started the night with their signature blues vibe, Willie Eames giving his style to Almost Like the Blues and Slow with Lee Carroll on accordion, Smith Donaldson on Bass, Robert Frahm on guitar and David White on drums. From there, the packed house listened to a steady stream of great Lexington area musicians: Chris Sullivan, Warren Byrom, Brian Combs, Bryan Minks, Keith Rowland, Doc Feldman (with a little bit of help from yours truly), Eric Cummins, Chelsea Nolan, Josh Nolan, Derek Spencer, Ben Aubrey with Trinity Curtsinger, Rob Rawlings and Alex Parkansky. And then came a duet on strings with Elias Gross on viola and vocals and Richard Young on Bass, which grew into a trio that added Anna Hess on violin to back Kevin Holm-Hudson on keys when he led the entire group in Cohen’s Hallelujah to end the evening.
The Northside Sheiks
The Northside Sheiks
Chris Sullivan and Warren Byrom
Chris Sullivan and Warren Byrom
The night proceeded exactly as I had imagined it: candles flickered, people in quiet conversations between sets. When each performer began, the entire room hushed, even with the game on mute back at the bar. With the two songs they had chosen, each artist blended Cohen’s brilliant poetry with their own style and instrument to make it theirs.
“I’m always pleased when somebody sings a song of mine. In fact, I never get over that initial rush of happiness when someone says they are going to sing a song of mine. I always like it,” the late Cohen once noted in an interview on Pacifica Radio. “That song enters the world, and it gets changed, like everything else — that’s OK as long as there are more authentic versions. But a good song, I think, will get changed.”
He knew, of course, that his songs would live on. He even told us so in Tower of Song. Each artist or group of artists paid homage to Cohen that night, as candle flames flickered and the rain spattered against the windows. The Roll n’ Smoke food truck was parked outside, and the tangy aroma of barbecue floated through the Burl blending nicely with the fragrance of candles.
The audience was treated to a wide variety of genres as each artist individualized Cohen’s songs, piecing together the entire crazy quilt of the evening. From the Sheik’s blues interpretation to Bryan Mink’s Tower of Song with that country metal edge he has, to Chelsea Nolan’s booming vocals to Alex Parkansky’s drone metal guitar lifting Cohen’s music to surreal levels. Then the night went to strings, and the room, still nearly full even at 11:30 p.m. on a dark, wet Monday night, melted with the candles as all the singers took the stage once more to back Kevin Holm-Hudson in Hallelujah.
We all sang along, barely able to hold back during the verses as we harmonized into the chorus. I felt like I was in church again, the candle light blurring past the strings in front of us, the keys played perfectly as each of the seven verses guided us along. The crowd joined in too – everyone knows the words to this iconic song – and that room full of gorgeous wood and candles and people who simply love great musical poetry, that room rang with the collection of those voices. No voice was distinguishable from another. And then the last chorus was sung, and Kevin paused for just a moment of silence, and ended the night with those two words that took all our breath away: “Goodnight, Leonard.”
We raised a total of $700 for the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock. My friend Psera Newman, Direct Action Trainer for the Lexington Chapter of Greenpeace, took the stage twice and spoke to the audience about her time at Standing Rock, and why she chose Sacred Stone Camp as the appropriate recipient of contributions, describing it as the beating heart of the body that is the Standing Rock resistance.
Folks were unbelievably generous all night long, and the money order to Sacred Stone is en route, along with a letter I wrote to the leader of the camp, Ladonna Brave Bull Allard.
I am so proud of Lexington. I am so proud of all the musicians who took the stage that night, who took the time out of their lives to learn new songs and perform them and support each other simply to do it. For the love of the music. To show respect to someone who devoted their life to creating beauty and art for others to love. And to share the effort in the form of charity, for others who really need some help right now.
Goodnight, Leonard Cohen. Thanks for the beauty, sir.
(Credit: Derek Feldman, all photos and video.)
The Set List:
1. The Northside Sheiks- Almost like the Blues, Slow
2. Chris Sullivan- Famous Blue Raincoat
3. Warren Byrom and Chris Sullivan- Suzanne
4. Brian Combs- The Butcher, Heart with no Companion
5. Bryan Minks- Tower of Song, Is this what you wanted
6. Keith Rowland- The Stranger Song, Bird on the Wire
7. Derek Feldman w/ Cara Blake Coppola- You Want it Darker, There is a War, If It Be Your Will
8. Eric Cummins- Tonight Will Be Fine, Darkness
9. Chelsea Nolan- On the Level, One Of Us Can’t Be Wrong
10. Josh Nolan- Alexandra Leaving, Diamonds in the Mine
11. Derek Spencer- So Long, Marianne, Steer Your Way
12. Ben Aubrey- Dance Me to the End of Love, Here it Is
13. Rob Rawlings- Iodine, Paper Thin Hotel
14. Alex Parkansky- The Future, Waiting for the Miracle
15. Elias Aaron Irving Gross- Chelsea Hotel
16. Kevin Holm-Hudson-the Runaway Horse, Hallelujah
The devotion to a good, solid cover that is “as close to the original as possible” is a sanctified quest. To participate in or witness a true emulation of the original genius that produced the tune, to begin with, can be like stepping on holy ground for those who love such performance. The homage that the Lexington Lab Band (LLB) created and performed most flawlessly on November 5th in Transylvania University’s Haggin Auditorium was a Mecca of precise tributes to the original songs, and those who made the pilgrimage to the sold out concert were happy, happy pilgrims indeed. As one member of the crowd John Boyd commented, “If you shut your eyes, you think you’re hearing the original band.” That is the mission of the Lexington Lab Band, and folks, Mission Accomplished.
The original goal of the Lexington Lab Band was never to actually produce a live concert.The founding members came together three years ago to create online videos of the original core members performing their favorite covers with professional accuracy. “It’s an academic thing for me,” says Michael Vandemark, original member, vocalist and instrumentalist extraordinaire. The videos created by “Vandee,” as his fellow musicians lovingly call him, and bandmates Randy Refalo, Dale Adams, Rob Pottorf and Ryan McQuerry, have created a following for the band.
Michael “Vandee” Vandemark
Listen to Cara’s conversation with Michael Vandemark:
The first concert in 2014 at The Lyric Theater almost happened by accident, Vandemark explains, as one former member, Derrick Breaux, was leaving the state and the live show was meant to be a fun send off with no expectation of filling the house.
It sold out.
So, two more annual concerts have followed, and the band has created not one but two groups of loyal followers, those who watch the videos online to study the tight precision with which the musicians and singers emulate the songs they are covering, and then those who come to the big yearly show.Often the two are not the same.At this month’s show, Vandemark asked the crowd to raise their hands if it was their first LLB concert, and over half the crowd responded.
And they sold it out again, this time in a venue with nearly double the capacity of the Lyric – Transy’s 1000 seat Haggin Auditorium.
The night also included a worthy tribute to those artists we’ve lost this year: Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, David Bowie, Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White, and of course, the fitting tribute to Prince at the end.
These are amazing songs to replicate; Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Boston.We all know these songs, but to really hear them, to know the effort it takes to replicate those guitar licks, those keys, the drumming and the backing harmonies, is most impressive.
At the pinnacle of it all is Vandemark himself, moving fluidly from lead guitar, to lead vocals, to keys, to bass. He never touched the drums, but he holds a degree in Percussion from Asbury.As Vandemark said of trying to bring in a wide variety of songs to cover, “To do this right, we’ve got to have the right people, every time…You’ve gotta have the right voice or the right guitar player… [and] be open to bringing the right people in, and…make it a project that celebrates as much of our friends as possible.”
And celebrate they did.
Such a feat could not be produced without drawing from an impressive collective of Lexington’s talent, with a few out of towner’s joining in for the fun. Several local bands are represented in the Lexington Lab Band, including the Twiggenburys, the Lauren Mink Band, The Throwbacks, Big River Band, Kung Fu Grip, Distraxions, Project 859 and Isle of Eight.
Perhaps the strongest backbone of the band in my humble opinion are the ladies: four women who sang with such tight, perfect harmony that they subtly stole the show.
Lauren Mink – Photos by Ralph Bostic and Mark Pearson
There was a professional quality that guaranteed what McKenney, a singer at Southland Church, was hoping for:a “true note-to-note to the original.”
The effort made by the Lexington Lab Band and its many contributors, all the musicians, singers, film crew, and volunteers throughout the concert, is a labor of love.There is no profit, all the proceeds from the $27.00 tickets go to charity.The first concert supported the Lexington Area Music Alliance (LAMA). Proceeds from the second year went to a Refuge for Women. And this year Vandee brought the crowd to tears when he announced to the surprise of his cameraman and LLB co-founder, the man behind the online videos Neil Gregory, that they were donating all the proceeds to a charity for Autism, in honor of Neil’s daughter who has Autism.It was a beautiful moment, to see two friends bond over something so meaningful, to know so much good would come from something they do simply for the love of the music.
Mike Huff, the lead singer on the Aerosmith and Pearl Jam songs and a member of The Throwbacks, summed it up eloquently when speaking to me about how many people it takes to pull off such a huge show. More than fifty people had been at the auditorium since 9 am that morning rehearsing for their crowd with such devotion to the craft, “That’s what’s so great about it for me, everyone here just loves music.”
Indeed.This was not my first time in Lee Carroll’s C the Beat dance crowd, but it was my first time as a journalist who was preparing for her debut as a chronicler of the Lexington live music scene.
New to this venue, my Local Music column for Under Main, I couldn’t think of a better initiation into writing about Lexington’s vibrant music scene than to cover C the Beat.The band is truly a powerhouse of intensely gifted local musicians, ten of them crowded onto the stage at the new Southland Drive location of Willie’s Locally Known to turn the place into a Halloween party and make folks dance.And dance they did.
The purpose of C the Beat, according to Carroll, is to celebrate the “dialogue between the old world and the new”, and appropriately the band got their start four years ago at the old Natasha’s venue. They opened for Gideon Alorwoyie, a master percussionist from Ghana. Drummer Tripp Bratton had met Alorwoyie previously and the original incarnation of the band played four Fela Kuti songs to open for the headliner Alorwoyie.
Since then, C the Beat has created its own following of loyal fans who go to shows knowing there is a guaranteed promise of a really fun dance floor.Because dancing is the whole point.“From the beginning C the Beat was intended to be a dance band…The point was to play music that we really liked, that had a good beat and would get people up out of their seats and they would enjoy themselves in spite of the fact that we were playing good music, and we succeeded to a great extent.”
Lee Carroll and the other members of C the Beat feed off the energy of the dancing crowd, and that was quite evident Friday night as devils, cats, witches, Egyptian princesses, skeletons, leopards, and even Peter Pan danced in a surreal swirl of color and sparkles to the ever constant beat. Listen as you read on…
This collection of Lexington talent consists of Lee Carroll himself on keys and orchestrating the whole event, Willie Eames on guitar and vocals, Robert Frahm on guitar, Brian Arnett on bass, Tripp Bratton and David Farris both on drums, with a dialogue between them so tight and beautiful it is the backbone of the evening, and the horn section consisting of Jonathan Barrett on alto sax, Joe Carucci on tenor/baritone sax, Clayton Tipton on bass trombone and Chase Fleming, a multi-talented trombone player who also busted out an ocarina at some points, as well as jumping in to scat with the super talented Gail Wynters, both vocally and with his trombone.
Gail and Marilyn Robie provided some amazing vocals, including Wynter’s smooth as silk voice and boisterous scat and Robie’s excellent version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
C the Beat feeds off the energy of the crowd, and the crowd does the same to the musicians.The effect Friday inside those beautiful wooden walls that smell of the most delicious BBQ you’ve ever dreamed of, was cathartic.The symbiosis between the performers and the dancers was quite evident, and when Gail Wynters starts a call and answer scat with the crowd and everyone excitedly joins in.
This type of performance and interaction is not your usual live music experience, and I’m thrown back to the days of Count Basie and the big band sound.Such a classic feel to the night, and what really astounds is the diversity of the crowd, and I don’t mean that some were cats and some were hookers and others were skeletons with some phenomenal face painting.The dance floor was simply the floor of the entire restaurant, and everyone willingly moved to the beat despite their difference in generations.Perhaps three generations of folks were represented at Willie’s Friday night, and the common need to shake one’s hips to some tightly orchestrated yet loosely relaxed beat crossed any and all potential division lines, and bliss was had, indeed.
Live music is a visceral experience, and C the Beat taps into that need to let one’s emotions take lead for the night and lets that drive fuel the entire night. And the crowd eats it up.
As Lee Carroll states, “It’s easier to find the energy in yourself to play when you’re getting feedback from the folks in the crowd, if they like what you’re doing.If they’re dancing, they like what you’re doing.”
Clearly the Friday night crowd at Willie’s really liked what C the Beat was doing, because that group of musicians is there for exactly that.To cluster ten talented and in-demand musicians together for one night is an act of devotion for Carroll and his troupe.They are there for the fun and for the music, and not much more.Carroll has created an opportunity for these ten folks to be creative and stretch their musical legs, and the dialogue it creates with each other and the crowd is truly energetic.Lee says of his musicians, “If you’re not having fun on this stage, then you’re in the wrong group.”
So when Chase busts out his big ocarina and begins improvising, the rest of the band just goes with it, and the trombones speak to the drummers, who speak to the keys and the bass, and that old dialogue between the old world African sound and the new world Caribbean sound swirl around some Ska and some Reggae and salsa, samba, NOLA R&B, American funk and Afrobeat, and the entire world calls out in that beautifully smelling room, especially surreal with the costumes where folks can hide their true identity and lose themselves and their inhibitions in the fun of it all.
Because in the end, Lee says, it’s all about “the folks who come out and support live music”, and the musicians up on stage truly appreciate that.“I don’t care where you go, if you go to hear live music, you’re part of the solution.”
And ain’t that the truth.
All the amazing venues we can boast here in Lexington, including my beloved Willie’s Locally Known, exist for the people who come to fill the seats and the dance floor and pay the ticket price so the musicians can get some food and gas for the way home.That is what keeps the local music scene alive, and I’m fairly certain I can speak for everyone at Willie’s Friday night, that C the Beat definitely earned the crowd’s money, but even more so, they earned their joy and bliss.
What a great night.
[Listen to Cara’s entire conversation with Lee Carroll:]
Cara Blake Coppola’s contribution to our essay challenge is about a life-altering turning point of great significance.Her essay is excerpted from her blog email@example.com.She recalls the day when she learned that her daughter had special needs.The story unfolds in Lexington.
There is a poem/story that I have become familiar with since meeting Willow Eve. It is called “Holland” or something like that, and it compares the reality of raising a child with special needs to a misguided vacation that, though promising Venice or some such exotic locale, instead delivered the vacationers to Holland. “Oops,” the story goes. “Instead of gondolas and wine and pasta, you get windmills, and tulips. Maybe some wooden shoes as souvenirs.” Not quite the relaxing, stimulating vacation you thought you were going to get, but hey, you’re still on vacation, right?
I’m certain that when I first read that story, probably in those fog-filled days of Early Intervention and sleep-deprived delirium, it brought me comfort, and more than a few tears. After fifteen years, however, I find the metaphor lacking. Because, really, who goes on vacation for fifteen years? And does that mean I’m supposed to assume that I was on vacation in Venice for three and a half years before I had Willow, when Sierra was the only human being I was responsible for? If so, I think I need a refund, because I don’t remember gondolas, or wine, or any kind of vacating in any way. I remember being tired, and laughing hysterically, and lots of pee, poop, and vomit. Somehow I think the Venetian Tourist board would be amiss at this comparison, though I’m sure some college students have had Venetian vacation stories such as this.
Willow was a sweet, tiny little baby girl, so loved by her big sister and the dog Maggie, who licked her cheek and wagged her tail in delighted greeting when Willow was brought home from the hospital. We adjusted accordingly, and got back to living our simple life.
By the time spring burst into the Kentucky countryside, our small bohemian apartment was bursting with color and toys, and spoke of a happy family. That, however, was the calm before what would become our personal storm, the blissful ignorance we allowed to envelope us before the evidence started piling up.
Soon, too soon, we would be forced to accept the reality that Willow was not developing as she should, that her frequent crying was indicating more than just colic. Taking place over a few weeks, totaling one very long month during her fifth month of life, we would return from the hospital once again with Willow, though this time it was very, very different.
There was a day, in Willow’s fifth month, when everything started coming together, like sand shifting its way down a funnel, and that is where our story really begins…
“Now boarding for Holland, please buckle up. It’s gonna be a damn bumpy ride.” Taking off…
It will be a challenge to me to keep this narrative at a decent length, but this particular day was the exact day it all began. There were hints, or foreshadowing if you will, yet our immersion into the special needs world was primarily condensed into one day on the monthly calendar. Intense does not begin to describe it. The difference between Venice and Holland is not sufficient; maybe the difference between living on Frontier America and suddenly being transported to the bar where Han Solo shoots first is a closer comparison.
It got to the point where, by the end of our weeks’ vacation at the beach that fifth month of her life, Willow would only nurse at night, when she was too exhausted to fight anymore. But then she would nurse and fill up and sleep well, and she wasn’t losing weight, so we just kept trying to eliminate the variables.
Driving home was a headache and ibuprofen rich endeavor, and we returned home to our little apartment exhausted and tanned, but not really feeling relaxed from our “vacation”.
Upon our return, time seemed to speed up and get really scary. I went to visit a good friend, my midwife and doula who had been there when Willow was born. She took the baby and immediately lifted her up and down, as if weighing her. “Is she losing weight?” she asked suggestively, waking a growling dragon of stress and anxiety in the pit of my soul. “Is she?” I asked, tears immediately coming to my eyes.
Soon after, I couldn’t get Willow to nurse at all, so we got some soy formula. At that point, it was an early spring morning in Kentucky, characteristically cold and dreary. I tried and tried to give Willow the bottle that I hoped would fix everything, but she refused to take it. She just screamed weakly, and I cried.
Quickly, we headed downstairs to visit our neighbor, another midwife who owned a glucometer. She tested Willow’s blood sugar. I will never forget the look on her face as she read the screen. “Cara, her blood sugar won’t even register, I think you need to take her to the ER.”
What followed was a day that was so surreal and frightening, I seem to remember it in foggy patches, like a dream that you can’t shake for hours after you wake up.
We went to our local hospital where Willow had been born. They asked many questions and made many, many false assumptions. It is a cruel trick of the human mind that we can see things in hindsight so much more clearly than we do at the present. At that point in her exhaustion and hunger, Willow’s eyes were shifting erratically back and forth. “Does she always do this?” one doctor asked, pointing to her shifting eyes. “Um, I don’t know. She’s really tired I think. She won’t eat…” I kept saying. They asked me if she was blind. Blind?? No, I was sure that she had focused on my eyes while nursing, that she had paid attention to the rainbow paper chains that decorated our living room. In hindsight, however, that damned gift that comes too little, too late, I realized that she never did stop shifting her eyes. That goofy, googly eyed-ness that Sierra had had when she was born (when I got scared and made Dad rush her to the nurse, because clearly she was broken) was a phase that Sierra had quickly outgrown. There was one cute cross-eyed picture of her at Mother’s Day, and that was the last of it. She was only a month old then. How could I have forgotten that? How did I not know Willow’s eyes weren’t behaving normally?
The next assumption was seizures. Perhaps her shifting eyes indicated seizures? They asked me. All I knew of seizures at the time was an image of someone shaking violently, drooling and passing out. No, Willow had definitely never done any of those things. She just wasn’t thriving anymore, she wasn’t growing anymore, and she cried…all the time.
Brain damage, they reported before Willow was even out of the CAT-scan. Retardation. Epilepsy. Possible blindness. The only conclusion of which they were certain, though it didn’t stop them from making guesses that shook me to my core, was that Willow’s case was out of their expertise. It was time to take a ride up to the big city and see what those doctors might know.
I knew the situation was worse than I might have imagined when they led us to an ambulance, shut the door behind Willow and I, and turned the sirens on full blast. Dear God, I remember thinking. Never in my life had I been in an ambulance with the sirens on. Not with my father’s almost heart attack, not with my mother’s anxiety attack she thought was a stroke. But here, my tiny, frail baby was strapped to an adult sized gurney, wrapping her weak little hand around my finger, as the sirens bellowed our entire journey towards Lexington.
It was in that ambulance that I met my first angel. I’m a Catholic by upbringing, Christian by nature, but claim no denomination. I’m not a terribly religious person; to me it is more of a culture than a spirituality, like my Italian grandmother’s routines of putting rosaries on the bushes outside to ask God for good weather, or putting some of the Christmas hay from the Church’s manger in your wallet for prosperity, and the ornate saint doll that sat on every matriarch’s mantle, robed in velvet and silk and lace. But I do remember many myths of God or Angel’s posing as some wayward person, a humble beggar or blind man. These archetypes sometimes pass knowledge, and sometimes propose a challenge for generosity. Those who pass the challenge are enlightened and praised; those who fail are doomed to suffer their ill choices.
The angel I met that day was one who passed knowledge, and I wish to this day that I remembered his name. He was one of the EMT’s that travelled in the ambulance with us that day. He sat in the back with Willow and I as his partner drove, and quickly noting the look of absolute desperation and fear that I’m certain I had plastered all over my face, talked with me calmly the entire grueling ride. Unlike everyone else we had met at the hospital, who seemed to feel free to hypothesize away about any myriad of ailments that might be afflicting our daughter, this man kept his opinions to himself. What he did, though, is tell me his story. He was a father. His wife had birthed triplets two years ago, and their premature children had met with many struggles along the way. Maybe it was twins. I honestly don’t remember, except that it was a multiple birth. He didn’t tell me what all the challenges were that they were meeting. He didn’t mention a single medical ailment, or any tests or needles or tubes that may have been involved in their challenges. What I do remember him talking about was strength; the strength of his wife, who he clearly adored, for carrying those children as long as she could to keep them strong, and the strength of his children, for overcoming any limitations life, or anyone else, may have imposed on them.
I don’t know, maybe he had been there the whole time in the ER and heard all these diagnoses and terms flying around and saw my instinctual urge surface, the one that tells you to run and hide somewhere dark and close; anywhere far, far away from there. Maybe he went through the same experiences with his babies. But he told me exactly what I needed to hear right then, and for that I am so, so very grateful. To this day, after meeting several more angels along the way, and even more thoughtless, over-diagnosing individuals, I remember him. Not his name, dammit, but I do remember him. I still hope someday he will remember me and reintroduce himself, but he was a very cool guy who gave me a bit of comfort on what, at that point, was the worst day of my life.
Willow and I were led from the Ambulance to the ER swiftly and put into a curtained enclosure. Quickly feeling like an exhibit in a circus, people started coming by. They would stand, and stare. Doctor after doctor would look at Willow, touch her without asking permission. They drilled me with questions, often not waiting for me to finish talking before they began the next question. This is a phenomenon that I have come to deal with in the medical and special needs world, where experts talk as fast as they think, and social norms of not interrupting are thrown out the window; at the time, however, I was completely floored. Sierra had been so healthy, not one round of antibiotics her entire three years, and I had no experience with such highly educated specialists. Their brains are machines of information, something I have come to deeply admire over the years, but the awkwardness of enduring many “conversations” like this soon sapped all my energy.
They asked questions about everything: the pregnancy, my diet, my habits, the birth, nursing, hell, they practically examined me as well. They touched and prodded Willow all over, turning her head back and forth, shining bright lights in her eyes, tickling her feet. Willow fussed and cried through the entire procedure, her eyes shifting all over without recognition.
I don’t know how much time passed that way, I truly remember very little about the UK ER that day. It was clear that we had to be admitted, that any number of tests had to be run, and we were soon wheeled down many shifting hallways until we emerged into the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital.
The old Children’s Hospital at UK is a bright and imaginative place, and I immediately enjoyed being in that building. They have since opened an entirely new Children’s Hospital. In the old hospital, which we were visiting for the first time that day, the elevator opened to a lobby where an artist had installed a truly remarkable perpetual motion machine. It was mesmerizing; a continuation of belts, gears, levers, and engines that moved a dozen or so balls around and about a labyrinth of activities. The balls went upstairs and down wooden blocks painted like fish, where each block made a different note as the balls cascaded downward. At one point a ball was dropped and bounced off a platform, only to land perfectly into a basket several feet up, where it continued on its course around the machine. What an amazing thing to create in a place where magic and whimsy were unlikely to be found.
As we proceeded into the hospital, following the nurses who spoke kindly to us both, we rolled past the corners where sculpted trees rose up to a ceiling enchanted with twinkling lights that at night were turned on to make a starry sky. Rooms in each hallway were filled with books, toys and wagons for play, and a toy cart was wheeled by volunteers from room to room, handing out free toys that had been donated by thoughtful people. As far as hospitals go, this place was almost as fun as a Children’s Museum.
At some point after we were installed into our own private room, Dad showed up loaded down with clothes, sleeping bags and food. Willow was put into a medical crib and hooked up to an IV for fluids. The nurses soon delivered a bottle with soy formula, and I gratefully began to feed Willow her first real bottle. This was a bittersweet moment for me. My main thought was to be thrilled as she hungrily swallowed three small bottles in a row and burped happily to be full.
But in honesty, I felt like a complete failure. I was a proud breastfeeding mother. Sierra had thrived beyond measure on the milk I produced for her, and never needed any kind of supplement. Willow had reacted so strongly against my milk, in hindsight since the beginning of her life, and I felt like I had bombed the most basic of maternal requirements, but Willow had made up her mind. Bottles were easier and the formula within contained no threat of allergies. She had made peace with her decision, but it would be years before I finished grieving for our aborted nursing relationship.
As soon as we were officially admitted to the hospital, the doctor visits began. We were swiftly introduced to a continuously shifting parade of people in white coats, scrubs and dress clothes. One person would breeze in with a plastic tote filled with vials to draw so much of Willow’s precious blood into the plastic tubes with different colored stoppers. An IV was hooked up to her tiny little arm, and her elbow had to be splinted so she didn’t pull it out. Soon her clothes were changed into the yellow and blue ones with koalas that the hospital provided. She wouldn’t wear her own clothes again for a week. Her small feet were poked repeatedly for blood samples. We rolled blankets and put them around the edges of the cold, metal bars of the hospital crib, and soon a kind face wheeled by with toys and books to help break up the monotony of white on white. On that day, Willow was given a fuzzy, soft flower that tied to the edge of the crib. A bee hung down; when pulled, the bee slowly made its’ way back to the flower, playing a sweet little tune in its journey. Willow still has this flower.
This was the very first day of our journey together into the world of being Medically Fragile and having Special Needs.A long tale, that day continues in my memory to be stretched in length way beyond twenty-four hours. It is the first chapter in a story that is almost sixteen years long, and filled with many more hospital visits, doctor visits, therapy, Special Education meetings, Shriner’s, wheelchairs and more.
We rolled through that door and into that world on this very first day.