Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder/The Appel Room/February 25, 2017
Ricky Skaggs was born in Cordell, Kentucky, and was five years old when his father gave him a mandolin. At age six, he played mandolin and sang on stage with bluegrass icon Bill Monroe. At age seven, he received his first paycheck playing with bluegrass’ legendary Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs on a televised country music variety show. In his teen years, Skaggs was part of a bluegrass trio that performed on radio shows and then became musicians in Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys. Skaggs later joined the Country Gentlemen and J.D. Crowe & The New South, and in 1976 formed progressive bluegrass band Boone Creek. In the late 1970s, Skaggs moved to country music and played mandolin and fiddle in Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band. Skaggs launched his solo career in 1979, subsequently winning 14 Grammy Awards and multiple other honors. He has released 32 studio albums, the most recent being 2014’s duet with his wife Sharon White, Hearts Like Ours.
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder performed tonight at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room as part of a series entitled American Songbook. As such, the set consisted of songs made famous by the pioneers of bluegrass music, including Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs. Skaggs also performed a few originals, but they were made to sound as old-timey as the core of the set. Skaggs was a fine tenor, intentionally singing without flash or splash, and his impressive mandolin picking was rapid and precise. The members of Kentucky Thunder (fiddler Mike Barnett, banjoist Russ Carson, lead guitarist Jake Workman, rhythm guitarist Paul Brewster, guitarist Dennis Parker, and bassist Scott Mulvahill) kept up with him mightily. Between songs, Skaggs related historical anecdotes about the trailblazers of bluegrass whom he commemorated with this program. Although the view of a congested Central Park South through the picture windows behind him betrayed him, Skaggs performed like it was an impromptu backyard hootenanny, allowing his fellow musicians to shine as much as he did.
Roger Creager/Hill Country Barbecue Market/February 25, 2017
Roger Creager grew up outside of Corpus Christi, Texas, and from age six aspired to become a country music singer. He started learning how to play piano in the second grade, and learned guitar while in high school. Creager graduated university with degrees in business and agriculture, but after two years in Houston working an 8 to 5 job, he listened to his heart and moved back to College Station to pursue a career in music. Creager is a staple in the Texas country circuit and currently lives in Houston. He has recorded seven albums since 1998, and his most recent release is 2015’s Gulf Coast Time EP.
Roger Creager’s performance tonight at Hill Country Barbecue Market hearkened back to 1970s outlaw music, but also framed good-time original songs with the spirit of Billy Joel and Jimmy Buffett. Creager anchored the songs with his muscular vocals and a whole lot of sway from lead guitarist Aleph Yonker, guitarist/fiddler Rick Redfern, keyboardist Allen (Huff Daddy) Huff, bassist Stormy Cooper, and drummer Lyndon Hughes. It was unfiltered barroom honky-tonk with a little Tex-Mex flavor, front-loaded with well-crafted lyrics that referenced women and booze, and fleshed out with guitar, fiddle, accordion and even washboard breaks. Creager and company did not break new ground, but with solidly rocking songs harnessed the high energy and the cowboy charisma that made a vintage Texas music sound fresh and interesting again.
Eisley/The Studio At Webster Hall/February 27. 2017
Boyd and Kim DuPree ran a coffee shop in their church in Tyler, Texas. Their children formed an indie pop/rock band called the Towheads in 1997 and became the house band for the venue. The band changed its name to Eisley, named after Mos Eisley, a fictional spaceport town on the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars universe, and began playing regularly in Dallas and then throughout Texas. Several siblings and cousins passed through the lineup, and the band presently stands as Sherri DuPree-Bemis on vocals and rhythm guitar, her cousins Garron DuPree on bass and Remington DuPree on drums, Elle Puckett on lead guitar, and Jedidiah Lachmann on keyboards. The band’s fifth album, I’m Only Dreaming, was released on February 17, 2017.
Headlining at The Studio At Webster Hall, this was Dupree-Bemis’s first local show without any of her sisters. Nevertheless, Eisley’s new lineup was striking. Handling old songs and introducing songs from a 10-day-old album, the band ably supported DuPree-Bemis with soft but chugging indie pop accompaniment as she brought her signature floating-on-air soprano vocals to the forefront. The melody-charged arrangements ranged from sparse to lush, sometimes within the same song. The mysterious charm of the music was especially compelling, however, in the exchange between DuPree on solo vocals and her layered harmonies with the others, particularly with Puckett. Subtleties abounded in the lyrics and the arrangements, making the performance as upbeat as the bubble-machine to the side of the stage.
Amy Helm/City Vineyard/February 28, 2017
Early in life, Amy Helm was inspired by earthy music, perhaps due to the influence of her parents, the late Levon Helm of The Band and songwriter Libby Titus Fagen (“Love Has No Pride”), and her mother’s later partners, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. Amy Helm was a founding vocalist and mandolin player in the New York-based alt-country roots band Ollabelle, with whom she recorded three albums. Encouraged by her dad, she launched the “Midnight Rambles” with him at his home and studio in Woodstock, New York. She also sang with her father’s bands for 10 years until his passing in 2012. Her debut solo album, Didn’t It Rain, was released in 2015.
It seemed like the Midnight Ramble sets had rolled down the Hudson River from Woodstock to the new and intimate music venue City Vineyard in TriBeCa. Helm told her audience that she was instructed to bring only one accompanist onto the small stage, but she insisted on bringing guitarist/keyboardist Connor Kennedy, guitarist Adam Minkoff, guitarist Andy Stack, percussionist Sean Dixon, and trumpeter Dan Branigan (who stood off-stage for lack of space).The set began with selections from Helm’s debut album, but then gravitated to covers of songs by the Grateful Dead, Allen Toussaint, Bobby Charles, The Band, Sam Cooke, and Dave Mason. Devoid of any pop leanings, the song selection hearkened to rich homespun music traditions, and Helm brought a touch of organic soul, gospel and country to everything she sang. Both heartfelt and smoldering, Helm’s delivery was highlighted by her unpolished, gutsy and expressive vocals. Helm’s set seemed to have landed on the banks of the Hudson River from an earlier era, but by the same time honored the timeless elements of Americana music.