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hAppalachia at the overpass: the Tarbox Ramblers.

Sweet Release
By Erik Hage

Tarbox Ramblers, Coal Palace Kings
Alive at Five, July 1

Many bands can lay claim to strains of “roots music” these days, but few dig as deep or as convincingly into the dark, rich earth of Americana as the Tarbox Ramblers, who throw hillbilly, knee-trembling gospel, string-band and nasty, slide-driven electric blues into their own ancient Cuisinart. And they not only poleaxed racial musical boundaries at Alive at Five, they also rocked and shimmied with a rhythmic infectiousness that got a good throng of the crowd moving—all while most of the band remained seated like old bluesmen.

And if it seemed a bit anachronistic for the mild-looking, balding Michael Tarbox to paint with such sepia colors—rolling a deep, sinister blues husk around in his throat and coaxing mean old slide tones out of his open-tuned guitar—it was as much of a striking collision to be able to enjoy such genuinely roots- driven fare beneath the I-787 overpass, the hazy urban skyscape rising in the background. The threat of severe weather (which never materialized, save for some biblical lightning flashes over the humid Helderbergs in the early afternoon), drove the free concert under shelter. No matter: The event was well-attended, and it is a tribute to the series organizers that they brought in Boston’s Tarbox Ramblers, a notoriously strong live act who dwell well outside of any kind of commercial recognition.

The group showed compelling range. “Already Gone” (an original from the group’s recent album, A Fix Back East) found Tarbox demonically howling with gravelly lust over swampy, fuzzed-up guitar chug, “Baby, sweet Baaabbbyyy, you sure look fiiiiine/You make the Holy Ghost shiver up and down my spine!” But then, like the bad schoolboy in the back row who straightens up when the teacher turns around, they turned their inflections on a dime for the sweet country-gospel of the traditional “No Night There,” with Tarbox singing, in rounded, angelic tones, “When you walk up to heaven and knock upon that door/There will be someone to greet you on that strange and distant shore.”

These are our time-honored tropes: sex and death and sometimes a horrible way station in between, as attested by the band’s rocked-up version of banjo man Dock Boggs’ haunting “Country Blues” (“Son, if you don’t quit your foolish ways, there’ll be danger at your door”). The tune came off like a firm handshake between John Lee Hooker and Appalachian miner Boggs. But beyond all the heaviness, it was just great to see a healthy cast of young and old caught up in the genetic rhythms of American roots music, shimmying and clapping like they were at some old sun-baked church revival. And no matter the theme, Michael Tarbox and company unlocked the joy that comes from complete surrender, the contagious rhythms and hearty delivery scuttling any burdensome emotional weight.

Few contemporary bands go so deeply (and with such abandon) into the gospel and backwoods regions as the Tarbox Ramblers. It’s a fair assessment that most of the folks at the show (except for a few small clutches of alt-country hipsters) had heard the group before, yet so many were enjoying themselves and paying rapt attention to the stage. It was a wonderful performance.

The openers, Albany yokel-rockers the Coal Palace Kings, whipped through a familiar and solid set, despite the guitars getting buried in the mix (“opening band syndrome,” as bassist-vocalist Jeff Sohn sagely put it). CPK have been busier than ever recently, with tours, festival shows, an enthusiastic and omnipresent new manager (Kathy Boyd) and the birth of Howard Glassman’s son (and new Mets fan), Seaver Anthony. They were a worthy local addition to the Alive at Five stage, offering a great version of their older number (and my favorite) “Rocky” as well as top takes on “Stoneytown” and Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Powderfinger,” which featured some great backup harmonizing, though Larry Winchester still improvises his way around the distinctive lead-guitar line. But give Winchester a break: He played the set despite being seriously laid up with a herniated disc in his back.

Melancholy Serenade

Diana Krall
Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass., July 4

A few years ago I reviewed Diana Krall at the SPAC jazz fest and observed that “her best riff was her studied, icy petulance.” What is the appeal? She sings standards well, but ultimately unremarkably. There were others who do the smoky ingénue thing better, and more interestingly. Grab a Patricia Barber record and tell me I’m wrong.

And why so glum, girl? A scowl-down contest among Krall, Melissa Ferrick and Lucinda Williams would be an amusing spectacle. Perhaps they’d get a collective case of the rolling giggles, and the world would emerge a happier place.

Anyway, Krall’s performance on the Fourth of July was a considerably more substantial affair, both musically and emotionally. Her latest record, The Girl in the Next Room (Verve), has freed her from the bonds of the fringe version of the wretched American Songbook from which she made her bones. And just maybe married life agrees with her.

“Here’s a song from my favorite composer, Elvis Costello . . . and his wife,” she said with a sly grin early on, introducing the title track to the new record. And the tune was performed elegantly and without the dated affectations that necessarily pepper her standard and aged repertoire. Krall’s steady alto voice and world-weary attitude are perfectly suited for her Costello collaborations, and she might just displace Tasmin Archer as the premier Costello interpreter. Her take on “Almost Blue” was perfectly sublime.

The new material (by such folks as Tom Waits and Mose Allison) and the older stuff didn’t really mesh—she spent a few minutes toward the end of Waits’ “Temptation” plinking and boinking the strings on the inside of the piano. It was an artistic failure, absolutely, but she gets points just for doing it before the staid, polite (and huge) Tanglewood audience. After this little venture to the avant, a palpable feeling of relief shimmied through the crowd when she introduced a Peggy Lee tune.

The sound was insufficient. Granted, Tanglewood is a place that has deemed James Taylor too heavy for the room, but I found myself straining to hear throughout the show, which is silly. And I was sitting a third of the way back in the shed, directly in front of the speakers. Krall’s stuff treads dangerously close to the realm of background music all on its own, and timid sound reinforcement is just not helpful in this regard.

Krall’s piano playing has gotten much sharper, bolder, and adventuresome. She’s a player and really should step out more. Especially when she travels with the mighty drummer Peter Erskine, whose considerable talents were largely wasted here. Guitarist Anthony Wilson played serviceably but was an annoying presence on stage. The 128-bar solos and rock-star moves were both tedious.

Openers Ollabelle played a short and earnest set of pan-Americana roots music. While the music was pretty and skillfully delivered, it was too long on reverence and too short on the mystery, danger and Elvis that can make this kind of material truly take flight.

—Paul Rapp

Jazz Jammin’

Ron Carter Quartet
Duffin Auditorium, Lenox High School, Lenox, Mass., July 2

With the death of Elvin Jones last month, it was hard to avoid a sense that more than a man had passed on—part of jazz’s very being went with him. There remain precious few of the guys who took this most American of genres to the level of high art, high street art, really. It’s unclear whether anybody is there to carry jazz to a next level, if there can be one, or whether there would even be an audience for it. Very much like classical music, real jazz, bop jazz (and excuse me all to hell, but “smooth jazz” is nothing but low-rent Muzak, the musical equivalent of a Twinkie, and Kenny G is the Antichrist, or should I say Anti-Coltrane), requires attention, reflection and patience. And these are things that seem to be in short supply in today’s point-and-click, bling-bling world. The demise of jazz would be tragic, because the rewards, as with any classic art form, are boundless and supremely life-affirming. And, as with the Hokey Pokey, that’s what it’s all about.

Bassist Ron Carter is one of those left carrying the torch. He played in the ultra-influential Miles Davis Quintet through the early ’60s, and his résumé, as both a bandleader and a sideman, is the history of modern jazz. He’s been on an estimated 2,500 recordings. Twenty-five hundred! He also has recorded classical albums (he’s classically trained from Eastman and the Manhattan School of Music), and until recently, ran the jazz program at CUNY.

In the first of a two-night stand in the Lenox High School Auditorium, to benefit the Hip-Hop Remix Project, a local program to get at-risk youth involved in the arts, Carter and his longtime band laid down two remarkable sets of improvisational music that ranged from funk to hard-bop. The format was not song-based, nor was it the standard bop format of “head-solo-solo-solo-head-and-out.” Rather, pieces started with free-form percussion, then wandered, amoebalike, from theme to theme, melody to melody, groove to groove. It was impossible to tell which musician led the constant changes, as there were few visual cues revealing the collective thought process of the group, and no obvious aural cues, either. This was a matter of a long-performing group of musicians so telepathically into one another’s heads that such things weren’t necessary. The music moved happily of its own accord. In other words, the Ron Carter Quartet are the ultimate jam band.

Pianist Stephen Scott traveled equally with Gershwin, Mozart, and pop references, along with generous doses of impressionistic fury and dirty blues. Drummer Peyton Crossley mixed technical mastery and control with the deepest of grooves, which he carried even as he played against time, as he often did. Percussionist Steve Croon, whacking away at a variety of objects both familiar and unique, served as the color commentator, comic foil, and grounding force of the band. A full-time percussionist may seem like an odd post in a jazz quartet, but here it made perfect sense, and allowed for richer forays into Afro-Cuban and Brazilian worlds that would otherwise be possible.

Like any great show, it seemed like it was over way too soon. Carter invited the healthy crowd back for the next night’s show, promising a couple more sets of completely different music. Tantalizing.

—Paul Rapp


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