Now, THAT’s Country

Close your eyes. Go on.

The kick drum and electric bass hit together, right in your chest. The guitars swirl in a savage spin; they kick, knit, unfurl.

It’s 1966, and the Count Five’s psychedelic-thrash classic explodes out of the radio.

No, it’s live, and it’s now – from the stage in The Egg Sunday night.

It fills your ears so powerfully, they over-rule your eyes and you can’t believe it.

That glorious noise blasts from an Opry-worthy country band, 1957-style. 

Most country-looking: guitarist Kenny Vaughan, a full-on rhinestone cowboy from sequined sky-blue stetson and gleaming white spangled suit to stiletto-toed white boots. A veritable blade of a man, he looks like a fork when he smiles. To his left rocks the only cat onstage in black, like his former boss Johnny Cash; Marty Stuart packs the charisma kick of a compact Elvis with swaggering confidence that he’ll entertain and maybe knock you on your ass. Behind him drums Harry Stinson, lean as Vaughn, and as propulsive. Far stage left, taciturn Chris Scruggs welds bass lines to drumbeats with no fuss or frills.

It’s a country band, maybe the best on the road today – but pitching curve-balls. Authentic as the Rocky Mountains, they’re deep as the Gulf of Mexico.

Sunday in The Egg’s Hart Theatre, they started with the hypnotic 1960s “Outer Limits” TV theme and pushed the limits of country music WAY out there in a slick, strong show. At times, they sounded as country as they looked; as when Vaughan harmonized with Stuart on one mic in “Ghost Train,” their actual opener. Then Stuart quipped “Thank you, and good night” into the applause, but then lit up “Tempted” in somber honky-tonk neon; another Vaughan guitar solo salting the wound. 

The singalong in “This One’s Gonna Hurt You For a Long, Long Time” never caught fire: awed audiences don’t sing that well, and Vaughan again riffed the heart and soul of the song. Stuart did get everybody clapping on the one in his new pandemic paean “Sitting Alone,” tracing a suspended life. 

Citing the weather, they declared Albany surf music capital of the world and went all sunny-twangy, but their riff force was no joke. Neither was the rueful “Matches” – first tune when Stuart and the boys grabbed up acoustic instruments but managed to sound menacing anyway. They borrowed George Jones’s “Old Old House” but paid it back with interest; a slow waltz capped with an a cappella coda. In the faster trucker saga “Tombstone Every Mile,” they stretched out, jazz-wise; as they later did in “Me and Paul.” Both “Country Music’s Got a Hold on Me” and “Hot Like That” grabbed and held, rocking hard as Vaughan’s solos – he also sang both – pulled those tunes this way and that.

Stuart proved country’s hold by reaching for familiar touchstones, including “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Working Anymore,” with a zippy coda, and Bob Wills’s “Working Man’s Blues” in a real Opry sequence.  

Then things got both sillier and more serious, as drummer Harry Stinson came to the front with a small snaredrum strapped on.

As the band surged into another surf-rock detour with “Wipe Out,” Stinson played the famous tom tolls, on his cheeks. Stinson stayed center stage and sang Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” And in case anybody missed its business-suited villains “some rob you with a fountain pen” accusation, he repeated it. 

Things turned serene with the Dylan/Byrds “Flow, River Flow,” and they stayed in tribute mode for Willie Nelson’s sentimental “Me and Paul.” Stuart sent the band off, becoming again the hot-rod mandolin player he first became in his teens, soloing on “Orange Blossom Special.”

He then summoned the band back on. He calls them the Fabulous Superlatives for good reason, and I’ll be surprised to hear any band, any band, play better than they did Sunday night at The Egg. The driving “Time Don’t Wait” was both warning and celebration, a terrific rocker whose reprise ended the set.

Encore time was both a rocking romp with “Psychotic Reaction” – a left field zinger that came and went via outer space – and deeply comforting in “Ready for the Times to Get Better.” Vaughn and Stuart both went riff crazy in “Psychotic,” Stuart launching its roar with harmonica, tearing into a trebly clatter with his guitar, dancing the Nervous Hair while Vaughan steered the song, with HIS guitar. Both played with great tone all night, lots of notes at times, and all in the right soulful places.

After all that uproar, “Ready for the Times to Get Better” brought things home. Stuart dedicated this Allen Reynolds tune (a late-70s hit for Crystal Gayle) to the late, great Nashville pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who’d died that day. 

Offering pandemic-era consolation while paying tribute to a fallen elder, now that’s country. 

Postscript:

My Nashville musician brother Jim Hoke had told Kenny Vaughan that I’d be at the show. So afterward, I went to the stage door; when Harry Stinson peaked out, I introduced myself and asked him to let Kenny know I was there. Soon, Kenny appeared, asked, “I hear Jim Hoke’s brother is here” and looked around. I stepped up and he drew me inside and offered a nice welcome. He led me to the dressing room where everybody but Chris Scruggs was doing the meet and greet and a few fans were shyly hanging out. Kenny said, “Hey, everybody, I want to introduce this guy. He’s Mike and he’s Jim Hoke’s brother.” Appreciative, welcoming words from all around the room. As others greeted Kenny, I went over to Marty and thanked him for a hot one. “We NEEDED that!” I told him.

Postscript Two

As the coolest show to hit town for months, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives was well covered – kinda like in the old days when we music writers were all friends and would meet up at all the cool shows: Greg Haymes, Steve Webb, Debbie Snook, Don Wilcock, Carlo Wolff, Michael Eck and me. We were a club, and helped and supported each other, even while competing to do the best job possible because we knew other sharp eyes, ears, minds and pens were aimed at the same show.

But I digress.

For now, let me suggest you check out the words and photos of others who hit The Egg last Sunday including Don Wilcock, aforementioned, and Jim Gilbert in Nippertown; and Ed Conway on his Facebook page.

Blue Rhapsody on a Gray Day

The Mountain Music Club continues, somehow.

We’ve met many dead-of-winter weekends to listen, talk about and geek out on music. For 30-plus years, we convened mainly in the far-Adirondacks home of host Stephen Horne, toting totes full of CDs and vinyl, of food and drink including Perreca’s favorites, artisan beers, and old whiskey. And we always, always, stopped at the Noonmark Diner to grab pies on the way northwest on Rt. 73. Same thing, on the way home.

The Rice Mountain Lodge, home of Stephen Horne and Kevan Moss; site of many Mountain Music Club meet-ups.

We’ve also savored the scene in Northampton where Dennis Bidwell lives and hosts us, with tasty brew-pub crawls, ethnic eats, live shows at the Academy of Music, Iron Horse or Calvin Theater and eye-popping pilgrimages to the Smith College art gallery.

But, no; not since the pandemic struck.

Our last face-to-face, or stereo-to-face, gathering was in January 2020.

As ever, we signed off with our customary closer: the late, great Allen Toussaint singing Paul Simon’s “American Tune” – a soulful send-off supreme.

So, what now?

We ZOOM some, and we phone some; but mostly we email and share online links to music and videos we think the rest of the crew will like.

Today’s email from Dennis hit that nail on the head. Here are the guy’s own words:

You know I’m an enthusiast for the BBC podcast Soul Music.  I recently listened to the podcast on Rhapsody in Blue and the genius of George Gershwin and how Rhapsody came together and how various musicians react to it. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b03zb49y.

So yesterday I found a Youtube of remarkable pianist Khatia Buniatishvili performing Rhapsody recently with the Lyon Symphony. Over the years I’ve seen/heard many performances of Rhapsody, and once tried to play* portions of it, but I’ve never experienced so enthralling a performance of Rhapsody as this one.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEJeNuF8gb8I’m done in by the opening clarinet glissando, and she takes it from there.

Wow! She does, indeed.

Before this, my favorite “Rhapsody in Blue” recording was by Gershwin himself. My 1987 vinyl combines the 1925 player piano roll Gershwin played, with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Old technology note: A player piano roll is a long paper sheet with holes punched in it, corresponding to notes a pianist plays. The player piano reads the notes from the paper and plays them.)

For passion and precision, Buniatishvili’s performance stands tall beside the composer’s own.

Born in Batumi in what was then the Soviet Socialistic Republic of Georgia, Buniatishvili proves that great music stays great, regardless of time; and that music moves from place to place and player to player, regardless of distance. 

Buniatishvili engages the piano with her entire body, heart and soul. It’s not theatrical, it’s essential; her essence expressing Gershwin’s. 

Credits pop up during the performance, explaining that behind her piano is the Orchestre National de Lyon in France. Leonard Slatkin conducts them, as the camera finds soloists in their showcase moments of Gershwin’s kaleidoscopic score.

The camera also finds Buniatishvili’s face, smiling as others carry the melody, then goes intent with concentration, sometimes holding the smile.

Also on the program, the video text announces: Aaron Copeland’s rambunctious “Billy the Kid,” and Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” a truly hallucinatory orchestral work and one of my favorites. Four performances of that are in my record shelves, and six of Symphony No. 5 of Dmitry Shostakovich, but I digress.

Some years ago, I read of a mixed media performance of the Berlioz, filmed by Basil Twist. What a great name for any creative soul, particularly this bravely eccentric one. Twist stirs scarves and tinsel through colored lights in an aquarium that his camera scans, as a pianist distills Berlioz’s score into a Gershwin-ish at times jazzy vigor.

The New Yorker saluted this Berlioz-Twist creation: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/02/the-return-of-basil-twists-underwater-puppet-show

Re-reading it, I think, again, that I should pay the $20 to see it. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/symphoniefantastique.

Meanwhile, the Khatia Buniatishvili performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” resonates through me. 

Check out her big flourish as she completes a phrase and soars her hands high over the keyboard in jubilation. It happens at 15:40** and it’s clear, gloriously clear, that she’s expressing a shared triumph, both Gershwin’s and her own.

*In a Nashville stop-over visit to my brother Jim’s place en route to my first ever Jazz Fest in New Orleans, Jim arranged a visit to RCA Studio B where great giants made rocking records. The studio manager reverently retrieved a silvery-RCA ribbon mic from a cabinet, announcing this magical machine had carried the voice of Elvis to tape. Dennis sat down at the Steinway grand piano where Floyd Cramer recorded “Last Date” – maybe the most poignant honky-tonk love song ever made.

** Any area rock and roll fan of sufficient (my) age recognizes these digits as the AM frequency of WPTR, one of two top 1960s radio stations that brought us the best tunes of the time – also, of course, the worst and most mediocre, come to that. When I spot those numbers, I automatically recall the station’s jaunty jingle: “Fifteen-forty; W-P-T-R!”

Negative

A few days ago, when the world looked like a glazed donut, I thanked my lucky stars that last winter, for the first time, I discovered that keeping an ice scraper in the house works better than trying to tug open a frozen car door to get the ice scraper inside it.

I joined my neighbors in a symphony of scratch-scratch, up and down the street.

See, in these months, everything seems to take more time and effort.

Here’s a winter-stupid example: 

Remembering that our fat bag of ice-melt was in a locked toolshed behind our garage, I blithely grabbed the key and went out to snag it and spread it everywhere. 

But, no. The lock was locked, with ice. 

So, back I went into the house to rummage around for a spray can of de-icer; then back out, to the scene of the cursing. 

Spritz-spritz. Tried the key again. But, no. 

Cursed my way back into the house – sometimes Navy vocabulary training is JUST the thing. 

Filled a saucepan with water and cranked up a burner under it. Put boots and gloves back on, again; toted the steaming pot out to the lock, slipping and sliding on the very iced-up path and trying not to fall and scald my ass. 

The lock hasp is mounted so high on the doorframe that I couldn’t see, from below, through the pot, whether I was actually managing to immerse the lock in the boiling water. Struggled with that, a while. 

Tried the key in the lock. But, no. Crescendo of cursing. 

Re-immersed the lock…I think. Tried the key again. 

Very grudging cooperation. 

A reluctant, slow, slow turning; with odd crunching noises.

Lock and key were now dripping boiling water and aromatic de-icing chemical. Toted that recalcitrant, redundant “security” system back inside, plopped it on a Gazette newspaper section to ooze and dry. 

Mitts and boots back on, again, I went back out to where I’d tugged the ice-melt bag from the shed. Picked it up – 40 pounds, slippery plastic, and my gloves were slick with the aforementioned unlocking compound. Struggled with it across the crusty tundra of our back yard, slipping and sliding – salty language having NO effect on the ice underfoot.

Then, Zak ice-melted our walkway, front steps and sloping driveway, so Ellie could get to an errand with less risk to life and limb.

She went to get a COVID test.

Results: NEGATIVE.