Music: Stacked and Loaded

Ten must-see musical acts to catch at this week's Tall Stacks festival

Oct 4, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Keith Klenowski

Dr. John

· Sonny Landreth (5:45 p.m. Wednesday, Great American Insurance Group Stage)

Sonny Landreth is much too humble and soft-spoken to coronate himself King of the Slide Guitarists. Then again, he doesn't really have to. His powerfully muscular yet infinitely subtle style proves that the crown belongs squarely on his dome. Since starting out with Zydeco legend Clifton Chenier in the '70s, Landreth has collaborated with an impossible range of artists — John Mayall, Jimmy Buffett, John Hiatt, Gov't Mule — and maintained a solid solo career that has resulted in a number of acclaimed albums, including the Grammy-nominated The Road We're On in 2003. But don't take our word for it. Three years ago, Eric Clapton (who was once proclaimed a deity by graffiti artists all over London) witnessed Landreth's incendiary performance at the Crossroads Festival and subsequently tagged the guitarist as "the most underestimated musician on the planet and also probably one of the most advanced." That's pretty heady praise. Amazingly, Landreth lives up to it in every performance. (BB)

· Chatham County Line (6:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Edyth & Carl Lindner Stage)

A wise man noted long ago that it was ill advised to judge a book by its cover, and Chatham County Line is the living embodiment of that concept. If one were to make an assumption about CCL's sound based on the drummer-less quartet's stage array of acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos, fiddles and a stand-up bass (all being handled by guys in suits and string ties singing into a single microphone), the assumption would logically fall in favor of Bluegrass. And while there are certainly strong elements of Bluegrass and Country in CCL's presentation, the band kicks up enough of a fuss on stage that the sound is not dissimilar to a Rock band testing Country waters on some acoustic basement demos. Chatham County Line can gear up to raucous and back down to reverent at the drop of a porkpie hat so make sure your dancing shoes are set simultaneously to pinwheelingly manic and shufflingly morose. (BB)

· Asleep at the Wheel (4:50 p.m. Wednesday, Lindner Stage)

For the past three-and-a-half decades, Asleep at the Wheel has been the driving force behind the resurgence and evolution of Western Swing music. When the band first assembled in West Virginia in 1970 under the direction of 6-foot-7-inch frontman Ray Benson, they began as a standard Country band, but switched gears after hearing Merle Haggard's Bob Wills tribute album. After a Berkeley, Calif., residency led to their debut album, 1973's Comin' Right at Ya, the band moved to Austin, Tex., where they have remained (AATW appeared on the first non-pilot airing of the long-running PBS music series, Austin City Limits). Through numerous labels and constant personnel shifts (the band has rotated over 80 members in their 36-year history), AATW has not only kept the spirit of Western Swing alive and well, but has furthered the cause by injecting new life and passion into the genre, serving as both reverent students and bold visionaries. Asleep at the Wheel has enjoyed hits and languished in obscurity, won seven Grammys and barely survived, but through it all they've stayed true to their Western Swing vision. (BB)

· Delbert McClinton (10:05 p.m. Friday, Lindner Stage)

Texas Blues/Country/Rock singer/songwriter Delbert McClinton's 45-year music career is the stuff of legend: He gave John Lennon harmonica lessons while touring England with Bruce Chanel in 1962; he recorded seminal Country Rock with his duo Delbert and Glen in the early '70s; John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd championed his songwriting by including his "B Movie Boxcar Blues" on their Blues Brothers album; and Emmylou Harris covered his classic "Two More Bottles of Wine." McClinton has survived the demons of his chemical excesses with the same tenacity that has seen him through the demise of nearly every label that has signed him, and he's outlasted the corporate hellhounds who kept him in a legal limbo that prevented him from recording for half a decade. In 2001, McClinton had the last laugh when Nothing Personal, the first album he had ever done without the cloth-eared interference of a major label, earned him his first solo Grammy (he'd won 10 years earlier with his duet with Bonnie Raitt, "Good Man, Good Woman") for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Since then, Delbert McClinton has done what he damn well pleases, and that damn well pleases everyone. (BB)

· yerbabuena (2:25 p.m. Saturday, GAIG Stage)

Led by vocalist/composer/multi-instrumentalist Tato Torres, yerbabuena is a New York City collective whose prime directive is to expose the wider world to the passion and joy of the fiery musical styles native to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Torres and yerbabuena faithfully celebrate Puerto Rican musical traditions like Plena, Musica Jibara and Bomba without abandoning the obvious heritage and timeless qualities the genres embody while incorporating contemporary structures in their translations. From their seminal beginnings at the acclaimed Rincón Criollo Cultural Center in the Bronx in 1999, Torres and yerbabuena have sought to bring vitality and modernity into long-held Puerto Rican musical traditions in an effort to rescue them from the inevitable folklore tag by making them living, evolving styles. Considerably more than just a band, the members of yerbabuena are contemporary ambassadors for the rich cultural and musical identity of Puerto Rico, simultaneously embracing the past while inventing the future. (BB)

· William Lee Ellis and Tony Ellis (3:10 p.m. Saturday, E&CL Stage)

If you believe in such things, Americana singer/guitarist William Lee Ellis was destined to be a musician. His father is famed banjoist Tony Ellis, best known as one of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys (the elder Ellis performs with his son at Tall Stacks). Monroe is also William Lee's godfather. Instead of just saying "it's in my blood" and diving into his career, Ellis came to Cincinnati to get his chops up, earning a master's in Classical performance at UC's College-Conservatory of Music. While here, the guitarist was turned on to the Rev. Gary Davis, a Blues legend known for his dazzling finger-picking style. This sent Ellis deep into exploration, as he studied the work of other bluesmen and started The Midnight Steppers, which featured co-leader Larry Nager, the former Cincinnati Enquirer music writer and still a frequent collaborator of Ellis' (Ellis and Nager also co-produced Big Joe Jumps Again!, the comeback album from Cincy Blues great Big Joe Duskin). Ellis eventually struck out on his own and combined his varied influences and studies to come up with an alluring Americana sound that takes from Blues, Gospel, Folk, Country, Bluegrass and other Roots forms, but ends up in a place all its own, thanks to his somewhat contemporized songwriting style. Ellis — also an accomplished music journalist who's currently working on a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in Memphis — has released five albums; his most recent is the adventurous (yet still steeped in tradition) God's Tattoos, which was produced by famed knobsman Jim Dickinson. (MB)

· Medeski Martin & Wood (Saturday, 10 p.m. Lindner Stage)

When talking about bands that push boundaries yet still manage a wide popularity, the first names to come to mind are probably Radiohead, Wilco and The Flaming Lips. But don't forget about Medeski Martin & Wood. The Avant Garde-meets-monster-groove Jazz trio might not have the chart success to back that up, but their sold-out shows across the world should be all the evidence you need. The band — bassist Chris Wood, keysman John Medeski and drummer Billy Martin — sprung up in Brooklyn in 1991, putting out their debut, Notes from the Underground, on their own dime the following year. In '93, they signed with Grammavision (which later became Ryko) and hit the road hard. By the mid-'90s, thanks to all of the touring and intermingling with acts like Phish, MM&W became one of the top stars of the Jam band scene. Never ones to limit themselves, the trio continued to challenge their audience with dips into Electronica and the addition of DJ Logic to the fold for live shows. Signing with Blue Note Records toward the end of the '90s, MM&W began to draw wider attention from the Jazz scene as well. Medeski, Martin and Wood have all collaborated with myriad musicians during their tenure (via side projects and guest appearances on other artists' albums), which seems to help keep their own muse fresh. Recently, the trio re-teamed with legendary Jazz guitarist John Scofield, releasing the new disc Out Louder, their first recorded collaboration with Scofield since 1998's celebrated A Go Go. (MB)

· Wilco (10:45 p.m. Saturday, GAIG Stage)

Music fans got one of the greatest stock splits in history when Uncle Tupelo decided to call it a day, subdividing into Jay Farrar's Son Volt and Jeff Tweedy's Wilco. Although both bands started off as rockin', better-than-average Americana outfits, Wilco veered off into a singularly inventive direction that, like an American version of Radiohead, noisily and magnificently challenged the very definition of Pop music. If Tweedy and company had stopped evolving after the splendor of 1999's Summerteeth, their Jimmy Webb-tributes-Pet Sounds masterpiece, they would still be head and shoulders above the Roots Pop masses. But of course Tweedy is a deconstructionist in the grand tradition, which naturally led to 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a sprawling epic offering noirish Pop flourishes and squalling sonic experimentation, making it one of the oddest and most viscerally satisfying albums of that year; its contentious birth was the inadvertent subject of the film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, named for one of the album's most ambitious tracks. Wilco's evolution continued unabated on 2004's Grammy-winning A Ghost Is Born, and the band's live mastery was captured on last year's Kicking Television: Live in Chicago. Wilco's set here at Tall Stacks should be salted with a number of new tunes from an album tentatively slated for next spring. The future of Rock and Roll, indeed. (BB)

· Buddy Guy (10 p.m. Sunday, Lindner Stage)

Jimi Hendrix claimed him as an influence and a role model and greats like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Bonnie Raitt have called him the greatest guitar player ever, Blues or otherwise. Buddy Guy has been inspiring dropped jaws and slavish worship from the very start of his career, which began when the 21-year-old Guy sat in with Chicago Blues shouter Otis Rush in the late '50s. A meeting with Blues legend Willie Dixon resulted in Guy becoming the uncredited house guitarist for Chess Records' artists, including Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. After leaving Chess, Guy recorded albums with harmonica master Junior Wells before going truly solo on a string of blistering releases for a variety of small labels. In 1991, Guy released the revered Damn Right, I've Got the Blues and won the first of three consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Blues Album. In the subsequent decade and a half, Guy has seen his own iconic stature grow exponentially (it's no coincidence that his Chicago nightclub is called Buddy Guy's Legends) by way of some of the most extraordinary live performances in the modern era. Buddy Guy might damn well have, sing and play the Blues, but he's one of the top transcendent musical forces on the planet. (BB)

· Dr. John (10:45 p.m. Sunday, GAIG Stage)

With last year's tragedy in New Orleans, a lot of attention was drawn to the city's long-running musical tradition, something many have called the heart and soul of the region. Dr. John has been a huge part of that, and he's done much to help rebuild the community that helped nurture him for the past 50 years. John (born Mac Rebennack) specializes in a fine-honed brand of voodoo music, mixing Boogie Blues, R&B and Rock sprinkled with a certain Mardi Gras mystique that's made him a live favorite for decades. Heavily influenced by Professor Longhair, John is a master of N'Awlins' Blues and R&B styles, but, as the big party sound of his records suggests, he's rarely limited himself. John's cult began to build in the '70s, when he worked with big names like Mick Jagger and producer Jerry Wexler. But it was hometown faves The Meters who backed him on his only big hit, 1973's "In the Right Place." In the '90s, John mainly released albums of New Orleans and Pop standards, showing off his strong interpretative skills and keeping him on tour (though he made much of his income from singing jingles). In the late '90s, he pulled a hipper version of Santana's Supernatural when he released Anutha Zone, which featured worshiping members of Supergrass, Spiritualized and Primal Scream, helping to spark a Dr. John resurgence in England with what many called his best recorded work in years. Last year, the good Doctor released Sippiana Hericane, an EP inspired by the Katrina catastrophe, and this year saw the release of the Johnny Mercer tribute album, Mercenary, on Blue Note. Dr. John has always been best live, not just for the spectacle, but for his down and dirty performances, which seethe life-worn soulfulness. Check Right Place, Right Time: Live at Tipitina's (a live set from 1989 recently released on Hyena Records) for a warm up. (MB)

Tall Stacks Coverage on the Web
Find photo shows and blog recaps of all five nights of music at the 2006 Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival at