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Randy Whitt; Protean Spook; Mighty Lester

Local Reviews 

Randy Whitt

We've Had Some Trouble

(self-released)

click to enlarge mus_cdreviewsrandywhitt_531.jpg

This third release from Pittsboro-raised, Chapel Hill-based Randy Whitt is an album of subtle mood swings and quietly memorable lines, a chronicle of angels, prodigal sons and other wanderers (wanna-be and otherwise) who split the difference between shadowy and saintly.

Like its title, We've Had Some Trouble is understated by design, with Whitt's calming tonic voice turning extra expressive only when it makes perfect sense to do so. Those moments--along with supporting cameos from members of Shark Quest, The Old Ceremony and Two Dollar Pistols on accordion, cello, Fender Rhodes and the like--offer enough in the way of dynamics to keep it from being a one-mode affair.

"(The) Look in Your Eyes" confidently sets the stage with horns, pedal steel and ghost-of-Charlie-Rich piano taking turns stage-whispering in the background. Headphones are recommended for maximum detection and appreciation of the layers, ideally on a stormy night like the one on which the song's protagonist hits the road.

Indeed, it's a serious songwriter who depicts a sunset as the funeral of the sun. But the key line is a recurring one from the harmonica-launched "Pretty Dress." "Standing all alone in your pretty dress/ It's an image I'll never forget," promises Whitt, backed by guest harmonies from John Howie Jr. The pretty dress part rings particularly meaningful: You can look at We've Had Some Trouble as a singer/songwriter album gussied up with pearl snap buttons and a tasteful cowboy hat.

To draw a parallel between the bottled-up emotions on the record and the medicine bottle shown on a window sill in the CD booklet would be a bit opportunistic. But the "Yee-haw!" that Whitt lets fly a full minute after the album-closing "Suit of Clothes" fades out does sound like someone finally tearing the lid off.

"I'm a man with dreams who hates his own songs," Whitt sings on "(The) Look in Your Eyes." That should be proof enough that the song isn't autobiographical. The way the contents of We've Had Some Trouble are caressed and gently coaxed to gorgeous life is clearly Whitt's labor of love. --Rick Cornell

Protean Spook

Live at the Penland School of Crafts DVD

(Graflex Division)

click to enlarge One man, many sounds: Protean Spook
  • One man, many sounds: Protean Spook

Stare intently at the man behind the wall of splayed circuits: He may disappear. Randy Ward's one-man rhythmic apparatus Protean Spook was frightfully under-recorded before he died of cancer in 2004. This live footage of a party held at Penland breathes with the rarified air of a man going unhinged with his machinery.

Ward was a member of Metal Flake Mother and Family Dollar Pharaohs, two Chapel Hill bands that injected rock and echo-heavy instrumentals with a sense of mystery.

Later, though, Protean Spook was his mad passion. He fused his love of bastardized electronics and handyman crafts, bending circuits, tweaking toy ray guns and digital programming into a maelstrom of tight percussion and overloaded effects. Ward took nods from one of his favorite groups, the Silver Apples, who built their own synthesizers out of old oscillators and created wobbly beats and otherworldly drones. Protean Spook was as an ongoing project, part old furniture assemblage, part robotic instrumentation (with a real drum set that played itself). That also meant Ward was part of the construction.

On Live at the Penland, he instantly captivates the assembled partygoers, electrifying the whole scene by dancing to one of his own drumbeats while tossing off his coat, then shirt--pure shamanistic reverie, Ward grooving on the whole shebang in the dim lights of the performance hall.

Through the night, Ward contorts himself and his equipment--processing his voice into a cyborg squelch, frying feedback from a rigged saw, moving from body-moving rhythms to Chrome-like replicant punk. At times, his oneness with the machines takes over, as if pieces of steel might fly onto his body like armor plating, like a character from the film Tetsuo (Iron Man).

Filmmaker Tom Laney captured the enigmatic night in the mountains: "After the show, we were treated to an amazing view of the moon--riding in the back of a pick-up truck down a mountain road to a party ... later that night we got to crash at a Penland dorm building that reportedly has a reputation for being haunted. It was a very memorable weekend," he says. This memorable film documents one of our area's visionary artists. --Chris Toenes

Mighty Lester

We Are Mighty Lester

(self-released)

click to enlarge mus_cdreviewsmightlester_53.jpg

If you like your blues hot, honkin', jumpin' and jivin', Mighty Lester's got what you need. The Raleigh-based, horn-heavy octet pumps out jump blues and classic R&B from the '50s to the '70s.

Guitarist Lenny Terenzi strings up a framework based on the stylings of the two blues Kings, Albert and B.B., with some Albert Collins and T-Bone Walker tossed in for spice. Todd Newberry is Lester's voice, his gospel background providing a righteous element to the band's back-alley blues and Stax vocabulary.

But Lester's backbone is the horn section. Baritone saxman Joe Sunseri was Gatemouth Brown's musical director for eight years and has played with Frank Sinatra, the Temptations, Tony Bennett and Bonnie Raitt. Lester tenor and soprano saxman Jeff Thomas and trumpeter Alan Almasy punctuate the proceedings with Sunseri, shaking loose bone-rattling honks that quicken the pulse and motivate the feet.

On their latest, We Are Mighty Lester, the band captures the feel of '40s jump blues with originals "Gonna Ball Tonight" and "Whiskey Head Mama." They find a '60s soul groove with "Give My Love a Try," a tune that sounds like it would be at home in Otis Redding's mouth.

The band does a couple of covers, but their originals are good enough to sound like the classics. Mighty Lester is not a novelty act or a retro gimmick, but a band of musical brothers who understand, appreciate and, most importantly, are able to translate the feel of a bygone era into modern language. --Grant Britt

  • Randy Whitt; Protean Spook; Mighty Lester

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