Now Playing: The Aaron Lebos Reality

There was a time when the word “fusion,” as well as all of the attempts at jazz/rock hybridization to which it applied, was anathema in many music circles. Highbrow critics were loath to see jazz’s maiden flower despoiled by the randy rhythms of rock, and rock fans rued the attenuation of the mighty riff by strange harmonies and lengthy solo digressions.

All of that notwithstanding, Aaron Lebos is forced to fess up. “I don’t like to use the term, but we’re fusion,” says Lebos of his Miami-based trio, the Aaron Lebos Reality. “And if you stay true to the word – it refers to a ‘fusion’ of different styles – that’s definitely what we are.

“I like funk. I love straight jazz. I love rock, and I love indie rock. And there are times when all of that kind of naturally comes together for me.”

Having received his Master’s degree in jazz performance from the University of Miami some years back, Lebos is an in-demand touring and session musician, having worked with a veritable who’s who of South Florida performers. Drummer Rodolofa Zuniga is similarly situated, laden with teaching gigs at three South Florida colleges, and boasting a sideman resume that includes world tours with Julio Iglesias.

Having played together on many projects past, the two men founded the Aaron Lebos Reality some six years ago. (Original bassist Eric England, also an accomplished session man, is departing soon, his departure necessitated by a relo to L. A.).

“I’m a sideman,” Lebos says. “I work with other artists, do recording sessions, play in a lot of different styles. At some point I realized, I’ll always be a sideman. It’s how I make my money. But I wanted an outlet to be creative just for me. So I started writing music, and that morphed into this group.”

Lebos’ is an egalitarian brand of fusion; the Reality is not so much a guitarist’s solo project as a band that happens to led by a guitarist. And while Lebos likes to stretch out when the moment is right — he’s a tasty, accessible  player, setting up his jazzier extended runs with Jeff Beck-ish rock phrases and bits of blues — other Reality members and guests are afforded equal time in the sun.

And his compositions, while still colored by curious harmonies and the occasional odd time signature, are nonetheless structured around simple melodies, undergirded by simmering funk.

“If there is a difference between us and what I might call a ‘real’ fusion group, it’s that our songs are still built around the group, and there’s a stronger melodic element,” Lebos says. “And funk has become more of an influence in what we do the last couple years or so. A lot of our tunes have a very definite pocket.

“Live, we adapt according to where we’re playing. At a noisy bar, we may play more funk, rock and bluesy stuff. Now we’ve got a gig coming up at an art café in Atlanta, and there we can play some ballads, without worrying so much about keeping the energy high. I have a wide variety of compositions — some of it’s hard rocking, some of it’s jazzy, some of it’s funkier. No matter what, though, there’s always room for us to stretch out. And it still manages to come out sounding like us.”

The Aaron Lebos Reality will play Preservation Pub Friday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m.

Now Playing: The Kenny George Band

There’s a plain-spoken quality in the music of Aiken, S.C. bandleader Kenny George that speaks to the soul of what Americana is supposed to be. It’s as if George has spent the last 10 years stripping away the artifice and excess that sometimes attends the music, elements like the self-conscious neo-traditionalism or the jam-band-style profligacy, and distilled something so ineffably true as to defy any further definition or ornament.

George founded the band back in 2007, along with drummer Bucky Brown, as a way to make extra cash playing covers on the college circuit. George tells that from the beginning, the band liked to work in the odd original song between renditions of “Whipping Post” and “Brown-Eyed Girl.”

Steeped in the music of classic folk and rock singer-songwriters like John Prine and Jackson Browne, and, later, classic Americana like Blue Mother Tupelo and Whiskeytown, George began to diversify the band’s mix of cover songs, incorporating more alt-country, less classic Rawk. The band also began dropping in an ever greater selection of George’s own original songs.

“We knew we didn’t want to be the band still playing ‘Wagon Wheel’ every night after 20 years,” George laughs. “But it was a pretty natural process; we always played what we wanted to play.”

So it was with no small deliberation that the band finally recorded their 2014 debut “Gunshy,” seven songs of solid bedrock Americana, tunes that would do even one of George’s own alt-country heroes proud.

Looking back, George says he has mixed feelings about the record, though that’s probably due in no small part to his having a new record — this year’s “Borrowed Trouble” — absorbing the whole of his affections.

“I was really proud of ‘Gunshy’ at the time, but I have a hard time listening to it now,” he says. “That record had songs written over years and years. Some of the songs were written before I was even in this band. So maybe it didn’t have the consistency in tone that the new record has.

“I feel like the new record is a better screen shot of where the band is right now. It captures the energy of the band much better. It has more of a rock ‘n’ roll feel, while still keeping the country influence. But there’s more of a rock drive, more electric guitar and more guitar solos.”

If the new record is different, the band’s work ethic has stayed the same. George says the band typically plays upward of 150 shows a year, a rigorous touring schedule that prompted one Columbia scribe to label them the “ubiquitous dive-bar dogs” of the South Carolina music scene.

“About three or four years ago, we made a decision that we were going to get ourselves out there, really hit the road and push our music online,” George says. “It’s gotten to the point over the last couple years where we can go into different markets, and we know we’ll have a crowd. People will sing along and ask us to play favorites, and the songs they’re asking for are ours.”

The Kenny George Band will play Preservation Pub on Friday, Oct. 20 beginning at 8 p.m.

Now Playing: And the Echo

Oxford, Miss.-based singer-songwriter Morgan Pennington had in mind to record an album of Brandi Carlile-esque folk-rock when she approached local producer Winn McElroy in 2014. McElroy, a child of the ’80s with a serious synthesizer jones, heard her first track and decided he had other plans.

“When I heard her sing, in my mind I could hear more than just her voice and the acoustic guitar,” McElroy says. “I made it darker, stripped it down and rebuilt the track from scratch.”

McElroy says he initially hesitated to show off his meddlesome enterprise, for fear of Pennington’s reaction. He needn’t have worried. “I loved it,” Pennington says. “It was something I would never have thought that I could be doing. My only concern was pulling it off live.”

McElroy helped on that count, too. When Pennington received an offer to play the Double Decker music festival in Oxford, McElroy pulled together some extra synths and a temporary band. Soon thereafter, he and Pennington began writing songs together in earnest, under the new moniker And the Echo.

And the Echo’s music brings to mind the best of the 1980s New Wave and synth-pop movement, undergirded by the same dark currents of moody electronica that characterized Depeche Mode, only with Pennington’s bright, lissome vox carrying the melody over top of it all, rather than David Gahan’s mopey tenor.

“I grew up loving bands like Depeche Mode and New Order,” McElroy explains. “Later, I got into a lot of synth-driven soundtrack music, lots of horror movie soundtracks from the ’70s and ’80s. And having a studio for over 10 years, I accumulated a few synthesizers, and I liked to play with them. Most of my work is recording guitar-bass-drums rock bands, so the synthesizers were sort of my way of escaping from that.”

The band has two records now, 2016’s “And the Echo I” and this year’s “And the Echo II.” McElroy describes the first platter as “us throwing a lot of things against the wall and seeing what would stick.” On the latest, he says, “we knew more what we wanted to do… The songs stand on their own now, whereas on the first, they were more dependent on having that wall of sound.”

Which is just as well, given that McElroy and Pennington plan on entering the studio again in November, and recording a third album with less electronic ornamentation than its predecessors. “We’ve been bringing back the guitar a little, and there’s going to be more of it on this next record,” McElroy says. “At the same time, we’re stripping back some of the wall of sound. We’re being a little simpler, letting the songs stand for themselves.”

And the Echo will play Preservation Pub Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 9 p.m.

Now Playing: Ragged Union

Boulder, Colo.-based bluegrass band Ragged Union certainly sound like traditionalists, what with their winsome stacked vocal harmonies and their canonical deployment of the guitar-mandolin-fiddle-banjo-bass format, and the way the band’s stringsmen deftly navigate dizzying ensemble passages…

But listen close, and you’ll notice cracks in the facade of their orthodoxy, the occasional stylistic and songwriting nods to rock ‘n’ roll, and lyrics that often stray far from the hardscrabble hillbilly tropes — on songs like “Rented Room” and “Half Lit Parking Lot” and “Moonshine Boogie,” all from their forthcoming release “Time Captain.”

“I like the sound of traditional bluegrass, the melodic and rhythmic patterns and the harmony singing,” says Union, who founded the band along with wife and fellow vocalist Christina Union. “But I also have a rock ‘n’ roll background, and I’m steeped in the songwriting tradition of artists like Billy Joe Shavers and Townes Van Zandt.

“All of that led to my songwriting being less traditional, with more modern lyrics and sometimes modern arrangements, paired with old-timey melodic ideas.”

North Carolina native Union grew up like so many musical children of the 1980s, playing electric guitar in standard-issue Rawk outfits, even passing through what he describes as a “minor heavy metal phase.” It wasn’t until college — when someone played him an old Doc Watson record, no less — that the mid-20-something Union ditched his pedals and amplifiers and set out in a new direction.

“Bluegrass became a listening and playing obsession for me,” Union says. “It was difficult, at first, going from playing electric guitar to traditional flat-picked acoustic guitar. It took me a lot of years to actually sound like a guy who had been playing acoustic for all his life. But now if I pick up an electric guitar, it freaks me out a little. It’s so easy for me to play, it’s almost disconcerting.”

After playing in a variety of other bluegrass-oriented projects, Geoff and Christina founded Ragged Union in 2011. They eventually settled in Boulder, where built the band around a roster of veritable all-star musicians, including Tennessee native Jordan Ramsey, a national mandolin championship winner, and East Tennessee State University alumni David Richey on bass.

Union says the band’s mix of tradition and iconoclasm makes for a comfortable if occasionally odd fit in Colorado, the state a renowned haven for hippie kids and jam-band aficionados. “The college kids love jam bands, and that crosses over into an appreciation for what we do,” he says. “We do some of those types of festivals, and we’ll pick songs that those folks might appreciate more. The dancers and the partiers love it. But I think, maybe, that the traditional crowds love it just a little bit more.”

Ragged Union will play Preservation Pub Thursday, Oct. 26 at 10 p.m.

 

Now Playing: Otis

Rumbling out of the heart of rural Kentucky like some raw-boned hillbilly with a bad attitude and a head full of sour mash whiskey, Glasgow’s Otis raise an awfully big ruckus for a group of four small-town boys. Founded about five years ago, the band made their boisterous introductions in 2014 with “Tough Times: A Tribute to John Brim,” a 10-song homage to a Kentucky bluesman who made his name in mid-century Chicago.

Guitarist Steve Jewell tells that he and his fellow band members had known each other most of their lives when they started Otis, and bonded over their shared affinity for Chess Records and classic blues rock, Cream and Led Zeppelin and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The recording of “Tough Times,” however, was key to creating what would become Otis’ trademark heavy-Southern sound. “Some really great people helped us on that record, and it inspired us,” Jewell says. “It made us dig, and study, looking at different tunings, different picking styles, different ways of singing. And it had a lot of effect on our songwriting.

“As musicians, we’re all very curious about the roots of the music we listen to. If we hear Joe Perry say he listens to Johnny Winter, then we go check out Johnny Winter. And then Johnny Winter says he likes Slim Harpo, and we’ll keep going back and back. We’re always looking at where this record was made, or who the musicians were on that session, or who the producer was for that release. We try to be like sponges, soaking up as much information about the music as we can.”

The result is that Otis make music that’s at once familiar, yet hard to pin down — pummeling and inexorable, possessed of the primal essence of bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson, the whole of it leavened by southern rock and the sounds of rural Kentucky, bluegrass and honky-tonk and old-time mountain music.

“Growing up around here, we heard a steady diet of bluegrass and folk and country music,” Jewell says. “What we try to do is distill whatever it is that makes great music what it is — the honesty, the storytelling, the raw emotion. You can listen to Howlin’ Wolf and Bill Monroe, and you can hear some kind of common thread there, the honesty of it. That’s what we’re looking for.

“It’s always interesting for us to read reviews from people who listen to the band. Some people hear the Southern elements, others say we sound like Clutch, and other say Johnny Winters or the Allman Brothers or Skynyrd. But whatever it is they hear, it always goes back to something in our roots in the blues or Southern rock ‘n’ roll.”

The band is touring now on the strength of their freshly-pressed sophomore release “Eyes of the Sun,” an 11-song album that showcases all the lessons learned over the course of the “Tough Times” sessions, plus five years of touring and performing as a unit. Having already garnered a shout-out from no less a blues-rock luminary than ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons, “Eyes” hits home with all the barreling locomotive impact of its predecessor, only with deeper grooves, and sharper, more delineated hooks.

But Jewell warns that the trajectory of the band’s evolution is still on a sharp upward climb. “We’re planning to be around for a little while,” he says. “Hopefully, we can spread some kind of positivity. And maybe somewhere along the way we’d like to write something that people will remember for a long time to come.”

Otis will play Preservation Pub Saturday, Oct. 7 at 10 p.m.