RIYL Good Music –Saintseneca

There was a time when being a music journalist (“critic” is too harsh) meant trying to turn people on to new music by explaining and describing it in a way that would convince readers to seek it out. And in Ye Olden Days, that usually meant tracking sound down and buying it on some kind of physical media.  Now that there’s a firehose of free content coming at us 24/7 from all sides, I feel my “job” (even when there’s no paycheck?) is to talk about stuff I enjoy and point people to links they can use to hear for themselves.

The “Recommended If You Like…” or FFO (“For Fans Of…”) tag is easy shorthand to help introduce a new band. In the case of Ohio’s indie-rock/folk/psych musical collective Saintseneca, led by songwriter/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Zac Little, I could refer to the likes of The Decemberists, maybe a little Mumfordism, even a touch of early Led Zep “bustle in your hedgerow” fairytale-telling, but it’s hard to pin the band down. American Songwriter once wrote, “It’s as if Conor Oberst was fronting Arcade Fire” and that’s a good one.

When it comes to acts that aren’t radio favorites, I’m always fascinated to hear how people first heard/heard of them. My Saintseneca origin story dates to April, 2015 when my Dr. Daughter, the unicorn (so dubbed for getting a real world paying job that directly relates to her Liberal Arts PhD), and I went to DC’s legendary 9:30 Club, to see her former high-schoolmate, Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down. Saintseneca was one of two opening acts and we were mightily impressed by the band’s engaging music and stage presence. We bought some vinyl that night and have followed the Little & Co. ever since.

After three EPs and three full albums – Last (2011), Dark Arc (2014) and Such Things (2015), Saintseneca’s released its fourth full-length album, Pillar of Na, last fall. At the time, I wrote about Little’s fun unboxing video that exposes new dangers in the simple act of opening a carton of albums. Dr. Daughter and I saw the band at the Black Cat Backstage (alas, that cozy venue is now closed) in September and had a great time. Here’s a few pics from that set.

Because Saintseneca utilizes a wide range of instruments – violin, mandolin, dulcimer, Turkish Baglama, floor percussion – along with synthesizers and electric guitars, the sound is both rustic and contemporary. Many of the players, including Little, originally hail from rural Appalachia, which feeds the organic quality of their music, while the band’s beginnings, playing with punk bands at DIY house shows, instilled an ability to move from intricate acoustic picking to wild electric jams. For a taste of the band’s live chops,  this one-take live version of Pillar of Na’s title track, recorded at Ohio’s Musicol Studios, shows ‘em off.

Saintseneca took to the road again last month, opening a new tour here in DC, at Comet Ping Pong, and DD and I were there again. Here are some pics:

The band has just released a new one-off song, “In A Van,” and yes, it was inspired by Chris Farley’s motivational speaker character Matt Foley, after Little spent some time revisiting the comic’s Best Of videos. As the singer tells, it, “This collection was a fixture of goofy-ness growing up, but it felt like a revelation that night.

It was a strangely emotional experience. The gauzy 90’s TV sheen, the feathery haircuts, a couple cringe-y jokes that didn’t age well. But, I saw his talent and craft shine through, in a way I had never quite noticed before. It was amazing, funny, and a little sad – knowing the end while witnessing the best all at once.

What a weird nostalgia trip to fall into some 25 years later- all tangled up with life and memory- the same old thing, accumulating new meaning with time.”

After covering the east coast in September, Saintsenca is heading for the middle of the country and the West Coast this month. Here are the dates and ticket info.

For more Saintseneca music, check out the band’s YouTube channel and Spotify playlist, which includes new stuff, old stuff, friends and influences.

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My li’l Sphere of Influence

This here newsletter/blog/what-have-you has been launching at friends and music-biz acquaintances for many, many years now and, while my bylines in major publications ebb and flow, I’m eternally grateful that musicians and publicists still reach out to me with offers to share music and concert access, as if my words here have some ability to shine light on worthy acts. When you reach out to Close Personal Friend, I listen and so, in the midst of the firehose of online media content, I humble suggest a few droplets of pleasure in the manner of two upcoming DC-area shows:

The Turbos at Seasons & Sessions, September 26

I got an email from Cameron Reck, bassist from this Columbus, Ohio-based rock band offering me an interview in advance of next week’s show. I declined that last bit but said sure to hearing some music. A CD arrived in the mail, labeled 2018 Singles Collection, that contained 13 tracks.

It turns out that the Turbos are a solid alternative rock quartet with two lead voices, “the powerful sultry” (their words) Alex D and “the gritty wailing” Lucas Esterline. It’s not a groundbreaking sound that’ll have you racing to your media player, but this is clearly a band that can get a crowd rocking in a club setting. The Turbos are about to embark on a three-month trek that takes their “dual-vocal rock” through Pennsylvania, all along the north- and south-east coasts, and even into Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and West Virginia, so if you’re out there somewhere (tour dates here), pop in and tell them I sent you. It’ll freak them – and me – out.

The Way Down Wanderers at Jammin Java, September 25

You can’t get much more “heartland” than Illinois, so it’s not surprising that bluegrass is the foundation of this Peoria-based quintet’s sound, but it also offers accents from the players’ varied backgrounds in rock, jazz and classical to create something a bit different in the crowded nu-grass field.

On the band’s latest album, Illusions, the track “All My Words,” for example, shuffles to a reggae/island beat, then adds a mid-song rap and ends with breakneck banjo. The song’s video is unlike any roots/rock clip you’ve seen, with modern dance and sign language integrated within.

not your typical bluegrass video
If further name dropping helps to seal the deal, Illusions was produced by Grammy-winner David Schiffman, whose impressively eclectic credits include Johnny Cash, HAIM, System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine. Much of the electric guitar and keyboard flourish in the studio comes courtesy of guest Roger Manning, a cult legend from his time in Jellyfish and Imperial Drag.
 
I wish this show wasn’t happening the same night that my favorite local cinema, Alamo Drafthouse Loudon, is planning a screening of Quadrophenia so I have to make a tough choice. Life in the DMV can be an embarrassment of riches. Hooray for First World Problems!
Finally, a teaser: heading out tonight to see Saintseneca so there will be photos and a review coming soon.        

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We Get Out: Ben Platt at The Anthem, 5.11.19

Last week, I was at what is D.C.’s arguably most beautiful venue, The Anthem, for the Ben Platt show. I am not a “Dear Evan Hansen” fanatic (not knocking it, just haven’t seen it) but when Platt performed “Somewhere” (from “West Side Story”) on the 2018 Grammy’s, accompanied by just a guitarist and a cellist, his stunning rendition of the song nearly broke my heart, so I was curious to see him live.

The Anthem is a gorgeous space, even more so when the audience shines its lights
(here, for the song “Grow As We Go”)

I had no takers when I floated buying tickets, and pondered going solo. But then I saw that HeadCount.org, the national bi-partisan group dedicated to signing up new voters at special events, was offering free admission to volunteers who would stand with a clipboard, addressing the audience as it arrived to find new electoral blood. So, I had a mission, very nice people to hang with, and free entry to the show. Win-win, yes?

As one would expect from a Broadway veteran,
Ben Platt had a classy set and strong support players.

Though our little team of four had limited success finding new voters (as our leader noted, D.C. is a government town, so most people are registered), I’d say that 90% of the people I addressed were psyched to see us, many saying “thanks for being here,” or expressing how much they wanted to vote – for change! – as soon as possible. This was an unusually mixed crowd for The Anthem, as you might expect for a concert by an openly gay Broadway veteran touring on a solo album of big-hearted ballads – same-sex couples, white-haired matinee ladies, and high school theatre nerds (I was one!). In short, a place for sequins, not MAGA hats.

But there’s always a few bummers, not downright rude, but folks who look at you like you have three heads when you simply ask, “Are you registered to vote?” And teenagers who don’t know how to talk to anyone not in high school! I asked one girl how old she was (you can preregister at 16 in D.C. and Maryland, 17 in Virginia). She stared at me and mumbled, “I don’t know.” Probably best that you don’t vote, honey.

Doing my civic duty meant that I missed the two opening acts, but I was done with just enough time to grab a bite and find a great seat about 30 rows back from the stage to enjoy the show. (No SLR tonight; just iPhone.)

Ben Platt is a mensch – and I don’t think he’d mind me saying that. He’s a good Jewish boy who talks lovingly about his parents, writes and dedicates songs to them, graciously shares the spotlight with his band, and repeatedly thanks his audience, radiating genuine joy about being back where “Dear Evan Hansen” was born and raised before moving to NYC.

As best as I could tell (again, I don’t know the show), Platt didn’t perform anything from the musical that made him famous (I would have thought maybe as an encore, but no), concentrating on his debut album, “Sing to Me Instead,” and a few cool covers. There is no set list posted from the D.C. show, but this one from Chicago seems to be the same as our show, although I would have sworn “Honky Cat” was the Elton John tune.

Platt’s voice was as good as I could have hoped, his between-song stories were immenschly (I made a word!) sweet, and, considering I barely knew his original material, the songs made a good first impression with their strong melodies and lyrical emotion. I moved closer to the stage to take a few more photos and found another comfy seat in the second row.


Final bows.

Sometimes it feels like the world is on fire and there’s no good news to be had. Spending time in a big room full of people with a like-minded appreciation of musical talent and love (is love is love!) is one way to find hope again. A great way to spend a rainy Saturday night.

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We Get Out: Matt Nathanson, 2.19.19

So, after a bit of a winter drought, it was time again for live music.

Doctor Daughter (Emma with the PhD) and I bought tix last year for Matt Nathanson‘s recently launched solo acoustic tour, when our favorite singer/songwriter/funny guy first announced he’d be going on the road to support his excellent 2018 album, Sings His Sad Heart. I rarely buy concert tickets far in advance but my girl and I have attended Matt’s shows, together or separately, about a dozen times each, and we knew this date would sell out pronto, so we jumped.

With two other Nathansonians in tow (Carrie, another 10+ show attendee, and Elizabeth, a bit of a newbie at only 4 shows), we got to The Birchmere in time to find a sweet spot to the right of the stage, with good sight lines. (That’s why all the pics have the same angle.) The venue’s flex stage is a smaller space than Nathanson has played in some time. He’s sold out the 9:30 Club for double-date runs, and tix for this date disappeared in a day, so it’s safe to say that the place was packed with genuine fans. Why, then, would I call this the worst audience I’ve ever shared a Matt show with?

Because a few boneheads mistook the intimacy of the space as an invitation for random chatter with the man on stage. And while much of the joy of his shows is the spontaneous way Matt goes off on tangents between songs (he’s got the speedy wit of a great improv comic) he’s there for a concert, not a conversation, people! Matt tease-scolded the interrupters in his usual easy-going way but the message didn’t land. Except for the funny way a Snow Day announcement rippled through the crowd, leaving Matt confused (“Are you all students? Teachers?” It actually mean that government offices and many ancillary workers get a holiday), the unwanted give-and-take was wearying to both the player and his listeners.

Maybe it’s the presence of the giant wheel, which Matt spins to add an element of surprise to the set list (about two-thirds planned; the remainder selected by chance), but general unruliness seems to be an ongoing problem on the current tour. Matt often tweets the day after a show, full of enthusiasm for the night before. No such message appeared after the DC show, and his Twitter feed a few nights later mentioned another show – or was it two? – ruined by “a few obnoxious humans” (RT from 2.24) and “entitled, drunk audience members” (Matt’s own Tweet, from 2.25). This from paying patrons who no doubt consider themselves “fans.” One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl, but a few can tarnish an otherwise sterling night. Sorry, Matt. You deserve better.

But you’ll never leave a Matt Nathanson show without a smile on your face, and last Tuesday was no exception. We heard a great selection of tunes old (my personal favorite, “Answering Machine,” showed up in a spin) and new (“Used to Be” is a great one from the new LP), a few cool covers (The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma” – oh yeah) and even a brand new ditty we’ll call “8-Track Tape” that he made up on the spot while ruminating about outdated technology. You can see the full list of songs at setlist.fm.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Matt Nathanson play. The first was February, 2004, so this Birchmere night was “our” 15th year together (I’ll call it the Vinyl Anniversary). And I was lucky to have my camera at some past shows, so if you want More Matt, here are a few links to pics and text memories:

9:30 Club, 2011

Sixth and I Synagogue, 2008

Tysons Corner Plaza (free show), 2018

And Matt was kind enough to respond to a request for a contribution for my set list site, sending a great souvenir from a Houston, TX show in 2006.

It’s been an exhausting day, watching the Cohen testimony, worrying about the decline of our democracy, and waiting for a return to true American greatness (ITMFA), so I’m calling this post, however ragged and much delayed, done! As ever, thanks for stopping by. And here’s one more shot from the Birchmere, as a ‘post-credits’ treat…

It’s like he’s looking right at us.

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New Year, New Me?

I’m a little miffed at my local YMCA. The big banner across the entrance to the recently renovated temple of family fitness shouts, “New Year, New You!”

Oh, yeah, YMCA?! What’s wrong with me as I am? You calling the current me old? Why should I change for you?

Here’s to making America sane again.

As the first month of the New Year comes to a close, I am used to writing 2019 on dated documents.  I’m a fan of the fresh start and the blank page, but have never been much for New Year’s resolutions. Goals, hopes, and dreams? Sure. But resolutions seem more like a way to set yourself up to be disappointed – with yourself. And so, while I did join the YMCA earlier this month, it was only today that I took my first class, a wonderful mishmash of aerobics, yoga and drumming that’s marketed as “Pound.” Whatever the name, it was great fun for an older woman who, as a child, used empty coffee cans of different sizes to make a drum set. (The plastic lids were the skins, and a set of pick-up sticks bound at one end with a rubberband made for a fine drum brush.)

For just shy of an hour, a bunch of free-in-the-late-morning, mostly later-in-our-lives women and, judging by his shin tattoo, one brave, graying ex-Marine, jumped to hard pop and light metal tunes while flailing around and smacking the rubber workout mats with regulation-size but neon green plastic drumsticks. These are the times when I know why Five Seconds of Summer or Def Leppard have made successful careers, much the same way being in a booming dance club commands me to appreciate the disco sounds I disparaged back when I was a New Wave purist.

Music makes me move, thank god(dess). And since a winter like this one – yesterday, Chicago literally had to set fire to the railroad tracks to keep the trains running – is too easily spent in slug-on-the-couch stagnation, I need music more than ever.  

Shamefully, I admit that I haven’t been to a live show yet in this new year. (I did see a ballet at the Kennedy Center.) I came close Tuesday, when I was invited to see a 17-year-old singer/songwriter, Ethan Sak, open for an act I also knew nothing about, Hey Monea. The kid’s one streamable song, with a happier Sam Smith feel, was catchy and the headliner’s web-site seemed friendly and fun, so I was up for the adventure and looking forward to taking some concert shots again.

But that was the first night of the pre-Polar Vortex snow, at a venue that I was also at on the night of 2011’s infamous Snowmaggedden, when it took me eight hours to drive eight miles home. (That’s no joke. And neither is peeing in a cup.) So I stayed home.

BUT – and here’s where I get back to business (is that what this is?)  – I have been working on processes for keeping up with new releases and reviving my web presence. After a year of neglect (see previous post for explanation), WhatchaGonnaPlay.com, my pet project devoted to set lists stolen from the stage and concert shots taken from the pit, is back. There is a new landing page and interface, and I’m still testing different graphic themes, so what you see today may be different from what’s there tomorrow. I’m anxious to start adding new materials; meanwhile, the old site has been archived so all the previously gathered materials, including musician interviews, are still clickable.

New business cards are also being designed (it helps when your daughter is a talented artist who has a job at a print shop) to bring together the Close Personal Friend and WhatchaGonnaPlay “brands.” And I am preparing stories, reviews, etc. to post here to make up for the fact that my relationship with AXS.com ended with the old year. (They wanted me to sign away rights to my photos. Ain’t gonna happen.)

So, things are happening. I resolve (that word!) to be back soon and often. I hope you’ll come along for the ride. Happy Belated New Year!

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A Year of Loss and Learning

Hello again. Whoa. But for that little teaser about having an explanation for my absence, it’s been over a year since I wrote a blog post. Yeah, it’s been quite a while.

The ticker on the left says 425 people follow this blog, which makes me wonder:
Does that number indicate real people? How many of that figure are just ‘bots?
Who reads this? Why?
Are my personal anecdotes a bug or a feature?
One day I’ll do a survey to find out more about you, dear reader. In the meantime, feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment.

But now, at the risk of TMI of a personal nature, I’ll tell you about the last 12 months in the life of your Close Personal Friend.

It was a year ago this month, almost to the day, that, while my sister and I were helping my 92-year-old mother in the shower, we discovered a small lump above her left breast. Three days before Christmas 2017, the doctor confirmed that it was inoperable breast cancer. With thanks to whatever great spirit watches over us, my mom felt no pain, and we made the holidays happy in spite of the news. A week in the hospital and a series of radiation treatments took up a large part of January.

Throughout the winter and spring of the new year, my mom enjoyed the loving care of many family members, friends, and hospice care professionals who helped to keep her comfortable and gave me great emotional support. Life went on, but my attitude toward work changed.

It’s not that music became less important to me. Au contraire! It was my solace, my escape, and my comforter. I still went to shows and took photos, and posted stories to AXS. But when it came to tracking new releases, following trends, or staying up-to-date on my social media postings, I didn’t have the bandwidth to worry about it.

Writing about music is not how I make a living. (If someone knows how that can be done in these days of free content everywhere, please advise.) I do it for the love of it, like a musician traveling in an old van and sleeping on floors for the thrill of a few hours of live music that reaffirm my faith in the power of sound. Taking a long break didn’t affect my budget and, to paraphrase the wonderful Courtney Barnett, nobody really cared if I didn’t come to the party.

In late May, I drove my mom to upstate New York, to the summer cottage that is her happiest place on earth. She spent the next few months sitting on a screened porch that looks out on Lake George, a gorgeous Adirondack vacation destination, and watched old musicals while sipping on root beer, slowly losing the ability to recognize the many people flocking to visit.

Mom passed away in her sleep on August 19. Our sorrow was tempered with gratitude that she died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones in her own home. We’re still dealing as a family with emotional frayed ends and tedious realities of finances, property, etc., but life is settling into new rhythms.

So, I’m an orphan now? Strange thought. My father died 13 years ago, after a long and difficult hospital stay. A few months after he passed, I was at a Death Cab for Cutie concert when the lyrics to “What Sarah Said” hit me like a sledgehammer:
“Love is watching someone die.”

I did that. It’s a cliché to say I have a new perspective on life, but many clichés exist because there is a truth to them. My head is full of new thoughts and stories and insights, and I’ve slowly worked my way back to where I feel like writing again. I look forward to blogging more regularly, redesigning this web site, relaunching WhatchaGonnaPlay.com and pursuing a bunch of self-publishing ideas.

Watch this space.
And thanks, as ever, for listening.

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Explanation to follow

Yes, it’s been a while. And while you might not think I owe you an explanation (or maybe you do; I have no idea who follows me!), I have a better one than usual. Which, in my best manner of procrastination, will come later.

For now, I just wanted to say hello, prove that I’m still alive and writing, and share the following graphic from the people hosting the Governor’s Ball festival. When I first glanced at it, I felt really old since I didn’t recognize any of the musicians playing.

Then I realized it was a list of food vendors for the event.

I felt better (a little) and then thought that there are actually a lot of very good potential band names here…gov's ball

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