Maybe it’s being cautious, maybe it’s getting older (or just old!), but I don’t get out as much as I did in the Before Times. But when I had a chance to see Courtney Barnett in concert, in exchange for volunteering again with Headcount, a non-partisan organization dedicated to getting people to register to vote, it was a win-win situation.
Before the show, and during the opening act, me (in the middle) and my new mates asked people if they wanted to register, or update their info, or join the Save The Vote movement. There weren’t a lot of takers (DC is a pretty politically savvy city, full of voters) but we had a handful of takers, plus lots of “thanks for doing this” comments and support for the cause. (Find out more at Headcount.org and SaveTheVoteAmerica.org)
And then, when I was looking for a place to sit (the 9:30 Club is mostly GA standing), a kindly staff member saw my VOTE VOTE VOTE t-shirt and, as if thanking me for my service (or taking pity on the old lady), got me a seat in the VIP section, where I rested comfortably and was able to get some shots with my “non-professional” (as in no detachable lens) Lumix camera.
I’m a happily married straight woman, but I’ve got a serious girl crush going here. CB creates the kind of sincere, smart and straight-forward guitar rock I love hearing, especially from women, who make those old favorite noises sound new again.
In the past 18 months of pandemic living, many hours that might otherwise have been spent at live shows have gone instead to revisiting the home archives, culling through piles of CDs and LPs, magazines and videos to simply entertain and also to “prune the bonsai” that is my collection of 40+ some years (others might call it Swedish Death Cleaning).
One of the revelations this pursuit has brought me is just how fickle the music business is, not just for a scribe like me, who no longer makes a living in music journalism, but for those on the actual front lines – writing, playing, putting their souls out there for consumption by an ADHD public. So many of those who enjoy cover stories and exclamation points (Hot New Name!) one day are reduced to tiny print and question marks (Who is That?) soon after.
So when I share a reference to Mavis Staples as “one of America’s national musical treasures,” you best believe that I believe the lady has earned it. Among my family’s other isolation activities, we watched Questlove’s terrific “Summer of Soul” documentary. There was 18 y.o. Mavis, alongside her Staples Singers family, belting out gospel-inspired, soulful tunes with an emphasis on social justice. And in the over half-century since, Mavis Staples has only grown more soulful and socially relevant, still adding her literal voice to just causes while expanding her repertoire in collaborations with Jeff Tweedy, Norah Jones, Run The Jewels, and many more.
When a publicist asked if I’d like to cover the great lady’s concert appearance at a benefit for JusticeAid2021 (more on that later), you bet I jumped. Which meant hubby and I had our first DC concert date night in nearly two years to visit the beautifully restored Lincoln Theatre. After some initial panic (darling forgot his proof-of-vaccination card and had to scramble to find an adequate substitute on his cell phone), we settled into the well-buffered seating (the worthy show was far from sold-out) for a night that lived up to our own high expectations.
The good/great news is that Mavis Staples’s soulful growl is as strong as ever, as is her indomitable spirit, even when singing songs of overcoming hardship, like “Change,” or “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” (announced with some memories of Staples’ association with Martin Luther King). Her cover choices ran from Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That” to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and a transcendent “Slippery People,” which had much of the crowd up from their seats to enjoy the infectious groove, propelled by a trio of players and two singers who provided a bedrock of masterful R&B. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom was particularly impressive on a few solos, and his playful interactions with Staples appeared rooted in a long and fruitful affiliation.
And now for the bad news. Staples coughed frequently between songs and downed at least three servings of something (hot tea?) delivered to the stage by a concerned aide. An exhilarating mid-set version of “Respect Yourself” ended surprisingly quickly which, in these distressed days, was particularly unsettling. Staples joked about looking for a “doctor in the house” and reassured the audience that she was simply fighting a cold, so I will take her at her word, while still asking the gods of all that is holy to protect this living legend. As I mentioned up top, such icons are truly few. By the evening’s finale, a rousing, no holds-barred, call-and-response singalong of “I’ll Take You There,” we felt a little less worried.
Opening the show was singer/songwriter/mandolin player Amy Helm and, if the name seems familiar, it’s because her dad, Levon, was the much-loved drummer and often singer of Americana legends The Band. Amy was born in 1970, (the same year Stage Fright arrived) and she grew up in the Woodstock, N.Y. home that had its own recording studio, known as The Barn.
Amy started singing as a teen, and was a full-on professional in her 20s, playing in various groups (the folkish Ollabelle was one) and on her dad’s post-Band solo albums (her contributions to Dirt Farmer earned her a 2007 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album). As befits a musician who grew up among some of the best players of the times, Amy had a crackerjack four-piece band playing with her, providing a solid foundation for each tune, lovely harmonies, and the occasional sparkling solo.
Helm spoke of her father lovingly before a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” explaining that it was one of the songs she’d perform with him during the ongoing series of “Midnight Ramble” concerts he held at the Barn and on tour. The poignant “Cotton and the Cane,” a co-write with Mary Gauthier, from Amy’s third album, What the Flood Leaves Behind,” released earlier this year, was introduced with a sobering tone, since it addresses the dark side of the unconventional, highly creative environment that was her youth – watching talented, troubled people struggle with addiction.
Still, the majority of Helm’s set was upbeat, as she gushed her joy in sharing a bill with Staples, a woman who’s clearly an influence, alongside Aretha, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and Helm’s own mom Libby Titus, a highly regarded performer, whose other romantic/musical partners included Dr. John and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. Helm’s heritage is strong, and she’s serving it well.
A side note: My pal and former editor, Jeff Tamarkin, wrote a great article for Relix.com about Amy Helm (cribbed from for this story!) so check it out.
And while you’re clicking, check out more about Justice Aid2021, for whom the show was organized. This year, following the murder of George Floyd, the DC-based group is focusing on” police accountability and community empowerment by reimagining public safety.” The Neighborhood Defender Service’s Police Accountability/Community Empowerment (PACE) Program will receive 100% of proceeds from the concert. And donations are welcome anytime.
The title above is a reference to a very old song that very few of the 20,000 fans in Capital One Arena for the Harry Styles concert (September 18) would recognize. The crowd was, I’d guess, 95% female (shout out to the guys wearing “Watermelon Sugar” t-shirts; perchance suggesting they’d go where DJ Kahled fears to tread?), and they were mostly 30-something or under, with the addition of very willing moms there to share the joy with their daughters.
I, too, was there with my younger girl, Grace (31 y.o.), and oh, such joy it was! I consider a good concert a near-spiritual experience, being in a room with a big group of people who share a passion for music, finding a sense of community in dancing and/or singing along. Harry’s fans are truly passionate, so we rarely sat down and loved sharing vocals, starting with a massive spontaneous crowd rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” during the pre-show music, after a well-received opening set by Jenny Lewis, one of many wonderful women whom Harry has asked to tour with him. (Last tour, we were introduced to Kacey Musgraves, who’ll headline Cap One herself next year.)
Harry’s motto, often displayed on merch like T-shirts, totes, and hair-ties, is “Treat People With Kindness,” and his fans have taken the message to heart. The smiles, the polite lines, the constant “‘scuse me”‘s were more than I can ever recall at such a large event. Everyone was masked (required, as were vaccinations or negative tests) and many had dressed up in rainbows, glitter, and boas for the occasion, echoing Harry’s status as a fashionista and LGBTQ+ ally. Speaking of kindness, during “TPWK,” I watched a stagehand hand a small-size crew T-shirt to the mother of a young (12ish) Down syndrome girl sitting in front of us. Not a moment to show off or be displayed on the Jumbotron screens. Just a nice person, doing something nice for someone else. That’s the kind of affirming night it was
This concert was an adventure two years in the making. The tickets were purchased in the summer of 2019 as a Christmas present for that year, and the show, originally set for June 2020, was scrapped when the world stopped. Having had a marvelous bonding experience at Harry’s last DC date, in June 2018, Gracie and I were looking forward to this event for a very long time with a giddy, girlish glee. When her job wouldn’t let her telecommute, she had to drive down from Canada on Thursday night and leave on Sunday to make the Saturday night show. It was exhausting she’ll tell you – but SO worth it.
I just read Close Personal Friend’s report on seeing @Harry_Styles in DC. Pics, too!
“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” I can relate to that song.
It’s not that I don’t love live music. I do! But I’ll admit – as I get older, it takes more to get me out of the house, especially when our National Soap Opera (Can anyone stop Carrot Caligula?) and hockey season (Go Caps!) provide easy, free, comfy-on-the-couch diversion.
But when I saw a posting on DisgraceBook about a Saturday night (February 15) triple bill of local acts playing at a new venue in Falls Church, a mere 20 minute drive from my home, it seemed a chance worth taking. And I’m glad I did.
Tucked in an unassuming suburban shopping strip which serves as an unofficial musician’s hang, with the CD Cellar, Cue Recording Studio and Action Music instrument store lined up in a row, and within shouting distance of The State Theatre, there’s a new kid in town, around the back, called 38 North. It’s another recording studio, designed from the ground up with style and care, that also promises to showcase local music on a regular basis.
I got there when the first act of the night, Kathryn Rheault, was already playing. Her choice of covers – Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough” and Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” – showed where her personal songwriting ambitions live. She may not be at that level yet, but her lovely voice and casual style were a pleasing start to the night.
I used some of the early time to explore the joint. There are two floors, with a tiny balcony looking down into the the performance space, next to a kitchenette with free beer, wine and major fresh snackage. I’m not sure if that’s going to be a regular feature during live shows, or a bonus due to this being an Opening Night Party, but thanks for the goodies!
Next up was Caroline Weinroth, from veteran local band Cinema Hearts, in a solo set. I chatted with her afterward and she reminded me that I was a judge forever ago when the group competed in one of Jammin’ Java’s Band Battles. She has a better memory – and a brighter smile! – than I, but I bet I gave the band good marks back then. Caroline has an easy, breezy charm and a fun sense of humor in her poppy material (she admitted that she switched up the songs written on her set list) that was fun this night and, no doubt make for some wicked joy when the full band is playing.
Before Caroline played, one of the managing partners of the studio, Sarah Klawitter Marks, took to the mic for a few shout-outs to the people who helped make the space happen, and offered her hopes to make the place a nurturing nest for area musicians and fans.
The last act of the night, The Meer, appears to have gone through some changes, if you check out the bandcamp and Facebook pages. There, you’ll see some long-haired thrashing pics that support a description of “Alternative Indie Post-Punk,” but the two acoustic guitarists who showed up Saturday had a quieter, slightly Celtic, folky vibe. I was taken enough to spring $20 for the Meers’ album, The Branches, on vinyl. (See it on my vinyl-centric Instagram.)
And so, in the space of just under three hours, I was well fed and sweetly serenaded, met some cool new people in the DMV creative community, scored new vinyl, and still got home in time to see the last two periods of the Caps game from Denver. That’s what I call a fine Saturday night!
Well, the Caps lost, but you can’t have everything.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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…
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?
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!