Music: Live & Otherwise

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  • New Music & Other Thoughts

    I’ve been slammed with work and the joys of owning a 99-year-old house recently, which means my ability to see concerts has been severely compromised. And it’s too bad, because there are a number of shows I’d like to see these days.

    A number of new and relatively recent releases have caught my eye and found their way to my Apple Music account, however. I’m really enjoying the latest albums from Hayes Carll, Patty Griffin, Josh Ritter (produced by Jason Isbell), Jack Ingram, Ryan Bingham and Steve Earle. And I can’t wait to hear all of “Breakdown on 20th Ave. South,” the long overdue album from Buddy and Julie Miller. Three of the 14 tracks are available now, and each is stellar.

    There are no surprises to be found with these artists, because all are among my favorites. I’m also enjoying Maren Morris’ new album, and Kacey Musgraves’ award-winning “Golden Hour” has snuck into heavy rotation. “Dying Star,” by Musgraves’ husband Ruston Kelly, has remained there since I saw him at The Anthem earlier this year.

    Two that you need to seek out and find are “Alive in Tennessee,” a live album that captures what makes Anderson East’s live shows so much fun, and Rhiannon Giddens haunting “There is No Other,” recorded with Francesco Turrisi.

    Meanwhile, here are some other music-related thoughts from the past several weeks:

    • Your ability to survive a MRI could depend on your tolerance for Lou Reed's “Metal Machine Music” album. I had one recently and hated it, but have to say that hearing punk and metal bands close up over the years came in handy when I was in the tube.

    • Quote of the day, from an appearance Bruce Springsteen made to promote the Netflix documentary of his Broadway show: "I think as you get older, that’s what you grow comfortable with: Faith is faith. It’s trust. It’s about all of the mysteries and the answers that you’re never going to come up with…But if you let it be, that’s when you find a little bit of peace. That’s what I’ve found anyway.”

    • I saw a music press release that made me realize journalism and P.R. copy editing have really taken a hit over the past few years. Check out this lead and tell me what’s wrong with it: “The late Alex Chilton, former lead singer of Big Star and the Box Tops, will release two new LP’s, Songs From Robin Hood Lane and From Memphis to New Orleans."

    I’m pretty sure that Chilton had little to do with the current releases. But with holograms of Elvis, Selena and Prince floating around, who knows?

  • Photos/Review: Son Volt & Ian Noe

    Politics are almost inherent, if not overt, when bands play in the Washington, D.C., area. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard 1960s protest songs played — often with an extra dose of passion — as encores at shows.

    Son Volt, the alt-rock/alt-country band led by Jay Farrar, didn’t need covers to weigh in on the state of our country Sunday at the 9:30 Club. More than half of the band’s new album, “Union,” deals with the state of the state as Farrar sees it.

    And that state, starting with show opener “The 99,” is not good in his view. Farrar’s anthem name checks protests over the Dakota Pipeline and the Ferguson, Mo. shooting that occurred near his St. Louis home and blasts those who allow “desecration of the land for the almighty dollar.”

    While seeming to channel Roy Orbison in looks, complete with long bangs and sunglasses that never came off, Farrar’s lyrics and the band’s sound brought to mind Woody Guthrie via The Byrds and Tom Petty. Those references are not an insult; if anything, hearing the career spanning mix from Son Volt’s eight album, 23-year history showed how consistent the band has been despite numerous personnel changes.

    Live, what impressed me most is how the new mix of songs on “Union” complement its back catalogue. The reason of course, is Farrar. He let the lyrics and music speak for itself throughout the 1-hour, 40-minute show, speaking little if at all between songs. The current Son Volt lineup — Andrew Duplantis (bass, backing vocals), Mark Patterson (drums), Chris Frame (guitar) and Mark Spencer (keyboard, steel guitar) — provided strong and richly textured support throughout.

    Union,” of course, dominated much of the show’s first half with six cuts, including “Reality Winner” (about a decorated veteran serving jail time for leaking confidential documents) as well as the less topical “Devil May Care” and “The Reason.” A personal favorite was “The Picture,” which fit the mood even though it was written more than a decade ago for 2007’s “The Search.”

    Famously founded after Farrar and Jeff Tweedy split up Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt’s debut album — 1995’s “Trace” — remains perhaps its best known. Not surprisingly, the band saved songs from “Trace” until the show’s end, performing “Route,” “Drown,” a beautiful and chilling “Tear Stained Eye,” and set closer “Windfall” in a cluster broken up only by the rocker “Afterglow 61” (from 2005’s “Okemah and Melody of Riot”).

    Ian Noe, a Kentucky native whose debut album “Between the Country,” will be released May 31, set the stage for the band with a series of original songs and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Noe’s album was produced by Dave Cobb, and he is scheduled to open this summer on tours with both Blackberry Smoke and Jamestown Revival, so you’ll likely hear more about him this year.

    This review appears on the Americana Highways website.

  • Photos: Lilly Hiatt & Karen Jonas

    Lilly Hiatt, daughter of John and a fabulous singer-songwriter in her own right, left the audience entranced at Pearl Street Warehouse in Washington, D.C. on Sunday night. Check out her album "Trinity Lane" to see what I mean.

    Karen Jonas, a Fredericksburg-based songwriter, played mix of songs from her three albums (including the newest "Butter"), as the opener for Hiatt. Jonas and her band play all over the area. If you can, check them out sometime.

    These photos were shot for Americana Highways. Another person reviewed the show.

  • Review/Photos: The Flesh Eaters

    I’ve long admired musicians who find it easy to collaborate, moving seamlessly (or so it seems) from group to group while maintaining their own careers. Neko Case and Emmylou Harris do this all the time, as do others, but Dave Alvin and John Doe are experts in the art of the side project.

    The longtime friends have worked together off and on for almost 40 years, since the heady days of The Blasters and X, forefathers and fixtures of the early 1980s Los Angeles punk rock scene. At one point, between leaving The Blasters and going solo, Alvin joined X for a brief period and gave the group his classic “4th of July” for their “See How We Are” album.

    Over the past three-plus decades, I’ve managed to see Alvin and Doe live as part of two side projects — The Knitters and one-off supergroup The Pleasure Barons (still one of my favorite shows ever). But it wasn’t until Saturday night, at Union Stage in Washington, D.C., that I managed to catch the elusive Flesh Eaters.

    Understandably, The Flesh Eaters does not sound like a natural fit for a website that focuses on Americana music. But given the group’s makeup, and the way its members have toggled effortlessly between genres, it makes perfect sense.

    A fun mix of blues, punk, country, and garage band pop/grunge, with plenty of saxophone and occasional forays into jazz, the show presented an opportunity for musicians who genuinely seem to enjoy playing together to do so. After 16 songs and almost 100 minutes of music, which followed a set by opener Porcupine, the audience walked out knowing they had seen something that may never happen again.

    Founded by singer-songwriter Chris Desjardins, self-described as a morbidly romantic punk poet, The Flesh Eaters have had a rotating cast of musicians during an off-and-on history that dates back to 1977. In 1981, Alvin, Doe and other members of X and The Blasters backed up Desjardins (known as Chris D) on the album “A Minute to Pray.” The album was put out by Ruby, a Slash Records subsidiary. (Subsidiary, in this case, meaning you had next-to-no budget to record.)

    After recording the album, Doe and percussionist/drummer D.J. Bonebrake went back to X, while Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman, and saxophone player Steve Berlin returned to The Blasters. (Berlin later left and joined Los Lobos, with whom he plays to this day.)

    The group did not play together again until 2006, when they performed three shows in California and one in England to mark the album’s 25th anniversary. They reunited briefly in 2015 for a five-show tour and again for an eight-show run last year. That convinced Desjardins to ask the other members to return to the studio.

    “I Used to be Pretty,” released earlier this year by YepRoc (the label home to Alvin and Doe), does not deviate from the formula that had many searching for out-of-print copies of its supergroup predecessor. (“A Minute to Pray,” was re-released in 2015.) The band members sound like they’re having fun. Some songs work better than others; some focus on affect when effect would do.

    Live is where you see it come all together. Berlin’s sax figures prominently, and Alvin cuts loose on lead guitar. Doe has always been somewhat underrated as a bass player, and taking him off lead vocals shows you how good he is. Bateman and Bonebrake provide a solid backbone to the music.

    Highlights included the opener “See You in the Boneyard,” a cover of “Cinderella” by The Sonics, “My Life to Live,” “Black Temptation,” and “Miss Muerte,” which closed out the set before the two-song encore. I enjoyed hearing “Cyrano de Berger’s Back,” which Doe wrote for “A Minute to Pray” and later repurposed for X, as well as the blistering set closer, “Ghost Cave Lament.”

    Desjardins seemed to be having a blast. He mentioned this may be the one and only time we are able to see this group on the East Coast, which may be true. But his temporary bandmates made sure it was a memorable evening.

    As much as I enjoyed the headliner, I also was impressed with Porcupine, the trio that opened the evening. The group’s 45-minute set was highlighted by songs from its recent EP, “What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real,” released in November.

    Led by Casey Virock on guitars/vocals and drummer Ian Prince, the band received a boost when former Husker Du bass player Greg Norton joined the group in 2016. Norton, who hasn’t been on an extended tour since 1989, clearly enjoyed playing in Washington, D.C. for the first time since Husker Du broke up. If you’re a fan of late 90s alternative music “without compromise,” as the band describes its sound, check them out.

    This review and photos also were posted to Americana Highways.

  • Pearl Jam Meets Isbell at Innings Festival

    This story is about the night Pearl Jam's lead singer went Americana, singing a cover of a Jason Isbell song. And how, despite the odds, my wife and I were there to see it.

    On Sunday, closing out the Innings Festival in Tempe, Arizona, Eddie Vedder broke into "Maybe It's Time," the song Isbell wrote for Bradley Cooper's character to sing in "A Star is Born."

    I was walking back to the spot Jill had saved for us while I shot the first three songs of Vedder's set. After we purchased VIP tickets to see the festival's second day, I sought a photo pass to shoot and write about it. My pitch, which the festival's PR team graciously accepted, was an essay on how seeing Eddie Vedder live was a bucket list item for my wife of almost 23 years.

    We traveled from our home just outside Washington, D.C., to Tempe to attend the festival, now in its second year. Our purpose was to hear someone whose voice and songwriting my wife appreciates as much as Isbell, a performer we saw live in several venues last year.

    Little did we know what was about to happen.

    Released in late 1994, Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" was a multiplatinum behemoth that completed a trilogy that started with "Ten" and continued with "Vs."

    The album included several hit singles. But no song was bigger or has had a more lasting impact than "Better Man," an album-only track never released as a 45.

    The story of a woman trying to get out of an abusive (physical, emotional or both is not specified) relationship, the song's protagonist fears she'll never be able to leave her partner. Vedder wrote the song in high school and later pitched it to the other Pearl Jam members, but the band initially refused to record it, feeling that it was too accessible for the style of music they were making.

    Shortly after Jill and I met, "Better Man" started receiving airplay on the stations we listened to from nearby Greensboro and Raleigh. Trapped at the time in a cyclical relationship with no end in sight, "Better Man" particularly resonated with her during what is described most succinctly as a difficult time.

    Fortunately, unlike the song's protagonist, Jill finally got the courage to terminate the relationship. It wasn't too long after that we married and had three children within the span of a year.

    Flash forward a decade. Vedder has written the songs for 2007’s "Into the Wild," a soundtrack that is an unlikely — though deserved — hit. Although our fandom doesn't come close to matching that of Pearl Jam's most ardent admirers, my wife always has had great admiration for Vedder's playing and voice, especially solo. "Into the Wild" sealed it for her, and for me too.

    Then, in 2009, Pearl Jam released "Just Breathe," one of the three most beautiful love songs we know. (The other two are Isbell's "Cover Me Up" and "If We Were Vampires, further completing the circle.) After hearing "Just Breathe," Jill tells me Vedder is someone she's like to see live.

    Trouble is, between kids and busy work schedules, plus scant availability for any Pearl Jam show that plays within reasonable distance, we couldn't seem to make it work.

    Enter the Innings Festival.

    In 2018, organizers took advantage of Arizona's springtime climate — or what we call May in the rest of the world — and the start of baseball's spring training to throw a music festival at a park overlooking Tempe Town Lake.

    When I saw Vedder would headline the second day of the festival this year, I moved quickly (for once) to snap up tickets. With the kids grown and out of the house, we have downsized and are working to check items off the bucket list when time and opportunities allow.

    Like other events of this nature, the Innings Festival draws a diverse range of acts as well as a few baseball legends. Last year, for example, the Avett Brothers and Chris Stapleton were headliners along with Queens of the Stone Age, Phosphorescent and The Decemberists.

    This year's lineup included Sheryl Crow, Cake and Incubus on Saturday. Sunday's lineup was an eclectic mix as well, with performances by The Record Company (a helluva opener), G. Love and Special Sauce, Jimmy Eat World, Shakey Graves, Liz Phair (strong), St. Paul & the Broken Bones (good in spots but not on their A game), Mat Kearney and Band of Horses (our favorites other than Vedder).

    When we arrived Sunday so I could pick up the photo pass, Vedder's soundcheck was coming through the PA. Although he was not singing, he was playing "Better Man." Jill squeezed my hand. She had been waiting to hear this song live for almost 25 years, a sort of closure for something that dominated her life almost half a lifetime ago.

    What I like about Vedder's solo shows, based on bootlegs and videos from his sporadic acoustic tours over the past decade, are the variety of covers he chooses to play.

    His loose, free flowing Innings Festival set featured, in addition to various Pearl Jam and solo pieces, covers of songs by Warren Zevon, U2, Tom Petty, and The Beatles. He shredded the ukulele on a cover of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," followed by Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night."

    Nothing, not even the appearance by Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden (one of Vedder's closest friends) and several Cubs players "singing" back up on the "Hard Sun" closer, prepared us for "Maybe It's Time."

    Vedder's sublime rendering of Isbell's song, a huge headline in music circles on Monday, makes sense. Cooper mannered parts of his "A Star is Born" role, who was from Arizona, on Vedder and met with the singer while developing the character.

    But, as Isbell tweeted later, "Holy shit."

    Having shot the start of the set, I was making my way back to Jill when the song started and pushed my way through the massive crowd to reach her for the last two-thirds.

    There we stood, amid thousands of Vedder and Pearl Jam fans, lost in our thoughts and alone together.

    That moment eased the sting a bit when Vedder, for whatever reason, ended his set without playing "Better Man." As I mentioned to my wife, his cover of a song by a writer we so appreciate may be the gateway to the next chapter, allowing us to put those long-ago memories behind us.

    "Maybe it's time to let the old ways die..."

    This essay, along with more photos from the festival, was posted on the Americana Highways website. For more photos from the various acts, check out my Concert Photography page soon. You also can find photos on my Instagram (@glenncookphotography) and on my Facebook photography page.

  • Interview: Jon Dee Graham

    Jon Dee Graham is nothing if not a realist about life in the music business. As his 60th birthday approaches at the end of February, the acclaimed Texas songwriter is working to raise money to make a new record he hopes won’t be his last.

    “Acclaim doesn’t put food on the table,” Graham says. “It’s adorable and I’m touched, but I cannot possibly be more tired of the phrase ‘Best songwriter you’ve never heard of.’”

    Graham has self-funded every album he’s recorded since 2012’s “Garage Sale,” selling music and watercolors of bears out of his car when he tours. From now until midnight Wednesday, he is raising money to document a “milestone.” You can make a donation here.

    “I’m turning 60 and I never really expected to find myself here,” Graham says by phone from his Austin home. “This is not like grave portent or foreshadowing of anything, but my contacts list on my phone is full of people who are not here anymore. You just don’t know. You never know.”

    Over 45 minutes, Graham and I talked about his impetus behind the new album, mortality, his songwriting process, and the state of the music business, among other things. I have long been an admirer of his work. The photos accompanying this feature are from a 2015 show I shot of Graham performing in his weekly residency at Austin's Continental Club; you can see that essay here, as well as another one here.

    Here are edited highlights from our conversation. All of the quotes are Graham’s:

    The new album

    “Potentially this will be my last record. I hope not but what if it is? At my age and the crowd I ran with, let’s just say they were enthusiastic about living (laughs) and a lot of them are not with me anymore. If this turns out to be the last record, I want it to be right.

    “I’m not writing a death record. I was talking to Terry Allen a few years back. He was working on a new album and then got stuck. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong and then he realized he was working on a death record. So he scrapped it and started over again. I thought about that when I started this. I’m carefully conscious that I’m not making a death record. My approach is, ‘Let’s say this is your last, what do you want it to accomplish?’”

    Life as a working musician

    “I have to leave Austin to make money basically. Truly I do. I’ve never played a club that does not want me back. That seems like a small measure but in our business that’s what it’s really about. The audience doesn’t owe me anything. It’s my job to convince them that they need to hear what I have to say.”

    Self-funding his music

    “I invented crowd funding. ‘Garage Sale’ was done completely on pre-orders. That was the same year Kickstarter launched, and they didn’t have a platform in place that was functional until after I did that album. Now I’ve been doing it on my own for so long that I don’t know there’s any other way.

    “I make a record, put it in my car and drive around playing and selling it to people. We’ve done alright by it. We’ve never missed a meal and almost own our house, so it works. It works really well.”

    On songwriting

    Graham is famous for austerity in his writing. In a lengthy 2013 essay for the Bitter Southerner, editor Chuck Reece marveled at how Graham’s “$100 Bill” has only 28 words. That led us into a discussion about his songwriting process.

    “What I learned pretty early on was the stuff that moved me was simple. Not in the sense of the obvious but in the sense that the fewer moving parts a machine has, the less likely it is to break or to do something that’s not its job. … There’s so much to be said for letting the listener’s imagination do what it’s there for.

    “I had a writing teacher during my brief tenure at (the University of Texas) who told me, ‘Words are under no obligations to you.’ That is so true because I can write these very simple lines that mean what I want them to mean. Then three different people can listen to it, be deeply moved and it means something completely different to each of them.

    “I wish I could say this is how I write my songs, but I can’t because they come at me all different ways. Some of them arrive fully conceived and take about as long to write them as to sing them. Some are like feral cats. You leave a bowl of milk out on the porch and coax them in. Gradually you get to pet them and eventually they come indoors. … Sometimes if I try and write a song before I’m ready or before I can see it clearly enough to catch it, I’ll scare it off.

    “My process is I say a prayer and pick up a guitar and a legal pad and see what happens. But that being said, I’m a harsh critic. I’m hard to please. I don’t put a word on the paper unless I believe it. If you go through my notebooks that I use to work on songs, there are not a lot of different versions. There’ll be some aborted versions, and there will be versions that are slightly different, but I know in my heart when I hear the right line. That sounds corny but it’s true. In order for me to write something down I have to believe it’s going to work.”

    Superstitions and Faith(less):

    At this point, Graham and I talked about how thoughts are at times so quick to disappear, and why capturing a thought is so important, no matter when it occurs. That led into a discussion on superstitions, religion, faith and one of his two best loved songs — “Faithless.”

    “Let’s be square about this here. Who knows where this stuff comes from? It is a superstitious process. If I have one of those feelings, what I want to capture is that certain feeling. If I don’t sit down and start to write it, it can leave the tracks and I can’t get it back.

    “Faithless — I’ve played it in a couple of churches as well as at a couple of funerals. People get confused with the terms spirituality and religion. Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve been to hell.

    “Literally the definition of faith is the belief in things unseen. If you can’t muster that up you’re going to have a hard time in this world. It does not have to be the belief in the white robe bearded God. It can be whatever but you can’t live in this world and not realize that something is going on, that something happening that is not you and is not me.

    “My friend Hal is an astrophysicist. He said to me once, ‘If I gave you a box with all the molecules you needed you still could not build a tree.’ In that sense you’d be a fool not to have faith of some sort. So much of what happens in our lives and what goes into our lives is necessarily unseen. When they smash atoms in the collider, you don’t actually see the electron, you just see the passing of the electron. With love, friendship, fidelity, loyalty, you don’t see it, you just see it pass through your life. That’s why we need faith.”

    The music business today

    Graham’s youngest son, William, is a singer-songwriter who has a new album (“Jakes”) coming out this month. I’ve seen William open for his dad at the Continental Club. The apple, as they say…

    “He’s an amazing, amazing songwriter. He’s the real thing. I feel so bad for him because there’s no infrastructure anymore in music. At least I got in on the tail end. As the empire was crumbling, I still got to walk through the streets of Rome, and it’s helped me in my career to at least have gotten that initial push. If I was starting out again, if I were in William’s shoes right now, I don’t know what I’d really do.

    “There used to be artist development. Record labels really didn’t expect to make their money back for the first three records because artists were encouraged and allowed to grow? Who on earth would give Tom Waits a record deal today, or for that matter, Neil Young? These were artists who were nurtured and allowed to move forward in ways that are just actually impossible now. Even if someone wanted to do it, they couldn’t.

    “I don’t think I’d still be doing this if what I was doing wasn’t up to par, and I think with William it will work the same way. But the old paradigm is dead and no one knows what the new one is yet. How is any musician supposed to make money, other than touring, when you can pay a subscription fee to Amazon Prime and get any song for free?

    “My oldest son, Roy, who is 25, his generation looks me in the eye and says music should be free, in the same sense that beauty should be free. What about the people who have to execute it? What about the people who have to make it? I hope William and his generation figure out how to save music. Between people staying home and not going out as much, and the stranglehold that streaming music has put on all of us, I don’t know how we’re supposed to make it.

    “I’m not one of those people who is bitter about it, or pines for the old days. There were a lot of problems with the major labels. Every friend I know who had a major label deal has a horror story to tell. It’s to varying degrees, but they all have horror stories.

    “What I do miss is that music used to mean more to people. I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t still. How many times do you hear a song on the radio and go back instantly to where you were when you heard the song the first time. There’s so much value in that. I just don’t think people feel the same way anymore. … Music has become very disposable.”

    Wrapping it up…

    At the end of the conversation, Graham tells a funny yet profane story. He refers again to his friend Hal, the astrophysicist.

    “One of my favorite stories he’s told me pretty much sums up what we’re talking about here. He said that with the best observatories we had that astrophysicists came up with pretty clear mathematical layouts and descriptions of how things worked in the universe.

    “Hal said, ‘Then we set the Hubble (telescope) up and we all looked at each other and went, ‘Fuck. We were wrong.’ So we set up a new lens and a new mirror and lens so we could see further. And then we said, ‘Fuck. We were wrong again.’

    At this point, Graham laughs.

    “So the further you see, the more you realize how wrong you were. It made me realize, ‘Well, hold on Frances, take a few steps back. You don’t know everything yet.’ I’m still teachable after all these years.”

    This feature also was posted to Americana Highways. You can see it here.

  • Review/Photos: Bros Osborne/Ruston Kelly

    The Brothers Osborne made a triumphant return to the Washington, D.C., area on Saturday, playing a 19-song homecoming set in front of a sold out, rowdy and boisterous audience at The Anthem.

    The Grammy-nominated duo, fronting a muscular six-piece band that is touring in support of their second album “Port Saint Joe,” showed their musical chops with a series of extended jams that played as well to the back of the arena as it did to the front.

    John Osborne, the oldest and the band’s lead guitarist, shredded throughout the set while TJ played acoustic and took on the vocal duties. Their enthusiasm and joy at playing in the nation’s capital, located only 30 miles from their hometown of Deale, Md., was palpable.

    “We have been touring for years, inching her way up the ladder,” John told People magazine before the Grammys, for which the band earned two nominations. “Our shows have been getting crazier in terms of the crowd response. It’s been over the top lately. Every show is now starting to feel like that.”

    Opening with four songs from “Port Saint Joe,” released last April, the band drove hard and fast through “Drank Like Hank” before moving into “Shoot Me Straight” — the first extended jam of the night. They then slowed things down with the lovely “I Don’t Remember Me Before You” and the laidback “Weed, Whiskey and Willie,” allowing the crowd to sing the chorus.

    The rest of the evening was more of the same, a back and forth between the band and its adoring audience, which has seen the brothers become part of a growing segment of country that manages to blend rock, jazz and jam band elements. The group has a track on Maren Morris’ second album that comes out next month, and opener Ruston Kelly is the husband of Kasey Musgraves.

    “I feel like we are at that tipping point in terms of our audience,” John Osborne said in the People interview. “Since we started touring this year, it just feels like something has changed. It feels different. We have found our people and our people are finding us.”

    As long as the band continues to build on its first two albums, both of which were heavily showcased Saturday along with a mix of covers that included Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” more people will continue to find them.

    I also hope more people will find Ruston Kelly, who released his debut album “Dying Star” in September. The 14-song album is a frank look at Kelly’s substance abuse and near-fatal overdose. With his father, pedal steel guitarist Tim “T.K.” Kelly, and sister in the band, Kelly showed punk, emo and pop influences in his performance, ending the show with the confessional track “Asshole.”

    This review also was posted to Americana Highways. See it here.

  • Photos: James McMurtry/Bonnie Whitmore

    James McMurtry, one of my favorite Texas songwriters, kicked off a nine-day winter tour of the East Coast on Thursday at The Birchmere in Alexandria. I shot the concert, which also featured an opening set by Austin-based singer-songwriter Bonnie Whitmore, for Americana Highways.

    No review this time because someone else had the assignment, but you can be assured they were great. Check out both artists when you get the chance.

  • Review/Photos: Steve Earle Residency

    Every winter, Steve Earle takes a “break” from touring with The Dukes and performs a solo acoustic residency at City Winery, a gig that started when he moved to New York in 2005 and has since expanded to include stops in the venue’s other locations across the U.S.

    The partnership has proven fruitful. City Winery has benefitted from having a proven performer with a dedicated base guaranteed to sell out most shows, while Earle gets to play select dates reasonably close to home during the winter months. The restaurant’s New York location also has been the site of annual fundraisers Earle holds to benefit the special needs school his son attends.

    This winter, Earle performed his first residency — one show in January and two in February — at the Washington, D.C., location that opened in April 2018. It marked the fourth time he’s played in the DMV in just the past 12 months, but his first solo outings.

    After opener Shannon McNally’s short but strong set, which concluded with a lovely duet on Earle’s Lonely Are the Free, the 64-year-old singer-songwriter took the stage for a two-hour show. Totally comfortable in a solo setting, Earle seemed relaxed and engaged throughout, playing seven different instruments (including harmonica).

    Politics, humor and “chick songs” dominated much of Earle’s set as the audience got a mix of the classics — Guitar Town, My Old Friend the Blues, Someday, the inevitable show closer Copperhead Road — as well as an intriguing series of deep cuts, a Guy Clark cover, and a new song that will come out on an album in 2020. As any longtime fan would expect, he also sprinkled caustic, funny and often sobering observations between songs.

    Here are some:

    • After performing The Devil’s Right Hand: “Most homicides in the home take place in the kitchen unless there’s guns in the house. Then it’s the bedroom. And that’s a fact.”
    • Before performing Now She’s Gone: “This goes out to what’s her name, wherever the hell she is.” The next song, the lovely and heartbreaking “Goodbye,” was introduced with “Same girl. Different harmonica.”
    • Introducing the “chick song section of the program”: “I grew up in Texas and I didn’t play football so I picked up a guitar. … I started playing my first gigs when I was around 15 years old. I realized Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan scared the f--- out of 14-year-old girls so I learned a lot of Donovan songs.”

    After playing “Sparkle and Shine” and “Lonelier Than This,” Earle introduced his 1995 song “Valentine’s Day” as “the flagship of the whole chick song fleet.” The song was accompanied by a sobering story.

    “It was February 13, 1995. I was recently back in the world and could not get a license,” Earle said, referring to the drug addiction that threatened his life and career and landed him in prison for four months. “Remarkably, I never had a DUI. I just let my license expire, so I had 13 or 14 charges in three or four states, and it took a while to clean that up. Anyway, I didn’t have a driver but I had a legal pad and a pencil, so I did this.”

    Earle wrapped up the section with You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had, then took a sharp turn with South Nashville Blues, a song about scoring drugs that “makes it sound a lot more f---ing fun than it was.” He noted that he’s been sober since September 13, 1994 and introduced CCKMP with “Lest I forget, welcome to my nightmare.”

    The final third of the show included the night’s sole cover, Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” The song is part of “Guy,” an album of Clark compositions that Earle will release on March 31, in part because “I do not want to run into that muthaf---er on the other side” after paying tribute to his other mentor, Townes Van Zandt, on 2008’s “Townes.”

    Earle then performed a new song, “John Henry is a Steel Driving Man,” a tribute to the 29 West Virginia coal miners who died in Upper Big Branch in 2010. It will be part of the country record he is releasing in 2020.

    “I’m not preaching to the choir,” he said of the new record. “I did that, and I believe every word I wrote. In fact, I’m probably more radical now than I was then. But we do have a responsibility to listen to each other, and we’re not doing a good job of that right now. I want to make a record that speaks to people who didn’t vote the same way I did, so I’m swinging for the fences and trying to change hearts and minds. That’s how arrogant I am.”

    After two more songs, the sing-along “City of Immigrants” and a lovely “Galway Girl,” Earle finished his set with “Copperhead Road” before returning to encore with “Christmas in Washington.” Introducing that song, his words hit home:

    “What’s important, I think, is that people suit up and show up and vote,” he said to cheers from the audience. “But let’s go through it with as much kindness as possible. It’s OK to be angry; it’s not OK to be mean.”

    Amen to that.

  • Photos: DBT & Lucinda Williams

    On Friday, I shot my first show at The Anthem, one of the many new venues that has opened in the past couple of years in Washington, D.C. And the show — Lucinda Williams co-headlining with the Drive-By Truckers — was terrific.

    The photos were published in Americana Highways, and a review was written by another person. While I enjoy the writing, it’s fun sometimes just to play with my camera.

    The opener for the show was Erika Wennerstrom, a singer with the Heartless Bastards who is touring behind her new solo album, "Sweet Unknown." Enjoyed her set as well.