Music: Live & Otherwise

Americana Highways
  • Photos: Ashley McBryde/Dee White

    Grammy nominated singer Ashley McBryde played a terrific concert Wednesday night at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. The 35-year-old singer, whose debut album “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is up for Best Country Album next month, originally was scheduled to perform at the venue in September but the show was rescheduled due to Hurricane Florence.

    The subsequent months have seen McBryde’s album — the title song is based on how she felt after being told to give up her dreams by a high school algebra teacher — be profiled on CBS This Morning and land on a who’s who of “Best of” lists. Among them: The New York Times, Billboard, Esquire, NPR Music, Paste, Rolling Stone, Stereogum, Town & Country and Variety.

    I’m not writing a formal review of this show because it was assigned to an Americana Highways colleague who needed a photographer. But I can tell you this: Ashley McBryde is a star in the making. And chances are you will never see her in a venue as small as The Hamilton again.

    Dee White, a 20-year-old singer who has released “Side A” of his debut album “Southern Gentleman,” served as the opener for Ashley McBryde Wednesday night at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. The singer from Slapout, Alabama, named as one of “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” by Rolling Stone, is acclaimed for his updated take on classic Countrypolitan music. Side B of “Southern Gentleman” is expected sometime this year.

  • Review/Photos: Band of Heathens

    This review is being posted to the Americana Highways website. For more photos, go to my Concert Photos gallery.

    There’s nothing quite like closing out a year with a bunch of heathens in our nation’s Capital. If not a bunch, then at least a band.

    The five-member Band of Heathens filled the main room at Hill Country Live on 7th Street and rocked a small but enthusiastic crowd into 2019. The Austin-based group performed songs from their five studio albums as well as the singles “Carry Your Love” and “Dc 9,” which in an alternate universe would be Billboard hits.

    Led by Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist, who share lead vocals and write the band’s songs, the five-member group has followed up 2017’s “Duende” with “A Message from the People Revisited,” a song-by-song recording of Ray Charles’ classic 1972 album.

    Jurdi and Quist, who formed the band in 2006 with Colin Brooks, have been on a roll since a series of lineup changes left them as the only original Heathens. They are backed ably by Trevor Nealon on keyboards, Scott Davis on bass, and Richard Millsap on drums.

    The Band of Heathens’ sound draws comparisons to groups like Little Feat and The Black Crowes, but the best description I’ve heard of their style is “Grateful Dead Americana.” While this is probably true of any Americana fan, I most appreciate bands who have a lack of respect for strict genres. I like that Jurdi’s vocals are more soul and R&B based, while Quist has a more straightforward singer-songwriter style, with some Memphis pop/country/soul added for good measure.

    Monday’s show started just before 10:30 and ended with two songs in 2019. Much of the first half of the show was devoted to songs from “Duende,” including “All I’m Asking,” “Sugar Queen,” “Green Grass of California,” and “Last Minute Man.”

    “Medicine Man,” “Gris Gris Satchel,” from 2016’s “Top Hat Crown,” were mixed with “Jackson Station” from the group’s 2008 self-titled studio debut. “LA County Blues” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” from 2011’s “One Foot in the Ether,” were also highlights.

    The latter song included an extended jam featuring Jurdi solos on both lead guitar and harmonica. It proved to be a strong segue into the group’s “Message” set, where the band covered a series of standards that Charles had made his own almost a half century ago in a musical call for peace and harmony.

    Because of history’s tendency to repeat itself, many of the issues Charles’ sang about in 1972 remain sadly relevant today. Still, it took some guts for a white Americana band to remake a known soul classic take by take, in just four days of studio time no less. And for the most part, it works.

    On Monday, amid the celebrations and just a mile from the White House, it was almost cathartic to hear songs like “Heaven Help Us All,” “Abraham, Martin and John,” and “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.” Even “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which felt more like John Denver than Ray Charles, worked.

    The mini set done, the band returned to its own catalogue, roaring through “Deep Is Love,” the beautiful ballad “Hurricane,” and the rocking “Trouble Came Early,” which ended just in time for the New Year’s countdown. That was followed by a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and, as the closer, “America the Beautiful.”

    With that, the show and another year were in the books. And both were memorable.

  • Music Week: Cowboy Junkies

    I saw the Cowboy Junkies last night at The Birchmere, my third show in five nights (after Lori McKenna and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit) in a personal summer concert series. It was the first time I’ve seen the Canadian-based group in more than two decades and they did not disappoint, playing material from their terrific new album “All That Recknoning” as well as highlights from their 30-plus year career.

    In case you’re not familiar with the band, they became known for “The Trinity Sessions,” a 1988 lo-fi mix of covers (“Sweet Jane,” “Blue Moon: Song for Elvis”) and originals (“Misguided Angel”) that was recorded using one microphone in a Toronto church. Over the past three decades, they’ve developed a steady following of fans who love their ethereal, often haunting sound.

    What makes the Cowboy Junkies fascinating is that they are a mix of family and longtime friends. Margo Timmins, the lead singer, is the sibling of guitarist and principal songwriter Michael, and their brother Peter plays drums. Bass player Alan Anton co-founded the band with Michael Timmins, and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird has played with the group since “The Trinity Sessions.”

    It was a great show, with tricky lighting that made it a fun challenge to shoot. To see more, go to my Concert Photography page to the Americana Highways link here.

  • Review: The Avett Brothers/Nicole Atkins

    On a sweltering summer evening, with the August humidity drenching performers and audience alike, The Avett Brothers performed before a raucous, sold-out crowd Saturday at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.

    The group, which has toured steadily behind its 2016 album True Sadness and was the subject of an acclaimed HBO documentary, “May It Last,” earlier this year, performed 22 career-spanning songs in just under two hours. With isolated exceptions, the show led by brothers Scott and Seth Avett did not disappoint, never flagging in energy, harmony, or superb musicianship.

    Serving as bookends were the stark ballad “Shame,” from the group’s 2007 breakthrough Emotionalism, and the gorgeous and sublime “No Hard Feelings” from True Sadness. The recording of the latter is a highlight of the HBO documentary, and a perfect closer.

    I’ve been an Avett Brothers fan since Emotionalism, but circumstances have prevented my wife and I from seeing them in concert. It’s almost a given with four live albums, that they thrive in front of a crowd. The concert sold out in a matter of hours, and walking into Wolf Trap, we saw a woman holding a sign touting this as her 50th show. The merch line was twice as long as any of the bathroom lines, another sign of the group’s devoted fan base.

    Not surprisingly, True Sadness songs — including the title cut — dominated the setlist as the seven-member group performed five of the album’s 12 tracks. Highlights included the funky and fun “Ain’t No Man,” in which Seth ran from all the way from the stage to the top of the lawn, and “I Wish I Was,” described as a song “about wanting something but not wanting to ruin something by wanting it so much.”

    Other highlights: “Orion’s Belt,” an energetic rocker that has not been recorded but played in concert since 2017; The Carpenter’s “Live and Die” and “Down with the Shine,” which featured five band members on vocals; and encore number “Morning Song” from 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion. Shoutouts also to Bob Crawford, the core member and upright bass player who soloed on “Old Joe Clark,” and fiddle player Tania Elizabeth, who took over on the instrumental “Le Reel Du Pendu/Les Bars De La Prison.”

    Cellist Joe Kwon, drummer Mike Marsh and the brothers’ sister, Bonnie Avett Rini, on keyboards rounded out the seven-member group. All are phenomenal musicians. Opener Nicole Atkins, who performed led her four-piece group in an energetic set, joined the headliners on stage for “Pretend Love” (from 2006’s Four Thieves Gone”) and “Ain’t No Man.”

    It’s easy to be hooked by the brothers’ story — by all means, watch the HBO documentary — energy and enthusiasm. It’s also easy, in these jaded times, to see why snarky critics would dismiss the Avetts’ simple, yet ultimately intricate and complex songs about family, friends and relationships. I was grateful that for two hours on a sweaty Saturday night, I could forget the toxic swirl that often surrounds us in Washington, D.C., and revel in the power of life stories set to music. No hard feelings, indeed.

    This was my first review for the website Americana Highways. You can see the review here. To see more photos, go to my Concert Photography page here.

    These photos are of Nicole Atkins, the opening act who performed selections from her retro country/soul/jazz funk album, “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.”

    FYI to those who haven’t shot a show in this type of venue: Photographers with a pass usually are only allowed to work during the first three songs, which means you have to get everything done within 10 to 15 minutes per set. Wolf Trap does not have a formal pit area close to the stage, so you’re restricted to the sides and behind the soundboard. It’s a fun challenge.

  • Review: There's No Leaving New York

    I’ve always wondered why some people follow their favorite bands around the country, catching them at every stop on every tour in every type of venue. Then, about a year ago, I found myself doing the same with Jason Isbell.

    In just over a year, Jill and I have seen Isbell twice at outdoor arenas in Maryland and Virginia, once at a benefit in Washington, D.C., at the Durham Performing Arts Center and at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. I firmly believe he’s one of the best songwriters — hell, writers if you check his Twitter account — we have in music today.

    Still, a reasonable person would ask, “Why would you want to drive to New York City to see him again, especially when he’s not the headliner but in a supporting role with a shortened, one-hour set?”

    In a word: nostalgia. (And, if I’m being honest, an opportunity to take photos of one of my favorite artists for the second time.)

    Four years ago, I saw The Replacements on their reunion tour at Forest Hills Stadium, a magical evening that remains my all-time favorite concert, in part because I was able to take my camera inside and capture the night.

    I also found myself intrigued by the venue and its history. Located in a residential section of Queens, the stadium hosted the U.S. Open from 1924 to 1977 as well as some of the largest acts in music history from 1964-67. Among them: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix. It stopped hosting concerts, in part due to the noise in the quiet neighborhood, before reopening for shows in 2013 with a strict 10 p.m. curfew.

    I’ve been looking for a reason to return to Forest Hills since, but nothing caught my eye until I saw Isbell was playing as part of a two-day festival headlined by The National — “There’s No Leaving New York.” My wife was out of town at a work obligation, leaving me with a rare weekend free.

    That coincided with Isbell answering a question on Twitter about his all-time favorite opening verse. “Write you a letter tomorrow. Tonight, I can’t hold a pen,” Isbell responded, quoting from The Replacements’ 1987 classic, “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

    I saw it as fate.

    As summer gives way to fall and the outdoor festival season winds down, it felt appropriate that The National — whose reputation as an outstanding live band is without question — would conclude its year-long tour at Forest Hills.

    In a pre-show interview with the blog Brooklyn Vegan, guitarist/keyboard player Aaron Dessner called The National’s October 2017 show at Forest Hills “one of our favorite shows in the history of the band.”

    Dessner, The National’s primary songwriter with lead vocalist Matt Berninger, said after the show they “started talking immediately about finding a way to come back for multiple nights with friends.” He cited the venue’s “incredible legacy” and noted how it manages to feel intimate “even given its size.”

    Cut to this past Saturday. Five groups are on the bill, with Isbell and the 400 Unit — minus his wife, Amanda Shires — performing just before The National.  The first three groups — Adia Victoria, Phoebe Bridges and Cigarettes and Sex — play short sets of 30 to 40 minutes.  Victoria shows range, and Bridges is a devastating songwriter (“Motion Sickness,” from her debut album, is written about Ryan Adams). Cigarettes and Sex belongs in a small, smoky club.

    To most in the audience, Isbell’s songs represent the outlier/musical stretch for the day, making it all the more appropriate that his set stretches from twilight to dark. A few minutes in, the connection becomes clear. While recording 2013’s Southeastern, his first album sober, Isbell said he only wanted to listen to The National when he left the studio.

    Isbell’s song list is short — 55 minutes — and typical for anyone who’s seen him over the past year or two. Ten of the 11 songs are from his last three albums; the Drive-By Truckers era “Never Gonna Change” is bookended by “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires.”

    Still, no matter how many times I see him, I never tire of these songs. Without Shires, who’s touring with her own band right now, the five-member 400 Unit rocks harder and the jams seem longer. “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires” gain poignancy in part because she is missing.

    When The National appeared for its 90-plus minute set, they were primed for a much-deserved valedictory lap. Their set focused primarily on Sleep Well Beast, the group's 2017 album. Berninger told the audience he was “too freaked out to have any fun” the last time the The National was at Forest Hills, and more than made up for it on this night. Bridgers, who has been opening for The National on the tour, joined them on stage for two songs, the lovely “I Need My Girl” and “Sorrow.”

    The communal feeling you sometimes get from live music was in true evidence throughout the day, and it showed during the final song of the night, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” as the crowd sang each verse with Berninger conducting from the stage. It reminded me of the night the crowd sang “Can’t Hardly Wait” back to The Replacements, sending shivers down my spine.

    As a music fan/evangelist, I’m happiest when I see friends enjoy the bands I love. Walking to the subway with a close friend (Bernadette Jusinski), who had accompanied me to The Replacements show and bought an $80 ticket on my faith that Isbell would not disappoint, I knew I had another convert.

    “Now that,” she said, “was a good day.”

    This review was published on the Americana Highways website. To see more photos, go to my Concert Photography page here.

  • Review/Photos: Lovett, Keen, The Birchmere

    In the mid 1980s, I was a reporter at my hometown newspaper in the refinery town of Texas City, Texas, and commuted to school at the University of Houston. For the most part, I worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, although the days often started early and the nights rarely ended before bars closed at 2.

    That meant my opportunities to immerse in Houston’s fertile music scene were limited, but I took every chance to see shows whenever and wherever possible. I found myself putting my limited funds into cassettes I could play in my car on the commute and to pay the relatively small cover fees that most places charged at the time.

    Houston had started to lose a bit of its luster as its more successful artists moved on to Austin and Nashville, but you could always find reliably strong acts at Rockefeller’s and Fitzgerald’s, and folk and acoustic music was played throughout the city.

    On a rare off night, I went to Anderson Fair and Retail Restaurant, a barn-like building on Grant Street in the Montrose district. Lyle Lovett, who would soon release his self-titled debut album, was performing and a classmate had given me a sought-after ticket. (Sought-after because the place held only 75-80 people and required its audience to be quiet when the musicians played.)

    I left that evening a fan, impressed by Lovett’s original songs and not knowing then that the only way you could play at Anderson Fair was if you wrote your own. At the time, I also didn’t know that one of the songs played that night — “The Front Porch Song” — had been co-written by Lovett’s college friend, Robert Earl Keen.

    Cut to last week, more than three decades later, when I saw Keen and Lovett perform in the first of a two-night stop at The BIrchmere in Alexandria, Va. The venue is larger than Anderson Fair, but the emphasis on listening to the musicians’ stories and songs is the same. The performers, in their late 20s when I first saw them, are now in their early 60s.

    Keen and Lovett are road warriors who have toured together on occasion since 2013. (Lovett has his Large Band and also goes out with John Hiatt in a similarly formatted show at least once a year, while Keen is often on the road with his regular band.) But their friendship is so deep that they work without a setlist.

    Dressed in a blazer, jeans and an open shirt, Keen is the more fluid and colorful storyteller, spicing his tales with self-deprecating anecdotes. Lovett, as always, is in dark coat with tie, quick with a dry one-liner and awkwardly drawn out pauses that drew huge laughs from the audience.

    The two met at Texas A&M in 1976. Keen, two years older, lived in a house near campus that Lovett — then a freshman — rode past on his bicycle. Keen, whose background is in bluegrass, would jam with friends on his porch and Lovett, who favors jazz and western swing, soon joined them.

    “Corpus Christi Bay,” Keen’s opener, was accompanied by an anecdote about his brother driving backwards at a Jack-in-the-Box drive thru. Then, after performing his classic, “Merry Christmas from the Family,” he said his mother was offended by the song because of its references to drinking.

    Before singing Guy Clark’s “Texas 1947,” Lovett told a story about opening for the legendary songwriter at the “old Birchmere.” He then talked about the opening act who played when he brought his Large Band to The Birchmere for the first time in 1986. The opener, Mary Chapin Carpenter, signed a record deal that night.

    Midway through the show, Lovett said, “When I reached 50, journalists started asking me the ‘r’ word.”

    “Are you thinking about retiring?” Keen asked. “I’ve been retired all my life.”

    “Then he asked me, ‘How would you like to be remembered?’” Lovett continued. “I said to him, ‘First you were trying to get me to quit. Now you’re trying to kill me off.’ But then I thought about it for a little while. I called the journalist back and said I would like to be remembered as a really good dresser.”

    He then sang “Pants is Overrated.”

    By the end of the two-plus hour show, when they played “The Front Porch Song” just before the encore, you felt like you’d been sitting on the back stoop listening to family members swap stories about days past. Except the “family members” in this case are two of the best songwriters Texas has produced, and the stories served to deepen songs we’ve come to know and love.

    I can’t wait until they come back for another visit.

    This review, along with more photos, also was posted to the Americana Highways website. You can see it  here

  • Review: The Lantern Tour

    Two decades ago, Emmylou Harris and a cast of Americana luminaries embarked on an acoustic tour to focus attention on the danger and damage caused by landmines around the world. The tour has been repeated several times since, with a rotating cast devoted to humanitarian causes donating their time and talent.

    This month, a number of those same cast members were on the road again, raising awareness about an issue much closer to home: Migrant families who have been separated by the Trump administration at the Texas-New Mexico border.

    The Lantern Tour, as the series of five concerts in six days was known, made its second stop in Washington, D.C. last Thursday. (The tour ended Sunday in New York after stops in New Jersey and Boston.) A meet-and-greet fundraiser for the New York-based Women’s Refugee Commission, which organized the tour, was held the previous evening at The Mansion on O Street. Harris, Steve Earle, Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs, and dobro master Jerry Douglas mingled with the guests, and commission staff spoke briefly at the event.

    I took photos at the fundraiser, but tour management did not let me shoot the concert. I did, however, manage to score tickets to the sold-out show, where Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin joined Harris, Earle, Downs, and Douglas on stage.

    Like the Landmine concerts, The Lantern Tour shows featured the musicians sitting in a row with their instruments, taking turns playing songs. Douglas, who called himself the “music director by default” at the meet and greet, provided superb accompaniment throughout.

    For the most part, the two-hour show stuck to themes related to immigrant struggles — families, exile, loneliness, mourning and spirituality — as the performers stayed away from their best-known songs.

    More than anyone, Browne stuck to the script, performing the ballads “Sierra Blanca Massacre” and “The Dreamer.” Downs, who was born and raised in Mexico, received some of the evening’s strongest applause after her beautiful rendition of the traditional folk song “La Llorona (The Weeping Woman)” in Spanish as well as a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Dear Someone.” Colvin contributed “Ricochet in Time” and a cover of CeeLo Green’s “Crazy.”

    Earle briefly sidetracked the proceedings to pay tribute to Tony Joe White, who had died that day at age 75, with the song, “You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had.” Harris, who said she’s writing a memoir “like everyone is these days,” performed “The Road” as a tribute to Gram Parsons, who had discovered her in D.C. in 1971.

    In the end, it was Earle who gave the show a needed jolt of energy. An unabashed rabble-rouser, he performed versions of “City of Immigrants” and the updated spiritual “Tell Moses” — a duet with Colvin — that had the audience singing and swaying along. I’ve now seen him almost 20 times since 1997 and have yet to be disappointed.

    The concert closed with “The Pilgrim,” Earle’s tribute to Roy Huskey Jr. that also has been recorded by Harris. Like the best songs, this one has come to mean more than its original intent; Harris referenced the “over 65 million displaced persons around the world” when she performed it on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert” last fall.

    And with the lines, “I’m just a pilgrim on this road, boys/’til I see you, fare thee well,” the tour went to its next stop, its light shining brightly.

    This review was posted to the Americana Highways website. You can see more photos here.