Music: Live & Otherwise

Northern Virginia
  • Review & Photos: Lori McKenna

    Lori McKenna started her “Wreck You” tour to promote her new CD a week before it was released, and was surprised to learn she could sell copies of “The Bird & The Rifle” before it becomes available to the general public.

    “I didn’t know you could do that,” she said during her show at Jammin’ Java just outside Washington, D.C.

    Such is the state of the music business, where release dates have been moved from Tuesdays to Fridays and smaller labels (such as McKenna’s) operate much differently than the now shrunken behemoths. Today, however, you and anyone else with an iTunes account can purchase “The Bird & The Rifle,” the latest in a series of gems from this mother of five who lives with her husband of 28 years outside Boston.

    In a just world, McKenna’s music would get the same level of promotion — and subsequent sales — as the increasing number of artists who cover her richly detailed songs. One of those songs, “Humble and Kind,” topped the charts when Tim McGraw — whose wife, Faith Hill, helped McKenna get her big break as a songwriter in 2005 — released it last year.

    McGraw’s mainstream sincerity (and video with connections to Oprah Winfrey) made the song a hit, but McKenna reclaims it on her new album. At the Jammin’ Java concert, she talked about writing the song at her dining room table between dropping off and picking up her kids from school. When you hear it on the CD, you can almost see her writing in longhand.

    Hold the door say please say thank you
    Don't steal, don't cheat, and don't lie
    I know you got mountains to climb but
    Always stay humble and kind
    When the dreams you're dreamin' come to you
    When the work you put in is realized
    Let yourself feel the pride but
    Always stay humble and kind

    Don’t expect a free ride from no one
    Don’t hold a grudge or a chip and here’s why
    Bitterness keeps you from flyin’
    Always stay humble and kind

    As a longtime fan — I have all 10 of McKenna’s albums — I’ve always appreciated her eye for life’s little details and ability to capture with grace and empathy the struggles of people just trying to get by. In concert, she almost apologizes for writing so many sad songs — the first single on the new CD is titled “Wreck You” — and while it’s true that none of her work qualifies as summer beach music, what she manages to capture is much more real instead.

    “The Bird & The Rifle,” however, has a new wrinkle: Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb, who has worked wonders for Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. Cobb and a host of Nashville’s top musicians compliment McKenna’s words in a way I haven’t heard before. It is, without question, the best sounding record she has made.

    So, if you can, try to catch McKenna live sometime this summer. And stick around for the encore, where she performs “Girl Crush,” a song co-written with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey and recorded by Little Big Town. That one won McKenna a Grammy, and long overdue recognition that her words speak volumes.

  • Music Week: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

    Summer Concert Series Week #2: Jill and I saw Jason Isbell for the fifth time in a year last night at Wolf Trap. Another terrific show, highlighted by an encore of Crosby Stills Nash & Young's "Ohio." We also saw Sarah Huckabee Sanders walking in to the show; two songs later, Isbell played "White Man's World."

    Coincidence? I think not.

    If you're keeping score, we've now seen Isbell & The 400 Unit at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland and Durham Performing Arts Center in North Carolina. Both shows featured Amanda Shires, Isbell's wife, on fiddle and background vocals. We saw Isbell and Shires play acoustic at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville as part of the 2017 Artist-in-Residence series and again at a benefit at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C.

    This show did not feature Shires, who is on a tour of her own to promote a new album. (We'll see her at the Birchmere next week.) The dynamic, as a result, was different. Isbell dug more deeply into his catalogue and the show had a harder edge, highlighted by the "Ohio" encore.

  • 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.