Music: Live & Otherwise

Photography
  • iPhone Challenge: Isbell at the Ryman

    Those who follow my page know that I shoot a lot of live concerts. When I can't get a photo pass, I join the masses in using my iPhone.

    How these photos turn out is often a mixed bag. Cellphone cameras don't capture movement well — if at all — and the lighting also is a challenge.

    But when the show you're attending is a bucket list item — my first concert at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, with Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, no less — you've got to try.

    Fortunately, the lighting for Friday's show — part of Isbell's annual residency at the Ryman — was good. And our seats, in the front row of the balcony, also helped.

    These photos show what you can get with an iPhone when the circumstances are right. They're not as good as I can get with my DSLR. But, given the circumstances, they are a great memory of a great show.

    For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Photos: Stonewall 50 Concert in NYC

    On Friday, thanks to one of my “adopted” children and one of his good friends, I secured a press pass to shoot Pride Live’s Stonewall Day concert, held in Greenwich Village to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the riots that served as a turning point for the LGBTQ movement. The event featured a memorable speech by Lady Gaga, a three-song performance by Alicia Keys, and appearances by actors, musicians, models and political figures who are part of or are allies of the LGTBQ community.

    Held as part of World Pride Week, which ends on Sunday, the midday celebration on Christopher Street was held outside the Stoneville Inn, the West Village landmark where six days of riots began on June 28, 1969. The Christopher Street Liberation Day March, held the following year, evolved into the annual Pride parades now celebrated around the world.

    Sponsored by iHeart Radio’s z100 and United Airlines, Friday’s celebration featured speakers Chelsea Clinton, Donatella Versace, Whoopi Goldberg, Grace VanderWaal, Wilson Cruz, Pose stars Angelica Ross and Ryan Jamaal Smith, and Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s advisor who read a letter from him to those in attendance. Alex Newell, who played Asaka in the Tony-award winning revival of Once on This Island, performed a powerful version of “I’m Here” from The Color Purple.

    Gaga and Keys, however, were the definite headliners. While she did not perform, Gaga gave an impassioned speech that lasted almost 15 minutes. She namechecked transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who helped lead the demonstrations, and noted that 11 trans women of color have been killed in the first six months of 2019.

    “This community has fought and continued to fight a war of acceptance, a war of tolerance, and of the most relentless bravery,” a visibly moved Gaga told the crowd. “You are the definition of courage.”

    Gaga, whose non-profit Born This Way Foundation benefits LGBTQ youth, said she will “continue to fight every day during shows, and even when I’m not on stage, to spread a message that’s actually quite simple: Be kind.

    “And that kindness belongs to you,” she said. “It always has belonged to you, even when the world was not kind, it belonged to you.”

    As the nearly two-hour event wound toward its close, RuPaul's Drag Race season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen came out to lip-sync Alicia Keys' 2012 hit "Girl on Fire." As it turned out, Keys was backstage performing the vocals live. She joined Bob on stage and then performed three more songs: a cover of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," "In Common" and "Empire State of Mind."

    At one point during her brief set, Keys pointed to the Stonewall Inn and smiled.

    "Places are powerful. People are powerful,” she said. “And when we're together, we're even more powerful than imaginable.”

    Thanks to Ginno Murphy and Tom Bagley for helping me get into the event and giving me the opportunity to chronicle this moment in time.

    To see more photos from this event, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Photos: Josh Ritter & Amanda Shires

    When I travel, I try to see if any of my favorite artists are playing in the city I’m visiting. Usually, my luck runs cold, as I miss shows by a day here or two days there. So imagine my surprise when I learned Josh Ritter and Amanda Shires were playing while I was In Louisville, Ky. And even better, the concert was free.

    The concluding show of WFPK 91.9’s outdoor concert series, held on Big Four Lawn next to the river, was a fun and enjoyable evening spent listening to two artists who’ve been honing their skills on the road throughout the summer behind strong albums with ties to Jason Isbell.

    Shires, Isbell’s spouse and one of the founders of The Highwomen super group, has been working at a fevered pitch since I saw her perform last summer at the kickoff for her acclaimed “To The Sunset” album. And the nonstop touring has done wonders for her presence as the leader of her own group.

    Playing with two members of her band, Shires turned in several terrific cuts from “To the Sunset,” including “Break Out the Champagne” and “Parking Lot Pirouette.” But it was her gorgeous, mostly acoustic take on “Leave It Alone” that proved to be a real standout.

    Ritter, the headliner, performed only two cuts from the Isbell-produced “Fever Breaks” (“All Some Kind of Dream” and “Losing Battles” during his 13-song set. The rest came from his other five albums, with “Feels Like Lightning,” “Thunderbolt’s Goodnight,” “The Temptation of Adam” and “Getting Ready to Slow Down” being the standouts.

    As fall takes over, the opportunities for outdoor shows — especially the free variety — are quickly dimming. But if you’re on the road, especially as much as I am these days, take the time to check out the Bandsintown app. You never know what might turn up.

    To see more photos, go to my Facebook albums here and here.

  • Interview: Scott Avett

    Editor's note: I recently had the opportunity to interview Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers prior to the release of the band's new album, "Closer Than Together." The interview, along with these photos taken during the group's concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, appears in Americana Highways.

    Scott Avett is having the type of month multi-hyphenates dream about: a new album; a sold out show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center; an appearance on The Tonight Show; and the opening of a huge collection of his paintings at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

    “Today is the first day I’m constantly reupping as a musician,” he said during a Monday morning interview four days prior to the release of “Closer Than Together,” the Avett Brothers 10th studio album and the group’s first since “True Sadness” hit number 3 on the Billboard Top 200 in 2016. “I’m dedicating for the first day in many, outside of playing shows, just to work on music and on being a musician again.”

    He laughs. “With all that’s going on, I have to do that. But I’m full in all the way. I’m going to try to keep going and try to keep making what I’m supposed to be making.”

    On the music front, that involves what Avett calls a “gradual evolution” of the group’s sound and vision. While the group says it does not make “sociopolitical” music, “Closer Than Together” addresses gun violence (“Bang Bang”) as well as toxic masculinity and greed (“New Woman’s World”).

    But more than anything, the album represents a call for unity, no surprise for a band whose earnest, seemingly simple songs about the human condition touch on issues of great depth for us all. You especially see that during the Avetts’ live set, which I witnessed first-hand while shooting the show in Brooklyn later that week.

    During a 30-minute phone interview, Avett touched on the group’s creative process, his various outside projects (including a Broadway musical based on the Avett Brothers’ music and producing Clem Snide’s new record), the freedom of working for a major label as the music business turns upside down, and the effect of a Judd Apatow documentary on the making of “True Sadness.”

    Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity:

    On the group’s “life and death output” and the effect it has on him: “Every one of them, by the end, there’s this output of life and death from ideas and thoughts. In some ways, it’s the death of songs in that we’ve recorded and released them, and yet there’s this new life that does reflect seasonal growth and dying off and rebirth. Creatively, it’s reflective of life and the trust we have in each other. But the songs have many lives and deaths as we are documenting them and putting them out there.

    “I’m more aware of it than I used to be. I used to be so miffed by how short and grumpy I was at the end of every recording session. I would just be a total pain in the butt to live with. Seth (his brother) would certainly agree. Now I’m much more aware of it and doing things to combat it.”

    On how the “True Sadness” documentary affected his approach to music making: “It was exhausting, but so was ‘Four Thieves Gone,’” Avett says, referring to the group’s 2006 album. “Seeing the documentary myself helped me to observe (how he responded to stress). I was able to observe this self I was on screen, this really unguarded vulnerable self. Isn’t that amazing, that we can do that?

    “We had the same process with this record for sure, the same feelings for sure, but I did more to combat them and keep them in place, I tried to use the parts of them that are good to fuel what I do as opposed to stopping something in its tracks, which I’ve been known to do because I didn’t know what to do with it.”

    On the documentary’s effect on the band’s popularity: “’True Sadness’ had a little longer life because of that documentary, but the cool thing was we saw real numbers change at our live shows. More people came out who were curious, who had no idea what we were. It was sort of like, ‘Here’s this group. Why have I missed them?’

    “It was exciting to see that growth in our concerts. That’s our real time life, where we come and share all of these creative lives and deaths that we experience within a show.”

    On the band’s continued growth and evolution two decades into their career: “Not everyone knows all the missteps and failures. There are all these hits and misses here and there. They always happen, but when one miss happens, the attitude has to be there will always be another opportunity. We have to know it’s OK, that there are always going to be misses. In fact, there should be more misses than hits.

    “For the longest time, we always sort of ranked ourselves. Early on we had to do that, because no one was going to rank how we did. And we were very lucky. We were raised in a very caring — probably it’s a spiritual thing that I didn’t know at the time — environment in which you were encouraged to accept yourself as being part of something bigger and something grand.

    “So, it’s a gradual evolution for me. It’s been in real time. I really don’t take any time to compare where we are consciously. Sometimes I forget where we sort of were or where (songs) came from. But when I think about it, I can certainly hear two different bands, especially as far as sound goes.”

    On signing with a major label (Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, now part of UMG) and advice they received from Paleface, a folk artist who was signed by Polygram and Sire in the 1990s only to be dropped soon after: “One of the things we did right, I think, is work amateur until you get called up into the quote-unquote majors, and I shouldn’t even put quotations around that. We started as amateurs (with the North Carolina label Ramseur Records). The majors would have been suicide for us. It really would have been.

    “Paleface is this brilliant songwriter we met in New York in 2003, and what he experienced was the opposite to what we went through. He was on a major label really early and really quick and he self-destructed. He said, ‘I didn’t have to do anything for myself. I always had people around me who would do everything.’ He would always tell us how good it is that we grew slowly, that we made all of those early mistakes in the amateurs.

    “We knew how to draw thousands of people in several cities before we ever got to the majors. We knew how to sell records. We knew how to run a business. We knew how to write checks and manage money among each other. We didn’t really need a major label at that point except to advance our creative process, and that’s where Rick came in.”

    On taking more than three years between albums: “We’re more apt to take more time now than we used to. We didn’t used to have the financial ability to take the time, but as soon as we were remotely stable (financially), we started taking the time. It’s one of those resources I was talking about.

    “Right off the bat, Rick helped give us space that we weren’t taking for ourselves. We weren’t taking the initiative to make space and time at a natural pace. Rick has really helped us take time, make space for the music and follow our instinct and conscience. We were on that path already but he really sped it up for us.”

    At this point, with about 10 minutes left, our conversation shifted to Avett’s other projects while staying focused on the creative process. We discussed his art shows (the large one at the North Carolina Museum of Art and a smaller one at the Soho Gallery in Charlotte, both of which will be up through January 2020), and the Broadway musical. The Clem Snide record, which Avett describes as “indie but spiritual” will be released next year, and the band also is expected to return to the studio in the spring to finish some music that was left behind during the Closer Than Together sessions.

    Avett graduated from East Carolina University in 2000 with a BFA in studio art. The “full-on big show” in Raleigh, “Scott Avett: Invisible,” is described by the museum as his take on “universal issues of spirituality and struggle, love and loss, heartache and joy, as well as more personal stories of career, family, and living in the South.”

    Painting and performing are large parts of who Avett is creatively, but they “can really distract each other badly. They can be each other’s worst enemy.  I have to be really disciplined and know when to turn my back on one to work on the other.”

    With the band on tour through November, he’s looking forward to taking some time to recharge before, as he describes it, the creative muse inevitably returns. And he remains open to following the “spark” that sometimes occurs when he’s exhausted.

    “When I’m home and once I’m rested from being out, it’s so predictable, I get these visions of what’s next or these sounds of what’s next. They come in and I’m driven to go out and make whatever it is that calls me,” he said. “But some of the most interesting stuff for me comes after the big efforts, when you’ve had the juices flowing and gears turning. Sometimes that lack of presence you feel because you’re so exhausted actually makes you more present. It causes you to be in real time and something great can happen. That’s really fascinating for my process.”

    The Broadway musical, which largely will be based on 2004’s “Mignonette” as well as other songs from the group’s catalog, is an additional artistic challenge for the group. “It seems so natural,” he said of “Swept Away,” which premieres at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in June 2020 before moving to New York. “Early, early, early on, I could see these songs as a Broadway piece, but I put that idea away years ago. To see someone else imagine it or see it in the same way, that’s exciting. They’re producing something that may or may not work, but it will be fun to see what happens.”

    With three children — ages 4, 8 and 10 — and a career filled to the brim, Avett said he has learned over the past several years not to “overvalue work time” and to “give more value to the nondoing.”

    “I swear, I’m doing much more within less work time than I used to, because adopting that principle causes you to be more relaxed and have a more fulfilling family life,” he said. “It’s easy to say that a career is the most important thing you have, but that’s such nonsense. It’s all so silly. If I afford myself more family time, which is super important, then I’m more relaxed when I go to work. And when I’m working, what I’m doing is more sincere and more fun. I just couldn’t get that before the age of 40. I couldn’t get it.”

    As the conversation ends, I asked Avett if he enjoys music and art as much as he did 20 years ago.

    “I think I do,” he said, laughing. “But in a different way. I try not to treat it as critically as I did 20 years ago, and that makes it more fun. It’s been a shift, because as many times as I say I’m going to change careers or going to quit, I never would. I’m always excited to move on to the next thing. There’s always the next thing to enjoy. I think that’s the key.”

    To see more photos from the show, go to my Facebook album here. 

  • Anniversaries: Lori McKenna & Dave Alvin

    The anniversary tour, in which artists perform a popular or seminal work start to finish, has become a solid moneymaker for musicians over the past decade. For the artists, who’ve seen the industry implode due to downloads and streaming that pays pennies on the dollar, it is a drawing card in a clouded and crowded marketplace increasingly reliant on ticket and merchandise sales to make a living.

    This week alone, three such tours are crossing through the Washington, D.C. area. First was Dave Alvin, revisiting the acoustic “King of California” on Tuesday at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va. The next night, Lori McKenna kicked off her “Return to Bittertown” tour in our nation’s capital. And on Saturday night, Hootie and the Blowfish will continue their 25th anniversary tour of “Cracked Rear View” at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow.

    While every anniversary show is an opportunity for nostalgia, allowing the artist and audience to relive a moment in time, the best ones also provide us with insight into the creative process thanks to between song stories and anecdotes.

    The cumulative album sales from both Alvin and McKenna still don’t come near those of “Cracked Rear View,” but in low-key and intimate settings in small clubs, both artists showed why they are two of the best songwriters working today. And the albums they played from start to finish were, for both, game changers.

    Somewhat ironically, “King of California” and “Bittertown” were the fourth albums for both Alvin, who had gone solo after co-founding The Blasters, and McKenna, who was at the time pregnant with her fifth child.

    For the first 15 years of his career, Alvin was known for smoking guitar work and ability to cross genres with groups such as The Blasters, X, and The Knitters, and as a solo artist. Released in 1994, “King of California” remains a stunning and evocative disc, one that allowed Alvin to recast and reinterpret several of his songs (along with a few well-chosen covers) in a stripped-down acoustic setting. On Tuesday, multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, who produced "King of California" and other Alvin releases, provided lovely support, as did Christy McWilson on vocals.

    Ten years later and three days before her now 15-year-old son was born, McKenna released “Bittertown.” Faith Hill famously stopped recording her multiplatinum album “Fireflies” after hearing it, opting to cover three of McKenna’s songs from the record. The support of Hill and her husband, Tim McGraw, helped McKenna launch a career as one of the most in-demand songwriters in Nashville.

    Here is a brief look at some of the stories behind both albums, among other anecdotes:

    • Alvin, who played the album in order, filled his set with vivid memories and language. After opening with the title track and “Barn Burning,” he noted that albums usually are sequenced differently from live shows. The label wanted the “hits,” in the front, while concerts usually keep the biggest songs for the end if not the encore.

    “So this is coming really fashionably early,” he said before launching into “Fourth of July,” a song he has played in most shows since it was released by X in 1987. “If this is the one you came for, you can leave afterward. I don’t mind.”

    No one left.

    • McKenna, who is known for writing sad songs, made note that her career falls into two distinct stages: before “Bittertown” and after “Bittertown.” To mark the anniversary, on Wednesday she released a 12-inch vinyl with two re-recorded classics from the album — “Bible Song” and “Stealing Kisses.”

    “I want to assure you that I’m happier in real life than I was when I wrote this record,” she said, noting that she had to relearn many of the songs before playing them live again. “… There are a lot of words in these old songs. We played them so much faster and I had much more lung capacity.”

    • Shortly after going solo, a record label contacted Alvin and said George Jones wanted to record one of his songs. But shortly before he flew to Nashville for the session, the label called back and said recording “Every Night About This Time” would not happen.

    “It turns out this song was too country for George Jones,” Alvin said with a laugh before playing the beautiful ballad.

    • “Stealing Kisses,” one of the songs Hill later covered, was the last song written for “Bittertown,” McKenna told the audience on Wednesday. The song, like many of McKenna’s, is about the challenges and rewards of “living with one man.”

    “It was my first single on country radio, and it got to #28 on the charts, which was a failure then,” McKenna said. “But hey, it was the first time I released something that had a number attached to it.”

    McKenna said the Bittertown song “Lone Star” was written about Beck, but she soon realized “this is not Beck’s story whatsoever.” In fact, Beck’s father did the string arrangements for Hill’s “Fireflies” and “he confirmed this,” McKenna said with a shrug. “It’s not his story at all.”

    • “Songs are like your children,” Alvin said in introducing “Bus Station,” a vivid yet devastating profile of a couple on the outs. “Some are extroverts and beg to be performed. Others are introverts who never want to leave their room. I care so deeply for this song that I never play it live.”

    Alvin said “Bus Station” will be part of a book he “will write … am writing.” And it’s easy to see why, given lines like, “She lies to him/he kisses her/getting tired of love.”

    • McKenna’s opener was Hailey Whitters, who has spent a dozen years in Nashville after moving there when she was 17. Whitters, whose second album “The Dream” will come out later this year, was frank about her struggles to make it to Nashville. Still not signed by a label, her self-financed album will feature the beautiful ballad “Ten Year Town,” about a songwriter who has to decide between her dreams and making a living.

    McKenna’s fondness for Whitters is obvious, and she brought her on stage for the encore of “Girl Crush” and “Happy People.” In 2016, McKenna became the first woman to win the Country Music Association’s “Song of the Year” award two years in a row for “Girl Crush” and “Humble and Kind,” both of which won Grammys as Best Country Song.

    “After this record, I sort of got the golden ticket and they said you can do this now,” McKenna said of “Bittertown.”

    “Hailey showed up it my door at 22 and told me she wanted to write a song called ‘Happy People,’ and so we did. That’s what I can do now. She’s just a magical person and I’m so glad we get to share the night together.”

    • Toward the end of Alvin’s show, he performed the beautiful ballad “Border Radio,” remarking that it’s “always weird when one of your songs become culturally irrelevant.”

    “Now we have iPhones, laptops, even fax machines,” he said. “When I was growing up, 50,000-watt radio stations were a means of communication in a very, very strange way. When I was a kid, I had to go to bed about 8:30 at night, but even at 8 years old I had a secret weapon, a 9-volt transistor radio that could pick up the border radio stations. I was too young to know what poetry was, but I knew that was poetry. I knew then that all I wanted to do was grow up and live this kind of life.”

    Today, McKenna and Alvin — songwriters from different coasts with much different career trajectories — are living proof that you can capture lightning in a bottle. And thankfully, audiences in the greater Washington, D.C., area had anniversary tours on the same week to see them relive that time.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • Review/Photos: Neko Case

    Touring musicians with multiple albums always face a dilemma: How much should you play of the new stuff vs. the songs the audiences expects to hear. In many cases, the biggest hits are confined to the last two to three songs or the encores. Some groups have such deep catalogues that it’s impossible to hear everything you want in a single show. And some just eschew the hits all together, not caring if they alienate the audience.

    Each move is risky. If the Rolling Stones play anything recorded post 1981, for example, you can bet many in the audience will be clogging the bathrooms or standing in the beer line while waiting for the umpteenth version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” When Steve Earle hears calls for “Copperhead Road,” he gives the audience a look that could cut glass.

    Neko Case has found a great balance and has stuck with it during a long tour for her latest album, 2018’s Hell-On. Working with a six-piece ensemble, Case has a 24-song setlist that mixes her best-loved material with the songs from the new album, which may be her strongest yet.

    Case played 10 of Hell-On’s 12 songs during two shows recently at the Lincoln Theater. Recorded abroad with her usual variety of musicians and influences, the album captures Case’s trademark mix of sophisticated and at times ethereal lyrics with influences of rock, pop, alt-country, punk and rockabilly.

    After opener Margaret Glaspy ended her set, Case opened with “Pitch or Honey,” which ironically closes out the new album. She came back with “Last Lion of Albion,” the first single that explores ecofeminist themes, then shifted to “Deep Red Bells” from Blacklisted. That was followed by “City Swans” from the winner of 2013’s longest album title — The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.

    2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood took center stage for two songs, “Margaret vs. Pauline” and the sublime “Maybe Sparrow” before Case returned to the warm and country-tinged “Calling Cards” from The Worse Things Get.

    At this point, Case takes a risk with five consecutive songs from Hell-On: the beautiful “Winnie,” the stomping good time of “Bad Luck,” “Cure of the I-5 Corridor,” “Gumball Blue,” and “Oracle of the Maritimes.” She then threw in two covers — Catherine Irwin’s “Hex,” and Sarah Vaughan’s “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” that Case recorded on Blacklisted.

    Case’s new material is so strong that the audience sat rapt during the Hell-On songs, but — no surprise — the biggest cheers were for some of the older material. “Hold On, Hold On,” the third of four songs from Fox Confessor, and “Man,” from The Worse Things Get, closed the show on a high note before a five-song encore.

    That encore started with the title track from the new album and ended with a cover of the Nervous Eaters’ “Loretta” and “Ragtime” from The Worse Things Get. It helped that her band was both versatile, and after touring for the better part of a year, in sync throughout.

    That band is one reason I hope someone is chronicling this tour and that we can get a live release from Case. While the atmospheric qualities of her songs come through loud and clear in the studio, the new material especially takes on a different quality in a live setting. If you get a chance to see this tour when it comes to your town, don’t miss it.

  • Photos: Richard Lloyd at City Winery

    Richard Lloyd, one of the founders of the seminal punk group Television and a musician known for his studio work with Matthew Sweet (among others), performed a solo show before a too-small crowd Sunday at City Winery. Lloyd also read excerpts from his book, Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB’s And Five Decades Of Rock And Roll: The Memoirs Of An Alchemical Guitarist, and talked to audience members about his process.

    All in all, a fascinating evening. Photos were for ParkLifeDC.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Photos & Review: Los Lobos at City Winery

    For the past several years, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Los Lobos have come east to play a series of multiple night residencies at City Winery, the rapidly expanding venue that added Washington, D.C. to its stable in 2018.

    The six-member band arrived in the nation’s Capital on the Friday before Christmas for a two-night stop that followed shows at City Winery locations in Chicago, New York and Boston. Billed as an “Acoustic & Electric Evening,” the show featured different setlists each night as Los Lobos drew from a 45-year catalogue of originals, eclectic covers, and traditional Mexican music.

    The first night started almost an hour late, as the group struggled with technical issues during the soundcheck. The trouble with the monitors made for a harried beginning, as vocalist Cesar Rosas noted after the second song.

    “We’re playing the music we played when we first started out. I hope you like it,” Rosas said, “It’s our first time to play in the venue. I wish I could hear myself.”

    Four of the six members of Los Lobos — Rosas, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo and Conrad Lozano — have been together since the mid 1970s. The quartet started the acoustic set — called “folk music for the hearing impaired” by Rosas — and were soon joined by saxophone player Steve Berlin and drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez.

    Despite an occasional buzz in the monitors, the sound issues had no effect on the audience. The band quickly found its groove during the electric set, despite limited interaction with the audience. After opening the set with “La Pistola y el Corazon,” Perez offered the beautiful “Saint Behind the Glass” from Kiko, the band’s most acclaimed — yet unjustly overlooked — 1992 album.

    Hidalgo is the band’s de facto lead vocalist, albeit one who also plays accordian, percussion, bass, violin, melodic and banjo, among other instruments. Highlights for me were his versions of “Tin Can Trust,” “Emily,” “The Neighborhood,” and the sublime “Tears of God,” the closer from 1987’s “By the Light of the Moon.”

    Rosas took the lead on “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee),”and “Chuco’s Cumbia,” from 2006’s “The Town and the City,” a song cycle that focuses on the immigrant experience in America.

    Los Lobos is one of the few bands whose covers are almost as interesting as the originals. Perez, who leaves the drumkit behind when the band tours, played lead on three — Johnny Thunders’ “Alone in a Crowd” and Ritchie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go” and “La Bamba,”

    Thanks to the movie on Valens’ too-short life, the last two helped the band break to a national audience more than 30 years ago. You can’t help but think they could play La Bamba, especially, in their sleep, but the performance was strong and the audience went along for the ride. Much more interesting was “Alone in the Crowd,” a lesser-known cover that showed Los Lobos’ ability to cross genres without blinking.

    For an evening that started with glitches, all had been forgotten by the time the band ended with an encore of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha.”

    Of course, that’s the benefit of being together for more than four decades. What’s remarkable is that Los Lobos shows no signs of decline, even with the core well into their mid 60s. Their voices and playing remain strong. Not fade away, indeed.

  • Photos & Review: Ryan Bingham in Austin

    It’s nice to see Ryan Bingham smile.

    That’s what the singer-songwriter did, early and often during his solo acoustic show at the 299-seat One World Theatre in west Austin on Wednesday. Bingham, whose first album since 2015’s “Fear and Saturday Night” comes out in February, tested out new material from the forthcoming “American Love Song” and played some of his more familiar work in an intimate setting that is far removed from the larger venues he plays with his full band.

    On Wednesday, Bingham was a jovial, salty ringmaster, providing the audience with a somewhat linear, at times slightly scrambled narrative of his difficult upbringing. He apologized on several occasions for the rambling during the two-hour show, but there was no need because the stories were so interesting and entertaining.

    The basics of Bingham’s life and career are well known to fans. Born in New Mexico, his parents struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse, and he lived a largely itinerant childhood. Eventually establishing deep roots in Texas, Bingham scored a record deal in 2007 and then became known nationally when his song “The Weary Kind” from 2009’s “Crazy Heart” won a Grammy and an Academy Award.

    Kicking off the show with “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So,” he moved into “Nothing Holds Me Down,” a bluesy number from the forthcoming album. After a sublime “Dollar a Day,” Bingham said his father told him to “keep a real open mind because a lot of people are going through similar things and hard times, too.” He then launched into “Hard Times,” which features the wordplay of “When it pours it rains,” and told a funny yet sad story about following his father to Laredo.

    The funny: Bingham hitched a ride with two girls from Houston who were driving to South Padre Island, where he saw his first concert on the beach. Run-D.M.C. was playing, and two University of Texas football players put the skinny kid on their shoulders so he could see.

    “It was badass,” Bingham recalled.

    The sad: His friends realized how far Laredo actually was from Houston, so they dropped him at a truck stop so he could hitchhike the rest of the way. A truck driver named Al offered him two pieces of sage advice: If you’re going to hitchhike, get a pocket knife and keep it with you at all times. And, if you’re stuck at a truck stop with nowhere to go, wait for the big rigs to come in and snuggle up to next to one of the tires to keep warm.

    Bingham then sang “Long Way from Georgia,” a tribute to Al, and then told how learning how to play a mariachi song on guitar inspired him to play music. The guitar, a gift from his mother, “became my voice and my identity and my soul,” he said as an introduction to the classic mariachi tune “La Malaguena.”

    The stories continued. “Sunshine,” about Leonard Peltier, was partially inspired and written after he met a man working as a dime store Indian at Disneyland Paris, where he had flown with a one-way ticket to get a job on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The job didn’t pan out, but the experience provided him with fodder for a song.

    At that point, Bingham started sharing more songs from the new album, which has the potential to be his best yet. “Jingle and Go” talks about playing for tips. “Lover Girl,” the story of Bingham meeting and wooing his wife of almost 10 years, was illustrated with a tale about convincing her to drive from Los Angeles to Texas to pick up his belongings, which turned out to be a box of records his uncle had given him.

    The strongest new songs played came toward the end of the evening. One is “Wolves,” which he wrote for students who have spoken out against gun violence in schools. He said the response of adults to student activism in the wake of last year’s shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School “takes me back a little bit” to his own feelings of abandonment by adults, noting that is “at a time when kids need someone to listen to them the most.”

    The second was “America,” a simple, emotional state-of-the-state ballad that likely will be controversial when it is released. The song asks a number of questions (“Can we see what we’ve become?”) and is replete with vivid imagery (“A bullet is only dressed in blood”) that likely will not be played on conservative country radio.

    That’s not what Bingham cares about though. Unlike most performers, he does not perform his biggest “hit” at the end of every show. He played “The Weary Kind” during the previous evening’s encore but left the stage without mentioning it on Wednesday.

    That felt somewhat ironic, given his focus on the past, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. They cared more about the stories and the other “damn good songs” that he has in his canon. For two hours, he delivered plenty of those. And all with a wink and a smile.

    This story and photos were posted to the Americana Highways  website. You can see more of my photos  here.

  • Review/Photos: Reckless Kelly

    Willy Braun made a distinction that explains a lot about the state of today’s music business when he introduced the first of two songs from Reckless Kelly’s most recent studio album at a concert last week.

    “I say it’s the new album,” Braun said before breaking into “The Champ,” a song from 2016’s Sunset Motel. “But it’s not new anymore. It’s the current album.”

    After a prolific near decade on the Sugar Hill and Yep Roc labels, the Austin-based group joined the DIY movement in 2011 when it formed No Big Deal Records. Since, they have released only three albums, a single and a 20th anniversary edition of their 1997 debut, “Millican.”

    These days, Reckless Kelly spends the majority of its time playing live, mostly in Texas and Oklahoma, where they have a devoted and loyal following that follows them from small bars to clubs and midsize theatres. To boost income, they sell autographed posters — doesn’t everyone? — and offer exclusive meet-and-greets that include a four-song acoustic set before the show.

    And, three or four times a year, they venture out on short tours concentrated in different parts of the country, such as the one that stopped at City Winery in Washington, D.C., last week.

    In an almost two-hour show with songs that spanned Reckless Kelly’s 22-year career and included a variety of well-chosen covers, the five-piece group demonstrated yet again that they are a formidable stage presence deserving of a larger audience.

    The show started with Braun playing solo on a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Blues Run the Game.” He was joined by the rest of the band for “Desolation Angels,” which was followed in succession by a lovely “Back Around,” “Detroit or Buffalo,” and “Mirage” before Braun’s pre-“Champ” story.

    At that point, the entire show took a turn, starting with a terrific version of “Volcano,” also from “Sunset Motel” that served as a reminder that “Mother Nature bats last,” in Braun’s words. After a brief sidestep to cover Marah’s “Round Eye Blues,” the band moved into the meet of its mid-2000s catalogue with “Break My Heart Tonight” and “Wicked Twisted Road,” the latter of which had the now standing audience singing along to the chorus.

    Next, guitarist David Abeyta contributed a cover of Slaid Cleaves’ “One Good Year,” which he said the band asked him to start singing after it “got me through a real tough time.” Then Cody Braun took over for “Wild Western Wind Blown Band,” playing the instrumental at 110 mph as the audience clapped along.

    While Cody Braun, playing fiddle and mandolin, and Abeyta provided many of the musical highlights with their interludes, Jay Miller on bass and Jay Nazz on drums showed repeatedly that they are the backbone of the group, making sure things are running smoothly.

    The final third of the show was devoted to songs any RK fan would appreciate, including their cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” the beautiful “Seven Night in Eire,” and “Nobody’s Baby.” Why “Vancouver” and “Crazy Eddie’s Last Hurrah,” the last two songs played before the encore, were not mainstream hits perplexes me.

    Jeff Crosby, who opened the show with his band The Refugees, joined Reckless Kelly on stage for the two-song encore. After performing Tom Petty’s “Two Gunslingers” during the meet-and-greet acoustic show with Crosby, they returned to Petty’s catalogue for a ear-rattling version of “Listen to Her Heart” and then concluded the show with “Fortunate Son.” 

    Willie Braun quipped he’d been waiting to play the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic all night, not surprising given that today’s politics make even less sense than the music business. And that pent up anticipation did not disappoint, providing one of those stand-on-the-speakers moments that makes you love a great live band all the more.

  • Review/Photos: Chris Stapleton

    On the final stop of his first full tour as a headliner, Chris Stapleton stuck to the setlist. When your songs are as strong as his, that’s not a bad thing.

    Stapleton’s All-American Road Show Tour, which started in May 2017, concluded its third and final leg Sunday night at Baltimore’s Royal Farms Arena.  Playing songs in support of his second and third studio albums — the two-volume From A Room — as well as the multiple platinum seller Traveller, Stapleton’s mix of pure country and full-throated soul was on full display.

    From the opener (“Midnight Train to Memphis”) to the closer (“Outlaw State of Mind”), the audience was treated to a generous mix of 19 songs from the three CDs. Because I was walking from the pit where I took photos during the first two numbers, I heard but did not see “Nobody to Blame” and most of “Hard Livin’,” but managed to get seated in time for a sublime version of “Millionaire.”

    That was followed by a stunning version of “Might As Well Get Stoned,” featuring opener Brent Cobb. Two songs later, Marty Stuart joined Stapleton on stage for a cover of his “Now That’s Country” and Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.”

    At that point, it was hit after hit — “Whiskey and You,” “Broken Halos,” “Second One to Know,” “Traveller,” “I Was Wrong,” “The Devil Named Music,” “Parachute,” and the pre-encore closer “Tennessee Whiskey.” “Was It 26” and “Outlaw State of Mind” closed the show.

    What I appreciate most about Stapleton is his no b.s., music-first approach to performance, whether it’s in the studio or on stage. Live, each song is treated with care, appropriately loud or quiet depending on what it demands. The stage setup is bright but not overwhelming. The road-tested band is as solid as Stapleton’s songs.

    It’s been a heady year and a half for Stapleton, who in February became the first artist to hold the top three spots on Billboard’s country album chart. In July 2017, he played three days in support of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers; three months later, Petty was dead. During a break between the first and second legs of the tour, he performed on Saturday Night Live with Sturgill Simpson and was featured on “Say Something,” a duet with Justin Timberlake.

    Seven months ago, Stapleton and his wife, Morgane, had twins. On Friday, he announced from the stage at Madison Square Garden that their fifth child is on the way.

    Now, except for performing at Joe Walsh’s “VetSaid 2018” benefit this weekend in Tacoma, Wash., he’s not scheduled to play again until March. Here’s hoping he enjoys the respite while we wait for the next classic album to emerge.

    I’ve shot numerous concerts, shows and outdoor music festivals over the past several years, but this was my first experience photographing a show in a 14,000-seat arena. Unfortunately, due to traffic and a ticket mix up, I could not shoot Brent Cobb’s opening set, but I did catch Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives as well as Stapleton from the narrow pit.

    Stuart’s eight-song set included three originals (“Lesson in Love,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’, and the closer “Time Don’t Wait”) as well as five classic covers (“Country Music Got a Hold on Me,” “Mama Tried,” “Ring of Fire,” “Orange Blossom Special,” and “Pretty Boy Floyd”). Throughout, the singer and country music historian managed to transcend the arena’s size and turn it into a small club. And that’s no small feat.

    Highly enjoyable.

  • Fathers, Family & Austin

    I need live music. It feeds my soul. Since my late teens and early 20s, when I lived in Houston, I’ve found myself in bars and clubs, absorbing the sounds of musicians telling their stories and pouring out their souls to crowds large and small. Usually small.

    Most of my family doesn’t understand this need; at least I don’t think they do. The music I typically enjoy is miles from the top 40, although I’ve been known to embrace the occasional pop song that is played ad infinitum on the radio. But mostly I appreciate singer-songwriters whose music strikes a common cord with who I am, who I’ve been, or who I wish to be.

    Jon Dee Graham cuts across all three. His music touches and informs; the honesty with which he writes and plays is something I related to immediately. He writes as a father and a husband who has acclaim and hardships in equal measure. I’ve been a fan for almost two decades, albeit one who has experienced the topics he writes about both vicariously and up close and in person.

    Like The Replacements, another band I tried to see but couldn’t manage to connect with live until a few months ago, my attempts to see Graham seemed thwarted at every turn. I’ve caught Dave AlvinSteve Earle, John Hiatt, and Buddy Miller — other genre-crossing favorites in my ongoing music queue — numerous times. Other than one show in the mid 1990s when he was the opening act, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I missed Graham by a day or a week, seemingly caught in an inextricable conflict that prevented me from making that live connection.

    Still, I’ve bought everything he’s released, ranging from the music on mid-major labels (New West) to his self-released material. I made a contribution via mail when I heard of his son’s rare disorder, which led to a live album/DVD that I also purchased and lapped up with the fervor of the fans who’ve seen him live hundreds of times. I’ve read with envy of his weekly 17-year residency at the tiny, infamous Continental Club in Austin, and wondered how I could catch a show at the infamous small club in my home state’s capital.

    This past Wednesday, thanks to a fortuitous spur-of-the-moment trip and my wife’s indulgence, I finally managed to see Graham live. In Austin… at the Continental Club … with Jill and I sitting on a former car seat against the wall.

    And it was worth every penny, even if the cover charge was only $8. I gladly would have paid much more.

    These photos (plus the ones on my Facebook page here) tell the story of that night. They alternate between photos of the club and the groups we saw — Graham with his incredibly tight band, the Fighting Cocks, and his tremendously talented teenage son, William, leading his band, the Painted Redstarts.

    The best part for me was seeing my wife enjoy one of my favorite musicians in a club in my home state. The next best was seeing Graham standing on the opposite side of the room, watching his son perform and leading the cheers. Just like any other proud dad.

  • The Replacements: Timeless Moments

    The first time I tried to see The Replacements, my grandfather died. The second time I tried to see them, almost three years later, my grandmother followed suit. Two years after that, the band broke up.

    Given the seeming effect on my family’s mortality, I chalked it up to a curse, a weird piece of karma that seemed on the fringes of a fate that seemed to have befallen one of the most influential groups of my generation.

    Of all the bands I listen to, and I listen to a lot, The Replacements are the ones that should have made it. They should have been playing to stadiums of 15,000 instead of clubs of 150 and small venues of 1,500.

    On Sept. 19, they played in a stadium — one that held the U.S. Open for more than 50 years and, like the band, is making a comeback of its own as a neighborhood concert venue. Unlike the other times, I was there, despite some hurdles.

    But no one in my family died — thank God. And the show was even better than I imagined.

    ••••••

    Explaining my lifelong affair with music is difficult. As a writer and photographer, I love songwriters who capture life’s little moments and tell complete, visual stories with smart and clever turns of phrase in 2½ to 4 minutes. I greatly admire musicians — especially guitarists, piano players, and a good horn section — whose passion seeps through every chord change, whether you hear them live or in the studio. And, even though I can’t carry a tune, I appreciate singers who can push the limits of their instrument to bring intense feelings of emotion and release to the songs.

    My grandmother, who loved music of all kinds well into her 80s, believed very strongly that the best songs are reflections of their time in a way that's somehow timeless. It’s through this lens that I hear music. How does it relate to a specific era? Does it sound dated, or is does it mean as much today as it did when it was first released?

    I’m not nostalgic for my childhood or, even worse, my teenage years or my early to mid 20s when I hear music. I’m looking for timeless, and for the most part, Paul Westerberg’s songs are just that, just like the cover songs the band plays (some successfully; others not so much).

    I did not become a Replacements fan until "Let it Be," then became obsessed when “Tim,” their major label debut, was released in 1985. At the time I was just really starting to get into contemporary music, having grown up on a steady diet of Elvis and the 50s groups and singers that my father and grandmother loved.

    “Tim” was unpredictable, a mashup of different genres and styles that combined yearning and attitude, disenchantment and hope, anger and heartache, with a sound that ranged from acoustic to punk. You could never tell where the band was going next, but their diversity of styles shaped my tastes in a way that no group has done before or since.

    Like too many of the great ones, The Replacements’ influence was much greater than their reach, with only one song approaching the Billboard Top 50 while they were active. They alternated brilliance with self-destruction, always coming this close to success before imploding on themselves in some way.

    When they broke up in 1991, it felt right at the time, but wrong nonetheless.

    •••••• 

    “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success. Took one step and missed the whole first rung.”

    I followed Westerberg’s career — in part because he was the chief songwriter and lead singer — the closest after the band drifted apart. I read the stories about the demise of Bob Stinson, the original lead guitarist who was fired from the band for erratic behavior and a Keith Richards-like habit (though, sadly, not professional constitution) of ingesting various legal and illegal substances.

    Westerberg stopped touring in 2005 and, despite the reissue of The Replacements’ catalog three years later, stubbornly refused to get the band back together. Chris Mars, the original drummer, became a painter. Tommy Stinson, the teenage bass player, started lucrative gigs with Guns ‘n Roses, among other bands.

    It wasn’t until Slim Dunlap, who replaced Bob Stinson as the lead guitarist, suffered a massive stroke a couple of years ago that Westerberg and Tommy Stinson decided to resurrect the band’s name. They recorded a five-track EP to launch the Songs for Slim project, raised more than $100,000 to help pay for Dunlap's medical care, and — just as important — enjoyed it so much that they decided to play together again.

    The tour — actually a series of one-off concerts at major summer festivals — coincided with my layoff last May. The timing, along with the easy availability of concert tapes that surfaced as mp3s within days after each show, gave me a chance to listen to the group in a way I hadn’t done since the mid 1980s. And ironically, as I approach 50, the lyrics resonated in a way they hadn’t when I was in my 20’s.

    I hoped Westerberg, Stinson, and the replacement Replacements would come our way at some point. When they announced the Forest Hills concert, I had my chance. And, short of family members passing away, I was determined to take it.

    ••••••

    Forest Hills Stadium is located in a residential section of Queens. It hosted the U.S. Open from 1924 to 1977 and, despite some renovations and the addition of some seating and a permanent stage, remains the same horseshoe-shaped concrete landmark befitting of the quiet neighborhood.

    Concerts were held during the stadium’s heyday, with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Barbra Steisand, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix and others performing there. The venue was reopened to live music last year, with a strict curfew of 10 p.m. to keep the residential peace, and was a perfect place for an outdoor show just before the official start of fall dawned.

    Since taking up photography professionally, I’ve tried to shoot concerts on the now-rare times that I go, partly because of the challenge of live events and in part because I want to capture the groups that I enjoy. The ubiquity of camera phones has made it impossible to police the taking of stills and video, but Forest Hills had a strict policy of no professional cameras.

    I tried to contact the promoter, the band, and the stadium, but was unsuccessful. Finally, I just decided to say to heck with it, take my camera and see what happened. Because Jill couldn’t come due to circumstances at home, I was meeting our friend Bernadette at the venue, so I had some extra time.

    Arriving an hour before the two openers — Deer Tick and The Hold Steady — began, I was promptly stopped by security and told I couldn’t take the camera in. Rather than take the train back to Manhattan where I was staying — there was no parking at the stadium — I managed to convince security to let me in with the camera, but no battery.

    The security guard, a nice guy that I chatted with for a half hour, told me as I left that I could get the battery back if I could somehow manage to swing a press pass. He too had been a photographer and sympathized with my situation.

    Walking in, I looked around the stadium and thought back to all of the events and history that had occurred there. Readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by history, an interest that dates back to my grandmother and dad. I walked over to Guest Promotions and talked to the two women sitting at the table as the sun set, talking to them about the stadium, the musicians that performed there, and my desire to photograph my favorite band. They too were sympathetic, but said they could not give me a press pass.

    Instead, they did me one better, giving me a sticker that allowed me to go to the VIP tent and score free beer and food. I showed it to the security guard, noted my dumb fortune, and he fished the battery out of his pocket.

    “I guess it’s your lucky day.”

    ••••••

    Lucky, indeed. The pass allowed me to walk through the floor area and snap away, although I also wanted to experience the band from my vantage point in the lower bowl (which happened to be close to the VIP tent). When I returned to my bleacher seat off stage left, I had a stack of photos on my SD card and the feeling of finally being close to the band I could have seen almost 30 years before.

    That allowed me to sit back (and stand from time to time) and listen to The Replacements perform their catalogue of should-have-been hits. This time, however, it felt like a valedictory lap as the crowd sang along to a band firing on all cylinders. Song after song, anthem after anthem, I found myself moved during each verse chorus verse.

    I could never be a music critic. I love what I love too much to pick things apart and I dismiss the stuff I don’t like with barely a passing glance. A flubbed lyric here, a missed chord there — it means little to me if emotion and passion are in its place. Watching The Replacements become the rock stars they once ached to be, seeing the faces and hearing sing-along shouting of fans old and new, was more than worth it.

    You could not help but join in, too.

  • Music & Loss: Lou Reed & Brian

    I can’t put a finger exactly on when I became a Lou Reed admirer — fan is a word he alternately would have loathed and loved. But I'm sure he would have appreciated that I came to admire his music — or at least a great deal of it — in backward fashion.

    My appreciation started, I guess, when a neighbor passed me “New Sensations” in the mid 1980s, roughly 20 years after Reed founded the Velvet Underground and more than a decade after his only hit ("Walk on the Wild Side").

    At the time, I was living in Houston’s museum district, an area that opened my eyes in ways my parents had always feared. But in the grand scheme, it was a quiet rebellion; I sat on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle while working nights and going to school during the day, unsure of what the next chapter would bring.

    Lou Reed’s music — along with that of X, R.E.M., the Talking Heads and, somewhat belatedly, The Replacements and The Clash — pointed me in directions that clashed with the grounded emotional reality I experienced growing up. I still find those directions intriguing and exciting, especially from a distance. To this day, I can quote Reed’s 1989 album “New York” verbatim, and find myself looking for the very characters he describes when I walk the city’s streets.

    My last trip to New York was in late October, the day after Reed died of liver failure at age 71. In the brief time I was there, I made sure to find a minute to walk to the Chelsea Hotel, where a makeshift memorial with candles, flowers and notes had been placed at the entrance. Someone also put a small plastic Ziploc with a powdery substance among the memorial items.

    While I stood there, a woman bent over and moved it out of sight. Another woman said, “He wouldn’t have cared.”

    Two doors from the Chelsea, painters were finishing work on the bright orange and green sign for a new 7-11 that's opening on West 24th Street. On that note, I get the feeling Reed — always the social critic of cool — would have had something caustic to say.

    Or maybe not. I’m not sure.

    ••••••

    Moving backwards: My first exposure to Reed's music and the Velvet Underground came the summer before my freshman year in college, when I picked up and consumed Edie, the biography of socialite and Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick. Masterfully presented in an oral history format by Jean Stein and editor George Plimpton, Sedgwick’s story is part of the bigger tale that was New York in the mid to late 1960s, a tale that also included the Velvet Underground.

    For a brief period, Sedgwick was the brightest star of Warhol’s voyeuristic faux reality show, so captivating that she inspired Bob Dylan to write “Just Like A Woman.” But within five years, she was dead of a drug overdose at age 28.

    Edie never stood a chance, given the Warhol-level indulgences and the Sedgwick family tree — a generationally unstable lineage with a history of great wealth, mental illness, breakdowns, and suicide.

    At the time, I did not understand why someone with so much would piss everything away in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze. Thirty years after reading the book, I still have trouble reconciling her path toward self-destruction, although I’m more understanding than ever of the causes and of how fragile life can prove to be.

    ••••••

    Just after finishing Edie, I met and quickly became good friends with Brian, a fellow student at the University of Houston. I didn’t have many male friends growing up — it’s always been easier for me to talk to women — but we formed a bond that lasted for more than 20 years. He was like the older brother I never had.

    When we met during my freshman year, Brian was a sportswriter at the university newspaper, an erstwhile English major on the slowest possible path to graduation. He was putting his life on the right path, he said, in the same sentence claiming he had been so stoned that he could not remember his last three years of high school. Going back to school at 23, he said, was his chance to make something of his life.

    Brian, who was five years older, and I bonded over sports, music, movies, and journalism. We talked about New York and he handed me my first copy of the Village Voice. For a naive kid from Texas, this seemed like a big deal.

    Over time, I learned of the struggles he had growing up. He was the oldest child of alcoholic parents involved in a toxic, codependent relationship. Brian had identified his parents’ issues and tried to work his way through them, but life proved to be a constant struggle to get over his self-created humps.

    For a time, our lives paralleled. We participated in each other’s weddings. He had children. I had a child. Then I moved from Texas to North Carolina, and naturally the time between our conversations lengthened, buoyed when I returned and we managed to connect in person.

    He did not understand why I left my first marriage, at least in the beginning. I did not understand why, if he was as miserable as he claimed in his relationship, he did not do the same. Brian insisted that he could not leave his children, no matter how many times he wished his parents had divorced when he was growing up.

    ••••••

    A few nights ago, I found a Fresh Air segment devoted to Lou Reed’s life and legacy. The primary interview subject was Bill Bentley, Reed’s publicist from 1988 to 2004 — no easy task given the songwriter’s notoriously prickly nature.

    The program, which featured clips of interviews with former band members and others close to Reed, was an intriguing listen. But one quote in particular stuck with me:

    "Lou's whole contribution to rock 'n' roll was — at the very start of his career he said, 'You should be able to write about anything.' Anything you could read about in a book, or talk about in a play, he felt should be in a rock 'n' roll song,” Bentley said. “He set that out as his No. 1 goal: to change the parameters of what rock lyrics could be.”

    And he did, writing honest pieces about life on the fringes, with New York as his backdrop and muse. To the listener with a pop ear, much of his music can be tough sledding, although he wrote some cool pop songs. (I’m not a huge fan of feedback and extended drone, and “Metal Machine Music” is almost as bad to me as “Having Fun with Elvis on Stage,” for many of the same reasons.)

    The riches for the reader, and occasionally the beauty, are found in the lyrics. The best are three- to 10-minute short stories and poems bursting with vivid characters and the spectre of tragedy lurking nearby.

    ••••••

    Like his parents, Brian had a love-hate relationship with alcohol and the blues. He fought his demons, but the demons fought back. Eventually, in 2005, he and his wife separated — apparently for good this time. He also took a leave of absence from his job.

    No matter how many times I asked him to call if he needed help, I had to initiate the conversation, and for a dozen years we spoke every four to six weeks. In 2005, however, we talked only three times — once when I went back to Texas, and at two other points on the phone.

    The last conversation, in June one weekend evening when I was working late, seemed like old times. We didn't talk much about families, but had a passionate discussion about sports and music. The Houston Astros were making a run that eventually would land them in their first World Series, and now that I lived near Washington, D.C., we trash talked about the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry. We finished the call saying we needed to have more talks like that one.

    In early September, two weeks before the Redskins/Cowboys game on Monday night football, I called his office and was told he wasn’t there. I also called his apartment, but got no answer.

    On Sept. 19, the Redskins won 14-13 on two huge plays. I thought about calling again, but was leaving for a meeting in Las Vegas that week and decided to wait. While in Vegas, I received a call from a mutual friend who told me the news.

    Brian hadn’t seen the game. In fact, when had I called his office earlier in the month, he already had been dead for two weeks. He had taken his own life, apparently so miserable, tortured, and hopeless that he decided to leave his sons behind after all. His soon-to-be-ex had buried him with no obituary notice and no calls to his friends.

    Apparently no one at his office knew what to say either.

    ••••••

    I’ve thought many times about Brian, but standing outside the Chelsea Hotel and its many ghosts last month, I felt his spirit more strongly than I have in years. Listening to the Fresh Air program, I felt it again. And I feel it every time I think of Reed's song “Perfect Day,” one thing that prompted me to write this sort-of eulogy eight years too late.

    It’s easy to be lulled into the lyrics at the start of the song, “Just a perfect day/drink Sangria in the park/And then later/when it gets dark, we go home … Oh, it's such a perfect day/I'm glad I spend it with you/Oh, such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on.”

    But then the song turns dark: “Just a perfect day/you made me forget myself/I thought I was/someone else, someone good.” And even darker still with the refrain at the end: “You're going to reap just what you sow/You're going to reap just what you sow.”

    I miss you, my brother. RIP, Brian.

    And the same to Lou, too.

  • Encore: Jon Dee Graham

    Three weeks ago, Jill and I were in Austin, and I convinced her to see Jon Dee Graham with me at the Continental Club. She enjoyed the show, so much so that she agreed to see Graham again with me on Tuesday night in a solo outing at Hill Country Barbecue in D.C.

    An encore appearance with one of my musicians, twice in three weeks no less, is a first in our 19 years of marriage, so that’s saying something… But it also is deeply gratifying, given that our music tastes often differ. 

    Like many musicians I enjoy, Graham does not draw huge crowds (their loss) and his fans are ones who come to listen and experience the music. At a couple of different points, clusters of 20 somethings dressed in corporate suits and ties were shushed and shooed away because they were more interested in their conversations being heard over the music.

    Despite the rude nature of some in the crowd, what impressed me most is that Graham provides the same quality show and songcraft whether he’s playing for 15, 50, 150, 500, or 1,000, solo acoustic or with his band the Fighting Cocks. That’s the mark of a true pro, and something others would do well to heed.

    Go to “Fathers, Family, & Austin” to read my blog entry on last month's trip.

  • Come Together, Right Now!

    My wife’s words rang through my head, at times louder than the music: “Damn those stigmas.”

    As parents of a child who has mental health issues, one of our largest fears is that she will use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Mental health and substance abuse are linked in another way, through the stigmas that prevent many people from talking about them openly and publicly — as the illnesses they are, not just the poor choices we make.

    A new organization, Facing Addiction, is working to change that perception. And they took a huge step Sunday with UNITE to Face Addiction, a five-hour rally and concert that drew thousands from across the U.S. to the National Mall Sunday in Washington, D.C.

    Described as the first of its kind, the rally featured a terrific lineup of performers who cut across genres and generations. Featured were Steven Tyler, Sheryl Crow, Joe Walsh, Jason Isbell, The Fray, John Rzeznik of The Goo Goo Dolls, Jonathan Butler and Tommy Sims, who wrote “Change the World.” All have faced substance abuse issues or been affected by someone close who faced addiction.

    The audience, a vast majority of them recovering addicts or people who had lost a loved one, slowly grew throughout the damp and dreary day. Many carried signs with pictures of loved ones who had been lost to addiction; others were there because they are in long-term recovery. They cheered each of the artists, but individual songs or performers brought many to tears, especially when The Fray — a personal highlight, along with Isbell — performed “How to Save a Life.”

    Facing Addiction, a recently formed organization that has been working to focus attention on the cause, organized the rally. Officials with the organization say addiction affects one in three households and 85 million people in the U.S. It also cuts across all class, socioeconomic, and racial lines.

    Among the speakers: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy; Michael Botticelli, a recovering addict who now is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; and syndicated talk-show host and surgeon Mehmet Oz. Others included Emmy Award-winning actress Allison Janney, whose role in the sitcom “Mom” drew loud cheers; and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who is battling a family legacy of substance abuse and mental illness.

    The biggest piece of news at the event was when Murthy, surrounded by three of his top staff, announced that his office has commissioned the first-ever Surgeon General’s report on alcoholism and addiction.

    And the numbers are there to justify it: Overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in people under 50. Stigma or not, that is a sobering fact.

    Damn those stigmas.

    For individual galleries of the performers, go to the Performances section. For a photographic overview of the event, go to my Facebook photo page.

  • Musical Word Plays

    A few thoughts on music from a 50-year-old white guy… (Photos are mine, too.)

    I’ve spent my life trying to explain to people why I enjoy the music I like, and (usually unsuccessfully) why they should, too.

    Leave it to Jason Isbell to explain it better than I could: “It’s punk, but it doesn’t sound like punk. It’s punk with different instruments and different songs.”

    Isbell then goes on to explain, “It’s people who are trying to do the right thing. When it’s at its best, it’s people trying to make music because they love music, and they’re not trying to swindle anybody, they’re not trying to get rich and famous immediately, they’re trying to make music that goes back to their roots, they’re trying to have some credibility, they’re trying to be authentic.”

    ••••••

    I recently saw Isbell at the UNITE to Face Addiction rally in Washington, D.C., where he was on the bill with Joe Walsh, Sheryl Crow, Steven Tyler, the Goo-Goo Dolls, and The Fray, among others. As a freelancer, I received a press pass to take pictures at the event, but my primary interest was seeing Isbell live for the first time.

    All afternoon, I found myself telling people about Isbell’s music. Despite critical acclaim, especially for his last two albums, and growing awareness, many in the crowd didn’t know who he was.

    “Just listen,” I said. “Then you’ll know.”

    I turned around to look at the crowd during “Cover Me Up.”

    They knew.

    I wish I could be a music critic or a concert photographer. I love capturing live events and think I’m pretty decent at it, but I'm not sure I'd be the most objective critic (if there is such a thing). I know what I like, what I don’t, and even though I’m open to anything that catches my ear, I’m reasonably sure my opinions wouldn’t gibe with much of what passes for criticism these days.

    That said, here are some things I’ve heard recently that I’ve enjoyed and put into heavy rotation:

    • Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: “SOB”

    The best, most unrepentant song I’ve heard since “Rehab.” It brings a smile to my face everytime I hear it, and the video is terrific. Their self-titled album gives me the same warm feeling that “St. Paul and the Broken Bones” did last year.

    • Tommy Stinson: “Can’t Be Bothered”

    I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, but only recently have gotten into Stinson’s solo work. This is his latest, a single from a yet-to-be-delivered album, and it’s really good. It made me go back and revisit Bash & Pop’s “Friday Night is Killing Me,” the first Stinson solo effort and best album that came from The Replacements ashes. That is, until Paul Westerberg delivered “Mono.” 

    • Keith Richards: “Crosseyed Heart”

    “Live at the Hollywood Palladium,” an out-of-print live album from 1988, remains in my rotation because it represents the best of what made the Stones great. And that, at least for me, is Richards. His new album is more of the same, which is plenty good.

    • Dave and Phil Alvin: “Lost Time”

    The follow up to the brothers' “Common Ground” is better, more lived in, and always welcome, although I find myself yearning for an album by Dave and his Guilty Men lineup.

    • Amy Helm: “Didn’t It Rain”

    On what is an admittedly male-centric list, the solo debut by Levon’s daughter more than holds its own. Terrific harmony, nice songwriting, and a couple of cuts that feature Helm’s late father on drums.

    • Ryan Adams: “1989”

    Everyone it seems has an opinion on Adams’ track-by-track cover/reinterpretation of Taylor Swift’s multiplatinum album. No matter what you think about Swift, and I’m an admirer of her talent (although I could do without the rest), Adams’ effort ranks up there with his best and ballsiest work.

    • William Harries Graham and the Painted Redstarts: “Foreign Fields”

    Damn, this is good, and Graham is at least 20 years younger than anyone on my current list. Jon Dee Graham’s son contributes an album that is nothing like his father’s work musically. And when it’s this good, who cares?

    ••••••

    Great quote: “I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.” — Lady Gaga

    ••••••

    Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, and saw them twice on their all-too-brief (though highly entertaining) reunion. Still I couldn’t help but laugh after reading this comment recently: The Replacements and REM were the Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the fucked up.

    ••••••

    An EP not on my earlier list but also worth mentioning is Glen Hansard’s tribute to Jason Molina, the Songs: Ohia and Magnetic Electric Co. singer/songwriter who died two years ago from alcohol-related complications at the age of 39.

    “It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina” is Hansard’s five-song tribute. It includes loyal covers of two of Molina’s best-received compositions, “Hold On Magnolia” and “Farewell Transmission,” either of which makes the entire EP worth owning. “Farewell Transmission” is especially melancholy and beautiful, and a reminder of how too many musicians leave us too soon.

    To see Molina perform “Farewell Transmission,” just click on the video. (Song starts at the 1:20 mark)

    ••••••

    Great quote finale: From Jason Isbell, pretty much summing up my attitude toward writing about music in this or any other space — “I’m happy [for] anything that’s given me more of a home to do what I like to do.”

  • 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.

  • Photos: Ryan Adams/Amanda Shires

    Last week, while in Salt Lake City, I had an opportunity to see Ryan Adams & The Shining with opener Amanda Shires on tour at the Red Butte Canyon outdoor amphitheatre. The setting just outside the University of Utah campus was beautiful, complete with an almost full moon.

    Adams, one of the most prolific and diverse musicians of the past two decades, has been dipping into his extensive catalogue when playing live for the past couple of years. A lovely highlight from the show was his duet with Shires on "Oh My Sweet Carolina."

    Shires, the wife of Jason Isbell (another favorite), has a new CD scheduled for release in mid-September. Nothing has been forthcoming — yet — on Adams' next project.

    For more photos, go to the Concert Photography section of the website or visit my Facebook album here

  • Remembering David Bowie

    As tributes pour in about the death of David Bowie, a recurring theme resonates about this boundary pushing and genre-bending artist: He was always living in the moment and looking to the next.

    At the same time, Bowie seemed to enjoy revisiting his past, especially over the past few years. Whether it was a calculated business move, an ongoing assessment of his place in popular culture, or a combination of both, it has been an fascinating journey.

    Bowie’s back catalog has been recycled and repackaged so frequently that even his earliest box set (“Sound & Vision”) has been remastered and re-released on two different labels. Over the past two years alone, we’ve seen more best-of sets and a massive 12-disc look at his first five (very heady years) on RCA.

    This repackaging is typical for someone approaching 70 who had not performed live in almost a decade. But Bowie was far from done.

    Two days before his death at age 69, Bowie released his most recent CD, “Blackstar,” which long-time producer Tony Visconti called a “gift” about his approaching mortality to his fans. “Lazarus,” an Off-Broadway continuation of "The Man Who Fell To Earth" featuring old and new music from Bowie, has been one of the hottest tickets in New York since it opened in December. In terms of buzz, it is almost as hot as “Hamilton,” another genre-bending musical currently in New York.

    Context Matters

    Putting music, or any art for that matter, into the context of its time and place has been a lifelong fascination. I want to know about the musicians the artists are working with, who the artists are influenced by, and what makes their creative juices flow. In the end, for me at least, context matters as much as the words, rhythms and beats.

    With Bowie and his mentor, Lou Reed, the leap for readers stops at the doorstep of Alejandro Escovedo, who has worked with Visconti on his last several CDs and cites both as giant influences on his career. The reason I like Escovedo and admire the work of Reed and Bowie so much is that they always are looking to try something new with little regard for the genre. Regardless of whether you enjoy the result, you have to appreciate their restless and boundless approach to creativity and art.

    It is ironic that both Reed and Bowie likely died from liver cancer, an end result of decades of hard living that both had overcome. Escovedo has dealt with the health effects of Hepatitis C that were caused by years of heavy drinking.

    Fortunately, Escovedo is mostly healthy and taking care of himself, based on all available reports. But you just never know.

    Starting with a Memory

    I started to work on this tribute, as most of these things begin, working from a memory. Not of seeing Bowie live, which I did in Houston on the 1988 “Glass Spider” tour, but of a museum exhibit.

    Last Christmas Eve, my wife and I were fortunate to see the “David Bowie is Now” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the only U.S. venue to host the show that has traveled the world since 2013. We were in Chicago with the rest of our family to see our son perform in a show, so getting a ticket was an unexpected treat.

    If anyone deserved a museum exhibition devoted to his style alone, it was Bowie, but this was much more, proving to be a multimedia feast for the eyes and ears. It also was a fascinating history lesson, showcasing his artistry and chameleon-like nature while providing excellent, thought-provoking insight into his career. Afterward, I found myself reaching yet again for one of those retrospectives to see what I had missed.

    True context.

    My only wish is that I could have taken pictures, but they were strictly verboten, and security was tight. I understand why, and wondered at the time if I could have done it justice, given how difficult it is at times to get good images in museums. At the same time, I’m sure copyright and intellectual property were not the only reasons Bowie refused to allow photography. If anything, he was always the one in control of his ever-shifting image, right until the end. 

    Another icon gone too soon. Sigh…

  • Two-Show Weekend: Green Day & iPhone

    Live music — and most live performances, for that matter — is one of my favorite things to photograph. I’ve been fortunate to be close to some fantastic performers over the years, but it is difficult to get into that select group of freelancers who can score the elusive photo pass.

    Without the pass, it’s impossible to bring a professional camera into a large show. So, like everyone else, I take photos with my iPhone and opt for the abstract rather than realistic look.

    That’s what happened on the first of a two-show long weekend that saw my wife and I closing out August with a trip to Chicago, where we saw family and the band Green Day live at Wrigley Field.

    It was the first time Jill and I have had the chance to go to Wrigley, and Green Day put on a terrific show. I also enjoyed pushing the phone to its limits to see what I could get. Sometimes it’s nothing but bad blur; at others, the phone can surprise you.

    Part 2 of this weekend is the Allison Moorer-Shelby Lynne show at The Birchmere, which does not have the same restrictions on professional cameras, thank goodness.

  • Two-Show Weekend: Moorer/Lynne

    I felt somewhat guilty about seeing Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer perform on Sunday night at The Birchmere. My wife and I had just returned from Chicago earlier that afternoon, and we’d seen Green Day just three nights earlier. I’ve been on the road for five of the past six weekends, and the work was piling up. Family members and lifelong friends were dealing with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey, and Texas was — still is — on my mind.

    Little did I know that seeing — and photographing — this sister act would be such a salve for the soul.

    On a short tour to promote “Not Dark Yet,” a stunning and mesmerizing collection that is their first album together, Moorer and Lynne talked about their heritage and the bond they share as sisters. It’s a bond that has been forever cemented despite horrific violence (their father killed their mother, then himself when they were teens), lives on opposite coasts (one in L.A.; the other in New York), and disparate personalities (Lynne, three years older, is the introvert; Moorer just completed a memoir).

    Nashville musician Rick Brantley opened the show, and was joined by Lynne and Moorer for his song “Hurt People,” a beautiful moment that offered the promise of things to come. I spoke briefly with Brantley between the sets, and he said that watching the two sing together will “blow your mind. Their sound will put you in a trance.”

    I’ve seen Moorer live several times, the first time at Joe’s Pub in New York when she was eight-plus months pregnant with her son, John Henry, and then as part of her then-husband Steve Earle’s band. I saw Lynne years ago and have most of her albums in heavy rotation.

    Brantley was right. Together, they were better than I could have imagined. At points, they would glance at each other as only siblings can, wordlessly helping the audience understand their “Sissy” bond.

    Performing all 10 tracks — nine covers and one original — from “Not Dark Yet,” plus songs from each of their catalogues, their voices blended seamlessly as the selections ranged from family staples (Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, Jessi Colter) to the unlikely trio of Nick Cave, the Killers, and Nirvana.

    But it was the title track, a Bob Dylan song from his Grammy winning “Time Out of Mind,” and the sole original, “Is It Too Much,” that resonated most strongly. Dylan’s song, one of his best, is both a sad reflection on mortality and a message of hope. “Is It Too Much,” a song about the sisters’ family history, reaches out to others in pain. Sample lyric: “No one else bears this heavy load/Bring it here to my side…Don’t you know you ain’t by yourself/I’m right here to help you lay it down.”

    Appropriately, the sisters donated proceeds from the sales of their T-shirts to victims of Hurricane Harvey, a generous gesture that showed the compassion they have for others in need. The donations are small in the light of the scale of the destruction, but you start somewhere. After all, the message is about uniting in the face of tragedy.

    Postscript: This morning, as the tour moves to Chicago, Moorer posted a childhood photo from a family trip to Texas. Today would have been her mother’s 73rd birthday.

    “The loss of her feels deeper somehow this year — maybe because we're out here singing together and we both miss the third part she would've chomped at the bit to add. Maybe because she would've been so proud of us. Maybe because we know that she IS proud, looking on, and cheering for us,” Moorer writes.

    Moorer then addresses her mother’s death, and her father’s horrifying decision.

    “He and he alone took her beautiful spirit out of this world. He was able to because of two things — she didn't know how to fight back and he had a gun. The most harrowing and frustrating thing about domestic violence is that it wears down a person's spirit in such a way that most women forget they are in charge of their own lives. I wish someone had been able to tell our Mama that hers was worth more than she ended up believing it was.”

    These sisters, now both older than their mother was at the time of her death, honor her memory every time they walk on stage. They certainly did Sunday night.

  • Photos: Joachim Cooder

    Last night, I was fortunate to see Ry and Joachim Cooder in concert at The Birchmere in Alexandria. The elder Cooder has long been one of my favorite musicians, an incredible guitar-singer-songwriter who has worked with everyone in the music industry in a career that dates back to the late 1960s. Now 71, he is on his first tour in a decade behind “The Prodigal Son,” a tour-de-force return to his folk/blues/jazz roots that mixes original songs with reimagined gospel songs.

    On the new album, Cooder, a self-described curmudgeon whose music has veered toward the stridently political over the past decade, focuses on empathy, understanding, and tolerance. It’s a welcome and beautiful piece of music, merging his best work with the sonic textures laid down by Joaquim.

    Cooder’s son, who has played in his father’s band since he was a teenager, co-produced the album and played drums. He also opened the show with his own set, playing the ethereal and textured songs from his EP “Fucsia Machu Picchu” on an electric mbira (thumb piano).  The Hamiltones, a Charlotte-based trio, provided beautiful backing vocals amid the swirls of sound that resonated throughout the venue. They are a group to watch.

    All in all, it was a great night — life affirming in all the right ways. Get “The Prodigal Son.” Trust me.

    (Because of photo restrictions placed by the venue, these pics are of Joachim’s opening act, along with a couple of the Hamiltones. A special thanks to Mark Engleson for the ticket.)

  • 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.

  • Photos: Sean Rowe & Amanda Shires

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed shooting a number of concerts this summer, mostly at The Birchmere, where Sean Rowe opened for Amanda Shires last night. Jill and I first saw Rowe last summer in an outdoor show in Denver, and I became a fan of his singular voice and work with just a tricked-out guitar.

    For more on Rowe, look him up on YouTube or a streaming service. And be sure to check out his cover of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." It is amazing.

    Shires’ performance came the night before her terrific new album, “To the Sunset,” was released. Shires, who supports husband Jason Isbell in his band The 400 Unit, is touring with her own group in support of the new CD, which shifts to a poppier sound. (Check out the current single, the earworm “Leave It Alone,” as a prime example.)

    To see more photos, go to my Concert Photography page.

  • 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.

  • Photos/Review: John Hiatt & The Goners

    If pressed to name my all-time favorite song, I go through the lengthy mental rolodex of artists I appreciate most — Elvis Presley, The Replacements, Jason Isbell, Dave Alvin, Steve Earle, X, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Scott Miller, Lori McKenna, Chris Stapleton — and come up with the same answer every time.

    It’s John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

    Since the song appeared on his 1987 album Bring the Family, I’ve seen Hiatt perform it live more than 20 times in all kinds of settings, both solo and with various backing groups. And it still gets me — every single time.

    Naturally, it’s an encore number, so you have to wait for Hiatt to take off his guitar and walk over to the keyboards. Earlier this week, for the second show of a two-night stint at The Birchmere, “Have a Little Faith in Me” was the next-to-last number of a two-plus hour show that focused primarily on Bring the Family’s follow-up — 1988’s Slow Turning.

    The 30th anniversary Slow Turning tour featured The Goners (Sonny Landreth, David Ranson and Kenneth Blevins) performing the entire album as well as the three-song encore. Hiatt opened the show solo with seven songs from other parts of his vast catalogue.

    Slow Turning is Hiatt’s most commercially successful album, and many of its songs (“Drive South,” “Trudy and Dave,” “Icy Blue Heart,” “Paper Thin,” and “Feels Like Rain”) have been covered by other artists. For me, the centerpiece is the song, “Is Anybody There?” another keyboard-based ballad that just guts you.

    On Tuesday, despite sounding a little hoarse toward the end of the summer-long tour, the 66-year-old Hiatt was full of energy. It’s obvious that he has a special connection with Landreth — also a fine solo artist — and the rest of the Goners, and I wish that they would be his regular backing band.

    But Hiatt, whose daughter Lily is a terrific songwriter in her own right, is too restless for that. He continues to look for ways to write and perform new material (a new album comes out in October) and seemingly is always on tour.

    And that’s fine by me. I’ll take any chance I can get to hear my favorite song live. If you haven’t heard it yet, look it up.

    On a side note, this is the fourth time I’ve shot a Hiatt show (including one with Lyle Lovett in New York City). And I think this set perhaps is my best yet. What do you think?

    To see more photos, go to my Concert Photography page.

  • 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.

  • Photos: Andy Grammer

    Here's a story about two of my professional worlds — music and event photography — colliding.

    Last week, I shot the American Staffing Association's annual conference at National Harbor. For the finale, ASA brought in pop star Andy Grammer and his band in for a private concert for attendees.

    Currently on tour behind his 2017 album, "The Good Place," Grammer was scheduled to play in Baltimore the next evening, As a result, Staffing World participants saw a 90-minute show with his six-piece band.

    Grammer played a string of hits — “Keep Your Head Up,” “Fine By Me,” “Honey, I’m Good,” and “Good to be Alive (Hallelujah),” among others — in an energetic and well-received show.

    To see more photos, go to my Concert Photography page.