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  • 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.

  • Review/Photos: Steve Earle Residency

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

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

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

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

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

    Here are some:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Amen to that.

  • Photos: 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Music Week: Lori McKenna


    Our personal summer concert series began tonight with the first of three shows I'll see this week. First up was Lori McKenna at City Winery in Washington, D.C., and she proved again why the small stuff in life means so, so much. If you haven't heard her music — chances are you have and don't know it — by all means go have a listen.

    Next up: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at Wolf Trap on Tuesday, followed by the Cowboy Junkies on Thursday at The Birchmere.