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  • 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. 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Review: Steve Earle 2017

    Steve Earle is one of three performers — Dave Alvin and John Hiatt are the others — I’ve seen live more than a dozen times in various configurations over the past 30 years. All three rarely disappoint because they are outstanding musicians and storytellers.

    Last night’s show, featuring Earle and his band The Dukes at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., was no exception. It was, as usual, a goulash of various genres that ranged from pedal steel country to hard rock, all serving to promote Earle’s latest album, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” which was released last month. It also was the first time Earle, who is outspoken in his political views, has performed with his band in the D.C. area since the 2016 presidential election.

    Politics were part of the equation — how could they not be? — but Earle’s canvas was broad, nostalgic and even melancholy at times. He spoke of being an a romantic in the widest possible sense, noting that he hasn’t done as well in the personal department (seven marriages, including a recent divorce from singer-songwriter Allison Moorer). Now 62, he talked being an optimist, largely because of his 7-year-old son with Moorer, who has autism.

    Earle’s mentors and mortality also were recurring themes. “Outlaw” is inspired by Waylon Jennings’ 1973 album “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and its closing number, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” is dedicated to Guy Clark, who died last year. He spoke of performing at Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July picnic for the first time this year, having attended the first one as an 18-year-old and others since.

    After more than two hours, Earle’s encore closed with “This Land is Your Land,” and “Christmas in Washington,” which namechecks Woody Guthrie and serves as a call for unity in a fractured world. It was a fitting end to a lovely night.

    End notes:

    • The talent of the musicians in Earle’s band is outstanding, although there were some sound issues last night. Earle has worked with bass player Kelly Looney since 1988 and with guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore since 2010. Two new members, drummer Brad Pemberton and pedal steel player Ricky Ray Jackson, also were terrific.

    • Masterson and Whitmore, who are married and perform separately as “The Mastersons,” again are the openers for the tour. They showcased songs from their third album, the recently released (and excellent) “Transient Lullaby.” Having seen them now four times, the first time at a Joe’s Pub release party for Moorer’s 2010 album “Crows,” I’m a true fan.

    • Both Earle and Whitmore astound me with their versatility. Earle played eight different instruments and Whitmore four last night.

    • I love The Birchmere, my go-to club for music since we moved here in 2001. It’s nice to be in a venue where folks sit and listen to the music, and it’s great to be able to take photos without issues with something other than a phone. The $8 charge for a beer came as a shock though.

    • I got lucky. Not sure whether I’d be able to go to the show until the last minute, I went to the box office and was told it was sold out. Fortunately, a man was sitting in the lobby trying to sell an extra ticket, which I got at face value. Then, getting into the general admission area late (some folks had been there since noon), I managed to score a seat with members of The U-Liners, a DC-area Americana and roots-rock band with many shared musical interests. They were great; I hope to see their next show in DC in August. Check them out at www.uliners.com.

    • Interesting trivia only to me: Earle and I share the same birthday — January 17 — 10 years apart.

    • Additional musicians I would like to add to my 10-plus list: Moorer, who will be at The Birchmere next month with her sister, Shelby Lynne, behind a new album; Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, who I saw for the second time last month at Merriweather Post Pavilion; and Chris Stapleton, who I’m seeing at Jiffy Lube Pavilion this weekend. Good summer for shows. 

  • 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.)