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  • Chris Stapleton & 'Fire Away'

    I recoiled the first time I saw the video of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.”

    One of the best songs off of one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, the video tells the story of a couple who becomes entangled in the throes of the woman’s mental illness. It ends, as do too many of these stories, tragically, leaving the survivors to cope with unspeakable grief.

    “The song is about loving someone unconditionally through not so easy times. The concept of the video came to me as that would be the hardest possible space in which to love somebody,” Stapleton says in an interview on the Campaign to Change Direction website.

    Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. It won two Grammys and drew attention for its mix of old-school country and Southern rock. The video for “Fire Away” has been viewed almost 15 million times, creating awareness around an issue — mental illness — that is too rarely mentioned or not seen at all.

    Until it’s too late.

    ••••••

    I’m a lucky man.

    I’ve known two people — one a close friend; the other the daughter of family friends — who have died by suicide. I have a daughter who is ADHD/bipolar and struggles to maintain her equilibrium at times. An uncle and an aunt also have suffered from severe mental illness.

    Their experiences have helped shape me as a person and as a father. I feel fortunate to have known these people, and lucky to have a daughter as kind at heart as Kate is. And I’m committed to sharing our family’s struggles in an effort to draw some attention to mental health issues. 

    Hearing that Stapleton would be performing in D.C., I noted the show was scheduled during an intense period of travel and was unsure if I could make it on a Sunday night after returning from a second trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks. Then, when I went to buy a ticket, all that was left was a single seat in the upper nosebleed section.

    Jill had a dinner to attend that night, so she told me to go ahead. The cause is the right one, and that’s what’s most important.

    The Campaign to Change Direction is a national initiative designed “change the culture of mental health in America.” Its goal is to get people to learn and share the five signs of emotional suffering — change in personality; agitation; withdrawal; decline in personal care; and hopelessness — so that we can prevent tragedies and help others to heal.

    When Stapleton had the idea for the video, he didn’t work with a specific charity on mental health issues. Actor Ben Foster, who is in the video, suggested the campaign, which has received the support of Prince William, First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Richard Gere, among others.

    Stapleton agreed to work with the organization, although he had no idea about the video’s potential impact on his audience. He also had to get his record company to buy into the project, noting that label executives “looked at me like I had three heads” when he told them the idea.

    “I didn’t want to be in the video. I wanted to make it with these actors because it felt more artful and meaningful,” Stapleton says. “It was just a notion, but then we made it and it became real and useful and something that hopefully can make the world a better place. … That notion became a good thing.”

    ••••••

    The DAR Constitution Hall is a great place to hear a show, but a tough venue to maneuver. The lines are long. The bathrooms are in inconvenient places. The seats, especially in the upper reaches, have extremely limited legroom.

    Having driven more than 500 miles over the previous two days, I had to get up midway through the show and walk around a bit, so I went down to the restroom and saw an usher I had talked to while waiting in line earlier. Listening to the music, we made momentary small talk about the show and I mentioned my connections to the cause, then told him I had to go back up. I didn’t want to miss “Fire Away.”

    At that point, the usher opened the door and said, “Go on in,” pointing me to an empty seat in the orchestra section. “Wait a few minutes,” this random stranger said, “and I’ll take you up a little further if I can.”

    After standing in the back of the orchestra for a few minutes — by this point no one was sitting — the usher tapped me on the arm and escorted me up toward the front, just five rows from the stage. “Stand here,” he said. “You won’t have a problem.”

    And then he left without a trace. Two minutes later, Stapleton started playing “Fire Away,” just in time for me to pull out my phone and record it. At the end, he asked the boisterous crowd to repeat the last chorus, holding up their phones to shine a light on issues that are underreported and often unseen.

    The audience complied. Here is the video I took of the performance.

    Last month marked the 12th anniversary of Brian’s suicide. Next Monday marks the sixth anniversary of Lindsay’s. That time has passed so quickly is sobering in and of itself.

    On Saturday, Lindsay’s family will participate — as they do every year — in one of the Out of the Darkness walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you would like to help, go to the team page here.

    Pay it forward. It's the least we can do.

  • 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.

  • Review/Photos: Lovett, Keen, The Birchmere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He then sang “Pants is Overrated.”

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

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

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