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  • Review/Photos: The Flesh Eaters

    I’ve long admired musicians who find it easy to collaborate, moving seamlessly (or so it seems) from group to group while maintaining their own careers. Neko Case and Emmylou Harris do this all the time, as do others, but Dave Alvin and John Doe are experts in the art of the side project.

    The longtime friends have worked together off and on for almost 40 years, since the heady days of The Blasters and X, forefathers and fixtures of the early 1980s Los Angeles punk rock scene. At one point, between leaving The Blasters and going solo, Alvin joined X for a brief period and gave the group his classic “4th of July” for their “See How We Are” album.

    Over the past three-plus decades, I’ve managed to see Alvin and Doe live as part of two side projects — The Knitters and one-off supergroup The Pleasure Barons (still one of my favorite shows ever). But it wasn’t until Saturday night, at Union Stage in Washington, D.C., that I managed to catch the elusive Flesh Eaters.

    Understandably, The Flesh Eaters does not sound like a natural fit for a website that focuses on Americana music. But given the group’s makeup, and the way its members have toggled effortlessly between genres, it makes perfect sense.

    A fun mix of blues, punk, country, and garage band pop/grunge, with plenty of saxophone and occasional forays into jazz, the show presented an opportunity for musicians who genuinely seem to enjoy playing together to do so. After 16 songs and almost 100 minutes of music, which followed a set by opener Porcupine, the audience walked out knowing they had seen something that may never happen again.

    Founded by singer-songwriter Chris Desjardins, self-described as a morbidly romantic punk poet, The Flesh Eaters have had a rotating cast of musicians during an off-and-on history that dates back to 1977. In 1981, Alvin, Doe and other members of X and The Blasters backed up Desjardins (known as Chris D) on the album “A Minute to Pray.” The album was put out by Ruby, a Slash Records subsidiary. (Subsidiary, in this case, meaning you had next-to-no budget to record.)

    After recording the album, Doe and percussionist/drummer D.J. Bonebrake went back to X, while Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman, and saxophone player Steve Berlin returned to The Blasters. (Berlin later left and joined Los Lobos, with whom he plays to this day.)

    The group did not play together again until 2006, when they performed three shows in California and one in England to mark the album’s 25th anniversary. They reunited briefly in 2015 for a five-show tour and again for an eight-show run last year. That convinced Desjardins to ask the other members to return to the studio.

    “I Used to be Pretty,” released earlier this year by YepRoc (the label home to Alvin and Doe), does not deviate from the formula that had many searching for out-of-print copies of its supergroup predecessor. (“A Minute to Pray,” was re-released in 2015.) The band members sound like they’re having fun. Some songs work better than others; some focus on affect when effect would do.

    Live is where you see it come all together. Berlin’s sax figures prominently, and Alvin cuts loose on lead guitar. Doe has always been somewhat underrated as a bass player, and taking him off lead vocals shows you how good he is. Bateman and Bonebrake provide a solid backbone to the music.

    Highlights included the opener “See You in the Boneyard,” a cover of “Cinderella” by The Sonics, “My Life to Live,” “Black Temptation,” and “Miss Muerte,” which closed out the set before the two-song encore. I enjoyed hearing “Cyrano de Berger’s Back,” which Doe wrote for “A Minute to Pray” and later repurposed for X, as well as the blistering set closer, “Ghost Cave Lament.”

    Desjardins seemed to be having a blast. He mentioned this may be the one and only time we are able to see this group on the East Coast, which may be true. But his temporary bandmates made sure it was a memorable evening.

    As much as I enjoyed the headliner, I also was impressed with Porcupine, the trio that opened the evening. The group’s 45-minute set was highlighted by songs from its recent EP, “What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real,” released in November.

    Led by Casey Virock on guitars/vocals and drummer Ian Prince, the band received a boost when former Husker Du bass player Greg Norton joined the group in 2016. Norton, who hasn’t been on an extended tour since 1989, clearly enjoyed playing in Washington, D.C. for the first time since Husker Du broke up. If you’re a fan of late 90s alternative music “without compromise,” as the band describes its sound, check them out.

    This review and photos also were posted to Americana Highways.

  • 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.

  • 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.