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  • Photos/Review: Son Volt & Ian Noe

    Politics are almost inherent, if not overt, when bands play in the Washington, D.C., area. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard 1960s protest songs played — often with an extra dose of passion — as encores at shows.

    Son Volt, the alt-rock/alt-country band led by Jay Farrar, didn’t need covers to weigh in on the state of our country Sunday at the 9:30 Club. More than half of the band’s new album, “Union,” deals with the state of the state as Farrar sees it.

    And that state, starting with show opener “The 99,” is not good in his view. Farrar’s anthem name checks protests over the Dakota Pipeline and the Ferguson, Mo. shooting that occurred near his St. Louis home and blasts those who allow “desecration of the land for the almighty dollar.”

    While seeming to channel Roy Orbison in looks, complete with long bangs and sunglasses that never came off, Farrar’s lyrics and the band’s sound brought to mind Woody Guthrie via The Byrds and Tom Petty. Those references are not an insult; if anything, hearing the career spanning mix from Son Volt’s eight album, 23-year history showed how consistent the band has been despite numerous personnel changes.

    Live, what impressed me most is how the new mix of songs on “Union” complement its back catalogue. The reason of course, is Farrar. He let the lyrics and music speak for itself throughout the 1-hour, 40-minute show, speaking little if at all between songs. The current Son Volt lineup — Andrew Duplantis (bass, backing vocals), Mark Patterson (drums), Chris Frame (guitar) and Mark Spencer (keyboard, steel guitar) — provided strong and richly textured support throughout.

    Union,” of course, dominated much of the show’s first half with six cuts, including “Reality Winner” (about a decorated veteran serving jail time for leaking confidential documents) as well as the less topical “Devil May Care” and “The Reason.” A personal favorite was “The Picture,” which fit the mood even though it was written more than a decade ago for 2007’s “The Search.”

    Famously founded after Farrar and Jeff Tweedy split up Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt’s debut album — 1995’s “Trace” — remains perhaps its best known. Not surprisingly, the band saved songs from “Trace” until the show’s end, performing “Route,” “Drown,” a beautiful and chilling “Tear Stained Eye,” and set closer “Windfall” in a cluster broken up only by the rocker “Afterglow 61” (from 2005’s “Okemah and Melody of Riot”).

    Ian Noe, a Kentucky native whose debut album “Between the Country,” will be released May 31, set the stage for the band with a series of original songs and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Noe’s album was produced by Dave Cobb, and he is scheduled to open this summer on tours with both Blackberry Smoke and Jamestown Revival, so you’ll likely hear more about him this year.

    This review appears on the Americana Highways website.

  • Photos: Lilly Hiatt & Karen Jonas

    Lilly Hiatt, daughter of John and a fabulous singer-songwriter in her own right, left the audience entranced at Pearl Street Warehouse in Washington, D.C. on Sunday night. Check out her album "Trinity Lane" to see what I mean.

    Karen Jonas, a Fredericksburg-based songwriter, played mix of songs from her three albums (including the newest "Butter"), as the opener for Hiatt. Jonas and her band play all over the area. If you can, check them out sometime.

    These photos were shot for Americana Highways. Another person reviewed the show.

  • 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: Bros Osborne/Ruston Kelly

    The Brothers Osborne made a triumphant return to the Washington, D.C., area on Saturday, playing a 19-song homecoming set in front of a sold out, rowdy and boisterous audience at The Anthem.

    The Grammy-nominated duo, fronting a muscular six-piece band that is touring in support of their second album “Port Saint Joe,” showed their musical chops with a series of extended jams that played as well to the back of the arena as it did to the front.

    John Osborne, the oldest and the band’s lead guitarist, shredded throughout the set while TJ played acoustic and took on the vocal duties. Their enthusiasm and joy at playing in the nation’s capital, located only 30 miles from their hometown of Deale, Md., was palpable.

    “We have been touring for years, inching her way up the ladder,” John told People magazine before the Grammys, for which the band earned two nominations. “Our shows have been getting crazier in terms of the crowd response. It’s been over the top lately. Every show is now starting to feel like that.”

    Opening with four songs from “Port Saint Joe,” released last April, the band drove hard and fast through “Drank Like Hank” before moving into “Shoot Me Straight” — the first extended jam of the night. They then slowed things down with the lovely “I Don’t Remember Me Before You” and the laidback “Weed, Whiskey and Willie,” allowing the crowd to sing the chorus.

    The rest of the evening was more of the same, a back and forth between the band and its adoring audience, which has seen the brothers become part of a growing segment of country that manages to blend rock, jazz and jam band elements. The group has a track on Maren Morris’ second album that comes out next month, and opener Ruston Kelly is the husband of Kasey Musgraves.

    “I feel like we are at that tipping point in terms of our audience,” John Osborne said in the People interview. “Since we started touring this year, it just feels like something has changed. It feels different. We have found our people and our people are finding us.”

    As long as the band continues to build on its first two albums, both of which were heavily showcased Saturday along with a mix of covers that included Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” more people will continue to find them.

    I also hope more people will find Ruston Kelly, who released his debut album “Dying Star” in September. The 14-song album is a frank look at Kelly’s substance abuse and near-fatal overdose. With his father, pedal steel guitarist Tim “T.K.” Kelly, and sister in the band, Kelly showed punk, emo and pop influences in his performance, ending the show with the confessional track “Asshole.”

    This review also was posted to Americana Highways. See it here.

  • Photos: James McMurtry/Bonnie Whitmore

    James McMurtry, one of my favorite Texas songwriters, kicked off a nine-day winter tour of the East Coast on Thursday at The Birchmere in Alexandria. I shot the concert, which also featured an opening set by Austin-based singer-songwriter Bonnie Whitmore, for Americana Highways.

    No review this time because someone else had the assignment, but you can be assured they were great. Check out both artists when you get the chance.

  • Photos: DBT & Lucinda Williams

    On Friday, I shot my first show at The Anthem, one of the many new venues that has opened in the past couple of years in Washington, D.C. And the show — Lucinda Williams co-headlining with the Drive-By Truckers — was terrific.

    The photos were published in Americana Highways, and a review was written by another person. While I enjoy the writing, it’s fun sometimes just to play with my camera.

    The opener for the show was Erika Wennerstrom, a singer with the Heartless Bastards who is touring behind her new solo album, "Sweet Unknown." Enjoyed her set as well.


  • Review/Photos: Neko Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Photos: Richard Lloyd at City Winery

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

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

  • Interview: Jon Dee Graham

    Jon Dee Graham is nothing if not a realist about life in the music business. As his 60th birthday approaches at the end of February, the acclaimed Texas songwriter is working to raise money to make a new record he hopes won’t be his last.

    “Acclaim doesn’t put food on the table,” Graham says. “It’s adorable and I’m touched, but I cannot possibly be more tired of the phrase ‘Best songwriter you’ve never heard of.’”

    Graham has self-funded every album he’s recorded since 2012’s “Garage Sale,” selling music and watercolors of bears out of his car when he tours. From now until midnight Wednesday, he is raising money to document a “milestone.” You can make a donation here.

    “I’m turning 60 and I never really expected to find myself here,” Graham says by phone from his Austin home. “This is not like grave portent or foreshadowing of anything, but my contacts list on my phone is full of people who are not here anymore. You just don’t know. You never know.”

    Over 45 minutes, Graham and I talked about his impetus behind the new album, mortality, his songwriting process, and the state of the music business, among other things. I have long been an admirer of his work. The photos accompanying this feature are from a 2015 show I shot of Graham performing in his weekly residency at Austin's Continental Club; you can see that essay here, as well as another one here.

    Here are edited highlights from our conversation. All of the quotes are Graham’s:

    The new album

    “Potentially this will be my last record. I hope not but what if it is? At my age and the crowd I ran with, let’s just say they were enthusiastic about living (laughs) and a lot of them are not with me anymore. If this turns out to be the last record, I want it to be right.

    “I’m not writing a death record. I was talking to Terry Allen a few years back. He was working on a new album and then got stuck. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong and then he realized he was working on a death record. So he scrapped it and started over again. I thought about that when I started this. I’m carefully conscious that I’m not making a death record. My approach is, ‘Let’s say this is your last, what do you want it to accomplish?’”

    Life as a working musician

    “I have to leave Austin to make money basically. Truly I do. I’ve never played a club that does not want me back. That seems like a small measure but in our business that’s what it’s really about. The audience doesn’t owe me anything. It’s my job to convince them that they need to hear what I have to say.”

    Self-funding his music

    “I invented crowd funding. ‘Garage Sale’ was done completely on pre-orders. That was the same year Kickstarter launched, and they didn’t have a platform in place that was functional until after I did that album. Now I’ve been doing it on my own for so long that I don’t know there’s any other way.

    “I make a record, put it in my car and drive around playing and selling it to people. We’ve done alright by it. We’ve never missed a meal and almost own our house, so it works. It works really well.”

    On songwriting

    Graham is famous for austerity in his writing. In a lengthy 2013 essay for the Bitter Southerner, editor Chuck Reece marveled at how Graham’s “$100 Bill” has only 28 words. That led us into a discussion about his songwriting process.

    “What I learned pretty early on was the stuff that moved me was simple. Not in the sense of the obvious but in the sense that the fewer moving parts a machine has, the less likely it is to break or to do something that’s not its job. … There’s so much to be said for letting the listener’s imagination do what it’s there for.

    “I had a writing teacher during my brief tenure at (the University of Texas) who told me, ‘Words are under no obligations to you.’ That is so true because I can write these very simple lines that mean what I want them to mean. Then three different people can listen to it, be deeply moved and it means something completely different to each of them.

    “I wish I could say this is how I write my songs, but I can’t because they come at me all different ways. Some of them arrive fully conceived and take about as long to write them as to sing them. Some are like feral cats. You leave a bowl of milk out on the porch and coax them in. Gradually you get to pet them and eventually they come indoors. … Sometimes if I try and write a song before I’m ready or before I can see it clearly enough to catch it, I’ll scare it off.

    “My process is I say a prayer and pick up a guitar and a legal pad and see what happens. But that being said, I’m a harsh critic. I’m hard to please. I don’t put a word on the paper unless I believe it. If you go through my notebooks that I use to work on songs, there are not a lot of different versions. There’ll be some aborted versions, and there will be versions that are slightly different, but I know in my heart when I hear the right line. That sounds corny but it’s true. In order for me to write something down I have to believe it’s going to work.”

    Superstitions and Faith(less):

    At this point, Graham and I talked about how thoughts are at times so quick to disappear, and why capturing a thought is so important, no matter when it occurs. That led into a discussion on superstitions, religion, faith and one of his two best loved songs — “Faithless.”

    “Let’s be square about this here. Who knows where this stuff comes from? It is a superstitious process. If I have one of those feelings, what I want to capture is that certain feeling. If I don’t sit down and start to write it, it can leave the tracks and I can’t get it back.

    “Faithless — I’ve played it in a couple of churches as well as at a couple of funerals. People get confused with the terms spirituality and religion. Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve been to hell.

    “Literally the definition of faith is the belief in things unseen. If you can’t muster that up you’re going to have a hard time in this world. It does not have to be the belief in the white robe bearded God. It can be whatever but you can’t live in this world and not realize that something is going on, that something happening that is not you and is not me.

    “My friend Hal is an astrophysicist. He said to me once, ‘If I gave you a box with all the molecules you needed you still could not build a tree.’ In that sense you’d be a fool not to have faith of some sort. So much of what happens in our lives and what goes into our lives is necessarily unseen. When they smash atoms in the collider, you don’t actually see the electron, you just see the passing of the electron. With love, friendship, fidelity, loyalty, you don’t see it, you just see it pass through your life. That’s why we need faith.”

    The music business today

    Graham’s youngest son, William, is a singer-songwriter who has a new album (“Jakes”) coming out this month. I’ve seen William open for his dad at the Continental Club. The apple, as they say…

    “He’s an amazing, amazing songwriter. He’s the real thing. I feel so bad for him because there’s no infrastructure anymore in music. At least I got in on the tail end. As the empire was crumbling, I still got to walk through the streets of Rome, and it’s helped me in my career to at least have gotten that initial push. If I was starting out again, if I were in William’s shoes right now, I don’t know what I’d really do.

    “There used to be artist development. Record labels really didn’t expect to make their money back for the first three records because artists were encouraged and allowed to grow? Who on earth would give Tom Waits a record deal today, or for that matter, Neil Young? These were artists who were nurtured and allowed to move forward in ways that are just actually impossible now. Even if someone wanted to do it, they couldn’t.

    “I don’t think I’d still be doing this if what I was doing wasn’t up to par, and I think with William it will work the same way. But the old paradigm is dead and no one knows what the new one is yet. How is any musician supposed to make money, other than touring, when you can pay a subscription fee to Amazon Prime and get any song for free?

    “My oldest son, Roy, who is 25, his generation looks me in the eye and says music should be free, in the same sense that beauty should be free. What about the people who have to execute it? What about the people who have to make it? I hope William and his generation figure out how to save music. Between people staying home and not going out as much, and the stranglehold that streaming music has put on all of us, I don’t know how we’re supposed to make it.

    “I’m not one of those people who is bitter about it, or pines for the old days. There were a lot of problems with the major labels. Every friend I know who had a major label deal has a horror story to tell. It’s to varying degrees, but they all have horror stories.

    “What I do miss is that music used to mean more to people. I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t still. How many times do you hear a song on the radio and go back instantly to where you were when you heard the song the first time. There’s so much value in that. I just don’t think people feel the same way anymore. … Music has become very disposable.”

    Wrapping it up…

    At the end of the conversation, Graham tells a funny yet profane story. He refers again to his friend Hal, the astrophysicist.

    “One of my favorite stories he’s told me pretty much sums up what we’re talking about here. He said that with the best observatories we had that astrophysicists came up with pretty clear mathematical layouts and descriptions of how things worked in the universe.

    “Hal said, ‘Then we set the Hubble (telescope) up and we all looked at each other and went, ‘Fuck. We were wrong.’ So we set up a new lens and a new mirror and lens so we could see further. And then we said, ‘Fuck. We were wrong again.’

    At this point, Graham laughs.

    “So the further you see, the more you realize how wrong you were. It made me realize, ‘Well, hold on Frances, take a few steps back. You don’t know everything yet.’ I’m still teachable after all these years.”

    This feature also was posted to Americana Highways. You can see it here.

  • Pearl Jam Meets Isbell at Innings Festival

    This story is about the night Pearl Jam's lead singer went Americana, singing a cover of a Jason Isbell song. And how, despite the odds, my wife and I were there to see it.

    On Sunday, closing out the Innings Festival in Tempe, Arizona, Eddie Vedder broke into "Maybe It's Time," the song Isbell wrote for Bradley Cooper's character to sing in "A Star is Born."

    I was walking back to the spot Jill had saved for us while I shot the first three songs of Vedder's set. After we purchased VIP tickets to see the festival's second day, I sought a photo pass to shoot and write about it. My pitch, which the festival's PR team graciously accepted, was an essay on how seeing Eddie Vedder live was a bucket list item for my wife of almost 23 years.

    We traveled from our home just outside Washington, D.C., to Tempe to attend the festival, now in its second year. Our purpose was to hear someone whose voice and songwriting my wife appreciates as much as Isbell, a performer we saw live in several venues last year.

    Little did we know what was about to happen.

    Released in late 1994, Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" was a multiplatinum behemoth that completed a trilogy that started with "Ten" and continued with "Vs."

    The album included several hit singles. But no song was bigger or has had a more lasting impact than "Better Man," an album-only track never released as a 45.

    The story of a woman trying to get out of an abusive (physical, emotional or both is not specified) relationship, the song's protagonist fears she'll never be able to leave her partner. Vedder wrote the song in high school and later pitched it to the other Pearl Jam members, but the band initially refused to record it, feeling that it was too accessible for the style of music they were making.

    Shortly after Jill and I met, "Better Man" started receiving airplay on the stations we listened to from nearby Greensboro and Raleigh. Trapped at the time in a cyclical relationship with no end in sight, "Better Man" particularly resonated with her during what is described most succinctly as a difficult time.

    Fortunately, unlike the song's protagonist, Jill finally got the courage to terminate the relationship. It wasn't too long after that we married and had three children within the span of a year.

    Flash forward a decade. Vedder has written the songs for 2007’s "Into the Wild," a soundtrack that is an unlikely — though deserved — hit. Although our fandom doesn't come close to matching that of Pearl Jam's most ardent admirers, my wife always has had great admiration for Vedder's playing and voice, especially solo. "Into the Wild" sealed it for her, and for me too.

    Then, in 2009, Pearl Jam released "Just Breathe," one of the three most beautiful love songs we know. (The other two are Isbell's "Cover Me Up" and "If We Were Vampires, further completing the circle.) After hearing "Just Breathe," Jill tells me Vedder is someone she's like to see live.

    Trouble is, between kids and busy work schedules, plus scant availability for any Pearl Jam show that plays within reasonable distance, we couldn't seem to make it work.

    Enter the Innings Festival.

    In 2018, organizers took advantage of Arizona's springtime climate — or what we call May in the rest of the world — and the start of baseball's spring training to throw a music festival at a park overlooking Tempe Town Lake.

    When I saw Vedder would headline the second day of the festival this year, I moved quickly (for once) to snap up tickets. With the kids grown and out of the house, we have downsized and are working to check items off the bucket list when time and opportunities allow.

    Like other events of this nature, the Innings Festival draws a diverse range of acts as well as a few baseball legends. Last year, for example, the Avett Brothers and Chris Stapleton were headliners along with Queens of the Stone Age, Phosphorescent and The Decemberists.

    This year's lineup included Sheryl Crow, Cake and Incubus on Saturday. Sunday's lineup was an eclectic mix as well, with performances by The Record Company (a helluva opener), G. Love and Special Sauce, Jimmy Eat World, Shakey Graves, Liz Phair (strong), St. Paul & the Broken Bones (good in spots but not on their A game), Mat Kearney and Band of Horses (our favorites other than Vedder).

    When we arrived Sunday so I could pick up the photo pass, Vedder's soundcheck was coming through the PA. Although he was not singing, he was playing "Better Man." Jill squeezed my hand. She had been waiting to hear this song live for almost 25 years, a sort of closure for something that dominated her life almost half a lifetime ago.

    What I like about Vedder's solo shows, based on bootlegs and videos from his sporadic acoustic tours over the past decade, are the variety of covers he chooses to play.

    His loose, free flowing Innings Festival set featured, in addition to various Pearl Jam and solo pieces, covers of songs by Warren Zevon, U2, Tom Petty, and The Beatles. He shredded the ukulele on a cover of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," followed by Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night."

    Nothing, not even the appearance by Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden (one of Vedder's closest friends) and several Cubs players "singing" back up on the "Hard Sun" closer, prepared us for "Maybe It's Time."

    Vedder's sublime rendering of Isbell's song, a huge headline in music circles on Monday, makes sense. Cooper mannered parts of his "A Star is Born" role, who was from Arizona, on Vedder and met with the singer while developing the character.

    But, as Isbell tweeted later, "Holy shit."

    Having shot the start of the set, I was making my way back to Jill when the song started and pushed my way through the massive crowd to reach her for the last two-thirds.

    There we stood, amid thousands of Vedder and Pearl Jam fans, lost in our thoughts and alone together.

    That moment eased the sting a bit when Vedder, for whatever reason, ended his set without playing "Better Man." As I mentioned to my wife, his cover of a song by a writer we so appreciate may be the gateway to the next chapter, allowing us to put those long-ago memories behind us.

    "Maybe it's time to let the old ways die..."

    This essay, along with more photos from the festival, was posted on the Americana Highways website. For more photos from the various acts, check out my Concert Photography page soon. You also can find photos on my Instagram (@glenncookphotography) and on my Facebook photography page.

  • The Replacements: Timeless Moments

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

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

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

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

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

    ••••••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    •••••• 

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ••••••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “I guess it’s your lucky day.”

    ••••••

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

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

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

    You could not help but join in, too.

  • My Grandmother, Dad & Elvis

    The story goes something like this…

    In early 1955, my 14-year-old father went over to his girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. A few minutes after he arrived, and was sitting on the girl’s living room couch with her parents in the other room, the phone rang in the hallway.

    It was my grandmother, and she wanted to talk to Dad.

    My father was mortified — the Methodist version of teenage guilt in the 1950s — but dutifully went to pick up the phone.

    “Turn on the Louisiana Hayride,” my grandmother said. “I just heard this guy perform and he’s coming back in a little while. He’s going to change everything.”

    The “guy” was Elvis Presley.

    ••••••

    Music has always been a huge part of my life, even though I can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument. A good song, no matter the genre, appeals to my artistic sense as a writer and storyteller. Finding a compelling, talented new artist or group brings with it a sense of discovery and wonder.

    I have a profound appreciation for artists of any kind who are willing to lay it on the line for their passion. This is true for my children, and is one reason I believe so strongly in being honest through my writing and imagery.

    I get my love and appreciation of music from my father and paternal grandmother, who died in 1989 at age 83. In addition to being a packrat and chronicler of life, my grandmother was an explorer when it came to music. When she was almost 80, I came home from one day and found her watching “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 documentary of The Band’s final concert. She thought it sounded interesting, although she had trouble understanding Bob Dylan.

    Grandmama could whistle a symphony or add a jazz-like hum to a country song. She loved to sing at church, and her cousin Bessie told me she loved to dance, especially during her single years in the 1920s that she rarely discussed.

    In the 1950s, the radio was always on, and Saturday nights — with few exceptions — were devoted to the Louisiana Hayride. The show was broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, 60 miles from where my grandparents lived in East Texas.

    For more than a decade, the Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry in importance among country and western singers. Elvis, who famously was rejected by the Opry for being too, well, out there, was signed by the Hayride and made numerous appearances on the show from late 1954 until December 1956.

    Presley, as we all know by now, was different, and it was during this time that his fusion of country and western, gospel and rhythm and blues became early rock and roll. His presence and influence on teens, especially during the late 1950s, was undeniable. It certainly had a lasting effect on my father, who collected Presley’s music along with every other artist from that era that he could find.

    Dad, especially in his later years, seemed to regress to his teenage days in his tastes. When I was growing up, his eclectic record collection was housed in a six-foot wide, coffin-like wooden cabinet that held the somewhat flimsy turntable on the right side.

    The albums included some of the era’s more modern music — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, even AC/DC and Aerosmith — along with Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtracks and a little too much Mario Lanza and Johnny Mathis for my taste. After my Grandmother died, Dad begrudgingly moved into the CD era, but would still turn back to obscure 45s by singers and doo-wop groups from the late 1950s.

    Still, Elvis seemed to top them all. 

    ••••••

    The first concert I remember attending — at age 6 — was an Elvis show with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle at Hofheinz Pavilion in November 1971. Three years later, for my second concert, the mom of a childhood friend took two of us to Rodeo Houston to see Presley perform before a then-record crowd of more than 44,000 in the Astrodome.

    The first album I owned was the Camden budget release (remember those?) “Burning Love and Hits from His Movies, Vol. 2,” purchased in part because my father loved the single. (The movie cuts were not the best, hence the budget release.)

    Like my dad, I was hooked by “Burning Love,” the last single Presley placed in the top 10 before his death, but sadly, I didn’t realize that publicly declaring my love for the song was cause for me to lose cool points on the elementary school playground. (In my defense, I was smart enough to know that jumpsuits are definitely not the fashion statement any second-grader wants to make, no matter the era.)

    Several months later, seeing my growing interest in Elvis and wanting to bond with his son, Dad took me to Parker Music on Ninth Avenue in Texas City, thumbed through the albums on the rack, and pulled out Presley’s 1956 self-titled debut. He bought it that day and later gave it to me as a present.

    To really understand what made Elvis the king, he said, I needed to go back to the very beginning.

    ••••••

    1956 was a crazy year for the former truck driver from Memphis, between constant touring, multiple (and controversial) television appearances, and making the movie “Love Me Tender.” Even if you’re not a fan, watch the documentary Elvis ’56 and you'll see how that one year changed everything, both for Presley and for those who listened to him.

    By year’s end, Presley had outgrown the Hayride, although he had one more show in his contract. The show, held at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds on Dec. 15, was attended by tons of screaming fans, including my father and then 51-year-old grandmother.

    The story, like one about my grandmother’s Presley discovery, was somewhat legendary in my family. My grandmother went for the music; my dad went to look for girls. Because neither drove, my grandfather begrudgingly took them, complaining all the way.

    My grandmother recalled the show fondly, although it was tough to hear amid the screaming. And apparently my dad found the girl, because her name is written inside the 50-cent program that my grandmother bought.

    We still have the program, which would be worth about $200 except for the girl’s printed address in ink on the center spread, but my father could never remember what happened to her. 

    ••••••

    Twenty-one years later, on Aug. 16, 1977, I was sitting in the waiting room at the Tyler Chest Hospital when we got the news. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema and COPD that killed him four years later. My aunt and I were waiting for my grandmother to bring him to the lobby.

    “Elvis is dead.”

    I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do or say. My grandmother and aunt took me to the Gibson’s in Longview that evening and we purchased “Moody Blue,” the blue LP that was Presley’s last major release. There were some decent songs on it, but it was nothing like the stuff I heard from 1956.

    Over the years, I’ve remained an Elvis fan. If you can sift through the dreck, and there is plenty of that, you will find so much music that is worthwhile. In the earliest sides, going back to the beginning, you can see the influence that continues to resonate today.

    There is so much to choose from, and it has all been packaged and repackaged so many times that it’s tough to find out where to start. But a couple of years ago, I found something special.

    The five-disc box set, “Young Man With the Big Beat,” features the complete 1956 masters, as well as alternate takes and three short live shows, one of which was previously unreleased. That show happens to be the Dec. 15 concert at the Hirsch Youth Center in Shreveport.

    The audio quality is not the best, but every once in a while, I put it on my CD player, close my eyes, and am transported to the auditorium with my dad and grandmother.

    And that means more than you know. 

    About the Photos:

    Top: Cracked plexiglass on top of the Elvis picture at Sun Studios in Memphis, September 2013. Upper middle: Photos taken of late 1920s programs saved by my grandmother. Middle: Photo of Presley in Dallas is part of an exhibit at Graceland, his Memphis mansion. Lower Middle: Elvis-related memorabilia collected by my family over the years. Bottom: The original 1956 program and the cover of RCA's "Young Man With the Big Beat."

  • Music & Loss: Lou Reed & Brian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Or maybe not. I’m not sure.

    ••••••

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

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

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

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

    ••••••

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ••••••

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

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

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

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

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

    ••••••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ••••••

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

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

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

    I miss you, my brother. RIP, Brian.

    And the same to Lou, too.

  • Elvis: 40 Years Later

    Forty years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of Scott White Hospital in Tyler when I heard the news: Elvis Presley was dead.

    I’ve written about my family’s history with the King of Rock and Roll, but this Places entry is related to Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis, where more than 100,000 visitors have descended to mark the annual Elvis Presley Week. I made the pilgrimage in September 2012 and took these (and countless more) images while basking in the city’s musical history.

    Elvis-related tourism is worth an estimated $600 million annually to Memphis’ economy. Graceland is second only to the White House as the most visited home in the U.S. Sun Records, where Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash (among others) made their first singles, draws 160,000 visitors a year.

    As Mojo Nixon once said, Elvis is everywhere. Go here to see my 2013 essay, “My Grandmother, Dad, and Elvis,” and here to see the rest of the album.

  • Two-Show Weekend: Green Day & iPhone

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

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

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

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

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

  • Two-Show Weekend: Moorer/Lynne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Music Week: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

    Summer Concert Series Week #2: Jill and I saw Jason Isbell for the fifth time in a year last night at Wolf Trap. Another terrific show, highlighted by an encore of Crosby Stills Nash & Young's "Ohio." We also saw Sarah Huckabee Sanders walking in to the show; two songs later, Isbell played "White Man's World."

    Coincidence? I think not.

    If you're keeping score, we've now seen Isbell & The 400 Unit at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland and Durham Performing Arts Center in North Carolina. Both shows featured Amanda Shires, Isbell's wife, on fiddle and background vocals. We saw Isbell and Shires play acoustic at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville as part of the 2017 Artist-in-Residence series and again at a benefit at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C.

    This show did not feature Shires, who is on a tour of her own to promote a new album. (We'll see her at the Birchmere next week.) The dynamic, as a result, was different. Isbell dug more deeply into his catalogue and the show had a harder edge, highlighted by the "Ohio" encore.

  • Music Week: Cowboy Junkies

    I saw the Cowboy Junkies last night at The Birchmere, my third show in five nights (after Lori McKenna and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit) in a personal summer concert series. It was the first time I’ve seen the Canadian-based group in more than two decades and they did not disappoint, playing material from their terrific new album “All That Recknoning” as well as highlights from their 30-plus year career.

    In case you’re not familiar with the band, they became known for “The Trinity Sessions,” a 1988 lo-fi mix of covers (“Sweet Jane,” “Blue Moon: Song for Elvis”) and originals (“Misguided Angel”) that was recorded using one microphone in a Toronto church. Over the past three decades, they’ve developed a steady following of fans who love their ethereal, often haunting sound.

    What makes the Cowboy Junkies fascinating is that they are a mix of family and longtime friends. Margo Timmins, the lead singer, is the sibling of guitarist and principal songwriter Michael, and their brother Peter plays drums. Bass player Alan Anton co-founded the band with Michael Timmins, and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird has played with the group since “The Trinity Sessions.”

    It was a great show, with tricky lighting that made it a fun challenge to shoot. To see more, go to my Concert Photography page to the Americana Highways link here.

  • Photos: Sean Rowe & Amanda Shires

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

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

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

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

  • Review: The Avett Brothers/Nicole Atkins

    On a sweltering summer evening, with the August humidity drenching performers and audience alike, The Avett Brothers performed before a raucous, sold-out crowd Saturday at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.

    The group, which has toured steadily behind its 2016 album True Sadness and was the subject of an acclaimed HBO documentary, “May It Last,” earlier this year, performed 22 career-spanning songs in just under two hours. With isolated exceptions, the show led by brothers Scott and Seth Avett did not disappoint, never flagging in energy, harmony, or superb musicianship.

    Serving as bookends were the stark ballad “Shame,” from the group’s 2007 breakthrough Emotionalism, and the gorgeous and sublime “No Hard Feelings” from True Sadness. The recording of the latter is a highlight of the HBO documentary, and a perfect closer.

    I’ve been an Avett Brothers fan since Emotionalism, but circumstances have prevented my wife and I from seeing them in concert. It’s almost a given with four live albums, that they thrive in front of a crowd. The concert sold out in a matter of hours, and walking into Wolf Trap, we saw a woman holding a sign touting this as her 50th show. The merch line was twice as long as any of the bathroom lines, another sign of the group’s devoted fan base.

    Not surprisingly, True Sadness songs — including the title cut — dominated the setlist as the seven-member group performed five of the album’s 12 tracks. Highlights included the funky and fun “Ain’t No Man,” in which Seth ran from all the way from the stage to the top of the lawn, and “I Wish I Was,” described as a song “about wanting something but not wanting to ruin something by wanting it so much.”

    Other highlights: “Orion’s Belt,” an energetic rocker that has not been recorded but played in concert since 2017; The Carpenter’s “Live and Die” and “Down with the Shine,” which featured five band members on vocals; and encore number “Morning Song” from 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion. Shoutouts also to Bob Crawford, the core member and upright bass player who soloed on “Old Joe Clark,” and fiddle player Tania Elizabeth, who took over on the instrumental “Le Reel Du Pendu/Les Bars De La Prison.”

    Cellist Joe Kwon, drummer Mike Marsh and the brothers’ sister, Bonnie Avett Rini, on keyboards rounded out the seven-member group. All are phenomenal musicians. Opener Nicole Atkins, who performed led her four-piece group in an energetic set, joined the headliners on stage for “Pretend Love” (from 2006’s Four Thieves Gone”) and “Ain’t No Man.”

    It’s easy to be hooked by the brothers’ story — by all means, watch the HBO documentary — energy and enthusiasm. It’s also easy, in these jaded times, to see why snarky critics would dismiss the Avetts’ simple, yet ultimately intricate and complex songs about family, friends and relationships. I was grateful that for two hours on a sweaty Saturday night, I could forget the toxic swirl that often surrounds us in Washington, D.C., and revel in the power of life stories set to music. No hard feelings, indeed.

    This was my first review for the website Americana Highways. You can see the review here. To see more photos, go to my Concert Photography page here.

    These photos are of Nicole Atkins, the opening act who performed selections from her retro country/soul/jazz funk album, “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.”

    FYI to those who haven’t shot a show in this type of venue: Photographers with a pass usually are only allowed to work during the first three songs, which means you have to get everything done within 10 to 15 minutes per set. Wolf Trap does not have a formal pit area close to the stage, so you’re restricted to the sides and behind the soundboard. It’s a fun challenge.

  • Photos/Review: John Hiatt & The Goners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Photos: Andy Grammer

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

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

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

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

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