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  • Anniversaries: Lori McKenna & Dave Alvin

    The anniversary tour, in which artists perform a popular or seminal work start to finish, has become a solid moneymaker for musicians over the past decade. For the artists, who’ve seen the industry implode due to downloads and streaming that pays pennies on the dollar, it is a drawing card in a clouded and crowded marketplace increasingly reliant on ticket and merchandise sales to make a living.

    This week alone, three such tours are crossing through the Washington, D.C. area. First was Dave Alvin, revisiting the acoustic “King of California” on Tuesday at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va. The next night, Lori McKenna kicked off her “Return to Bittertown” tour in our nation’s capital. And on Saturday night, Hootie and the Blowfish will continue their 25th anniversary tour of “Cracked Rear View” at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow.

    While every anniversary show is an opportunity for nostalgia, allowing the artist and audience to relive a moment in time, the best ones also provide us with insight into the creative process thanks to between song stories and anecdotes.

    The cumulative album sales from both Alvin and McKenna still don’t come near those of “Cracked Rear View,” but in low-key and intimate settings in small clubs, both artists showed why they are two of the best songwriters working today. And the albums they played from start to finish were, for both, game changers.

    Somewhat ironically, “King of California” and “Bittertown” were the fourth albums for both Alvin, who had gone solo after co-founding The Blasters, and McKenna, who was at the time pregnant with her fifth child.

    For the first 15 years of his career, Alvin was known for smoking guitar work and ability to cross genres with groups such as The Blasters, X, and The Knitters, and as a solo artist. Released in 1994, “King of California” remains a stunning and evocative disc, one that allowed Alvin to recast and reinterpret several of his songs (along with a few well-chosen covers) in a stripped-down acoustic setting. On Tuesday, multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, who produced "King of California" and other Alvin releases, provided lovely support, as did Christy McWilson on vocals.

    Ten years later and three days before her now 15-year-old son was born, McKenna released “Bittertown.” Faith Hill famously stopped recording her multiplatinum album “Fireflies” after hearing it, opting to cover three of McKenna’s songs from the record. The support of Hill and her husband, Tim McGraw, helped McKenna launch a career as one of the most in-demand songwriters in Nashville.

    Here is a brief look at some of the stories behind both albums, among other anecdotes:

    • Alvin, who played the album in order, filled his set with vivid memories and language. After opening with the title track and “Barn Burning,” he noted that albums usually are sequenced differently from live shows. The label wanted the “hits,” in the front, while concerts usually keep the biggest songs for the end if not the encore.

    “So this is coming really fashionably early,” he said before launching into “Fourth of July,” a song he has played in most shows since it was released by X in 1987. “If this is the one you came for, you can leave afterward. I don’t mind.”

    No one left.

    • McKenna, who is known for writing sad songs, made note that her career falls into two distinct stages: before “Bittertown” and after “Bittertown.” To mark the anniversary, on Wednesday she released a 12-inch vinyl with two re-recorded classics from the album — “Bible Song” and “Stealing Kisses.”

    “I want to assure you that I’m happier in real life than I was when I wrote this record,” she said, noting that she had to relearn many of the songs before playing them live again. “… There are a lot of words in these old songs. We played them so much faster and I had much more lung capacity.”

    • Shortly after going solo, a record label contacted Alvin and said George Jones wanted to record one of his songs. But shortly before he flew to Nashville for the session, the label called back and said recording “Every Night About This Time” would not happen.

    “It turns out this song was too country for George Jones,” Alvin said with a laugh before playing the beautiful ballad.

    • “Stealing Kisses,” one of the songs Hill later covered, was the last song written for “Bittertown,” McKenna told the audience on Wednesday. The song, like many of McKenna’s, is about the challenges and rewards of “living with one man.”

    “It was my first single on country radio, and it got to #28 on the charts, which was a failure then,” McKenna said. “But hey, it was the first time I released something that had a number attached to it.”

    McKenna said the Bittertown song “Lone Star” was written about Beck, but she soon realized “this is not Beck’s story whatsoever.” In fact, Beck’s father did the string arrangements for Hill’s “Fireflies” and “he confirmed this,” McKenna said with a shrug. “It’s not his story at all.”

    • “Songs are like your children,” Alvin said in introducing “Bus Station,” a vivid yet devastating profile of a couple on the outs. “Some are extroverts and beg to be performed. Others are introverts who never want to leave their room. I care so deeply for this song that I never play it live.”

    Alvin said “Bus Station” will be part of a book he “will write … am writing.” And it’s easy to see why, given lines like, “She lies to him/he kisses her/getting tired of love.”

    • McKenna’s opener was Hailey Whitters, who has spent a dozen years in Nashville after moving there when she was 17. Whitters, whose second album “The Dream” will come out later this year, was frank about her struggles to make it to Nashville. Still not signed by a label, her self-financed album will feature the beautiful ballad “Ten Year Town,” about a songwriter who has to decide between her dreams and making a living.

    McKenna’s fondness for Whitters is obvious, and she brought her on stage for the encore of “Girl Crush” and “Happy People.” In 2016, McKenna became the first woman to win the Country Music Association’s “Song of the Year” award two years in a row for “Girl Crush” and “Humble and Kind,” both of which won Grammys as Best Country Song.

    “After this record, I sort of got the golden ticket and they said you can do this now,” McKenna said of “Bittertown.”

    “Hailey showed up it my door at 22 and told me she wanted to write a song called ‘Happy People,’ and so we did. That’s what I can do now. She’s just a magical person and I’m so glad we get to share the night together.”

    • Toward the end of Alvin’s show, he performed the beautiful ballad “Border Radio,” remarking that it’s “always weird when one of your songs become culturally irrelevant.”

    “Now we have iPhones, laptops, even fax machines,” he said. “When I was growing up, 50,000-watt radio stations were a means of communication in a very, very strange way. When I was a kid, I had to go to bed about 8:30 at night, but even at 8 years old I had a secret weapon, a 9-volt transistor radio that could pick up the border radio stations. I was too young to know what poetry was, but I knew that was poetry. I knew then that all I wanted to do was grow up and live this kind of life.”

    Today, McKenna and Alvin — songwriters from different coasts with much different career trajectories — are living proof that you can capture lightning in a bottle. And thankfully, audiences in the greater Washington, D.C., area had anniversary tours on the same week to see them relive that time.

  • 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.

  • Review: Steve Earle 2017

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

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

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

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

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

    End notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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.

  • Photos: Joachim Cooder

    Last night, I was fortunate to see Ry and Joachim Cooder in concert at The Birchmere in Alexandria. The elder Cooder has long been one of my favorite musicians, an incredible guitar-singer-songwriter who has worked with everyone in the music industry in a career that dates back to the late 1960s. Now 71, he is on his first tour in a decade behind “The Prodigal Son,” a tour-de-force return to his folk/blues/jazz roots that mixes original songs with reimagined gospel songs.

    On the new album, Cooder, a self-described curmudgeon whose music has veered toward the stridently political over the past decade, focuses on empathy, understanding, and tolerance. It’s a welcome and beautiful piece of music, merging his best work with the sonic textures laid down by Joaquim.

    Cooder’s son, who has played in his father’s band since he was a teenager, co-produced the album and played drums. He also opened the show with his own set, playing the ethereal and textured songs from his EP “Fucsia Machu Picchu” on an electric mbira (thumb piano).  The Hamiltones, a Charlotte-based trio, provided beautiful backing vocals amid the swirls of sound that resonated throughout the venue. They are a group to watch.

    All in all, it was a great night — life affirming in all the right ways. Get “The Prodigal Son.” Trust me.

    (Because of photo restrictions placed by the venue, these pics are of Joachim’s opening act, along with a couple of the Hamiltones. A special thanks to Mark Engleson for the ticket.)

  • 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.

  • Photos/Review: John Hiatt & The Goners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Review/Photos: Lovett, Keen, The Birchmere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He then sang “Pants is Overrated.”

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

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

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