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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • One Piece at a Time

    “The story of our lives. Written page by page. Careful what you write. You gotta read it all some day.”

    When I was a child staying at my grandmother’s in East Texas, inevitably I had to take food to Mrs. Douglass’ house.

    I viewed this as penance for some yet-to-be-committed sin, in part because Mrs. Douglass and I had nothing in common and I was not interested in a career in the pharmaceutical industry at age 11. At this point in the story — Mrs. Douglass was a white haired, frail widow in her early 80s — conversation revolved around the variety of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions she was taking.

    Mrs. Douglass was inevitably polite — although bitter about her lot in life, it seemed to my childhood self — and she always seemed to enjoy my visits. The pattern rarely deviated: I sat on the couch and, after a 30-second description and acknowledgment of the home-cooked meal my grandmother had made, listened to her describe her various ailments and what they prevented her from doing. After 15 or 20 minutes, I was escorted to the door and told to come back soon.

    “I never want to be like that,” I told my grandmother more than once.

    She nodded, pursed her lips slightly, and gave me a half smile.

    ••••••

    “You can give away some things. That you never will get back. One piece at a time. And you never will get them back.”

    My father-in-law is 80. Over the 15-plus years I’ve known him, the conversational window has narrowed considerably. At one point we could talk about photography; recently he barely looked at the pictures I showed him, even though most were of his grandchildren. At another, he could provide you with a dissertation examining the merits vs. the weaknesses of any sport involving the University of North Carolina. Now he barely talks about his beloved Tar Heels.

    The relationship Jill and her brother have with their father is fractious, prickly, and tense. This is nothing new, but rather an extension of feelings that have been there since childhood. The undercurrents of lives that constantly overlap and occasionally intersect are never far from the surface.

    Jill (I know) and her brother (I’m sure) have spent countless hours trying to figure out the enigma who is responsible for their place on this planet. And while it’s not my place to say what they think, I believe it comes down to this: Don’t mistake gratitude for kindness.

    Like Mrs. Douglass, Bob’s life seems to revolve around two things — his visits to the doctor and the various prescriptions that he is taking to extend his life. He too is bitter, so focused on those things that he doesn’t seem to care about much else.

    Recently, I drove to Boone as part of a Virginia/North Carolina trek that also involved parents’ weekend at Nicholas’ college (more about that in a separate post). Jill and her brother are trying to see Bob at least once a month and this gave me an opportunity to help.

    Bob appeared grateful. He appreciated my taking him to the doctor and taking care of the things he has on a never-ending list. He talked of wanting to leave the assisted care facility to return to his house full time, although he’s not in good enough health for that to happen.

    His charm with others not close to him remains intact. The person who has cut his hair for years spoke of his wit (and his love for Carolina sports). As he shuffled through the lobby, where a community band honked through the “Gilligan’s Island” theme at a 5:30 dinner concert, a couple of his fellow residents perked up, said hello, and waited for his acknowledgment. He gave them a nod, but didn’t sit with them.

    Meanwhile, his temper simmered just below the surface, and he struggled not to bark or bellow. His temper, while infamous, is not something his children talk about, and you can tell he struggles to control it.

    On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Jill mention that her father is not a kind man. I didn’t see it fully, however, until this visit, when I realized all along that I had mistaken gratitude for the kindness I had hoped to see.



    “You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”

    Four years ago, on Sept. 11, my second “mom” passed away. In many ways, she had died 3 1/2 years earlier.

    If you follow this blog for any period of time, you will discover that I had two sets of “parents” — my biological ones and Fran and Bill, who lived across the street from us growing up. We moved into my childhood home on 22nd Avenue in Texas City when I was 4, and my parents became fast friends with the couple across the street and one house over to the left.

    Much more than my parents, Bill was my personal familial enigma, although unlike Bob we reached a much more peaceful resolution in the end. With my mom facing a much more difficult juggling act (work, kids, sick husband) than any of us knew, I often turned to Fran for advice and support.

    And Fran freely dispensed it, in what my mom called her “Yankee” way. (Ironically, it took me a while to realize that mom’s definition of Yankee includes the south side of Chicago.) Fran was always quick with an opinion and never afraid to share it, whether it was about my choices in music or literature. Unlike my grandmother, she didn’t partake in the rock and roll era (more about that in a future post, too).

    Like my father, Fran had health issues for much of her adult life, and it took me some time to realize just how much she relied on Bill for everything. Without children of their own, all they had was each other, even though they treated us like their kids.

    Fran marched in lock step with her Catholicism, never missing a mass and politically aligned largely with its beliefs. But after Bill died in 2004, she started questioning everything, including her own belief about the end of life.

    One afternoon, during one of my 14 trips to Texas in 2007 to see my dad in the hospital, I stopped by Fran’s house for a visit. She was using oxygen, largely confined to bed or her chair.

    Like Bob and Mrs. Douglass, most visits with Fran at the time were conversations about doctors, her various caregivers, and her medical treatments. The conversations had narrowed so much that a person I once could talk to at any time ran out of things to say in just minutes.

    But on this mid-May day, we sat in her bedroom, went through pictures of the kids — unlike Bob, she remained interested — and talked about life’s trivia. She even endured a song I could not get out of my head at the time — Jon Dee Graham’s “Faithless.”

    She put her head back on her chair and listened, eyes closed.

    “In the deep blue dark down under. Tell me what you’re thinking of…”

    She smiled.

    “The things we find. The things we lose. The things that we get to keep. Are so damn few. And far between. So far between…”

    She teared up, but rebounded at the conclusion.

    “You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”

    For a moment, she seemed more confident. “That’s how I feel on so many days,” she said. “I get so frustrated. It’s so easy to do.”

    Fran told me how much she enjoyed the visit. I gave her a kiss and let myself out. In less than four months, she was dead.

    “ … I AM NOT FAITHLESS.”

  • Tides of Memories & Writing

    Pat Conroy’s death last week brought back a tide of strong memories. The first was when I read the “Lords of Discipline” in high school, and the second was when I saw Conroy at a talk/book signing in Greensboro almost two decades later.

    Like “The Great Santini,” perhaps the book he is best known for along with “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy’s “Lords of Discipline” draws upon the author’s struggles with the military’s hardness, born of traditions that encouraged prejudice and misogyny in the Vietnam-era South.

    Published in 1980, the book was being made into a film a couple of years after “Taps,” another fictionalized drama about a military school. As I’ve often done, hearing about a movie based on a novel makes me want to read the book before seeing the film, so I picked it up.

    What “Lords of Discipline” taught me was how hard it must be to do a novel justice on the big screen. Even though the film was OK, there was no way it could capture the depth of Conroy’s work, or the (occasional) pulp of his prose. The book captured a South I had long heard of, but never wanted to be part of, in such a way that I became determined never to experience it.

    ••••••

    This has been a terrible winter for artists, and the world of classic rock-era music has been particularly hard hit. Add to that list author Harper Lee and actor Alan Richman, and it has been seemingly a never-ending roll call.

    In the first three months of 2016, we’ve lost Beatles producer George Martin, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dan Hicks, Vanity, Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson of Jefferson Airplane.

    In some ways, the deaths of most of those who passed away should not come as a shock, given the hard living that many of those musicians lived during the substance-fueled 1960s, 70s and 80s. Bowie, still working until right before his death, was the exception, even though he had been battling (quietly except to those closest to him) cancer for 18 months.

    The reason, I think, that the long list of deaths surprises and gives me pause is because each of these artists was popular during my childhood. And with each passing, that childhood recedes further into my life’s rear view.

    One singer’s illness, in the midst of everything, caught my attention. Joey Feek of the country duo Joey+Rory, whose public battle with cervical cancer was chronicled every step of the way by her husband, died this month at the young age of 40.

    I didn’t know much about the couple or their music. In fact, I’ve heard only a few of their songs, which are pretty enough (especially their cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”), but not cutting edge or truly memorable. What caught my attention was their openness about the illness, the way Rory Feek wrote about and cared for his wife and young daughter as Joey moved into hospice care.

    There is something wrong about a person having to suffer in such a way, especially just a couple of years after having a child with Down’s Syndrome. But the grace and dignity they showed throughout is both commendable and memorable, and will outlive the songs they leave behind.

    ••••••

    Pat Conroy wrote about life, death, family, dysfunction, mental illness and life as a military brat in the South. He too was open about all of his family’s foibles, so much so that many of his relatives would no longer speak to him.

    He joked about this at the speech and book signing I saw him at in Greensboro, when he was promoting “Beach Music.” I had the chance to see him when Sarah Bullock, one of Jill’s co-workers and a second mother to her in many ways, invited me to come along.

    Conroy’s sense of humor, always bubbling under the surface despite his lifelong struggles with depression, was in fine form as he told stories about his father meeting Barbra Streisand, and writing. When I mentioned, during the book signing, that I had worked as a newspaper editor before moving into communications, he complemented me on “escaping my career choice.” He then signed my copy of The Lords of Discipline — a hardback I bought that day, with the phrase, “For the love of words and books.”

    Seeing Conroy was a highlight of my seven-plus years in North Carolina, and it’s rare that Sarah or I fail to mention it when we see or speak to each other. I still have the book, and last Christmas, Sarah sent me Conroy’s last work — “The Death of Santini.”

    May he — and the others — rest in peace.

  • Musical Notes & Thoughts to Ponder

    An excerpt from Patti Smith's recent book on the creative process:

    “Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras had her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed."

    I have Starbucks.

    ••••••

    More on the creative process, courtesy of John Doe, another of my favorite musicians:

    “One of the reasons I'm here is to make stuff. To make songs and to be an actor and do art and things like that, so that's what's important. You shouldn't worry about what your rewards are. Your reward should be having created that thing.

    “I hardly ever wake up and think, ‘Oh, today I'm gonna write a song.’ It just happens. And I think it's the same as — again, to get philosophical — a lot of things, the more time you put into it, the more reward comes out of it. So if I'm writing and playing most every day, then more stuff will come out of it. If I put it away, then there's other stuff that's going on in your head. If you have a down period, try not to get frightened of it or don't get spooked by it. Just let it go. Let it go until you feel like playing again.” 

    ••••••

    Simon Wright, in his “Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” blog, has summed up my musical tastes perfectly: “The uncomfortable reality is that my record collection is peopled with screwed-up individuals who self-medicated themselves into oblivion and/or an early grave but made some fine rock ’n’ roll along the way.”

    ••••••

    And finally, a Replacements-related note: Playing the Live at Maxwell’s version of "Hayday" is oddly soothing while shopping at Home Depot, aka the ninth circle of hell. Check it out here and see if you agree.

  • 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.