Music: Live & Otherwise

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  • iPhone Challenge: Isbell at the Ryman

    Those who follow my page know that I shoot a lot of live concerts. When I can't get a photo pass, I join the masses in using my iPhone.

    How these photos turn out is often a mixed bag. Cellphone cameras don't capture movement well — if at all — and the lighting also is a challenge.

    But when the show you're attending is a bucket list item — my first concert at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, with Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, no less — you've got to try.

    Fortunately, the lighting for Friday's show — part of Isbell's annual residency at the Ryman — was good. And our seats, in the front row of the balcony, also helped.

    These photos show what you can get with an iPhone when the circumstances are right. They're not as good as I can get with my DSLR. But, given the circumstances, they are a great memory of a great show.

    For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Interview: Scott Avett

    Editor's note: I recently had the opportunity to interview Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers prior to the release of the band's new album, "Closer Than Together." The interview, along with these photos taken during the group's concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, appears in Americana Highways.

    Scott Avett is having the type of month multi-hyphenates dream about: a new album; a sold out show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center; an appearance on The Tonight Show; and the opening of a huge collection of his paintings at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

    “Today is the first day I’m constantly reupping as a musician,” he said during a Monday morning interview four days prior to the release of “Closer Than Together,” the Avett Brothers 10th studio album and the group’s first since “True Sadness” hit number 3 on the Billboard Top 200 in 2016. “I’m dedicating for the first day in many, outside of playing shows, just to work on music and on being a musician again.”

    He laughs. “With all that’s going on, I have to do that. But I’m full in all the way. I’m going to try to keep going and try to keep making what I’m supposed to be making.”

    On the music front, that involves what Avett calls a “gradual evolution” of the group’s sound and vision. While the group says it does not make “sociopolitical” music, “Closer Than Together” addresses gun violence (“Bang Bang”) as well as toxic masculinity and greed (“New Woman’s World”).

    But more than anything, the album represents a call for unity, no surprise for a band whose earnest, seemingly simple songs about the human condition touch on issues of great depth for us all. You especially see that during the Avetts’ live set, which I witnessed first-hand while shooting the show in Brooklyn later that week.

    During a 30-minute phone interview, Avett touched on the group’s creative process, his various outside projects (including a Broadway musical based on the Avett Brothers’ music and producing Clem Snide’s new record), the freedom of working for a major label as the music business turns upside down, and the effect of a Judd Apatow documentary on the making of “True Sadness.”

    Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity:

    On the group’s “life and death output” and the effect it has on him: “Every one of them, by the end, there’s this output of life and death from ideas and thoughts. In some ways, it’s the death of songs in that we’ve recorded and released them, and yet there’s this new life that does reflect seasonal growth and dying off and rebirth. Creatively, it’s reflective of life and the trust we have in each other. But the songs have many lives and deaths as we are documenting them and putting them out there.

    “I’m more aware of it than I used to be. I used to be so miffed by how short and grumpy I was at the end of every recording session. I would just be a total pain in the butt to live with. Seth (his brother) would certainly agree. Now I’m much more aware of it and doing things to combat it.”

    On how the “True Sadness” documentary affected his approach to music making: “It was exhausting, but so was ‘Four Thieves Gone,’” Avett says, referring to the group’s 2006 album. “Seeing the documentary myself helped me to observe (how he responded to stress). I was able to observe this self I was on screen, this really unguarded vulnerable self. Isn’t that amazing, that we can do that?

    “We had the same process with this record for sure, the same feelings for sure, but I did more to combat them and keep them in place, I tried to use the parts of them that are good to fuel what I do as opposed to stopping something in its tracks, which I’ve been known to do because I didn’t know what to do with it.”

    On the documentary’s effect on the band’s popularity: “’True Sadness’ had a little longer life because of that documentary, but the cool thing was we saw real numbers change at our live shows. More people came out who were curious, who had no idea what we were. It was sort of like, ‘Here’s this group. Why have I missed them?’

    “It was exciting to see that growth in our concerts. That’s our real time life, where we come and share all of these creative lives and deaths that we experience within a show.”

    On the band’s continued growth and evolution two decades into their career: “Not everyone knows all the missteps and failures. There are all these hits and misses here and there. They always happen, but when one miss happens, the attitude has to be there will always be another opportunity. We have to know it’s OK, that there are always going to be misses. In fact, there should be more misses than hits.

    “For the longest time, we always sort of ranked ourselves. Early on we had to do that, because no one was going to rank how we did. And we were very lucky. We were raised in a very caring — probably it’s a spiritual thing that I didn’t know at the time — environment in which you were encouraged to accept yourself as being part of something bigger and something grand.

    “So, it’s a gradual evolution for me. It’s been in real time. I really don’t take any time to compare where we are consciously. Sometimes I forget where we sort of were or where (songs) came from. But when I think about it, I can certainly hear two different bands, especially as far as sound goes.”

    On signing with a major label (Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, now part of UMG) and advice they received from Paleface, a folk artist who was signed by Polygram and Sire in the 1990s only to be dropped soon after: “One of the things we did right, I think, is work amateur until you get called up into the quote-unquote majors, and I shouldn’t even put quotations around that. We started as amateurs (with the North Carolina label Ramseur Records). The majors would have been suicide for us. It really would have been.

    “Paleface is this brilliant songwriter we met in New York in 2003, and what he experienced was the opposite to what we went through. He was on a major label really early and really quick and he self-destructed. He said, ‘I didn’t have to do anything for myself. I always had people around me who would do everything.’ He would always tell us how good it is that we grew slowly, that we made all of those early mistakes in the amateurs.

    “We knew how to draw thousands of people in several cities before we ever got to the majors. We knew how to sell records. We knew how to run a business. We knew how to write checks and manage money among each other. We didn’t really need a major label at that point except to advance our creative process, and that’s where Rick came in.”

    On taking more than three years between albums: “We’re more apt to take more time now than we used to. We didn’t used to have the financial ability to take the time, but as soon as we were remotely stable (financially), we started taking the time. It’s one of those resources I was talking about.

    “Right off the bat, Rick helped give us space that we weren’t taking for ourselves. We weren’t taking the initiative to make space and time at a natural pace. Rick has really helped us take time, make space for the music and follow our instinct and conscience. We were on that path already but he really sped it up for us.”

    At this point, with about 10 minutes left, our conversation shifted to Avett’s other projects while staying focused on the creative process. We discussed his art shows (the large one at the North Carolina Museum of Art and a smaller one at the Soho Gallery in Charlotte, both of which will be up through January 2020), and the Broadway musical. The Clem Snide record, which Avett describes as “indie but spiritual” will be released next year, and the band also is expected to return to the studio in the spring to finish some music that was left behind during the Closer Than Together sessions.

    Avett graduated from East Carolina University in 2000 with a BFA in studio art. The “full-on big show” in Raleigh, “Scott Avett: Invisible,” is described by the museum as his take on “universal issues of spirituality and struggle, love and loss, heartache and joy, as well as more personal stories of career, family, and living in the South.”

    Painting and performing are large parts of who Avett is creatively, but they “can really distract each other badly. They can be each other’s worst enemy.  I have to be really disciplined and know when to turn my back on one to work on the other.”

    With the band on tour through November, he’s looking forward to taking some time to recharge before, as he describes it, the creative muse inevitably returns. And he remains open to following the “spark” that sometimes occurs when he’s exhausted.

    “When I’m home and once I’m rested from being out, it’s so predictable, I get these visions of what’s next or these sounds of what’s next. They come in and I’m driven to go out and make whatever it is that calls me,” he said. “But some of the most interesting stuff for me comes after the big efforts, when you’ve had the juices flowing and gears turning. Sometimes that lack of presence you feel because you’re so exhausted actually makes you more present. It causes you to be in real time and something great can happen. That’s really fascinating for my process.”

    The Broadway musical, which largely will be based on 2004’s “Mignonette” as well as other songs from the group’s catalog, is an additional artistic challenge for the group. “It seems so natural,” he said of “Swept Away,” which premieres at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in June 2020 before moving to New York. “Early, early, early on, I could see these songs as a Broadway piece, but I put that idea away years ago. To see someone else imagine it or see it in the same way, that’s exciting. They’re producing something that may or may not work, but it will be fun to see what happens.”

    With three children — ages 4, 8 and 10 — and a career filled to the brim, Avett said he has learned over the past several years not to “overvalue work time” and to “give more value to the nondoing.”

    “I swear, I’m doing much more within less work time than I used to, because adopting that principle causes you to be more relaxed and have a more fulfilling family life,” he said. “It’s easy to say that a career is the most important thing you have, but that’s such nonsense. It’s all so silly. If I afford myself more family time, which is super important, then I’m more relaxed when I go to work. And when I’m working, what I’m doing is more sincere and more fun. I just couldn’t get that before the age of 40. I couldn’t get it.”

    As the conversation ends, I asked Avett if he enjoys music and art as much as he did 20 years ago.

    “I think I do,” he said, laughing. “But in a different way. I try not to treat it as critically as I did 20 years ago, and that makes it more fun. It’s been a shift, because as many times as I say I’m going to change careers or going to quit, I never would. I’m always excited to move on to the next thing. There’s always the next thing to enjoy. I think that’s the key.”

    To see more photos from the show, go to my Facebook album here. 

  • Photos: Josh Ritter & Amanda Shires

    When I travel, I try to see if any of my favorite artists are playing in the city I’m visiting. Usually, my luck runs cold, as I miss shows by a day here or two days there. So imagine my surprise when I learned Josh Ritter and Amanda Shires were playing while I was In Louisville, Ky. And even better, the concert was free.

    The concluding show of WFPK 91.9’s outdoor concert series, held on Big Four Lawn next to the river, was a fun and enjoyable evening spent listening to two artists who’ve been honing their skills on the road throughout the summer behind strong albums with ties to Jason Isbell.

    Shires, Isbell’s spouse and one of the founders of The Highwomen super group, has been working at a fevered pitch since I saw her perform last summer at the kickoff for her acclaimed “To The Sunset” album. And the nonstop touring has done wonders for her presence as the leader of her own group.

    Playing with two members of her band, Shires turned in several terrific cuts from “To the Sunset,” including “Break Out the Champagne” and “Parking Lot Pirouette.” But it was her gorgeous, mostly acoustic take on “Leave It Alone” that proved to be a real standout.

    Ritter, the headliner, performed only two cuts from the Isbell-produced “Fever Breaks” (“All Some Kind of Dream” and “Losing Battles” during his 13-song set. The rest came from his other five albums, with “Feels Like Lightning,” “Thunderbolt’s Goodnight,” “The Temptation of Adam” and “Getting Ready to Slow Down” being the standouts.

    As fall takes over, the opportunities for outdoor shows — especially the free variety — are quickly dimming. But if you’re on the road, especially as much as I am these days, take the time to check out the Bandsintown app. You never know what might turn up.

    To see more photos, go to my Facebook albums here and here.

  • iPhone Challenge: Maren Morris

    My son Ben and I saw Maren Morris Friday in a sold out show at Radio City Music Hall. It was a wonderful concert from a fantastic and amazingly versatile performer who's rapidly moved from clubs to opener to headliner in a span of just a few years.

    I wish I had secured a photo pass for this, but couldn't, so I decided to see what I could get with the iPhone from two-thirds of the way back in the orchestra. There are so many challenges to shooting something like this with a phone, and the result is very different from a news event that you get with a DSLR.

    Overall I'm pleased with these pics, which give the show an abstract look but capture in different ways the audience's enthusiasm for Morris' performance. Curious to see what you think.

    #marenmorris #haileywhitters #kassiashton #music #livemusic #nycconcert #photography #photographer #iPhone

  • The Death of Elvis

    Forty-two years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of a hospital in Tyler, Texas, swatting at flies. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema that eventually would kill him, and my parents were in Los Angeles, looking again for a way to treat the chronic disorder that would contribute to my dad's death some three decades later.

    It was a typical, sweltering East Texas day in August, which was one reason the flies had moved indoors. I had ridden in the car some 30 miles from Longview with my grandmother and my aunt, hoping to see my grandfather. That was doubtful. Hospital rules prevented 12-year-olds from visiting patient rooms and he was not in any shape to come down to the lobby.

    So I sat there, bored out of my mind, killing flies.

    At some point late that afternoon, news started to spread that shook me to my adolescent core: Elvis Presley was dead at age 42.

    Adolescents in the mid to late 1970s were not supposed to be Elvis fans, and I certainly did not get any cool points from my peers. “Fat Elvis” had become a parody, a bloated yet hollow shell of himself even for those immersed in the 1950s Happy Days-Laverne & Shirley nostalgia of the time.

    But my peers didn’t understand what Elvis meant to me. At the time, I don’t think I understood why he meant so much.

    My dad and aunt were teenagers when my grandmother discovered Presley in his first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride. A year and a half later, on Dec. 15, 1956, my grandfather drove my grandmother (then 51) and my dad (then 16) the 60 miles east to Shreveport to see Elvis’ concert at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds.

    I still have the program from that show, which remarkably was taped and released on one of the hundreds of Presley compilations in 2011. Listening to the low-fi affair still brings a smile to my face, knowing they were both there.

    My first rock and roll record was Elvis’ first album, bought by my dad in a record store on Ninth Avenue in Texas City. I remember sitting with my parents watching Aloha from Hawaii, the first show televised around the world via satellite. My first concert, at age 6, was an Elvis show at Hofheinz Pavilion. My second, at age 9, was his performance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

    In a weird way, Elvis felt like a member of my extended family, although I was woefully short on accurate information. I hadn’t liked his last few albums, not knowing they were cobbled together by his label because he no longer enjoyed recording. I didn’t understand why he had not been able to recover from his divorce, not realizing it was in large part because of guilt over self-inflicted wounds. I didn’t connect the dots when my parents returned from a trip to Las Vegas in 1975, having been disappointed in Presley’s concert because he looked and sounded “bad” — code, as it turns out, for overweight and stoned out of his mind.

    All I knew, at age 12, is that people aren’t supposed to die at 42 unless they are at war or in some type of accident. People don’t die while sitting on the toilet in their bathroom, especially when they’re only five years older than my dad and six years older than my mom.

    We left the hospital that day and went to Gibson’s, one of those catch-all department stores not far from my grandmother’s house. My grandmother bought me “Moody Blue,” Presley’s last studio album that came in blue vinyl, and I played it on my aunt’s turntable that night.

    Today, in the words of music writer Bill Holdship, Elvis has “now been gone as long as he was here.” And I have remained an Elvis fan, albeit one who — with the benefit of information — is more discerning and less a blind member of the cult. While I separate the schlock from the sublime, I remain in awe of his talent and charisma. I also am grateful for the way he brought my family together on a common subject for a lot of years.

    In retrospect, I also can thank Elvis for introducing me viscerally to the concept of mortality at what now seems like so young an age. I didn’t realize it then, but Presley’s death was the first time I understood life can be more fleeting than you imagine. And it taught me, not for the last time, that you just have to appreciate what you’ve got.

  • 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: Stonewall 50 Concert in NYC

    On Friday, thanks to one of my “adopted” children and one of his good friends, I secured a press pass to shoot Pride Live’s Stonewall Day concert, held in Greenwich Village to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the riots that served as a turning point for the LGBTQ movement. The event featured a memorable speech by Lady Gaga, a three-song performance by Alicia Keys, and appearances by actors, musicians, models and political figures who are part of or are allies of the LGTBQ community.

    Held as part of World Pride Week, which ends on Sunday, the midday celebration on Christopher Street was held outside the Stoneville Inn, the West Village landmark where six days of riots began on June 28, 1969. The Christopher Street Liberation Day March, held the following year, evolved into the annual Pride parades now celebrated around the world.

    Sponsored by iHeart Radio’s z100 and United Airlines, Friday’s celebration featured speakers Chelsea Clinton, Donatella Versace, Whoopi Goldberg, Grace VanderWaal, Wilson Cruz, Pose stars Angelica Ross and Ryan Jamaal Smith, and Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s advisor who read a letter from him to those in attendance. Alex Newell, who played Asaka in the Tony-award winning revival of Once on This Island, performed a powerful version of “I’m Here” from The Color Purple.

    Gaga and Keys, however, were the definite headliners. While she did not perform, Gaga gave an impassioned speech that lasted almost 15 minutes. She namechecked transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who helped lead the demonstrations, and noted that 11 trans women of color have been killed in the first six months of 2019.

    “This community has fought and continued to fight a war of acceptance, a war of tolerance, and of the most relentless bravery,” a visibly moved Gaga told the crowd. “You are the definition of courage.”

    Gaga, whose non-profit Born This Way Foundation benefits LGBTQ youth, said she will “continue to fight every day during shows, and even when I’m not on stage, to spread a message that’s actually quite simple: Be kind.

    “And that kindness belongs to you,” she said. “It always has belonged to you, even when the world was not kind, it belonged to you.”

    As the nearly two-hour event wound toward its close, RuPaul's Drag Race season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen came out to lip-sync Alicia Keys' 2012 hit "Girl on Fire." As it turned out, Keys was backstage performing the vocals live. She joined Bob on stage and then performed three more songs: a cover of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," "In Common" and "Empire State of Mind."

    At one point during her brief set, Keys pointed to the Stonewall Inn and smiled.

    "Places are powerful. People are powerful,” she said. “And when we're together, we're even more powerful than imaginable.”

    Thanks to Ginno Murphy and Tom Bagley for helping me get into the event and giving me the opportunity to chronicle this moment in time.

    To see more photos from this event, go to my Facebook album here.

  • New Music & Other Thoughts

    I’ve been slammed with work and the joys of owning a 99-year-old house recently, which means my ability to see concerts has been severely compromised. And it’s too bad, because there are a number of shows I’d like to see these days.

    A number of new and relatively recent releases have caught my eye and found their way to my Apple Music account, however. I’m really enjoying the latest albums from Hayes Carll, Patty Griffin, Josh Ritter (produced by Jason Isbell), Jack Ingram, Ryan Bingham and Steve Earle. And I can’t wait to hear all of “Breakdown on 20th Ave. South,” the long overdue album from Buddy and Julie Miller. Three of the 14 tracks are available now, and each is stellar.

    There are no surprises to be found with these artists, because all are among my favorites. I’m also enjoying Maren Morris’ new album, and Kacey Musgraves’ award-winning “Golden Hour” has snuck into heavy rotation. “Dying Star,” by Musgraves’ husband Ruston Kelly, has remained there since I saw him at The Anthem earlier this year.

    Two that you need to seek out and find are “Alive in Tennessee,” a live album that captures what makes Anderson East’s live shows so much fun, and Rhiannon Giddens haunting “There is No Other,” recorded with Francesco Turrisi.

    Meanwhile, here are some other music-related thoughts from the past several weeks:

    • Your ability to survive a MRI could depend on your tolerance for Lou Reed's “Metal Machine Music” album. I had one recently and hated it, but have to say that hearing punk and metal bands close up over the years came in handy when I was in the tube.

    • Quote of the day, from an appearance Bruce Springsteen made to promote the Netflix documentary of his Broadway show: "I think as you get older, that’s what you grow comfortable with: Faith is faith. It’s trust. It’s about all of the mysteries and the answers that you’re never going to come up with…But if you let it be, that’s when you find a little bit of peace. That’s what I’ve found anyway.”

    • I saw a music press release that made me realize journalism and P.R. copy editing have really taken a hit over the past few years. Check out this lead and tell me what’s wrong with it: “The late Alex Chilton, former lead singer of Big Star and the Box Tops, will release two new LP’s, Songs From Robin Hood Lane and From Memphis to New Orleans."

    I’m pretty sure that Chilton had little to do with the current releases. But with holograms of Elvis, Selena and Prince floating around, who knows?

  • 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.