Grammy nominated singer Ashley McBryde played a terrific concert Wednesday night at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. The 35-year-old singer, whose debut album “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” is up for Best Country Album next month, originally was scheduled to perform at the venue in September but the show was rescheduled due to Hurricane Florence.
The subsequent months have seen McBryde’s album — the title song is based on how she felt after being told to give up her dreams by a high school algebra teacher — be profiled on CBS This Morning and land on a who’s who of “Best of” lists. Among them: The New York Times, Billboard, Esquire, NPR Music, Paste, Rolling Stone, Stereogum, Town & Country and Variety.
I’m not writing a formal review of this show because it was assigned to an Americana Highways colleague who needed a photographer. But I can tell you this: Ashley McBryde is a star in the making. And chances are you will never see her in a venue as small as The Hamilton again.
Dee White, a 20-year-old singer who has released “Side A” of his debut album “Southern Gentleman,” served as the opener for Ashley McBryde Wednesday night at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. The singer from Slapout, Alabama, named as one of “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” by Rolling Stone, is acclaimed for his updated take on classic Countrypolitan music. Side B of “Southern Gentleman” is expected sometime this year.
This review is being posted to the Americana Highways website. For more photos, go to my Concert Photos gallery.
There’s nothing quite like closing out a year with a bunch of heathens in our nation’s Capital. If not a bunch, then at least a band.
The five-member Band of Heathens filled the main room at Hill Country Live on 7th Street and rocked a small but enthusiastic crowd into 2019. The Austin-based group performed songs from their five studio albums as well as the singles “Carry Your Love” and “Dc 9,” which in an alternate universe would be Billboard hits.
Led by Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist, who share lead vocals and write the band’s songs, the five-member group has followed up 2017’s “Duende” with “A Message from the People Revisited,” a song-by-song recording of Ray Charles’ classic 1972 album.
Jurdi and Quist, who formed the band in 2006 with Colin Brooks, have been on a roll since a series of lineup changes left them as the only original Heathens. They are backed ably by Trevor Nealon on keyboards, Scott Davis on bass, and Richard Millsap on drums.
The Band of Heathens’ sound draws comparisons to groups like Little Feat and The Black Crowes, but the best description I’ve heard of their style is “Grateful Dead Americana.” While this is probably true of any Americana fan, I most appreciate bands who have a lack of respect for strict genres. I like that Jurdi’s vocals are more soul and R&B based, while Quist has a more straightforward singer-songwriter style, with some Memphis pop/country/soul added for good measure.
Monday’s show started just before 10:30 and ended with two songs in 2019. Much of the first half of the show was devoted to songs from “Duende,” including “All I’m Asking,” “Sugar Queen,” “Green Grass of California,” and “Last Minute Man.”
“Medicine Man,” “Gris Gris Satchel,” from 2016’s “Top Hat Crown,” were mixed with “Jackson Station” from the group’s 2008 self-titled studio debut. “LA County Blues” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” from 2011’s “One Foot in the Ether,” were also highlights.
The latter song included an extended jam featuring Jurdi solos on both lead guitar and harmonica. It proved to be a strong segue into the group’s “Message” set, where the band covered a series of standards that Charles had made his own almost a half century ago in a musical call for peace and harmony.
Because of history’s tendency to repeat itself, many of the issues Charles’ sang about in 1972 remain sadly relevant today. Still, it took some guts for a white Americana band to remake a known soul classic take by take, in just four days of studio time no less. And for the most part, it works.
On Monday, amid the celebrations and just a mile from the White House, it was almost cathartic to hear songs like “Heaven Help Us All,” “Abraham, Martin and John,” and “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.” Even “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which felt more like John Denver than Ray Charles, worked.
The mini set done, the band returned to its own catalogue, roaring through “Deep Is Love,” the beautiful ballad “Hurricane,” and the rocking “Trouble Came Early,” which ended just in time for the New Year’s countdown. That was followed by a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and, as the closer, “America the Beautiful.”
With that, the show and another year were in the books. And both were memorable.
For the past several years, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Los Lobos have come east to play a series of multiple night residencies at City Winery, the rapidly expanding venue that added Washington, D.C. to its stable in 2018.
The six-member band arrived in the nation’s Capital on the Friday before Christmas for a two-night stop that followed shows at City Winery locations in Chicago, New York and Boston. Billed as an “Acoustic & Electric Evening,” the show featured different setlists each night as Los Lobos drew from a 45-year catalogue of originals, eclectic covers, and traditional Mexican music.
The first night started almost an hour late, as the group struggled with technical issues during the soundcheck. The trouble with the monitors made for a harried beginning, as vocalist Cesar Rosas noted after the second song.
“We’re playing the music we played when we first started out. I hope you like it,” Rosas said, “It’s our first time to play in the venue. I wish I could hear myself.”
Four of the six members of Los Lobos — Rosas, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo and Conrad Lozano — have been together since the mid 1970s. The quartet started the acoustic set — called “folk music for the hearing impaired” by Rosas — and were soon joined by saxophone player Steve Berlin and drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez.
Despite an occasional buzz in the monitors, the sound issues had no effect on the audience. The band quickly found its groove during the electric set, despite limited interaction with the audience. After opening the set with “La Pistola y el Corazon,” Perez offered the beautiful “Saint Behind the Glass” from Kiko, the band’s most acclaimed — yet unjustly overlooked — 1992 album.
Hidalgo is the band’s de facto lead vocalist, albeit one who also plays accordian, percussion, bass, violin, melodic and banjo, among other instruments. Highlights for me were his versions of “Tin Can Trust,” “Emily,” “The Neighborhood,” and the sublime “Tears of God,” the closer from 1987’s “By the Light of the Moon.”
Rosas took the lead on “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee),”and “Chuco’s Cumbia,” from 2006’s “The Town and the City,” a song cycle that focuses on the immigrant experience in America.
Los Lobos is one of the few bands whose covers are almost as interesting as the originals. Perez, who leaves the drumkit behind when the band tours, played lead on three — Johnny Thunders’ “Alone in a Crowd” and Ritchie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go” and “La Bamba,”
Thanks to the movie on Valens’ too-short life, the last two helped the band break to a national audience more than 30 years ago. You can’t help but think they could play La Bamba, especially, in their sleep, but the performance was strong and the audience went along for the ride. Much more interesting was “Alone in the Crowd,” a lesser-known cover that showed Los Lobos’ ability to cross genres without blinking.
For an evening that started with glitches, all had been forgotten by the time the band ended with an encore of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha.”
Of course, that’s the benefit of being together for more than four decades. What’s remarkable is that Los Lobos shows no signs of decline, even with the core well into their mid 60s. Their voices and playing remain strong. Not fade away, indeed.
“Here you go. Want to try and do something with this?”
John Simsen, my boss at the Texas City Sun, was going through the daily stack of mail when he tossed a Rounder Records/Bullseye Blues press kit onto my desk. He knew I was into music, and opportunities were rare to do much regional or national entertainment coverage. Writing a profile on a musician opening for Bonnie Raitt would be a nice change of pace amid the daily grind of cops, obits and meetings.
I called the press contact and set up a phone interview with Charles Brown, having no idea that I was starting an eight-year friendship with a future member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Chances are you’ve heard Charles’ music, even though it’s been 28 years since that interview and almost two decades since his death. He is responsible for two holiday classics (“Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas”) that are piped through stores and Starbucks in a never-ending loop from Halloween to New Year’s Day.
The stories behind those two songs are fascinating. But then, Charles had a fascinating life. Our interactions, mostly over the phone, were memorable too.
Yesterday, eating lunch with a friend and freelance colleague, Charles’ version of “Merry Christmas Baby” started playing through the restaurant’s speakers. He recorded the song — as have more than 90 others — numerous times from the 1940s to the 1990s and played it at every concert, no matter the time of year.
My favorite version is the one he did with Bonnie Raitt in the midst of his comeback. You can listen below and judge for yourself, but I think you’ll agree: Charles Brown was one of a kind.
When we first talked, in 1990, Brown was in the midst of a comeback that was getting a huge boost from Raitt, whose own comeback had started the year before with the release of the Grammy Award-winning “Nick of Time.”
“I love her,” Brown told me over the phone. “She’s been very good to me.”
By this point, approaching 70, he was nostalgic, grateful, and quick to turn on the charm. He described growing up in Texas City in the 1920s and 1930s, raised by his grandmother, Swannee Simpson, after his mother died when he was 6 months old.
Brown’s grandmother started teaching him church music on the piano when he was 4, pushing him to play more with his left hand than his right. “She liked the deeper sounds you got from your left hand, and said you were taking the easy way out if you spent most of your time on the right side of the piano,” he said. “She’d make me hold my right hand behind my back and play with just my left.”
When Charles was 11, his grandmother took him to “the Rev. Cole’s” Baptist church. Cole, Brown said, was so charismatic that “he had the sisters rolling. They were carrying them out on stretchers.” He also was “jazzing up those spirituals just like the blues, and I was hooked. I wanted to play like that.”
Charles started taking lessons from one of the church members, but his grandmother pushed him to get an education. He graduated in 1942 with a chemistry degree from Prairie View College, worked as a high school teacher for a year, then as a junior chemist at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. Ruled ineligible for the draft due to asthma, he moved to California in 1944 and started playing music.
B.B. King, who I was fortunate to interview in 1991, said he always wondered why Brown chose the life of a musician.
“We were all jealous of him because he went to college,” King said. “He had so many more options than the rest of us.”
Within months of moving to Los Angeles, Brown had abandoned chemistry and joined Johnny Moore & The Three Blazers. In 1945, Brown had his first hit song, “Drifting Blues,” which has been covered several times by Eric Clapton. Soon, musicians such as Ray Charles started copping Brown’s mix of jazz and blues.
“I loved and imitated Nat Cole and Charles Brown,” Charles wrote in his 1979 autobiography, Brother Ray. “I had been stealing their licks and singing and playing like them for years. I had my first hit with a Charles Brown-influenced number, `Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand'."
Brown went solo in 1948, signed to Aladdin Records and saw his music shoot up the charts. Between 1949 and 1952, his songs spent 103 weeks on Billboard’s Race Chart, including 29 weeks at No. 1.
“I was living it up,” Brown told me, noting that his next-door neighbor at the time was Billie Holiday. “But things change.”
What changed was the music business, as Charles’ smooth, mellow blues/jazz hybrid fell out of favor with the birth of rock and roll. He continued to record throughout the 1950s and 1960s for multiple labels with limited success. Like many African-American musicians of that era, he was prevented from getting royalties to his songs, or sold off the rights to fuel a ferocious gambling habit.
Although Charles didn’t drink, he loved to gamble. He refused to play piano for Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat” album in 1963, noting that he was offered only $75 for the session and “I could make more than that at the track.” Cooke cut the album in four days and featured two of Charles’ songs on it.
Middling gigs and stints as a music teacher and with a janitorial service led Brown to consider quitting the music business by the early 1980s. But a chance encounter with a Steinway piano in one of the houses he was cleaning started his comeback.
“We were working in one of those big houses, and I saw this piano,” Charles told me. “It was a Steinway, and no piano player would turn down a chance to play a Steinway, no matter if you had permission or not. So I sat down and started playing, and the owner of the house found me. She liked what she heard and asked me to play for a party she was having.”
It was at the party, in 1986, that a record executive for a small label asked Brown to return to the studio. The subsequent album, “One More for the Road,” received enough notice to get Brown back on stage, where he struck up a conversation with Raitt at the Blue Note in New York. A longtime fan of Brown’s work, Raitt offered him the opening slot on her tour, which is how we met.
Two hours into our conversation, Brown asked if I was going to the show and offered to leave tickets and a backstage pass for me at will call. Afterward, we met in his dressing room and started talking like we had known each other for a lifetime.
A few minutes into the conversation, someone opened the door and asked if a few people could take a picture. Charles obliged, and into the room walked Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, and Jeff Healey.
If I had been chewing gum, I would have swallowed it then and there.
After the picture was taken, Raitt stayed behind and sat in the chair next to me. “Who the hell are you?” she asked, before Charles made a formal introduction and noted I was from his hometown.
“I love this man,” Raitt said. “If more people were like him, there would be no war. He is just filled with love.”
The day before the concert, Raitt had performed “Amazing Grace” with Jackson Browne and Stevie Wonder at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s funeral in Dallas. I had snagged the wire photo from work and gave it to Raitt.
She sighed. “That,” she said, “was a day I’ll never forget.”
A few minutes passed and Charles had to change and get on the bus that was taking the tour to its next stop. But before he left, he gave me his home phone number and asked me to give him a call when he got back to California.
“It’s always nice to talk to someone from my hometown,” he said.
For the next eight years, every four to six weeks, Charles and I talked on the phone. He’d tell stories about Texas City and the musicians he’d encountered, ask questions about my work and family, and then cut the conversation when it was time to leave for the track.
I saw him perform twice more in Houston before I moved to North Carolina in 1993 and was thrilled to hear he would be touring with Raitt and Ruth Brown on the “Caravan of Blues” tour in 1995.
We met for dinner in Raleigh, and he regaled me and others at the table with tales of love and marriage and music. He talked about betting on the horses, saying simply, “It’s my hobby.”
On the way back, Charles asked how I was doing. Jill and I had met, but we were both going through divorces and the relationship was not yet on solid ground. I mentioned to Charles that “All My Life,” the title track from the 1990 album that led to our interview, was a perfect summation of my feelings for her. I also mentioned that Jill didn’t fully believe me when I told her of the friendship Charles and I shared.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s do something about that.”
Sitting in the hotel lobby, he proceeded to ask for a piece of paper and a pen, then took 10 minutes to write her a one-page note. The note mentioned what I told him about “All My Life” and ended with “Forget my concern, it’s only real.”
I knew it was.
Flash forward four months. Charles is on the road with his small band, playing in Carrboro. He wants to meet Jill, so we arrive for the soundcheck. I asked him to play “All My Life” for us.
“Can’t do it,” he said, picking at the piano. “Don’t like the introduction.”
That night, at the show, he asked the two of us to stand. He told the audience the basics of our story, and of how I had bugged him to play the song. He then told us to look into each other’s eyes as he sang “All My Life” just for us.
Charles and I continued our long-distance phone conversations. Finally financially stable, he had moved into a one-bedroom unit in a Berkeley senior-citizen housing project.
In 1997, he went to the White House, where he received a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The next month, he was feted at the end of the San Francisco Jazz Festival by Raitt, Ruth Brown and John Lee Hooker, among others.
In 1998, we talked only two or three times. Jill and I were busy with a toddler and two newborns, and Charles’ health was starting to fade. When the notice came in December 1998 that he had been selected as an “Early Influence” by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I tried to call but could not reach him.
In January 1999, just two months before the induction ceremony, Charles died of congestive heart failure at age 76.
Eight years before, during the meeting in his dressing room, I asked Charles if he had ever been recognized in his hometown. He laughed and said no, but “That sure would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
After writing the story and a subsequent column on him, I thought Texas City would find some way to honor one of its most famous residents, but it took 19 years. Today, a bust of Charles hangs in the Charles T. Doyle Convention Center, and he is recognized annually during the city’s Juneteenth celebration.
Charles Brown’s presence is felt every year during the holidays thanks to two classic ballads — “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
The list of artists who’ve covered the songs is a “Who’s Who” in music. “Merry Christmas Baby” has been recorded more than 90 times, by artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen to Otis Redding and Chuck Berry, to name a few. More than 30 artists have recorded “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Among them: The Eagles, James Brown, Willie Nelson and Bon Jovi.
Released 12 years apart, the origin of both songs is in some dispute. Brown insisted he wrote both, reworking “Merry Christmas Baby” for a friend who needed money for surgery and penning “Please Come Home for Christmas” while being forced to work for a kingpin who ran illegal gambling clubs in Northern Kentucky.
“Merry Christmas Baby” is credited to Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore, the leader of the trio that Brown first recorded with in the mid 1940s. Charles plays piano and sings lead on the song but was denied the writing credit he always claimed he deserved.
“Johnny Moore was illiterate,” Brown told me. “He couldn’t sign his name.”
Brown claimed that he reworked Baxter’s lyrics for a song titled “Merry Xmas Baby” as a favor. Richie Dell Thomas, a friend of Brown’s who I met in the 1990s in Houston, said she remembered him working on the song in her apartment in Los Angeles.
“That song is his as much as it anyone else’s,” Thomas said. “Charles doesn’t lie about that stuff.”
In a December 2017 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, writer William Browning reaches the same conclusion, saying, “At a minimum, I think Brown should have received partial credit for writing the song.”
I did not know the origin of “Please Come Home for Christmas” until I read a 2014 Cincinnati Enquirerarticle by Steven Rosen, who notes that Brown spent time working in gambling clubs owned by the notorious Frank “Screw” Andrews from 1959 to 1961.
By this point, Brown’s star had faded — he had not had a hit since 1952 — and he was in heavy debt due to a lifelong gambling habit. He became Andrews’ house pianist, working with fellow singer/pianist Amos Milburn.
In 1960, Syd Nathan of King Records asked Brown if he could “write something as good as ‘Merry Christmas Baby’.” The result was “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Brown’s last hit as part of a split single with Milburn’s “Christmas Comes but Once a Year.” But on the second song, which Brown claimed was a solo effort, King Records musician Gene Rudd receives a co-writing credit.
Had Brown received proper publishing credit for those two songs — and, if we’re being honest, not gambled as much — the residuals would have left him comfortable financially. But, like other artists who saw potential windfalls vanish without a trace, he didn’t get to benefit from his creation.
That’s what the singer-songwriter did, early and often during his solo acoustic show at the 299-seat One World Theatre in west Austin on Wednesday. Bingham, whose first album since 2015’s “Fear and Saturday Night” comes out in February, tested out new material from the forthcoming “American Love Song” and played some of his more familiar work in an intimate setting that is far removed from the larger venues he plays with his full band.
On Wednesday, Bingham was a jovial, salty ringmaster, providing the audience with a somewhat linear, at times slightly scrambled narrative of his difficult upbringing. He apologized on several occasions for the rambling during the two-hour show, but there was no need because the stories were so interesting and entertaining.
The basics of Bingham’s life and career are well known to fans. Born in New Mexico, his parents struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse, and he lived a largely itinerant childhood. Eventually establishing deep roots in Texas, Bingham scored a record deal in 2007 and then became known nationally when his song “The Weary Kind” from 2009’s “Crazy Heart” won a Grammy and an Academy Award.
Kicking off the show with “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So,” he moved into “Nothing Holds Me Down,” a bluesy number from the forthcoming album. After a sublime “Dollar a Day,” Bingham said his father told him to “keep a real open mind because a lot of people are going through similar things and hard times, too.” He then launched into “Hard Times,” which features the wordplay of “When it pours it rains,” and told a funny yet sad story about following his father to Laredo.
The funny: Bingham hitched a ride with two girls from Houston who were driving to South Padre Island, where he saw his first concert on the beach. Run-D.M.C. was playing, and two University of Texas football players put the skinny kid on their shoulders so he could see.
“It was badass,” Bingham recalled.
The sad: His friends realized how far Laredo actually was from Houston, so they dropped him at a truck stop so he could hitchhike the rest of the way. A truck driver named Al offered him two pieces of sage advice: If you’re going to hitchhike, get a pocket knife and keep it with you at all times. And, if you’re stuck at a truck stop with nowhere to go, wait for the big rigs to come in and snuggle up to next to one of the tires to keep warm.
Bingham then sang “Long Way from Georgia,” a tribute to Al, and then told how learning how to play a mariachi song on guitar inspired him to play music. The guitar, a gift from his mother, “became my voice and my identity and my soul,” he said as an introduction to the classic mariachi tune “La Malaguena.”
The stories continued. “Sunshine,” about Leonard Peltier, was partially inspired and written after he met a man working as a dime store Indian at Disneyland Paris, where he had flown with a one-way ticket to get a job on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The job didn’t pan out, but the experience provided him with fodder for a song.
At that point, Bingham started sharing more songs from the new album, which has the potential to be his best yet. “Jingle and Go” talks about playing for tips. “Lover Girl,” the story of Bingham meeting and wooing his wife of almost 10 years, was illustrated with a tale about convincing her to drive from Los Angeles to Texas to pick up his belongings, which turned out to be a box of records his uncle had given him.
The strongest new songs played came toward the end of the evening. One is “Wolves,” which he wrote for students who have spoken out against gun violence in schools. He said the response of adults to student activism in the wake of last year’s shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School “takes me back a little bit” to his own feelings of abandonment by adults, noting that is “at a time when kids need someone to listen to them the most.”
The second was “America,” a simple, emotional state-of-the-state ballad that likely will be controversial when it is released. The song asks a number of questions (“Can we see what we’ve become?”) and is replete with vivid imagery (“A bullet is only dressed in blood”) that likely will not be played on conservative country radio.
That’s not what Bingham cares about though. Unlike most performers, he does not perform his biggest “hit” at the end of every show. He played “The Weary Kind” during the previous evening’s encore but left the stage without mentioning it on Wednesday.
That felt somewhat ironic, given his focus on the past, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. They cared more about the stories and the other “damn good songs” that he has in his canon. For two hours, he delivered plenty of those. And all with a wink and a smile.
On the final stop of his first full tour as a headliner, Chris Stapleton stuck to the setlist. When your songs are as strong as his, that’s not a bad thing.
Stapleton’s All-American Road Show Tour, which started in May 2017, concluded its third and final leg Sunday night at Baltimore’s Royal Farms Arena. Playing songs in support of his second and third studio albums — the two-volume From A Room — as well as the multiple platinum seller Traveller, Stapleton’s mix of pure country and full-throated soul was on full display.
From the opener (“Midnight Train to Memphis”) to the closer (“Outlaw State of Mind”), the audience was treated to a generous mix of 19 songs from the three CDs. Because I was walking from the pit where I took photos during the first two numbers, I heard but did not see “Nobody to Blame” and most of “Hard Livin’,” but managed to get seated in time for a sublime version of “Millionaire.”
That was followed by a stunning version of “Might As Well Get Stoned,” featuring opener Brent Cobb. Two songs later, Marty Stuart joined Stapleton on stage for a cover of his “Now That’s Country” and Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.”
At that point, it was hit after hit — “Whiskey and You,” “Broken Halos,” “Second One to Know,” “Traveller,” “I Was Wrong,” “The Devil Named Music,” “Parachute,” and the pre-encore closer “Tennessee Whiskey.” “Was It 26” and “Outlaw State of Mind” closed the show.
What I appreciate most about Stapleton is his no b.s., music-first approach to performance, whether it’s in the studio or on stage. Live, each song is treated with care, appropriately loud or quiet depending on what it demands. The stage setup is bright but not overwhelming. The road-tested band is as solid as Stapleton’s songs.
It’s been a heady year and a half for Stapleton, who in February became the first artist to hold the top three spots on Billboard’s country album chart. In July 2017, he played three days in support of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers; three months later, Petty was dead. During a break between the first and second legs of the tour, he performed on Saturday Night Live with Sturgill Simpson and was featured on “Say Something,” a duet with Justin Timberlake.
Seven months ago, Stapleton and his wife, Morgane, had twins. On Friday, he announced from the stage at Madison Square Garden that their fifth child is on the way.
Now, except for performing at Joe Walsh’s “VetSaid 2018” benefit this weekend in Tacoma, Wash., he’s not scheduled to play again until March. Here’s hoping he enjoys the respite while we wait for the next classic album to emerge.
I’ve shot numerous concerts, shows and outdoor music festivals over the past several years, but this was my first experience photographing a show in a 14,000-seat arena. Unfortunately, due to traffic and a ticket mix up, I could not shoot Brent Cobb’s opening set, but I did catch Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives as well as Stapleton from the narrow pit.
Stuart’s eight-song set included three originals (“Lesson in Love,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’, and the closer “Time Don’t Wait”) as well as five classic covers (“Country Music Got a Hold on Me,” “Mama Tried,” “Ring of Fire,” “Orange Blossom Special,” and “Pretty Boy Floyd”). Throughout, the singer and country music historian managed to transcend the arena’s size and turn it into a small club. And that’s no small feat.
Willy Braun made a distinction that explains a lot about the state of today’s music business when he introduced the first of two songs from Reckless Kelly’s most recent studio album at a concert last week.
“I say it’s the new album,” Braun said before breaking into “The Champ,” a song from 2016’s Sunset Motel. “But it’s not new anymore. It’s the current album.”
After a prolific near decade on the Sugar Hill and Yep Roc labels, the Austin-based group joined the DIY movement in 2011 when it formed No Big Deal Records. Since, they have released only three albums, a single and a 20th anniversary edition of their 1997 debut, “Millican.”
These days, Reckless Kelly spends the majority of its time playing live, mostly in Texas and Oklahoma, where they have a devoted and loyal following that follows them from small bars to clubs and midsize theatres. To boost income, they sell autographed posters — doesn’t everyone? — and offer exclusive meet-and-greets that include a four-song acoustic set before the show.
And, three or four times a year, they venture out on short tours concentrated in different parts of the country, such as the one that stopped at City Winery in Washington, D.C., last week.
In an almost two-hour show with songs that spanned Reckless Kelly’s 22-year career and included a variety of well-chosen covers, the five-piece group demonstrated yet again that they are a formidable stage presence deserving of a larger audience.
The show started with Braun playing solo on a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Blues Run the Game.” He was joined by the rest of the band for “Desolation Angels,” which was followed in succession by a lovely “Back Around,” “Detroit or Buffalo,” and “Mirage” before Braun’s pre-“Champ” story.
At that point, the entire show took a turn, starting with a terrific version of “Volcano,” also from “Sunset Motel” that served as a reminder that “Mother Nature bats last,” in Braun’s words. After a brief sidestep to cover Marah’s “Round Eye Blues,” the band moved into the meet of its mid-2000s catalogue with “Break My Heart Tonight” and “Wicked Twisted Road,” the latter of which had the now standing audience singing along to the chorus.
Next, guitarist David Abeyta contributed a cover of Slaid Cleaves’ “One Good Year,” which he said the band asked him to start singing after it “got me through a real tough time.” Then Cody Braun took over for “Wild Western Wind Blown Band,” playing the instrumental at 110 mph as the audience clapped along.
While Cody Braun, playing fiddle and mandolin, and Abeyta provided many of the musical highlights with their interludes, Jay Miller on bass and Jay Nazz on drums showed repeatedly that they are the backbone of the group, making sure things are running smoothly.
The final third of the show was devoted to songs any RK fan would appreciate, including their cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” the beautiful “Seven Night in Eire,” and “Nobody’s Baby.” Why “Vancouver” and “Crazy Eddie’s Last Hurrah,” the last two songs played before the encore, were not mainstream hits perplexes me.
Jeff Crosby, who opened the show with his band The Refugees, joined Reckless Kelly on stage for the two-song encore. After performing Tom Petty’s “Two Gunslingers” during the meet-and-greet acoustic show with Crosby, they returned to Petty’s catalogue for a ear-rattling version of “Listen to Her Heart” and then concluded the show with “Fortunate Son.”
Willie Braun quipped he’d been waiting to play the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic all night, not surprising given that today’s politics make even less sense than the music business. And that pent up anticipation did not disappoint, providing one of those stand-on-the-speakers moments that makes you love a great live band all the more.
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.
Two decades ago, Emmylou Harris and a cast of Americana luminaries embarked on an acoustic tour to focus attention on the danger and damage caused by landmines around the world. The tour has been repeated several times since, with a rotating cast devoted to humanitarian causes donating their time and talent.
This month, a number of those same cast members were on the road again, raising awareness about an issue much closer to home: Migrant families who have been separated by the Trump administration at the Texas-New Mexico border.
The Lantern Tour, as the series of five concerts in six days was known, made its second stop in Washington, D.C. last Thursday. (The tour ended Sunday in New York after stops in New Jersey and Boston.) A meet-and-greet fundraiser for the New York-based Women’s Refugee Commission, which organized the tour, was held the previous evening at The Mansion on O Street. Harris, Steve Earle, Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs, and dobro master Jerry Douglas mingled with the guests, and commission staff spoke briefly at the event.
I took photos at the fundraiser, but tour management did not let me shoot the concert. I did, however, manage to score tickets to the sold-out show, where Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin joined Harris, Earle, Downs, and Douglas on stage.
Like the Landmine concerts, The Lantern Tour shows featured the musicians sitting in a row with their instruments, taking turns playing songs. Douglas, who called himself the “music director by default” at the meet and greet, provided superb accompaniment throughout.
For the most part, the two-hour show stuck to themes related to immigrant struggles — families, exile, loneliness, mourning and spirituality — as the performers stayed away from their best-known songs.
More than anyone, Browne stuck to the script, performing the ballads “Sierra Blanca Massacre” and “The Dreamer.” Downs, who was born and raised in Mexico, received some of the evening’s strongest applause after her beautiful rendition of the traditional folk song “La Llorona (The Weeping Woman)” in Spanish as well as a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Dear Someone.” Colvin contributed “Ricochet in Time” and a cover of CeeLo Green’s “Crazy.”
Earle briefly sidetracked the proceedings to pay tribute to Tony Joe White, who had died that day at age 75, with the song, “You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had.” Harris, who said she’s writing a memoir “like everyone is these days,” performed “The Road” as a tribute to Gram Parsons, who had discovered her in D.C. in 1971.
In the end, it was Earle who gave the show a needed jolt of energy. An unabashed rabble-rouser, he performed versions of “City of Immigrants” and the updated spiritual “Tell Moses” — a duet with Colvin — that had the audience singing and swaying along. I’ve now seen him almost 20 times since 1997 and have yet to be disappointed.
The concert closed with “The Pilgrim,” Earle’s tribute to Roy Huskey Jr. that also has been recorded by Harris. Like the best songs, this one has come to mean more than its original intent; Harris referenced the “over 65 million displaced persons around the world” when she performed it on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert” last fall.
And with the lines, “I’m just a pilgrim on this road, boys/’til I see you, fare thee well,” the tour went to its next stop, its light shining brightly.