Three Hours of Springsteen Live Feels Like 30 Minutes

There are no more piano dancing or knee slides, but even at 66, the Boss rocked Hartford, CT, for more than three hours last night, even crowdsurfing across the entire pit as part of the E Street Band’s “The River Tour.”

IMAG6793_BURSTSHOT002_1While I will never get tired of screaming along to “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” and “Dancing in the Dark” during the encore with the house lights up, the highlight of my fourth Springsteen concert in ten years was Nils’ extended guitar solo on “Because the Night.” It was the greatest guitar playing I have ever seen live, bar none, HOLY WOW. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing/seeing!!! I’ll remember that one forever.

As I noted, this was part of The River Tour, which means that every night, the band plays the 1980 album “The River” in its entirety. That made the concert a bit different than most E Street Band shows, with a lot of deep cuts showcasing the Boss’s excellent songwriting and the coherence of an emotional album (Drive All Night? Independence Day? The River itself?) to really create an intimate feel. It also meant less room for crowd favorites. There was no Born in the USA, no Glory Days, and nothing post-Rising. The band intros were also less theatrical than usual, and Patti Scialfa took the night off.

But there were plenty of other highlights to make for a great night:

  • Bruce’s emotional introductions to songs from the River
  • The inclusion of a “Shout” cover and “Cover Me” on the setlist
  • Amazing performances of Rosalita, Two Hearts, Hungry Heart, Ramrod, and more
  • As always, pulling up several women from the crowd for Dancing in the Dark (including a dance partner for keyboardist Roy Bittan – her sign said she wanted to dance with “Lil’ Boy Roy” on her birthday!)
  • Featured sax player Jake Clemons, four years in as a featured player, does his late uncle Clarence proud, but Clarence is definitely missed
  • And whenever Bruce, Nils, Stevie, Jake, and Suzie jam or sing around a single mic, they really seem like family. It’s such a close and fun feel. All the feels, in fact.

IMAG6791_1 (1)I think Springsteen will keep playing for another 20 years, but we’ll likely see more and more of his acoustic and folk-rock sides. As its members age – may Clarence and Danny rest in peace, we miss y’all – the E Street Band is probably nearing the end of its raucous run. I’m thrilled I’ve gotten to see them three times in the last ten years (in addition to non-E Street Springsteen shows); I hope this wasn’t my final one. Thank you for a great night as always!

When Jamey Johnson Sings “This Land Is Your Land”

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is an amazing song. NPR tells the story, which you may already know:

He was irritated by Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” sung by Kate Smith, which seemed to be endlessly playing on the radio in the late 1930s. So irritated, in fact, that he wrote this song as a retort, at first sarcastically calling it “God Blessed America for Me” before renaming it “This Land Is Your Land.” Guthrie’s original words to the song included this verse:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie’s recorded version was more or less lost until [1997]… Still, it was sung at rallies, around campfires and in progressive schools. It was these populist lyrics that had appealed to the political Left in America. Guthrie’s folk-singing son, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger have both made a point of singing the more radical verses to “This Land Is Your Land,” also reviving another verse that Guthrie wrote but never officially recorded…

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.

That’s not an easy verse. This song is not a nationalistic rah-rah ditty full of blind jingoism. It’s not even an actual patriotic heralding of America’s greatness. It is a lament for her people, left to suffer in hard times while the rich wall off their land and hoard the country’s growth – but it makes me love America all the more, for it sings of her true strength, its people. The words are, as Stephen Foster wrote in this blog’s namesake song, “a song that will linger forever in our ears… a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave, Oh! hard times come again no more.”

I have heard two singers cover This Land Is Your Land as a dirge, truly highlighting it as an ode to the poor: David Crowder and Jamey Johnson (who, side note, shares Guthrie’s birthday). They do it slowly, poigniantly, beautifully. I am moved every time I listen to either of them cover Guthrie.

So what the hell is wrong with Johnson’s audiences when he sings this song?

I saw him live last month in New Haven, CT. The music was great, but the audience was mostly terrible – far too many frat bros getting drunk on daddy’s money. They spent Johnson’s songs yelling insults at each other and spent the time in between the songs angrily screaming out requests for his biggest hits. “Seen it in Color!!! COME ON!!!!” Dude, have you not been to a show before? It’s his biggest hit. He’s going to play it, he’ll probably do it at the end, just shut up! Johnson himself, and his band, were great, especially with his George Jones medley and old Hank Cochran tunes, but I don’t blame him for not giving that unappreciative Friday night party crowd an encore.

But what cheesed me off the most was that when he sang his slow, beautiful cover of the “This Land Is Your Land,” INCLUDING the verse against private property, the crowd just chanted “USA! USA! USA!” like we were at the Olympics. No respect for the song’s true nature at all. Now, I can understand why everyone saw the song that way, given the way elementary schools sing the tune as one more patriotic ditty alongside God Bless America and America the Beautiful. It’s easy to not know the true backstory. But the way Johnson sings it – slow, solemn, minor chords – should be a clue that something special and different is happening. NOPE.

And it’s not just the Yale frat bros. I went looking for the song on YouTube, and found video of another show in Illinois where the crowd whooped and hollered, or just plain chatted, the whole way through. Those paying attention kept starting the verses faster than Johnson with no regard for pauses, the way they were taught in elementary school, ignoring his slower pace. It could just be the recording of course, with a different feel in the room, but the recording’s all we’ve got. What the hell is wrong with these people?

Anyway, rant over. All credit to Johnson himself; his approach to the song is perfect, even if the crowd isn’t paying enough attention to hear it. But I love the recording from Farm Aid 2015 – taken about a month before I saw him, and in Illinois like the other show – which I posted at the top. The video unfortunately includes audience members waving hands and beer cans, but the microphones are pretty much only on stage so it doesn’t interfere with the sound. I’m also including David Crowder’s similarly slow version, one of my favorite recordings of any song ever – even more than the Johnson, honestly, though I’ve not seen it live. Crowder’s was part of a series of protest songs released by Bono’s ONE poverty campaign:

(I wonder if they’re singing the same arrangement, or if they’re just being similarly slow? Either way, both are beautiful.)


The songs that made Brandy Clark want to write – a live review of country’s best woman

Brandy Clark is, along with Courtney Patton, the most talented female artist in country music right now, and perhaps one of the three best along with Sturgill Simpson. I was lucky enough to see her at Virginia’s intimate Birchmere on Sunday night, and it was an absolutely phenomenal show. The highlight wasn’t even the songs I already know and went for; it was the encore when she came back out solo to perform four classic country songs that made her want to become a songwriter. I would choose one of those for the video at the end of this review – probably George Strait’s “The Chair” – but I can’t find any on YouTube! I will definitely see her again.

brandy-clark-1-600Clark is linked in a lot of minds (including mine) with Kacey Musgraves, since the two both sing traditional country, released breakout albums in 2013, and often co-write together. But Clark’s songs are more story-based, her style is slightly less poppy, and there’s a little more twang to her voice. Maybe that’s more life experience bringing extra songwriter depth, since Musgraves is 26 and Clark 37? Then again, maybe it’s just style. I’ve seen both of them this year (albeit at very different venues), and while Musgraves plays up the kitsch, Clark bonds with the audience over pure country music. Both are phenomenal, but Brandy Clark is the absolute best, and I was thrilled when she played the GRAMMYs with Dwight Yoakam this year.

On Sunday, Clark’s band was great and came out with a loud rendition of her hit “Stripes“, then closed the same way with “Hungover” (see below) to an instant standing ovation. But honestly, while good, it was what you would expect hearing the album live to be like, just with the additions of the songs she’s written but didn’t record (like Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart”). I’d go back for that, don’t get me wrong, but the real kingmaker was the solo stuff, and holy crap wow.

Playing the 500-seat Birchmere, she referred to us as the kind of “listening audience” she doesn’t often get to play for anymore. That meant we were treated to that rare-but-amazing classic encore, several more solo performances (including her song “Follow Your Arrow,” a hit for Musgraves), and a song from her six-year old nephew. Best aunt ever? The little man reminded me of a young Martina McBride singing “I’m Little But I’m Loud.”

The author with Brandy Clark, 06-28-15

The author with Brandy Clark, 06-28-15

The encore was four classic songs that she said made her want to write songs herself, the kind you wish you wrote yourself: “The Chair” (George Strait by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran), “Two More Bottles of Wine (Emmylou Harris by Delbert McClinton), “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (the Shirelles by Gerry Goffin and Carole King), and “Crazy” (Patsy Cline by Willie Nelson). She cited “You Don’t Know Me (Ray Charles by Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold) as a fifth but said it was too hard to play. Fair enough.

I loved loved loved that encore, and as much as I respect and enjoy her songwriting, those covers really showed her roots and musical talent. Even though it meant the show ended on a softer note, it left the audience instantly on our feet for a second time. You can see the entire set list here.

The whole show was phenomenal – my buddy said that other than George Strait, it was the best country concert he’s been to (though he does need to go to far more, heh). If you can ever see her, do, and if you haven’t yet, be sure to buy “12 Stories” right now!

Nikki Lane and Town Mountain cover Conway Twitty – A Concert Review

Nikki Lane, Town Mountain, and Grand Ole’ Ditch teamed up for a great triple-threat show at Gypsy Sally’s on Friday night. (Town Mountain and Grand Ole’ Ditch are both bluegrass bands; Nikki Lane is country.) The night’s highlight was when a tipsy Lane came back out to join Town Mountain for a cover of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “After the Fire is Gone.”

This was the second time I’ve seen Town Mountain at Gypsy Sally’s (and I narrowly missed them at Delfest). Pandora brought them to my attention through their cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” and several friends have told me the same. They didn’t play it the last time I saw them, so I was delighted they did Friday. And their fiddler, Bobby Britt, was particularly great on Orange Blossom Special. But don’t think this band is just covers – you gotta love their original song Lawdog. Robert Greer’s award-winning lead vocals are usually more modern – no high lonesome falsetto sound here – but Phil Barker sure hits the high notes on Lawdog. Town Mountain is the bluegrass you’ll ever find at this price point ($18 for three great bands).

Lane was good, too. I like Town Mountain a lot, but I mainly went to see her for the first time, and to round an awesome weekend of great women country artists (along with Brandy Clark and Nora Jane Struthers – reviews coming soon). I was surprised at how free-spirited and bubbly Nikki seemed on stage, given the heartache and struggle present in a lot of her songs. She was pretty rip-roaring on Right Time and Seein’ Double, though – loved those two, and her Waylon Jennings cover. It was fun to hear her tell the story behind “Man Up” (writing it was her passive-aggressive way of telling a now-ex to move out) or talk about setting up “Sleep With A Stranger” and then seeing a nine-year-old with an unhappy mother in the front row (hey lady, you came without listening to the album). She didn’t play my favorite of her tunes, “Love’s on Fire,” but that’s a duet with producer and Black Keys vocalist Dan Auerbach and she didn’t have a male vocalist with her so I guess that makes sense. And as I wondered in my review of her album last year, she is indeed better when her vocals are crisp, not recorded with an intentional muffled vintage sound. I’d love to see her in a festival setting, or at least with a rowdy crowd.

Also, loved this sentiment from her: “Now I’m going to play a brand new song. Or maybe you’ve heard it if you’ve seen me in the last six months – but it’s still brand new! ‘Brand new’ is just various stages of bad, until it’s perfect.

You should also check out Grand Ole’ Ditch, bluegrass out of Maryland. They used percussion and a dobro to create a very forward-leaning sound, their bass player seems like a fun guy, and I like mandolin player Lucas Mathews’ vocals. Here’s a link to a previous show of theirs at the same venue, Gypsy Sally’s in DC.

My list of DC-area Americana concerts through August (Next week: Nora Jane Struthers, Brandy Clark, and more!)

For the past two years, I’ve maintained a large spreadsheet of DC-area Americana/bluegrass/alt-country/etc. shows I’m interested in seeing. I thought I should share it here. I’m leaving DC in late August, but it’ll keep readers in these parts somewhat updated until then.

There are three shows within the next two weeks I’d especially like to highlight:

  • Thursday, June 25 – Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line (opening for Honey Honey) – the Hamilton, Downtown DC – I heard Struthers twice at Delfest last month, and just fell in love with her music. Why is she only opening??? Go to this show. Go. Go. GO. FREAKING GO ALREADY. Let’s get her the exposure and fanbase she and the band deserve! Their latest, “Wake,” will be my first album review in many months some time in the month or two. I’m playing it as I write this post, actually. I am really pumped for this show, and am bringing multiple friends, damn the school night. You should come too. I implore you.

(I might go for four in a row with Robin and Linda Williams at AMP by Strathmore on Saturday, June 27…)

My goal in starting this spreadsheet this was not to make a public document, but just to tell my friends what shows I’m interested in attending, if they’d like to come. Therefore, it’s hardly a complete list of ALL the region’s shows – there are some I miss, some I don’t include because I’ll be out of town, etc. – but it’s a pretty good starting place.

Check out the whole list here, updated through my move in late August but a little skimpy in mid-July due to my travel. (Don’t worry about what’s bold or highlighted, that’s personal coding.) Let me know in the comments if there’s anything I should add through Saturday, August 22!

Chris Thile and Jason Isbell talk about stupid iPhone videos

In recent weeks, I’ve come across quotes from two favorite artists, Jason Isbell and Chris Thile, expressing frustration with concert-goers who watch their shows through the viewfinder of a phone camera or, God forbid, a tablet. What’s interesting is that neither singer/songwriter was upset about losing revenue through unauthorized recordings – both were lamenting artistic problems with the practice.

Here’s Isbell in a 2013 interview with the New York Times:

Isbell reserves special scorn for people who record his shows on cellphones and post clips to YouTube. “It’s an intrusion because I’m not performing for documentation’s sake, I’m performing for people’s ears and their eyeballs,” he said. “I don’t mind the scrutiny of it. We’re good every night. I just feel like people aren’t participating in the community of the room when they’re behaving that way.”

He shook his head. “My favorite thing about going to concerts has always been looking around and thinking that there’s a lot of people in here that are very much like me, a lot of people in here I could have a full conversation with. I might even get laid in this room. You’re not getting laid if you’re standing there with your cellphone.”

Then he laughed and said: “I can’t get too mad. I would have done the same with Neil Young when I was a kid, if I could have.”

And here’s Thile in this year’s January-February issue of relix magazine:

“Now, to be a performing musician is to look out on a group of people who are largely experiencing the concert through their devices—sometimes, with 40 percent of the crowd, you just see iPads and phones, with that barrier between you and them… I’ve thought about that a lot: the continued human desire to connect, to be connected, to be a part of something bigger than you, to have meaningful interactions with one’s fellow human beings. But how we go about it these days is more convoluted than ever. Many times, it’s prompted by a wonderful impulse, which is to share with someone else who can’t be there; that’s a beautiful thing to do and it’s something that’s important, and we, as a band, have benefited from that. But at what cost to the person who actually captured that moment? In our desire to share things with people, we need to make sure we’re not depriving ourselves of a vibrant existence.”

It’s interesting to think about this from the artist’s perspective. As an occasional preacher and former high school debater, I can tell you that, no matter how sneaky you think you’re being, the speaker up front can tell exactly how much attention you’re giving. Closed eyes are obvious; I’m looking right at everyone in the crowd and I know how they’re all reacting. You know if you have the room or not. So if it’s damn ugly to look at a picture and see hundreds of people raising their phones, how bad must it be for the band to look out at that?

But I do take photos – very rarely videos, though I’ve done that too, especially in the more distant past – but I do take photos. And it’s for exactly the reason Thile describes: To share with people who aren’t there. (See: This blog.) I try to just snap a few with different focuses and different stage lighting, put the most focused few on Facebook and Twitter in real time, then say mission accomplished and put my phone away for the rest of the night to take in the show. I used to be a much more egregious offender, but unless you’re a professional photographer, there’s not much chance your 200th photo will be any different than your 20th, and a concert is about sound, not sight, so get your damn Facebook shot and then just put the gadget down.

What do you think? Do you take photos, or even videos, at concerts? Why or why not? Do you agree with Isbell and Thile? Do you think there are important differences here between the fans’ perspectives and the artists’?

Jason Isbell is my favorite, and his new album will be amazing – a live review from Delfest

I attended my first multi-day music festival last month, and it was amazing. I spent three nights camping alone at Delfest, mostly a bluegrass festival but with some rock and Americana thrown in, on the West Virginia / Maryland state line. It was all I had hoped it would be. I went for Jason Isbell and the Steep Canyon Rangers; I stayed for Nora Jane Struthers, the Seldom Scene, Old Crow Medicine Show, and so many more.

While life is life and laziness is laziness, it’s very important to me to bring this blog back, whether all at once or slowly over time. Though it’s a few weeks late, I’d like to start with Isbell’s set at Delfest on May 23. He had the 8 p.m. set, so while not quite a headliner, he did have the first set of the night where only the main stage was open, and played as the sky went from full blue to full back.

EmpsallIsbellHe was amazing. If you don’t know Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, you HAVE to listen to Southeastern NOW, and then Live from Alabama. Southeastern is certainly one of my ten favorite albums (its depth and personal messages came out at just the right time for me), and after hearing him live, Isbell graduates from one of my ten favorite artists to one of my three (with George Strait and Bruce Springsteen). He’s certainly the best working songwriter today; the Townes Van Zandt of our generation. I won’t go into too much detail since this is a concert review, not an album review. But I do want to highlight three very special moments. If you’re interested, you can find the full setlist here (there was a decent amount of DBT material).

  • “Cover Me Up” – It shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me that the song that won Song of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards came off this deep and amazing live. While I know Isbell hates his own voice, there was just something about the way he belted out the chorus and hit the highest notes. Even without Amanda Shires there, his then-girlfriend now-wife and sometimes-band-member who pushed him into rehab and for whom he wrote this soulful song, it was still heartfelt, personal, and deep. I was spellbound. I couldn’t even clap at first, despite the loud and powerful energy. I’ve rarely felt this way during a show, but man, that was a performance and that was a SONG. I almost wanted to shush everyone I could hear talking – how could they not feel the power? Until that moment, I’d been a cowboy-hatted, Isbell-shirt-wearing fool screaming his head off, but this shut me up. Wow. Wow. Wow.

So girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room
‘Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t goin’ out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good

  • “Speed Trap Town” – While the only “single” Isbell has put out for next month’s new album, “Something More Than Free,” is the ’90s-indie-esque “24 Frames” (which I didn’t like at first but grows on me every time I hear it), he played two other new songs from the project – “The Life You Choose” and “Speed Trap Town.” Isbell has said he thinks the album will be even better than “Southeastern,” which is a tall order, but after hearing Speed Trap Town, I believe it. I can’t find any clips online yet unfortunately, but wow. What a Southern blend of revering one’s daddy yet hating his ignorant influence, and of loving your hometown because it’s in your blood and it’s who you are but also desperately wanting to leave because it offers nothing. It captures the dualism of life we all feel quite well. The song, while not autobiographical (that would be “Outfit”), was personal and Southern and deep and amazing, and it makes me so excited for the new album. The other new track, “Something More than Free,” was also phenomenal. (“But I thank God for the work, I thank God for the work.”
  • “Super 8” – The final song of the set, and WOW. I had until that point really been hoping for my favorite Isbell tunes – “Traveling Alone’ or even the unlikely “TVA” – but after that booming performance of Super 8, I couldn’t have cared less. It was raucous, it was long, it was energetic, it was perfect. It’s performances like that that mean it’s not enough to appreciate Isbell as a songwriter through his albums and interviews; you also have to see him live.

I’ll be out of town for his upcoming DC-area show at Merriweather Post Pavilion and won’t have moved to New Haven in time for his show there, but I just might have to roadtrip to Philly to see him there next month. I can’t say enough about Jason Isbell. If I can only introduce friends and readers to one “new” act, this has to be it. Like I said, he’s our Townes, but also with two important Southern touches – big guitars and sweet tea to sip while you rest – to go along with the powerful, personal, very-real lyrics.

Concert Review: Mikaela Davis, talented harp player at a bluegrass show

One of the coolest things about smaller venue concerts, especially in these smaller genres, is discovering new bands by way of the opening act. After featuring Gaby Moreno their first two of three nights in DC, the Punch Brothers had harp player, singer-songwriter, and new name Mikaela Davis from Rochester, New York for their late-scheduled third show. Her website says she’s known for her covers of Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith, and that she’s also played with Willie Watson, My Brightest Diamond, the Infamous Stringdusters, My Brightest Diamond, and others.

I only caught Davis’s last two songs, so I won’t say too much here. She’s a very talented harp player with a silky voice, which means she’s blazing a musical trail few have and the audience clearly paid attention and definitely appreciated her. This tweep wasn’t alone:

Sometimes she tours with a trio, but Sunday night she was solo. I kind of wish she’d had the trio with her. Don’t get me wrong, she was very talented – but on its own, no matter how intricate, complex, and lovely, in my experience a solo harp’s a solo harp. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not my thing outside of a classical setting. But watching her YouTube videos, I’m somewhat intrigued by the way her band blends the harp, guitar, sitar, and percussion together for an interesting indie sound. Not necessarily what I look for personally and the melodies are too rainy-day dreamy for me (though that’s a good fit for non-classical harp), but there’s certainly talent here and maybe it will match your own tastes.

I’m surprised Davis is opening for the likes of Watson, the Stringdusters, and the Punch Brothers. Not because she’s not talented enough – she certainly is – but because she seems a better fit for indie folk or more new-agey singer-songwriter audiences then bluegrass or traditional folk. The song she did with Filigar makes more sense to me. But then again, talented artists certainly know how to appreciate and promote one another across genres, and that’s not a bad thing.

Punch Brothers are really really great live, y’all!

I got to meet Chris Thile after a Nickel Creek concert last May. It was well after midnight but, unlike the band’s other two sleepy members, Thile couldn’t have been more amped up hanging out with fans by the tour bus. I asked him if the band’s reunion meant no more Punch Brothers, and he replied, “No way, man! I’ve got way too much musical energy to ever have just one project going at a time!”

Nathan Empsall and Chris Thile, the 9:30 Club, May 4 2014

The writer and Chris Thile, May 2014

A fitting self-description, because what a month Thile is having. First, on February 7 and again on the 14th, he guest-hosted for Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion – not the show’s first guest host, but the first time Keillor hasn’t even been present for the show. Then, in the middle of that on February 8, he won the “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” GRAMMY along with Edgar Meyer for “Bass and Mandolin,” and was nominated for three more with both Meyer and Nickel Creek. Now his band Punch Brothers is back on the road in support of their brand new album, “The Phosphorescent Blues” (vinyl|CD). I was lucky enough to see them their third night at DC’s 9:30 Club for what Thile told the crowd was the first time they had ever played three nights anywhere, adding on the date after the first two sold out.

And you guys, Punch Brothers can PLAY.

If you’re unfamiliar with Punch Brothers, they’re sort of a bluegrass-classical fusion band. You could also call them, although comparison descriptions are almost always unfair, the darker side of Nickel Creek. It would also be unfair to call it “The Chris Thile Show” because the other musicians are also great and are showcased well, but Thile is almost always the lead singer and his mandolin virtuosity does take center stage. This is even more true at a live show, where his raw energy can really take over (heck, even half the fun of May’s Nickel Creek concert was watching Thile rock out to “The Fox”).

Punch Brothers, 02-22-15Punch Brothers’ albums are good, but I absolutely loved Sunday night’s concert. The music, whether recorded or live, is like Nickel Creek bluegrass but with more minor keys and classical influence – co-founder Gabe Witcher plays his instrument as a violin as often as he does fiddle (he’s also the drummer). There are also times when it sounds like Thile’s turn playing on Bela Fleck’s classical banjo album “Perpetual Motion” was a major influence. The difference between the sound recorded and the sound live is threefold. First is the warmth – I can’t explain it, it’s just warmer live, even with all the minor keys. It’s more personal and soulful, not just because the performers are there but the music itself. Second, and this is often the case with bluegrass, the vocal harmonies are just tighter – I absolutely loved the way Thile and Chris Eldridge sounded together live. Third, as I mentioned above and this was true about May’s Nickel Creek show too, is Thile’s energy. It’s not that he jumps around like Garth Brooks; there’s just an irrepressive spirit surrounding every move he makes and infusing every pluck of the mandolin. You can tell this is a man who loves music – you almost expect him to shout at any moment, “Oh boy, I GET TO PLAY ANOTHER SONG NOW! YAY!!!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, ANOTHER SONG!!!” He was good on “Magnet” and “My Oh My” but at his finest for the new song “I Blew It Off,” perhaps my favorite moment of the evening prior to the encore. And oh man, that encore. The band really f***ing brought it for “Heart in a Cage,” their 2006 cover of The Strokes, and another track from the new album, “Little Lights.”

For what it’s worth, if you heard Thile hosting PHC, his stage persona was very much the same with Punch Brothers. The other band members each introduced a song and spoke a little, but it was mostly Thile. Two fun moments showcasing the rest of the band was when banjo player Noam Pikelny introduced the band’s instrumental arrangement of “Passepied” by Claude Debussy (which was what reminded me most of Perpetual Motion). He said that Debussy died tragically – “Tragically in that he did not live long enough to hear our arrangement.” Later, Eldridge announced a tribute to the Seldom Scene – his dad Ben’s legendary bluegrass band, and Punch Brothers did a great straight-bluegrass rendition of “Through the Bottom of The Glass” with Eldridge taking lead vocals and bass player Paul Kowert ripping off a really fun solo.

Punch Brothers, 02-22-15The last thing I’ll note is how amazing the DC music scene can be – I have to imagine that artists are pleasantly surprised by the crowds they find here. Just like Sturgill Simpson’s show at the same standing-only venue a week before, the crowd was a mix of hipsters and country folks in the city with an even broader age spread. And just like with Simpson, they knew how to sing along, which seemed to thrill Thile to no end. The crowd started strong shouting “Oh Boy!” on the night’s third song, Rye Whiskey, and just didn’t let up – nor did the band. I don’t think anyone wanted the show to end. I certainly know I left feeling happy on the inside, even a little transcendent. I’ll review Phosphorescent Blues soon, but what I really look forward to is the next time I get to see Punch Brothers live. I’m really glad Thile is just 34 – this is definitely someone I want to spend the next 50 years listening to.

Why Sturgill Simpson is Suddenly Famous, or, A Concert Review from the 9:30 Club last Friday

What a week for Sturgill Simpson – the GRAMMYs, returning to David Letterman, and “Metamodern” reaching 100,000 in sales. And lucky me, I got to see him right in the middle of it all.

(As of this writing, Simpson’s song “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean” is available for free MP3 download at Amazon.)

Sturgill Simpson at DC's 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

Sturgill Simpson at DC’s 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

It was a pleasure to see Sturgill play at DC’s 9:30 Club Friday night. This was Simpson’s third DC-area show in the past 18 months and his second since hitting it big – and the 1200-capacity venue was beyond sold out. Tickets were $20 face value but climbed as high as $150 on StubHub. Very few shows are worth that much, but Simpson certainly delivered a helluva evening.

The 9:30 Club’s audience skews younger, especially since it’s almost entirely standing-room only. The crowd was a mixture of country natives living in the city, like the friends I was with, and DC hipsters. But no matter who’s in the audience, it is – just 17 months after watching Sturgill and the band play a free show in a BBQ basement to 100 DC residents – a real delight to see 1200 folks all sing along not just to songs from the new hit album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” like “Long White Line” but also older “High Top Mountain” tunes like “You Can Have the Crown” and “Old King Coal.”

The band seems a bit shell-shocked by their rapid rise, which Sturgill acknowledged when they came out for an encore – I’m paraphrasing here, but, “It was just three, four months ago we were still playing bars where backstage was the table next to the stage, so we’re still getting used to this encore thing.” A genuine tone, but said with a smile. I chatted with one of the band members afterwards and he laughed about the ascent, acknowledging that it was strange and a whirlwind – but they do seem to be taking it in stride, having a ball, and producing solid music. The instrumental jams and solos were longer than on the albums, as you’d expect, and they were great. Laur Joamets, Sturgill’s Estonian guitarist, absolutely blew the crowd away. And the loudest applause of the night came during “Life of Sin” each time Sturgill sang “The boys and me still working on the sound.” Sturgill said they were all bouncing back from a cold, but after warming up on the first tune, you could never tell. Solid show. (There were only one or two new songs, and their sound wasn’t particularly different, so no preview of the next album yet.)

Sturgill Simpson at DC's 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

Sturgill Simpson at DC’s 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

I’ll mention two tiny negative things. I don’t mean them as criticism but I’d like this blog to feel like something more than constant free advertising for Sturgill – seems like half my posts are little more than me gushing about his music. First, it was an energetic show for sure, though some slower songs like “The Promise” were definitely included – but I would have loved to also here “Hero” and “Panbowl,” two of my favorites. But you gotta play to the crowd. Second, I think the sound levels might have been a little off. If I hadn’t already known the words it would have been tough to understand some of them. Then again, that’s bizarrely just how some people like their shows.

The opener, Anderson East, played a short set and I was held up at the venue’s bar, so unfortunately I missed him, but his first LP comes out later this year – let’s give him his due here: