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.
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!
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.
He 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.
I saw the Secret Sisters — Laura and Lydia Rogers — live at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club in early May, opening for Nickel Creek. I wasn’t previously familiar with them, but I loved them. Their tight-knit harmonies were great, Laura had a great stage presence between songs, and the song-writing was strong. Small wonder, since the women are originally from Muscle Shoal, AL, but their band was good, too. Everything was forceful yet light, and you could understand the lyrics — it was a great show in every regard.
My friend — a woman, for whatever the diversity of our perspectives on this is worth — and I both thoroughly enjoyed the performance of “Rattle My Bones,” so at the merch table after the concert, I asked for whichever album that was on. Turns out that was “Put Your Needle Down,” out just three weeks before.
I think I bought the wrong album. In an interview with Billboard, Lydia Rogers acknowledged that this album is different from their first one, and worried that they might lose people because the duo wrote most of the songs themselves this time. Actually, I think the songwriting is very strong, and I commend the two for it. The vocals are wonderful, too. The problem is that the legendary T-Bone Burnett, the executive producer for the first album, was the hands-on producer for this second album. I hate to say it, but it sounds like virtually every other recent T-Bone Burnett album. Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the vocals, repetitive guitar rhythms, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound.
I actually like Burnett’s sound. It’s perfect for new, broader audiences, so if you don’t know who he is, you might love this album. The problem is, while he’s still doing wonders for movie and TV soundtracks, when it comes to producing albums, it feels like he’s coasting. His is an approach that would elevate almost anyone on country radio but more or less homogenizes true Americana talent. If you’re going to homogenize, do it this way, absolutely – but why homogenize if you don’t have to?
Burnett was also the executive producer, but not the producer, for the Secret Sisters’ eponymous 2010 first album — and it felt like a Burnett album would feel if he let a Bakersfield sound dominate his own. I love it. More importantly, the hands-on producer for that earlier album was David Cobb, who was also behind Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern” (the best album of 2013), both of Sturgill Simpson’s amazing projects (the second-best albums of both 2013 and of 2014 so far), and a lot of work for Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings. Additionally, Country Hall of Fame pianist Pig Robbins and Waylon Jennings alum Robby Turner, both of whom joined Cobb on Sturgill’s debut album, played on the Sisters’ first album. Together, the three helped the Secret Sisters sound like a modernized, edgier, Patsy Cline if Patsy Cline were a soprano with a close-harmony backup. And while the sisters might claim they see that album as one of standards, their original “Tennessee Me” was absolutely great. Give that 2010 album even more confidence and turn its Bakersfield sound to alt-country, and that’s what I saw and loved last month in DC.
I wish 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down” gave me a similar feeling. But honestly, for a majority of the tracks, swap out their tight harmonies for a solo male voice and you’ve got actor Jeff Bridges’ eponymous, Burnett-produced 2011 album. Which I did like, just as I like this one — it’s just that neither are anything special. Again, the T Bone Burnett sound: Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the lead vocals, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound. Sometimes that really works, creating a great balance by swinging back and forth with a ’50s feel on “Good Luck, Good Night, Good Bye” — my favorite song after the driving “Rattle My Bones” I bought it for. Unfortunately, it comes on strong even when it’s not warranted, too. Nowhere is this more true than the second track, “Luka,” especially on the outro.
And that’s all Burnett, not the Sisters themselves. They’re good singers and good songwriters. Great songwriters, really – Bob Dylan even allowed them to finish a song he’d started 30 years ago but never finished, “Dirty Lie.” And take the self-defense, strong-woman murder story of “Luka,” or these lyrics from “Bad Habit,” co-written with Brandi Carlisle: “I’ve got a bad habit, one that I’ve been trying to keep… I can’t break this bad habit, ’cause this habit’s breakin’ me.” So I like this new album. I really do. The songwriting is tight and diverse and the harmonies even tighter, with that Everly Brothers comparison everyone made in 2010 especially shining through again on “Lonely Island.” But it feels like it could be just so much more, especially after seeing them live.
Three whiskey bottles out of five for 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down,” and up it four if you dig both alt-country and the 1950s yet despite those tastes have somehow never heard or tired of T. Bone Burnett.
Four out of five whiskey bottles for 2010’s debut, “Secret Sisters.” I really like the mix of their modern vocals with traditional instrumentation on that one. I hear a lot of Bakersfield here and I absolutely love it.
And albums aside, if they’re performing near you, I certainly recommend going. Buy your ticket now and have a great night. Burnett might be too focused on his other projects, but the Secret Sisters themselves are a great duo.