newgrass

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!

VIDEO: Chris Thile reacts to Bach and Radiohead the same way

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

A very blurry photo of the writer meeting Chris Thile last month

The other day, a friend told me how surprised she was to find herself enjoying the mandolin at a bluegrass concert. I replied that if you think you don’t like the mandolin, it’s probably only because you haven’t heard Chris Thile yet.

I went searching for some great Thile clips to show her, and came across this one from last year where he jams on multiple genres as part of an interview with the Wall Street Journal. I LOVE this point that he makes: Classical music isn’t any more staid or somber than rock or pop; it’s the AUDIENCES that are more reserved. But not the music or the artists! He compares a riff from Bach to a riff from Radiohead – both on the mandolin – and says they’re both “super intense!” and deserve similar reactions. Sounds good to me! What is music if not a portal into your emotions and your soul?

What do you think?

They Tore It Up! – A Concert Review: The Steep Canyon Rangers, 05-30-14

A FREE show from one of my all-time favorite bands just a half mile from my house? Yes, please!!!

Last night, the Steep Canyon Rangers gave one helluva bluegrass performance to close out the Library of Congress’s free concert season. (No, the brilliant Steve Martin wasn’t there, but let’s remember – the Steeps were nominated for a Grammy with him, but won one without him!) Also performing were Grammy nominees Dailey and Vincent, whom I will review in a separate post, and Irish traditionalists Donna Long and Jesse Smith.

Though I’d heard a little from the Steeps before last January, they didn’t really come to my attention until then. I was going through an extremely hard breakup with the woman I thought I was going to marry, and was working about 70 hours a week. I needed an escape – badly – so I threw work in the trashcan for an evening and went with a buddy to see the Steeps at the Birchmere.

For those few hours, everything was okay, everything felt right again — it was the first time in months that I had been truly happy for more than a few minutes. As I noted in the essay that kicked off this blog, music has always been there for me in my tough times – and for their part in that, the Steeps will forever hold a special place in my heart.

This weekend marked my fifth Steep Canyon Rangers show in 16 months, and that feeling of truly being at home during them has never gone away. By that, I don’t just mean it feels comfortable; it’s more than that. It feels right – like coming home after travel. When an SCR show ends, instead of saying “Time to go home!” I say, “But it’s too late to go out again!”

Steep Canyon Rangers fiddler Nicky Sanders with the author, Nathan Empsall. April 2013.

Even with lasting sadly less than an hour, last night’s concert was as phenomenal as ever. The LOC crowd was the first I’ve seen that didn’t laugh at the opening line of the opener “As I Go” – “I always try to do what’s best, I’ve mostly done the opposite.” But by the finale, when Nicky Sanders tears up “Auden’s Train” with the best damn fiddling you’ll ever see, they sure were howling at his classical music riffs. Graham joked that Nicky was going to steal one of the Library’s famous instruments – “Stradivariuses? Stradivarii?” All of the band is amazing at what they do, so I hate to single out any one of them as the most talented – but as grave an injustice as that is to the rest of the band’s superb talent to say, it would be an even graver injustice to Nicky NOT to say it.

There are a lot of great coal songs out there, but “Call the Captain” is probably my favorite – plus it does a great job showcasing Woody Platt’s smooth vocals. Speaking of Woody, his guitar broke a string at one point, but he compensated extremely well for the rest of the song. Bravo, sir.

I’ll even applaud the band’s drums. What? Drums in a bluegrass band? Well, yes – the Steeps are a great cross between bluegrass and newgrass, pushing the limits but still respecting the genre, and in that spirit Mike Ashworth joined on drums last summer. They worked particularly well as retroactive additions to “Rescue Me” and the instrumental “Knob Creek,” and are an integral piece of the latest album’s title track, “Tell the Ones I Love.”

When all was said and done, the Steeps received a thunderous standing ovation that didn’t let up until they all came out for a well-deserved curtain call.

Nathan Empsall and Graham Sharp

The author, Nathan Empsall, with Steep Canyon Rangers banjo player Graham Sharp. May 2014.

I only have two small negative things to say. The first is that I think the bass was mixed a little too loud, especially in the beginning. (Also, it’s just now occurring to me that the Charles, also a prolific and talented songwriter, doesn’t get that many bass solos – hopefully that will be corrected on a future album!) Second, I really wish they had played “Between Midnight and the Dawn,” which was actually a runner-up for the title of this website. But the show was free and those are minor quibbles – the first and perhaps only negative things I’ll ever say about a Steep Canyon Rangers show!

If you’ve never seen the band life, you MUST. Obviously many groups are better live than recorded, but it’s amazing just how true that is for the Steeps. Don’t get me wrong, I love their albums – Nobody Knows You absolutely deserved that Grammy – but the two best things about the band just don’t come through as well in the studio. That’s how amazing Nicky Sanders is on the fiddle, and how wonderful Woody Platt, Graham Sharp, and Mike Guggino’s vocal harmonies blend together. Go. See. These. Guys.

The Library of Congress as a venue was a good thing, too. The band seemed truly honored to be there, including talking in the lobby afterwards. It certainly helped lift my spirits a little bit once I got to thinkin’ about it. By day, I work in politics, and I’ve grown a lot more cynical since moving to Washington. But sitting there in the middle of the Capitol complex, experiencing great American music with a diverse and appreciative crowd right in the historic place, everything that’s wrong with our society ceased to matter for a little while as the best things about what makes us us were put front and center. That’s what music does.

The Steep Canyon Rangers are Woody Platt on lead vocals and guitar, Graham Sharp on vocals and banjo, Nicky Sanders on fiddle, Mike Guggino on mandolin and harmony vocals, Charles R. Humphrey III on bass, and Mike Ashworth on drums.

The Washington Folk Festival is this weekend!

If you’re in the Washington, D.C., area, be sure to check out the 34th annual Washington Folk Festival this weekend, just outside the District at Maryland’s old Glen Echo amusement park! The festival runs from noon – 7 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. There are all sorts of crafts exhibitors, a storytellers’ stage, and a Spanish ballroom, but more importantly for this writer and website, dozens of musicians stretching many genres, particularly bluegrass and folk. I’ve been before, and it’s a great time.

I was reminded of the festival a couple weeks ago when I walked to Eastern Market after church. I was in a bit of a hurry to get to afternoon events, so I thought I was going to just hit up the butcher counter and get out of there – but then I heard blugrass strains wafting across the plaza from the flea market, and dammit the weather was just so nice. So thanks to King Street Bluegrass, I spent about half an hour longer on 7th Street NE then I intended to.

They played a little bluegrass and a little blues, and let us all know that they’d be at the upcoming Folk Festival. They may not be the Steep Canyon Rangers* (I mean, who is?), but if every city had a bluegrass band like King Street Bluegrass, we’d all be sittin’ a little higher on life’s hog. These are the folks you want playing at whatever event it is you’re holding, so be sure to check them out this weekend (3:15 on Sunday at the Cuddle-up Stage) along with all the other performers at the Washington Folk Festival in Glen Echo.

*Speaking of the Steep Canyon Rangers, they’ll be in D.C. tonight too – for free, along with duo Dailey & Vincent and Celtic performers Donna Long and Jesse Smith! WHY is this not the headline of the post? Because while it’s a sold-out show at the Library of Congress, there is a limited number of FREE rush tickets available at 5pm for the 7pm show – and I don’t want you to beat me there to get them. ;)

What country music needs is another Willie Nelson

In a Texas Monthly cover article devoted to George Strait’s retirement from touring, Craig Havighurst argued that there may never be another George Strait.

George has been my favorite singer since I was 11, so I don’t say this lightly, but I would submit that what country and roots music need is not a new George Strait, but a new Willie Nelson.

Willie’s greatest accomplishment isn’t any one song or album, helping pioneer the outlaw sound, or even managing to make one beat-up old guitar last this long. It was the bringing together of diverse crowds that had always been at odds and finding among them common ground, new friendship, and a powerful movement. Like Bruce Robison sings,

“Like a miracle all those rednecks and hippies // From New York City down to Mississippi // Stood together and raised a brew // When it’s all gone wrong, what would Willie do?”

We need someonImagee to do that again – someone who can unite the red dirt cowboys, the Mumford hipsters and Lumineer moms, and the old singer-songwriter foagies.

Think about it. I went to a Nickel Creek concert earlier this month in Washington, D.C., and the audience was incredibly young – dare I say largely hipster. Now I’m not saying that that’s newgrass’s main demographic. It was the venue, the 9:30 Club, more than anything. Still, it was encouraging to see such a young crowd at a fundamentally bluegrass show.

And take indie folk, definitely a big draw for college students and hipsters. Personally I like Mumford and Sons, but I know a lot of folks find them insufferable. That’s fine, but love them or hate them, there’s no denying the influence folk and bluegrass had on their instrumentation and harmonies. Of course they’re not Americana, they’re British! But while Marcus Mumford, the Lumineers, and their ilk may be more of a response to pop than country, they are still our distant kin.

And yet, I would wager that the Mumford and Nickel Creek crowds of the east coast bear very little resemblance to a red dirt festival in Oklahoma or a Kacey Musgraves home crowd in Texas.

The question is, how can we elevate roots music and take back country music from hick-hop light beer bros? How can we build a coalition large enough to make the record labels take notice, the way they noticed George Strait in 1983 and turned away from Nashville easy listening to the neo-traditionalists? We need some way – someone – to unite the the subgenres and create a movement.

L-r: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

L-R: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

Maybe, just maybe, Sturgill Simpson will bring together the hipsters and cowboys the way Willie brought together the hippies and bikers. He’s a country traditionalist but one who’s not afraid to experiment, and after refusing to compromise with the major labels, his independent second album smashed through and debuted at #11 this month. Who are the crowds taking notice and driving that to the top? He comes from Kentucky coal country but has been featured on NPR; are those audiences coming together to give Metamodern Sounds in Country Music such a big boost? And will radio take notice?

I don’t know. But whether Sturgill is the next Willie or not, he’s at least a herald – if not the roots Messiah, then maybe our John the Baptist, proving that a better future is coming soon. That said, I don’t mean to put pressure or expectations on him; his art is already a breath of fresh air that speaks for itself. I’d say let’s just cross our fingers, but you can’t pick a guitar with crossed fingers. Instead, pour another round, play that Uncle Tupelo album one more time, and we’ll see what we see when we see.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I did some more reading, and found that Trigger over at Saving Country Music makes a similar arugment.