PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | It wasn’t just the overhyped blizzard that bedeviled gigs along the Eastern Seaboard last week. There were also more mundane barriers, like the missing drain plug in the oil tank of Eric Ambel’s Suburban that drained it just before he was to drive from New York for a gig at DC’s Hill Country Barbecue Thursday.
It put a big delay in travel plans, and caused the headlining half of the bill, Dan Baird and Homemade Sin, to go on early instead and play a few songs until Ambel and his band got there after 10. It worked out comfortably enough. The two have toured together before, and were even bandmates in the short-lived Yayhoos a decade ago.
So when the late coming openers got there, it was a very quick matter of plugging into the Homemade Sin equipment and sitting down at their drum set (which also proved that switchovers between bands need not be more than a few minutes). The two rockers are also pursuing the same riff-fueled dirt road too with revved-up Chuck Berry riffs and a kind of raucous Faces mindset making way for the kind of rock soloing that is increasingly now only heard in classic rock stations.
PHOTO: JIM HERRINGTON | It’s a long road from the throbbing epicenter of Los Angeles punk origins to an acoustic Tuesday night gig at a suburban Northern Virginia strip mall, but John Doe has made that road work for him, turning his fame in the occasionally revived X to a solid solo career of dusty, windswept Americana.
Those songs are usually served up with a wallop and a twang with a band behind him, but he returned to Jammin Java in Vienna, VA carrying only a guitar or two. He’s a big enough personality to carry it off, bringing a passion and hard-won skill on the nylon strings to create a driving sound, even when he pulled up a few from the X songbook.
Playing solo gave him a certain versatility as well and once he opened the door to requests, he played some old songs he hadn’t done in some time—some of them perfect for the barroom setting, like the swaggering “Dyin’ to Get Home” from his first solo album, Meet John Doe. Asking for requests is a Pandora’s box—he may have strayed from any intent to feature songs from his latest collection, last year’s The Westerner, but being back in the Middle Atlantic put him in mind of the days the Illinois native spent in Baltimore, before he moved to Los Angeles and helped start the punk scene he writes of in Under the Black Sun (whose audio book version was up for a Grammy this month).
His official bio talks about living in “the rural black community of Simpsonville, MD,” graduating from Antioch College when it had an outpost in Charm City and working as “a roofer, aluminum siding mechanic, and ran a poetry reading series.” Doe must have also picked up on the bluegrass roots of the region, mentioning it a couple of times and pulling up, by request, his version of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” the Jimmie Driftwood oddity “He Had a Long Chain On” played with an urgency, and suggesting that the final song in the encore be picked up by bluegrass bands—the Knitters’ “The Call of the Wreckin’ Ball,” perhaps the only song around about poultry stomping.
Round about showtime Saturday night as the young backing band the Expressions were churning out the cool and lightly funky sounds of the past the way serious students from Greenpoint, Brooklyn could do in their matching paisley tux jackets, out came the front man in his sparkly blue tux jacket.
Lee Fields was taking that long walk down the hall from the Rock & Roll Hotel’s green room to its modest stage, but it might have been a longer walk still, back to the Stax era chitlin circuit, bringing with him the grit of a lifetime in rhythm and soul, the yearnings of its heartbreak songs, the insistence of its endurance.
It’s a long road, but Fields, at 65 or so, is the standard-bearer of a kind of soul that was swept away by disco and dance records or was otherwise relegated to the oldies bin. Like Charles Bradley or the late Sharon Jones, he’s found his niche with an ace bunch of enablers, in his case the six piece Expressions who frame his songs and keep it going as he extends the tunes, extolls the audience to clap along, or breaks it down.
The soul man is an endangered species and Fields keeps it going, not wth a lot of amped-up funkified flash, but with a smoother mid-tempo, accommodating aching ballads or promises of fidelity.
It’s been a tough year for Yasiin Bey, the rapper formerly known as Mos Def, who now also wants to be known as a former rapper. He was arrested in South Africa last January for trying to leave the country with a “world passport.” He had been living in Cape Town since 2013 and had been prevented from leaving with those papers for a U.S. tour in 2014 after a visitor’s permit expired. Now he’s been banned from that country for five years.
Nonetheless, he’s hanging up his performing life at 43—not only in hip-hop, where he’s built a solid career of brainy, nimble, conscious rap with wide-ranging backing music—but in acting as well, in films from Something the Lord Made to Be Kind Rewind.
Before he goes, he has a few things to say and has released the first of what he says will be three final albums, December 99th, last month. More significantly, he scheduled a pair of farewell concerts at the Apollo and three at the Kennedy Center.
There’s no explanation why he’d choose the staid D.C. arts center for his final stand that began New Year’s Eve and continued until January 2. But it seemed to underscore both the high level of his art and its high-minded purposes.
As he half-sung, quite convincingly, his songs of social struggle, he recalled the figure of hometown hero Marvin Gaye who helped open the Kennedy Center with his What’s Going On? tour nearly 45 years ago. But his final performance Monday, fraught as it was with history, was also a lot of fun and as solid a hip-hop showcase as you’d hope for.
In the 2014 song “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” the Old 97’s note “most of our shows were a triumph of rock, although some nights I might have been checkin’ the clock.” Checking the clock is what playing New Year’s Eve gigs are all about. And though Texas band’s return to the tony Hamilton in Washington, D.C., was largely the relentless breakneck paced double-time country-tinged rocking their fans have come to love, there were some accommodations to the approaching midnight hour.
First, it involved lengthening their set by about a third from the night before (as they did on a similar stint at the same club the last two days of the year in 2014, and those of us who opted for the December 30 performance then adjusted accordingly this time).
To access a countdown clock just before midnight, they got the light guy to project the final two minutes of 2016 from Carson Daly’s Times Square telecast. Squeezing in one more super-fast song before the deadline, it was 10-9-8, cheap champagne in plastic flutes, and another 10 songs or so.
You get the feeling the clock is not the biggest concern of the band the other 364 days of the year, so freewheeling they are in their songs, changing up the set, and over the top performance, which saw by show’s end guitarist Ken Bethea guzzling a drink fed to him by a fan during his frenzied solo on “Most Messed Up,” the title track to the last album that capped the second set.
Hayes Carll was stomping his way into country music success when he decided to dial it back for his most recent album, return to a quieter solo acoustic approach, and emulate once more the wry, road-weary wistfulness of a John Prine or a Townes Van Zandt. In his headlining show at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA. the day after Christmas, he even dropped the crowd pleasing “Stomp and Holler.”
Self-effacement was practically part of the set, with such songs that commented on misfires in the music business from the opening “Good While it Lasted” and “Sake of the Song” to “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and “Hard Out Here.”
Carll’s pretty funny too in his between-song patter with stories that have been burnished from a long career in bad Texas bars along the Gulf Coast. But there’s a clarity and emotional precision in his new songs from his Lovers and Leavers album that came out last April that offset them.
He’s maintained it’s not his breakup album, but there are some succinct truths about divorce, like the one he went through since his previous album, singing that he and a partner “got the life that we wanted, not the love that we need” and elsewhere, “We both said forever, forever till the end, but forever’s something different to a lover than a friend.” At the same time, there are simpler statements about the love for his son in “The Magic Kid” or the sensations of a new relationship in “Love Don’t Let Me Down.”
Add to the roster of acts who are mainly one person, the Chicago band Minor Moon. It’s the project of Sam Cantor, a transplanted New Englander who puts a soulful flourish into his new song “Weird How We Float” which we’re delighted to premiere today.
With its atmospheric sound and deliberate beat, the track conjures up a feeling of dreaminess as well as a certain sense of unease. Unlike the single “So Composed” released last month, “Weird How We Float” is more immediately dark says Cantor, who describes the tune as “essentially a story about someone waking up from a nightmare, and then having the realization that their current moment in reality is actually the eye of the storm.”
What is this storm? It could be the collapse of the environment, but many may also interpret it as the political nightmare that occurred since the track was recorded. Literally or metaphorically though, “the water is rising.” But can we change this distressing situation, or are we destined to be swept up in it? “The chorus,” says Cantor, “is about the uncannily mundane feeling of how, even when we are immersed or complicit in the things we despise, at most we still ‘float’ along.” (Still, it comes with a strong guitar solo.)
Minor Moon also features a trio of other Chicago musicians—Nathan Bojko on drums, Michael Downing on bass, and Colin Drozdoff on keyboards. “Weird How We Float” is from the upcoming EP, “What Our Enemies Know,” due in stores January 20 on Ruination Records (a label name that furthers the sense of doom).
Bob Dylan confirmed this week he won’t be going to Sweden next month to pick up his Nobel Prize Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American songbook.” But you better believe Smokey Robinson, whom Dylan once listed as a favorite poet (though the quote “America’s greatest living poet” appears to have been fabricated) did show up for his 2016 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Two days of events this week culminated Wednesday night in a tribute concert at the DAR Constitution Hall being taped for a Black History Month PBS concert special to air next year.
For most of the 100 minutes, Robinson could sit in what looked like a throne on the side of the stage, beneath a golden replication of the Gershwin Prize medal, which has been previously given to Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, and Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel, and Willie Nelson (and, notably, not Dylan). It wasn’t quite Kennedy Center Awards-level artists who came on stage to honor him by singing his songs. In fact, several warranted a shrug.
And by the time Robinson took the stage at the event hosted by Samuel L. Jackson, he smoothly sang just one of his songs, “Being with You,” infused with a Spanish verse, along with one Gershwin classic, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” before bringing out the night’s cast for a sing-along to “My Girl,” which he had written for the Temptations. It wasn’t the first time Motown artists have flirted with the Great American Songbook. Label founder Berry Gordy has often tried to bring a sophistication to his roster of stars by having them sing at supper clubs or, in the case of Marvin Gaye, record an album of standards.
When Elvis Costello has ventured out without an album to support, the super-prolific songwriter has left his setlist’s fate to his always-entertaining Spinning Songbook wheel of songs. Currently, he’s taken the wheel himself, by featuring one fabled album from his career and building a show around that in a tour titled “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers.”
While he manages to cover the bulk of notable work, which his record company labeled “Masterpiece” upon release (to his embarrassment), Costello varied from other recent full-album recitals from Brian Wilson to Bruce Springsteen, by dropping a couple of its 15 tracks and spreading them around a very generous set that offset the contemplative Bedroom songs with early career blasts and crowd favorites.
Most all of it stayed well into the past. Aside from a trio of fascinating songs from an as yet unproduced new musical based on Budd Shulberg’s A Face in the Crowd, his newest recorded offering was one from his decade-old collaboration album with Allen Toussaint. Nostalgia might have been a little on the mind of the performer, as he bounded on stage in red hat to match his red Gibson guitar, fronting a lean trio that featured two of his longtime Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas as well as two backup singers.
“It’s been 38 years since we last played the Warner,” he said early in the set, referencing a set so significant, it was released on CD three decades later. “Back then we’d play 25 minutes of music that on a good night we’d get down to 15.” He made up with it Thursday with a near-Springsteen sized set of three straight hours and 34 songs all-told, from the rarity that opened it, “The Town Where Time Stood Still,” to the anthem that closed it, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” — his one cover song of the night that he had also long since made his own.
In these disheartening, divisive times, Nadia Washington offers inspiration in her jazzy, soulful new tune, “Hope Resurgence.”
A singer songwriter from Dallas who currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Boston’s esteemed Berklee School of Music, Washington has previously performed with Esperanza Spalding, Lalah Hathaway, and George Duke.
She was backup singer and songwriter on Diane Reeves’ 2014 Beautiful Life which won a Grammy for best jazz vocals. More recently, Washington was part of this summer’s Blue Note compilation, Revive Music Presents Supreme Sonacy Vo. 1, writing and performing alongside Ray Angry of the Roots.