Author Archives: Roger Catlin

Yep Roc Records’ 20th anniversary celebration: A wacky family reunion

Hillsborough, NC, population 6,000, might not be the place you’d expect to see one of the fall’s hippest music festival lineups featuring Nick Lowe, Dave and Phil Alvin, Tony Jo White, Tift Merritt, Los Straightjackets, Chuck Prophet, and the Fleshtones, among others. But it happens October 19–21 as the independent label for all those acts, the venerable Yep Roc, throws its 20th anniversary celebration in the small town where it’s been based for five years.

Many of those acts will be performing at the co-sponsoring Cat’s Cradle music club in nearby Carrboro. But for the first time there will also be a free outdoor concert Saturday at Hillsborough’s River park with Mandolin Orange, Jim Lauderdale, the Stray Birds, Kim Richey, and Tony Joe White. It’s hosted by Wesley Stace, who formerly recorded under the name John Wesley Harding.

“We had done something pretty big for our 15th anniversary, which was pretty great. And we had such an amazing result from that effort that it really made us want to do something again,” says label co-founder Glenn Dicker over the phone. “But we really wanted to do something different this time around.” So instead of sticking to the clubs 20 minutes away in Chapel Hill where the label originated, he says, “we decided to try to do something in our hometown.”

Hillsborough has been a good place for the label, which has navigated its way through one of the oddest two decades of the music industry. And Yep Roc has been good to the town, creating about 40 jobs at the label and its distribution company Redeye. Yep Roc has brought in artists to play live sessions at local businesses from the coffee shop and liquor store to book store, brewery, and boot outfitter. The label also helped set up a series of shows to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

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TVD Live: The Secret Sisters with Mary Bragg at the Hamilton, 10/4

PHOTO: ABRAHAM ROWE | The Secret Sisters come off like a classic duo from the golden age of country music, or maybe before that—the string band era of the Depression days. Existing in the 21st century is a whole lot harder, they have found. But survival seems certain based on their reliance on the kind of sibling harmonies that bring to mind the Everly Brothers—and a wicked sense of humor promulgated by the elder sister, Laura Rogers.

At their headlining show at The Hamilton in DC Wednesday, she was the one that talked almost as much as they sang, with funny observations and off-the-top of her head dream interpretations that were meant to be the comic relief to a set that by their own admission relies mostly on balladry and sad songs.

They began with “Tennessee River Runs Low” almost as a warm up as how their lovely harmonies work. Laura often sets the tone for the melody and guitar-playing Lydia sings high or low as the song requires, sometimes within the same song. The two voices and guitar, as happens in some rare duos, create something bigger than the two, and it’s a lovely thing to behold.

Lydia’s guitar work—simple and strong—shouldn’t be dismissed, nor her crucial addition to the comedy, by playing the eye-rolling straight man to her sister, or adding sarcastic commentary like “Oh, that was a good idea.”

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TVD Live: Daniel Johnston at the Lincoln Theatre, 10/3

PHOTOS: ERICA BRUCE | To the devoted fans of Daniel Johnston, the troubled outsider songwriter behind “Speeding Motorcycle” and other indie favorites, an introduction would certainly not be necessary. But what’s being billed at Johnston’s final tour begins with a lengthy intro: The whole of Jeff Feuerzeig’s remarkable 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which chronicles the fascinating and heartbreaking story of the creative young man from West Virginia who is hit hard by unrequited love and even harder by bipolar disease and over-reliance on LSD.

Despite his extreme and sometimes scary personality quirks, Johnston is something of a pop music savant, able to turn out endless rough but tuneful songs based on his own devotion to the Beatles and other rock touchstones. (And when he wasn’t recording songs, he was tossing off thousands of charming cartoony drawings).

Abandoned in Austin by a traveling carnival where he worked, he grew to have a following there, and was able to shoulder his way into a Texas-based 1985 episode of MTV’s The Cutting Edge to gain his first national attention. People really looked him up, though, after some other MTV exposure—when Kurt Cobain wore his “Hi, How Are You?” t-shirt at the 1992 VMAs. By this time, Johnston was deep into his mental ailments. Nevertheless, record companies had a bidding war at a mental hospital where he had been committed. That Johnston is able to appear now—12 years after that movie wrapped—is a testament to the refining of psychotropic drugs.

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TVD Live: Take Me to the River Memphis Revue at the National Museum of American History, 9/19

Since Martin Shore released his 2014 documentary Take Me to the River, telling the story of Memphis soul while trying to introduce the genre to a hip hop generation, a number of its featured artists have died, including Bobby “Blue” Bland, Hubert Sumlin, and Teenie Hodges. But three other of its featured participants went on to win their first Grammys this year — singer and songwriter William Bell, bluesman Bobby Rush, and producer Boo Mitchell. The latter three are now part of a touring version called “Take Me to the River: Memphis Soul and Rhythm & Blues Revue National Concert Tour” that gave a taste of what they can do before a receptive but reserved audience at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

The event, which included snippets from the film that can now be found on Netflix, also offered BBQ, drinks, and a formal presentation to the Smithsonian of the spangly green suit Rush wore about the time of Porcupine Meat, what he calls his 374th album, which got him his first Grammy in February. But once the Hi Rhythm Section got on stage with the Stax Academy Alumni, the main event began, largely with familiar tunes made hits by Al Green and Otis Redding. (The director Shore was also on stage, adding negligible additions on conga).

Usually when this many members of the Hi Rhythm Section are in DC and start kicking into “Let’s Stay Together,” you always hope in your heart of hearts that city resident Barack Obama will step up to the mic and unleash his falsetto, as he famously did at a 2012 fundraiser at the Apollo Theatre. Instead, the lead vocals tended to be by workmanlike vocalists who were of the type you’d see on The Voice than in a juke joint. Things livened up, though, when Frayser Boy, formerly of Three 6 Mafia, strolled on stage to add a rap to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”

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TVD Live: Randy Newman at the Birchmere, 9/18

At 73, Randy Newman is still writing sharp and funny political songs, elaborate and cynical set pieces about the state of the world and, in between them, the kind of stark songs that unexpectedly rip your heart out. At a wide-ranging, 2-set, 33 song panorama of his work of the past half century, fans responded to his oldest, most enduring numbers but were just as knocked out by the newest things, as collected on his new Nonesuch collection Dark Matter.

The new collection kicks off with a kind of mini-opera about science vs. religion, but he skipped it altogether on the first of a two night stint at The Birchmere in Alexandria, in place of several songs of particular interest to the politically-minded crowd.

Not only was there “Putin,” his opus to the preening Soviet leader, there was a new one imagining John and Bobby Kennedy in the White House talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Celia Cruz, and the head of the Washington NFL team, “Mr. George Preston Marshall” who “runs them like a plantation,” “for never has a black man worn the burgundy and gold.”

He almost forlornly sang “Political Science,” his famously sardonic call to “drop the big one now” because “no one likes us.” “It’s harder to sing this now,” he said, the day before the U.S. president would call for “the total destruction” of North Korea.

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TVD Live: Concert for Yoko Ono, Washington, DC and the World at the Hirshhorn, 9/17

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | Aside from her considerable career as a conceptual artist, Yoko Ono may also be the most polarizing figure in rock. She still carries a lot of unfair blame for being a convenient target as The Beatles were breaking up, and may have showed up on too many Lennon solo albums for purists. At the same time, she inspired a generation of edgy rockers who picked up on her extreme modes of expressions—the shrieks, the trills, and moans—that accompanied some pretty far out records. Artists from the B-52s to Mariam Makeba took up the inspiration and noise bands made her a totem.

Sonic Youth was so enamored with the sound, their Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore cut an album with her called Kimyokothurston. So it seemed right that Gordon headline “A Concert for Yoko Ono, Washington and the World” to wrap up the so-called Summer of Yoko at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The event, created around the 10-year anniversary of her Wish Tree for Washington, DC in the sculpture garden, included a couple of other conceptual works, new and old at the museum, and was concluding with a big concert outdoors in the museum’s plaza.

And while there may have been a number of more conventional approaches the invited acts could have taken—covering more straight ahead songs like “Walking on Thin Ice,” “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss” or any number of her dance remix hits of the past couple of decades, they all mostly decided to take passages from her 1964 volume of poetry and performance suggestions, Grapefruit, and run with it.

Ono herself, now 84, was not there, but her voice echoed in the plaza chanting “Imagine Peace” to begin the event Sunday. Then followed a film Arising from 2013 depicting some sort of mannequin dump while we heard a nice combination of droning guitar and her guttural wails.

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TVD Live: Arcade Fire and Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Capital One Arena, 9/16

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNSPlaying in the round isn’t always the best way to take in an arena concert. By definition, a band’s presentation is fractured in different directions, lacking a central, unified focus. Every time a band member is facing you means that another is facing the other way. If it’s a spinning stage, it can all be a little dizzying.

Arcade Fire seemed to solve all of that with the arena tour that stopped at the Capitol One Center in Washington Saturday (a place that was so recently the Verizon Center, it still said so on the central ice scoreboard). For its purposes, being in the round means closer to its audience and being in the center of its party, something the Canadian band has always tried to do. To start, it played up the boxing rink aspects of the stage set up with sports-like introductions and warm up suits as well as actual ropes that were shed after a few songs.

Wireless microphones allowed singer Win Butler and Régine Chassagne to wander the stage at will. Different platforms on the stage, from monitors to piano tops allowed them to stand out further on different levels. And yes, a central platform did spin around at times, moving mostly the drum set of Jeremy Gara as well as the standup piano. Everybody was visible, in other words, at least from some vantage points, if not in person at least in the cleverly programmed rectangular video screens above them.

Arcade Fire is in the midst of a tour to promote their fifth album Everything Now, one that makes fun of rampant consumerism while clearly being a part of it. This was heralded by infomercial like video ads before their set for oddball items and lots of symbols for international currency marching around the arena’s own video screens.

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TVD Live: Ted Leo & The Pharmacists and TK Echo at the Black Cat, 9/15

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | Eighteen years after he started Ted Leo & The Pharmacists here, the band returned to DC for a spirited pair of shows this weekend at the Black Cat after a long absence, gladdening fans with his driving older material even as he attempted to show a new direction with his latest.

It’s not a completely inverted approach, as the tarot-card like cover of his new Kickstarted album The Hanged Man may indicate. Indeed, may of the new songs purposely match the legendary velocity of yore. But other times accompanied by an acoustic guitar, the use of which he felt he had to apologize for each time, or even more surprising, beginning a song solo at the piano in the shadows (the venue light system, for one, not being able to adapt to such a shift), he made clear he wanted to try things out in a singer/songwriter mode.

Already he’s dropped the name of his band from the self-released album, though it appears on the marquee of the tour he was kicking off—replete with familiar players as guitarist James Canty, bassist Marty “Violence” Key, and the much-in-demand drummer Chris Wilson (who is also now part of Titus Andronicus). They were augmented by saxophone player Adrienne Berry and guitarist Ralph Darden, a pair who also contribute backup vocals and have a tendency toward skronky experimentalism with their respective instruments.

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TVD Live: Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer at the Birchmere, 8/27

PHOTO: JACOB BLICKENSTAFF | It’s a bit of a head scratcher why it hasn’t been until now that Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have collaborated together. The sisters have each carved out distinctive careers with varying degrees of commercial success over the last 30 years, released 24 albums between them, and share in an Alabama upbringing and tragic family history.

The only excuse they could give in a lovely duo concert Sunday at The Birchmere, celebrating their first album collaboration, is that they were living on opposite coasts. They finally found time last year to record 10 tracks with Teddy Thompson for a new album this summer called Not Dark Yet.

They performed the work of almost all cover songs with a backing trio—in order, start to finish—their clear, evocative voices blending in a way siblings often can. Their cover choices were meant to surprise, songs they said were country mainstays around the house. So in addition to Jessi Colter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes” and Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” which they said they were singing as long as they can remember, there were more unusual choices from the rock arena, from the Killers’ “My List” that began the show, to Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms” deep into the set.

They all fit the tone of engulfing warmth, but none so well as their Townes Van Zandt selection, “Lungs” or that of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’ “The Color of a Cloudy Day.” The only sibling song they took up was the Louvin Brothers’ “Every Time You Leave,” but they did it in the yearning style Emmylou Harris used when she recorded it. The title track brought back one of Bob Dylan’s languid, mid-period high points, beautifully done with Moorer taking her place behind the grand piano as her sister played guitar.

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TVD Live: Greta Van Fleet at DC9, 8/26

PHOTO: MICHAEL LAVINE | Like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Greta Van Fleet was named after a random person in their community with a quirky moniker. The teen band from Frankenmuth, Mich., might have risked getting mixed up with Greta Van Susteren at some point or at least the singer Grace VanderWaal.

But they might be a much bigger thing. To hear the people at their sold out debut at DC9 in Washington Saturday, it might be the second coming. “It might be like seeing Hendrix in a club before he got big,” one guy in the crowd way oversold it. And actually, the band brings enormous good cheer to its very familiar sound. It’s a kick to hear a sound so accomplished—and so tied to classic rock of a half century ago—coming from a fresh-faced band of brothers.

Curly-haired Josh Kiszka, who for some reason wore Adam Ant war paint on his face as if mixing up rock periods, is lead singer. Brother Jake Kiszka is guitarist, the youngest of them Sam Kiszka switches from bass to keyboards. And like every rock band that ever existed, they’ve replaced their drummer. The current incarnation is Danny Wagner, who looks like a young Joe Perry banging away.

But the main thing about Greta Van Fleet, from their first note to their last, is their slavish reconstruction of Led Zeppelin, from the supercharged version of blues and rock, every guitar intro, and to the bashing of the non-brother drummer. And especially the wail of young Josh on vocals, who boasts every vocal trick from the Robert Plant tool box: “Yeah-ee-yeah-ee-yeah-ee-yeah” is there; “woo-yeah” as well, as is the sonic wail that begins low and goes all the way to the destroyed penthouse. He even addresses the women in the very simple songs as “Lady.”

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