Author Archives: Roger Catlin

TVD Live: Dave Alvin
and Jimmie Dale Gilmore at the Birchmere, 6/14

Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore had known each other for years on the Americana circuit, but it wasn’t until they joined forces for a brief acoustic tour last year did they find that they also cut their musical teeth watching blues greats at the old Ash Grove club in Los Angeles. They decided to cut an album together for Yep Roc, Downey to Lubbock, that represented their respective hometowns and have gone out on tour together as a duo with the backing of Alvin’s band The Guilty Ones.

“I thought I was retired,” Gilmore, 73, said from the stage in explaining his gratitude at this late life venture. But the hollow wail of his unique tenor sounds just as compelling as it did in the Flatlanders. Together, their trading off of verses featuring personal traits on the album’s title song made for as entertaining a show theme song as you’d hope for. Then they followed largely with covers of songs by artists they both admired (and put on the album) as well as the best of the songs they’re known for.

That meant the lovely and enigmatic “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown,” “Dallas,” and “My Mind’s Got a Mind of Its Own” (jumped up to a rockabilly beat) from Gilmore; and from Alvin, “Fourth of July” a couple weeks early, “Dry River” and “Marie, Marie”—the sole Blasters song.

They made an odd-looking pair—Gilmore tall and gangly; his long white hair adding a ghostly appearance, opposite the solid and shorter Alvin, clad in his usual cowboy gear. Their two voices couldn’t be more different either. Gilmore’s high, keening lonely sound was opposite Alvin’s deep Western baritone. Trading off on songs meant a concise punch of their best stuff.

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Dave Wakeling,
The TVD Interview

Dave Wakeling, the charismatic frontman and songwriter for the ska revival pioneers known in the States as The English Beat, once famously said every great band has only three good albums in them. The Beat disbanded officially with its third, Special Beat Service, 35 years ago.

But after stints in General Public and various bands reviving that sound and the music of the Beat, here’s the fourth album, Here We Go Love, out today, powered by the politically charged single “How Can You Stand There?”

We caught up with Wakeling, 62, recently while the band was on tour in England, He happened to be in his hometown, Birmingham, “sitting at the breakfast table at my sister’s house.’’ He talked expansively about the rock legacy of that industrial town in the West Midlands, his adjustment to California where he’s lived for nearly 30 years, the rise of reggae from punk halls and soccer stadiums, and of course, vinyl.

Your new album is out very soon.

Not sure if the vinyl is coming at the same time, it might be…

People are sort of buying it again, vinyl, which is interesting. My daughter was playing her vinyl copy of the first Bob Marley album and the whole house was vibrating beautifully with analog sound. I got to enjoy shouting up the stairs, “Do you really need to play it that loud?” I got the answer back: “Yes.”

So there’s a difference you think.

Yes, there is a difference. There always was. And anybody who said there wasn’t was just hoping. I could always hear it. I read a little bit how analog recording had been designed around capturing the emotional quality of the instruments of the orchestra, and those instruments themselves had taken hundreds and thousands of years, ending up in really odd shapes, in order to produce sounds that directly affected human beings’ emotional centers, or chakras, as they’re called.

It’s why the hair goes up on your neck when you listen to an orchestra. Analog recording was designed to try to capture that and in doing so, it captures resonances. People always say “it sounds warmer.” But I think it’s more geared to human absorption. You turn things into zeros and ones and send them around the world, and pop them back up and use those zeroes and ones to recreate that sound, it probably does it perfectly—for computers’ chakras.

What specific record was influential to you early in your life?

Well, a number of things. For better or worse, my first single was colored vinyl—though I don’t think it was vinyl, it was plastic. It was “Little Brown Jug,” on a red toy plastic record player. [Sings, with gusto:] “Ha ha ha, He he he, Little Brown Jug don’t I love thee? Ha ha ha, He he he, Little Brown Jug don’t I love thee?” Not knowing it was going to going to turn me into an alcoholic later in life, I just thought it was just a pleasant little brown jug. Who knew?

So that was my first record. Then I became an avid singles collector in the late ’60s and the early ’70s. Some of my favorite records: “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” [by Jimmy Cliff], “All Right Now” by Free, that was a great single. “White Room” by Cream, that was a good one. “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, that was a cracker. “Don’t Walk Away, Renee” and “Bernadette” [by the Four Tops]. They were on the Tamla label in England. Not Motown, Tamla. And they were all very, very important to me.

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TVD Live: Belle
and Sebastian at
The Anthem, 6/9

Belle and Sebastian’s current tour is a movable feast, where substantially different set lists are conjured each night, whole sections of musicians are added and subtracted, and the fun being had on stage is certainly contagious to those in the crowd.

The setup at The Anthem Saturday for the group was an odd one: general admission, but with seats. That provided comfort while awaiting the show, but once the band was onstage, everyone was on their feet for the duration.

With its roots in a kind of literary folk rock, the Glaswegian band has since broadened its sound to include the big beats of the dance floor. The wide-ranging Pride weekend set Saturday, though, surprisingly kept away from the latest things, taking advantage of a five-piece string section — and a hired trumpet — to delve into much older things. Indeed, it was the 15-year-old Dear Catastrophe Waitress that was the source of most of the night’s material, from the title track to “Lord Anthony” to the suddenly improper-sounding “Step Into My Office, Baby.”

Band co-founder Stuart Murdoch is the main surviving voice of Belle and Sebastian, utterly precise and distinctive in his accented vocals. He seemed especially glad to be playing a relaxed show, where he strolled gingerly, balanced on the security fence between stage and crowd, counting on front row members to steady him; invited a few dozen fans on stage to dance along to “The Boy with the Arab Strap” and “The Party Line,” and told everyone to enjoy themselves inside, isolated from any of the various problems outside.

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TVD Live: Amadou & Mariam at the Birchmere, 6/7

PHOTO: JULIO BANDIT | One might think that the whole of the Washington, DC/ Maryland/ Virginia metro area were clad in red and glued to what would be the winning game in the Stanley Cup Finals last Thursday. But in Alexandria, a couple wore lime green tunics on stage and conjured up hypnotic, danceable music from their Mali homeland. Amadou & Mariam may have been playing to a smaller audience than usual with their band, but their energy didn’t lack in putting out their sound.

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind when they were still teenagers. Both had lost their sight—his at 16, her’s at 5—and were interested in music. He played some of that sparkling, intricate guitar associated with Afro-pop; she lent a smooth singing voice.

They got married in 1980 and recorded the first of their cassette albums of Malian blues in 1986. Bolstering the band with percussion, keyboards, and a bigger sound, they recorded in the world music hotbed of Paris a decade later but weren’t really discovered by a wider audience until 2004.

Since then they’ve snared a Grammy nomination and released four albums to international acclaim, the latest of which continued their observations about the world situation, La Confusion. That they sing largely in French means their message is not always direct to the English-speaking audience, but its beat and feel never fail to communicate directly.

They are a remarkable couple to witness on stage, even apart from the matching tunics. He has a reserve unusual for a guitarist of such finesse and fire; she often has a glum look when she’s not singing, bordering on scowl. So for both, they present an honest front instead of showbiz fakery. And both have cool, gold framed shades.

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TVD Live: Ry Cooder at the Birchmere, 6/4

PHOTO: JOACHIM COODER | The venerable guitarist Ry Cooder took a seat to kick off his Prodigal Son tour Monday not because he was weary at 71. No, he said. Sitting in the direct line of amps arranged in a semi-circle behind him, with a rack of nearly 10 instruments to his side, he found that it all sounded better to him that way.

And it certainly sounded great to the audience as well. For his first solo headlining appearance in the DC area in some 37 years, Cooder chose the Birchmere because he liked the place when he played there in the trio with Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White a couple of years back. And it certainly was accommodating. As the Southern-most stop on the current tour, it drew a lot of out of towers who were treated to a large helping of his new album The Prodigal Son, but also a few choice oldies from decades back.

Cooder’s slicing guitar has been part of rock history for some time now, from his signature slide in the Rolling Stones’ “Sister Morphine” to gutbucket blues in Captain Beefhearts’s Safe as Milk. His sizzling slide set the mood for more than a dozen memorable movies; he won a pair of world music Grammys even before he made Buena Vista Social Club and has lately been stewing about politics on more recent releases.

The Prodigal Son comes close to some of his earliest solo albums, when he revived the blues songs of long forgotten souls and covered Woody Guthrie. But the work of covering Blind Willie Johnson sounds convincing live, where his voice is lower and more full, matching the indelible slash of electric guitar, whether sweetened with the slide or twanging with depth.

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TVD Live: Japanese Breakfast at the 9:30 Club, 5/30

PHOTO: EBRU YILDIZ | Based in Philly, Japanese Breakfast has played more than a few gigs 140 miles to the south in DC, opening for a handful of bands before finally getting a headlining gig at the Black Cat last year. Headlining at the fabled 9:30 Club, though, was something Michelle Zauner almost refused to dream for herself.

That she not only headlined there May 30 to open the band’s current US tour, but sold it out (also selling out the first five shows on tour), meant Japanese Breakfast is becoming a main course. “I didn’t think this was really going to happen,” Zauner marveled.

Still touring off of last summer’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, Zauner has crafted an effective set from a recent European tour that swings from her electronically-tinged dream pop to rock and back again.

Super-energetic and jumping around, the three-piece backing band that included her husband Peter Bradley on guitar, Zauner was full of exuberance even if a lot of her songs reflected a tough time in her life following deaths in her family—her mother and aunt in quick succession.

Zauner often hides any mournfulness deep within the lyrics while the music on the surface is upbeat, songs that subtly shifted from dream pop to a rockier edge to porto-dance beat (she called for the lighting of the club’s disco ball at one point).

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TVD Live: Pussy Riot at the Black Cat, 5/23

Pussy Riot always seemed the last of the fearless punk bands, a group that would thrash for what it believed in and be willing to be jailed for it, as they famously were in Russia’s capital in 2012 after a church performance. By the time they made it to the US capital Wednesday as part of its inaugural North American tour, the attitude, neon ski masks, and political fervor were all still there. But they had long since given up guitars.

By now, Pussy Riot is animated by electrobeat dance music. In their succinct performance at the Black Cat, as a masked DJ kept the beats (and a crucial slide show) going from a laptop, one member chanted, sung or rapped to a dozen songs, accompanied at times by two flanking (and also ski-masked) colleagues.

Once, Pussy Riot declared they’d never be part of the Western style music business, preferring to throw surprise actions at unconventional sites like the one that got them rounded up by Putin. But here was a largely conventional setting with $30 tickets sold at the door—and a large crowd willing to pay it if only to provide support to their political and deeply feminist mission.

The set began with a 25-point manifesto, displayed on a large screen and read in a robotic voice (in English). Its declarations, from “82% of all wealth generated in the past year went to the top 1%” to “The super-rich enjoy undue influence,” was not exactly news to the Washington crowd as it stood mostly and followed attentively along, rather than cheering as would occur at a rally.

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TVD Premiere: Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ Worker’s
Comp, Volume II

It may be a wretched pun to say coffee shop employees nowadays get a lot of perks, but some outfits are now offering its baristas and staff everything from company stock and free college tuition to one-day racial sensitivity training.

Portland’s Stumptown Coffee employs enough musicians to feature their bands on exclusive compilations. Its Workers Comp Vol. I, recorded live in the original shop on Division Street in Southeast Portland, came out in 2001, just a couple of years after the roaster was founded.

By now, Stumptown has expanded to Ace Hotels, with shops in Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans. So it follows that the long-awaited Workers Comp Vol. II features a wider geographic array. Eleven bands hailing from New York and L.A. as well as Portland were flown out late last year to record with producer Mike Coykendall at the Map Room in Southeast Portland.

Out May 25 via Sub Rosa Curation on vinyl—as well as limited edition coffee vinyl— Workers Comp Vol. II is also making its debut today here at TVD. In addition to being a better than average compilation showcase, it may cause the mother company some worry—as talented as these bands are, how long can they be expected to still keep pouring cold brew?

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TVD Live: Okkervil River at the Black Cat, 5/20

On the inaugural night of the new Okkervil River tour Sunday at DC’s Black Cat, frontman Will Sheff kept saying what a joy it was there to be there and perform. He brought up that word joy more than once, possibly because he has been accused of being a Gloomy Gus in recent years, sending out sad song after song for a band that itself imploded a couple of albums ago.

But he recruited the road band he hastily assembled for his last tour as his new permanent band, with which he recorded the new In the Rainbow Rain album that came out last month on ATO Records. It also contains a number of contemplative songs, but one by one, each one seems to fight to become anthemic by the time they are over. That, mixed in with favorite songs from five of the band’s earlier eight albums, made the night seem absolutely upbeat.

With long hair, wire framed glasses, and bushy beard, Sheff was the spitting image of “Give Peace a Chance” era John Lennon, and his ambition wasn’t far from that with his personal, expansive, and poetic songs from throughout his career, with lyrics fans in the audience were seen to sublimely sing along to all night.

The most simplified of the new songs seemed to work best live, from the loping and catchy opening advisory, “Don’t Move Back to LA” to probably the only song to ever focus on “Famous Tracheotomies.” That terrific tune begins as a personal history—as Sheff gave his parents a scare with the necessary procedure as a baby, and then recounts a litany of famous names who had the same experience—from Gary Coleman of Diff’rent Strokes to Motown queen Mary Wells to Dylan Thomas to Ray Davies, whose experience at 13 at the St. Thomas Hospital gave him a chance to witness a scene he’d write about a decade. And Sheff’s song ends with the memorable melody of that Kinks classic, “Waterloo Sunset.”

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TVD Live: Liam Gallagher at the Lincoln Theatre, 5/19

Seems like all of England was at the Royal Wedding Saturday, but rocking native son Liam Gallagher, so highly esteemed in his home country, was in Washington, DC to make up a show he canceled last year. And looking as if he wanted to leave as soon as possible.

Other than fulfilling an implied contract with the audience, there was another sense of closure for the show that capped a quick week of US shows: here was the second of the two brothers from Oasis performing in town within three months. Noel Gallagher played a big show at the Anthem in February; Liam’s gig at the Lincoln Theatre was the other rock ’n’ roll shoe dropping.

The success of both shows were based on both brothers’ greater reliance on Oasis songs that made them stars. Indeed, more than half of Liam’s set were Oasis anthems, with the five others from his recent solo album (He decided to skip over the two albums of his first post-Oasis project, Beady Eye).

The sellout crowd that leaned toward nostalgia appreciated that ratio, but the total number of songs is what made this show notable: ten in the main set, two encores, 12 total. Because Richard Ashcroft had to ditch the tour early, there was no opener. So this was the rare rock show in which the headliner began an 8 o’clock show at 7:59, ended the main set at 8:44, and was out of there by 8:54.

Did he have to catch a plane? He was set to open the big Rolling Stones show Tuesday in London Stadium, so maybe he had his mind on other things. Gallagher has played slightly longer shows on this US run (by one song), but not at a DC show that needed it.

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TVD Live: David Byrne and Benjamin Clementine at the Anthem, 5/12

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNSDavid Byrne has always been as interested in visual art as in music. So his tours with the Taking Heads became increasingly more creative performance pieces with the herky, jerky music, big suits, and band movements to accompany his spiky, polyrthmic sounds. His solo tours were often just as arresting, and for the current “American Utopia” tour accompanying his first solo album in 16 years, he is breaking new ground.

On the vast, completely empty stage at the Anthem Saturday, ringed only by a curtain of chains, he appeared at a table and chair and picked up the life-sized model of a brain as he pointed out hemispheres of the organ and sang, “Here is a region of abundant details, here is a region that is seldom used…” It was just about the last stage props put on the stage. When joined by his musicians—nine all dressed in similar grey suits and two singers—they were all fully portable.

With wireless microphones, a wireless bass, wireless guitar, and wireless keyboard (which provided a lot of the sound), fully half of the musicians were assigned to parts of what would be a traditional drum set—toms, snare, timbale, other percussion—as if they were ready to be a marching band. Instead of striding into the crowd in formation though, they moved in planned patterns, stood 12-people across, or in two six-person lines, in a circle or a pinwheel in what must be the most choreographed rock concert for musicians ever devised.

So unusual did it seem, with nary a snaking wire, microphone stand, effects box, amp, or drum set in sight that it almost seemed like an all-dancing, little-playing track show. Byrne had to stop in the middle of the show to point out that it was not the case. Indeed, the dozen could have marched down the aisles and into the boxes, wifi willing, but chose to stay on the well-lit set, which changed hue or intensity with every song.

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TVD Live: They Might
Be Giants at the 9:30 Club, 4/14

High school pals John Linnell and John Flansburgh have pretty much stayed true to their eccentric approach to pop music as a guitar and accordion duo singing about science, history, and weird things might. Despite a successful foray into children’s music where they’ve recorded a handful of albums, earned Grammys, and scored music for Mickey Mouse, they’re back with a new non-kids album in I Like Fun, out this year, and a long tour to accompany it.

While they once made fun of their endless touring with a fanciful They Might Be Giants Tour 2040 T-shirt that pictured them as doddering on the road decades from now, they’re still in great shape at ages 57 and 58. Playing a sold out show at the 9:30 Club in DC Saturday night, it would seem they might have trepidation with their fate, judging from the title of their opening song “Let’s Get This Over With,” the first of seven from the new album.

But instead, they played a long and generous, two-set, 35-song show, full of favorites from throughout their 36 years with a pretty good sampling representing at least 14 of their 20 albums. It was a strong show in part because of the audience—not the over-excitable sing-along middle schoolers as it seemed to be last time I saw them, but fans who grew up with the band, loved the old stuff, and appreciated hearing the new concoctions which were as smart and melodic as ever.

While there was a segment at the start of the second set that featured just the duo (a Quiet Storm portion that featured videos of lightning), the show featured their longtime band of guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf, and drummer Marty Beller—who were now all clearly in view of Linnell for the first time, he gleefully told the audience, since he had only recently installed a rearview mirror on his keyboard. To that solid quintet, Curt Ramm strolled out to provide trumpet six songs in, a nice surprise and big addition.

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TVD Live: The HillBenders at the Hamilton, 4/12

Recording bluegrass versions of pop or rock songs goes back nearly half a century, to the days when the Country Gentlemen made Manfred Mann’s “Fox on the Run” their own and adapted Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” Both of those came out about the time The Who issued their rock opera Tommy, which has been turned into a full length Bluegrass Opry a couple of years ago by The HillBenders in a project so successful they’re still touring on it, returning to the Hamilton in DC Thursday to run through it all again before an appreciative crowd.

Pete Townshend wrote most of Tommy on his acoustic guitar, which makes it easy to adapt to what The Hellbenders were describing as an all acoustic approach (though the bass was amplified and there were some electronic touches of loops and amplified stomps). And yes, it kind of works, especially when they’re doing the best known single from the work, “Pinball Wizard,” with Mark Cassidy’s banjo picking overtime.

That they’re doing the whole thing, beginning to end, in order, is half the appeal, given the opportunity to hear some of the individual songs again, from the plaintive opening “1921” to “Sally Simpson” and “I’m Free.” Some of the less than 30 second interstitials sound as corny as ever, from “Miracle Cure,” to “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found.” Even harder to hear as entertainment is the child abuse archly approached in “Christmas” and “Fiddle About”—a bluegrass title if there ever was one (and, alas, there was no fiddle in the quintet).

One of the best things about The HillBenders adaptation was its cover variant—which was projected behind them on stage all night, the blue criss cross ribbons of the original turned to brown, as if they were slats in a country picnic basket.

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TVD Radar: Johnny Mathis’ I Love My Lady with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards for Record Store Day

Among the riches of Record Store Day 2018 is the first time release of the album Johnny Mathis recorded in 1982, written and produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. Though some of its tracks first came out last year on the boxed set The Voices of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection, this will be the first time the almost experimental I Love My Lady will be released as a standalone album, pressed on clear smoke vinyl. “That was just stuff that was happening at the moment and I’m glad I did it,” Mathis, 82, said in an interview with TVD. “It was a learning process, though. It was like: tell me what to do and I’ll try to do it.”.

It was a little weird for him, the smooth singing balladeer whose first hits came more than 60 years ago, teaming up with the duo who were behind big hits from Diana Ross and Sister Sledge, as well as their own indelible funk sound that provided the basis for hip-hop hits (and for Daft Punk’s last album). “It was a completely different process, as far as my making the recording,” says Mathis. “I got in there and they were writing the songs as I was singing. And along the way, they would say, ‘Oh, that sounds nice, let’s go with that a little more,’ and they’d write a melody or something. But it was mostly rhythmical, kind of words, not so much melody. But it was fun.”

Mathis says remaining open to new avenues is something he did throughout his career. “I started studying at a very early age with a voice teacher, but I also went to church and I heard church music. I also had classes in school listening to classical music, so I was just jumping in anywhere I was thrown,” he says. “With Bernard and Nile, it was fun. They were really, really enthusiastic. Of course, they were in a different genre of music than I was. But they were to me the first people who opened my eyes to the fact that just because you sing one kind of music doesn’t mean that people who do other kinds of music aren’t listening to you. So when I got an opportunity to work with them, I was thrilled.”

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TVD Live: Jim White and Sylvie Simmons at Hill Country Live, 4/10

It was no wonder David Byrne signed Jim White to his Luaka Bop label nearly 20 years ago. The two kind of look alike, have the same set of social hesitancy, and a penchant for original, unexpected, and often delightful songwriting. But White, who played a solo show at Hill Country Live this week, reminisced that Byrne rejected scores of his songs as being too weird. “This from a guy who did…” and he went off in the Stop Making Sense arm-chopping move.

White, who conjures a swampy, lonely, Ecclesiastical-tinged, Southern gothic sound, often has his tracks used in similarly artful shows, from Breaking Bad to Rectify. Minus a band, he was left to picking out old tracks and some from his new Waffles, Triangles & Jesus on an array of guitars played through a couple of vintage amps that seemed to hum throughout.

Before a modest but rapt crowd sipping beers at tables and chairs, White intermixed his brooding songs with long, spoken interludes. It seemed he took 10 minutes to tell the origin of the 1970 Impala he drove in the BBC Documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which introduced his singular music to many.

He said he doesn’t like to sing his hits any more—and that would include things like “Handcuffed to a Fence in Mississippi” or “Static on the Radio”—because that would bore him. But he included a couple of old favorites anyway, from “Alabama Chrome” to “A Town Called Amen.” He used tracks and loops to back up a couple of songs and it wasn’t off-putting. He’s well versed for kicking these things on and off at the right times, and he uses them sparingly. The track on “Jailbird,” he said, allowed him to play the harmonica solos.

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