Author Archives: Roger Catlin

TVD Live: Jon Spencer
& the HITmakers at the Black Cat, 1/12

When Jon Spencer took the stage arranging his amps before his latest band started playing Saturday night at the Black Cat in DC, nobody much responded. Maybe they didn’t recognize him with glasses. But when he doffed the glasses, Clark Kent-like, suddenly he was the mercurial rocker, with an Elvis Presley voice, a rock ’n’ roll soul and manic psychobilly punk style.

Once part of such bands as Pussy Galore, Boss Hog, Heavy Trash and the epic Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, he now fronts a trio modestly called The HITmakers. As such, the bulk of his set came from playing all 12 tracks on the recent Spencer Sings the Hits he recorded in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

“Ready for more hits?” he’d say mid-set, with no little irony. As influential as he’s been on rock’s underground, he’s never come close to having a hit—even if his sounds helped power a recent Hollywood hit, Baby Driver. But what he did was hard-hitting, that’s for sure. The tight circle of the band had Sam Coomes, of Quasi and Heatmiser, on keyboards, and the young M. Sord on drums, augmented by the unusual percussion by onetime Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert, who spent time in Pussy Galore with Spencer.

People talk about the gritty, piston-beats of industrial Michigan coming through its home-grown rock, but here was Bert wailing away on what looked to be an old Chevy gas tank with a pair of hammers. (On the album, the equipment is identified as “gas tank, strut spring, brake rotor, metal table, ventilation duct, unistrut, 2” EMT conduit, ball peen hammer”). Its distinct ping plays off Sord’s cellar-floor boom but helped conjure the heavy beat that’s always been a part of Spencer’s innate swagger.

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TVD Premiere:
Victor Krummenacher, “Skin & Bones”

PHOTO: KELLY VAN DEN BERGHE | In addition to his work in Camper Van Beethoven, Monks of Doom, and Camper Van Chadbourne over more than three decades, bassist Victor Krummenacher has managed to put out eight solo albums since 1995 as well.

His ninth, Blue Pacific, will be issued March 1 on Veritas Recordings and we’re proud to be able to debut one of its standout tracks here today at The Vinyl District, the moody and guitar-layered “Skin & Bones.” It comes from one of those albums that comes after a divorce, and Krummenacher says, it’s “one of the most personal cuts on Blue Pacific.”

“There’s nothing invented in it, it’s really just a mediation on being at a crossroads, knowing everything has changed and working on accepting that change, taking responsibility for what you can of whatever went wrong and walking away from the rest of it.”

With tasty acoustic and steel guitars making way for a climactic bridge, its nearly spoken vocals suggest a Dylan influence. But he says it’s more a reflection of Pete Townshend’s solo work. “He was the big hero when I was very young and first getting into music, and I think his expository writing affected me a lot more than I realized growing up,” he says.

It all seems to work.

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TVD Live: NRBQ at the Hamilton, 12/28

Those who haven’t seen the long-running NRBQ for a decade or two (or five) might have been surprised at the pre-New Year’s show at the Hamilton in DC to find that it is almost entirely a different band.

And while it may be unsettling for fans of Joey and Johnny Spampinato, the late Tommy Ardolino, or even Big Al Anderson, to see their wholesale replacements, the younger members miraculously seem largely as skilled and certainly steeped in the unique sensibility of the band, ready to rock, croon old pop, or take off on free jazz at will.

Born since the band was conceived, talented guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough, and super young-looking drummer John Perrin could have been raised in a lab to take the mantle of the quirky, fun-loving band. Even the singing voices of Ligon and Perrin seem pitched at about the same light timbre of Terry Adams, who at 70 is the sole connection to the beginnings of the band more than a half century ago.

Still holding down his side of the stage, manically attacking the electric piano or clavinet, smiling goofily, his hair spilling from beneath a molting straw hat festooned with a band of flowers, Adams still brings the bulk of the band’s cockeyed personality. At the same time, his keyboard playing is a marvel in its accuracy (despite looking like he’s only freely pounding).

The wild man had formed what he called the Terry Adams Rock and Roll Quartet more than a decade ago with Ligon, but abruptly re-christened it NRBQ, seemingly single-handedly reigniting the storied band that stopped performing in 2004.

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TVD Live: Margo Price and Lilly Hiatt at the 9:30 Club, 12/27

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNSTo start her short tour leading up to New Year’s Eve, Margo Price rewrote the old Loretta Lynn tune “One’s On the Way.”

Fitting, since she’s showing off her own pregnancy—five months along—with husband and band member, Jeremy Ivey. But she’s also topical enough to adapt that old country hit (written by Shel Silverstein) so that Beyonce and Cardi B replace references to Liz and Jackie, while some lines from the 1971 original certainly still hold up 47 years later (“the girls in New York City, they all march for women’s lib”).

Price, 35, was glowing in her tour opening date in DC, perhaps because of her bump beneath her guitar, but also beaming from reaching her heights. She was happy to be headlining the storied 9:30 Club and basking in her first Grammy nomination she’d been given a couple of weeks earlier. It’s for Best New Artist, which is kind of a laugh for someone working for a decade, finally attracting a wider audience with two strong albums on Jack White’s Third Man Records. But deserved nonetheless.

Price is a fierce artist who seems country to the core and yet dismisses entirely the bland commercial hybrid of contemporary country radio (which seems to have ignored her in return). Behind her strong, clear voice and no-nonsense performing style, she’s got a solid handle on songwriting and even introduced a new song, possibly the only one to combine the legacies of John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and Martin Luther King, “Long Live the King.”

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TVD Live: Cat Power at the 9:30 Club, 12/16

The music starts up minutes before Cat Power strides on stage. Her backing trio conjures a kind of soundscape of pointillist notes, more structured than tuning up, but not entirely melodic either. They are providing an atmosphere in which Chan Marshall can emerge.

In her beguiling show at the 9:30 Club in DC on a recent Sunday, Marshall was freed from her own guitar or piano playing, instead steadying herself with the twin microphone stands pointed toward her, that she gripped like ski poles on her way down a slalom.

Once, the long time folk-tinged siren of indie rock was said to be so full of stage fright she could hardly complete a show—or she had to drink to get through it. By now, at 46 and a mother, she’s found a way to present live shows as alluring as her very personal recorded output. That comes with one big caveat: making her almost impossible to see.

The stage is barely lit but largely from the back, in a general fog, and the figure of Marshall can be seen—tall and rangy, using a lot of hand movements, and moving across the full stage. But from the middle of the floor one can never glean a facial expression until the lightning moment when a flash goes off on a camera phone.

It creates the same kind of murky mystery that her slow and moody songs do. Even if it’s a little frustrating for fans hoping to more clearly see her perform. But if the trade-off is solid show, so be it.

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TVD Live: The Rev. Horton Heat, Junior Brown, The Blasters at the Black Cat, 12/15

The Rev. Horton Heat issued his Christmas album 13 years ago, but only for the last few years has he loaded up a big holiday revue that includes a few other acts equally worthy of headline status—Junior Brown and The Blasters.

They all packed into the Black Cat in DC on a recent Saturday, playing a stage festooned with vintage silver Christmas trees (with revolving color light) and ribbons. Heat was the only one to actually play Christmas tunes, be they twanging instrumental versions of “What Child is This” with which he started his generous set, or surprisingly reverent versions of things like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

That these sentimental classics would come in-between a barrage of signature blasts like “Psychobilly Freakout” would sometime cause a seasonal whiplash, but they’ve always been two parts of bandleader’s Jim Heath’s sensibility.

Nearing 60, Heath is at once the most traditional-looking of country-western performers in his silk suits, aw shucks smile, heartfelt croon, and especially his rock-solid rockabilly playing on his signature Gretsch guitar. But he also came out of the punk world, which means many a winter brew was spilled doing a typically obnoxious late-show mosh pit to old things like “400 Bucks” or the raucous divorce song “Galaxy 500.”

So the show careened between the two poles—“Baddest of the Bad” followed by the Elvis holiday cheer of “Baby Bring My Baby”; “Rudolph” followed by quite another animal, “Hog Tyin’ Woman,” from his most recent album Whole New Life.

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TVD Live: Rufus Wainwright at the Music Center at Strathmore, 12/8

Rufus Wainwright is an accomplished enough figure in music, having just opened his second opera, that he needn’t have to look back. Lucky for his longtime fans that he is, marking his 20th anniversary in show business with a tour that showcases his first two albums, which made for an elegant and stirring evening Saturday at Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore.

With the impeccable genes—son of the wry singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and Canadian songbird Kate McGarrigle—the young Wainwright has nonetheless forged his own career, with beguiling songs and strong tenor aching toward showy standard pop to such a degree that he presented his own version of Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall. (Wainwright’s heady genes will continue: He and his husband have a daughter by way of Leonard Cohen’s daughter—what pressure she will have to be a poet and songwriter).

It seems to be as interesting for Wainwright as it is for his audience to look back on the early days of the debut Rufus Wainwright and Poses. Unlike other acts who recreate old albums, he didn’t present the songs of the first in order, or even all of it (leaving out three tunes). But he did do all of Poses in the second half, in order, and without the charming and funny commentary between tunes that he used in the show’s first half.

Wainwright takes care with these songs, doing them better and with more confidence and stretching them out to such a degree that when he did the little ditty “Millbrook,” it seemed short by comparison. He had a bit to say about his mother, and his French Canadian upbringing, but little about his dad, whose “One Man Guy” he did straightforwardly, as he did on his second album.

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TVD Live: Sweetheart
of the Rodeo
50th Anniversary Tour at Strathmore, 12/3

“One hundred years from this day,” Gram Parsons once wrote, “will the people still feel this way?” Alas, he wouldn’t live to find out. Twenty-two when he wrote it, he was dead at 26. But half a century since it was recorded for a game-changing Byrds album, maybe the people do feel different.

A flop when it was released, Sweetheart of the Rodeo gained stature as the first album-length country-rock statement, creating a string of music that flourishes as Americana, and justifying a tour marking its 50th year, which made its way to the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda in a ringing show Monday.

Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman were the only Byrds remaining to perform it. But that seemed to fit—they were the only two members left in the imploding band when they started the project. They were the ones who hired the country-rock savant Parsons, who in turn helped steer the band to its rhinestone-gilded new direction.

The Byrds had dabbled in classic country previously, from the bluegrass-sounding “Mr. Spaceman” to Hillman’s “Time Between.” But it was Parsons who pulled them further, with three of his own songs as well as the wide-ranging country sampling that rounded it out, recorded in Nashville with some of its finest musicians.

In doing so, after helping invent folk-rock by plugging in Dylan, the Byrds created an honest salute to the twang and rhinestone of classic country with neither condescension nor irony; a full embrace of American ideals unusual for long-haired rockers of the day, and possibly out of step entirely with 1968, the tumultuous year in which it was recorded.

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TVD Premiere:
Luther Russell, “Saturday’s Child”

PHOTO: JIM NEWBERRY | “’Saturday’s Child’ is a track I cut with the full intention of including it on Medium Cool. In fact, it struck me as super-catchy, but just didn’t end up ultimately fitting into the sequence. It’s nice to give the 45 something special that the full-length doesn’t have…I always try and do that. Regarding the song, it struck me that a young, confident woman is like the “star” of the local bar or club on any given night, in any given town—and there’s a power in that. This song is a rumination on that, and the rites of passage we all go through when we first get out into the world in our various social scenes. These rituals are innocent, fun, yet important. And it’s all part of Rock & Roll.”Luther Russell

A fresh single often signals the direction of a new album. That may be the case with Luther Russell’s “The Sound of Rock & Roll” 7″ out today on the Portland imprint Fluff and Gravy—providing a stately, engaging, heartfelt introduction to his upcoming LP Medium Cool, due out in February.

But how good can an album be if it tosses off to a B-side something as splendid as “Saturday’s Child,” the track we’re proud to be premiering here today at The Vinyl District. To be available only as the 45’s B-side, “Saturday’s Child” is an upbeat, ringing reverie to a girl in tight jeans, who like her clothing, doesn’t want to fade away.

The delectable cut has some agreeable echoes with Russell’s other current project, teaming with Big Star’s Jody Stephens in the duo Those Pretty Wrongs. Russell, a Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist, singer and writer, has also been working with Robyn Hitchcock and wrote a couple of songs for Weezer’s 2016 “white album.” Inspired by the Replacements, Russell once fronted The Freewheelers, which had a couple major label albums out and before that, was once in a pre-Wallflowers trio with their Jakob Dylan and Tobi Miller.

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TVD Video Premiere: Handsome Jack,
“Baby Be Cool”

PHOTO: GANNON TEACH | “‘Baby Be Cool’ is a light-hearted, soulful take on wanting to get your ex back if they’d only just be cool the next time around. This song always gives me a really good feeling when the horns bust in on that last chorus. We wanted the video to match the fun vibe of the song so our director Nate Chateaux came up with this cool green screen color changing effect.”Jamison Passuite, Handsome Jack

The soulful rockin’ sonics of Handsome Jack sound more like they’re from the Southern U.S. than southern Niagara County, N.Y., 20 miles east of the Falls. But that’s the origin of the rootsy and dynamic power trio who have just issued their second album Everything’s Gonna Be Alright on Alive Naturalsound records. Among its treats is the simple stomper “Baby Be Cool,” sounding like a Wet Willie outtake but with eventual Memphis-style horns.

We’re proud to debut the striking video for “Baby Be Cool,” which combines the classic hair and plaid look of the band with the bright colors of a ’70s sitcom intro, with an eye-catching typography that leans toward the late ’60s 3D cursive of old logos found on LP covers from the Flying Burrito Brothers or the Jackson 5.

But while upholding the classic sounds of rockers enjoying the blues, there’s nothing overtly retro about the band, other than the good old feelings they conjure up. They’re more like onetime label mates the Black Keys inciting something unpretentious and solid.

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TVD Live: Brian Wilson celebrates Pet Sounds at the Kennedy Center, 11/5

It’s been two years since Brian Wilson’s 50th anniversary tour of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds “final performances” commenced across the states and around the world. But the masterpiece of rock expression has never worn out its welcome. Another one of the “final performances” came Monday at the Kennedy Center, this one not only enhanced by the acoustics and decor of the Concert Hall, but with added strings and horns from the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra (the ones who weren’t being used next door at Anastasia presumably).

It gave another dimension to parts of the work, which had already been pretty well handled by the 10 piece band who had figured out ways to perform all of the xylophones, bass harmonicas, flutes, clarinets, banjos, theremin, and electric guitar that the endlessly innovative work required. Violins added an extra emotional tug to “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” the horns amping up an additional urgency in “Here Today.” Both pushed the existing, somewhat surprising emotional wallop further.

It wasn’t just the nostalgia of the sweet hopeful naiveté of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” it was hearing Wilson, at 76, starting these songs in his own voice with lines that maybe ring more true for him at the end of his life than they did at the beginning. “I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be,” he sings in “You Still Believe in Me” (whose title, on the part of the audience, was also still true). Or mournfully singing, “I keep looking for a place to fit in,” at the start of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”

In each of those songs, the higher parts were picked up by another band member. In the past, it had been Al Jardine’s son Matt. Only recently has somebody new stepped in for those parts. Keeping in the family, now it’s Wilson’s son-in-law Rob Bonfiglio, Carnie Wilson’s husband, handling acoustic guitars and doing those high parts for the tour.

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TVD Live: Elvis Costello & the Imposters at DAR Constitution Hall, 11/4

PHOTO: JAMES O’MARA | Normally super-prolific, Elvis Costello went five years between new albums recently, going so far as to tour an old album, Imperial Bedroom last year rather than release a new set of songs.

But a memoir, a health scare, and that tour with the Imposters reminded Costello how much he liked performing with the snap of Pete Thomas’ drums, the baroque inventiveness of keyboardist Steve Nieve, and the bounce of Davey Faragher. Last month, he released the new Look Now, his first album with the Imposters in 10 years, and was kicking off his tour to support the album last weekend, with his third stop at the staid DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, DC Sunday.

The Imposters are pretty much the Attractions with a switch in bassists from Bruce Thomas to Faragher, so there was a great opportunity to play the snarling tracks of his early years along with the quieter, generally more pop approach of his new work.

He pointed to each Imposter as the bracing opening song featured each of them in turn—drums to bass to organ on “This Year’s Girl,” a song that felt utterly contemporary, in part because it’s been the theme song to this season’s The Deuce on HBO (which coincidentally was having its finale that night).

Looking sharp in black suit, tie and shirt and brandishing his electric guitar, the four were accompanied by the background singers from the last tour, Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, who were left to mostly go-go dance in knee-high boots to the oldest songs since they largely featured no background parts.

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TVD Live: Take Me to
the River Tour at The Hamilton, 10/24

It’s less than a half a year to Fat Tuesday, but the heart of Mardi Gras is on the road in the form of the Take Me to the River tour. The caravan, headlined by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and featuring such figures as Ivan Neville and George Porter Jr., is built around the upcoming documentary Take Me to the River: New Orleans—a sequel to the 2014 original that concentrated on Memphis soul stars working with young hopefuls.

Both were directed and produced by Martin Shore, who introduced and played some congas in the background during the stop Wednesday at the Hamilton in DC. By now the whole “Take Me to the River” operation is meant to bolster music education, both financially and in giving talented young people a chance to get on stage to share their skills amid some legends.

In the upcoming film, it’s Irma Thomas who shows the younger singer Ledisi around one of her classics in a clip that preceded the live music. Live, it meant young performers like singer Joelle Dyson and bassist Dillon Caillouette are on board with New Orleans legends. But they could hold their own.

Dyson (at least I think that was her name; it wasn’t listed anywhere) started with a pair from Irma Thomas—the sassy “(You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don’t Mess With My Man” and the classic “Time is On My Side,” which she proves more true for her certainly than it does, for say, the Rolling Stones, who famously also recorded it.

That’s the point of this show—that the young people have time on their side to advance this indigenous soulful music. And she could have asked for no better backing band than one with Ivan Neville on keyboards, George Porter Jr. on bass, Terence Higgins on drums, and the Dirty Dozen’s Kevin Harris on saxophone. It was unclear whether it was more inspirational or intimidating for Caillouette to play his bass in the shadow of the Meters’ great bassist Porter.

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TVD Live: Guided by Voices at the Black Cat, 10/19

They were playing Captain Beyond before the Guided by Voices’ super marathon at the Black Cat Friday and that was about right: post psychedelic, pre-prog rock Brit/American mix with all kinds of fanciful medieval references. The kind of thing that GBV leader Robert Pollard would relish, in other words, or put out on his own.

Except that by now Guided by Voices is way, way beyond even Captain Beyond. At 60, with a mop of white hair, Pollard may look like an out-to-seed golf pro who might gingerly be stepping into retirement, but he may be one of the most prolific figures in rock ’n’ roll history, with more than 2,400 song titles in the online GBV database alone. While zooming through an enjoyable, rollicking set through a fraction of them Friday—a whopping 53 songs over two and a half hours—Pollard was ostensibly promoting the band’s latest release, Space Gun, its 26th or so release (Pollard also has nearly as many solo albums).

But he also was playing quite a lot from the three (!) albums the band has in the can that are being readied for release next year. “And one of them is a double album,” he added. He named them: Zeppelin Over China, Warp & Woof, and The Rite of the Ants. All of this output despite the fact of at least a couple breakups and multi-year hiatuses of the band over its 35 year career—one lasting for six years, the other for two—and a wholesale change in members backing Pollard about 20 years ago.

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TVD Live: Bottle
Rockets and Sarah Borges at Gypsy
Sally’s, 10/18

PHOTO: CARY HORTON | The Bottle Rockets have always had a flinty, no-nonsense way of expressing the very concrete things of everyday life that sets it apart from most bands.

There’s a hard-won Midwestern honesty to their hard-charging songs about defining the limitations of life and accepting them (or at least naming them clearly). And when Brian Henneman and crew have a new set of songs to present, by gum, they’re going to do them, playing everything from a new album because they’re just as proud of every song on it, and letting an audience know what exactly to expect.

At a previous headlining show at Gypsy Sally’s in DC, they played the entirety of their 2015 South Broadway Athletic Club in order, one after another before going onto their older favorites. In a satisfying show Thursday opened by Sarah Borges, they played the songs from their new Bit Logic in order as well. And though they refused to take requests from fans during the main set, they at least did throw in some old favorites in between the new ones to allow a taste of the familiar.

But the charm of the band is that everything they write about is already familiar, from the frustration of a non-moving Interstate (even in Missouri) on “Highway 70 Blues” to the pleasures of tinny radios in “Lo-Fi.” He may dismiss the digital culture on the album’s title track, but he admitted in the show that crowd-sourcing encouragement online led to writing another song, “Maybe Tomorrow.”

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