Author Archives: Roger Catlin

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

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | 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: Sheer Mag at the Black Cat, 8/23

For all of the power and velocity of her screaming-mimi voice, Sheer Mag lead singer Tina Halladay can be awfully shy on stage.

Raging through the band’s headlining show Wednesday at the Black Cat in DC, she paused just once to talk, and then only to read off some info about how to aid the hundreds of protesters arrested during January’s inauguration and soon to go to trial. That brief message merged with the political underpinnings that emerge on the band’s recent full length LP, Need to Feel Your Love, starting with the bust-down-the-walls attack of their opening song, “Meet Me in the Street” and its anthemic chorus “Come on down and get in the mix / We get our kicks with bottles and bricks.”

There’s other sounds of resistance on the new work, which touches on disenfranchisement (“If you don’t give us the ballot, expect the bayonet”) and of an anti-Nazi warrior who was executed, “(Say Goodbye to) Sophie Scholl.” But what hits you at a Sheer Mag show is the overall sound—beneath Halladay’s peerless delivery are a rich array of time-honored riffs that have, since the last DC visit, broadened to include the sweet three-guitar attack.

An extra rhythm guitarist has been added to provide the basic riffs as Kyle Seely’s extends his tasty lead guitar toppings, wagging his head alongside bass playing brother Hart Seely to the joy of the music. In their shoulder length locks and mustaches, the siblings resemble a couple of dudes from Golden Earring. It’s that same kind of united rock precision that is their own musical golden ring. The extra guitarist frees lyricist Matt Palmer to move from guitar to keyboards and occasionally tambourine and other percussion.

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Hamell on Trial,
The 2017 TVD Interview

Edward James Hamell began hitting the road as Hamell on Trial more than a quarter century ago, bringing punk fervor to the acoustic guitar, with a live show that employs spoken word and comedy along with his angry and funny songs. In recent years, he’s been aided on the road by his teenage son, Detroit, who puts in his own few minutes of jokes in his set.

After a long stint on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, Hamell moved to New West, where he recorded 2014’s The Happiest Man in the World and is about to release the new Tackle Box on August 11. He spoke from the highway on his summer tour, talking about the new record, the new live album that comes with it, the new administration, empathy for cops, and what really makes him money on tour—paintings.

Where am I catching you?

I’m about 40 miles into Arkansas from Texas, heading East. The battle plan is to stay in Little Rock tonight and then bring my son to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis tomorrow. We played Dallas last night and then I just drove. We’ll check into a motel crazy early for us today, like 2 in the afternoon. He’s doing some blogs about the tour for a magazine and I’ll have to paint.

So you’re fitting in some tourism as well as performing.

Yeah. We do it every year. I’ve been bringing him out for the summer trips. He’s probably done 100,000 miles. He’s been coming with me since he was about seven, when my wife and I split up. He enjoys the touring. Now he comes up and tells jokes. He does this little bit in the middle. He does this comedic schtick that goes over pretty well. He has good timing. And we have a ball.

And what do we do? We always go to the Mall of America when we’re in Minneapolis; we always go to Cedar Point, the amusement park. I brought him to Niagara Falls, that was different this year. And I’ve brought him to the Grand Canyon and the Michael Jackson Cirque du Soleil in Vegas. We’ve done Comic-Con. He’s a gamer too.

How old is he now?

He’s 15 now. I got him driving some of the back roads just out in Alabama. But nothing on the highways. He can’t drive yet, but he wants to. He unquestionably has the passion for it, I can tell you.

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TVD Live: Paul McCartney at the CenturyLink Center, Omaha, 7/23

Paul McCartney was just kidding a half century ago when he painted a picture of a grandfatherly existence at 64, doing the garden, digging the weeds, and wondering whether he’d still be needed. Eleven years after that artificial milestone, people very clearly need him.

And as he continues to thrill the hinterlands at 75 with stops on his “One to One” tour, arenas sell out and fans get on their feet for a wealth of Beatles songs, many of which were never performed live when the group was around. He’s not including “When I’m 64” on the current swing, which stopped Sunday at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, but he could scarcely fit it into a setlist that was already 39 songs long. Add in the wealth of his hits from Wings and solo outings, he could concoct three completely different rosters of splendid music to play.

How can you beat a concert that begins with “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Junior’s Farm,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” and chooses only the most delicious obscurities sprinkled amid the well-known anthems. The first was “Temporary Secretary,” an early stab at electronica whose performance came with graphics that aped Kraftwerk too. With a lean four piece band behind him, they were able to knock out the arena-ready themes from Band on the Run—the album most reflected in the generous show. But they also became a more spare unit, with acoustic guitars, standup trap set, and accordion to do the first thing he ever put on wax —“In Spite of All the Danger” from The Quarrymen followed by “You Won’t See Me” and “Love Me Do.”

The latter was probably the heart of the show—the first Beatles’ UK single, simply played, coming with a story about its recording (“I can still hear my nerves in my voice,” he says). More than that, it came off like any acoustic-led singalong to Beatles songs that millions all over the globe have participated in for more than 50 years—but this time with the guy who originally wrote and sang it. The degree of communal joy of the spontaneous singalong to this singular cultural moment can’t be overstated.

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TVD Song Premiere: Jimmy Lumpkin, “Troubled Soul”

“‘Troubled Soul’ is a song about empathy—putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Seeing their struggle, you can relate because you’ve been there.” —Jimmy Lumpkin

Up from the South comes the rough-hewn, heartfelt sound of Jimmy Lumpkin. The soulful singer was raised in Savannah, GA and has lived in Tennessee and Colorado but he wrote most of the songs for his upcoming debut Home in a rustic cabin outside of Fairhope, AL—a marshy, artistic outpost not far from Mobile.

“We use the word ‘home’ all the time and it means so many different things to so many people,” Lumpkin says. “But when I write these songs, I want to live in the songs.” They certainly grew out of his own experiences and recording them all back to back in Los Angeles—using analog recording techniques and a vintage machines producer Noah Shain picked up in Nashville—was an emotional time reliving all the personal moments his songs depict.

The warmth of the horns and the kick of the guitar shine through on “Troubled Soul” we’re happy to be debuting here at The Vinyl District. “Troubled Soul” howls a concern about a wayward friend as the music swells in the Southern soul tradition. Adding to the regional authenticity, Lumpkin recently announced that Duane Betts, son of Allman Brothers guitarist Dicky Betts, will be touring with his band The Revival as lead guitarist.

Home will be released on Skate Mountain Records August 4, 2017.

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TVD Live: Steve Earle and The Dukes with
The Mastersons at the Birchmere, 7/18

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | It’s a brash move to close out a show on one of the hottest days in the DC metro area with a song called “Christmas in Washington,” but Steve Earle’s career has been one of brash moves.

He started his generous show at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA., Tuesday with a handful of songs from an album that’s only been out a month, beginning with its title track, “So You Wanna be an Outlaw.” The collection followed an all blues and a lighter approach with Shawn Colvin on a duet album, he returned to ringing outlaw country, inspired by old Waylon Jennings and a couple of songs he had written for TV’s Nashville.

Backed by a stomping version of the Dukes that was sweetened by pedal steel and fiddle, he eventually brought in those early career anthems like “Guitar Town” and “The Galway Girl” (its bagpipe sounds courtesy of the keyboards). The Christmas song was less about the season and more about the chorus, “”Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now.” He had just lead a singalong “This Land is Your Land,” with its own new Trump Tower verse and Guthrie’s spirit was hanging in the air.

“Christmas in Washington” was written on another disappointing election 20 years earlier: The Democrats rehearsed getting into gear for four more years / Things not gettin’ worse / Republicans drink whiskey neat and thanked their lucky stars.

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TVD Live: The Zombies at the Birchmere, 7/17

Half a century ago this summer, The Zombies were in Abbey Road studio working on an album that would both break up the band and bring them back together decades later. Fifty years later, they were winding up another US tour whose center point was a group of songs from that album that only grew in stature over the years, Odessey and Oracle.

In a show at The Birchmere in Alexandria Monday, the songs soared as lovely chamber pop concoctions—“Care of Cell 44,” “A Rose for Emily,” and “This Will Be Our Year,” leading into their biggest hit, “Time of the Season.” Oddly, it was that last one that didn’t seem well executed—the handclap, drumbeat, breath that was the basis of its precise backbeat seemed shaky (perhaps because they left the handclap to the audience), the keyboard solo by Rod Argent want a little long and wandered a little far afield, the big choral singalong a bit wanting (again because of the audience).

Overall, the group known for its bad timing (they broke up before “Time of the Season” became a hit and wouldn’t reform to tour or otherwise capitalize on it) sounded extraordinarily great. That’s because the vocals of lead singer Colin Blunstone, operatic and high ranging, seemed untouched by the passing years, perhaps because he’d been resting it so long. Argent’s voice wasn’t bad either, though he hid it most of the night, even on songs from his project following the Zombies, also called Argent.

There was more British rock royalty in this small unit: bassist Jim Rodford, who had co-founded Argent, went on to play with the Kinks from 1978 until the band stopped touring in 1996. He also spent time in versions of the Animals and the Swinging Blue Jeans. He’s 76; Argent and Blunstone are 72. The two younger members of the band, drummer (and son) Steve Rodford and guitarist Tom Toomey—both seemed to have white hair in sympathy with their elder bandleaders.

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TVD Live: NRBQ at the Amp by Strathmore, 7/15

It was a shock six years ago when the newest incarnation of NRBQ was actually something that had been touring as the Terry Adams Rock & Roll Quartet.

Adams had been the mainstay of the Q since the start, more than 50 years ago now, but still. NRBQ had been on a hiatus for a couple of years because of Adams’ stage four throat cancer. Longtime fans were still ready to object to his seemingly arbitrary unveiling of a new group of younger musicians under the venerable name. And then it turned out, hey they were pretty good.

The 2017 version of Q that played the Amp by Strathmore in North Bethesda Saturday night were able to conjure up the spirit of daffy joy and unpredictable musical tangents for which the band has always been known.

Adams, at 69, is still the center of this musical maelstrom, calling out songs and attacking his keyboards with fists and karate chops with an electric fan blowing back his trademark bangs and hair, now turned grey. It looked like he was riding a horse more than playing an instrument half the time.

He wasn’t singing quite as much, either because of the bout with throat cancer or because this was the end of a tour that included a swing through California. But he was full of music, playing more than 30 tunes that included Q favorites, catchy newer ones from the new lineup and oddball covers.

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