Author Archives: Roger Catlin

TVD Live: She & Him Christmas Party at the Anthem, 12/5

PHOTO: DAN WINTERS | The first time Zooey Deschanel sang a Christmas song for huge audiences was 16 years ago in the movie Elf, crooning “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the shower, eventually dueting with an unwelcome Will Ferrell. It was that moment that showed M. Ward that the actress could actually sing, and they eventually got together to form the duo She & Him, which continued to record originals and covers even as her star rose as the star of TV’s The New Girl for seven seasons.

The third album for the two was a Christmas release, as was their sixth, two years ago. That makes fully one third of the She & Him recorded output Yuletide music. So Christmas is a big deal for them. Hence a big “Christmas Party” tour that filled Washington, DC’s cavernous Anthem with good cheer if not completely with fans. A lot of them came in holiday finery so extreme there was a costume show and competition mid-show, hosted by the comic who opened the show Pete Lee, whose schtick is being a wide-eyed innocent, not unlike a certain overgrown elf Deschanel has worked with before. Six Christmas trees stayed alight on the broad stage all night and a huge 10-foot video screen looped a fireplace fire throughout.

Deschanel’s well-defined favorite holiday period was clear from her choice of the the 1944 Frank Loesser duet she did in Elf—relying on the kind of mid-20th century, postwar pop standards popular way before her time—from about the time her father was born. That lent a kind of draggy, melancholy haze to the first half of the show, weighed down with slowed versions of nostalgic standbys from your mom’s Firestone albums like “Happy Holiday,” “The Christmas Waltz,” and “The Christmas Song.”

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TVD Live: Marshall Crenshaw at City Winery, 11/16

Marshall Crenshaw’s tours these days take different forms. Sometimes he goes solo, other times he shares the stage with the Bottle Rockets. He was the lead voice for a Smithereens tribute tour earlier this year as well. But Saturday for a show at City Winery in Washington DC, he fronted a trio that gave both muscular backing to his tuneful, timeless songs and a loose, fresh approach to many of them.

It began with the opening “There She Goes Again,” whose bounce slowed with a more relaxed beat. The sprightly song had kicked off his landmark self-titled album in 1982 that’s still a favorite of Crenshaw fans and to which the singer returned a couple of other times for show high points, “Cynical Girl” and “Someday, Someway,” which with he ended the set.

But other songs may have better used his group, which boasted bassist Jared Michael Nickerson, who has played with Charlie Musselwhite, Freedy Johnston, and Vernon Reid and drummer Dan Hickey, who played for years for They Might Be Giants, and also Joe Jackson, Joe Cocker, The B-52’s and Cyndi Lauper.

The jazzy “Fantastic Planet of Love” was well suited for their instrumental flights; the hard-charging “Better Back Off” got a slower, almost country approach. The looseness overall may have been the inevitable result of not rehearsing, the singer admitted. Crenshaw extolling the practice of Dean Martin in approaching his TV variety show the same way. But it also meant the show had a spontaneity throughout.

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TVD Premiere: Mister Rogers, “Many Ways To Say I Love You”

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE FRED ROGERS COMPANY | Yes, we are tough, we are girded against an unforgiving world, the headlines make us quake each day and now winter is coming. But, oh my gosh, the tinkly piano and reassuring voice of Fred Rogers will make you melt all over again, be you tattooed metal head or cynical indie rocker. We at TVD are only too happy to make your day, save your week, instill one tiny fiber of hope with the premiere of “Many Ways to Say I Love You” from Mister Rogers.

It’s a vinyl-only bonus track from a new vinyl version of It’s Such a Good Feeling: The Best of Mister Rogers. The Omnivore Recordings CD/digital version came out in October, well in advance of the big Tom Hanks movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood that will be released November 22.

But on that same day, a translucent cardigan-red vinyl version of It’s Such a Good Feeling comes out, exclusively at Barnes & Noble, with two extra tracks not on the CD/digital version. That one of them is “Many Ways to Say I Love You” makes you instantly think: How could they have left it off in the first place? How would we otherwise hear of the cooking way to say I love you? The eating way? The cleaning way? The drawing way? Mister Rogers had a way to stick it right to your heart, in a sincere and kindly, totally non-cynical way—a trolley train express right back to your childhood.

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TVD Live: Kinky Friedman at Pearl Street Warehouse, 11/7

He’s been a popular detective novelist, a singer, a columnist, Peace Corps volunteer, animal rescuer, and a politician. He played at the Grand Ole Opry, Saturday Night Live, and the Rolling Thunder Revue. He’s the only performer in 45 years to record an episode of Austin City Limits that was never aired. And he won 12.6 percent of the vote when he ran for Governor of Texas in 2006.

Kinky Friedman is back on the road and playing music, with the latest of a revived recording career and a new album that’s in the Americana Top 10. In a typically laconic solo show at the Pearl Street Warehouse in Washington, DC on Thursday, days after he turned 75, he placed himself in the tradition of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, with wisecracks out of Mark Twain (he fiddled with a cigar that he never lit indoors).

That notion probably comes from starting with Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a populist Robin Hood anthem, that begins with the invitation, “If you’ll gather ‘round me, children, a story I will tell..” That’s the same way another staple of his set began, Peter LaFarge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” another song about social import about a Pima Indian who became a forgotten World War II hero.

More often in his show—and what the dozens of people came to see—were his randy little ditties like “Waitret, Please Waitret” (“come sit on my fate” is its written lyric) or his flirty song of archeology, “Homo Erectus.” And it wouldn’t be a Kinky concert without his “Asshole from El Paso,” Chinga Chavin’s inversion of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.”

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TVD Live: The New Pornographers and
Lady Lamb at the
Lincoln Theatre, 11/6

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | From the big sound that comes from The New Pornographers you’d almost expect more people on stage. But just eight were there Wednesday at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington DC, covering songs from eight different albums before a happy, largely seated audience.

It was the rare second day in the city to satisfy demand. Even more rare was that they were inside a theater rather than a big nightclub. “In 15 years I don’t think we’ve ever not played the 9:30 Club,” frontman Carl Newman said. It was such a topsy-turvy thing, he sang a line from “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” from “Hamilton,” perhaps inspired by being in the Nation’s Capital an extra day. But in doing a second night’s show, though, they were determined to present a different show than the night before. “It’s only polite,” said Newman, ever the Canadian.

So people didn’t hear the new “Leather on the Seat” from their new album In the Morse Code of Brake Lights. Instead of “Dancehall Domine” from Brill Bruisers they played “You Tell Me Where”; two things were heard from Challengers including the title track that they hadn’t played the night before; they did a rare “Use It” but not “Stacked Crooked” from Twin Cinema. Further, “Avalanche Alley” instead of “High Ticket Attractions” from Whiteout Conditions; and “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” instead of “Crash Years” from Together.

It couldn’t have been too easy; these are intricate pop creations with lots of parts presumably needing lots of practice—they don’t just bang out anything. But it all sounded pretty darn glorious and they kept in enough favorites to rally fans from any of its eras (for me, it was “Singing Spanish Techno”).

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TVD Live: Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding at City Winery, 11/5

Rockabilly had its heyday and faded 20 years before Robert Gordon picked up the mantle in the late ’70s. By then, he had already been frontman for CBGB’s mainstay Tuff Darts and he would bring the same punk energy to the bass-slapping vibrancy of the ’50s sound.

He was the pre-Stray Cats king of the rockabilly revivalists even if he only grazed the mainstream. Still, Bruce Springsteen gave him the throbbing “Fire”; he recorded Marshall Crenshaw’s “Someday, Someway” before its author made it his signature song. Throughout a string of initial albums, he built a body of rockabilly works that would drive the music into the next decade.

Decades later, Gordon, at 72, is still performing and on Tuesday headlined a show at City Winery in Washington, DC, not far from where he grew up in Bethesda, MD. A lot of old friends showed up for him, including the drummer for the first band he was in at age 15. But it was not as crowded a night as past local appearances have been.

In a stylish suit and cummerbund, with an attempt at a modish cut in his hair, he cut a figure like a retired baseball star or ex-boxer opening a nightclub. He was welcoming and debonair but with a rough-hewn, old school expression that put him from another era. In front of a band with more credentials than there were fans before them, they rocked right into “Someday, Someway” after a five song set led by guitarist Chris Spedding, who comes to the tour after backing Bryan Ferry on a swing that played to thousands at the Anthem locally this summer.

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TVD Live: Flamin’ Groovies and Muck
and the Mires at City Winery, 11/1

The reunion this decade of the Flamin’ Groovies, the San Francisco band formed in the ’60s that made its biggest mark in the ’70s, hasn’t been easy.

Earlier tours were hit and miss, but inspirational enough for co-founding member Cyril Jordan and crew to record a new album in 2017. Part of the shakiness of recent tours was due to Chris Wilson who was co-writer of a lot of the ’70s power pop stuff, including their classic Shake Some Action.

The Massachusetts-born Wilson, who long ago transplanted to England, is officially on hiatus now. So for what they called the “Trick or Treat 2019 US Tour,” which stopped at City Winery in DC Friday, Jordan was backed by Chris Von Sneidern, who played bass on the 2017 release, now playing guitar, and bassist Atom Ellis—both are seasoned San Francisco players; Ellis worked with Dieselhed and backed Link Wray from 1996-2003 (and was wearing a Wray T-shirt in DC).

On drums was Tony Sales—not the bassist who played with Runt, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie’s Tim Machine, but his son. That would make the young drummer the grandson of comedian, kids’ TV host and sometime recording artist Soupy Sales (It all goes to make some fans seem particularly old, having been entertained now by three generations of Sales).

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TVD Live: The Milk Carton Kids at U Street Music Hall, 10/28

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | The Milk Carton Kids started making a splash soon after their 2011 debut, such that the California duo were on big tours, supporting top stars, before playing their own headlining theater gigs and augmenting their sound with a full band. Maybe it was too much too soon, or maybe Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan wanted to get back to what they did best.

They say the reason for their current “A Night with the Milk Carton Kids in Very Small Venues at Very Low Ticket Prices Tour” is for the fans: to play the kind of places when they started their run not even a decade ago, for fans who may not want to see them in a bigger venue at double the price.

The first stop for the tour (after an even smaller benefit show in DC the night before) was the U Street Music Hall, which the duo hadn’t played in before, they said, but was very like the kind of places they did—dark, crowded, with capacity for only a few hundred people with the competing sound of the the beer fridge.

That device seemed to have been turned off at U Street, Ryan noted during the show (it hadn’t). But the duo’s very quiet music engendered an equally quiet audience such that when someone exited the restroom they held the door so it wouldn’t slam behind them (and maybe for the first time, you could hear the hand dryer still blowing inside).

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TVD Live: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit at the Ryman Auditorium, 10/23

NASHVILLE, TN | For a place that calls itself Music City, Nashville can be pretty lacking. The town’s central musical gathering place, Broadway, is a compendium of increasingly generic day-drinking bars with incongruous names of country stars dead (Johnny Cash, George Jones) and alive (Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, even Kid Rock, god help us), full of bands likely paid only in tips, driving down the overall quality of both the sound and the song selection (they’ll play anything for $20, hence a lot of Skynyrd).

Even its vaunted Grand Ole Opry, relocated to an oversized mall-hotel complex out of town, with its supposedly top stars, can show how thin the contemporary country music writing can be, between the live WSM commercials for Dollar General. Blunt lyrics sung by Luke Bryan and Joe Diffie sounded like excerpts from Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony (“Drink a Beer,” “Long as There’s a Bar”).

Nashville was saved for me by a couple of things. One was the Music City Playboys, a band of unflashy Nashville touring musicians, who now prefer to stay home and play Tuesdays and Wednesdays at a bar way out on Music Valley Drive, keeping the flame alive for classic old tunes.

And I imagine the players at the Station Inn were just as good at keeping the bluegrass flame alive not far from downtown. While some pals went over there for a show, I got into one of the sold out shows by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the Ryman Auditorium, which managed to singlehandedly restore faith in the music and its ability to fill and elevate the soul.

The Ryman, a block off Broadway is worth its own visit—the lovingly restored former church and original home of the Grand Ole Opry now hosts its own roster of artists—Dylan and Springsteen played there, November sees Elvis Costello, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Shawn Colvin.

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TVD Live: Shovels & Rope at the 9:30 Club, 10/9

PHOTO: CURTIS WAYNE MILLARD | Like the White Stripes before them, Shovels & Rope bring the two person, man and woman, guitar and drums lineup to life. The exception is that they dwell more in country roots, with Appalachian gospel seeping through their down-home harmonies and lots of wistful tales of traveling on the road.

But there’s more—in addition to the drum work, Cary Ann Hearst also plays a short Korg keyboard and harmonica (sometimes at the same time). At times, she also gave up her drum seat for the guitar of her husband Michael Trent, who also switches around from acoustic and electric guitar, to drums, piano, harmonica, mandolin and keyboard.

Though the duo showed in a headlining show at the 9:30 Club in DC Wednesday that they have the kind of songs that could benefit from a larger outfit backing them, they resolutely kept it a twosome. They don’t even have a roadie handing them guitars or tuning, maintaining a busker’s approach as if they were always ready to go back to playing smaller venues or, if fortunes really change, to the streets.

But look around: It was a large crowd that came out to see them and many knew their older songs well enough to sing along without squinting at the lyrics that had been painted on five backdrops behind them—for decorative purposes only. (Also part of the stagecraft: a pair of busts covered and wrapped as if by Christo). It was a strange crowd though—one of those who fill a room but aren’t entirely quiet enough for the quietest parts, with yammering going on in corners of the room, as if the duo were there as background music for their party.

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TVD Live: Luna at the 9:30 Club, 10/5

On the various Luna tours the band has launched since it reunited in 2015 following a 10 year pause, they almost seemed miffed to have to play the old stuff fans wanted. Not that they had much new material— just an album of covers and another of instrumentals.

But now, embarked on one of those full album recitals popular with heritage groups, they seemed to have turned the corner into appreciating anew all that they accomplished. The showcase for an early show at the 9:30 Club in Washington Saturday was the 1995 album Penthouse from start to finish—though some stops have been showcasing the two prior albums, Lunapark and Bewitched, in their entirety.

But Penthouse might have been the best of the three to see, featuring the band at its prime, with a lazy surf-like riff to start with “Chinatown,” then the wavy, underwater-like figure on “Sideshow by the Seashore.” It wasn’t quite the lineup the band had when it recorded the album 24 years ago—Britta Phillips played bass in place of the originating Justin Harwood, and Penthouse was the last album for drummer Stanley Demeski, who’d go on to The Feelies; it’s been the hard-hitting Lee Wall ever since.

But Dean Wareham held court front and center as he always did, with his searching, mysterious lyrics in deadpan tones and interesting guitar figures. And still with him, trading off on some guitar interplay was Sean Eden, who has been around since their second album. It’s a formidable group, who face one another when they’re sitting out sparks of elongated anthems as if they’re a jam band on long workouts like “23 Minutes in Brussels” or “Freakin’ and Peakin,’” which speeds up, slows down and speeds up again before it ends.

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TVD Live: The Long Ryders at Pearl Street Warehouse, 9/20

Before there were labels like alt country or Americana, The Long Ryders were providing the connection between country and rock with a punk punch through their very limited recording years of 1984 to 87. They proved the thread between the pioneering work of the Byrds and Gene Clark (who lent vocals on the first Long Ryders album) and Uncle Tupelo, who wouldn’t release their first album until 1990.

After the encouragement of a few reunion shows, the early lineup is back together with a solid new album, Psychedelic Country Soul, and a tour to go along with it. “It took us 33 1/3 years,” frontman Sid Griffin told the crowd at the Pearl Street Warehouse in DC Friday, making the RPM connection.

Griffin, with his grey Prince Valiant hair and sideburns looking like a cross between Bob Keeshan and patriotic Muppet Sam the Eagle, has been spending his time in the intervening decades as a rock journalist in London. But he still likes to rock out on Chuck Berry style tunes like “State of My Union.” Just as in the old days, his rock instincts are balanced by the sweet country stylings of guitarist Stephen McCarthy, the Ryders’ secret weapon, last seen in town with The Jayhawks, with whom he recorded Rainy Day Music.

McCarthy brings a tasty twang to the proceedings, smooth vocals and decent songs. What’s more, he and bassist Tom Stevens create some fine harmonies, as on “You Don’t Know What’s Right, You Don’t Know What’s Wrong.” When Stevens fronts one of his own songs, though, he both takes lead guitar duties in addition to lead vocals. Drummer Greg Sowders (an ex-husband of Lucinda Williams) looked just happy to be part of the crew once more.

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TVD Live: The B-52’s, OMD, and Berlin at The Anthem, 9/17

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | The B-52’s are marking their 40th anniversary the same way they might have celebrated their 20th, their first, or a random Tuesday—with a party.

True to their skull ’n’ beehive colors that declare “Born to Party” they got a big crowd at DC’s Anthem riled up with a freewheeling set of their catchy, deeply fun songs, heavy on the perfect first two albums but culminating in the one that gave them their biggest hit, “Love Shack.” On a packed night with properly received sets from Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and Berlin, they still ruled the barbecue once they got on.

The band is just 60 percent of what it was—but because the remaining members are the most colorful in singers Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider, and Kate Pierson it might not be as noticeable that they’ve got a wholly different back line doing most the instruments (save for the occasional bongo, cowbell, handheld synth device, and slide whistle).

And just as they did when they started this party in Athens, GA, they dressed as flamboyantly as they sang, with Wilson the costume winner in the highest beehive and flashiest jumpsuit, adorned with bat wings. Pierson may have had the same shimmery multihued dress she wore on the Whammy! cover—or one very like it—she may have shimmied the original out of existence years ago. Schneider still holds down the smarmy ringleader role, half talking his funny lines, and ad libbing a few new ones too.

They began with the urgent call of “Private Idaho” and moved into the still topical historical footing of “Mesopotamia” that might make one forget about the saber-rattling going on in the region now. “Give Me Back My Man” still had the yearning that put a cry in Wilson’s yelp, as authentic and pleading as a country song. They had a kind of swirling backing video meant to accommodate their nightly changes in their setlist, but they put up a garish picture of a retro dial phone during “6060-842.”

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TVD Live: Billy Bragg at The Birchmere, 9/19

“Welcome to the 7:30 Club!” Billy Bragg said, at the outset of his three-night residency at The Birchmere. He was both poking fun of the Alexandria club’s famously early nights, while name checking the DC area’s other famous club, the 9:30.

It was the first of several residencies he’ll also do in New York and Cambridge, MA before doing the same in various cities in the UK. Titled “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” he’s playing exclusively from his first three albums on one night, from his next three albums a second night, and doing kind of a career overview the third.

He began with the latter Thursday and seem freed to put in a set similar to those he had been doing in recent months, with a little bit of everything thrown in for his one-man, one-guitar format. The idea behind the residencies, he said, was to find a different way of touring that involved staying in one place longer than usual, an experiment that would mean a “low impact on the environment—and the artist.”

As such, he had been in the Nation’s Capital days before his run started, in part to do promotion of his new book, his sixth, The Three Dimensions of Freedom. Which he didn’t exactly read, but explained its point of view in such detail he might as well have.

The truth is, half a Billy Bragg concert is his speaking, and while he is charming, funny and sharp political commentator most of the time, there comes a point where fans would rather hear him singing choice selections from his songbook.

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TVD Live: Peter Frampton and JBLZE
at The Anthem, 9/11

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | Peter Frampton supercharged his career with a live album decades ago, so he’s going out playing live as well. In a stop at the Anthem in DC Wednesday, he seemed to have the kind of bouncy energy and joy in performance that doesn’t usually come in anything titled “Finale – The Farewell Tour.”

Frampton at 69 looks pretty youthful to hang it up, but is doing so because of the diagnosis of a rare disease called inclusion body myositis, a progressive muscle disorder. None of that kept him from leaping about and playing scorching guitar solos that veered from rock to jazz.

He began with an unusual request: that people photograph or video the first three songs only—the same kind of restrictions kept to professionals, so they could turn off their phones, stop texting and be more present for the show. A noble effort, but when he whipped out the first of the hits from his breakthrough Frampton Comes Alive! as his fourth song, the request was widely ignored.

Frampton is nothing if not a team player, showcasing the rest of his five-piece band by standing stage left, not in front of anyone. But “Show Me the Way” brought him center stage where the specially equipped rubber tube can bend his guitar notes through his vocals, which he used to such effect on the 1976 album.

The cheesy nostalgia of a Talk Box became just as emblematic of mid-’70s rock as the cherubic hair Frampton once wore. What became the hits of the live album were songs originated but largely ignored on the earlier solo albums from the former Humble Pie guitarist. The effervescent live versions made him an 8-million selling superstar that was exploited in all of the worst ways, from bare-chested magazine covers to starring in the awful 1978 movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. He kept touring and recording with diminishing commercial returns, but found his artistic footing playing guitar for David Bowie’s 1987 “Glass Spider Tour” and recording a Grammy-winning instrumental album Fingerprints in 2006.

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