Author Archives: Roger Catlin

TVD Live: Ex Hex and The Messthetics at the 9:30 Club, 5/10

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNSMixed amid the sheer exhilaration of an Ex Hex gig at the 9:30 Club is the added pride of a hometown date. The DC rockers led by Mary Timony, once of Helium, Wild Flag, and Autoclave, quite rightfully nearly sold out the place, but I’m wondering why the trio isn’t selling out everywhere they go.

The songs are catchy, the guitars rock out, the female harmonies alternately bracing and empowering. Female-led bands aren’t the novelty they once were, thankfully, and the trio has moved into trying to recreate the crunching, double-guitar attack of arena rock. But they’re better than that, with catchier songs that are smarter and more fun. One quietly has to be happy they aren’t bigger than they are, or they’d be in some cavernous theater or arena instead of a cozier rock club.

Closing out a six-week US tour to boost their newest release on Merge, It’s Real, the band seemed as fresh as if starting it, a big neon logo behind them underscoring their determination to glow. Topping a bill that also boasted the best of DC rock, particularly The Messthetics, the instrumental power trio of guitar whiz Anthony Pirog with the Fugazi rhythm section of Brendan Canty on drums and Joe Lally on bass, the night seemed to make a case of the health of rock in the Nation’s Capital.

Ex Hex is almost sunny compared to their darker sound, but there’s every indication that Timony wants to stretch things out on guitar as well, even if her songs seem best suited to be short and exuberantly punchy as anything from the Ramones. She means to get more textures and aggressive sharpness with every release, though, with a couple of the tracks on It’s Real clocking in at over five minutes.

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TVD Live: Maren Morris at The Anthem, 5/2

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNSMaren Morris paused a couple of times in her splashy headlining show at The Anthem in DC to take it all in.

It was her largest sellout to date, with 6,000 people, and just about everybody in the young, largely female crowd knew every lyric of her new album, which she only released a couple of months ago.

Its messages of empowerment, love, and occasional loss strike a chord, even if its genre transcends its Nashville roots. There was nary a note in the 100 minute show you’d identify with country music. Even when she picked up an acoustic guitar to sing “A Song to Everything,” its references were to Springsteen, Katy Perry, and Coldplay.

Morris may have come up writing songs recorded by Tim McGraw, but she’s no more country than Taylor Swift these days. In fact, it’s her voice on last year’s ubiquitous dance record, “The Middle,” with which she closed her big show, that brought her a large new audience.

Her main pop influence though, judging from how often it surfaced in the show, is Beyonce, particularly her uplifting “Halo,” which was not only covered at the tail end of “Second Wind,” but seemed to have incorporated into the title song to her new album, Girl, which kicked off the show.

From atop a staircase lined with lights, Morris arose from a hydraulic lift in a glittery cape, boots and hotpants. With a five man band seeming to augment unseen tapes, her voice is precise and soaring, so much so that it’s surprising that she was set on becoming only a songwriter before someone talked her into doing her own songs.

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TVD Live: Jakob Dylan, Cat Power, and Jade Castrinos at the Lincoln Theatre, 4/27

Jakob Dylan grew up amid his own small-town musical crossroads—Woodstock—but the subject of his new documentary is the one that flourished on the other side of the country in Los Angeles’ bohemian Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s. An added treat to his bringing the film to festivals ahead of its release is accompanying it with a live performance much like the one captured in Echo in the Canyon—accompanied by Cat Power and Jade Castrinos.

Their eight-song set at the Lincoln Theater Saturday, kicking off the Washington DC International Film Festival, included some of the highlights from the film, which had its origins with a 2015 all-star concert saluting the era that also included Beck and Regina Spektor. But it also veered into areas the film did not because of time.

A documentary on Laurel Canyon could focus on the singer songwriter heights of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and the eventual formation of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Or it could look at the epicenter of experimentalism that was Frank Zappa’s home base. Or that Jim Morrison wrote “Love Street” for the Doors about the vicinity.

Instead, the directorial debut of Andrew Slater, the former president of Capitol Records, with Dylan as the interviewer, focuses intently on a few bands—the Byrds in particular, but also Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys, whose Brian Wilson lived there while writing Pet Sounds. Although CS&N all are on camera, the narrative never reaches the point where they form their trio.

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TVD Live: Robyn Hitchcock at the Barns
at Wolf Trap, 4/11

Age is only helping Robyn Hitchcock settle into his role as wizened surrealist singer and mystic storyteller.

More than 45 years after starting his first band, the founder of the Soft Boys who went on to fronting the Egyptians and a long, accomplished solo career is a unique troubadour—a singer who can create a splendid musical reverie of abject strangeness and splendid ’60s chords while freestyling fantastical spoken word tales between songs as he tuned.

In a nicely balanced show last week among the wonderfully rough-hewn beams of The Barns at Wolf Trap in rural Virginia, Hitchcock, 66, played guitar and sang, blew some harmonica, and began a second set at a Steinway piano. His tousled hair now white, he also divided his attire between a seasonally-attuned flowered shirt with birds on it and another that portended the coming summer, with a popsicle pattern.

Songs fluctuated from nifty obscurities to former MTV staples, with crowd-pleasers like “Balloon Man” and “Madonna of the Wasps” amid things like the opening “Man with a Woman’s Shadow,” and more recent “Light Blue Afternoon.”

The selection from his latest self-titled album is his closest stab at straight-ahead country, “I Pray When I’m Drunk,” though it sounded less so live. He had a new single he was selling too, so he sang the pleasing “Sunday Never Comes.”

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TVD Live: Mott the Hoople ’74 at the
Keswick Theatre, 4/8

Mott the Hoople always seemed the kind of band that would implode at any moment, and such was the case when they pulled into New York in the middle of their 1974 U.S. tour, becoming the first rock band to play a week on Broadway. That achievement didn’t pay off for the band (any more than introducing Queen to open their shows that year did). And by the end of the year, they were done.

Now, apropos of nothing but a random 45th anniversary of the album they had out at the time, The Hoople, the band is back playing the U.S. for the first time since then. Only eight stops were scheduled for the beloved glam band—the connective tissue between T-Rex and the New York Dolls. Who among the 1,300 at the 1928-era, 1,300-capacity Keswick Theatre in Glenside, PA, near Philadelphia Monday would have expected this great good fortune, to see this storied band once more in 2019?

Mott the Hoople had reunited famously only once, a decade ago, for a couple of shows at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. That one featured the earlier version of the band whose names were memorable from being part of the lyrics of its “Ballad of Mott the Hoople”—Verden Allen, Mick Ralphs, Overend Watts, Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin. That lineup didn’t include two who were part of the ’74 Broadway stint (and the subsequent live album issued that year), ex-Spooky Tooth guitarist Ariel Bender and pianist Morgan Fisher.

But the two were on hand for the 2019 touring band, officially being called Mott the Hoople ’74, adding quite a lot, with Fisher doing a lot of tuneful musical introductions to some songs (including a teasing approach to “All the Way from Memphis”), and Bender taking off on some extended solos (although going bare-chested at 72 may not be the greatest idea).

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TVD Live: Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets at The Hamilton, 4/7

Nick Lowe is calling his tour with Los Straitjackets the “Quality Rock & Roll Revue” and it’s no idle boast. The cool, memorable songs of Lowe with his smooth, elder statesman air, combined with the funhouse snarl of the twangin’ Straitjackets, in their Mexican wrestling masks and goofy stage presence, makes for pretty well-balanced entertainment. With Nashville singer Dawn Landes rounding out the bill as opener at The Hamilton Live in DC, it made for a pretty satisfying evening.

The quality descriptor, though, probably originates from Lowe’s 2013 Christmas album Quality Street, the subsequent holiday tours for which also involved Los Straitjackets, who had a couple Christmas albums of their own. When the band recorded its own instrumental tribute to Lowe, What’s So Funny About Peace, Love And… two years ago, it was practically a job application to become a permanent backing collaborator with the English songwriter.

And while their stage union surprisingly tended to slow down formerly breakneck gems like “Heart of the City” and “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll”), their entwined touring by now has resulted not only in finding Lowe songs that bring out the best of each act — “Shting-Shtang” among them — they are also creating new recordings that show how well their shared sensibilities — and love for classic ’50s pop and rock — have meshed.

On a pair of fun EPs, the latest of which is “Trombone” on YepRoc, they provided timeless sounding ballads like “Blue on Blue” as well as super well-chosen oldies, like “Raincoat in the River,” an obscure single from Aussie rocker Dig Richards that fits right in the knowing Lowe groove.

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TVD Live: Mark Eitzel, Living Room Show, Wheaton, MD, 4/5

PHOTO: MARK HOLTHUSEN | It was billed as a living room concert, and the entire Mark Eitzel tour dubbed “Living Room Tsunami.” So it was a little bit surprising when the secret DC area location, once payment was made, turned out to be an Irish bar in Wheaton, MD.

It could have been another barroom show except that the house concert vibe prevailed—a rapt, absolutely silent crowd hanging on his every word; even the bartenders refraining from clinking glasses or turning on blenders for the duration of the early evening performance.

Eitzel for his part began the show in comfortable chair surrounded by a couple of guitars, a rug at his feet, by switching on the stage lights himself from a wall switch behind his head. From there, he dived into the kind of soulful, expressive singing that marked his work since the days of American Music Club.

At 60, with his newscap and dark beard, he certainly looked at home in the Irish barroom appointed with wood and Guinness mirrors, a fake fireplace flickering in the corner. And nothing seemed missing from his rich, aching voice, made even more effective by the fact that it was unamplified for the whole of the 14-song session.

The lingering regrets in his haunting songs remained as well, from the opening “Western Sky” to the intimacy of “All My Love” (and its lyric “I’ll be the match that holds your fire”). Those were both songs from his days with American Music Club, whose music dominated the show. But he also sang mournfully of the abusive relationship described as a chain in the newest song, “Nothing and Everything,” oddly the only selection from his latest album, 2017’s Hey, Mr. Ferryman.

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TVD Live: Todd Snider
at The Birchmere, 3/18

Todd Snider walks on stage in a goofy hat, trusty guitar, barefoot, but also with his equally raggedy dog, Cowboy Jim, who promptly lies down and listens to these songs and stories one more time.

“A dog! How folkie is that!” Snider exclaims to the appreciative audience at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria and starts in on one of his newest songs, a talking blues about television, reality, reality television, and our current situation (“Reality killed by a reality star”). It was so up to date it even had a commentary about Michael Jackson (“Reality killed that video star”).

Snider, 52, likes to take apart traditions even as he is extending them, so he took time to explain the rules of the talking blues format (“All you gotta rhyme is a line or two”) within the song. And the format seemed just right for him as his shows are a mix of songs with sometimes equally long stories. And if the songs are old favorites, some of the stories are too. They get their own titles on his live albums, and his audiences laugh anew at each one.

At least the audiences don’t (yet) yell requests for certain stories. But they’re full of song requests, and half the show Monday seemed full of songs that dated back a quarter century or so from “Alright Guy” and “Beer Run,” his most obvious and most popular, to “Play a Train Song” and “Statistician’s Blues.”

Snider first came to fame in 1994, with an offhand rock commentary, “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” about a band too cool to play a note. But that song’s been left off his list and from the requests.

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TVD Live: The Flesh Eaters at Union Stage, 3/16

The poet and writer Chris Desjardins created The Flesh Eaters in the heyday of the LA punk scene of the late 1970s, enlisting many of his friends to be among the revolving roster in the band over a handful of albums. The most potent lineup was the one in 1981 that produced the band’s strongest album A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die that featured Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman of the Blasters, John Doe and D.J. Bonebrake of X as well as Steve Berlin of the Plugz, Blasters, and Los Lobos.

So enduring was that match of music with the poetry of Chris D., as he is known, that they were enticed to reunite occasionally for special events this century. That led to recording once more last spring for the album I Used to Be Pretty, released on Yep Roc in January, and a tour that had its penultimate show Saturday at Union Stage in DC.

It was quite a sight, this superstar lineup in a modest-sized basement club, from Alvin in his cowboy duds and Doe, solid in his bass rocking, to the behatted Bonebrake, largely handling the mallets on marimba and leaving the drums to Bateman. That light, jazzy touch from Bonebrake’s playing mixed with Berlin’s improvisational sax gave this a very different sound than what one might think of LA Punk from the days of the Masque, where The Flesh Eaters played alongside the Misfits, Dickies, and Circle Jerks.

While they packed the beat and attitude of the era, they could also groove along to solos from Alvin or Berlin. But it was all in service to Chris D., who with his bushy black eyebrows, stern profile, and balding white pate, looked like Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show. In his baritone and poetic point of view, he called to mind another LA rock poet from half a century back, Jim Morrison of the Doors, especially in longer songs that slowly built to explosive climaxes.

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TVD Live: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song: Emilio and Gloria Estefan, DAR Constitution Hall, 3/13

PHOTO: ALBERTO TOLOT | It was the 10th Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, but winners Emilio and Gloria Estefan represent two firsts—the first married couple to be so honored, and the first of Latin heritage.

The award comes with a presentation with a big Congressional delegation in Washington and an all-star concert at the DAR Constitution Hall saluting the music, taped for public television. The last time the prize was given, in 2017, Tony Bennett mostly sat back and basked in it before coming out and slaying everybody with a few songs at the end.

But for the 2019 event last Wednesday, the couple seemed among the most hardworking on stage. In front of a big band directed by Emmy-winner Gregg Field, the two both helped open the show with “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” and closed it with a big “Samba/Conga” finale.

In addition, Gloria came out to join some of the guests in song—with José Feliciano on one song; with violinist Sarah Chang on another; and joining her daughter Emily Estefan on a duet of a Gershwin song, “Embraceable You.” Where usually performers look up to the adjoining box to pay respects to the honoree, sitting next to the Librarian of Congress presiding, Carla Hayden, their seats were empty half the night.

That work ethic is part of the reason the Estefans were honored, of course. More than once was the story told of the Cuban natives raised with nothing, who built a Miami Sound Machine empire based on their own talents and gumption, selling millions of albums worldwide before cautious (or possibly racist) recording industry in their adopted country would give them a try.

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TVD Live: The Jacksons and the Commodores at Treasure Island Casino and Resort, 3/1

WELCH, MN | It was an auspicious moment in Jacksons history Friday, happening in a snowy and frozen remote corner—a rural Minnesota casino, in one of just a couple of scheduled US dates this year.

Only two days later, a world of Michael Jackson fans would be confronted with some ugly accusations in a long, thoughtful, and still shocking documentary on HBO, Leaving Neverland. More than one critic has said you would never respond to his music the same again.

And certainly, scenes like those that popped up before the show in the carpeted ballroom, of stage mothers proudly shooting a portrait of a son dolled up in Jackson leathers and fedora, would soon be as unseemly and distasteful as a Bill Cosby concert.

The Jacksons, who still tour here and there, had done their rounds of interviews denying the content of Dan Reed’s four hour opus, repeating their denials after the show at the Treasure Island Casino and Resort in southern Minnesota. “Just check the facts,” said Tito Jackson. “They’re only in it for the money,” he says of the two men who claim Michael used them for sex for decades.

He didn’t think the video, true or not, would affect the livelihood of the brothers Michael left behind long ago. True, they had strained relations with the most famous member of the family since the disastrous Victory tour 34 years ago—which Michael said he did only to help prop up his brothers’ struggling career. But they stood behind him during the trial of 2005 in which he was found not guilty (in part by testimony by the documentary subjects who now say they were lying under oath).

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TVD Live: Weezer at
the Black Cat, 2/27

Days before a new album was to come out, a week before another arena tour, Weezer played the cozy Black Cat in Washington, DC Wednesday for a Sirius XM broadcast Thursday, and naturally the free ticket giveaway brought a line down the block to the venerable 700-capacity club. As well-positioned for maximum promotion as it seemed to be, Weezer itself were as comfortably disheveled as ever in their ragged, thoroughly fun and exceedingly short set.

“Welcome to the rock show in a night club,” frontman Rivers Cuomo greeted, fully five songs into the set which the audience never dreamed was already half over. “It’s how it’s meant to be,“ he went on. “Just Weezer and 150 of its best buddies!”(Whether he couldn’t see the other 550 or considered them not buddies was not determined).

With guitarist Brian Bell, Scott Shriner on bass, and Patrick Wilson, who dates back to the 1992 beginnings of the band with Cuomo, they gave a nice sampling of work from across their career, including two from the 1996 high point Pinkerton, “The Good Life” which began the show, and “El Scorcho,” which sort of defines the band’s slacker approach of that era.

Aside from the incessant XM cameras and all the attendant branding, it was a punchy show that didn’t necessarily promote The Black Album set to drop on Friday. Only the single “Living in L.A.” with its interesting elements borrowed from different sources, and the Latin-tinges of “Can’t Knock the Hustle” were part of the show.

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TVD Live: James McMurtry at The Birchmere, 2/21

The stage couldn’t be much more bare than it was for James McMurtry’s return visit to The Birchmere music hall. A couple of guitars, a table with a bottle of water and that’s it.

McMurtry’s songs as well are often as stark, painting indelible scenes of domestic impasse, bleak pictures of heartland economic woe, and wistful observations about the human condition. The son of novelist Larry McMurtry has equal literary prowess, only applying them to the meter and melody of acoustic music. He sets a scene, introduces character, and defines it in a word or phrase.

He enters like the associate professor too old for this stuff; a fedora now instead of a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. His shirt is loose to accommodate maximum movement on his guitar. He began with a six-string that set a spare tone to the songs, but switched for most of the show to a 12-string, setting off cathedral-like crescendos in his soloing. It also meant he had to stop and tune all 18 strings from time to time, filling in with patter as deadpan as his songs, or in one case suggesting the crowd talk amongst themselves while he attended to the business.

With the sparse writing style of a less-kind John Prine, and moody tunefulness of Townes Van Zandt, McMurtry hasn’t had a new release for a while. Since his 2015 Complicated Game, he’s only issued a couple of tunes online, reflecting family political standoffs accurately in the 2017 “State of the Union” describing a brother. “He don’t like the Muslims, he don’t like the Jews / He don’t like the Blacks and he don’t trust the news / He hates the Hispanics and alternative views / He’ll tell you it’s tough to be white.”

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TVD Live: Chuck Prophet at Jammin’ Java, 2/15

A whirlwind tour in Spain with Charlie Sexton playing the whole of The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls may not be the best practice for a solo tour, but it may have given Chuck Prophet a little extra slashing on his acoustic guitar at the start of a quite different tour.

It was a solo excursion, though this time accompanied by his wife and member of his Mission Express band, Stephanie Finch. And it occurred at recent return visit to Jammin’ Java in Vienna, VA, which he called “my favorite club in a strip mall that formally was a Christian worship place—and I’ve played all of them!”

It was Finch’s voice that was raspy and lower than usual due to being under the weather, bringing her closer to what she said was her fantasy—sounding like Marianne Faithfull. Prophet was chipper and rocking and all around entertaining as usual.

In a generous evening of nearly two dozen songs over two sets, he offered several of his usual crowd pleasers, but in a style that sometimes didn’t have the same impact. To his anthem “Wish Me Luck,” whose titular refrain is usually offered by a couple of heavy band chords, this one only had the tiny plink-plink of Finch’s keyboard. He tried to improvise, adding a humming horn on “I Call Your Name.”

Temple Beautiful, his 2012 ode to his home town of San Francisco, continues to be a mainstay of his shows, with four of its selections featured, including that harbinger of the new season “Willie Mays is Up to Bat.” The 2014 Night Surfer also got a good sampling, with four songs including his winning salute to a key piece of band equipment, “Ford Econoline.”

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Glen Matlock,
The TVD Interview

Glen Matlock’s rock cred begins early, as a founding member of the Sex Pistols, co-writer of nine of the 11 songs on the band’s single studio album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and first to part company with the punk pioneers.

The famous story circulated is that he was booted for being a Beatles fan (false!), but he was arguably the most musically adept Pistol (only to be replaced by the least, Sid Vicious).

But apart from Johnny Rotten & Co., Matlock went on to form the high-profile Rich Kids before appearing in a number of projects—on the 1980 Soldier LP with Iggy Pop, a Damned stab, a reunited Faces, and for one more go round the Pistols again for their various tours this century.

But he’s also fronted his own bands and solo albums, the latest of which, Good to Go, which he recorded with Earl Slick and Slim Jim Phantom, was issued late last year, in a year that saw him opening a European Tour with Dropkick Murphys and playing the DMZ Peace Festival on the border of North and South Korea.

Matlock, 62, was just back from South America when he chatted The Vinyl District from London via Skype about his latest single which has already been named “Coolest Song in the World” on Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel on Sirius XM.

Tell me what’s behind the new single, “Keep on Pushing.”

It’s kind of Shakespearean really. You’re kicking against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. At this stage in life, as a musician, that means just keeps doing it anyway, carrying on regardless. You have ideas for things, you see something in the paper and you say, no, you can’t do that. And I say, why not just do it?

It gets to be a frustration and it’s a general sort of yardstick for life, really. I mean the refrain is, “Keep on pushing, it might just be enough.” And one day that little straw will break the camel’s back. Whether you’re railing against government, or your personal life and the girl who won’t go out with you. If you ask her one more time, she might. All those kinds of things.

You don’t want to be specific, so it can refer to a lot of different things.

I tend to write esoteric a little bit. Even a song from years ago, “Pretty Vacant,” it’s not a particularly specific song. It’s more of a primal scream.

It seems like “Keep on Pushing” is a little more optimistic than saying “No future” in a song.

That’s John’s lyric, that one, but I believe even then he wasn’t saying there’s no future, he wasn’t saying it’s great that there’s no future; there’s no future unless you do something about it for yourself. Same kind of vibe. You know, there’s only supposed to be seven story lines in the art world. You know, tragedy, love, murder, I don’t know exactly what they are. So you tend to retread the same ground, a little bit, in your song writing, but you just have to put a different slant on it.

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