TVD Live: Jason
Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Jerry Douglas at
the NCTA Benefit at
The Hamilton, 3/14

As the prevailing king and queen of Americana, it’s more likely you’ll see Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires at amphitheaters or headlining big summer festivals. It’s rare to see them together in clubs these days, especially one as intimate as The Hamilton in DC. But there they were last Wednesday night, special guests on a night of music organized by dobro player extraordinaire Jerry Douglas that was a fundraiser for the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

NCTA in turn helps organize ongoing free festivals of indigenous music in far-flung American outposts that play for three years at a time at a site (and by then are expected to be a traditional offering). This year, the three-year stint will begin on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Salisbury September 7-9 and on Wednesday, its mayor, folk fans who paid $100 for a seat, and even a US Senator, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was there to bask in the music.

It was worth it, too, if only to hear Isbell and Shires look into each other’s eyes as they sang about their love and mortality on his “If We Were Vampires,” a recent classic (chosen last Sunday as one of the “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going” in The New York Times Magazine).

It was great, too, to have Douglas join them on Isbell’s “Traveling Alone,” and having his “Something to Love” close out the night as a rousing all-star finale, with solos from Douglas, Shires on fiddle, and a brother-sister act that had previously brought down the house for faithfully bringing old string band sounds, Giri and Uma Peters.

Giri, 12, is a fiddler; his little sister, Uma, at 10, plays clawhammer banjo. Their names are getting around; Rhiannon Giddens came over to their house to teach them the old English folk tune “The Cuckoo,” they said before playing it.

That kids like the Peters are learning (and loving) the old time music is the whole point of things like NCTA, and the musical boundaries grew when harmonica legend Phil Wiggins (who lives nearby in Takoma Park), came out to join them on the old Mississippi Sheiks classic “Sitting On Top of the World.”

Douglas, as emcee, talked about how musicians from different genres have a lot more in common than not, citing the pair of local jazz guitarists picked to play the event—Jan Knutson, a teenager from Berwyn Heights, MD, playing with his teacher, the well-known local jazz guitarist Steve Abshire. But instead of joining them for a little jam, the two were left to do their own improvisational numbers that took off from standards and abstracted quite quickly. As such, they didn’t quite fit in with the spirit of the rest of the show and were given a bit of a chilly reception by the crowd which, after all, had probably come to see the headliners.

Douglas, playing his dobro flat, away from his body, picked with one hand and had a slide running down the neck with the other, playing some intricate instrumentals with his trio, as well as a version of a song he attributed to “that famous folk artist, Jimi Hendrix,” even though the resulting “Hey Joe” actually does have folk roots.

Basking in her husband’s praising gaze, Shires proved herself a compelling singer and performer as well, far more than a June type sidekick to his Johnny. She sang both “Pale Fire,” the tune she and Isbell composed for her 2016 album, and her beguiling “Swimmer…Dreams Don’t Keep.” Isbell, for his part, chose the hard-bitten “Last of My Kind,” which he may well be.

The benefit for NCTA continued online with a silent auction, featuring items ranging from a sterling silver Hohner harmonica from Tiffany, and a Martin Dreadnaught Jr. prototype signed by Isbell and Shires—the very guitar he used to write “Hope the High Road.”


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