TVD Live: An intimate evening with Ken Stringfellow and Friends, Chevy Chase, MD, 9/23

PHOTOS: RACHEL LANGEThe time: 7:30 on a Monday night. The place: a private residence in Chevy Chase. Not the usual circumstances for a rock concert, but that’s the point—Ken Stringfellow’s solo tour is prioritizing “non-venue spaces,” including many private concerts and “secret shows” like this one. The fine line between public and private is a fitting leitmotif for Ken’s return to Touched, originally released by Manifesto Records on the inauspicious date of September 11, 2001. His second solo album since the breakup of the Posies, Touched is appropriately personal, and a fitting soundtrack for the deep disillusionment of 2019.

The concert is surprisingly lighthearted, despite the melancholy musical fare. Hosted by ELO alumnus Parthenon Huxley and his wife Helle, the event has the delightfully laid-back vibe of a grown-up house party—there’s beer and wine chilling on the back porch, while a fleet of folding chairs give guests who have already taken their seats plenty to look at it, whether it’s the record collection on the bookshelf or the eclectic collage of pop and high art on the walls.

At the front of the room is Ken’s improvised stage rig, which features “a real piano” (as promised by the tour webpage) against the tastefully space-age backdrop of a dark window to the backyard which reflects both the mood lighting in the living room and the neon violet glow of the WiFi router. Ken cracks a joke about this unexpected special effect between tunes—a moment which epitomizes the appeal of a private concert. There might not be much room to move, but there’s plenty of room to breathe, and Ken uses that freedom to great effect.

In addition to an impressive musical CV which includes not only The Posies but more recently R.E.M. and Big Star, Stringfellow has a sense of humor and he isn’t afraid to use it. Nothing is off-limits, either, and throughout the set he riffs on everything from Millennial entitlement to an audience member’s ill-timed sneeze. (Okay, I confess: it was me.) His performance turns out to be two parts music, one part standup routine, and sometimes both at once.

Because the guestlist is short enough that the main attraction can see who’s not here yet (“They’re a big group and they tend to travel in packs,” he remarks) the shows gets off the ground not with Touched but with requests from the audience and a new composition Ken describes as “one from the mental health files.” Nobody’s heard the song before but nobody minds, already absorbed by Ken’s uncompromising vocals and the artfully mixed metaphors which give his lyrics their distinctive bittersweet flavor.

When he does start on the Touched tracklist, it’s both fresh and fraught with nostalgia. Since the record’s original release everybody’s been through a lot, including Ken Stringfellow himself. He doesn’t delve into his personal life in too much detail, preferring to allude to “petty philosophical disputes” with former bandmates in politely imprecise terms, but the trials and tribulations of the last two decades emerge in the music.

Ken’s voice is rougher around the edges now than it is in Mitch Easter’s studio production, but that’s not a change for the worse—there’s real, raw feeling in these songs, maybe even more now than there was in 2001. “I can still go there,” he says of the emotion that inspired the music, but some of these tracks have undoubtedly taken on new meanings in the last eighteen years. “Sparrow,” for instance, “is about what connects us,” he says. Originally written in response to the divisive effects of religious prejudice, it might be more relevant now than ever before. “We’re divided enough already,” he says.

But he’s hardly preaching; Ken dons and doffs different personas as he changes instruments, deadly serious one moment and playfully aping Monty Python sketches the next. His musical moods are similarly varied, sometimes in the course of the same song; “Uniforms” stands out, the cheeky wordplay of each verse taking a turn towards the mournful with the chorus before erupting in a frenzied finale and the most ferocious la-la-las you ever did hear.

“I was pretty fuckin’ cynical when I wrote this record,” he admits, but that didn’t keep him from writing “The Lover’s Hymn,” a song about how “love is possible and necessary and worth fighting for, et cetera et cetera.” It’s a surprisingly optimistic note to finish on (along with the defiantly hopeful “Here’s to the Future”)—but the show isn’t quite over, of course.

Ken’s gracious host, affectionately known as “Hux,” joins him for an encore composed of seminal Big Star songs including “Thirteen” and “September Gurls.” It’s both a satisfying finale and a graceful segue into the rest of the evening. Though plenty of the guests take their leave after a few photos, hugs, and handshakes, some linger and before long everyone is gathered around the kitchen table, sipping wine and swapping war stories of life on the road and the music business writ large.

Like the gig itself, the impromptu afterparty is laid back and relaxed, but still there’s a feeling of having been invited to sit with the cool kids at lunch; Ken and Hux have tales to tell starring John Paul Jones and Catherine Deneuve and everybody in between. Nothing gets too crazy, but when the last guests eventually leave, they go in the glow of a good time had by all, certain that they’ve been part of something pretty special, or even—pun intended—Touched.

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