Things have been picking up in the last month or so. More tours coming through, one of the welcome harbingers of springtime for me.

Just a few noteworthy shows I’ve seen lately:

Son Volt, Bobby Bare Jr:

Wow, this was a good lineup.

I wasn’t all that familiar with Bobby Bare Jr‘s quirky brand of folk-rock. Wonderfully emotive, strained singing voice, and songs that somehow managed to be folk, country…and…i guess….arena rock? Hair metal? all at once. This was a lot of fun.

Son Volt was absolutely fantastic. I’ll confess that I only own Trace, so a lot of the set was new material to me. (Why in the hell don’t I have Wide Swing Tremolo? What is my problem, anyway?) They were polished, and though the slow- to mid-tempo bent to their music seemed to make the set lag a bit toward the middle, they could really cook when they turned up the rock.

This show ended with something I haven’t seen before- a second encore as people were streaming out of the 9:30 club, causing an excited rush back to the stage.

New Pornographers w/ Okkervil River

So, for me the New Pornographers have not held more than a passing interest. I think they’re a very talented  bunch of songwriters with a really unique sound, but it just doesn’t hit me. I really enjoyed their set though- they were an extraordinarily tight band, engaging performers and their set was sequenced very well, crescendoing in all the right places.

I hear a lot of moaning about Neko Case from fans who argue that she doesn’t show up often enough, isn’t dedicated enough, etc. I went to the 2nd DC show; she’d been sick the previous night and nobody knew if she’d be on stage the second night.

Well, she showed up. Hobbled onto the stage, in fact, having sprained her ankle shortly before set time. And was still coughing occasionally. And she was there for the whole set, in fine voice, through the encore, before being helped off stage by her bandmates.

You won’t see me questioning her dedication.

I was primarily at this show to see Okkervil River. I hate how much I love this band. I’m supposed to hate them, what with Will Sheff’s affected, melodramatic and kinda sloppy singing. Like I say in the “About” section, “If you’re pretentious, melodramatic, or a lazy musician, I probably hate your band.” There it is. And yet….I can’t help loving them; they’re like a girl I know is no good for me that I can’t stop seeing. The songs are just too good.

They got off to a bit of a slow start, but soon proved themselves the ferociously good live band I’d been promised. The songs have such huge drama inside of them, and they positively exploded in a live setting. A big, moving, soaring performance; they were a thunderstorm gathering in the sky and then dropping all it’s got.

The Beanstalk Library

Dear Gypsy Eyes Records: Just freaking sign these guys already. Their 1970s AM Radio sound is right in your wheelhouse, they’re one of the best bands in the city, and they’re stupidly overlooked (though their profile seems to be rising.) These guys are always a rewarding live experience. They were great on the Black Cat’s backstage last month, and every new song they debut seems better than everything before.

I’m going on rock-strike if I don’t see the following lineup at a show within the next two months: These United States, Justin Jones & the Driving Rain, The Beanstalk Library.

There are moments when some people can perform beyond any previous bounds of their abilities. When you think of great athletes, for example, these are the people who, already playing at their peak, somehow transcend all limitations when the title is on the line (Remember what Curt Schilling did for the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship?). What sets them apart, what makes them so compelling, is their ability to become better than themselves every time the stakes are raised.

It happens in music too. On Saturday night Jukebox the Ghost- who could scarcely get any tighter or more engaging as a live act- found themselves facing an unexpected sellout crowd for their CD release show on the Black Cat’s mainstage, and responded with the most explosive, triumphant set I’ve seen from anyone in quite a long while. After the encore, they left the stage a different band, a milestone behind them and a new standard set for themselves.

I knew there was an increasing level of interest in the band, which has had a pretty loyal following for a little while now, but it wasn’t clear just how much attention they’d drawn until ticket sales were halted at the door. They’d had plenty of blog coverage, and perhaps most significant was the spotlight shone on them by WOXY. They got quite a bit of airplay, and the EP they’d released- just as a teaser for the album- found its way onto the station’s best-of list for ’07, alongside usual suspects Andrew Bird, Ted Leo et al.

However it happened, Jukebox took the stage, stared out at the crowd stretching back to the door, and dropped their jaws.

Here’s that moment- the stakes are raised, suddenly the performance takes on a new level of importance.

Jukebox took the opportunity for all it was worth, and from the first note their set was a special one. They absolutely roared with energy, and the crowd roared back. Great performances come down to intangibles. Jukebox is practiced and competent enough that their playing is pretty much always perfect (regardless of what a shitty soundboard may render through the PA.) What changes in a set like Saturday night’s is harder to put one’s fingers on. It’s simply an enthusiasm and a rare level of focus that comes through.

Back in my adolescent crappy-band days, my friends from other bands and I would often talk about the moments when the Rock Gods (or the Rock Demons, I can’t remember which on account of Mickey’s Malt Liquor) came down on your band, when an adrenaline-fueled trancelike state unites band members and focuses everyone in such a way that nothing exists outside of each note and each song. Bands are at their absolute best at that point. It’s impossible to mess up, your performance will be effortlessly passionate, and you can do whatever you want and it will sound great. It very nearly feels like an out-of-body experience; you give up control to the song.

I think the Rock Gods/Rock Demons had a hold of Jukebox.

Specifically, it was the Beatles. Toward the end of the set, Aaron Leeder from Exit Clov and Pash‘s Meredith Munoz joined Jukebox for a Beatles medley concluding with the closing sequence of Abbey Road. Brilliant.

The encore was a frenzied rendition of “Good Day,” which is as far as I’m concerned a perfect song. Along with the irresistible “Hold It In,” it’s also Jukebox’s biggest crowd-pleaser, and proved a perfect way to end a set that had over 700 people enraptured.

So, they also released their first full-length. The record, Let Live and Let Ghosts, sounds fantastic, is wonderfully sequenced, and does a great job of capturing a very complex, schizophrenic sound with clarity.

It’s just two vocals plus three instruments- well really four with Ben’s multiple keyboards- but the band’s sound is far more than the sum of its parts. Tommy Siegel’s guitar changes from a clean twang to a lightly distorted Beatles jangle to fuzzed-out rock all in a manner of seconds, and his lighthearted vocal style is a counterpoint to some fantastically dark lyrics. Ben’s piano playing often seems too fast for the human brain to comprehend- and then you realize he’s playing a second keyboard at the same time. His singing is operatic in range and expression, and can be breathtaking. And holding it down is what people don’t mention enough- an absolutely brilliant style of drumming by Jesse Kristin, who can thunder heroically, finesse the band through a brief quiet interlude, and then pick up a tambourine while playing, also all in a manner of seconds.

The result is a band that moves from Queen to They Might Be Giants to Ben Folds Five to Vaudeville, often in the span of one song. It’s quirky and fun, but there’s a lot of work going into compositions and arrangements as complex as theirs.

They do wear their influences on their sleeves to some extent, as many have said, but they’ve also carved out an unmistakable sound within that. And I think it’s important to note that these hugely talented guys are youngsters- they just graduated from college last year (which explains the hordes of sorority girls who, while certainly appreciated for their energy and loyalty, can often become quite a distraction with their incessant chattering and self-portraiting with flash cameras). I think they can only get better as they continue to explore and define their own style.

After Saturday night’s show, things look really good for Jukebox, and I’m excited to see them begin to find a broader audience. They’re ready for their close-up.

OMG I forgot I had a blog. LOLZ.

Seriously, sorry for the lack of updates. New job is in “fine dining,” which means “I work until one in the morning and don’t get to as many shows, and then I’m tired all day.”

A while back, I went to see William Elliott Whitmore, a guy with a banjo who I saw open for the Pogues back in March. I was treated to three great acts, a rare treat.

I walked in a couple of songs into the opening set by Josh Small, and was arrested by his stunning, soulful voice. Like Whitmore, he’s a guy with a banjo, sometimes a steel guitar, and for one song an acoustic with four damned strings. His voice is incredibly emotive, his singing is fantastic, and the melodies simply hurt to listen to. Small had me completely rapt with his pained, slightly off-kilter ballads.

Bantering during his set, he was hilarious and self-deprecating, and then suddenly these stunning, majestic, introspective songs just came out of him. He seemed to become a different person as soon as he hit the first note.

I bought his latest record, Tall by Josh Small, and have not stopped listening to it. I can’t. It’s the best thing I’ve heard in a long time. I’m not sure I can even bring myself to mention standout tracks. Go to his MySpace page and listen to “Arc de Triomphe,” and then listen to a slightly crisper recording from a previous record, the heartstopping “setting up.”

The music recalls the folk and soul music of the ’70s and bluegrass, sort of, but as record label Suburban Home’s bio notes, “don’t be misled: this isn’t a lame hipster attempt to revitalize a bygone genre. There is a rare authenticity to Small’s sound that is impossible to ignore.”

Small’s performance was straightforward, devoid of self-conscious showmanship, and honest. As would turn out to be the case with all the performers that night, he seemed to be truly touched by the response of the crowd, and to genuinely appreciate the attention and respect of the audience.

Small sat in on a well-worn Telecaster for a set by Tim Barry of Avail (!) and his sister Caitlin.

It sort of sounded like you’d expect it to sound when the singer of a punk band plays country music with his sister on violin. Rowdy, earnest and intense songs made lush with strings earned a great response from the mostly-full room.

It was a good reminder of the common themes and ideals expressed through punk rock and country music alike. Barry sang of wanderlust, the desire for freedom and the need to make one’s own way through his life. Like Small, Tim Barry came off as honestly grateful for the crowd’s appreciation and happy that people were truly listening.

William Elliott Whitmore builds gorgeous songs out of a banjo or guitar, a stomping foot, and an utterly destroyed rasp of a voice that sounds like it’s suffered for a thousand years. It’s Appalachian folk, or bluegrass, or “white soul,” or something to that effect…

His songs carry weight. The old Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy- sin and salvation, guilt and redemption- runs throughout the music, and there’s an air both of resignation and optimism in his whiskey- and smoke-ravaged voice. Straightforward and honest, Whitmore’s songs can really rough you up with their humility, heartbreak and hopefulness.

The slow, dragging, tired ballad “Porchlight” takes the viewpoint of a hardworking farmer speaking to his beloved wife:

would you leave the porchlight on for me?/I come home from the field when it’s too dark to see/would you leave the porchlight on for me?

The farmer falls ill, and the wife stays by his side as he passes away, and in a gutwrenching lyrical turn, Whitmore sings his devotion:

“they say that I ain’t got long for this life/ they say that it’s my time to go/ but darling, you’ve been the most wonderful wife/ that any man could know/ well, you’ve stuck by me through thick and through thin/ since the day you became my bride/ and someday I hope to see you again/ when we meet on the other side”

And the chorus finishes:

Would you leave the porchlight on for me?

would you leave the porchlight on for me?

even though just a memory is all that I’ll be

would you leave the porchlight on for me?

It is simple, it is well-worn territory in folk music, and it is devastatingly effective. There is no need for high-minded poetry or obtuse, intellectual lyrical acrobatics. Just a pure story of a universal truth. It is unpretentious. It is genuine.

After virtually every song, Whitmore leaned up out of his chair, past the mic and toward the audience, and thanked the crowd with an honesty I couldn’t help but be touched by. He didn’t seem to be playing a show so much as sharing his songs with us, grateful for the opportunity and for our applause. Six weeks into a tour, playing a tiny room, this gesture meant a lot. It was unpretentious, and it was genuine.

This kind of stuff is really beginning to mean a lot to me. More and more, I’m finding myself bored and intolerant of “indie rock,” with its avant-garde conceits and grandiose posturing. I feel like a lot of these artists, and I’m not naming names, are trying to create something New and Great without any regard to the traditional, the subtle.

You know what it’s like? It’s like….a baseball player swinging for the fences every time who can’t manage a base hit when it’s needed, or…or…fusion cuisine.

It’s playing without an understanding of the fundamentals of songwriting, and trying to pass it off as if you’re purposefully breaking the rules and bucking tradition.

Bob Dylan knew the rules, and broke them when it made for a better song. That’s what made him great. The Beatles, ditto.

I get the feeling there are a lot of artists coming out whose members don’t have an understanding of rock music’s roots before, say, Nirvana, or maybe David Bowie.

I’m looking at you, virtually every band from Brooklyn.

Anywho, the point, if it can be called that, is that I’m tired of all this ramshackle songwriting (apparently I’m perfectly okay with ramshackle regular writing). Having both a banjo and a Casiotone in your instrumentation, but not having a chorus in any of your songs, does not make you inventive.

I’m finding myself more drawn to well-crafted songs that simply, admirably, build off of our great musical traditions.

Which brings me to my current obsession, DC’s own Justin Jones.

There’s nothing really avant-garde about Jones’ music, but neither does it come off as a throwback. It’s classic folk/country songwriting, with a touch of soul music and a dark, modern lyrical edginess. His voice is gorgeously rich and just polished enough, and he shows a total mastery of inflection and emotive expression in his singing. The voice gets compared to John Mayer’s, which is apt, but here it’s put to much better use than the pap that made Mayer famous.

Jones is more compelling lyrically as well. There’s a darkness and a sensitivity here that feels honest and vulnerable. When, in the defeated breakup song “Dying With You,” the man who’s decided he must leave sings, “I know your secrets/and I know your lies/I know you hide from yourself every night/But I can’t be the only thing good in your life,” the regret at having to abandon his partner is palpable.

From his second record, Love Versus Heroin, “Hope” is a perfectly crafted song. Traditional in structure, lyrically simple, and extremely effective.

In the sprawling, expansive “Let’s Stay Together,” off the new …and i am the song of the drunkards, Jones tells of a damaged lover’s sudden epiphany, cleverly referencing the Al Green song of the same title (both lyrically and melodically) in the song’s climax.

Listen to “Hope” and “Let’s Stay Together” on his MySpace page. Then buy the records. They are exceptional. They’re the only thing that was able to break the spell Josh Small had on me.

Again, and assuming I have any readers remaining, sorry for the dearth of updates. I’ll try to do better in the future, but I’m not promising. I don’t owe you anything, Internet.

Last Thursday, sort of on a whim, I went to see Beauty Pill at Fort Reno.

Man I love that place. The grounds are small. The stage is small. The sound sucks; there’s nothing really that can be done about that, but that’s pretty much beside the point.

Fort Reno is for the kids, and they don’t care what the sound is like.

A little background: On the grounds of Fort Reno, the highest point in the city and the site of the only Civil War battle to take place within District boundaries, a free summer concert series has taken place for the last 40 years. For as long as I’ve been a music fan, the shows have tended to feature punk/indie bands and has been closely associated with Dischord. After all, the place is right across the street from Wilson High School, which was pretty much a punk rock prep school in the ’80s (Ian Mackaye is the most prominent among a host of DC punk legends to come out of Wilson.)

The concert series is run by the Northwest Youth Alliance. Please donate; they need help to keep up their wonderful work.

I went to a lot of shows at Fort Reno as a teenager. Fugazi played just about every year, the event of the summer for my friends and me and undoubtedly a technical and logistical nightmare for the organizers. The Dismemberment Plan played some big shows there too, and eventually I was excited to see various music-scene friends of mine playing some of their first shows on that legendary stage.

Among said friends were Bald Rapunzel, which brings us back to last Thursday’s show.

Drew Doucette played guitar in that band, and he’s now in Beauty Pill, an arty post-punk band led by Chad Clark (formerly of Smart Went Crazy).

They’re an intriguing band. Two drummers, bass, two guitars, keys, sometimes a skillet. The percussion alone can be mesmerizing, the two drummers in perfect sync and dueling fury; the angular guitars play call-and response. The vocals are mostly simple octaves and not a strong point for me. This often is a deal-breaker for me, and I’m not especially inclined to listen to their recordings, but the live show offers a lot of…post-Lou Reed appeal. It’s a fun spectacle to take in.

So, as has become a notorious recurrence at Ft. Reno (it is summer in Washington, after all,) it started to rain, literally a minute or two after Beauty Pill started tuning up.

The band never seemed to bat an eye, and neither did the crowd of young people who hustled up to the front of the stage as the music began to rise from the PA.

And I mean young. I was really excited to see so many teenagers at this show. They reminded me of what it was like to be a kid and to get such a charge out of going to see bands play.

They reveled in the rain. And so, it seemed, did the band, defiant against a couple of short-circuited amps and the threat of electric shock. Water splashed off the cymbals, the band got soaked, guitars were surely becoming nearly unplayable. And the band was smiling, and the crowd danced (danced!) and got soaked, and loved every minute of it.

It all felt really good, and seeing all those happy kids made me think that we still do have something special in this city’s music scene.

I’ll even forgive them for not recognizing Ian Mackaye onstage playing roadie, covering the band’s instruments with tarps.

I spend a lot of time thinking about why it is that some bands in local/regional scenes have a huge amount of hype behind them while others, while well-respected, don’t enjoy the same level of press coverage and public ardor.

And I’ve realized that it’s more or less a crap shoot. It seems that it’s becoming more and more unpredictable- some immensely talented bands slave away without too much notice, and some bands, despite offering nothing more than very good executions of music we’ve already heard before, are touted as local legends.

Last night I went to the Black Cat to see These United States, who you know I love, opening for Middle Distance Runner and Georgie James. To me, the lineup felt backward. These US should be headlining any local bill they play in this city by now.

I was speaking with a friend, who plays in another extraordinary band that should have a higher profile in this city, and he put it about as well as I could hope to, calling These United States “Wilco good,” and a band that deserves to be much more prominent than it is.

I’m not naive. I realize that hooks and a pop sensibility are much more likely to get you noticed, even in “indie” or “local” music, than complexity and nuance.

But come on.

Georgie James is really good, no doubt about it. Middle Distance Runner, ditto. I don’t mean to slight them at all, but I have to wonder why it is that they’ve become two of the most hyped bands in this city as opposed to other bands that are at least as good. Hooks, pop sensibility, I know. And they’re talented; they deserve recognition.
But…

We have bands that are giving us something entirely unique and fascinating and intricate and, to me, irresistible, that aren’t receiving the same level of attention.

Often when listening to music, I find myself drawing parallels to the stuff I work with in my “real job,” wine.

I taste an awful lot of wine. Plenty of it is delicious, enjoyable and fun to consume. And I think to myself, fine, this is enjoyable, but why do I need to sell this as opposed to the hundreds of delicious, enjoyable, fun wines I already have?

I taste plenty of unique and interesting wines too, and I think to myself, fine, but do I need to sell this just because it’s unlike anything I’ve tasted before? Different doesn’t necessarily mean good.

And every once in a while, something special happens. I am faced with a wine that I can tell is giving me something valuable. It is a totally one-of-a-kind product that is made by people who put their hearts and souls into it, that reflects a whole world in a glass: the geology of the soil, the history and culture of the place where it is produced, the weather of the year in which it was grown; a whole and complete and totally new thing that wraps up a universe in one sip. And is irrestistably delicious to boot.

And my lament is the same- why do so many of these wines get overlooked in favor of simply delicious, or simply unique, wines that offer impact in place of resonance, a fleeting enjoyment in place of a rewarding experience?

That’s how I feel about These United States. They have a record , The Forest And The Garden, which from the tracks already made available, is going to be the same sort of rewarding thing- and it has yet to find a home.

What gives?

If Hardly Art, a label run by some of the guys from the legendary Sub Pop, signs Le Loup after three shows, there should be an all-out bidding war for These United States’ forthcoming record. I’m sure they’ve had offers, but apparently none have been good enough, and it’s frustrating to hear tracks like what’s on their MySpace page and know that there’s a magnificent record on the way, and that there isn’t a label that’s done what it takes to get it out there.

Okay, just a few thoughts on the matter.

I promise not to harp on the These United States topic anymore, for at least a few weeks.

Click on the banner to your right, and join the campaign to save internet radio.

Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the issue, courtesy of SaveNetRadio.org.

The bottom line is this: The Copyright Royalty Board, the group charged with assessing royalty charges paid by web radio broadcasters, ruled in March to slap royalty increases of 300 to 1200 percent on web broadcasters.

The sad truth is this: if this ruling is not reversed, the majority of internet radio stations will be bankrupted and silenced.

Those that remain will likely do so only through licensing deals with major record labels. In short, they’ll at best become clones of the traditional radio stations that you long ago stopped listening to after getting fed up with preprogrammed playlists of the same 10 hit songs.

Forget the brilliant Pandora. Forget every other web station playing a diverse and interesting blend of music.

With internet radio, we finally regained something of what we lost long ago in traditional radio.

And soon- on July 15th, when the ruling goes into effect- we could lose it all in one fell swoop.

Most web broadcasters are observing a day of silence today in order to raise awareness of the issue.

It’s a depressing sound. Please help keep it from becoming permanent.

I went to Merriweather Post Pavillion in Columbia, MD on Saturday night to see Manu Chao and Radio Bemba Sound System and f;lajfelk;jA;LSKDJFAEASE;L ajlk;sdf!!!!!!!!!!!!.

Excuse me. Let me give that another shot.

I went to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD on Saturday night to see Manu Chao and Radio Bemba Sound System, and they proved once again to be one of the most infectious, cathartic, and hardest-rocking bands in show business right now.

Bebel Gilberto played early; sadly I missed her set. There were DJ sets from Ursula 1000, Nickodemus and Thunderball as well as a set by DC’s Thievery Corporation.

Thievery were neat. Lots of musicians. I find them intriguing, but something intangible about music rooted in electronica tends to turn me off, and I don’t have a good set of references to judge them by. They had some good guest musicians onstage throughout.

Manu Chao and the Radio Bemba Sound System thing feels like a whole different phenomenon in music. The French-born Spaniard Chao, whose grandfather escaped a death sentence from Franco by moving to France, is gigantic in Europe and Latin America, but his brief tour here last year was his first foray into the US in nearly a decade. The whole thing seems first and foremost to be a political exercise; most songs speak of poverty, the oppression of indigenous peoples in Latin America, economic globalization and the marginalization of immigrants in the US and Europe. Manu Chao has played a protest show at the G8 summit, and he went touring through Latin America on a boat, playing unannounced shows in little villages.

The music itself? On record, it’s a bizarre street-folk blend of mestizo folk, reggae, ska, Caribbean music, punk, Gypsy music, funk, rap, and spoken word, a background noise of movie clips and electronic video-game noise adding a schizophrenic atmosphere throughout. The lyrics are in Spanish, French, Portuguese, English, Arabic, or a blend thereof, whichever works for the song’s concept.

In concert?

Holy. Shit. Seriously?

Radio Bemba Sound System, for this tour, was a stripped-down six-member version of the band that accommodates up to 23 musicians. Two percussionists, bass, keyboards, guitar (all doing backing vocals), and Manu Chao on lead vocals and guitar.

As such, the show sounded more punk rock and less ska- and funk-influenced than the full onslaught with horn section. The songs are wholly reincarnated in the live show, a non-stop juggernaught of punk, metal, reggae, ska, gyspy folk music and whatever else has found its way into Manu Chao’s mind in his nomadic travels.

The music essentially doesn’t stop throughout the set; the songs segue into one another and sections of various songs are embedded into others as recurring themes in a sort of….(gasp)…jam band concept. The drums and Latin percussion are unreal in their intensity. There are sudden, heartstopping double-time breakouts followed by 10-beat pounding endings to many of the songs. There are few countoffs or even visible cues between members as the band charges relentlessly from one song to the next; relief comes in extended breakdowns and the occasional ballad. There are frequent call-and-response bits and infectious shouted chants.

This is as tight and practiced as bands get, and the effect is nearly narcotic.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a must-see spectacle. I waited years to see them, checking tour listings to no avail for almost two years while in Spain, searching for any show in Europe, and then finally saw them at Lollapalooza last year and again on Saturday.

It has been worth the wait. Of all the shows I’ve seen in recent years, the Radio Bemba Sound System experience is a rare opportunity that I count among the best I’ve had as a music fan.

More Info:

Interview and article in LA Weekly

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