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The Districts Rock DC with Passion and Mannequins

The Districts entered a stage populated by mannequins with heads cut off and replaced with heat lamps, clutching a jug of water in one hand and a guitar in the other. A group of kids barely out of high school, singing for a crowd mostly pushing thirty, screaming their lungs out and drinking their minds blank. Stuffed into the narrow black rectangle that is DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel, where the sound bounced a little too much and views were perpetually blocked by someone’s taller shoulders. When the swaying chanced to offer a window to the stage, you could see their singer often nearly doubled over, attacking his guitar strings, or three steps away from the microphone, leaning to the point of nearly toppling over, seemingly defying gravity by shouting into the crowd. Most young singers would have this turn into a scream-fest, but despite the obvious outpouring, the vocals never strayed into chaos. Pathos of the inflections intact, you could even make out most of the lyrics.

The Districts write great songs and they play with impressive energy, but in watching them for just a few minutes, you get the feeling that their understanding goes deeper than that. Great bands can tap into a certain dichotomy live. That it’s just music, that we all just happen to be here on the same night and it’s nothing to shout home about; it’s a trifling matter and a life or death situation. That seeing someone rip out their soul, scream it to the crowd, and then for those same people to soak it in and shout it back to the stage can feel like the most important act in the world. That anything could happen at any moment, even if all that happens is some noise blasting out a speaker. It’s a quality that the best live bands achieve without even trying. The Districts aren’t there yet, but you can see the dynamic there, and it’s a thrilling thing to watch.

The show wasn’t perfect; pacing was a major problem. Each time the energy of the room started to hit a cathartic high, the song ended and we were treated to sometimes 3 or 4 minutes of the band gathering themselves, tuning their guitars (again?!?) and chugging water. Still, hearing a room full of people scream into the rafters, “Long distance, long time! Isn’t easier!” building to sweaty fans jumping maniacally to 4th And Roebling, ending on a slow burn group chant of the chorus, “I ain’t the same any more, I’m not the same as before…” a proper show closing cures all imperfections. The only thing that matters is that nothing outside that cramped black room does. Like the best arena rockers, they’re able to take a song soaked in regret and weariness and turn it into an affirmation, a couple hundred people connected for a night, ever so slightly changed.

Foo Fighters Tear the Roof Off of Intimate, Crowd-Funded Gig in Richmond

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This article was written for antiquiet.com, you can read the original here.

 

“I’ve been a musician a long time, and I’ve played a lot of shows…But I’ve never played a show like this one before!”

The crowd roared back, and although he could have probably said just about anything and elicited the same response, the sentiment certainly felt true. Last night the Foo Fighters played the National, a roughly 1,500 capacity venue in downtown Richmond, VA after a fan led campaign sold $70,000 worth of tickets to a show that didn’t exist. The Foo Fighters decided to play along  and come to the city for the first time since 1998, but instead of setting up shop in the arena they could have easily sold out, they elected to give the fans something truly special, an intimate show exclusively for those crazy enough to buy tickets to imaginary shows.

The city has been understandably pumped since the show announcement two weeks ago. Local favorite Sugar Shack Donuts bought $5,000 worth of tickets and spent the past week giving them away in increasingly zany fashion (what started with a simple raffle and a YouTube cover contest soon escalated into a “donut hurling” competition, city-wide scavenger hunt, and a deluge of “depserate karaoke” videos). You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing the local rock station talking up “Foo Fighters Week” and playing the songs back to back and again and again. And to top it off, the mayor proclaimed the day of the concert to be an official Foo Fighters Day.

So, yes, people were excited. And arriving at the venue, seeing a line down the street and around the corner, you could tell this was no ordinary show. People began showing up at noon for the 7:00 door time, holding up “DV GROL” license plates, tour shirts dating back to the 90s , and entire families decked in Foo Fighters gear. Chants of “R! V! A!” (short for Richmond, VA) and “Foo! Figh! Ters!” could be heard down the block. Once inside we squeezed together. And as one does at concerts, impatiently waited.

Local group Avers kicked off the show. Something of a supergroup of Richmond rock bands (with member of The Trillions, Hypercolor, and several others), their presence was a welcome nod to the grassroots nature of the show, spotlighting a bit of local talent. Not that Avers need any favors. The psychedelic haze that was slathered all over their excellent debut record was scraped off for their live setting, showcasing a powerful rhythm section and pounding riffs. Girls With Headaches was an especially strong highlight, dirtying up the laid back groove of the original with snarling guitar leads and a drum break that damn near bowled over the rest of the band. Guitarist / keyboardist / rock & roll jack of all trades Charlie Glenn put in an early challenge to Dave Grohl as “guy having the most fun possible on stage” while the band ripped through the track’s twists and turns to arrive at a squealing solo to top things off and elicit one hell of a cheer from a crowd that was mostly oblivious to the group moments earlier. Conversations overheard afterwards placed the set somewhere in between “pretty good” and “pretty DAMN good.”

But no matter how damn good an opener could be, we were here for the cult of Dave Grohl.

And the Foo Fighters would not disappoint. They opened with a three note riff sounding out into the dark, repeated, then the near whispered intro: “All my life I’ve been searching for something…” You’d have been hard pressed finding a single audience member not maniacally shouting back to Dave’s subdued growl. “Leaves me with the feeling that I feel the most, feel it come to life when I see your ghost…” the riff kicks in, drum fills pour down from the stage, lights flare, and suddenly, we’re in the middle of a Foo Fighters show. Dave embraced the love, finding breaks in the songs to nearly fall off the stage maniacally pounding riffs out of his guitar, extending songs into punk rock riff-fests and audience screaming matches. I’ll Stick Around, from the group’s now 20 year old debut was next, apparently thinking he could stump the crowd he yelled out “sing along if you know it!” Which of course the people did, responding to the challenge with a unison “I DON’T OWE YOU ANYTHING!”

Since I keep mentioning it, I should probably get it of the way now that there were a lot of sing-alongs. Choruses were shouted in jumping frenzies, the group in front of me took to screaming in each other’s ear and high-fived for every song they knew (hint: all of them). Grohl led us through an a capella version of My Hero that was chill inducing and Everlong did exactly what Everlong does to people regardless of the setting. Best Of You was finished off with the crowd providing the backing Oohs as the evening culminated in a frenzied barrage of drum fills and probably-shouldn’t-be-legal guitar strangling.

But outside of the many hits, the real reason people can get so excited for a Foo Fighters show is the sheer force of personality of Dave Grohl. One of the very few true rock stars left in the world, there’s not really anyone else that brings that level of enthusiasm and generates such overwhelming waves of positivity on stage. Just about every song ended in a shit-eating grin, with the audience in rapt attention whenever he decided to slow things down and talk to us for a while. Just 100 miles south of his hometown of Springfield, VA, he had the crowd say hi to his Mother sitting in the balcony. He picked out of the crowd the guy who started the crowd funding event and dedicated Up In Arms, prefacing with a tongue in cheek “You’re gonna know what it’s like to be loved by Dave Grohl, so open up your ear holes and let my love in.” Local metal institutions GWAR and Lamb Of God were given shout outs and song dedications (Cold Day In The Sun for the late Dave Brockie of the former, Weenie Beenie for the latter) while he shared his earliest memories of Richmond: Namely getting far too high and seeing GWAR.

Dave also liked to mention that they had been a band for the past 20 years, and it showed. Never content to simply play the song straight-up, the band continuously found creative ways to break into asides and trap doors. Poppy guitar hooks seamlessly transitioned into metal riffs and blast beats, giving way drum fill laden rave ups. Taylor Hawkins seemed determined to match Dave’s intensity at every opportunity, his arms a constant blur from mammoth fill to mammoth fill. Monkey Wrench was easily a highlight of the evening, turned from a taut rocker to expansive showstopper. Verses were interspersed with 70s punk rock guitar flourishes before leading into a psychedelic-ish interlude, Grohl playing a two note riff as the band behind him rises and falls in intensity, going from spacey, effects-laden solos to a straight ahead Who-esque build up.

The first set closed on Everlong, a visibly ecstatic Grohl urging us to sing our hearts out. And we did, of course. And as the song hit its climax, and we waited for that beat of rest in the song that precedes one final go-around of the chorus the band stopped completely. Silence, until the crowd roared its approval. Grohl stood motionless, a slight smile on his face, basking in the affection and the energy. For a moment, the song no longer felt like a romantic plea, but more of a summation of experiencing something fully. If a rock & roll show can provide anything meaningful, it’s that pure moment of catharsis between an audience and the music and the artist. We were asked, “if anything could ever feel this real forever,” and we responded with a resounding yes.

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Jason Isbell at The National

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Before a show I make a point to tell myself I won’t be writing about it, usually in a (sometimes vain) attempt to quiet the part of the brain that forms sentences instead of shutting up and experiencing things. It actually worked this time, but I felt compelled to write about seeing Jason Isbell at The National last Thursday anyways. In my best of 2013 post I classified last year’s Southeastern as an album I had yet to listen to much but suspected I would like it if I ever got around to it. To be honest, I had listened to it a few times, but always in a distracted state of mind, and that’s really no way to appreciate that record. It also helps that my appreciation of folk/country and singer-songwriter type material has increased in leaps in bounds lately (surely due in no small part to the numerous singer-songwriters I’ve befriended in recent years). After finally digging in, I found a richly crafted bunch of songs which expertly navigate the balance between imaginative story-telling and heart wrenching personal narrative.

Great songs find a way to make the specific sound universal, and that’s something Isbell handily accomplishes here. “Live Oak” might be my favorite example, starting evocatively with an a capella run through of the chorus, “There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be/And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me”. The song is the story of a man running from his past, unsure if the love he’s found is predicated on the man who lived his previous lives. Running parallel to that interpretation is the knowledge that Southeastern is Isbell’s first record since becoming sober and getting married, and yet, even with two concrete interpretations, when he delivers that chorus there’s a universality to the currents of doubt and regret that underpin the song.

Then seeing it live, hearing a hundred or so extra voices join that chorus, there’s another layer added to the song, seeing the personal element reflected in the rest of the crowd, reflected back to the guy on stage with a guitar, singing at us. Which kind of gets to one of my favorite parts of the show, the countless minor unspoken communications between Isbell and his band and the crowd.  After any particularly gregarious bout of cheering, we would be met with a silently mouthed “thank you”. Guitar solos were interspersed with a quick glance to the crowd, eyes seemingly closed, then a glance to the rhythm section to make sure they were still having fun (they were) then down to the guitar to unleash so more theatrics (and let me just note my appreciation that not only is Isbell that rare singer-songwriter with lead guitar chops, his playing is also imaginative and uniquely him; see: that “Danko/Manuel” slide solo, damn). There was also the mid-verse, in between line look away from the microphone with a squinched face that seemed to say “ooohh, that’s a good line I wrote!”.

But far and away my favorite moment of the show came early on, during a rendition of the Drive-By Truckers showstopper, “Decoration Day”. Once the lyrics ended the band seemed to be letting the song come to a close, a final power chord drifting into the rafters as the cymbal crashing crescendo fizzled into a careful splash. Isbell, who had drifted to the drum riser, with his back to the audience turned to look over his shoulder and, though maybe not intentionally, gave a look to the crowd.  Anyone familiar with the song knew what was going to happen next; huge drum fill, screaming guitars, all hell breaking loose into a twin-guitar carnage coda.  I’m sure there were more than a few people in the audience who weren’t prepared for it though, and Isbell’s look was almost like a wink to all those in the know: “yes, shit is indeed about to happen, and those people have no idea”.

Which of course it did, as his lead guitarist broke into a  rather devastating solo.  Which I expected, and even though I admit I probably imagined all this and really he was just stretching a crick in his neck, it still made the whole spectacle that much more satisfying knowing (or imagining) that kind of communication can happen in a room so large.  Great performers know how to simultaneously make you feel like you’re having an individual conversation with them while being a part of a larger whole, experiencing something together, and that’s exactly what Jason Isbell brought that night.

Black Girls Launch ‘Claire Sinclaire’ at Balliceaux

Some nights just feel like an event.  There was a buzz about this show that gave the impression that this night could be a turning point for this band.  I arrived at Balliceaux and found a line waiting.  There were murmurs we wouldn’t be getting in, that the venue was packed.  A girl in front of me reassured her friend that this band was, indeed, quite funky.  The line doubled in size. Word came down that we were, indeed, going to be getting in.  Sighs of relief reverberated along the line.  Not five feet away some guy took a piss in the alley, walked up to me and informed with more than a hint of confrontational swagger, “I just took a piss.”  Like I said, this was an event.

Sleepwalkers opened the night and with their synthesis of 70’s riff-rock, soul, and the glam-rock influences that Black Girls execute so well it was easy to imagine why.  Sleepwalkers build on that base though, shown especially well with show standout “Prey and Pressure”, sporting an almost stoner-rock descending riff, equal parts earworm hook and pounding tenderizer ushering in the shouted chorus with just a touch of manic energy, “I’m feeling pressure all the time!”.  The back and forth between a supple rhythm section and the steady riffage made for an early highlight of the night.  The sound didn’t do them many favors, though.  When their lead guitarist (you’ll have to forgive this writer for not knowing which Yorke brother is which) regularly decimated songs with slashing guitar solos, they too often felt more like suggestions than star turns,  a flurry of notes hiding underneath a suffocating rhythm section.

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Anyways, the night continued.  The line to the bathroom crawled.  The guy who pissed in front of me in line made a pass at my date.  Someone handed me a PBR that may not have been intended for me, but was drank by me regardless.  And finally Black Girls took the stage with a trace more confidence than their typical swagger allowed.  The night started with some old standbys from the excellent 2011 LP Hell Dragon.  A sharp contrast to their recent shows that have been predicated on starting with the new stuff before easing into the familiar crowd favorites.  The Claire Sinclaire cuts did come though, and they hit hard.  The new songs show a stronger predilection towards funk and soul as disco backbeats abound while lead guitarist Mike Bryant often joins the rhythmic frenzy with wah wah stabs and staccato strums.  “Low” was the standout it always is, with most of the room joining in on the chorus, “I’ve been low, but I’ve never been that LOW!”  The call and response vocals on “So Sorry” ignited the crowd as well, some shouting along to both drummer Stephen Farris and singer Drew Gillihan, others choosing one or the other.  The end result rather cacophonous but riotously fun.

Then the guests started coming in.  First Charlie Glenn from The Trillions on keyboards, then a smattering of horn players from the NO BS! Brass Band stepping in as the horn section, sax and trombone in tow.  And though they sat in as guests, it’s hard to imagine songs like “Lover” and “Broadway” without the call and response and loping horn lines they provide.  The latter was, as it often is at Black Girls shows, a highlight of the night, the band locked in, horns flailing, bassist Jeff Knight ambling on the end of the maybe inch-high stage, rhythm guitarist Fletcher Babbs wandering into the crowd crossing at least half the venue, audience chanting back in response “NEW YORK CITY!! GAWWWWD DAMN!”  Any semblance of band/audience separation long forgotten.

And that was it.  We ushered ourselves from the mood lighting interior of Baliceaux into the night.  Event over, album launched.

Matthew E. White Showcases Spacebomb Records at Strange Matter

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I stepped into Strange Matter by myself that night to see Matthew E. White and the Spacebomb Orchestra.  By myself, because there is no feeling more acutely awkward than bringing a well-intentioned friend to a show they don’t really care about while worrying about whether or not they’re actually enjoying the show.  Strange Matter because it’s where I, the audience, and the band agreed to meet on that particular night.

I had seen Matthew E. White play before, the previous November, roughly 13 months ago at the Camel.  The band’s first show (as far as I knew, at least) since releasing the stunning Big Inner whose sounds had dominated my Fall.  The band started shaky but fell into a groove,  while White’s understated vocals felt ever so slightly unsure of themselves, the band never truly locked in.  The arrangements were recreated, occasionally expanded on, but they never transcended, though they got close on set ender “Brazos”.  A good show to be sure, but a band that was clearly still learning to play with each other.

This night felt different.  A year of intense touring later, the band (who played for both Matthew E. White and opener Howard Ivans, also of Spacebomb Records) kicked into a hypnotic groove to start the show, and the new vigor radiated from the stage.  The rhythm section was electric, Cameron Ralston’s bass slithered through webs of snare hits, harmonizing with the swaying guitar lines at one moment, pulsing with the kick drum the next.  This was not the same band.  When Howard Ivans finally emerged on stage to take the frontman’s role he did so with a grateful smile, as enraptured by the band as we in the audience were.  His songs emerged from a slinky funk strut, a base where he unleashed both soaring ballads and funk breakdowns alike.  A solid opening set that was over rather quickly, the band exited the stage, and we were left to wait.

When the band finally reappeared Matthew E. White (who had been playing second guitarist in the last set) took his spot at the front of the stage.  From the first line you could hear a new sense of confidence in White’s voice that was lacking before.  The softly spoken tones that worked so well on the record were replaced with projection that showcased the nuances of his voice while better suiting his occasionally raucous band.  And speaking of the band.  Though White’s songs tend towards richly detailed yet quietly contemplative, in a live setting that aesthetic was thrown out the window in favor of a truly powerful yet nimble rhythm section.  Drummer Pinson Chanselle was a monster, unloading otherworldly fills one after another, nearly leaping from behind his set at times.  The unlikely comparison that most came to mind was The Roots, another group well versed in R&B, funk, jazz, and rock history that turns into a groove juggernaut on stage.
Matthew E. White led his bandmates through just about every song in the catalog (plus a cover that may have been a Creedence Clearwater Revival song).  The tracks from the Outer Face EP were a particular surprise.  Arranged on record without any guitar, keys, or horns, White was freed from such restrictions live and powered them with crunchy rhythm guitar while Chanselle pounded the backbeat.  Though I missed the opposing choirs in “Signature Move” the beefed up sound more than made up for it.   And that turned out to be the theme of the night.  Whatever you were expecting from this band, they turned it on its head and gave you something even more compelling.  Their growth as musicians and as a band in such a short amount of time is astounding and I left Strange Matter thrilled to see where they go next.