“Poppy enough for ya…bitch?”
Those words, spoken in jest years ago between Oh He Dead’s CJ Johnson and Andy Valenti, actually signaled a dogged determination to never compromise on their dream. Saturday night, during their headlining 9:30 Club debut, the two Oh He Dead (OHD) founders related the story of demoing one of their new songs, only to be told that it wasn’t “pop” enough. That long ago, unnamed producer might be a little humbled to find that OHD has amassed an exhaustive repertoire of original and cover songs, has legions of fans around the world, and this past Saturday played to a packed 9:30 Club (only the first, no doubt, of many such appearances to come).
And judging by the crowd of swaying, dancing, and singing fans, not a single one would accuse OHD of not being “poppy” enough.
Some history: OHD began as a folk duo with Andy and CJ back in 2014. The band is now five players: CJ on vocals and Andy on rhythm guitar with Alex Salser (lead guitar), John Daise (bass), and Adam Ashforth (drums). Over the past seven years, the band has steadily built a repertoire, honed its performance chops, cultivated a loyal fan base, and put in the hard work that culminated with last year’s Wammies (Washington Area Music Awards) trophy for Best Soul Artist/Group.
On Sept. 25, the show began early with Gordon Sterling and The People taking the stage for a short blues/rock set featuring plenty of jamming, outstanding lead guitar work from Cliff Blum and inspired keyboards from Natalie Brooke. With a killer rhythm section consisting of Dave Ray (drums) and Scott Clement (bass), Gordon and company served up a tasty musical appetizer for the main course.
OHD hit the stage with Andy, Alex, John, and Adam launching into the opening notes of “This Time Around.” CJ soon appeared and took command of the stage, her powerful stage presence only enhanced by her sublime, smoky vocals and dazzling smile. The 90-minute set consisted of original tunes from their 2019 debut album, a few new compositions, and as an “encore,” their signature cover, The Zutons’ (via Amy Winehouse) “Valerie.” For “Stay,” former OHD keys player Joe Maier guested and then returned, along with a horn section, for the evening’s final three songs.
Oh He Dead’s Setlist:
This Time Around
Bottle it Up
Did You Ever Wonder
Show me Love
Watch Oh He Dead’s 2019 Tiny Desk Submission “Lonely Sometimes” on YouTube:
DC’s music scene is so rich and varied, with new bands popping up as the area’s musicians support (and play on) one another’s projects. This cross pollination of styles and talents encourages musical experimentation. Boundaries get crossed, unlikely friendships grow and soon you’ve got hard rockers playing funk, bluegrass players delving into jazz, and Americana singers playing the blues. Oh He Dead falls easily into that category that defies categorization; although OHD has been called indie soul, that restrictive label ignores the R&B, jazz, funk, soul, rockabilly, and even surf rock that I heard blending easily this night into a sound that was clearly, uniquely Oh He Dead’s.
Stream Oh He Dead’s debut album on Spotify:
The 9:30 Club, that venerable DC institution, defies categorization as well, so what better place for OHD to step into the club’s history? Like OHD’s musical diversity, the artists hosted at the 9:30 Club span the musical genre rainbow, from folk and Americana, funk and jazz, to pop, rock, and punk, all sensibilities that OHD brings to their songs. CJ’s always on-point vocals, Andy’s unerring musical instincts and direction, Alex’s lead guitar alternating between Metheny’s subtle phrasing and Slash’s screaming attack, combined with the rock-solid rhythm backing from John and Adam all came together brilliantly Saturday night.
OHD’s rise to prominence on the DC music scene has not been overnight, but rather the culmination of constant live performance playing everything from house shows to So Far, local venues, live streams (pandemic “jammy jamz”), touring, and just about anywhere a gig was to be had. I’ve seen OHD in a Bethesda basement, a Vienna parking lot, and now, an internationally renowned concert venue. What a privilege to witness, and be a part of, such a musical journey.
Here are some photos of Oh He Dead at the 9:30 Club on Sept. 25, 2021. All photos courtesy and copyright Mark Caicedo.