Bartees Strange performs during his first ever headlining appearance at 9:30 Club on Nov. 19, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
It takes an unconventional, cutting-edge artist — a risk-taker and a visionary — to refresh listeners’ tastes and guide them in new directions.
And in a music scene celebrated not just for its scope and bustle but for its diversity, Bartees Strange might currently stand as the capital’s leading innovator, a stimulant who explores and marries disparate sounds in conjuring his own trademark essence.
In the process of establishing himself and achieving so much in such a short time, Bartees is furthermore making great strides in connecting those who might normally be disparate music listeners.
Nowhere has this been more plainly evident than on Nov. 19 at 9:30 Club, where, in a triumphant homecoming of sorts, Strange and his band made their first ever headlining appearance at a venue where he himself has taken in many a live show.
In what was finally his night to shine in the city’s most popular spot for live music, Bartees paraded onto the stage with what seemed like the support of the whole city behind him and a good portion of it right there in front of him or in the balconies above, as fans in the form of family, friends, and acquaintances from his daily life were on hand and cheering in support of him.
Listen to the newest Bartees Strange album, Farm to Table, via Spotify:
With infectious eagerness, Strange would lead a captivating set pulled mostly from his two studio albums, including the second, Farm to Table, which dropped over the summer on 4AD and like his first was met with critical acclaim. In one moment leaping into the air, in other on his knees adjusting his pedals and screaming with all his might, Bartees was animated, alive, and absorbed.
One of the dreamier cuts on the new album, the night began with “Escape the Circus,” and the eventual explosion of this track began the night in earnest as he and his mates would follow it by blasting through the vivid and complex “In A Cab” and the tumultuous “Mustang,” two standout chapters from the first Bartees Strange album, Live Forever.
“Been waiting for this night my whole life,” he said a few songs into the commotion, eyes wide as he looked around in awe of his and his band’s situation. “I see people in here that I babysat, I see people I went on a date with one time …”
Though he’d played the club before — an impressionistic set opening for his Richmond friend Lucy Dacus last fall — this was a gig with a great deal of anticipation. And despite being an early show on a Saturday night, it resulted in a packed house and a diverse audience, including some of the most influential folks in the local scene who were thrilled to be taking in this electrifying presentation from a human with a remarkable story.
Strange — whose birthname is Bartees Cox Jr. — was born in England and moved a few times before growing up way out in the middle of Oklahoma, one of only a few Black families living in a town called Mustang. It was a unique childhood — at one point, he was bopping from opera camp to football practice. As an adult, he eventually made his way to the District, where his professional life saw him working with the Federal Communications Commission before taking the sacrificial leap to recording his own music just a few years ago.
Key to his ongoing progress, as he explained during the set, was learning the hard way: advice telling him to shoot for the stars by working with “fancy producers” in a city like Los Angeles turned out to be counter to his best interests.
“It was a horrible experience,” he spoke like he was sipping coffee with friends. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Instead, he said, he focused on the capital and embraced the network he’d already created here and the one that helped him find his stride on his way to his premiere release in 2020.
Watch the official music video for Bartees Strange’s 2022 single “Heavy Heart” via the artist’s YouTube channel:
Noble and seemingly humble, Bartees proudly waves the DC flag as he goes, and so appropriate it was that the Saturday night at 9:30 Club represented the final night of a tasking first half of a fall tour for the band, which is comprised of guitarist Daniel Kleederman, bassist John Daise, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Graham Richman, and drummer TK Johnson.
After getting a rise out of the crowd by rushing off stage to hype it for a moment, Bartees charged ahead with this convincing collection of songs, which would include the new single “Wretched” — remixed early this month by Chicago-based singer and producer keiyaA — and “Lemonworld,” a cover of one of his essential informers, the band The National.
But nothing might be more crucial to Bartees’ music than his experiences as a Black person, one who recently came out as being bisexual during a trying time that is unquestionably momentous for our nation.
Sharing the backstory to “Hold the Line,” he recalled being in a Slack conversation on a particularly regrettable day with coworkers, who were asking him how he was fairing in the wake of the news that George Floyd had been killed by a police officer. He saw one of Floyd’s daughters being interviewed on a cable news program, which struck him as “the darkest and most horrible thing to ask a child to do.”
He related that with his own experiences in Mustang, where the setting wasn’t always favorable for a Black youth, but his parents — his father, an engineer, and his mother, an opera singer — always kept him involved in healthy activities like sports and music.
And while so much of the character of Bartees’ two studio albums is defined by his love for a wide range of hip-hop and various rock sounds — he was in a post-hardcore band for a while, too — his mother’s influence might be heard just a bit more on the new album, as Strange’s rich voice seems to take a more of a central place in some songs.
Listen to Bartees Strange’s 2021 live album, Live at Studio 4, via Spotity:
At 9:30 Club, a journeying take on “Black Gold” and a wildly exhilarating “Heavy Heart,” the opening track to Farm to Table, showed this classy performer’s voice impressively varied and distinguishably impassioned.
Stirring together what might seem an unthinkable blend of sounds, his glorious and soulful harmonies provide a fabric for these compositions to manifest with a robustness and inventive, kaleidoscopic resonance.
After a powerful take on the popular “Boomer” from his debut record, Bartees astonished with a dazzling edition of “Hennessy,” the luscious closer to the new album and a terrific example of his intonation at its most evocative.
A heartrending performer with drive, zeal, and affection, Bartees and his squad put on one of the best “early shows” a music goer might catch here in the district, and it was indeed a festive chance to enjoy one of the most important humans presently making music in DC and calling it his home.
Escape This Circus
In A Cab
Lemonworld (The National cover)
Hold The Line
Pom Pom Squad