Michael Collins leads his band Drugdealer in a performance at Union Stage on Nov. 23, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Listeners really would be best served to avoid judging group or solo artist names by their titles, even if they might sound a tad crooked.
Michael Collins, who got his start making music in Baltimore in the late 2000s, has assumed a few different handles in his time, and all of them have rang with a bold and blatant shadiness — he first recorded as Run DMT and, later, as Salvia Plath. Of all of them, his latest project, while his most sophisticated, was named in the most outright slovenly fashion: Drugdealer.
With a title that echoes somewhere between hilarious and alarming, Collins and his crew of like-minded musicians brought themselves to the DMV this past Thanksgiving Eve for what would be a delightful and disclosing set that revealed this outfit to be unexpectedly sharp in its execution, well cultivated in its humor and remarkably expressive under the surveillance and care of a visionary band leader.
Playing to an intimate crowd at Union Stage in Washington DC the night of Nov. 23, Collins was out in support of the third and newest Drugdealer album, Hiding in Plain Sight, which since being released in late October has been heralded for its vintage vibe and tempting smokiness — it’s a contemporary adult-oriented rock that tickles all the moods with allure and a gentle but stylish strut on the way to becoming a monumental work of everlasting character.
Stream the newest Drugdealer album, Hiding in Plain Sight released on Mexican Summer, via Bandcamp:
Michael hopped onto a stool behind a pair of stacked electric keyboards wearing his mustache and glasses that looked funkily tinted, and his intriguing individuality instantly lifted the atmosphere. Like his last few endeavors, this one sees Collins mischievously concocting alongside his longtime musical colleague and fellow Charm City veteran, the talented Sasha Winn.
Underneath his own pair of bulky, black sunglasses and with a TV dinner stand in front of him, displaying a lunch box, a small keyboard and other noise making devices on it, Winn teamed with Collins to present this set of aromatic, sulky sounds.
They hit as they were designed to: some like the morning drive radio jingles of yesteryear, others like temperamental cuts that might have streamed from the corner juke box of some dimly lit pub where back in the day patrons reconciled or just escaped their problems through substance, sound and the company of others.
“What’s up, y’all?” Michael asked and then requested for the lights to be lowered, of course. “Welcome to the Drugdealer Sweetgreen Summit Washington DC.”
The jokes would just emanate all night long, gradually coaxing the room out of what was a pre-holiday lethargy.
“We’re going to play the ‘Enemy of the State’ soundtrack, song by song. Here’s the first one.”
The first selection was not from the corny big-budget late-90s thriller, but rather the title track from the Drugdealer premiere, 2016’s The End of Comedy, which in recorded form featured the rapturing voice of Collins’ frequent collaborator Natalie Mering, who performs and records as Weyes Blood.
At Union Stage, this track shed light on all the moving parts required to conjure such stimulating sounds, but it did so sans the sexy brass heard in so many of Drugdealer’s most addictive tunes. And thanks to Sasha’s beguiling stage presence, instrumental utility, and dynamic, sensual vocals, the passion and courage in these songs was even more compelling than on the albums with their list of impressive guest artists.
Rather than ponder the absence of any particular instrument, audience members might have very well left Union Stage wondering why they themselves had not brought, say, their own sax. Michael asked the room early in the night if anyone had one in tow that they might use — believe it or not, they’ve had attendees at previous shows take them up on the offer, so it certainly wasn’t out of the question.
“And none of you guys have trumpets or saxophones???” he couldn’t believe it.
Flirtatious and rollicking, this group would all the same help an audience that was wise enough to be there in the first place loosen up and prepare for the next day’s festivities with a colorful and whimsical celebration of their own type.
“Valentine,” a standout from the new album, is a glorious example of Collins’ own evolution as a vocalist, something that might have been overlooked or just under-emphasized on the first couple Drugdealer releases, including 2019’s Raw Honey. They’ve each featured head-turning sit-ins, but more front and center on the newest is Michael himself finding a higher octave and more harmonious conduits for the love and affection he aims to perpetuate with his compositions.
Listen to Drugdealer’s 2019 studio album, Raw Honey, via Spotify:
“What do you think so far?” no one knew if it was rhetorical or how to even consider answering him at Union Stage. “Just some guys in our thirties and we write songs. It’s not that different. … Your weirdness about it is alarming me.”
In “New Fascination,” his head would throw back in accentuating his favorite topics through a heartfelt pitch that took the form of a winding jam and, while no brass instruments materialized in the building, guitarist Mikey Long would show off his propensity for the climactic electric motif, one seamlessly woven back into another groove with astonishing retro appeal. He’d be called on throughout the night to provide a similar boost, using chords to mirror the ear-pleasing and varied instrumentation heard on the albums.
While Collins scurried backstage — to grab a Grubhub Long John Silver’s delivery, he said — bassist Jackson MacIntosh, who hails from Canada and has recorded as Sheer Agony, snagged an acoustic guitar and stepped up to provide the illusory intonation on “The Real World,” which he laid down on the album take as well.
Rounding out the bunch in the back was drummer Josh Da Costa, limber and wide-eyed, with purpose in every swing. He might have been the last vestige of common sense holding it all together through the hysterics as Michael would pull ticketholders’ legs and swap spots with Sasha, who’d roam about when not seated at the large keyboards or the small table, brushing a metal guiro, playing the melodica or a miniature key deck.
There was gratitude for friends and family and nods to Michael’s pals who appear on his recordings, like Kate Bollinger, but there was also talk of Mucinex and shrimp, Nordic shame, bitcoin mining and numerous stories that couldn’t possibly be rooted in reality, like the tale of an IPA brewery dreamt up during the pandemic.
Watch the official music video for Drugdealer’s single “Pictures of You” via the band’s YouTube channel:
“These mother fuckers are so funny,” a voice blurted what others were likely thinking, even with an understanding that much of the banter was likely coated in bullshit.
But at one point, a daring member of the audience named Isabel called the band’s bluff and accepted an invitation to jump on stage and freestyle rap, and Collins encouraged her mid-way with a glow and a big swat of beer that said: “GO ON.”
“No one’s ever said yes,” he was dumbfounded. “Washington DC.”
For those who weren’t aware, Michael would truthfully share some of his backstory, which included time hopping freight trains like “an asshole” and an important go in the Charm City, where he and Sasha began making music together. Before Drugdealer, the playful and psychedelic duo made waves with their must-hear soul experiment Silk Rhodes, a label messing with both the keyboard brand and the infamously shuddered drug-by-mail website, and this is music they apparently played for an after party on the current tour.
Piloting Drugdealer, Collins’ search for heart and energy often feels like an underdog’s endeavor and based on his words at Union Stage some tunes are even influenced by his attempt to make his “way through the experimental music community of the DMV,” only to be “laughed out of town” before moving to LA in 2013.
Oddly enough, he’d share or maybe exaggerate, some of the new music was written mulling the idea that he might make a return to the DMV, putting him back near the nation’s capital and his former haunt and in proximity to many he’s worked with. LA, he teased early in the night, is a place “where nothing really happens at all.”
Rather, LA is where he drew an extraordinary cast in assembling a catalogue of Drugdealer songs that are distinguishable in both tact and nature. And these tracks offer a window into the spirit of a nomad who’d never played an instrument prior to 2009 but has now steered four different vehicles each with their own unique audiences and flavors. Despite battling some confidence issues during the pandemic, Collins now takes to the studio and the stage as a seasoned and fruitful songwriter with all kinds of good people around him.
“Hard Dreaming Man,” a fantastic and faithful journey from the new record, was said to be born out of some of his time spent roughing it in Baltimore, and, with the right context, it should have conveyed a sense of accomplishment as Collins is clearly an artist on the rise having put out what is his finest work yet thanks to the help of a growing network of influential friends more than happy to offer up a voice or hand for his records.
As the set at Union Stage moved along, it absolutely showcased a creator and performer coming into his own, even if what that looks like is an unassuming fellow behind spectacles, smirking with a beer or coffee in hand, occasionally tossing his head back at the keyboard or at the mic stand gripping an acoustic guitar.
This band additionally serves an exhibit of Winn’s undeniable sass and refined, emotional powers as a singer, and the crowd was treated to several pieces that showed off the remarkable beauty of this voice, including “Pictures of You,” “Honey” and the eventual encore, the sensuously offbeat “Posse Cut.”
Watch Sasha Winn (aka Sasha Desree) in this official music video of “Too Close” by Drugdealer and buddy Mac DeMarco on YouTube:
What sounds like a masterpiece from Hiding in Plain Sight, the first track Collins wrote in finding his evolved pitch is titled “Madison,” a sublime and uplifting piece with a sentimental timelessness. And last week in DC it could have uplifted the crankiest pants in the house with a glamour achieved through an authentic yearning and an amusing delicacy.
“We decided you guys are scared — you’re FEAR-based,” he said, never letting up on the audience, holding the group accountable for its actions or maybe for the behavior of the so-called concert goers in the capital who didn’t have the gall to prioritize this show.
But for those who were there, the wildly entertaining night was a chance to connect with a determined, informed and assiduous producer and song maker, one who’s path thus far in the industry has been illustrated by his experiences as an up-and-coming artist living, working and playing in the DMV.
Further, it confirmed what the songs on the three Drugdealer albums have suggested, that it is the work not of squirrelly delinquents, but wonderful, lively and down-to-earth musicians with a marvelous character at the helm — one we’d be lucky to have living and writing songs here locally should he ever decide to come back.
End of Comedy
The Real World
Hard Dreaming Man
Pictures of You
Reverend Baron Setlist
Let The Radio Play
I See You Runnin’
Fool On The Ave
It’s My Turn/Little Hours
Piano Interlude (Waiting On You?)
Here are images of Drugdealer along with the night’s opener, Reverend Baron, performing at Union Stage on Nov. 23, 2022. All photographs copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.