Margo Cilker’s recent show at DC9 may have been her first official appearance in the DMV, but it’s not her first time here.
In true folk troubadour fashion, the native of California’s Santa Clara Valley and current resident of the Pacific Northwest busked for many years before releasing her first album, Pohorylle, in 2021. The album received strong reviews and earned her opening gigs with bands like the Drive-By Truckers and American Aquarium and artists like Robert Plant and Brandi Carlile. It was even nominated for UK Americana album of the year.
Earlier this year, Cilker released her second album, Valley of Hearts Delight, to even stronger praise; the album holds one of the top scores for music released this year on MetaCritic. The title of the album refers to the Santa Clara as it was when she was growing up, when it was a place of apricot orchards, before the Silicon Valley explosion. It’s not a radical departure from her first album; she stayed with the same producer, Sera Cahoone. But as strong as the songs were on her first album, they’re even sharper on Valley of Heart’s Delight.
The natural settings of her native northern California and eastern Oregon and Washington crucially inform Cilker’s music and lyrics, especially in songs like “Lowland Trail,” which she opened the set with, and “That River,” which closed the set at DC9 on Oct. 22. “Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl)” evokes images of a rural fence as a metaphor for bigger things. “I write a lot of songs about the desert,” but she also has one about a flood plain. “Keep It On A Burner,” which is actually a relationship song, was inspired by a somewhat harrowing river trip she took. It was harrowing, she explained, because of the rattlesnakes in the sand. As my man Indiana Jones would say, “It had to be snakes!”
While natural settings are a strong theme of both of her albums, Cilker’s songs cover a lot wider ranger. Before she played “Beggar For Your Love,” Margo had a good laugh at the silliness of the name of a place she once played, Mr. Toot’s Coffeehouse. “Brother, Taxman, Preacher,” is a careful character study. Other songs in the set included “Sound and Fury,” “With the Middle,” and “Tehachapi.”
Watch the official music video for “With the Middle” by Margo Cilker on YouTube:
One thing Margo said during the show really resonated with me. After playing a cover of Ian Tyson’s “Road to Las Cruces,” she said, “We’re just keeping singing about New Mexico.” The next song was about a bowl of Christmas chili, which sounds amazing now that I can’t eat chili anymore. With songwriting, she explained, sometimes you “start with a beautiful plate of huevos rancheros and find a deeper truth.” I couldn’t have put it better myself: You have to take inspiration wherever it comes from, no matter how silly it may seem.
For her encore, Margo played “All Tied Together.” The song is a tribute to the late singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died of a drug overdose in August. The song explores the grief of his father, musician Steve Earle, and the legacy Justin left for his young daughter.
Margo seemed genuinely happy to be playing. Both before and after the show, she mingled with the crowd. She couldn’t have been more friendly, and the rest of the band were just as pleasant.
A fluid band based around songwriter Siri Undlin, Humbird hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota. As opener for the show, Humbird started their set with the title cut of their first album, Pharmakon, followed by “Cornfields and Roadkill,” which Siri described, sarcastically, as “a really uplifting number.” (I suppose it’s uplifting if you’re a buzzard, eh?)
Watch a visualizer for “Cornfields and Roadkill” by Humbird on YouTube:
She dedicated the next song “to anyone who didn’t hydrate and didn’t get a nap.” She advised the audience not to just to book the cheapest hotel they kind; that was how they ended up, the night before, in what she described as the last smoking hotel in New Jersey. (One is tempted to ask if that really makes a difference in Jersey, yuk, yuk, yuk.
Siri lives in south Minneapolis, not far from where George Floyd was killed. She wrote the most poignant song in her set for five-year-old neighbor Charlotte, who was learning to ride her pink bicycle in the alley. Charlotte, she told the audience, is now 8, and she dedicated the song to the civilians in Gaza and the hostages being held by Hamas.
Humbird closed their set with “Help Me, Willie Nelson” followed by a traditional Irish ballad, “I Am Stretched On Your Grave,” with the lyrics translated into English. Siri learned the song from Sinead O’Connor.
I wasn’t familiar with Humbird, and they were a pleasant surprise, a good mix of folk and Americana. They nicely complemented Cilker’s set, which had some of the best songs written by any young artist today.