Live Review: Fruit Bats @ 9:30 Club — 4/23/22

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Eric D. Johnson leads Fruit Bats in a performance at 9:30 Club on April 23, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)

The transformation of a songwriting vehicle from an individual endeavor into a full-fledged outfit is one of the more remarkable progressions to behold.

Especially so when the person driving the operation is a genuine, gifted soul with a penchant for crafting songs that can captivate in an intimate setting, but yet can be expanded and embellished into prosperous compositions at the group level to engage a much more active audience in larger venues.

Fruit Bats, the musical motorhome of singer and guitarist Eric D. Johnson, used a red-letter, late-night appearance at 9:30 Club recently to demonstrate the entity’s continued evolution as a sophisticated, dynamic folk rock troupe and, now in its second life, possessing a rare wisdom and imparting spirit.

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Ticket Giveaway: Fruit Bats @ 9:30 Club, 4/23/22

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Fruit Bats (Photo courtesy Merge Records)

With support from Merge Records, Fruit Bats released two albums in 2021 — The Pet Parade and Siamese Dream! This year, the band followed those albums with a compilation, Sometimes a Cloud Is Just a Cloud: Slow Growers, Sleeper Hits, and Lost Songs (2001–2021).

Fruit Bats now cap that prolific period with a lot of touring, and they turn up at 9:30 Club on Saturday, April 23.

You can win tickets to see Fruit Bats at 9:30 Club with Parklife DC!

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Live Review: Cody Canada & The Departed w/ Them Dirty Roses @ City Winery — 4/17/22

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Cody Canada & The Departed (Photo courtesy the artist)

The red dirt subgenre of country music is defined more by its geography — Oklahoma and Texas — than by a particular sound. It includes folkier singer-songwriters like Robert Earl Keen and the late Jimmy LaFave, neo-outlaws like Cody Jinks, and bands like Cody Canada & The Departed, who rock as hard as they twang. As the audience could see at City Winery in DC recently, Cody plays loud and lives the hard, rock-n-roll lifestyle.

In a particularly harrowing story Cody recounted at City Winery before playing “Easy,” he recalled how he was robbed in West Memphis, Arkansas. Cody suggested the audience avoid this city, as it is bad news; my only other familiarity with it is from the sad tale of the wrongly-convicted West Memphis Three, the subject of Lucinda Williams’s “West Memphis.” 

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Live Review: Cowboy Junkies @ The Birchmere — 4/10/22

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Cowboy Junkies perform at The Birchmere on April 10, 2022. (Photo by Jason Nicholson)

 “Lifting your spirits,” teased Cowboy Junkies vocalist Margo Timmins in the band’s recent appearance at The Birchmere, “is not what we do.”

It wasn’t quite a joke, as it’s a true statement. “Upbeat” would not describe their music, which is deeply moody and full of heartache. Sonically, the Junkies accomplish this by combining two distinct musical traditions, both of which have plenty of sadness: the alternative and art-rock of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground — whose “Sweet Jane” still occupies a central place in their setlist — and David Bowie, whose “Five Years” they covered in their encore, and the dusty Americana embodied by their late friend, the legendary Townes Van Zandt, whose “Rake” was featured in the second set.

Since they last appeared at The Birchmere before the pandemic, the Junkies have released two albums. The first, Ghosts, came out in 2020, and was made in response to the death of the Timmins siblings’ mother.

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Live Review: Zachary Williams w/ Early James @ The Miracle Theater — 3/29/22

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Zachary Williams of The Lone Bellow (Photo courtesy Grandstand Media)

Before he found success as a member of the Americana trio The Lone Bellow, singer-songwriter Zachary Williams made his bones as a solo performer. He put in hard times singing in bars in New York City, where he was not even shown the courtesy of having the basketball game turned down. In 2009, he managed to scrape things together to record and release an album on a shoestring budget, and the printing contained not one but two typos.

During his set at the Miracle Theater on Tuesday evening, the similarity of his name to Christian artist Zach Williams was a bit of a running gag. When he discussed that first solo record, Zachary mentioned that Spotify has misplaced under that other Zach. He also brought up Zach’s recent duet with Dolly Parton, and someone in the audience joked, “Living vicariously!” Zachary wryly observed, “Living vicariously, indeed. He’s a Christian artist, so God only knows what he has to put up with.”

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Live Review: The Mastersons w/ The Whitmore Sisters @ City Winery — 3/23/22

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The Mastersons (Photo by Curtis Wayne Millard)

One day, as The Mastersons were driving down that endless highway on the way to another gig, a song came on the radio. As they tell the story, it was a sort of a sort generic Americana tune with a songstress going on about trains and whiskey. Eleanor Whitmore, who makes up half of the duo with her husband, Chris Masterson, said, “If I hear one more fucking song about trains and whiskey…”

This was seed for what would become the title cut of their fourth and most recent record, 2020’s No Time For Love Songs. They released it, and they took off on tour opening for alt-country heroes The Jayhawks, which came to a stop after just a few days. While the record got some strong buzz, the pandemic killed all their momentum in 2020, just as it did for everyone else in a similar situation.

The Mastersons regained that momentum significantly in a star turn at City Winery DC recently, when Eleanor headlined with Chris and then opened for herself with her sister.

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Live Review: Son Volt @ The Birchmere — 3/2/22

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Son Volt perform at The Birchmere on March 2, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)

I’m going to begin this review with a digression, but trust me: it’s going to make sense. Every time I go to my favorite record store in DC, Joint Custody, I’m reminded of how many amazing albums you can get at incredible prices. If you look past the biggest, brightest names, the most highly-sought ought bands and artists, you can find all-time great records in the range of $5-$10. Getting The Kink Kronikles for 10 bucks feels like some sort of cosmic victory in the face of all unjust bullshit this life has heaped upon me.

The same thing that’s true about records is true about concerts. Look beyond what’s most popular, especially what’s most popular right now, and you can find some amazing experiences. Road-tested bands with deep songbooks who know how to connect with a crowd consistently, every night. You’ll get to feel — to actually be — close to the band. No, you’re not going to get a pyrotechnics display or a laser light show. What you are going to get is incredible music, played by incredibly talented, deeply committed artists, who have given their lives to it.

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Live Review: Susto @ The Hamilton Live — 2/26/22

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Justin Osborne leads Susto in a performance at The Hamilton Live on Feb. 26, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)

When a musician has lived through real heartache and reconciled their missteps, or at the very least tried, it gives their words a resolve and a credibility that can immediately resonate with listeners hunting songs of substance.

Justin Osborne, the lead songwriter and singer of the band Susto, owns a voice with an undeniable capacity that convinces the listener to truly hear what he’s saying and how he’s saying he, to let it absolutely gut them and leave them with an exhausted heart. Susto’s songs amount to raw and painfully honest descriptions of love and hardship and that perspective is no doubt driven by Osborne’s own eventful personal journey. Susto explored that journey in their recent appearance at The Hamilton Live in DC.

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Preview: SUSTO @ The Hamilton Live, 2/26/22

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SUSTO (Photo by Sully Sullivan)

Last year, Americana septet SUSTO returned with Time in the Sun, the band’s latest record, via New West Records. The 11-song set was produced and engineered by Wolfgang Zimmerman (Band of Horses) in the band’s hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

SUSTO perform their new songs and more at The Hamilton Live in DC on Saturday, Feb. 26!

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