Eli “Paperboy” Reed performs at The Hamilton Live in DC on May 6, 2022. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
If you go back in the history of roots music, you’ll find that genres that are harshly separated today were not so clearly distinct in an earlier time. Up to the ’50s and ’60s, country and folk were closely tied to blues, and the word often appeared in the title of country songs. In the late ’60s and ’70s, there was a distinct overlap between country and the burgeoning genre of soul music, centered on Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. (For a fascinating, book-length study of this, see Charles Hughes’ excellent Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.)
Eli “Paperboy” Reed has dedicated his career to vintage soul sounds, but as he showed in his performance at The Hamilton Live recently, he’s a fan of old-school country, too.
Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne perform at The Birchmere on April 27, 2022. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
Sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer are two of the most accomplished singer-songwriters in the contemporary country and Americana scene. The Alabama natives both possess remarkable gifts as writers and are among the finest vocalists working today. Each possesses a distinctive style: Shelby leans more toward soul and gospel (she noted her favorite singer is Mahalia Jackson), while Allison often inclines toward folk, but has had an eclectic career that’s also seen her work in more rock-oriented directions as well.
With their remarkable voices, they don’t need much support to put on an incredible show as they did at The Birchmere recently.
Shannon McNally performs at Pearl Street Warehouse on March 12, 2022. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
Shannon McNally has been performing for 25 years, during which she’s shared stages with jam band artists like Robert Randolph and Derek Trucks, heartland rockers like John Mellencamp, and Americana troubadours like Steve Earle. She’s won acclaim both for her own writing and for her exceptional ability as an interpreter of song.
Shannon’s latest album, the self-produced The Waylon Sessions, delves into the recordings of outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings, and she appeared at DC’s Pearl Street Warehouse recently to tour it. She said it was easy to choose the songs, as she just “picked her favorites.” The album was cut in four days, and featured guitar work from Kenny Vaughan; after she opened the set with “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” Shannon related a tale from Kenny about seeing Waylon at a club in Arizona in 1973.
The Punch Brothers perform at the Lincoln Theatre on Feb. 26, 2022. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
The Punch Brothers have one foot firmly in history and tradition and one foot firmly stepping forward into the future. Their most recent album, Hell on Church Street, is a track-for-track reimagining of Tony Rice’s classic 1983 record Church Street Blues. Rice was a master bluegrass guitarist and pioneer of the newgrass movement whose range extended into jazz. He played with notable artists like David Grisman, J.D. Crowe & The New South, and Ricky Skaggs, and he influenced a lot of artists in acoustic music and related genres.
Following a lengthy illness — he last played publicly in 2013 — Rice passed away in 2020, making Hell on Church Street a timely tribute to his memory at the Lincoln Theatre recently with the Punch Brothers.
Beth Hart performs at the Warner Theatre on Feb. 24, 2022. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
Blues singer Beth Hart is a survivor. She’s survived a troubled a youth, in which her father, a bail bondsman, did time in prison. Later, her brother passed away due to AIDS. Stardom did not come easily for her; she’s battled mental illness in the form of bipolar disorder and major addictions to drugs and alcohol.
At times, her career has seemed like it might be over, only for her indomitable spirit to persevere, and for Beth’s undeniable talent and passion to bring her back from the musical grave. She was certainly on fire in performance at the Warner Theatre in DC recently.
Chris Wood performs at 9:30 Club on Jan. 26, 2022. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
At one point during The Wood Brother’s set at 9:30 Club recently, I pointed out bassist Oliver Woods’s unusual technique on the electric bass. Rather than the standard overhand overhand method of playing the instrument, he was using the hand positioning that is standard for the guitar. That wasn’t the only thing that was unusual about Chris’s playing: When he plays the upright bass, he typically uses a bow.
This versatility and use of unusual techniques in Chris playing comes from his background prior to the formation of The Wood Brothers, He studied jazz bass at the New England Conservatory of Music, after which he cofounded the jazz fusion group Medeski, Martin & Wood.
Keb’ Mo’ performs at The Birchmere on Jan. 20, 2022. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
Normally, when I can get a hold of a setlist before the start of a show, it makes my life as a reviewer that much easier. So I eased up a little when our photographer, Ari Strauss, sent a me shot of it just before Keb’ Mo’ started playing at The Birchmere recently. As I was to learn, however, for Keb’ Mo’, a setlist isn’t a firm plan.
An award-winning blues artist, Keb’ Mo’ is influenced by legendary figures like Son House and Robert Johnson, the latter of whom he’s played onscreen. Keb’ is a true raconteur, an entertainer who engages with his audience, exchanging banter and taking requests. He’s a warm, charming presence, and his shows have a comfortable intimacy between performer and audience.
The Reverend Peyton fronts his Big Damn Band at The Hamilton Live on Nov. 17, 2021. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band recently played The Hamilton in DC, and the church of the electric country blues was in session. This was gritty, authentic music with, as the good Reverend declared, “human hands playing real instruments.” It was American roots music at its finest, steeped in traditions brought forward with a modern sensibility, performed with skill and passion.
Lake Street Dive perform at Wolf Trap on Sept. 9, 2021. (Photos by Ari Strauss)
There was a lot of soul in the air when Lake Street Dive and Valerie June took the stage at Wolf Trap last week.
Steve Earle performs at The Birchmere on July 20, 2021. (Photo by Ari Strauss)
Steve Earle has been playing The Birchmere regularly for decades, since even before his debut album, 1986’s Guitar Town. He first visited the famed northern Virginia venue when he was playing bass in his mentor’s, Guy Clark, band. (Steve’s other mentor was the brilliant but deeply troubled songwriter Townes Van Zandt.) On Tuesday evening, Earle and his band, The Dukes (get it? it’s a pun on the early rockabilly song “Duke of Earl”) played the first of two nights at the club.
In the three and a half decades since the release of Guitar Town, Steve Earle has created a deeply respected and wide-ranging body of work. A self-described “cult artist,” his songwriting is held in the highest esteem by other writers, musicians, and artists. Although Steve may have left school after the eighth grade, his work is informed by a prodigious mind that delves incessantly into literature, history, and current politics. There’s a fearsome intelligence in his work, which has been noted by interviewers like Chris Shifflett, who has hosted Earle several times on his podcast, Walking the Floor.