Bedouine performs with Gus Seyffert at The Miracle Theatre in DC on April 3, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
When I seriously got into music criticism about five years ago, I went about it in a predictably autistic way: I went to Metacritic, pulled up their list of all-time high scores, and started working my down. That was around the time the folk artist Bedouine released her self-titled debut album, and man, did she ever knock it out of the park on her first try. It’s one of the best debut albums released last decade, and it’s one of my favorites. As impressive as it was, the follow-up effort, 2019’s Birds of a Killjoy, is an even better album. Last year’s Waysides, a collection of older material, is pretty damn impressive too.
Bedouine was every bit as impressive in a recent appearance at The Miracle Theatre, the small Barracks Row venue booked by Union Stage, in DC.
Langhorne Slim performs at The Birchmere on March 22, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
I feel a certain kinship with soulful folk-Americana troubadour Langhorne Slim. We’re a couple of Jewish kids who were born just two days apart, and we grew up in neighboring states; he named himself for the suburb of Philadelphia he hails from, while I grew up just outside of Akron, Ohio. We love a lot of the same stuff: Dylan, Waits, Cat Stevens, Woody Guthrie, Captain Beefheart, Will Oldham, and Uncle Tupelo.
Langhorne is a high-energy performer, someone who is more than dynamic enough to capture an audience when he’s out there on his own with just an acoustic guitar. There’s a lot of motion in his performance and you couldn’t miss it at The Birchmere in his recent date there: He moved around the stage, he came out from behind the mic, he went into the crowd. Slim had a lot of energy, and I could relate to that!
For Allison Russell, taking a chance and sending a message to Brandi Carlile’s Instagram paid off. It started a conversation with Carlile’s wife, which lead to getting detailed, track-by-track feedback on her debut solo album, Outside Child. From there, it led to yet bigger things: a contract with the label Fantasy Records, which released the powerful record to “universal acclaim” (per Metacritic) last May. It has been nominated for Americana Album of the Year at this year’s Grammys, and the standout song “Nightflyer” has been nominated for Best American Roots Song and Performance.
“I have a great team behind me,” Russell told the audience at the sold-out Barns at Wolf Trap recently. “That’s why I’m ’emerging’ at 42,” she said, referring to her nomination for Emerging Artist of the Year at last year’s Americana Music Awards.
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.
Singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell is best known for her award-winning musical Hadestown, a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus’s journey into the underworld to rescue his lover, Eurydice. In researching this blog, I was shocked to learn that Neil Gaiman did not, in fact, invent this myth for his Sandman comics; next, we’ll learn that he didn’t invent the word “carnifex,” either!
Bringing Hadestown to the stage has been the focus of Anais’s professional life for the better of the last decade. Just before the pandemic shut things down, however, she released a joint project, Bonny Light Horseman, with Eric D. Johnson (of the Fruit Bats) and multi-instrumentalist/producer Josh Kaufman, which they briefly toured behind. The record consists of interpretations and reworkings of old folk ballads; this is familiar territory for Mitchell, who has also released an album of Child Ballads.
Iconic country outlaw Willie Nelson has a lot of kids, and a lot of those kids have followed their father into the music business. His daughter Amy plays in a comedy folk duo, Folk Uke, with Arlo Guthrie’s daughter. His son Micah, also known as the Particle Kid, makes his own music, and he recently played guitar in his father’s band on the Outlaw Music Festival tour. But the most successful of Willie’s children is his son, Lukas, who played the Lincoln Theatre recently with his band, Promise of the Real.
Courtney Marie Andrews performs at The Miracle Theatre in DC on Oct. 8, 2021. (Photo by Casey Vock)
The Miracle Theatre hosted a night of intimate, classic folk and Americana on Friday evening with singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews and duo The Brother Brothers. Andrews’s songwriting and vocals are clearly influenced most strongly by Joni Mitchell, but you can also hear elements of Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, and Carole King. The Brother Brothers’ style have been compared to Simon & Garfunkel, both for their close harmonies and their gentle, soothing melodies.
Erika Wennerstrom fronts Heartless Bastards at Union Stage on Oct. 2, 2021. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Erika Wennerstrom, lead singer and songwriter for the Austin-based band Heartless Bastards, may just have the perfect rock ‘n’ roll voice. It’s deep, powerful, and rich, with some similarity to another great singer originally from the Buckeye State, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. As one fan called out between songs, “I would listen to you read the phone book.” (I suppose this would require finding a phone book, which presents a challenge, as they’ve gone the way of the dodo.)
When Erika and the Bastards headlined at DC’s Union Stage recently, that incredible voice was on display for a meaty, two-hour set.
Dawes performs at the Warner Theatre on Sept. 15, 2021. (Photo by Casey Vock)
When she opened for Dawes at the Warner Theatre recently, singer-songwriter Erin Rae complimented the venue’s beauty. She’s absolutely right: it’s a gorgeous place, beautifully restored, one of the most attractive in the area. And while you might expect an event in such a elegant room to be a bit staid, this show was anything but: led by frontman Taylor Goldsmith, Dawes play jammed-out versions of both their most popular songs and deep cuts, and they got the crowd involved throughout their performance.
Two of the most unique singer-songwriters working today graced the stage of The Birchmere recently — Todd Snider and Aaron Lee Tasjan. Both, in some sense, are part of the alt-country/Americana scene, though putting them into this genre box is far too reductive.
While both draw on classic songwriting traditions, they put a modern — perhaps even a postmodern — twist on them. They share a delightfully warped, witty sense of humor, perhaps connected to their fondness for psychedelics.