“Better late than never.” That might have been the thought running through Jack Johnson’s head as he stepped onto the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion on July 15, 2022, three weeks to the day that the performance had to be postponed because the artist tested positive for COVID hours before showtime.
Midway through his set at The Hamilton Live recently, Willie Nile sat down and performed “The Crossing.” The song appears on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York. As Willie explained, it’s “about the Irish crossing the ocean.”
When he was writing, he was “thinking about my own relatives” who came over from the Emerald Isle, settling in Buffalo, where he we would eventually grow up one of eight kids in a Catholic family. That Willie’s song would be chosen by Scorsese, who is known for making strong picks in rock tracks to set the mood for his movies, isn’t surprising: while he has he achieved limited commercial success, Nile is a critical darling who’s been at the center of the New York music scene for 50 years.
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
That long ago lyric from Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” though now bordering on the trite, nonetheless conveys an eternal truth: All is transitory, change is inevitable, time moves forward.
Near Northeast’s final (at least for the foreseeable future) performance recently at Songbyrd Music House was poignant, celebratory, and ultimately, a triumph. The band’s four members — Austin Blanton (bass, synths-cleverly hidden in the “boopcase,” vocals); Avy Mallik (guitars, vocals), Kelly Servick (violin, cello, vocals), Antonio Skarica (percussion) — will move on to other personal, professional, and musical opportunities. But on a night filled with laughter, smiles, hugs, and most likely, a few private tears, Near Northeast demonstrated why it has long been considered one of DC’s most innovative, accessible, and accomplished homegrown bands.
The band’s four members each brought a unique musical resume that resulted in songs with influences from Appalachia, blues-based rock, Bosnian folk songs, and Eno-like electronics. They are Austin Blanton: vocals, electric and stand-up bass, pocket operator, volca keys, organelle; Avy M: vocals, guitars, banjo, mandolin; Kelly Servick: vocals, violin, cello, theremin; and Antonio Skarica: percussion.
Fantastic Negrito performs at 9:30 Club on June 22, 2022. (Photos by Rashad Polk; Words by Mark Engleson)
Fantastic Negrito’s latest album, White Jesus, Black Problems, is deeply personal. It delves into family history, into the story of his seventh-generation great-grandparents, an enslaved Black man and indentured Scottish servant woman, who came together in Virginia in 1759. That’s not to say his other albums aren’t personal as well: The Last Days of Oakland is very much about the city where he was raised as one of 14 children. But the focus in his recent performance at the 9:30 Club was on telling the story of that interracial union.
“I wasn’t who I thought I was,” Fantastic Negrito explained. “But I’m exactly who I need to be.”
Jason Isbell performs at Wolf Trap on June 16, 2022. (Photos by Jason Nicholson; Words by Mark Engelson)
In the new documentary about Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell credits the singer-songwriter as an inspiration, not only as a musician, but as a person. The two shared a bill in twin nights at Wolf Trap recently in a celebration of generations of rock and roots music.
One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Texas legend Ray Wylie Hubbard, likes to say, “The problem with irony is that not everybody gets it.” That’s a damn shame, because irony is all around us. Star Wars posited an invisible Force that surrounds all life and binds it together. Maybe it’s some Ashkenazic connection to Kafka motivating this statement, but I’m partial to the notion that the driving force of the universe might be irony.
One of those ironies surrounds the term “Americana” as a genre of music. You might think, given the word, that it’s specifically to, well, America. But that’s, at the very least, an oversimplification. The Band, who were, with the exception of Arkansas’s Levon Helm, all Canadian, are often considered the founders of Americana. That conversation could also include, reasonably, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, and Neil Young, who is also Canadian.
Canada has a thriving Americana scene, and when the roots-rock duo The Bros. Landreth appeared at City Winery in DC recently, we get to see some of that in the states.
When Mandy Moore took to the stage this week for her show at 9:30 Club she faced a daunting task. After an 11-year hiatus between releasing albums (and 15 years between tours), Moore was due for a DC area performance back in 2020 to promote her new Silver Landings album. As the world shut down and the tour was forced into postponement, Mandy Moore hunkered down to write and record yet another new album, In Real Life.
In its review of his new album, Fables in a Foreign Land, the site Allmusic praised John Doe for having one of the finest voices in roots music. John’s fine singing voice was on full display when he appeared on Tuesday night at Jammin’ Java with his folk trio, playing songs from that new album, along with old favorites from his solo catalog, hits from his band X, and an eclectic collection of covers that absolutely worked even if you might not have pictured a stalwart of the punk scene performing them.