A Voyage into the UnknownThe great thing about live music is, if you are of the right mind, it can hypnotize you. We may think we attend concerts to hear good music and to socialize. In reality, we attend concerts to be drawn into the tractor beam of rhythm. This side effect should not be underrated in 2017 when newsworthy tidbits of nothingness often propel the cerebral cortex into overdrive. Unlike 2016, this November did not exactly spawn a monster. Nevertheless, at the business end of the year I frequently find myself stir fried by work and life and the dimming of the light.

So, I caught a few shows.

I first headed to the brand spanking new Anthem venue in the glittering, fabricated-old Wharf area on the Potomac in the southwestern quadrant of Washington, DC. Anthem opened in October with a sold-out show by the Foo Fighters. My first taste of the venue came courtesy of Grizzly Bear, a band I have long admired and sought out.

Anthem, constructed and owned by the venerable 9:30 Club peeps, is a striking and truly tremendous space (in both senses of that word). Accommodating up to 6,000 concert goers, Anthem is an utterly pimped-out version of the cozy 9:30 Club.  Featuring several levels of seating, a bar on every corner, food stations, a coffee nook, and luxurious club level sofa hangouts, Anthem offers the expectant 21st century consumer everything he/she could possibly want. Even the seat cushions seem artisanal. Anthem is a 9:30 Club for spoiled old people with bad feet. It worked for me.

The acoustics in Anthem are top-notch. The minor-chord guitar licks and ascending choir-boy harmonies of Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen bounced around the newly minted hollow. These guys can unequivocally play. Their album, Veckatimest, is one of the most stunningly pristine albums of the past fifteen years—and at their best, Grizzly Bear can make even dissonance somehow sound melodic and slightly creepy.

Unfortunately, the excessively bass-heavy 9:30 aesthetic took over at times and the mix drowned out the voice and guitar, which for Grizzly Bear is their bread and butter (songs such as “Mourning Song” were all but unrecognizable). My concert buddy remarked that they would have sounded better in a smaller space (or playing an acoustic set). Anthem is an amazing space but it still has some sonic knots to disentangle to showcase musicians. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Grizzly Bear show, particularly when their layered guitar work and harmonies rose above the bass on “Ready, Able,” “Sleeping Ute,” and “Three Rings.”

The next night, I ambled solo over to the intimate Lincoln Theater in D.C.’s popular U Street corridor. Unexpectedly dodging boom box brandishing youngsters at the Metro station, I wondered if I had suddenly transported back to 1983. What is old is new again, it seems. I enjoyed the utter luxuriousness of Anthem, but the shabby Lincoln Theater is more my usual cup of tea. Though quaint, the acoustics are outstanding and the acts are usually of the low-key variety. The Lincoln Theater is the kind of venue where you can hear every strummed guitar string. After a sparkling opening set by relative newcomer John Moreland, Iron and Wine (aka Sam Beam) took the stage—with a band!

Featuring 19 top notch songs, this show exceeded my expectations. While I have loosely followed Iron and Wine’s recent doings, I was imagining an evening of quiet plucking. I didn’t expect a standup bass, a cello, or the wonderful harmonies provided by drummer Beth Goodfellow and classically trained pianist Eliza Hardy Jones. I have since listened to much live Iron and Wine via Youtube and this current arrangement is, to my ears, Iron and Wine’s strongest formation. Opening with a gorgeous rendition of the classic “The Trapeze Singer,” Beam weaved new songs into his impressive oeuvre. Though I was somewhat disappointed the reconstituted “Muddy Hymnal” was the only song Beam played from his masterful 2002 release The Creek Drank the Cradle—for me, as for many others, the Iron and Wine initiation rite—Beam’s renditions of “Monkeys Uptown,” “Sodom, South Georgia,” “Cinder and Smoke” and “Shepherd’s Dog” were often shiver-inducing.

Sam Beam’s accompaniment lent an Astral Weeks-ification to his generally spare sonic constructions. These songs were pretty on Beam’s albums; in person with this crack band, they became transcendent. I was especially fond of the new songs “Thomas County Law” and “Call it Dreaming,” which melted seamlessly into the performance. Though Beam’s songs are serious, he doesn’t take himself too seriously—at one point joking that given the sexiness of his songs, the Lincoln Theater could easily slip into a mass orgy. Finishing with the harrowing and breathy “Cinder and Smoke,” Iron and Wine haunted and, yes, hypnotized.

A few weeks earlier, I was lucky enough to see Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions at the 9:30 Club. My wife and I joked that we would surely nod off to Sandoval’s beautiful futon music. Sandoval, per usual, asked that the 9:30 Club bring all the house lights down to darkness. The only lighting during the show was provided by “EXIT” lights and images projected on the screen behind the band. Only those a row or two back might catch a glimpse of the shy singer. However, I found the show to be scintillating in its own wispy way. Sandoval, possessed of the prettiest voice in indie rock, performed a short but air-tight set of eleven songs, beginning with “Salt of the Sea” and featuring four other flickering songs from her pensive new album Until the Hunter.

For my money, the most powerful songs of the night were the humming, gospel-infused “Trouble” and the closing number, “Antiquity,” which did not make the new album but has been released on a ten inch with several other songs. “Antiquity” builds into an almost Sonic Youth-y helix and showcases Sandoval’s lesser known collaborator, My Bloody Valentine’s Colm Ó Cíosóig. Cíosóig wrote (or co-wrote) several songs on the new album, which he helped produce.

One could easily stay home and catch most bands vicariously “live” on the Internet, but there is still something about going out and catching the real thing. It’s a voyage into the unknown. As Edward Droste admitted when a mic fritzed out late in the Grizzly Bear show, “This is live music, folks.” You never know what might happen.

Photo used under CC.