One perk of living in the Washington, D.C. area is the wealth of great concert venues to enrich the ears of music junkies. Over the past few months I’ve been fortunate enough to catch some incredible shows and experience the diversity of the D.C. area music scene. These days the music industry is based firmly on the foundation of live performances—as sales for albums and singles are far outstripped, in most cases, by live shows. For my column this month I simply want to share the wealth with a little concert roundup.
Back in October I hit the 9:30 Club twice in one week to check out Built to Spill and Kurt Vile—two acts I’ve been meaning to hear for years, especially Built to Spill. Life and work often get in the way of live music, but that doesn’t mean it should. For this show Built to Spill had not one, but two opening acts. This is usually—but not always—the case with 9:30 Club Saturday shows. My companions and I sought out coffee-related beverages right away, to gear up.
I don’t always arrive early enough to catch the opening bands, but this time I was glad that I did. The first opening act, the unique and amusingly named Clarke and the Himselfs is a one-man band, playing both guitar at the same time (he strums with drumstick in hand and utilizes, obviously, a lot of foot drumming and one chord loops). His music is dissonant, droning and odd, but not unpleasant, and as a result of the peculiarity of his approach I was somehow transfixed. The second opening band—Helvetia, named after Switzerland, though it sounds like a font selection in Microsoft Word—was a bit more traditional. Usually dubbed slow-core, a tag which always eludes me, Helvetia’s bread and butter are mid-tempo guitar-driven, swirly songs reminiscent to me of early 1990’s shoegaze bands like Lush and Ride. The main difference is Helvetia offers less intensity of swirl and feedback. Their set was steady and engaging, though somewhat unspectacular.
Built to Spill was what we were all waiting for, and they did not disappoint. Highlighting songs from their new album, last year’s Untethered Moon, their show featured pulsating versions of “On the Way,” which opened the show, “Living Zoo,” and “Never Be the Same.” I had listened to these strikingly constructed songs on Spotify and satellite radio, but the live renditions are always transformative—the songs leaking through the tin cans on my office shelf are such a pale version of what the band can do on the big stage. Some listeners are perhaps put off by lead singer and founder Doug Martsch’s voice, which is certainly in the upper registers—but it’s difficult to complain about his A-level guitar work and song craftsmanship. With his backpack and slightly awkward stage presence Martsch may look a bit like your high school chemistry teacher, but he and Built to Spill can absolutely jam. My personal highlights were the songs from 1999’s Keep it Like a Secret—“The Plan,” “Center of the Universe,” “Carry the Zero,” and their transcendent—and much elongated—performance of “Velvet Watz” which ended the show (it had to clock out at over ten minutes in length).
A few days later I was back to see Kurt Vile, arriving just in time to catch the vast majority of opening band Waxahatchee’s set—very enjoyable, 90’s-inflected band sounding a bit like a cross-hatching of Belly and the Breeders. Kurt Vile is a bit unclassifiable—which makes him an interesting object of study. Though his name makes it sound as if he is the lost member of the Sex Pistols, his music is actually quite laconic and generally veers to the bluesy, mellower side of the dial. Opening with “Dust Bunnies,” Kurt Vile performed a tight, condensed set of thirteen songs, mostly from his new album B’lieve I’m Going Down. I-Tunes describe Kurt Vile as a “folk-rock” musician, but that is akin to calling Lou Reed a rock singer. With his tangy weirdo voice (it seems to go up when it should go down and vice versa), his skin-tight pants and long hair, Kurt Vile hunched over a mic clearly too low for him and yelped randomly between songs in the way of stage banter. I like to see such eccentricity, as there is far too little of it out there. His music was scintillating and far less folksy than rocky. His “Pretty Pimpin” with its reconstituted “Sweet Home Alabama” chord progression was clearly one of the best tunes of 2015 and his live rendition did not disappoint. My only letdown was that Vile didn’t perform some of his earlier hits—“Walkin On a Pretty Day,” “Never Run Away,” and “Baby’s Arms”—still my favorites by him. However, he did bust out a banjo for one number and even said a few words later in the show after the yelps subsided.
In February of this year I had the pleasure of hitting the James Hunter Six show at Hamilton Live downtown. Hamilton Live is a more upscale venue, with sit down tables, yuppie food, and an overall jazz club vibe. Though it seems more expensive than a place like the 9:30 Club it usually comes out about even. Previously I was fortunate enough to see Allen Toussaint (R.I.P.) there with some old friends. This time I met up with a buddy after work, squeaking in just before the opening act, Boston’s Jesse Dee. A young up-and-coming musician, I was impressed by his retro-soul voice and guitar licks and willingness to tackle the stage with such clear bravado. As my evening companion mentioned to me, however, he doesn’t know how to end a song—they did run on the longer/repetitive side. But the dude has mad skillz.
The new James Hunter Six album (his first with Daptone), is an utter joy. Taking his cue from the 60’s Stax sound, Hunter, who hails from across the pond, runs a tight ship. Each and every song Hunter and his band performed ended exactly where it should. More to the point, it’s virtually impossible to sit passively in your seat whilst listening to the songs by this sextet—they are almost entirely up-tempo and burnished with a soulful intensity. Featuring a horn-heavy sound with Andrew Kingslow’s Hammond organ underneath and punctuated with Hunter’s guitar and now-gravelly voice, James Hunter has taken the retro sound to new heights with his album Hold On! (the album cover, by the way, has Hunter perched precariously on a rooftop, clearly not holding on—this gives the listener a sense of his caustic humor, also). During the evening I saw Hunter and his mates, he and Kingslow were suffering from a cold, which brought out the James Brown in Hunter’s voice even more than usual.
The James Hunter Six performed numerous songs from the new album with a few older chestnuts in the mix. For my money there were no real highlights or lowlights, oddly enough—it was one seamless ride, with each song clicking naturally into place with the next: “Chicken Switch,” “Minute by Minute,” “One Way Love,” “Look Out.” My only regret was that I didn’t have a partner that evening with whom I could cut some rug. Hunter betrays an impish glee on stage, also—a slight smile constantly lurking in the corners of his mouth. At one point he said of his cold, “I’m tempted to cough on the others just out of spite.” The band cracked up. At the back end of the set Hunter was not one to needlessly prolong the anticipation, either. In lieu of going back stage, waiting for the audience to clap, and returning Hunter and gang just said, to paraphrase, let’s just pretend we went back there and came back. And they closed out the show in style with another compact gem.
Photo: Kurt Vile