There are a lot of underground music spaces in DC, but few are as literal as the Dupont Underground, the former streetcar terminus underneath Dupont Circle turned into a pop-up art gallery and performance space. It’s still gritty, with the walled-off exit ramps toward the surrounding streets, but it makes a remarkably appropriate performance space, well suited for intense listening without the distractions of a loud club.
The set last night began with DC’s Near Northeast, led by flaming-haired lead songwriter and violinist Kelly Servick. Near Northeast initially seems to veer toward gently electrified folk music with experimental edges, like the record Mirah did about the life cycles of insects, or the 1990s duo John & Mary — folk-rock ensemble with violin — but they end up going in very different directions. Servick’s lovely round alto and violin frame the songs, but the acoustic instrumentation of violin and guitar is augmented with tape loops and electric guitar, building to thudding crescendos. It’s innately cinematic music that grows from its sturdy folk roots into unrelenting harmonized choruses and Explosions in the Sky-guitar solos. The end result is surprisingly big music for their genteel appearance — is it a new micro-genre, arena folk? Most of the songs Near Northeast performed were described as "new" leading up to their next album, which is planned for 2020.
Marian McLaughlin Ensemble was a true delight. Marian is a Baltimore-based folk songwriter who leans to enunciating precise details of botanical and zoological fables over fingerpicked classical guitar. At the Dupont Underground she was able to bring her full ensemble of bandmates and collaborators to create the nuance and richness of her latest ecological record Lake Accotink. Playing with Chao Tian on the yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), Yana Nikol on flute, Ethan Foote on upright bass, and Lucas Ashby’s percussion, in addition to her classical guitar, McLaughlin opened with “Zoysia Grass,” a lengthy meandering epic in 4/4 that switches to 5/4, with the dulcimer and flute carrying the melody in all sorts of directions. Lake Accotink is an extended record of intense observations about the natural world and its cycles of life and decay, cypress trees and mums and marigolds, with the ruminant theme, “Everything is impermanent and connected.” In one memorable song she envisioned herself as a river or lake forming an ecosystem unto herself to sustain the life within, supported by Foote’s bowed upright bass and thrilling dulcimer solos by Chao Tian.
While she gravitates toward a prog-folk with mystical inclinations, McLaughlin’s ensemble is a versatile one that hits on jazz rhythms from the percussion and upright bass, a Latin flair with Marian’s Spanish guitar, and the Asian interplay of yangqin and flute. It may sound like heavy stuff, but she also has a playful side; in “Hunt and Gather” she contrasts reliance on the natural world with being overwhelmed by the choices provided by the modern world. With the dulcimer and flute on a brief break, she was paired with Foote on fingerpicked guitar and Ashby on an amplified mbira.
These smaller formats were spare and elegant, but the full ensemble gave McLaughlin’s stately and delicate songs like “The Grace and Highness” tremendous quiet power. As the set wound to a close, in what must be considered a baller move in folk, Marian whipped out a green harp to audience oohs and ahs, which she paired with the dulcimer in a mesmerizing closer.