John Grant has found a second life as a solo artist, with a success that eluded him through his decade-long run as the frontman of The Czars. Though his former band met with great critical acclaim (and, if you’re a new fan of Grant, you really do owe it to yourself to check them out – a two-disc compilation Best Of was released last year) they never seemed to find an audience in the way he has now. Which, on the face of it, seems odd – Grant as a solo artist is far more directly confrontational than he ever was in his time with the band. “There are children who have cancer, so all bets are off, because I can’t compete with that,” he croons in the title track of his recently released third album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure. A shocking sentiment? Maybe, but it’s this unfiltered stream-of-consciousness that makes Grant’s new work stand out from his former life in the group.
Howard Jones may not be the musician that most people think of first when they think of the 80s, but as a performer who had ten songs hit the Billboard Hot 100 (eight of which went into the top 40) over the course of the decade he was certainly successful, and several of his songs have remained dance floor staples. Like many artists from the era, he has continued to make music over the years, touring and releasing albums on his own label Dtox to a dedicated following of fans. On Tuesday night he came to The Hamilton.
Collaborations can be fraught with peril, particularly when they involve diverse inspirations, styles, or backgrounds. Thursday’s performance at majestic DC venue The Hamilton Live had elements of all of the above, but the talent, charm, and camaraderie of the performers, classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and folk singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, transcended any potential pitfalls that one might have expected. One of the most touching aspects of the show was the genuine admiration and friendship between the two performers. Merritt has a rich solo career steeped in the folk traditions of North Carolina. She is a gifted lyricist and multi-instrumentalist with a deft touch on acoustic guitar and a fluid, soulful voice that can convey airiness, weariness, strength, and betrayal from one note to the next. Dinnerstein is an accomplished pianist with Brooklyn roots who is capable of making compositions by Franz Schubert or Johann Sebastian Bach seem like she conjured them up in an idle moment’s daydreams. Together, the duo delivered moment after sublime moment of great music in support of their magnificent collaboration Night.
The evening began with a labyrinthine piano introduction from Dinnerstein before Merritt joined her for a moving rendition of “Only in Songs,” performed on a gorgeous, well-loved acoustic guitar that would serve as her instrument of choice for much of the night. They also performed dark, mournful renditions of “Night and Dreams,” which rivaled the album version in beauty and surpassed it in intensity, and “I Shall Weep At Night,” composed by legendary pianist Brad Mehldau at the duo’s request. The set was well balanced in terms of allowing both performers opportunities to shine. Dinnerstein’s spellbinding performance of Bach’s “Prelude in B minor” was one such example. It served as an amazing shift in tone from Merritt’s solo acoustic piece which preceded it and the haunting rendition of “I Will Give My Love An Apple” which followed. This in turn contrasted brilliantly with the graceful, searching melancholy of “Colors,” a demo of which Merritt shared with Dinnerstein while she was writing her brilliant solo album Traveling Alone. The final version features Dinnerstein plucking the strings of her grand piano from within in a style reminiscent of the dulcimer, as influenced by contemporary classical composer George Crumb, while Merritt delivers a master performance for budding singer-songwriters to emulate.
Not to take anything away from the Hamilton, which is a wonderful venue, but for Laura Tsaggaris, Saturday’s record release party for her new album Everyman will probably be a bit anti-climactic. After all, the album received a glowing review from this very website. Tsaggaris then had the unique honor of joining us on the podcast (you can download just our interview with Laura from iTunes HERE), where she performed the title track from the new record. After a one-two punch like that, it’s sad to say there is simply nowhere for her seemingly brilliant young career to go but downhill.
Thus, Tsaggaris’ show at the Hamilton – as wonderful as it is certain to be - will only feel like an also-ran. Sure it’s one of the classiest joints in the most powerful city in the world, but it ain’t Andre’s basement in Arlington, the exotic location of our podcast recording sessions. Sure it’s got a fantastic, crystal-clear sound system and Tsaggaris will have her incredibly talented band behind her, but without Chunky writers there to ask half-assed questions, the whole operation will no doubt just seem hollow. And yes, she’s got Chapel Hill’s very well-dressed The Old Ceremony opening for her, whose most recent record, Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide is as assured, understated, and pretty as Tsaggaris’ own record; but really, the mock game show announcer voice we use to open the podcast is infinitely more mature.
Granted, there are upsides – the Hamilton has good food and Tsaggaris will probably get a free meal, which we did not offer her. They have a larger beer selection than what’s in Andre’s fridge. She’ll be playing for paying customers, instead of Kevin and Justin. The bottom line is she’s a wonderful musician and performer, not to mention a trooper with a positive attitude – I’m sure that, despite these adverse conditions, she’ll make the most of it. Please join us Saturday night and cheer her on.
All photos by Julia Lofstrand (email@example.com / www.julialofstrandphotography.com)
Members of the Ryan Montbleau Band woke up at about the same time as many Black Friday bargain hunters last week, but instead of travelling to Target or Wal-Mart they jumped in their van for the long drive from Massachusetts to DC to get ready for a fantastic show at the Hamilton. If the infectious six-piece group was fatigued either from the drive or an overdose of turkey the previous day it didn’t show as they put together a wonderful array of tunes ranging from soft acoustic folk songs to jumpy blues numbers to full-blown gospel revival.
The road trip must have been on their mind for the first two numbers - the band burst out of the gate with “Slippery Road” from 2010’s Heavy on the Vine, before taking on Bill Withers’ “Heartbreak Road.” While it’s hard to top Withers’ original the band did a funky good job, alternately sounding like Jamiroquai and Allen Stone as keyboardist Jason Cohen did some fine work on his jazz organ. The funk continued as they hit a Meters groove with “Inspired By No One” before seguing into what Montbleau called “authentic Massachusetts reggae” on “Songbird.” The tune got people up and dancing – albeit tentatively – on the sides of the stage; while folks wanted to move their feet, they didn’t want to be the first one to do so in front of the stage. They came close as the entire crowd got fired up during “Yeah Man” from the Montbleau Band’s most recent album, For Higher. Recorded in New Orleans with an impressive array of well-known bayou musicians, For Higher is a wonderful gumbo of different styles, perhaps all embodied by the uplifting, hugely danceable “Yeah Man.”
There have been countless instances in music history where a key band member has been felled by an injury and a replacement must be found for the show to go on. Often it’s a friend, someone on loan from another band, or a studio musician who gets the call to fill in. When The Be Good Tanyas’ Sam Parton was injured in a car accident last month, band mate Frazey Ford made a radical choice in selecting her temporary replacement, a choice that could very well drive a lesser musician to tears, if not outright madness: her own mother.
So it was that the two remaining Tanyas, Ford and Trish Klein, along with drummer John Raham and bassist Mark Beaty, were joined by Ford’s mother, Diane, for a fantastic show at the Hamilton Tuesday night. While the loss of Parton’s mandolin was noticeable, the elder Ford did a superb job filling out the harmonies on some of BGT’s best known songs, and also helped provide some humor as Ford adjusted to having her mom on stage with her.
They opened with “In Spite of All the Damage” from 2003’s Chinatown, a quiet lead-in before picking up the tempo with a jumpy version of “Ootischenia” and the ominous (but seasonally appropriate) “Scattered Leaves.” Other highlights included Klein playing a mean harmonica on “Human Thing,” the perfect harmonies of “Midnight Moonlight,” and the show stopping closer “Light Enough to Travel.”