And I was glad of a chance to rest,And glad of a chance to drink with my friend.We sang to the tune of the wind in the pines,And finished our songs as the star-stream ebbed.
歡言得所憩, 美酒聊共揮. 長歌吟松風, 曲盡河星稀.
-Li Bai (李白)
Every time I attend a Vandaveer show, I feel like I’m witness to such ineffable beauty that it is foolish to try to capture it in words. It seems akin to the struggle of nature writers in describing wilderness and the experience of the sublime – those moments when you feel small and humble before the magnitude of the skies, caught up in an infinite storm of beauty, inextricably intertwined with the ebb and flow of the seas.
Early Spring. Harshness vanished. A sudden softness has replaced the meadows’ wintry grey. Little rivulets of water changed their singing accents. (R.M. Rilke) And while rain pattered against the sidewalks outside, in the dimly-lit 9:30 Club, folk musicians Ólöf Arnalds and José González took the sold-out crowd hopscotching across landscapes and languages.
Icelandic singer/songwriter Ólöf Arnalds played a solo opening set structured around finger-picked guitar. Arnalds’ lyrics alternate between her native tongue and English, her brilliant trill conjuring an otherworldly landscape. Björk describes Arnalds’ voice as “something between a child and an old woman,” and there is indeed a hybrid, unsettling-yet-beguiling quality to Arnalds’ style. Her vocals swirl in dizzying heights, but never sound shrill. Her tone is beautifully saturated and her diction crisp, with consonants taking on a subtle rhythmic, percussive effect.
Music writers often describe songs as “evocative.” It’s a convenient shorthand – if a song doesn’t make your feel something, you probably won’t return to it. But it begs the question: evocative of what, exactly?
For River Whyless’s music, I could go on for pages in response. The Asheville quartet is astonishingly adept at drawing you in through images of home – a woodshed, an attic, the skyline – all while unraveling the duality of wistfulness and sorrow that animates much of our storytelling: a yearning for the simple certainties of the past, tempered by melancholia over days gone by and days yet to come. That dialectic is expressed both lyrically and in the layers of polyrhythmic instrumentation and interwoven harmonies. The effect is simultaneously familiar and fresh, comforting and haunting.
River Whyless is composed of Ryan O’Keefe (guitars, vocals), Halli Anderson (violin, vocals), Alex McWalters (drums, percussion) and Daniel Shearin (bass, vocals, harmonium, cello, banjo). If pressed to make comparisons, I’d say that their ethereal harmonies, delicately layered strings, and nimble, dynamic percussion remind me of Lord Huron, Fleet Foxes, and The Head and the Heart. And while their songs contain the appealing folk elements of those bands, River Whyless has found a musical identity that is wholly their own – baroque, folk, rock, global – shifting effortlessly from soft, shimmering ballads to spirited numbers built around handclaps and bass riffs. Listening to their eponymous new album, I am reminded of the first time I watched a campfire being built – glowing embers coaxed into dancing flames – alive, alight.
Take “Miles of Skyline,” for instance. It opens with crisp, syncopated percussion that displays a technician’s precision without feeling cold or studied – it sounds tight, yet feels liberating. (As an aside, I would be happy just listening to an evening of Alex doing drum solos.) The violin flits in and out like an eastern songbird, with choice chirps played pizzicato. Though Ryan and Halli usually alternate lead on vocals, here, Daniel takes over, evoking in a bright and earnest tone the vistas that lend their name to the song.
After years on the road performing first with These United States and more recently with Vandaveer and The Mynabirds (among other bands), J. Tom Hnatow now calls Kentucky home. The multi-instrumentalist and producer/engineer is as eloquent about his craft as he is about his favorite poets. Here, he shares his thoughts on the connections we make through music and on why Homer’s Iliad is the perfect read for a band on tour.
J. Tom Hnatow’s nickname is “The Llama” (and his last name is pronounced like the intergovernmental treaty organization). A longtime D.C. resident, he’s now based in Lexington, Kentucky, where he’s a producer/engineer at Shangri-La Productions. He identifies pedal and lap steel as his primary instruments, but he’s also wicked good on guitar, dobro, and banjo. I recently chatted with Tom after a Vandaveer show.
By way of background, Vandaveer is the alt-folk project of Mark Charles Heidinger. Vandaveer tunes are by turns wry, jaunty, and wistful. My favorites are like a controlled burn of a fiery confessional — their structure and dynamic control an equipoise to the lyrical content of ceding control to the darkness.
In the band’s stripped-down incarnation, Mark sings and plays guitar while Rose Guerin offers up crystalline harmonies that imbue the songs with a haunting intensity. In studio and on some tour stops, Vandaveer’s sound is fleshed out with a rotating cast that includes Tom on pedal steel and Phil Saylor on banjo. I’ve written about their music before and I finally got to see the foursome live on an eve of the eve show (that is, on December 30th) at The Hamilton. I wish I could describe just how sublime it was.
To remark that the band’s sound is augmented by Tom’s playing is to barely scratch the surface. Though the capacity crowd was pressed hungrily against the stage, Tom rarely glanced out at the audience. Rather, his gaze was focused alternately on his bandmates and down at his instrument as he wove gossamer strands of sound, manipulating tones and textures — a sort of chiaroscuro — all subtle, altogether poignant.
Adopting the narrative style of Homer, we begin the conversation in medias res. I asked Tom to share the story behind the llama tattoo. It all started with the Davis, California, venue hosting a Vandaveer show.
The [Davis] guy emailed and said, “We’ll give you twelve bottles of wine, and as a pre-show thing, you get to visit a winery, and we’ll give you food. So what else do you need on your rider?”
Mark, as a joke, said, “Well, actually, we need a petting zoo.”
The guy responded, “We can do that. We can do this thing — but, well, there’s not going to be any llamas.”
And Mark wrote back and said, “Oh, that’s alright. We have our own llama. It’s fine.”
So we get the poster for the show. It’s this beautiful silkscreen poster, and there’s this llama on it. And Mark said to us, “Welllll, that’s awesome.”
I was at the point where I was planning my next tattoo. I had it designed. And Mark said, “You should get this. Get the llama.”
It happened that the guy who did the poster is from Lexington [Mark’s hometown and Tom’s current home]. And I said, “We gotta do this, we gotta act on this, otherwise my willpower…”
So the next show we’re playing is in Portland. And at the show, this woman is sitting down in front furiously texting and we’re thinking, “God, this is really obnoxious.” But then she says, “I got you an appointment. Ten a.m. tomorrow.”
Days of rain. Not spring rain, the kind that nourishes new life, but late autumn rain. The kind that seeps into your bones and makes you weary, weary beyond your years, weary of waking up to headlines in which a city name is metonym for all that is fundamentally broken, weary of the emotional output demanded by the holidays, of tallying up mistakes and trying to outrun your own shadow.
The rain tapered to a drizzle mid-day and I laced up for a run. The Reflecting Pool was deserted, the Tidal Basin drew only a few brave tourists. I usually crave these moments of solitude, the grim satisfaction of pushing through the weariness. But that day, the wind whipping through the trees and the staccato of my shoes against wet gravel sounded more stark than soothing.
So I put on some music. Not my normal running playlist of pop and hip-hop, but the music of a singer-songwriter I started listening to a few weeks ago. His name is Jesse Terry. His music is filled with a simple grace, with lyrics that capture beautifully the eternal tug-of-war between head and heart. If you like Josh Ritter, Ryan Adams, or Jackson Browne, give Jesse’s music a try. His soothing voice paired with acoustic guitar is like a gentle sunbeam parting monochrome sky.