Stone Room Concerts: Vandaveer

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Storytelling is a powerful art. It is also an undervalued one, as our attention spans are increasingly trained to max out at 140 characters. Storytelling is one reason I’m drawn to folk music: the murder ballads, the tales from the road (literal and metaphorical), the parables of losing your way on dusty old streets¹ and finding your way when the light cuts through the great storm in the sky.² But to craft songs about love, self-ruin, and betrayal without sounding hackneyed — that takes true talent. And Vandaveer is truly talented.

Vandaveer is the D.C.-by-way-of-Kentucky alt-folk project of Mark Charles Heidinger. Mark plays with a host of other musicians including, most prominently, Rose Guerin. In the band’s stripped-down incarnation, Mark sings and plays guitar while Rose offers up crystalline harmonies that infuse haunting melodies with an angelic purity. In studio and on some tour stops, Vandaveer’s sound is fleshed out with a rotating cast that includes J. Tom Hnatow on pedal steel and banjo and Ben Sollee on cello.

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In trying to describe Vandaveer’s style through folk duo comparisons, I find myself thinking of Johnny Cash & June Carter but with less country and more folk, Shovels & Rope with less twang and more darkness, or maybe the Avett Brothers meets the Indigo Girls.

But these rough comparisons do not capture the way Vandaveer’s music ensnares your senses with delicately intertwined harmonies that are sometimes comforting and other times aching with loneliness. Mark delivers literate rhymes with an ease that belies the angst of the narrator. Even on first listen, the melodies tug on the edges of your memory, as if you’ve heard the song before but can’t quite place it. Vandaveer’s magic is in giving musical form to the shadows of thoughts that lurk in the back alleys of our collective unconscious.

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Finding Roots: Carolina Chocolate Drops in Concert

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This post is about the superb show last Tuesday by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and openers Birds of Chicago and David Wax Museum. But I would be remiss if I did not first acknowledge that last week, the world of folk music lost two beloved artists: singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester and Brown Bird’s David Lamb. Newspapers have eulogized Winchester as “a honey-voiced singer who wrote thoughtful songs with deep Southern roots[,] . . . plain-spoken and succinct,” and a “tunesmith of lyrical, sensitive ballads.”

Less well-known but no less admired by friends and fans was David Lamb, half of the indie-folk duo Brown Bird. A tribute concert for Lamb, held last week in the band’s home base of Providence, Rhode Island, drew, by one estimate, a thousand people. The tattooed troubadours (as NPR dubbed them), who toured last year with Trampled By Turtles, mixed American folk with eastern European rhythms, crafting songs both haunting and high-spirited.

I will leave the tributes to the professionals and simply remark on the enduring power of music — including the music of these two men — to remind us of home and propel us through tough times. Louisiana-born and Memphis-reared Jesse Winchester wrote “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind” in Canada, where he had moved to avoid the draft. The song conveys a yearning for the south he left behind — not sugar-coated and romanticized, yet romantic in its embrace of the tumbledown, ramshackle parts of the place that was home: I think I hear a noisy old John Deere in a field / Specked with dirty cotton lint, and beyond that Field runs a little country creek, and there you’ll Find the cool green leaves of mint.

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Milagres: The Letterbomb

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Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through second hand, incommunicable. –Aldous Huxley, “The Doors of Perception”

I’m a shadow waiting in the blue / I’m a magnet with its poles confused / All my failures are lost on you. –Milagres, “Terrifying Sea”

Shadows can be playful: You’re a little kid, making shadow puppets in the tent. Shadows can be menacing: You’re walking alone on an unfamiliar street, and the shifting shapes of darkness stalk you.

The music of Milagres explores the duality of shadows. There’s a prettiness in the swirling synth and dreamy pop, reminiscent of ’80s sounds and textures. Kyle Wilson weaves his gorgeous voice through the songs, shifting between baritone and falsetto. But there’s also an existential darkness to the lyrics and a sense of foreboding created by the band’s use of negative space. Layers of guitars, keys, and synth surge against a backdrop of steady drumming, and then the instruments abruptly pull back and pause, letting Wilson’s vocals shimmer in the darkness.

Milagres at DC9
Milagres at DC9

Last month, the Brooklyn-based Milagres released their third album, “Violent Light” (which you can download here). The band’s sound is bigger here — as Wilson puts it, they wanted “something that was massive and anthemic.” This time, Wilson, Fraser McCulloch (bass), and Chris Brazee (keyboard, synths) are joined by their new bandmate, Paul Payabyab (drums).

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The Wood Brothers: One More Day

Photo: Southern Reel
Southern Reel

Music can be powerfully evocative. When Oliver Wood sings about ice cream melting in the sun and a traveling troubadour in whose tunes you hear “a little Chicago, and a lot of New Orleans,” it takes me back to afternoons lounging on the back porch, watching the sun set over the bayou.

Well, that’s an imagined nostalgia — I grew up in the suburbs and never lived in a home with a porch. But the Wood Brothers’ music, rooted in the sounds and symbols of Americana, creates a sense of belonging, of sharing in a timeless story. Over the course of four albums, the band explores blues, country, gospel, and funk, with lyrics that are sometimes mischievous and other times philosophical.

Real-life brothers Oliver and Chris Wood grew up in Colorado with their molecular biologist dad and poet mom. From there, the brothers’ paths diverged. Oliver went to Atlanta and played in Tinsley Ellis’s touring act before forming his own group, King Johnson. Chris headed to the New England Conservatory of Music where he honed his skills on the bass, and then moved to New York City, forming the jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood (check out Snake Anthony). After pursuing separate music careers for fifteen years, the brothers performed together at a show in North Carolina, and the rest is history.

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The Wood Brothers are often referred to as an Americana and blues band, but their music defies neat categorization. The songs fuse various musical traditions, drawing from the blues they grew up listening to (including Lightnin’ Hopkins), classic country, folk, and jazz (traditional and contemporary). The result is both familiar and fresh. If you like the Avett Brothers and the Devil Makes Three, you should give this band a try. Oliver Wood’s captivating vocal style — slightly gravelly, a discernible twang — is complemented by Chris Wood’s virtuosic, note-bending bass playing. The high lonesome harmonies in their latest album are particularly compelling.

My favorites across the albums include the reggae-inflected “Angel,” the funky, tongue-in-cheek “Shoofly Pie,” and the slowed-down, simple “Sweet Maria,” with its three-part harmonies. But what first got me hooked was the debut album’s “One More Day,” an updated New Orleans boogie combined with lyrics that come straight from a humble heart.

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Four lads in a band: A chat with Kodaline

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When Kodaline was first entering our music consciousness, their Facebook bio identified them simply as “four lads in a band.” Now with a chart-topping debut album under their belts, the Dublin-based band has been performing to capacity crowds from Milan to Montreal, London to LA. I first wrote about their music last year after hearing them at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., supporting Airborne Toxic Event. When Kodaline returned in early 2014 — this time in a headlining tour — I was thrilled for the opportunity to chat with Jay Boland (bass guitar) and Steve Garrigan (vocals, rhythm guitar, harmonica, keyboard). Here’s the interview, along with some photos from the show.

I heard you guys finishing up sound check just now.
Jay: Yes, so we’re getting ready for our third gig in Washington! It’s awesome. [U Street Music Hall] is a really cool venue as well. Next time the 9:30 Club. That’s the plan.

That would be exciting. I love that venue.
Jay: [W]e started this tour in Toronto in the Danforth, and that was the last gig we did with everyone on our first tour in the U.S. So we’re starting our big headlining tour in the U.S. in the place where we finished last time. It’s a good cycle. And it was all within about a year.

You guys have been busy.
Jay: [laughs] It’s been non-stop.

Jason (Jay) Boland of Kodaline
Jason (Jay) Boland of Kodaline

Apart from sound check, do you have other pre-show routines, rituals?
Jay: No, nothing, really. We’re very lackadaisical before the show. Warm up a little. We love playing gigs so the energy comes up the second you go up there [on stage].

Vinny [drummer Vinny May] has a Playstation case that he built for his new PS4. He got it for Christmas and he couldn’t bear to leave it at home. So he built a case with a screen in it and that’s his touring game system. And so we end up playing these really stressful computer games.

Because touring isn’t stressful enough.
Jay: [Laughs] Exactly. We were stuck on the freeway for about 12 hours the other night. Broke down on the way from Philly to Boston. But we got there in the end.

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