This is my day with Vandaveer, a music-making, life-observing, heartstring-bending group that I’ve followed since my first days in D.C. I join them for a jaunt up to New York City — my old hometown, the city of concrete and steel, where dreams are swallowed whole and dreams are set free, where restlessness is the only constant.
Take notes, take photos, repeat to yourself: assemble, testify, preserve. But it’s not possible to be a detached observer. A single show is not a standalone thing but part of an organic whole. It necessarily embraces you. You feel like you’re moving through someone else’s strange, beautiful, ambiguous dream. The present is the past devouring the future.
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.
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.”
I’m home for a day between week-long trips to Alaska and northern California. (As much as I dream about being Bob Boilen’s lackey, I do love my job.) There’s just enough time to do laundry and post some photos that I took last week. I’ve written volumes about the indie-folk band Vandaveer, so I won’t repeat myself here. Just promise me you’ll give them listen. Fistful of Swoon is sublime and aptly named. (Darker than the swoon of sin. James Joyce. Discuss.)
Click through the slideshow for pics from Vandaveer’s August 9, 2014 show at the 9:30 Club.
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.
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.