In 2017, the Kennedy Center announced Ben Folds would join the National Symphony Orchestra as its first-ever artistic advisor. Never one to conform to an ascribed role in the music world, this appointment has seen Folds shape the NSO’s programming, most notably in the form of his Declassified series. On Friday nights at the Kennedy Center, Folds, the NSO and a number of multi-talented, multi-genre artists (think everyone from Sara Bareilles to Kishi Bashi) reinvent and reimagine pop music in the context of the orchestra.
Sound pretentious? It’s not. Folds’ mission is to understand the intricate processes that weave a common thread between pop and orchestral movements that are hundreds of years old. Much like any case where someone tries to build a bridge between two worlds, it’s easy to misinterpret. However, it’s also easy to understand that all music has value and an immense attention to detail that goes into the placement of every note. By merging these worlds, Folds opens the orchestra to non-frequent visitors and performances with the intention for fans of all things classical to learn about the modern musical landscape.
We sat down with Folds before his last Declassified performance, featuring Regina Spektor, to pick the musician’s brain on everything about this series. In serving as the artistic advisor though the 2019-2020 season, Declassified continues with a Valentine’s Day-centric performance, featuring NSO Music Director Gianadrea Noseda and music from Folds himself.
On Tap: It seems like your philosophy in fusing pop with the symphony has been to ignore labels and appreciate the craft behind all music. How has this shaped your work on the Declassified series so far?
Ben Folds: I’m actually OK with labels, there’s just a time to dispense them for a moment. It’s helpful for when things don’t fit into categories nicely. One example would be a modern pop artist like Regina Spektor. You can call her pop, but that makes you think it’s something it’s not. Her melodies have a lot in common with melodies from 150 years ago – they’re timeless. If the melody had been written by Tchaikovsky, it would be treated differently. These are pop artists with great melodies, stories, motifs in their own right as artists. It’s interesting to hear [their music] through this centuries old orchestral process. I find people who attend the symphony often impressed with our new artists. That’s part of what I want to do as well – it’s a two way street.
OT: What does this process of fusing symphonic works with works of a modern pop artist look like?
BF: It’s difficult to sift through all of it. At the same time as I want to sift through some “classical” music so that someone who has never attended the symphony will get the correct context, I want the people who attend the symphony regularly to get the correct context for modern popular music so that they don’t die thinking that it all sucks. This is not a time where we’re dumbing things down. We’re giving ourselves the short end of the stick if we think that. A lot of pop concerts with orchestras are, in my estimation, not done the right way to bring the orchestra in, and that’s something that I’m allowed to really fully work on [here].
OT: So it sounds like you’re more hands-on in the behind-the-scenes process.
BF: It’s a lot of details – it’s not very sexy at all. It starts with the orchestration itself and works its way through the library to the sound people. You don’t amplify an orchestra, you don’t need to. But when you’ve got a pop artist, suddenly you have to turn the speakers on. That creates huge problems if you don’t understand why and how you’re using the orchestra. A good way to explain it would be that the orchestra is a built-in recording studio – built-in faders, production, arrangement, remixes, everything. Before there was recording, if you needed to hear more of an instrument you got them to play louder or you made two of them. There’s a real art to that. The art behind performing a piece of music with an orchestra can be obliterated with electric instruments.
OT: Why is it important for you to be so involved in the orchestration?
BF: There is snobbery in the world of the symphony. Some of it’s imagined, and some of it’s cultivated. If you bring in new people, you have to respect the symphony, which means letting those musicians exist in the environment that they’re paid to work in. The cultural divide is a real one. I can become a snob really fast if someone starts attacking the thing I feel like I’m good at. I try to listen and be in contact with all of the compartments.
OT: You’re the NSO’s first-ever artistic advisor. What has your experience been in this role so far?
BF: My experience is in the blend of the orchestra with pop music. I see this as something that every orchestra in the country does. I would like the NSO to be leading the way in how it’s done. This is the nation’s symphony orchestra – it ought to be the one we look to for ideas. There should be things we can experiment with, we’ve got the money and the talent here to try it out. Maybe a small orchestra in a small town doesn’t have those resources, so we can take our programs – my office is stacked with scores – and amass a team of orchestrators who are young, between the world of rock and roll and classical music, who are there to do it the “right” way. To me it’s about littering the country with well-written, exciting charts and a method to follow.
OT: Can you tell me about musician Regina Spektor performing in the series? What drew you to her work?
BF: Regina attended the symphony a lot as a little girl, so classical music is just in her bones. She was one of the first people I thought of to have in this Declassified series three years ago when we started it, and it took three years to talk her into it. She always wanted to do it, but she’s like me: I turned these things down a few times before, when I was roughly her age because we both respect the symphony orchestra so much. I think it’s a little daunting of an idea to go into their territory, and perhaps, bust it with a shitty pops concert. She wanted to have control over it but have respect for the orchestra. It meant a lot to her and it took a while for me to talk her down from the tree and tell her “we can do this.” She doesn’t do shit that she doesn’t mean or want to do. I don’t think there’s anyone with any more integrity – almost to a fault because it took me so long get her in here. It’s essentially an homage to Russian music.
OT: How are other performers involved such as the band and tap dancer Caleb Teicher?
BF: Caleb is premiering a piece called “Cascade,” which is one of the few classical pieces for tap dance and orchestra. One thing I want to get across about this program is that it’s not possible in a place that doesn’t have these kinds of resources. Normally when you premiere a new piece like Caleb’s, it’s a big deal. We’re just tossing it onto the front of the show. Every single Regina Spektor song is a brand new orchestration done especially for the show that may never see the light of day after. The expense of that, the effort, finding the orchestrators to do it – this band makes it look all too easy.
OT: What has the response been to the Declassified series so far?
BF: Frankly, I’ve been really disheartened by the local journalistic criticism of the show, because I feel like maybe I didn’t do a good job of explaining what we’re trying to achieve. We made it look so easy that they’ve come in and had problems with certain things but I think if they knew what it was, you wouldn’t have a problem with it. The audience doesn’t have a problem with it because they understand that they’re there to learn something about classical music. I think if someone who is naturally a snob about it understands how much respect we have for what it is we’re doing and how we’re trying to integrate the two, the night becomes a little bit more of an experiment. I think we’ve been well understood by our audiences.
OT: Can you elaborate on the disconnect in criticisms that you’ve seen so far?
BF: The two criticisms I’ve seen of these shows weren’t particularly negative, they just didn’t understand what we’re trying to achieve. When you’re going to critique something, the first thing you have to know is ‘what are they trying to say?’ and ‘was that successful?’ So if you’re Bob Dylan and someone comes to the show thinking he’s going to sing like Pavarotti, you’d have a gross misunderstanding of what you were seeing and you might give him a terrible review. And in fact, Bob Dylan got a f–k ton of terrible reviews when he started. I think this is very similar. If someone says ‘well they’re not jumping through this hoop and this hoop and this hoop,’ we know that. But what we’re trying to do is so incredibly ambitious that it needs to be seen for the context of what it is. We give people who come to the shows a listening list, and we can see behind this internet curtain that they are actually listening to it after the show. That’s unheard of. So say we didn’t really kill the Beethoven last time – and I know that we didn’t, and the band knows that we didn’t, and the conductor knows that we didn’t – it’s just the way it happened. But people are still listening to that Beethoven piece on Spotify.
OT: So you can see that you’re making an impact and connecting with audiences and bringing these gaps, that’s exciting.
BF: That’s what we’re trying to do. I have one arranger on this show and he comes from rock and roll, he’s self taught, and he does a lot of stuff wrong. But I like having him because his brilliant creativity and even a little bit of his naivete leads to things we wouldn’t normally think of. Now maybe you can laugh at things in his charts, in a friendly way – the orchestra did at some points – and a lot of orchestras would have booed him out of the room. I’m trying to bring these things together so you actually get a result that’s creative. These aren’t ever to be sold as just Regina Spektor shows and she knows that, and that’s the reason she’s in it. It’s featuring her, and she does six tunes, but we’ve all worked really hard. That’s the other radical things about this show – by featuring the orchestra and it being a night about music, it’s easy to go “let’s sell it on someone coming in and we can do whatever we want.”
Ben Folds performs with NSO Music Director Gianandrea Noseda and other featured performers as part of the NSO Declassified series on Friday, February 15 at the Kennedy Center. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, Folds has curated a performance in the series with comedian Sarah Silverman, musicians Julien Baker and Danay Suarez, operatic soprano Leah Hawkins, and conductor Akiko Fujimoto. For more information on the NSO Declassified series, visit www.kennedy-center.org.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.com
Last summer, Noah Lennox, perhaps better known as Panda Bear, embarked on a tour with his band Animal Collective promoting the ten-year anniversary of their record Sung Tongs. During that time, Lennox pivoted to producing material for his solo career. The result is an even more atmospheric version of the ambient sounds the artist is known to pioneer. On Tap talked to Lennox around the release of his record on inspiration, the importance of how music is physically released and the value of creating in the present moment.
On Tap: You just released a new album as Panda Bear, Buoys, this week. Tell me more about how this record was created.
Noah Lennox: I wrote these songs on the guitar. I was just singing the songs with the guitar and a rudimentary drum machine. That was the foundation for everything. The guitar came from Dave [Portner] and I doing [practice for] the Sung Tongs record – we played a bunch of shows [as Animal Collective] for it this past summer. I hadn’t really played guitar for a while so it took me a couple months to get my hands into shape again, and I think while I was using the guitar a bunch I just started writing little songs here and there while I would practice for that stuff.
OT: It sounds a bit more austere than some of your previous releases, was this a conscious choice?
NL: I did feel like I was a bit tired with the methods I had employed with the past couple records — it was like a system I went to the end of the road with in a way. I was interested in pushing myself into a space I was unfamiliar with. As far as the starkness of the sound, we figured out early on in the process that it was an architecture that kind of worked, as far as the sub-bassy stuff, because that became the pillar early on with pitched 808 samples. [For] his record we went in the opposite way of packing the arrangements full of sounds, which is kind of my move the past few records. I felt like any time we would add more into the arrangement it meant that the deep sub bass stuff wouldn’t represent itself in the room in the same way. We wanted to sort of keep this architecture of the empty.
OT: Although you’re a Maryland native, you’ve lived in Portugal for quite a while now. How has your life there affected your music?
NL: Certainly the environment plays a part, but that’s really hard for me to define. I feel like all the influence is subconscious and implicit in a way. It’s really hard for me to trace the dots on how that colors what I do; I’m sure it does, it’s just hard for me to define. Lisbon is a really different place than what it used to be. When I lived in Brooklyn, it felt like it went through a similar transformation. I got there just after it was starting and I left before it finished but I’m seeing a similar thing transpire in Lisbon over the past seven years or so. Not musically, although there are a lot of younger folks doing DIY-type music, which I really dig. It’s more in terms of [how] Lisbon felt kind of less affected by the rest of the world, or less interested in it or conversation with cultures outside of Portugal. It feels more like any sort of big European metro area than it used to.
OT: Your previous record, A Day With The Homies, was vinyl only. Why did you choose to release it that way?
NL: The original inspiration for that was sort of weird and random. It came from brands like Supreme and Palace and these other streetwear companies that do these releases of new stiff in finite quantities. I don’t like the resale part of it, I think that’s really corny, but it got me thinking about how that rewards the most hardcore people. I was jazzed about making something the people who would pre-order it or be down for no matter what.
OT: Why pivot back to a more traditional release with Buoys?
NL: Doing it [vinyl only] isn’t altogether positive, in that there are people who are left wanting. Ultimately, I preferred this method, which is for everybody. I wouldn’t want to do limited stuff all the time. I also should say that whereas Person Pitch was conceived as a CD as its ideal form, for A Day With The Homies it was the vinyl, and for this one I always envisioned its ideal form as streaming.
OT: Is that something that changes as you record new material or do you start out knowing you want to make music tailored to a specific format?
NL: It’s not always cut and dry. I can’t say that for every single release I have this ideal image of the thing in its particular format. But those three have a specific form that was kind of my most perfect version of it.
OT: Physical editions of music have seen such a resurgence over the past 10 years. Why do you think that is? What makes them maintain value?
NL: I think there’s two things going on with vinyl – one, people are getting less and less CDs so it’s becoming a digital or a vinyl thing, those are the last people standing in the race of the format. And two, I feel like the size or the imagery you can get on vinyl is kind of a big deal. I really like having that big slab for artwork, it just looks nicer in that way.
OT: As you mentioned before, you recently toured with Animal Collective to play your record Sung Tongs front to back for its ten year anniversary. Would you consider a similar tour format as Panda Bear?
NL: I supposed I’m open to it, but I’d have to be really inspired beyond [the fact] I can make a lot of money on this, that’s kind of cheesy to me. It’s been kind of weird, I guess. We agreed to do it one time and it was more fun than I imagined it would so I was down to do it more, but I’m sort of wary of getting stuck in that routine as opposed to the the present day creative things I have going. I’d rather focus on that. It was kind of fun, I have to admit. I just wouldn’t want that to be the driving force of what I’m doing. Even if it has less traction publicly, I’d still rather just keep going with what’s happening today.
Panda Bear plays the 9:30 Club on Monday, February 11 with Home Blitz. Doors are at 7 p.m. and tickets are $25. For more on Panda Bear, visit www.pandabearofficial.com.
9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com
For more than a decade and a half, the members of Greensky Bluegrass have created their own version of bluegrass music, mixing the acoustic stomp of a string band with the rule-breaking spirit of rock & roll. The band performed with opener Billy Strings at The Anthem on February 1. Photos: Shantel Mitchell Brenn
Born in Paris in 2016, the Night of Ideas is where art, pop culture, science and politics collide. In 2018, it took place in more than 100 cities worldwide, and the first DC iteration recently took place on January 31.
Elise Girard, Deputy Press Counselor for the Embassy of France, says the Night of Ideas strives for “a mix of art and debate – not only political, but social issues.” At last week’s event, these issues were both explicit in the discussion – and implicit in the circumstances.
The Night of Ideas was originally slated to be at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. However, as French Ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud put it, “in DC there are some uncertainties, and one of them is called the [U.S. government ] shutdown.”
Organizers had a choice: cancel or move. Fortunately for DC Francophiles, the Night of Ideas simply moved to the Embassy of France. Lit up in yellow, pink, green and blue, the embassy shone like a beacon as visitors streamed in to begin the experience.
Attendees were immediately greeted by Providence, Rhode Island artist Kelli Rae Adams’ installation Mischief in the Boneyard. A winding trail of ceramic dominoes, the piece was inherently nerve-racking: if toppled, the dominoes could break. And when they did, the clatter echoed through the entrance hall. The three classic “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys were etched on one side of each domino – perhaps a metaphor for our time.
In fact, the evening carried the theme of “Facing our Time” – but the unspoken words might have been to “re-evaluate your relationship with Instagram, eh?”
The keynote speaker was celebrated writer and thought leader Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, who has one of the most-watched TED Talks of all time and wrote the acclaimed books We Should All be Feminists and Half of a Yellow Sun. At the Night of Ideas, she spoke beautifully about two concepts that are unlikely bedfellows: empathy and critical thinking. Emotion and rational thought are intertwined, she argued: “if we can think clearly, we can truly see other human beings.”
She also reflected on the modern world, the pull of social media, and its impact on how we think: “I have always wanted to live a life of the mind, of imagination, [but] I struggle to be absorbed.” Ultimately, she said, time to slow down, reflect, and savor our moments shouldn’t be a luxury, but a right.
Presenter Franklin Foer had a similar premise to his talk, “The Existential Threat of Big Tech.” He started with poet Mary Oliver’s famous quote: “attention is the beginning of devotion.” But according to Foer, the big tech companies and social media platforms – Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple – “invasively opened us up and mined us…hijacked the most precious thing we have.”
How to combat this hijacking of the human psyche? Books. As Foer put it, “reading is a place where we can connect to our humanity.” Ultimately, Foer said that the power to choose where to spend our time is ours – but we have to protect that time vigilantly.
But these ideas around modernity and the digitization of our lives were only one facet of a night filled with art, performance, music and debate. French performance artists Les Souffleurs Commandos Poétiques enlisted audience members in a living art installation, holding umbrellas over participants and whispering into their ears through long black tubes, creating almost a kind of architecture in the blue light that suffused the event space.
The options for talks to attend were almost overwhelming, with four to five options every hour, spanning a multitude of issues from art appreciation to gender equality to climate change to incarceration. But I’d say my favorite part of the Night of Ideas wasn’t a talk, but a performance: Marching Band Baltimore Project’s kickoff performance at the start of the night both set the tone and stole the show.
The drums reverberated throughout the embassy, the dancers in spangled costumes twirled and snapped at the waist, and everyone in the crowd was utterly rapt. There was no doubt in my mind that the time and attention I gave them was truly well-spent.
For more information on the Night of Ideas, click here.
Every so often, a singer rises through the ranks of artistry, swiftly reaching heights of stardom earlier than their peers. Think of artists like Alessia Cara or The Weeknd.
Another significant rising artist to watch is Josh Karpeh, also known as Cautious Clay. In the first year of his career, he already has a accumulated a varied list of accomplishments and accolades.
For those blessed with an HBO subscription, watchers of the hit show Insecure, created and written by Issa Rae, may have already heard the budding star and not known it. Apart from its comedic genius, the series has had a penchant for uncovering musical hits and in August, Cautious Clay was included among the recent pop sensations with his debut song “Cold War.”
In October, he was featured on NPR’s “Tiny Desk,” passing through as other influential artists like Erykah Badu, Yo-Yo Ma, Wu-Tang Clan and Florence + the Machine had in past iterations, generating praise from a broad eclectic audience.
Staying loyal to his roots and the inspiration behind his sound, Cautious Clay also performed on stage at BET’s 2018 Soul Train Awards at the Orleans Arena in November, where he crossed paths again with Erykah Badu by sharing the same band. Continually marketing himself as a complex, multi-dimensional artist, not feeling a need to subscribe to one route or notion, Cautious Clay diverse abilities show no signs of slowing down.
Prior to the Cautious Clay moniker, Karpeh was working in real estate and advertising after graduating from George Washington University. Eventually, he took a huge leap of faith and quit his job to pursue a music career full-time.
“I never doubted [music] would be in my life. I never knew I could make a living out of it,” he says. “I never knew I would have a full functioning business model. That’s all very new and humbling and interesting for me.”
But stepping out on faith wasn’t a hard act for Cautious Clay.
“I’ve always felt confident in my abilities as an artist and a musician. I don’t feel like it was happens chance. But I feel like since a very young age, I’ve had a natural inclination for music, it’s kind of how I express myself in the most genuine way, it’s in my blood.”
His love of music is not only evident in his “genre-less” music, but in his dynamic skill set. Not only does he sing, write and produce music as an independent artist, but he also plays the saxophone, flute, and piano, among a long list of others.
Cautious Clay draws inspiration from all aspects of life. While he has a particular sound, which he characterizes as “melodic, percussive, thoughtful and ambitious.” He doesn’t allow himself to be boxed into one consistent narrative or style.
“I have songs that are more bright hard-hitting and I have more [acoustic] stuff. Melodies are probably the strongest aspect of my music, but then I also kind of reinforce it with the production, kind of fresh and different.”
Cautious Clay is a fascinating mix of humble and confident. His YouTube page displays a recent post, “Writers block doesn’t exist,” sparking users to urge him to elaborate in the comment section.
Some asked if Cautious Clay was simply so talented that even writer’s block can’t slow him down? Quite the contrary.
“People don’t have writer’s block because writers’ block is just a fear of bad idea,” he explains. “People will have writer’s block because they don’t like their ideas. I don’t think a lack of ideas is necessarily possible. There’s always going to be something. It could be a terrible idea, it may not be a new idea but you could develop something.”
As an honest and self-aware artist, he pushes past the insecurities and swallows his pride to inspire fans.
“Being an artist is part being yourself and expressing that to your fans. [It’s] about being innovative in some ways; being creative and being an artist is synonymous.”
Cautious Clay will perform newly released single “Honest Enough” at a sold-out concert this Friday, February 1 at U Street Music Hall. For more information about Cautious Clay, click here.
U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St. NW, DC; 202-588-1889; www.ustreetmusichall.com
All year long, On Tap keeps locals in the know about the hottest new food and drink spots around town in our New & Notable column. Now, we’re looking back at the year in dining, which brought buzzy new restaurants each and every month. Global influences continued to land in DC, two hip hotels championed local talent, addictive favorites like hummus and bagels won hearts and stomachs, and beloved chefs expanded their empires. Amid dozens of openings in 2017, these 20 are the ones that cut through the noise and should continue to impress in 2019.
Ellē only has four letters in common with its 80-year-old predecessor, Heller’s Bakery. The new Mount Pleasant café and restaurant from the minds behind Paisley Fig and Room 11 has reimagined the bakery concept for the modern day. From morning until afternoon, linger over coffee, unusual pastries and hearty sandwiches. Don’t forget to grab a fresh baguette or a loaf of country sourdough to take home. The real magic begins during dinner, when Chef Brad Deboy turns out forward-thinking plates like grilled kimchi toast and charred sweet potato curry, showcasing fermentation, meticulous technique and one-of-a-kind ingredients. 3221 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, DC; www.eatatelle.com
A Rake’s Progress
The LINE Hotel might just be the most Instagrammed spot of the year. What used to be a neoclassical church has been beautifully renovated into a hotel with five distinct food and beverage options. Head up the stairs and you’ll find Spike Gjerde’s hyperlocal A Rake’s Progress. A wood-burning hearth is the focus, and the flames add flavor to small game like rabbit, quail and duck, as well as pork, squash and more. Many dishes are presented tableside and then carved or finished off at the centrally located carving station to give diners a show. 1770 Euclid St. NW, DC; www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues
After a quick set change, Ashok Bajaj opened SABABA in the space formerly occupied by Ardeo. The new restaurant’s menu focuses on modern Israeli cuisine, which has roots in both Jewish and Arab traditions. Dishes display influences from the Middle East, Turkey and Greece. Meals often start with salatim – small portions of salads and spreads to share – and then progress into hummus and small plates. The vegetarian dishes shine, from charred eggplant and roasted halloumi to fried cauliflower and Israeli salad. Kebabs and large plates are also available, like sumac- and onion-marinated steak and braised lamb shank. 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.sababauptown.com
Vegans and omnivores alike rejoiced when Vedge Restaurant Group out of Philadelphia planted their first restaurant in DC. While everything on the menu is completely vegan, owners Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby aren’t trying to push an agenda. They’re just serving vegetables. It’s the way they serve them that makes a splash. Each dish takes a humble piece of produce – like a radish – and elevates it with artful techniques and vibrant flavors. The menu strikes a balance between the refined cuisine at their flagship Vedge and the edgy street food at V Street, with small plates like trumpet mushroom “fazzoletti” and spicy dan dan noodles. 600 H St. NE, DC; www.fancyradishdc.com
Restaurateur power couple Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong, known for Alexandria hot spots Society Fair, Hummingbird and more, opened their latest restaurant at The Wharf last spring. Kaliwa offers three Asian cuisines that are near and dear to the duo’s hearts: Filipino, honoring Meshelle’s heritage; Korean, as an ode to Chef Cathal’s Taekwondo training; and Thai, because it’s their family’s food of choice. The menu is divided into sections for each country, with milder flavors in Filipino dishes like Kalderetang Cordero, slightly spicier funky notes in Korean Jae Yuk Gui and super hot spice levels in Thai Nuer Pad Prik. 751 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.kaliwadc.com
Erik Bruner-Yang’s second project within the LINE Hotel is unlike any restaurant you’ve visited in DC. Spoken English is modeled after the Japanese Tachinomiya – a standing-room only restaurant where people stop by for snacks and drinks after work. The casual, communal concept is situated in the kitchen with two counters facing a wood-fired Grillworks oven, only accommodating between 12 to 16 diners at a time. The menu provides a choice between having a few bites, like skewers and small plates, or enjoying a full meal of whole roast duck and chicken yakitori. 1770 Euclid St. NW; www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues
The former chef to the Finnish ambassador opened his own café serving the food of his homeland. Mikko Kosonen got his start at his family’s restaurant in Stockholm and attended culinary school in Helsinki. In the U.S., he’s been cooking for diplomats, heads of state and royalty, but now he’s expanding his audience to include average Washingtonians. Nordic cuisine relies on simple preparations of ingredients like seafood, rye, mushrooms, berries and roots. The menu at Mikko is succinct but true to form, with specialties like house-smoked salmon, Finnish soups, Nordic pastries and Danish-style, open-faced sandwiches. 1636 R St. NW, DC; www.chefmikko.com
Vipul Kapila never ordered lamb vindaloo in Indian restaurants in the DC area because he couldn’t find a version that lived up to the fiery dish he remembers eating growing up in Delhi. When he found a truly authentic rendition at a restaurant in Falls Church, he decided to team up with the chefs behind the dish to open Pappe and finally bring a neighborhood Indian restaurant to 14th Street. That vindaloo is a star curry on the menu, which also features popular dishes like butter chicken, vegetable samosas, fish chittnad and fire-grilled baingan bartha. 1317 14th St. NW, DC; www.pappedc.com
To say Poca Madre is Victor Albisu’s passion project would be an understatement. The restaurant is a sincere homage to Mexico, celebrating the country’s history, culture, agriculture and cuisine. The menu is, simply put, an exploration of contemporary Mexican dining. But every aspect, from the sourcing to the recipes, tells a deeper story. Many ingredients are imported from Mexico to support local farmers, including sea salt, grasshoppers, cocoa nibs and dry maíz. The small plates and entrées put creative twists on traditions, like a corn risotto that conjures the flavors of elote and a shrimp and cuttlefish ceviche with flat noodles made from the two types of seafood. 777 I St. NW, DC; www.pocamadredc.com
Chef Massimo Fabbri, known and loved for his cooking at Tosca and Posto, opened his own restaurant in Shaw paying homage to his family and the cuisine of his home in Tuscany. The menu is succinct and simple, with classic Tuscan recipes and a few salutes to his time at Tosca. Start with antipasti like roasted calamari or fried squash blossoms, and be sure to sample the fresh pastas like tortelli stuffed with robiolina and black truffle complemented by a porcini mushroom sauce. Entrées range from a fish of the day to a New York strip. To finish, there’s a selection of traditional desserts like tiramisu infused with truffles and budino. 1316 9th St. NW, DC; www.sanlorenzodc.com
Matt Baker’s sophisticated restaurant is planted in the former Pappas Tomato Factory, which has been transformed into an urban oasis where minimalist fixtures, mossy accents and hanging terrariums are juxtaposed with original 1940s brick, windows and steel beams. Gravitas is the first tasting menu spot to hit the neighborhood with a selection of 15 dishes – half of which are vegetarian – that can be mixed and matched to create a custom experience. Baker focuses as much on sourcing as he does on experimentation, pulling ingredients almost exclusively from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 1401 Okie St. NE, DC; www.gravitasdc.com
The Green Zone
After four years of popping up around town, this Middle Eastern cocktail bar found a permanent home in the diverse Adams Morgan neighborhood. The spices and ingredients showcased in the drinks are ones that are commonly found in the region’s cuisine but haven’t often been translated to cocktails. Some recipes are riffs on classic nonalcoholic beverages like the seasonal frozen mint lemonade spiked with vodka or gin. The signature creation is the Janissary Corps, made with Green Hat gin, pistachio, lemon and “silky magic.” The food menu consists of Lebanese and Levantine street food like falafel, hummus, spicy wings and mana’ish. 2226 18th St. NW, DC;
Restaurateur Alfredo Solis expanded his portfolio to include more than Mexican (El Sol and Mezcalero). He teamed up with Chef Joseph Osorio to bring a splash of Cuba to Columbia Heights. A painted “neon” sign emulating the Miami Vice logo ties together the murals covering the walls at Little Havana, featuring Cuba’s colorful streets as well as some of the country’s cultural icons. Classic dishes like ropa vieja, vaca frita and empanadas are offered alongside modern interpretations like Cuban rolls – essentially a Cubano sandwich crossed with a spring roll. Of course, Osorio also makes a traditional Cubano, which he says is perfect thanks to his godmother’s lechon recipe. 3704 14th St. NW, DC; www.littlehavanadc.com
The original iteration of Little Sesame was an instant hit, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first standalone location opened with a line out the door that has continued to form each day during the lunch rush. Ronen Tenne, Nick Wiseman and David Wiseman are behind this wildly popular fast-casual hummus shop that serves up hummus bowls, pita sandwiches and seasonal salatim (vegetable sides). The hummus quite literally holds it all together, so its recipe was tweaked unto perfection. It’s enhanced by additions ranging from whole roasted vegetables and fresh produce to herbs and spices. 1828 L St. NW, DC; www.eatlittlesesame.com
Joe Carroll, the man behind St. Anselm in Brooklyn, teamed up with restaurateur Stephen Starr and Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley to bring the grill-centric restaurant to the Union Market neighborhood. While it’s often hailed as a steakhouse, St. Anselm is about more than beef. The cooking relies heavily on fire, with everything from Spanish octopus and Romano beans to a rack of lamb and a pork porterhouse hitting the grill that sits in the center of the open kitchen. When it comes to beef, the cuts are on the unusual side – like hanger steak and flat iron. 1250 5th St. NE, DC; www.stanselmdc.com
Your Uber driver might have a hard time finding Chef Johnny Spero’s Georgetown restaurant. Reverie is tucked down a cobblestone alley in a historic building near the canal. Though the exterior is timeworn, the interior is minimalist and modern, taking after Nordic design. The cuisine follows suit, with dishes that skip overwrought techniques in favor of letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Spero refines his burger with misozuke and reimagines lovage as a granita accented with elderflower. Large-format dishes like crispy roast duck with licorice and fennel are meant to be shared. 3201 Cherry Hill Ln. NW, DC; www.reveriedc.com
Call Your Mother Deli
When Andrew Dana and the Timber Pizza team were trying to come up with a name for their new deli, they tossed around phrases that a Jewish grandmother might yell. Someone shouted, “Call your mother!” and thus the deli was born. The Boca-meets-Brooklyn shop is branded as “Jew-ish” rather than Jewish because while they are traditional in some ways by serving deli classics, they strive to put modern twists on expected dishes. Their bagels are the main event, with the production line and custom, wood-fired Marra Forni bagel oven front and center in the open kitchen. 3301 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; www.callyourmotherdeli.com
Chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s latest project is three stories of Italian culinary exploration, starting on the first floor with a market and café, continuing upstairs with a neighborhood restaurant and amaro library, and culminating on the roof with an al fresco terrace and private dining room. Stefanelli intended each concept to have its own personality and purpose, and to be visited at different times of day for different moods. The expansive space lives up to its name – Officina means workshop in Italian – as an epicurean hub where everything from pasta-making to butchery is done in-house. 1120 Maine Ave. SW, DC; www.officinadc.com
Global brand Eaton Workshop opened their hotel on K Street last fall, with all four food and beverage concepts led by Chef Tim Ma. The main attraction on the first floor is the street-facing American Son, where Ma presents American food through the lens of immigrants. The name is a reflection of Ma’s childhood, growing up in the 70s and facing discrimination as one of the only Asian families in Arkansas. His parents tried to help Ma assimilate throughout his upbringing, even introducing him as “my American son.” Some dishes pull flavors from Ma’s Chinese heritage, while others are influenced by international cuisines like French and Middle Eastern. 1201 K St. NW, DC; www.eatonworkshop.com/hotel/dc/food-and-drink
Philly Wing Fry
Philly cheesesteaks, chicken wings and waffle fries. The combination is a curious one, but for Chef Kwame Onwuachi, it’s simple: three of his favorite things in one meal. After opening Kith and Kin to critical acclaim, Onwuachi decided to revive his fast-casual concept Philly Wing Fry with locations in the new South Capitol Hill Whole Foods and Union Market. The menu is succinct, with sandwiches, tamarind-glazed confit chicken wings, waffle fries dusted with Ethiopian berbere spice and combo options. The crown jewel is the dry-aged Philly cheesesteak, but there’s also a vegetarian interpretation with crispy mushrooms. Whole Foods Market: 101 H St. SE, DC; www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/southcapitolhill // Union Market: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; www.unionmarketdc.com
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 2
El Ten Eleven
El Ten Eleven is one of those bandsm, that to the naked eye, defies sonic law. The duo makes dizzying, lush sounds using only a double-neck bass guitar and foot pedals. I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, but they have a laptop, right? Everyone does that nowadays.” No, they do not have a laptop. Everything’s organic, as it has been for the band’s entire 10-album career. In an era where everything is prerecorded and premeditated, this kind of musicianship is even more impressive. Don’t miss the duo in action this winter. Doors 8 p.m. Tickets start at $17. Union Stage: 740 Water St. SW, DC; www.unionstage.com
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7
Homegrown Martha Afework is proof that just because you fall in love with something as a child, that doesn’t mean you should give it up as an adult. Singing since the age of four, Afework has used her talents – and more recently, social media – to gain attention from people in the area. Now, the soulful R&B singer will headline the Fillmore without looking back. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $15. Fillmore Silver Spring: 8656 Colesville Rd. Silver Spring, MD; www.fillmoresilverspring.com
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 8
COIN isn’t necessarily the most innovative band on the block, but there’s something extremely likeable about their radio-friendly brand of indie pop. I can think of many artists before them made a similar type of music who were much easier to write off as unoriginal. Perhaps it’s their vulnerability – the Nashville-based, four-piece band often sings of awkward romantic encounters, leaving home and growing up. Ah, youth. No matter what it is, COIN’s undeniable magnetism makes them worth seeing live. Doors at 6 p.m. Tickets $25. 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11
Chances are you’ve heard some lyrics that the members of Eyelids are responsible for, but maybe not of the band itself. The Portland, Oregon-based group has penned songs for The Decemberists, Elliott Smith and Stephen Malkmus, among others. Now on tour for their own songs in the form of release Maybe More, the indie rockers are ready to step out from the shadows of their legendary collaborators to make you hum and sing along to their work. Show at 9 p.m. Tickets $12-$14. Comet Ping Pong: 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.cometpingpong.com
Though I wish I was writing about an actual panda bear who belted out lyrics about life in the jungle, you and I will have to settle on the very talented Noah Lennox. A founding member of experimental pop band Animal Collective, his own music as Panda Bear doesn’t stray far from the fabric of the aforementioned band. Looking for meticulously crafted electronic sounds? Check. What about vocals layered atop these very eclectic beats? Check. Basically, if you’re a fan of the entire collective, Panda Bear’s music will be right up your wheelhouse. Check out M.K. Koszycki’s interview with Lennox at www.ontaponline.com. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets $25. 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness
Ever wonder what those bands you listened to during your teenage years sound like when they grow past their angst-fueled music? That’s what Andrew McMahon sounds like these days, as the former band member of several California-based groups has grown into a more mature musician. The pianist has harnessed his high-pitched voice into one of reason, discussing the topics of nostalgia, missed opportunities and failures with a joyful tone throughout his latest release Upside Down Flowers. Doors at 6 p.m. Tickets $40.50. 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com
L.A.-based trio Cherry Glazerr is known for their commentary on the world at large – after all, the band takes its name from NPR reporter Chery Glaser – but on their third record, they’ve teased a new era. Singer Clementine Creevy has indicated in press for their new album Stuffed & Ready that she’s begun to look inward for inspiration and it’s evident on the band’s lead single “Daddi,” which seems to reflect on the gray areas of attraction, control and power dynamics in relationships. The infectious song is a sure indication that the band’s new era will be an impressive one, too. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets $20. U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St. NW, DC; www.ustreetmusichall.com
The solo project of Nicholas Rattigan, Current Joys is a moody singalong about the creative process. From extreme highs to lows, Rattigan rattles off emotional lyrics that are accompanied by thud-like guitar strums, each delivered with a purpose. A Different Age represents one of the most expressive and well-crafted albums you’ll hear this year. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $15. Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; www.blackcatdc.com
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14
Worldly wunderkind Zach Condon announced his band Beirut’s fifth album and lead single Gallipolli in the most Beirut way possible. He took to his band’s website to write a letter about the genesis of the album’s title track, which involved the band “stumbling into the medieval, fortressed island town of Gallipoli one night and following a brass band procession fronted by priests carrying a statue of the town’s saint through the winding, narrow streets.” The band has served as a musical passport to Condon’s travels since they formed back in 2006, and they’ll bring their sounds to DC this winter with new adventures in tow. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $41. The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.theanthemdc.com
Hailing from Madrid, The Parrots combine both Spanish and English lyrics to make a near-universal indie sound. Backed by guitar licks reminiscent of Chastity Belt or Courtney Barnett, their music is moody and their vocals provide a melodic whine. Though they haven’t recorded a new album since 2016, The Parrots has been releasing well-received singles since then and promise to bring an electric show to DC9. Doors at 7:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $12. DC9: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; www.dc9.club
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 15
The latest release in Prophet’s discography is Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins, a concept album paying homage to the legendary artist responsible for “I Fought the Law,” made famous by The Clash. The album is gritty and fun, and I’m glad Prophet hasn’t wiped the slate clean quite yet but instead, is focusing on spreading his version of “California noir.” Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $20. Jammin Java: 227 Maple Ave. E. Vienna, VA; www.jamminjava.com
There are few better gifts for a Valentine than to see the wonderous Gregory Porter. His music is smooth and loving, borrowing vibes and emotions from 50s and 60s jazz – not to mention his sultry vocals. With his baritone contrasting with several backing instruments, Porter delivers songs perfect for a date night with your significant other. Show at 8 p.m. Tickets $58-$108. The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; www.strathmore.org
Fusing indie with synth-pop, Canadian band Metric is set to visit the DMV this month. Touring on the back of their 2018 release Art of Doubt, the album brings out the best elements of the band. Aided by a radical energy in the band’s instrumentation, frontwoman Emily Haines continues to provide a lens into her creative process while delivering her seamlessly effortless vocal talents in each song. Doors at 6 p.m., show at 7 p.m. Tickets $38. Fillmore Silver Spring: 8656 Colesville Rd. Silver Spring, MD; www.fillmoresilverspring.com
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 16
I used to wonder why old school R&B music was so hard to replicate for newer artists. Obviously, the genre still has a foothold on the popular conscience as you can hear it in movies or in samples for hip-hop, but there is largely a dearth of new artists with this style. Leon Bridges took hold of it as a notable vocalist to mention, but one on the rise is Dante Pope. The multi-instrumentalist has pipes channeling the 70s, and his ability to strum the guitar only heightens his deft musicianship. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $15-$17. Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House: 2475 18th St. NW, DC; www.songbyrddc.com
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 17
With an indie sound combining garage and surf, this group of four offers very enjoyable tunes to groove to. Whether you’re driving down a highway or jam-packed in the tiny, intimate DC9, these songs will carry you through. The lyrics come across as playful even when serious, and this isn’t a criticism because sometimes it’s helpful to laugh in the face of tough times. Doors at 7:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $10. DC9: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; www.dc9.club
Back on the punk scene for the first time since 2010, Daughters returned with their 2018 release You Won’t Get What You Want. While everything about the group is punk, their pace is very deliberate compared to the break-neck speed the genre’s bands usually play at. Instead, Daughters is a manic deliberation with chants for choruses. Plus, some of their music sounds like something you might hear in a horror film’s score. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20. Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; www.blackcatdc.com
Chances are at least one of your favorite pop artists has collaborated with New York production duo The Knocks. Carly Rae Jepsen, Foster the People, Sofi Tukker and X Ambassadors are just a few of the big names who have lent their vocal talent to the pair’s upbeat songs. To celebrate the release of their new album New York Narcotic, they’ll bring a full-fledged dance party to U Street. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25. 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 18
Lorely Rodriguez has released countless synth-pop gems under the name Empress Of since 2012. You may also know her from standout spots providing her signature crystal clear vocals on albums by contemporaries like Dirty Projectors, Khalid, MØ and more. As her career progressed, so did her vocal and production prowess, giving us last year’s catchy album Us. Her earlier work sounds just as good today as it did upon release, and her single “Go to Hell” is the ultimate kiss-off to everyone who didn’t believe in Rodriguez – and it’s my go-to pick me up song when feeling discouraged. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $15. Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 19
You can’t mention Jacob Banks without mentioning the word soul. The Nigerian-born, British singer-songwriter is downright gripping when he steps in front of a microphone. From a grumble to a shout – all on key – this man has some serious range and versatility. His latest release, 2018’s Village, provides a perfect showcase for his talents – and he uses all of them to mystify listeners. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets $20. 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com
Though Julia Holter sings, the classification of composer feels most natural when describing the artist’s musical stylings. Layered with wind instruments, drums and electronic sounds, her songs are absolutely packed with instrumentation – and the apparatus serving as the conductor’s baton is her voice. Whether it’s whiny, melodic or on the verge of shouting, her vocals provide the direction for all of the carefully curated sounds to follow. Show at 7 p.m. Tickets $17. U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St. NW, DC; www.ustreetmusichall.com
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20
In an era of rap and hip-hop where nearly all artists are singing their own choruses, it’s interesting to see the pendulum swing. Anderson .Paak represents a lyricist who has the same cadence and rhyming skills as a hip-hop artist, but with real pipes. This style is extremely fun to listen to and seems like it’s even more satisfying to make, as he frequently features rap giants like Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Dr. Dre. With his raspy delivery and West Coast cool, Anderson .Paak is as unique as they come. Show at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $78. The Theater at MGM National Harbor: 101 MGM National Ave. Oxon Hill, MD; www.mgmnationalharbor.com
It’s my humble opinion that MNEK should be one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and chances are the London-based artist has written or produced a song for one of your favorites. After all, the 24-year-old’s resume includes work for Beyoncé, Bastille, Stormzy and Diplo. I could go on, but you get the idea. And as I’m sure you’ve guessed, his solo work is just as impressive as the people he’s worked with. On the heels of his fantastic full-length album Language and countless impressive collaborations over the years, he’ll bring his innovative brand of pop to DC. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $17. Union Stage: 740 Water St. SW, DC; www.unionstage.com
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 21
Rumors of James Blake’s new album have been swirling around the web as of late. He released two new singles last year and appeared on the Black Panther soundtrack but now, the world is ready for a new full-length album. If the rumors are true, the timing is perfect as he’ll hit DC in late February – hopefully with new tunes in tow. Doors at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $48.50. The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.theanthemdc.com
Liz Cooper & The Stampede
Liz Cooper offers tremendous energy and a vibrant, upbeat demeanor on her latest record Window Flowers, the result of a yearlong effort to do something creative every day. Her style of sing-talking with a raspy delivery allows her to mix it up with each song, sometimes holding onto notes for a little longer than you’d expect – and sometimes letting them go with a breath. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets $12-$15. Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House: 2475 18th St. NW, DC; www.songbyrddc.com
FRIDAY, FEBURARY 22
If you’re in the mood for a retro sound this winter, look no further than Kat Wright. The almost lo-fi production of her music sends you back in time, as her vocals help paint the picture of a nostalgic view. Her powerful vocals are accompanied by backing bass, drums, keys and a powerful three-piece horn section. While she may not provide a visual aesthetic of the jazz singer smoking a cigarette, her more modern stage presence will more than make up for it. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $12-$17. The Hamilton LIVE: 600 14th St. NW, DC; www.thehamiltondc.com
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23
Hailing from Houston, Texas, this eight-member band provides soul and R&B sensibilities with a pop music mentality. I say that because every song is jovial and enjoyable. With eight members, the band also has tremendous versatility, bouncing from sound to sound. The Suffers are led by vocalist Kam Franklin, who provides a powerful voice for the instruments to follow. Show at 7 p.m. Tickets $20. U Street Music Hall: 1115 U St. NW, DC; www.ustreetmusichall.com
If Kendrick Lamar is the current king of hip-hop, Vince Staples is the prince. One of the best lyricists in the genre, Staples has zigged while others have zagged – providing breathtaking commentary on the world as he sees it. Though not every song has a political point of view, the best tunes are when he’s locked in on a subject for the world to hear. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets $35. 9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; www.930.com
Washington Performing Arts Presents Lara Downes
Inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s words, the trailblazing, NPR chart-topping Lara Downes has channeled her prodigious creativity into an intimate program of solo and ensemble works paying tribute to female composers and poets, both past and present. Her special guest is multi-instrumentalist/composer/singer and MacArthur “Genius” Award winner Rhiannon Giddens, who, through her own work and performances as a member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, embodies precisely the ethos Downes had in mind. Downes’ performance is a special presentation by Washington Performing Arts. Show at 8 p.m. Tickets $35. Writeup provided by venue. Sixth & I Historic Synagogue: 600 I St. NW, DC; www.sixthandi.org
Deni Hlavinka and Chris West met on a college forum after Hlavinka posted an idea for a song. The next day, West sent over a completed version and the serendipitous partnership has been unstoppable ever since. In Western Den, the pair focuses on melodic folk music – but instead of a heavy emphasis on guitar strums, their music shines a light on Hlavinka’s piano skills. Doors at 8:30 p.m., show at 9 p.m. Tickets $12. DC9: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; www.dc9.club
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 28
Despite their most recent release meditating on illness and death, Boston’s Vundabar has been called “a ceaselessly jovial band” by Pitchfork, and their live shows are no exception. The contrast between the band’s existential, contemplative and sometimes downright depressing material paired with their jangly garage rock-influenced music makes the perfect pairing for those of us who love to dance but also contemplate life’s trickier questions. Bring that marriage to a live show and you’ve got a performance that’s equal parts a party and a therapy session. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $15. Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com