Photo: Greg Pallante

Meet The Exploratory Mercy Union

The first chord explodes like a glitter bomb, igniting a stream of surging guitar, driving drums and anthem-style lyrics that shine like the sun on the Jersey Shore.

This is the sound of “Young Dionysians,” the song that kicks off The Quarry, the debut album by New Jersey rock quartet Mercy Union.

“Dionysians” trumpets part of the band’s sound, firmly rooted in the heartland rock meets punk – a kind of Tom Petty mixed with Jimmy Eat World vibe – sound that’s been kicking around North and Central Jersey for the past two decades. But this fist-pumping, body-and-soul liberating rock and roll sound is only a piece of Mercy Union’s repertoire. Truthfully, the group does not want listeners to enter with any preconceived notions; that was part of how the members decided on their name.

“We didn’t want the name to give away any style of music,” says Jared Hart, Mercy Union’s front man and principal songwriter. “That’s what we started with, with trying to find things so that when people heard it they wouldn’t jump and go: ‘That’s a hardcore band’ or ‘That’s an indie band.’”

This mentality is also helpful when most of your band consists of members from some of the most prolific bands from the Jersey punk scene in the past 10 years. Mercy Union is, by popular parlance, a supergroup: Hart is the founder of The Scandals, guitarist Rocky Catanese hails from Let Me Run and drummer Benny Horowitz also anchors the kit for The Gaslight Anthem, the biggest rock group to blossom from the garden state in the new millennium. These are much-beloved bands in their circles of the music world, with dedicated fanbases enamored with those groups’ distinct, personal sounds.

The sounds of Mercy Union do not sever ties with all that history.

“I wanted everyone listening to it to have as much of an open mind I had when I was writing it,” Hart says. “Keeping the labels off of it and all the past stuff – it’s there, those will be our influences, but I didn’t want it to be the skeleton of the whole thing.”

“[We wanted] something catchy, [with] energy but also restraint in the smart ways. I kind of wanted to capture the energy of all our punk bands in the past and use our new knowledge in songwriting and life experience in general, smash it all together and see what we came up with.”

That last ingredient in the sound reflects all four musicians’ drive to explore beyond their previously well-traveled roads and to have space to “get weird.”

The band’s brand of weird may not be apparent on first listen; the group does not play in a crazy tempo, the guitars are not tuned to some alien setting and Hart sings as he does, with bellowing thrust but also choir-boy soaring.

“I think weird is just taking risks,” Hart says. “Changing time signatures, changing song structures in ways that you’re not comfortable with and more just challenging who you are as a musician and taking a leap and not worrying about it.”

“Layovers,” another track on The Quarry, exemplifies this ethos. The six-minute, acoustic roadhouse ballad of remembrance and regret directly contrasts with the group’s tight rock anthems like “Dionysians” or “Chips and Vic,” but contrast is the point.

Hart points to mixtapes in the hip-hop world – he was mainlining Chance the Rapper’s multi-Grammy winning mixtape Coloring Book while he was writing the first batch of Mercy Union songs – as a primary influence in shaping the band’s sound.

“The idea of a mixtape kind of blew me away,” he says. “Different songs that didn’t necessarily feel like they fit on a record, but when put into context as a whole, they do. That was a big part of where the songs on The Quarry went to and how we bounced around in genres.”

Looking at other tracks in Mercy Union’s live set, “A Lot From Me” drifts calmly along with an almost reggae vibe; “Silver Dollars” is classic Tom Petty, gritty and grooving rock and roll; while “Accessory” and “Baggy” mix 70s soft rock with a harder and more ambient modern approach.

Hart says the band’s name was intended to reflect the members’ strong feelings of unity tied to the vulnerability of starting this new project that would stretch them as musicians. It also reflects the group’s sound; a united body of gentle but energetic and empowering songs. There’s a couplet in “Chips and Vics,” the band’s debut single, another swelling anthem, that sums up what the band offers: “Can I be all that you need? / Can you see, maybe, if you can stand to stand by me?”

Mercy Union opens for Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers with Control Top at Rock & Roll Hotel on Tuesday, April 23. Visit here for more information on the show. For more information on Mercy Union, check the band out on Facebook and Twitter.

Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; 202-388-7625; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com

Photos: Yana Yatsuk

G’day: A Q&A with Kirin J Callinan

The best part of talking with Australian singer-songwriter Kirin J Callinan is that you can never tell what he’s going to say or do next. He might break into song, he might rummage through belongings to show off a gift he recently bought for a friend or he might say something outrageous or hilarious or, more likely, both.

The artist, musician and performer is set to release his third solo record, Return to Center, and is currently on tour. He’s known for his over-the-top performing and songwriting that sits between art and provocation. A recent press release describes him as an “apex predator, a butterfly, a grassfire, a beautiful baby boy wandered curiously into trouble,” and it’s all true. We got to video chat in anticipation of his Tuesday April 23 show at DC9 where we discussed Return to Center, the prospect of having kids and the prospect of covering opera. Oh and he showed off a gift he got for his friend and sometime collaborator Connan Mockasin.

On Tap: I wanted to start by asking you about your family. I feel like you talk about your family more than most artists do, and I was wondering are you what they were hoping for?
Kirin J Callinan: [Laughs]. Look, I don’t know what they were hoping for. I didn’t know them when they were sitting around and hoping. You know what, I don’t think they were hoping for anything. I was an accident. In terms of my childhood, I don’t think I’ve really felt that pressure to be, I mean my old man was a musician, still is. From my mother I’ve really only felt love; I’m very lucky.

I’ve had a few fuckups in my life, definitely. But no, my parents are very supportive. I love ‘em dearly, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, or certainly [my] inspiration and confidence would come from a different place, if I didn’t have them. Does that make sense?

OT: Yeah, that’s a good situation, that’s lucky.
KC: Yeah, very lucky, incredibly lucky, it’s not lost on me. In fact I consider myself the luckiest person on the face of the earth. You know, it’s not like they came from money or anything; dad’s a musician, and mom worked mostly, and dad was a stay at home dad. You know it moved me to tears recently actually, thinking about [this], the sacrifices my parents, especially my dad, made. You know he had his own hopes and dreams as a musician, and some worked out and some didn’t, but at some stage, with myself and my sister at a young age, he sort of quit the band and got a dayjob. [He] has worked so hard, six days a week to this very day, as long as I’ve known him, as long as I can remember, really just in devotion to my sister and I and my mum. It just kind of blew my mind. I don’t know if I could [do that]. I mean, I think things just change when you have kids, but in my sort of world that revolves around myself at present, I don’t know if I could quit the dream and get what is otherwise a monotonous [job]. I mean I know people do it all the time, [but] it blows my mind.

That said, I think that’s the reason I’d like to have kids, if there’s any potential mothers out there reading this. I’m up for kids because I’d love to have someone else in my life that’s my number one priority, other than myself and my work. Then again, maybe I’ll just be a prig forever. So, no guarantees.

OT: Are you the most Callinan Callinan, are you as Callinan as it gets?
KC: Yeah, you know, the Callinan side, particularly my dad’s side, is very arty farty. My dad’s a musician, uncle and aunty [are] all in the arts, his brother and sister. [They’re] kind of usually pretty weird, kind of lefty environmentalist, you know. I’m trying to think of the stereotype within the family; most are bookworms. I’m not in that sense, [I’m] terrible with reading; I’m trying to get better.

My body shape is a bit different too; I’m sort of the tallest in the family. The rest can be quite small or rotund, and I’m tall and thin, and I’ve got a bigger nose than the rest of them too. Suspected I might have had a different father for a little bit there, but you see young pictures of my dad, [and] it’s me.

OT: Were you born Kirin or did you become Kirin?
KC: Well, it’s on my birth certificate, although it’s spelled different, but I’m fairly true. I haven’t changed that much, I would say. I was a bit of a show pony in school, you know primary school, high school and that hasn’t really changed.

OT: Have you ever found that hard?
KC: Yes, yes, yeah. Yes, [laughs].

OT: Can I ask you to elaborate a little bit?
KC: Well you know I never really felt like I fit in, but you know for me that was a point of difference. I enjoyed being a freak. A lot of culture today, especially online, people talk about community a lot. That word comes up in basically every sphere, about finding your people. For me, I’ve always wanted to be different, I’ve always wanted to feel singular, it baffles me actually. But of course, feeling isolated is certainly different and much more difficult than simply feeling different, and I’ve had times where I felt pretty isolated and alone. You know, being verbally or physically attacked ‘cause you’re different is a different thing and there’s times where I’ve felt that. But for the most part I’ve gotten by being funny and nice, you know. But who hasn’t felt different or alone?

OT: Is this something you experienced in high school or younger?
KC: Younger as well, [I] definitely felt very different, but you know this sounds like I think I’m special or something and that’s not necessarily what I’m getting at.

OT: But you always seem to be in company. Do you get a lot of alone time?
KC: No, [laughs] no, no not at all. I’m working on that. Trying to devote more time to being comfortable in my own skin without other people around, devote more time to reading, like I said, certainly devote more time to writing, which go hand in hand, you know, if you don’t read, it’s hard to write. For a long time, I’ve been always surrounded by people, often drunk.

OT: “The Whole of the Moon” is fucking great. I wanted to ask, when you’re singing that is there someone you’re singing to or thinking about?
KC: That’s interesting, because the song is a devotional song. I tried to break down all the songs on the new record to one word and “Whole of the Moon” is devotional.

There is a person I was thinking about, don’t think I want to say who they are. There were a few people I was thinking about actually, one was the producer François Tétaz, who I made the record with, he’s a visionary, and then there are more romantic faces in mind who I don’t think I want to mention.

OT: How do you mean devotional? Specifically religiously devotional?
KC: Well, could be. “I saw the crescent you saw the whole of the moon.” You’re talking to God or at least someone with an all encompassing vision, but you know that’s what love is. When you really love someone, they’re the greatest and they show you things, they see what you don’t see. But, no I didn’t mean it necessarily as religious. It’s big picture stuff.

OT: Have you heard any feedback from The Waterboys?
KC: No. However, a couple years ago I did some of these David Lynch shows, music from David Lynch films that was put together by David Coulter, who was in the The Pogues and worked with everyone from Tom Waits to Yoko Ono, and Camille O’Sullivan was a singer on that, as was I. She’s actually the mother of Mike Scott’s children, the singer-songwriter from The Waterboys, so I wrote to Camille to see if she could put me in touch and she wrote back right away saying she would, but I haven’t followed it up since. I need to be in touch. I actually have an idea for a show involving the original writers of the songs on the record.

I haven’t heard from him, I wonder if he’s heard it. I do know that if you type it into Spotify or Apple Music you get my version and not The Waterboys. So you know, who knows, it’d be nice to hear from him. I think it’s a nice rendition, it doesn’t stray too far from the original, it’s just a little bit better isn’t it? [Laughs] No, I think a lot of those Waterboys records, I love them I love the band, [but] the production is a bit of a barrier, it’s so 80s, which for me, I love 80s music and even then I find those big snares and some of the bombastic, big verby production on there a little difficult to listen to. Good songs though.

OT: What does Return to Center mean?
KC: It is a wholly encompassing idea for the album. There is a sort of spiritual core to the record. I say the album is my “corporate spiritual record,” neither left nor right, neither red nor blue, it’s return to center, which you know, it’s about balance. It’s about patience and humility, but also in terms of the process, the way we made the record is we went to Guitar Center, spent the entire budget for the album, which was $8,888.88. I chose that number because 8 is a nice return to center as well, sort of turns in on itself, and you know it’s more fun to say than $10,000.

So, at $8,888.88, we were just shy of that actually, I bought a bunch of gear from Guitar Center and had the length of the return policy to make the album before returning to center and giving the gear back and getting the money back, which you know is kind of a funny idea but was also a very practical one, you know it gave me the palate to make the record. I was only allowed to use this gear that we bought, everything from mics to mic stands and cables, we didn’t use a laptop, we bought a TASCAM digital 24 track from there as well, everything’s on SD cards, and we had fourteen days from purchase, as is the return policy on pro audio gear. We had 14 days from the purchase and pulling out of the boxes, setting it up in the garage, to then make the record before packing it back down on the last day and returning it to the center.

My previous record I worked on and off for four years and could have worked on it for another four. At the end I just had to let go of it and throw it out, and so this one, it made me show up at 11 a.m. every morning down at the garage and work on it every day till 12 a.m. or 1 a.m.. [We] had to make this record, spent the money, wanted to get the money back and wanted to finish the album, and to make it great, most importantly.

You could argue that it’s a punk guerilla attack on capitalism, I took advantage of this company and used their policy against them, or you could argue I’m celebrating their only-in-America, customer-first model, which is a big selling point of the brand and made a beautiful record using only their gear. It could’ve been, like I said, me fucking with them or me celebrating them, and it’s both really.

OT: What I love about being able to interview artists is feeling like I have something to learn from you all and I’m wondering if there are people you’re still learning from?
KC: That I’m inspired by? Learning from? Absolutely. All the time. My favorite artists past and present. But at the moment, you know I’ve been a big drinker, and occasional drug user in my life, and right I’m really inspired by people that are sober and focused, and I’m trying to do the same thing. Musically? I’m really inspired by people with work ethic and focus. I think I got away for a long time with really being sort of just good, being able to put on a show, being able to write a good song from time to time without really working at it, and it’s not good enough. So, you know, I’ve mentioned Natalie Weyes Blood,inspired by her focus and her work ethic. And Mac, very inspired by Mac. [I] went to Coachella last weekend, was quite inspired by the Tame Impala show and those guys are all friends of mine as well. It was really quite amazing to see [them] grow into such an institution and so big.

The people around me at the moment, my friend Ashley Smith is inspiring me a lot lately. There’s a lot of acceptance of drug and alcohol abuse, especially within music, and it doesn’t help, it really doesn’t help. So, [I’m] trying to learn how to look after myself again, you know? If I spent half as much time as I poured into partying [instead] into working, we’d be talking about my back catalogue of 10 records.

OT: Could you ever cover opera?
KC: I’d love to. Yes. I kind of have this… the final song on Return to Center is “Vienna” originally by Ultravox.

OT: I love that song.
KC: Yeah, great song. But you know it wasn’t on my short list of songs for the record, it wasn’t even on my long list of songs, I just woke up with it in my head one morning and I was like “oh let’s do this one.” And I kind of regret it on some level because there’s a couple of songs that are super dear to me that I didn’t do, but you know, I can do them in the future.

But “Vienna” it sort of has this Andrea Bocelli quality to it, [sings] “Oh Vienna” and in the vocal performance that’s what I was really going for. I want people to listen to it and put me in the same breath as Bocelli or Pavarotti, coming from this pretty booming place in my belly.

Kirin J Callinan plays at DC9 Nightclub Tuesday, April 23. Doors are at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $15. For more information and tickets, visit www.dc9.club.

DC9 Nightclub: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; 202-483-5000; www.dc9.club

Photo: Thom Goertel

Black Pearl Sings! Touches on Harsh, Comical Realities

DC theatergoers have rare access to what playwright Frank Higgins would consider an “authentic doorway into the past.” The Alliance for New Music Theatre has brought Higgins’ Black Pearl Sings! to life at Spooky Action Theater, exploding with songs and narratives that delicately address timely social issues while exposing the harsh, yet comical, realities of the past.  

Based on the relationships between legendary folk and blues musician Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and Library of Congress folklorists John and Alan Lomax, Black Pearl Sings! begins in Texas during The Great Depression, where the protagonist Alberta “Pearl” Johnson (Roz White) has spent the previous 10 years in prison for pulling a Lorena Bobbitt on an abusive suitor.

The contemporary play opens with Pearl donning prison stripes and a metal ball at her feet. While working in a chain gang, Pearl wrestles with the idea of her daughter out on her own since her incarceration.

Playing opposite to Pearl is Susannah (Susan Galbraith), an ambitious Library of Congress musicologist on a prison tour collecting indigenous folk and African American slave music in the South. Entering stage left, Susannah hears Pearl singing an unfamiliar, spirit-stirring tune and requests the singer’s company.

“When people die, history is lost,” Susannah says, simplistically stating the significance and relevance of Black Pearl Sings!

After sharing their truths, the two join forces – one vowing to reconnect with her daughter and the other vowing to find the perfect song collection.

This upbeat show relies solely on the talents of these phenomenal women. Battling the whole way, the two passionately dance on couches while confronting issues of race, social narratives and perspective.

“We have treasures of which we aren’t even aware,” White, a trained musical theatre actress, explains.  “It’s important to know your worth, your history and what you have to contribute.”

White and Galbraith are one of the most dynamic duos to take the stage. The seemingly genuine quips and banter deployed onstage perfectly showcase their comedic talents and chemistry, promising to leave audiences laughing uncontrollably.   

Though the storyline dips into deeper pools of social consciousness, a light-hearted mood prevails throughout the play. The simple choreographies paired with jovial tunes make this thoughtful production a winner. It shocks and calms when appropriate and features an easy, crowd-pleasing sing-a-long.

The modest décor of Spooky Action Theater is impeccably on-brand. Notes of sawdust fill the theatre, reminiscent of industrial and rural settings.

Fortunately, this production is not modest at all. With support from the Library of Congress and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Thomas W. Jones II applies more than 30 years of professional experience to engage audiences, using multimedia imagery to reinforce the performance.

The journeys of Pearl and Susannah are inspirational and uplifting. If you’re searching for an evening of heart-wrenching confessions, heartwarming songs and spiritual connectedness, look no further than Black Pearl Sings!

The Alliance for New Music-Theatre production of Black Pearl Sings! is showing through May 4 at the Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church. Tickets are $25-$40 and can be purchased here.

Universalist National Memorial Church: 1810 16th St. NW, DC;www.spookyaction.org

Correction: A previous version of this article did not clarify that The Alliance for New Music-Theatre produced Black Pearl Sings!

Foals at 9:30 Club

Oxford, England’s Foals played the 9:30 Club twice this week on April 16 and April 18. Here are some photos from the band’s latter show. For a review of April 16’s show, click here. Photos: Krystina Gabrielle // KGabriellePhoto.com

Photo: Rosie Cohe

Sweet, Like Durand Jones and The Indications in Springtime

When the weather finally picks up in DC, so does H Street. Up and down the block, people are out enjoying the air and nightlife, and on April 16, Rock & Roll Hotel was packed with people there to watch Durand Jones and the Indications. The night was just short of warm and there couldn’t have been a sweeter way to celebrate it than the Indications’ 70s soul-inspired music.

The Indications are touring their sophomore record American Love Call, a best R&B record nominee for the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) Libera Awards, alongside artists like Blood Orange and Charles Bradley.

The Indications have so many things going for them. They have the instrumentation and arrangement style of their inspirations down pat. Think Curtis Mayfield’s “So In Love” or Brenton Wood’s “I Think You Got Your Fools Mixed Up.”

They can also play funk, like they showed Tuesday on their song “Groovy Babe.” More than that, Durand Jones strikes a great balance as a frontman. He’s a happy medium between performers like Meg Remy of U.S. Girls and BadBadNotGood.

In the two times I’ve seen US Girls the only thing Meg Remy said was that there would be no encore because “there are no encores in life,” and if I ever see BBNG again it’ll be too soon, because their frontman almost never shuts up.

But more than any of that, it’s the voices of the Indications that make it for me, particularly that of frontman Durand Jones and drummer Aaron Frazer. Jones may not have Frazer range (not that he’s that far off), but he emotes like an Otis Redding or James Brown, and Frazer’s falsetto could put him into The Delfonics or The Emulations.

The best songs of the night were the ones that had these two playing off each other, like “Don’t You Know” or “Circles,” both off American Love Call, though Frazer’s solo ballad “Is It Any Wonder” might still be my favorite of theirs. They played it as an encore, and it’s quite the song to have in your backpocket.

It was also the first Indications song I heard. I didn’t really like it at first because it sounded so much like music was made 50 years ago, but a lot changes in a month. I spent the weeks following in Colombia hearing almost only cumbia and to come home and hear American music, and American music like Durand Jones and the Indications was the sweetest thing.

Sorry for being a prude about it at first, guys, you’re beautiful, can’t wait to see in DC next time.

For more information of Durand Jones and the Indications, follow them on Twitter.

Photo: www.bbcmusic.co.uk

Foals Are Here to Stay

It’s been nearly six years since Oxford, England band Foals took home the Q Award for Best Live Act, and four since they were given the same award, but this time as Best Act in the World. Their sold out show at the 9:30 Club last night was a clear indication that should the band be up for those honors in 2019, they’re still every bit as deserving.

Though the band saw the departure of their former bassist Walter Gervers in the process of recording Everything Saved Will Not Be Lost Pts. 1 & 2, even with this lineup change their sound is as tight as ever. Foals opened with Part 1 single “On the Luna,” whose live iteration is surprisingly tamer than expected. Their stage is flanked by palm trees, perhaps a nod to the tropical sound that’s always weaved its way through their music. At times when the band rips through more anxious songs like “Exits” or “Inhaler,” it evokes a feeling of dystopia.

Still, Foals has energy in spades. They’re now the proud creators of five albums, with one more on the way (Part 2 is out later this year), but they’ve pieced together a setlist of songs new and old to engage concertgoers regardless of devotion level. This is a lost art when it comes to bands who have been at it as long as Foals, as it often skews toward shoving the new material at everyone or kowtowing to playing only the classics. When they opt to melt older songs like “Olympic Airways” into an absolute banger of a more accessible hit like “My Number” with an incredible drum solo courtesy of Jack Bevan, you immediately know there is incredible care put into everything this band does.

Even during a slow burn like “Spanish Sahara,” they avoid the dreaded treatment of a less peppy song as a seventh inning stretch. Even as bodies wander to the bar, fans start clapping, transfixed, and people return to their spots. They’ve been commanded not just by the band but the spell they’ve cast on those in the crowd, and for good reason – “Spanish Sahara” just happens to be one of their best songs.

And I’d be remiss not to mention the fact that, during the encore consisting of “Two Steps, Twice,” frontman Yannis Philippakis leapt from the Club’s second story balcony into the arms of a waiting crowd. The person standing next to me grabbed my shoulder in disbelief as she reached her other arm towards him. At a time when shows can seem a tad bit clinical, there’s nothing like a full on trust fall into a sea of fans to restore your faith in the art of the live show. Even if the leap happens every night, at every show, it still feels new and urgent.

Foals could easily fill a larger venue like The Anthem – past DC stops saw them at higher capacity outposts like the more formal, seated Lincoln Theatre, and the EDM-adjacent Echostage – but their specific brand of marrying the best elements of punk, math rock and tropicalia is tailor-made for a hallowed place like the 9:30 Club. They’re better off packing in hordes of hungry fans into smaller places, an apparent strategy on this tour, than forcing themselves to be something they are not in a larger location for the sake of selling more tickets.

They know who they are, and they’ve said it best themselves. Take the Everything Saved Will Not Be Lost standout “Syrups,” in which Philippakis sings “‘cause life is what you make it/you’ve got yours and I’ve got mine.” They’ve always had a strong sense of identity, but now they’re making sure we know who they are, too.

Sure, Foals could have changed and eschewed their niche sound just for the sake of it. But why do that when you can be true to what’s cemented you as one of the most exciting acts of the past 15 years, especially when it means you can leap from the balcony of one of the most iconic venues in the world?

Don’t sleep on your second chance to see Foals at the 9:30 Club on Thursday, April 18. Tickets are $38.50 and doors open at 7 p.m. For more on the band, visit www.foals.co.uk.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com

Bad Suns at 9:30 Club

The Los Angeles-based band Bad Suns played the 9:30 Club on April 15. Photos: Krystina Gabrielle // KGabriellePhoto.com

Ken Wenzel, Justin Trawick . The 9 Songwriters Series, Jammin' Java, Vienna, Virginia, April 10, 2019

The 9 Songwriter Series at Jammin Java

On April 10, Jammin Java saw a gathering of some of the DMV’s strongest songwriters. They tested new material, many playing songs for the first time in front of people (or as Jonny Grave put it, “outside of the privacy of my bedroom.”) There were technical difficulties, missed lyrics and flubbed solos, and it was perfect, spontaneous, live music performed by consummate, dedicated artists.

Founded by Justin Trawick in 2008 “The 9 Songwriter Series” is a touring songwriter collective and live show based in DC. More than 300 artists have performed in “The 9” at shows in DC, Baltimore, Annapolis, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Richmond, Charlottesville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco. This particular edition, including Trawick, featured an extensive list of artists inclyuding Siobhán O’Brien, Andy Hawk and Abigail Furr, to name a few.

Although I wasn’t able to get hold of a set list (some of the night’s performances seemed to be made up on the fly), I do remember how the evening flowed flawlessly from one performer to the next. Hayley Fahey (accompanied by Sol Roots) opened the show with her customary high energy and enthusiasm. Our host, emcee Justin Trawick along with Ken Wenzel on sax, took the stage for the next two numbers and so on.

The evening belonged to all nine performers. To make music spontaneously, wholeheartedly and honestly is such a pleasure to experience, for both musicians and audience. That there are showcases like “The 9” is a wonderful gift to the DC community.

Performers were usually accompanied by one or two (or three) of their companions, which made for a wonderfully varied musical palette. The nine songwriters we heard throughout the evening brought a diversity of music to Jammin Java’s stage that included Americana folk-rock, soul, blues and funk. And though the evening ranged from the clearly unrehearsed to the distractions of technical difficulties, in the end it was undeniably warm, professional and real. What else could a listener, or an artist, ask for?

The full list of performers includes: Siobhán O’Brien, Andy Hawk, Abigail Furr, Lisa Johnson with Montree Thepvongsa (November Morning), Sol Roots, Ken Wenzel, Hayley Fahey and Jonny Grave.

Photos and write-up: Mark Caicedo

Photo: Tony Powell

A Conversation with Edward Gero on Arena Stage’s “Junk”

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s play Junk is coming to Arena Stage on April 5. Inspired by the debt crisis of the 1980s, Junk explores the ruthless world of finance and its effects on American values. Acclaimed DC stage actor Edward Gero plays the role of Thomas Everson, the owner of a steel manufacturing company, who is confronted when junk bond giant Robert Merkin plots the hostile takeover of the family company. Gero talked to On Tap about Junk and his experience with the production so far.

On Tap: How did you learn about Junk and land your role in the play?
Edward Gero: Actually, [Artistic Director] Molly Smith asked me to come in and read for it. She knew Jackie Maxwell, who’s directing the play, was looking for somebody, and they asked me to come in and read. I put an audition on tape with Thomas Keegan, who’s playing the role of Merkin and sent that out, and I got cast. That was about a year ago. And of course, I heard about the play because it had a great run in New York in 2017–it’s been produced around the world—and the playwright Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer Prize winner for Disgraced in 2013. He’s a playwright of some importance, so it was a project I was interested in doing. Plus, the subject matter too, it’s a really complicated play, an interesting play about the junk bond raiders of the 1980s.

OT: Why did you want to be a part of the production?
EG: I was really interested in the play. I had not worked with Jackie Maxwell before, and I was very excited about that. I also love working at Arena. And it’s a really terrific role. I play Thomas Everson, the owner of what’s called Everson Steel, which is sort of a stand-in for, let’s say, U.S. Steel—it’s a Dow Jones Industrial company. They become the target of a takeover, and he sort of holds down the old economic values. He was born into the company, 3rd generation in his family, he has commitment to the workers and he’s sort of overwhelmed by this takeover. So, it’s an interesting role to play in terms of facing the future. It becomes quite a shock to him.

OT: Was working with Ayad Akhtar a goal for you?
EG: Not particularly, but when I heard the play was going to be produced, I was interested in it right away because I knew it would be a very smart play. I’m interested in plays that are intellectually stimulating, and this certainly was that. It’s a language play too. It’s deep-in-the-weeds about blue economics. It moves at such a pace like a Shakespeare play, and Ayad had made the comparison. He’s been influenced by both David Mamet and Shakespeare, so it’s a very heavy language play. Yet you end up getting is into the relationships of these people. If you don’t follow all of the weeds and information about the new economics, you’d get really compelling relationships between these people.

OT: Can you describe your character Thomas Everson?
EG: Thomas Everson is a man of a certain age—he’s probably late 50s, early 60s. He’s inherited this role as a CEO. His father father had it before him, his grandfather started the company. They come out of the late 19th century industrial magnets. [He is] someone who makes steel to make money, where the characters of Merkin for example, are just out to make money by turning debt into assets and doing these raids and hostile takeovers. It’s something [Everson] didn’t necessarily want to, but felt obligated to take it over. His father is no longer with him, but the burden and responsibility of keeping the steel mill alive and keeping that legacy of his father alive drives him and actually becomes his downfall. Where the other characters are contemporary, young and aggressive, he’s trying to hold on to an older version of what America is. That’s really what the play is about. In guise of finance, it’s really about a generational change of what’s happened to America. Ayad said really brilliantly that the play was really about how Americans moved from being citizens to being consumers; Everson is sort of the last of that generation.

OT: Did you identify with him in any way? Is that important to you when you’re developing a character?
EG: Well, you try to find ways into the character. My dad was not a steel magnate. However, he was a president of a local United Auto Workers union for 25 years, so I grew up in a labor house. I can use that experience and I understand that mentality of wanting to do the best for the workers. But management now and management then are two different things. Of course, management is in the business of making money, but he also knows he’s got this whole community. The town where Everson lives in, there’s Everson High School, Everson Street, Everson Road, Eveson Park. He’s sort of the leading citizen of that whole area. So, I use my own experiences of growing up with my dad as an entryway, but then I have to go into the imagination of the character, which is different.   

OT: What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role? Did you study the financial crisis of the 80s?
EG: For sure. I mean, I lived through it. It takes place in New York in the 80s. I was there then, and I had friends who worked on Wall Street. The New Years Eve party from 1979 to 1980 was an amazing party. A friend of mine from high school owned a loft. He had written the first arbitrage trading program for IBM and other friends of mine were working on the Street, so the whole culture of that period, I lived. I have that first-hand experience.

OT: You’re a prolific stage actor in DC. What do you think makes this play interesting to a DC audience?
EG: I think it’s very smart in a way that, let’s say, The Originalist was red meat for lawyers, this is certainly red meat for economists. The whole financial structure is sort of a nexus between economics and law, and that’s certainly policy making. It’s very relevant to this community, and I think audiences will come to this with a certain understanding. I’m sure the economists in the room will be saying, “Well, that might not be true,” the lawyers are saying, “That’s good, that’s right,” so there’s that kind of engagement. Washington has one of the smartest audiences, if not the smartest audience, in the United States because of the people who are here.

OT: You touched on this earlier, but as a Shakespearean actor do you see any parallels to this play?
EG: Oh, absolutely. I drew the connection to it directly with Henry IV, but there’s also the characters of Merkin and his wife that had a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kind of feel to them too—she’s a very strong advocate for Merkin and steals him all the time. This play is going to fly. I think it started on Broadway as a three-hour, three-act play. It’s now a two-hour, one-act play. There’s been extensive cuts, extensive re-writes and it flies. So, articulation, as it would be in Shakespeare, it has to drive, it’s a lot of information, but like Shakespeare, there’s really no subtext to it. It’s not people sitting and thinking and mulling things over and becoming external, it’s just always going forward and that’s very Shakespearean in terms of dealing with language.

OT:  Is there anything you want audiences to take away from the play?
EG: I think they’re going to have an experience that will make them question where we are going in terms of our economics and how we interact with each other, the sort of brutal capitalism of this play. Certainly in this upcoming election cycle, it’s going to be in issue. Looking at this administration, how ruthless are we willing to be in terms of selling our brand or making money and how do we balance that with the policy making and where’s the human element to it? So, I think people will come away probably not changing their points of view about politics or economics. It might strengthen the beliefs they already have. But it’s certainly going to take them on a ride. It’s a rollercoaster.

Junk opens at Arena Stage on April 5. The play runs through May 5. For more information and tickets, visit www.arenastage.org
Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-554-9066; www.arenastage.org

Photo: Roy Rochlin

Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” Talks Career-Spanning Work at Sixth & I

Rapper and actor Daveed Diggs called the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, and spaces like it, “empathy gyms” – where audiences use live performances to work on how to negotiate feelings in real time.

In Monday’s wide-ranging onstage interview by NPR’s Ari Shapiro to celebrate the synagogue’s 15th anniversary, Diggs, whose mother is Jewish and father is African-American, discussed his career, including his latest role in the play White Noise and life after Hamilton.

“Daveed’s artistic choices mirror the multifacted nature of his talents and his personal background,” said Sixth & I Executive Director Heather Moran. “Offering colorful and provocative art at the intersection of race, culture and identity, Daveed Diggs embodies the essence of what Sixth & I stands for.”

Diggs won a Tony and a Grammy in 2016 for his dual part as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the musical Hamilton. While Diggs made his entrance to the song “Guns and Ships” from the musical – the conversation focused on his hip hop group Clipping and more recent work, not just the founding-father themed phenomenon.

He performed “Something in the Water” from the soundtrack of Blindspotting, the 2018 movie he wrote and starred in with friend and collaborator Rafael Casal. Mutual friends introduced the two and set them up on a “rapper playdate” shortly after college and they have been creating music and art together since, Diggs said.

He dismissed the idea of dividing his career into pre- and post-Hamilton eras, instead saying his spot in the musical was actually “part of a very long progression.”

At first, working on the musical was just “doing a piece of art with my friends,” he said. “It felt very small until the whole world wanted to see it.”

“What Hamilton did for me, more than anything else, was allow me to keep working in the way that I’ve always been working but making money off of it,” Diggs said.

He had been writing raps and doing plays with his friends for as long as he could remember, “and nobody cared, and then Hamilton happened and everybody cared.”

Days after wrapping up his three year stint as Lafayette and Jefferson, Diggs said he flew straight to play a teacher in the movie Wonder. He later had roles in Black-ish, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the upcoming small screen adaptation of Snowpiecer.

“I just wanted to keep doing things that I have never done before,” Diggs said, so film and TV were the logical next steps.

But Diggs has also found his way back to the stage – although he emphasized he was looking to do another play, not musicals, as Hamilton was a unique scenario.

His latest role is Leo in Suzan-Lori Parks‘ White Noise that opened last month off-Broadway. The piece tackles how two interracial couples who are longtime friends deal with the aftermath of Leo getting attacked one night and brings up intense racial discussions.

The conversations Park’s play or Shapiro’s discussion with Diggs at Sixth & I can spark are why live performances are needed in an age of so many screens and media choices, Diggs said.

“We just are all here negotiating whatever we’re talking about in real space,” Diggs said. “Places that have committed to creating these kinds of spaces are so important because they create community.”

Diggs’ appearance is a part of a larger fundraising campaign for the synagogue’s 15th anniversary celebration this year. for more on his work, visit www.daveeddiggs.com.

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue: 600 I St. NW, DC; 202-408-3100; www.sixthandi.org