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Black Cat: 25th Anniversary Day 2

Twenty-five years after the Black Cat opened its doors, the venue celebrated with local favorites to staff bands to punk legends, forming a colossal lineup for both days. Saturday’s lineup included: Ex Hex, Gray Matter, Hurry Up, Algiers and more. Photos: Shantel Mitchell Breen

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Black Cat: 25th Anniversary Day 1

Twenty-five years after the Black Cat opened its doors, the venue celebrated with local favorites to staff bands to punk legends, forming a colossal lineup for both days. Friday’s lineup included: Subhumans, Ocampo Ocampo & Watt, Ted Leo and morePhotos: Shantel Mitchell Breen

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers
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Pearl Street Warehouse, Washington, DC, September 12, 2018
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers . Pearl Street Warehouse, Washington, DC, September 12, 2018

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers at Pearl Street Warehouse

I was expecting Lucinda Williams meets Dwight Yoakum when Sarah Shook and the Disarmers took the Pearl Street Warehouse stage on September 12. I got that and a whole lot more. Eric Peterson’s lead guitar conveyed the perfect balance between bite and twang, Phil Sullivan’s pedal steel reached a high lonesome sound and Aaron Oliva on upright bass and Kevin McClain on drums kept the tempo chugging relentlessly.

However, my attention was completely fixed on Shook’s voice, which harnessed shades of Joan Jett. All at once expressive and husky, but she wasn’t afraid to sing occasional ballads, proving sweet and tender. This was not just another country-punk bar band.

Shook began playing music when she was nine-years old, teaching herself to play piano. Raised in a strictly fundamentalist Christian family, she was never exposed to rock and roll. At age 17, a friend played her the Decemberists EP and there was no turning back.

She bought a guitar, studied a chord chart and taught herself to play. Soon she was writing songs, and in 2010 she formed her first band:  Sarah Shook and the Devil. The initial launch dissolved in 2013, with Shook and lead guitarist, Eric Peterson, moving on to form Sarah Shook and the Dirty Hands. Within months, the Dirty Hands also dissolved, but was soon replaced the current incarnation of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers.

Peterson, who’d been with Shook from the start, encouraged her to think big and that her talent could take her further than their North Carolina base. The band recorded and released its first album, Sidelong in 2015 and began touring extensively.

The night’s set covered songs, old and new, from both albums. Standouts included “Heal Me,” “Sidelong,” and the heartbreaking “Dwight Yoakum” that featured Sullivan’s plaintive and aching pedal steel.

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers may never fill stadiums, but you can be sure they won’t be playing the same neighborhood bar weekend after weekend. Find more on their Facebook page or go here. Photos/write-up: Mark Caicedo

Photo: Chris McKay
Photo: Chris McKay

MC50 Kicks Out Jams For Freedom

For 50 years, “Kick out the jams, motherf–kers” has been one of rock ’n’ roll’s most ecstatic, transcendent rallying cries. When it was first heard blasting out of the streets of Detroit, it went beyond music. MC5, or Motor City 5, the Detroit rock band that helped paved the way for punk, employed it as a cry to their fellow youth – for energy, for justice, for racial equality and yes, for some righteous, roaring jams.

Does MC5’s music still embody that call to action and exuberance? Can a band that aspired to spark revolutions both political and musical light those same fires today? Those questions lingered in the air as the crowd awaited the group to take the 9:30 Club stage on September 13.

For the latter question, the answer is, “Probably not.” People’s politics and goals change with time. In fact, the most political the group got was when lead guitarist and founding member “Brother” Wayne Kramer sermonized about the participatory nature of democracy, imploring the crowd to go vote before launching into the swinging, proto-punk “The American Ruse” from MC5’s second album Back in the USA. The band has little reason to try and instigate the same musical battles it waged across Midwestern concert halls at the onset of the 1970s because generally speaking, they won.

Kramer and the original MC5’s victory is seen most prominently in the very musicians who currently make up the band. Joining Brother Wayne for the MC50th, the all-star rock supergroup celebrating the Motor City 5’s fiftieth, included Soundgarden’s lead guitarist and human tidal wave of sound Kim Thayil, Faith No More’s Billy Gould on bass, Fugazi’s Brendan Canty on drums and, relative newcomer, Marcus Durant of Zen Guerillas out front as an eerily ideal stand-in for original vocalist Rob Tyner. All of these bands had longer, more successful and prominent careers than MC5’s originals, yet they all joined collectively to revive the music – that’s how deeply ingrained this band is to rock’s DNA.

At the 9:30 Club, these all-star musicians did not gather to fight yesterday’s political battles but to remind everyone in the room – from the graying hippies to the Washingtonians in their finest punk rock threads – how potent this music is. The supergroup ripped through MC5’s breakthrough album Kick Out The Jams, bringing everything from backyard boogie garage rock of “Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa” to the metallic boom of “Come Together.”

Kramer himself best tried to channel the spirit of 1968, leaping and dancing across the stage while unleashing his signature high octane, high register steam whistle solos. Gould and Canty conjured the crushing force of Detroit’s factory days in the rhythm section while Thayil, who usually summons sound waves like tsunamis in Soundgarden, stepped back into rollicking, prototypical rock guitar shedding.

The surprise of the night came as MC50 closed their run through of the famed album with “Starship,” the nine-minute-plus, space-meets-early-noise-rock closer that features a verse of poetry by the Afrofuturist jazz leader Sun Ra. As the song’s familiar verse-chorus-verse structure gave way to amorphous, borderline atonal, pulsating free fusion, the MC5’s spark shone through brightest.

You can hear echoes of “Starship” and “Kick Out the Jams” across the frontiers of rock today. In fact, it was appropriately reminiscent of the avant jazz stylings in some of the work of DC’s own Priests.

As Durant wailed on a miniature saxophone and Kramer wandered cosmically along thefretboard, the MC50th embodied the original message the MC5 pushed, one that punk embraced and spread to a whole generation: freedom. MC50 served a reminder for everyone in the crowd, anyone who would listen, that the central promise of American music – of the United States of America – is to create what you want.

It was a joyful, noisy reminder that American music, from avant-garde jazz and death metal to Lady Gaga and Usher, celebrates at its very core the idea of liberty we all cherish.

For more information about the MC5 and the MC50, check them out here

Image: Courtesy of Records Collecting Dust
Image: Courtesy of Records Collecting Dust

Records Collecting Dust Sheds Light on Artists From Forgotten Era

Part of the appeal to old metal and punk records is the DIY attitude those bands put into recording the music. Instead of sounding pitch perfect and fresh out of a studio, these tracks could have been blaring live from a nearby garage, and that appeal is part of the authentic edginess.

Jason Blackmore is an integral part of this scene on the West Coast. When searching for a new project to deep dive into a few years ago, he resisted the notion of starting another band from scratch, and instead looked toward the past for inspiration. Though he had zero experience in film making, he embarked on a journey to document pieces of an era that helped shape him into a man. The result was the well received Records Collecting Dust, a collection of interviews with greats from the 1980s hardcore punk scene from the West Coast.

For Part II, Blackmore shifted regional focus and ventured east, highlighting Boston, New York and DC. Tonight at Black Cat, the film will be show in the District for the first time, and it features 28 interviews with legends of the genre such as Ian MacKaye of Fugazi.

Tonight’s screening will also feature a Q&A with Dave Smalley, Dante Ferrando and Mark Haggerty. Before the play button is pressed, we got a chance to speak with Blackmore about his passion for the project, his DIY filmmaking and whether another one is on the horizon.

On Tap: When did you decide you wanted to make this documentary? And why did you focus on this specific genre of music?
Jason Blackmore: I’ve played in bands since the 80s, and was looking for a different avenue to express myself through music and came up with the film. I figured being located in San Diego, with almost no budget, it was a good place to start. There are a lot of folks from the Southern California area in the punk rock scene.My primary focus was always the 80s hardcore scene.

Yeah, in the future I could see myself covering different genres of music. I’m 48, so the hard core punk rock scene is very significant to me because it was the soundtrack to my adolescence and a lot of things happen when your 13, 14, 15. The people I’m talking to changed my life, and it’s my tip of the cap and love letter to those people.

OT: How did you know who you wanted to speak with, and what were some of the first steps with getting in touch with everyone?
JB: With the first film, I already knew some of the people just because of my history in music, and me living in San Diego. At that point in time, I had casually met a lot fo the people, and became acquaintances and friends with some of these guys. Naturally, by the time I got to this one, some of the people had seen the first film and were eager to get on board and do an interview for the film, because they were aware of it.

OT: What was the response when you reached out?
JB: Oh yeah, it was great, absolutely. Just bringing up the topic of music, they were more than happy to talk about it, just music. By the time I got to the new one, people were thanking me, because people were beginning to forget about this era. I had people thank me for making the film and documenting a period of time being lost; it’s a time capsule sort of thing. Maybe in 30-40 years, some people will see this film and learn something from it.

OT: Do you ever get intimidated talking to these musicians respect so much?
JB: Honestly, you know, I’m more excited. t’s a little selfish, because I get to sit in these guys living rooms and talk about music and records. Who wouldn’t I be excited, but, yeah, there was a little nervousness at first. I was very honored to speak with all the people I could, and the fact that they opened the doors and allowed me in, I was very honored.  

OT: How many hours of footage did you have to sort through, and how difficult was it to figure out how you would shape the narrative?
JB: The first film was my first film ever and I have no background or education in this kind of thing. If you want to do something, do it, figure it out and go. So the first film was a learning process, and I asked too many questions, and had so much footage, and it was very painful. I asked 12 questions for the first film, and I could only use half of them. For this film I asked less, and interviewed less, so I learned.

OT: Were there any huge differences from making the first and second film?
JB: Not especially, a lot of the people in the age that they are speak of the same influences. A lot of Rolling Stones and Beatles, and that kind of stuff. Those bands are talked about a lot, so there are some recurring themes, but I definitely learned how to be more focused and ask less. I interviewed 28 people for the new film, down from 38 in the first. I learned the hard way, because we could have made an eight-hour film for the first one, but who’s going to watch that?

OT: Why decide to make a bonafide documentary, why not a web series or something along those lines?
JB: There’s all these different approaches to it, and it’s probably my age, because instead of making this an online series, it seemed more official and more genuine to make a full documentary film. When you make an album, you put a lot of soul and passion into it, and that’s how I felt about making this film. To me, that is more real than watching something on your phone for five minutes. That’s the reason I’m booking in theaters, it will be available online, but for me growing up in the 70s and 80s, you’d go to the theater and see a film, and I like that.

OT: Is there a part three on the horizon?
JB: Yeah, Part III would be the Midwest, but this has been the past six years of my life, and I definitely want to hang out with my wife and not make a film at the moment. It’s very time-consuming. We’ll see what happens.

Doors for the event open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets to the screening are available here. For more information about the film, check out the website.

Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4527; www.blackcatdc.com

First Aid Kit
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The Anthem, Washington, DC, September 10, 2018
First Aid Kit . The Anthem, Washington, DC, September 10, 2018

First Aid Kit at The Anthem

Say what you will about Swedish pop rock, whether it’s Abba, Roxette or Lolita Pop (among many others), the music is always catchy, danceable and meticulous in its nature. Sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg hail from Enskede, on the outskirts of Stockholm, and have guided their musical collaboration, First Aid Kit, to the top of the Swedish pop rock pack with stirring songwriting, gorgeous harmonizing and impeccable songwriting.

Though it was a misty and somewhat dreary Monday night in DC, First Aid Kit lifted spirits in the Anthem considerably with an energetic, polished performance that treated an adoring crowd to their cheery melodies. The set list featured new tunes from the January 2018 release Ruins, but fans got a good selection of songs from First Aid Kit’s back catalog including “Stay Gold,” “Waitress Song” and the stunning tribute to the sisters’ musical heroes “Emmylou.”

Early on during Monday’s show, Klara thanked some youngsters dancing in the crowd for “making us so happy.” A First Aid Kit performance is bound to make everyone happy.

The pair have come a long way since their childhood days of singing into pretend jump rope microphones and performing in the family’s living room. By 2007, they honed their vocal and songwriting chops enough to start posting songs to MySpace.

In April 2008 they released their debut EP Drunken Trees. In August that year, they uploaded to YouTube a cover version of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” which was seen by Fleet Foxes front-man and lead guitarist Robin Pecknold, leading to the video, and First Aid Kit, going viral.

Over the next few years they gained an audience through relentless touring, including attention from legends Paul Simon and Emmylou Harris. At the 2012 Polar Music Prize awards Johanna and Klara earned a standing ovation from Simon for their performance of “America.” But it was the sisters’ rendering of “Emmylou” at the Polar Music ceremony in 2015 that brought the song’s namesake to tears. The performance is available on YouTube and I defy anybody to watch it without shedding a tear.

The band is on tour through October 2018, so do yourself a favor and let the Söderberg sisters brighten your life for an evening. Find more information on First Aid Kit’s Facebook page or here. Photos/write-up: Mark Caicedo

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Foxing, Ratboys and Kississippi at Union Stage

Foxing, Ratboys and Kississippi rocked out at Union Stage on September 6, filling the arena with heavy riffs, emotional lyrics and unusual sounds. Touring on the new album, Nearer My God, Foxing brought their post-rock and electronic sound to DC. Photos/write-up: Mike Kim

Photo: Courtesy of Rosslyn Jazz Fest
Photo: Courtesy of Rosslyn Jazz Fest

AZTEC SUN Bring “Funk with Soul” to Rosslyn Jazz Fest

Though I  have a limited knowledge of cooking, my brief flirtation with Pinterest has taught me that recipes made of unlikely ingredients, with proper preparation, often turn out to be the most delicious. If AZTEC SUN were a recipe, the 10-piece crew would consist of and two cups guitar, 1 cup of bass, 1 serving of equal parts keyboard and organ, and a heaping helping of horns and vocals – all served over a foundation of varied percussion.

Though the original band started off with four members and grew from there, each member of the band’s current lineup adds their own special flavor to the mix in an exciting blend of different genres and styles whose talents combine to form an original recipe they like to call “funk with soul.

This Saturday, the band is set to bring this blend of music to Rosslyn’s Jazz Festival, a 28-year tradition that fills Arlington’s Gateway Park with a full day of free musical performances. I sat down to talk to Lee Anderson (backing vocals) and Catch Banning (keyboard/organ) about AZTEC SUN’s new album Everyone, the fest and the strong sense of community their band has formed.

On Tap: How did you all come together and what are the origins of the group?
Catch Banning: AZTEC SUN had two iterations. The original iteration formed seven years ago when Stephane Detchou [the band’s leader, singer and songwriter] sent out a Craigslist post. The original AZTEC SUN was a lot more rock and funk heavy – more of a Red Hot Chili Peppers sound. About a year and a half into that project, band members went to grad school and moved out of state, and that kind of fell apart. Steph put out another Craigslist ad and that’s where I met him – in an audition. We met our original sax players there, and our bass player. We kept in touch after that audition and started to form our own project, and slowly put the pieces together to bring back the band.

OT: How else would you describe your music?
Lee Anderson: The sound is very reflective of the process Catch just talked about. It’s very full and energetic. You can sit at home and turn on the radio and hear some really nice music, but when you come to an AZTEC show, it’s an experience. It’s hard to personify a sound, but if you could hear community – like what the very essence of being communal is – it would sound like AZTEC SUN.
CB: [We use the phrase] “funk with soul” on the website, and I think a great part of our sound is that so much of it comes from [and is inspired by] different eras of music.

OT: How has the group evolved since it was first created?
CB: We are a live band. That has been a core pillar of AZTEC SUN, in that it is important to think of [us] as an entire experience. [That includes] everything from what we are wearing to how we’re performing and what our energy on stage is like. Steph’s done a great job of continuing to challenge us and push us to think about ways just to make this an experience, not just music.

OT: Up until this point, you all have been focusing your energy on live performance. Why did you all choose to start out that way rather than just releasing music and touring based on music you’ve already released?
CB: A word that we use often is collective. AZTEC SUN is bigger than the ten of us. It’s bigger than our partners. We very much see this as a movement in DC and [for] the musicians in other communities we connect with when we play. There’s something that happens with this shared experience of live music; when we see musicians on stage; when we hear live music; when we hear improvisation; [and] when we hear a call to action. People come because they know that’s true. They know they’re gonna get passion, raw energy, joy, an excuse to jump and be around like-minded folks who are incredibly inclusive. I feel like the reason we put so much effort into playing live constantly is because it’s so much more than music. We’re doing this to connect with people. Recording is one way to do that, but we are so much more a live band than a polished studio band. We’re really proud of that.
LA: I think a lot of that also goes back to Steph, who always had a really specific vision for what he wanted this conglomerate to sound like. That tradition for him, that audio legacy, is rooted in the performances that emerged from the Motown Era. Barry Gordy had a very stringent test, the Ham Sandwich Test, that he would put records through before [they] hit the streets. If more people said they would rather buy a ham sandwich than the record, he would tell them to take that shit back to the studio. For us, before we are able to have something we can put online and impress our friends, [we need to make] sure the sound has a certain amount of integrity. We don’t want to just release a bunch of product without people being able to connect with [us]. Nothing makes people feel invested as much as [performing] live, face to face.

OT: Since you have already performed alongside acts like Shaun Martin of Snarky Puppywho has been your favorite artist to perform with live and why?
CB: I think the biggest show of our lives was opening up for Galactic at 9:30 Club. I speak for myself on this, but I know a lot of members really grew up listening to Galactic and Rebirth Brass Band, which is another band we’re about to go on tour with for four nights in the South. For us to get that opening slot in our home turf at 9:30 Club to play for Galactic was an incredible honor, to be able to warm up to crowd for a band that’s been incredibly influential in a lot of our lives.
LA: I’m with Catch on that one. That was a particularly amazing night. I’ll also give a shoutout to Alan Evans of Soulive, who we recorded with. Al is, and he doesn’t know this, but he’s kind of like my mentor in some ways.

OT: Speaking of recording your album with him, what was that like?
LA: It was definitely a different type of recording process. I was used to going in the studio and tracking everything out, [but] we definitely did this old school. We put the whole band in one big room and we started playing. We limited each song to three takes and decided we were going to take the best one. It was exciting to me because I had never recorded anything that way before, which is like a shout out to old school, golden era music like James Brown, Motown, that’s how they recorded.

OT: That’s amazing, especially since there are so many of you guys. Three takes in three days, that’s like your lucky number.
CB: There was definitely a lot of pressure going into the project for that very reason, because we were [only taking] a few cuts of each song and we weren’t going to go back and edit everyone’s solos or nitpick. You could feel that trust throughout the entire group – we all knew we were ready. We all knew we were capable of it because we put in the practice to get to this moment. We opened for a band called Everyone Orchestra that uses a shifting amalgamation of different artists around the country to put on live shows. [Al] met us there and that’s kind of where this connection started. 

OT: What can fans of your live performance expect to hear from this album? Do you think the live aspect translated over to the recording really well?
LA: I think if nothing else, they will hear 10 people who really care a lot about each other and trust each other, having fun, and it will be so infectious they’ll have no choice but to have fun with us. They’re going to want to play it everyday and jam out with us. Musically, it’s us – it’s a little bit of everything, but it comes together really nicely.
CB: We’re very proud of [our first] EP, but I think [compared to] when you see a live AZTEC SUN show, the EP is very clean and very studio polished. All of those songs sound drastically different when we play live. This album communicates more of the emotion of the song [and] takes shape in [the] way that we all play it live a lot more.

OT: How are you guys prepping for Rosslyn Jazz Fest and what are you most looking forward to about it?
CB: Cory Henry is a beast! I’m just beyond thrilled we’re on a bill with him. I’m glad we get to play a set warming up the crowd and then [get to] sit back relax and listen to that man tear up the Hammond. I’m pumped to play an outdoor show, but to watch Cory Henry is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
LA: For me, it’s the fact that we’re going to have so many friends and family there. It’s always cool when I get to go on the road and go to a new place, but it’s even better when I have my people. When I can look out and see folks that I know and love, it’s just a special thing. Also just the energy that happens when you’re home. When you can say ‘Hey, we’re DC’s own,’ even though it’s in Virginia.

AZTEC SUN’s new album Everyone is set to release this November. Join them for their album release show on Saturday, November 10 at Pearl Street Warehouse. For information about the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, visit the event page here

Gateway Park: 1300 Lee Hwy. Arlington, VA; www.rosslynva.org

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Mac Demarco and Juan Wauters at The Anthem

It was just another usual crazy chaotic night with Mac Demarco and the boys at The Anthem on September 5. Opener Juan Wauters, from Queens, NY,  began the evening with an acoustic cover of the song “James Brown,” by Nancy Dupree, to which he repeated the chorus for 15 minutes while goofing around stage and teasing the audience with nonstop repetition. Attendees weren’t hyped by the song, but rather Wauters’ bright and goofy personality.

In the headline slot, everybody’s favorite old dog, Mac Demarco, came out swinging with hits “On the Level” and “Salad Days.” Touring for his latest album This Old Dog, Demarco brought fun and chaos to DC. Upon completing his set with 40 minutes of stage time remaining, the band filled the dead air with covers of artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer, Radiohead and Misfits; they even played Sixpence None the Richer one-hit wonder “Kiss Me,” inciting a sing along. The indie stalwart closed the show with “Still Together,” including a Black Sabbath solo intermission. Photos/write-up: Mike Kim

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Bottled Up, Oceanator and Rob Stokes Band at DC9

DC9 was popping with local flavor, as DC bands gathered for a memorable night on September 4. The rock and roll quartet Bottled Up said their good byes to their West Coast headed guitarist. To kick off festivities, Rob Stokes Band opened the show with jazz-y tunes, followed up by Oceanator, currently on tour, who brought their unique sound to DC9 for the first time.

Lastly, with their newly released EP BU2, Bottled Up harnessed rock and roll energy you do not see often. Playing Bottled Up for the last time, Mikey Mastrangelo brought fire (not literally) to the crowd, while the other band members poured the fuel. Playing their new songs off the latest release like “Trash” and “Burnt”, Bottled Up made the night memorable for their departing member and the crowd. Photos/write-up: Mike Kim