The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival is returning to DC on June 9. In its 9th year, the festival has grown in popularity annually, and features a wide variety of bluegrass, folk and Americana artist spread across several stages. However, this isn’t your usual for-profit celebration. The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival helps fund outdoor educational programs that enrich the lives of thousands of kids in the DC area, and puts a premium on environmental sustainability and protecting the island’s rich habitat.
The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival represents both a celebration of American music and a commitment to protecting our natural lands and wildlife.
Kingman Island (and its counterpart, Heritage Island) were created in 1916 from material dredged out of the Anacostia River. Now just over a century old, you’d never guess they were man-made; the islands are covered in lush green native plants and is home to various wildlife, including foxes, possum and even wild turkey.
Since their creation, the islands have had a long and complex history, and today they remain protected.
While they are owned by the city, Kingman and Heritage Islands are managed by Living Classrooms of the National Capital Region, an organization dedicated to helping kids connect with the natural world.
“We do lessons geared toward orienteering, teambuilding and habitat restoration, including in the Anacostia river,” says Lee Cain, Director of Kingman Island with Living Classrooms. “Between 2,000 to 3,000 kids come to Kingman ever year. We’re trying to make an effort to get kids to make a connection to their local park.”
Cain says another major focus for Living Classrooms is workforce development and helping young people in the neighborhood advance their careers by working on the island. Those enrolled in their summer youth employment program learn native plant identification, habitat restoration and trail work. It’s not just kids who get involved at Kingman.
“Fifteen-hundred volunteers, a year, do trail maintenance, habitat restoration and other things to improve the park,” Cain says.
The bluegrass festival helps Living Classrooms continue its work in Southeast DC and beyond. But it went through some growing pains: “there used to be a ton of trash left after the festival,” Cain says. Organizers put a zero-waste initiative in place, which resonates with many of the festival’s performers.
“They’re trying to be very sustainable,” says musician Crys Matthews, who lives in Herndon, Virginia. “A lot of that stuff is really important to me – I use zero-carbon footprint packaging with all my cd’s, so it’s great to be sharing and creating with like-minded folks.”
Silver Spring musician Dom Flemons agrees.
“It’s something that, on top of being an excellent experience for a musician, is also a very worthwhile cause that they are trying to accomplish with the festival,” he says. “It’s twofold: You have lovely nature, and a reteaching of people in the DC area of how to reconnect with nature and how to really learn sustainability.”
Both Flemons and Matthews are performing at the festival for the second time and taking new steps with their shows.
Matthews is an accomplished musician and songwriter from North Carolina who infuses folk, bluegrass, jazz and other genres into her work. She played last year’s festival solo. This year, she’s bringing her band.
“I’m looking forward to getting to play with them on that stage,” she says. “The space itself is a neat area, nestled and hidden away in the craziness of DC.”
Having been in the area for eight years, “the music scene is pretty incredible,” she says. “It’s very different from back where I lived in the mountains of North Carolina.”
Flemons is a co-founder of the Grammy award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, and has traveled around the nation and the world presenting traditional folk and roots music to diverse audiences. He’ll be presenting a new performance at this year’s festival.
“I had this idea for quite a while to present the American Songster review a multi-act program that would feature several different songsters from different parts of the world and the country to be able to present their music,” he says. “It will feature songs they have in their repertoire, as well as one song I will curate and ask them to perform.”
The festival features more than 30 bands playing on five stages this year, as well as an artist market and food trucks. While festivals by their very nature bring high foot traffic and disturbance to the island, Cain says the sustainability measures in place help protect its habitat. Festivalgoers get their own reusable cups, and “80 percent of the waste from the festival is either composted or recycled, and we’d like to get to 90 percent,” he says.
Location is also important: the festival will take place in the island’s most resilient meadows, protecting species like the Virginia mallow, a Maryland endangered plant that can be found on the southern portion the island. Holding the festival at this time of year also gives the plant life the benefit of a full growing season, and thus faster recovery and regrowth afterwards.
The festival, Living Classrooms’ educational programs and the volunteer programs on the island all help raise awareness about this unique oasis in the Anacostia River.
“If we don’t expose people to these resources, they quietly disappear,” Cain says.
The Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival beings June 9. For more information on the festival, islands or tickets, visit here.
Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC; 202-799-9189; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info
Taking place along the U Street corridor in DC on May 12, the DC Funk Parade filled the streets between the Howard and Lincoln Theatres with dancers, steppers, marchers, skaters and hula hoopers. A celebration of arts, music and food, the day crackled with good vibes, plenty of sunshine and creative positive energy that was shared by a wonderfully diverse crowd. Photos: Mark Caicedo
Twenty years into an illustrious career, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff is confronting the dark parts of his formative years – not through lamentation, but through reflection and light. In The Rainbow Rain sees childhood trauma contemplated, love for friends gone across the country and animals being adopted. The bittersweet topics are taken head on with a refreshing clarity.
Accompanied by gorgeously luscious musical arrangements where Sheff’s lyrics are just as essential to each song as every single instrument, the band’s latest record feels like a much-needed respite from everyday chaos and self doubt. Ahead of his band’s visit to Black Cat this weekend, Sheff caught up with On Tap and talked thematic inspiration, his literal approach to songwriting on this record and why he even makes music to begin with.
On Tap: Your new album opens with the song “Famous Tracheotomies.” You talk about your experience with tracheotomies, and then a litany of other ones experienced by celebrities. According to the song, that happened to you when you were one or two, so why write a song about it now?
Will Sheff: This was something that had been looming over my life. When I was a child, I knew about my tracheotomy before I knew how to read – before I knew about most things in the world. I knew that I had a scar – a big scar – in the middle of my throat, and I knew it had to do with me almost dying. I could feel that my parents had been through a lot. I was sickly a lot as a kid. You could look at me and see that something wasn’t working right in the way that my brain and body were connected. In a way, it was formative to every single thing that came after, and it’s why we’re talking right now, really. To some extent, that experience was why I tried to make a living from art. It’s in a lot of my songs in disguised forms that have only been pointed out to me later. I write a lot about cutting throats and ripping throats and people with holes in their throats and not being able to breathe. I just wanted to express to myself what all that meant. I wanted to write a song about this moment that can happen to you. When somebody intervenes to save your life, what leads to that point and what happens after and what does that does to you?
OT: “Don’t Move Back to LA” also seems anecdotal. I love the way you list out almost every other area in the country in the song too, like it’s a plea. What’s the story there?
WS: I had some friends that were moving to [Los Angeles] and I was like, “Please, don’t go!” You know when you have really good friends leave your town, and it feels like the whole town goes from color into black and white? Your friendship is never going to be exactly the same because you won’t see them as often. I also think that this song has the ghost of another idea behind it, which is that it would just be really interesting to see what happened if instead of everyone fleeing to the big media cities, they were able to invigorate all the other towns too – if there could be just as much of a vibrant, amazing scene in every little town. On some level, that song is very gently trying to say, “Wouldn’t it be cool to just make your own scene instead of just going to this big place?”
OT: Everything about this album feels very lush, and I was struck by the strength of each band member’s presence in each song. I know you’ve worked with The New Pornographers before. It reminded me a lot of their approach to song composition. Was this a conscious approach or did it just gradually unfold as other things came together?
WS: It’s funny you mention The New Pornographers. [New Pornographers member] Carl [Newman] is one of my oldest musical friends, and I’m actually living with him right now! We’ve been doing some creative stuff together, too. For whatever reason, I very much enjoy shining a light on other people. It seems to be something that I’ve noticed throughout my work in the time that I’ve been doing it. So I wanted people who were listening to the record to hear how good everybody was and what they were bringing to it.
OT: Empathy and kindness seem to be overarching themes on this album, and a lot of the lyrics read like deep, late night conversations with friends. Was it intentional to thread this kind of feeling throughout the record?
WS: I definitely did that intentionally. I was trying to be empathetic to myself because that’s really hard. You beat yourself up so much. So I was trying to be nice to myself but I wanted other people to experience something that would allow them to be able to be kind to themselves. I would go off into different spots like my friend’s little cabin upstate in the winter, or this little lake cottage that my family has had for awhile. I’d literally be making fires and be like, all of the friends sitting around the bonfire are one person [laughs]. I really wanted to bring that feeling into the record, so it was something people could have if they needed it. One of the things I really wanted to say to people on this record is that you shouldn’t feel ashamed. You should know that people love you and that you’re inherently valuable and that you’re not alone. I don’t write music to get into festivals, for some review, to get me on TV or to make me a lot of money. The idea is that it would be really cool if any of those things happened because it would allow me to continue to do more work. But ultimately, what I’m trying to do is make pretty things that make it easier to be alive.
Okkervil River plays Black Cat on Sunday, May 20 with Benjamin Lazar Davis. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.
Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com
“Oh man,” he began to quip.
The former Talking Heads frontman said something else I didn’t catch over the roaring applause emerging from the audience. In that moment, I knew I would have paid hundreds of dollars to listen to David Byrne cough for two hours. I don’t think I was the only person who felt that way.
Though he’s filled his days with projects ranging from a collaborative record with Annie Clark of St. Vincent to a musical about the life of Imelda Marcos to multiple books, American Utopia marked his first solo album in 14 years. It’s evident he used this solo venture to deep dive into the world of his creation on the accompanying tour while also accommodating a massively different group of listeners. Byrne is nothing if not a man of the people.
Saturday saw the sprawling Anthem transformed into a peaceful concert hall, the floor lined with seats and filled with the sound of chirping birds and soft rain. When Byrne finally took the stage, he sat alone at a table and held a model brain in his hand while contemplatively launching into “Here” and “Lazy” from the new album.
Like a sudden miracle, a full band – matching Byrne in gray, almost deconstructivist suits – made their way onstage. Barefoot and carrying their instruments like a marching band, they launched into Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra.”
No longer a miracle but an apparition, an audience who was thrilled to hear Byrne’s solo ventures was now catapulted into full elation. The band was equally elated. I would never have imagined that a pack of adults carrying 50-plus-pound instruments on their backs while wearing suits would look so happy.
Throughout the night, Byrne and company vacillated between old and new – Talking Heads favorites, deep cuts from American Utopia, even the titular track from the aforementioned St. Vincent venture Love This Giant. Byrne knows his far reach, and thus is able to connect with his diverse audience with such a setlist.
That is where Byrne’s appeal lies – making beautiful sounds reflective of the minutiae and uncertainty of our daily lives. His solo work is a collection of worldly observations through the lens of a cautious optimist with enough creative energy to fuel a whole city – dare I say, the world.
As someone who grew up on Talking Heads – my dad’s CD copy of Sand in the Vaseline was a staple in the family car – and who found respite in Love This Giant during a chaotic freshman year of college, I appreciated his approach to tackling such an illustrious and far reaching career in one live show. There was as much passion from the band – and reciprocated by the audience – in American Utopia’s “Every Day is a Miracle” as sentimental classic “This Must Be The Place.”
During the latter, my seatmate incorrectly screamed the lyrics and got very very close to me with her phone, edging on in-my-face territory while trying to film the whole thing. There are few songs in the world that mean as much to me as “This Must Be The Place.” Of course someone would exhibit hallmark concert annoyances during that song. But somehow, it wasn’t annoying this time.
There are probably millions of people in the world who love that song as much as I do, my boisterous neighbor included. So I screamed the words with her – a minute of connection in a sold-out show, although she probably had no idea I noticed her, or even heard me screaming along.
I don’t know what that song means to her and she doesn’t know what it means to me, and it doesn’t matter at all. The ethereal, electric positivity generated in such a small moment was a testament to everything Byrne does as a songwriter and performer, unintentional coughing fits and all. It was, again, joy.
For more information on David Byrne and his extensive catalog, visit his website.
Trampled by Turtles played two nights at the 9:30 Club this past weekend. The stage was full of mandolins, banjos, fiddles, bass and guitars, filling the club with bluegrass that actually bordered on the lines of other louder genres. Trampled by Turtles are touring in support of their recent release, Life is Good on the Open Road, which debuted earlier this month. Lead singer, Dave Simonett joked with the crowd saying even though they were going to play a bunch of new songs, he knew everyone was there to see their old favorites performed. He commented that “we won’t play new songs all night long!” Photos/write-up: Shantel Mitchell Breen
On the last stop on their tour, Alvvays treated the sold out 9:30 Club crowd to a wonderful performance. On the set list, the band included all but one song off their new album, Antisocialites, including “Dreams Tonite” and “In Undertow.” They also performed a few songs off their debut album such as their first single, “Archie, Marry Me,” to which lead singer Molly Rankin said to the audience, “we’ll need your help with this one.” Frankie Rose opened for Alvvays and performed a dark and moody set highlighted by a fantastic cover of The Cure’s “In Your House.” It was a great night of music by both bands. Photos/write-up: Shantel Mitchell Breen