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Photo: Shantel Mitchell Breen
Photo: Shantel Mitchell Breen

Fleet Foxes Float Through The Anthem

Fleet Foxes’ stage presence can be summed up in two words: beautiful and clinical. While these aren’t words you would necessarily pair together, the band’s show at The Anthem was initially a reserved display of their obvious talent that transformed into more as the night continued.

As a unit, the band is excellent at recreating their expansive sound in large venues such as The Anthem. They also chose a diverse mix of songs, spanning all three of their albums. This came as a surprise to me as their most recent release, Crack-Up, was widely lauded by critics as their best album yet. I expected the night to be heavy on the latest release, but was thrilled to hear the deep cuts.

The band found more passion when they dove into these songs, too. A trifecta of songs from their self titled debut – the crowd pleasing “White Winter Hymnal,” jangly “Ragged Wood” and my personal favorite track, “Your Protector” – saw an energy that wasn’t evident from the get go. Luckily for the audience, Pecknold and company sustained this passion through the rest of the 22 song set.

Not to detract from the band’s skills, as they are a very talented bunch, but frontman Robin Pecknold’s solo performances of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “Oliver James” encapsulated the magic of the band’s ethereal, nature inspired sounds.

Like all good things, the lead up to the band’s eventual triumphant close was worth it. For the encore, Pecknold was reunited with his bandmates for the anthemic “Helplessness Blues,” a song whose chorus begs, “I’ll get back to you someday, soon you will see.” One thing is clear to see, Fleet Foxes slow burn of a live show is well worth seeing.

Learn more about Fleet Foxes here.

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Okkervil River’s Colorful Compassion: A Conversation with Will Sheff

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; 202-667-4490www.blackcatdc.com

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Same As He Ever Was: David Byrne at The Anthem

About three songs into his performance at The Anthem on Saturday, David Byrne started to cough. I thought it was intentional; he coughed two more times.

“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.

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The Sherlocks Set to Shake the US

The Sherlocks may hail from the outskirts of Sheffield, England much like Arctic Monkeys and Pulp before them, but their sound is all their own. Last year, the four piece indie rock band released their first album Live For The Moment to great acclaim in their home country. The band is now ready to take their infectious sound and energy stateside. Fresh off supporting the legendary Liam Gallagher on his European tour, we caught up with frontman Kiaran Crook before the group embarks on an expansive US tour, including a stop at DC9 on May 7.

On Tap: What was it like touring with Liam Gallagher? Your band consists of two sets of brothers and Liam is at the center of one of the most notorious sibling rivalries in music history, so that must have been a really interesting dynamic for the band.
Kiaran Crook: That’s exactly what it was, yeah. I was going to say it was surprising, but there’s no need to say surprising because of what I’ve seen from [Liam] in interviews before doing that tour. I think Liam’s a bit- you kind of love him or hate him- but we just get where he’s coming from with his humor and stuff like that. I find him pretty funny to be honest with you. So after doing that tour and spending a bit of time with him, he lived up to it. He’s good company. Most of all, we really appreciate him having us along on tour. There are a lot of bands he could bring, so the fact that he chose us as support certainly means a lot to us. Good guy.

OT: On a similar note, what’s it like touring with your brother and another set of brothers?
KC: It’s good! I mean, you have your fall-outs and stuff, but 95 percent of the time, or maybe and even higher percentage, we’re sweet, we get on well. I think the main thing is not doing each other’s head in or taking things too seriously, or getting in people’s way too much. I think everybody’s worked out how to handle each other a bit more since the start of the band, so that’s definitely gotten better, and we don’t really fall out too much. As far as touring’s concerned, it’s good. It always makes for a funny tour experience though, rather than being four separate lads who are not brothers, and we know each other better. There’s plenty of fun.

OT: Are there any cities you’re excited to hit on this particular tour that you may have missed the last time around?
KC: I’m personally really excited to go to [Los Angeles]. I couldn’t even tell you why. It’s just a name, and it sounds pretty funny. Where I come from, if you told somebody you were going Los Angeles as part of a job, I suppose, it would just seem like a joke to some people. Because the place where we live is really quiet and people don’t usually step out of where they are. People are born here, spend their whole lives here and die here. Not to get morbid, but in this little village where life is just- nothing really happens. You know what I mean? So to get the chance to travel to LA and all these great places, it blows some people’s minds.

OT: So more about the music, you all made quite a splash on the UK charts. What has the response been like to your music from audiences in the US?
KC: The main thing is, it’s not exactly a shock, but there’s obviously a lot more people in the UK that know us than in the US, so things are relatively small when we’re playing gigs in America. But it’s all part of this journey, really. We didn’t expect to play what we are playing at the minute in the UK, and it all started exactly the same here. In the UK, the first few gigs, I can remember playing for literally nobody, or like five people. So we’re used to [going] from empty rooms, to filling the rooms, and building on top of that. But the reception to the album has been really good. That’s the good thing about building and starting up small which we’ve been doing in the US. We get to talk to every single member of the crowd, all three of them! [laughs] I’m kidding. But you do get to speak to everybody, and people seem excited by it. And even though it’s on a small scale, I still feel the passion. They actually do care about this band and it means a lot to them that we’ve troubled to play to them, and vice versa. It means a lot to us that they’re coming out to watch us.

OT: What would be your dream venue to play? Or a favorite venue you’ve already played you’d want to go back to?
KC: I don’t know, to be fair. We’d normally say a stupid answer, something like ‘we’d like to headline the world someday’ but in terms of real venues, it would be good to [headline] a stadium. I could imagine that would be pretty mental. Like any stadium, none in particular, just playing our first stadium gig would be a crazy moment.

OT: That sounds awesome. I look forward to the day I see you’re playing a stadium and I can say I’ve interviewed you. Do you have a dream tour mate? I’m sure Liam set the bar really high, but if you could bring anyone on tour with you or be asked to support another band, what would be your top choice?
KC: These questions are hard! They’re good! I’d like to play with Kings of Leon. [Those] guys seem pretty cool. We opened for them at Sheffield Arena, and that’s like our hometown. Sheffield is the closest city to us, so to support a band like Kings of Leon in our own town, in the biggest venue in Sheffield, that was like a dream come true. So I’d like to play with them again. Or even if we did a song with them one day, that would be strange!

OT: What music are you currently inspired by?
KC: Well I’m listening to Kings of Leon at the minute, and an Australian band call DMAS.

OT: Can fans expect you to debut any new songs on this tour?
KC: We’re going through a bit of heavy writing, but not really [as a] band because I write the tunes. We’re spending a lot of time in the practice room at the minute, just blasting out new tunes until they sound good, the same as we did on the first album. We’ve got some really good ideas floating about and I think we’re gonna try to make the second album sound like – you’ll be able to tell, if you listened to the first album – you’ll know it’s us. So we’re not going to drift too far away, just try to progress slightly and do some things we didn’t really get to do on the first. So just plenty of writing at the minute, that’s what’s going on at The Sherlocks HQ. We might even try a couple of new tunes out in America, because obviously we’re playing to smaller crowds, so it’ll be less people booing us if we mess up [laughs].

The Sherlocks play DC9 on Monday, May 7. Doors at 7:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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