Photo courtesy of Andrea Nakhla

Rare Birds at Rock & Roll Hotel: Jonathan Wilson

The lights are lowered and the projection behind the band becomes visible. A digitally animated throne room is now visible. Mannequin-like avatars dance in slow motion, a swan sits atop a watermelon and at the far end of the room, Jonathan Wilson sits in a peacock wicker chair, barefoot and decked out in white.

“I want you to see this shit,” the real Wilson says, looking at the audience. “So, go ahead and take your molly now.” He means it in jest, I think. 

It’s Thursday, March 8 at Rock & Roll Hotel. Singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson is touring his latest record, Rare Birds, which came out March 2. The animation, (by Clara Luzian), is aseptic and stands in contrast to the scruff and middle part hairstyles of the band. Together they look incongruous, but it makes sense as the show goes on.

Wilson’s music bears associations with the music of Laurel Canyon, the home of numerous musicians like Frank Zappa, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. It’s Americana, guitar heavy and often veers psychedelic.

Rare Birds is Wilson’s third record and he was able to pull a number of big names to feature on the record, including Lana Del Rey. The work also includes New Age music legend Laraaji, whose credits include not only a Brian Eno collaboration, but also a nickname as the “Brian Eno of Laughter.”

Laraaji, whom the band refers to affectionately as “Le Raj,” opened for Wilson at the show and joined the band for the track, “Loving You,” the story of which Wilson shared at the show. The tale is also retold on Genius, but it’s a song which the two made almost as if by chance in the studio. Wilson showed Laraaji a simple drum pattern he made, Laraaji chanted over it and then they had a song and the genesis of a new record.

Laraaji’s inscrutable, ethereal chanting along with the driving insistence of the drum machine holds the song together; however, for the live show, the part of the drum machine was played by Wilson’s drummer, who might look like a younger brother to the lead man– still scruffy and long-haired, but more wiry.

The percussionist’s Jaki Liebezeit-like precision held the song together, as well as on other driving tracks like “Over the Midnight,” but he could solo too. His extended solo visibly pained him, but it stood out, even against the psychedelic, virtuosic solos of his bandmates, including Wilson’s own solos on both guitar and piano.

On “There’s a Light,” Wilson exhibited some of his pop melody chops and sings: “There’s a light/ A light that’s over me/ And all my friends and family would agree/ Hey look! it’s over you/ It’s shining brighter still/ Hey man it’s overdue.”

The lyrics sound self-aggrandizing, but it’s hard to say that he’s wrong. He speaks with the swagger of someone who’s been everywhere and seen most anything. He killed it at Rock & Roll Hotel, on both guitar and piano and he’s written a tremendous record, (not to mention his other two and his work on Father John Misty’s Grammy-nominated Pure Comedy, as well as FJM’s other records.)

You can find Wilson’s Rare Birds on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music. Read more about it on the Bella Union label website. For dates, see his website. Don’t miss him next time he’s in town. In addition to the aforementioned, you will also see someone play a log and experience the ten-minute psychedelic exorcism that is “Valley of the Silver Moon.”

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

John Maus Rocks Out to John Maus at Rock & Roll Hotel

John Maus alternatively headbanged and screamed “All your pets are gonna die” onstage at the Rock & Roll Hotel on Saturday night. Maus brought his experimental and medieval-inflected synth pop to the H Street venue, and though he sings only 70 percent of his own lyrics, Maus rocked out and had the sold-out crowd losing their voices with him.

Pets” comes off Screen Memories (2017), and the lyrics are pure Maus. I won’t try to say where the madness of his lyrics comes from, but the majesty of his music comes from the influence of early synth pop pioneers like The Human League and Ultravox. Like those artists, baroque and medieval influences shine through in his music.

He is on tour for the first time since 2011 and the release of We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves. One of my friends who joined me for the show actually saw Maus on that 2011 tour. I was told to expect that he’d plug in his music and sing along. I love Maus for his nonsense and regal synth pop, but wasn’t sure how I would feel about a karaoke set.

Maus actually performs with a live band this tour, but his role hasn’t changed. Mainly he screams, punches the air and stalks the stage. But after a few bars of the opener “Believer,” I found myself not giving a shit that Maus only sings – and sings over recordings of himself and not even all the lyrics.

He never played the anthem of a generation, but standouts from the night include “Maniac,” “Bennington” and “Time to Die.” Maus’ role as a performer is made clear on the latter. He held his hands over his eyes as he yelled into the microphone.

“It’s time to die / and everybody knows that you can’t ask why / and even if an answered could be supplied / it wouldn’t change the fact that it’s time to die / Listen to your body.”

As text, the lyrics read depressing and the music is spooky. Maus’ knit brow and his sweat-drenched hair and buttondown bear the absolute severity and gravity of a child. But the feeling in the air is euphoria. Maus’ role is almost that of a priest. He is there to experience the music as much as the audience, and to lead the audience through a bit of hysteria to catharsis.

I’m writing this at home with my cat asleep on my lap. Our pets are going to die, but not you, Toulouse; don’t ever die. Meanwhile, go see John Maus rock out to John Maus and experience some mild relief in light of the fact that your pets are going to die. For more of John Maus, listen to him on Spotify, YouTube or Bandcamp.