2011 - A Year of Music - Pt. 1

I sometimes like to think of my life as a story.

Not an epic one, mind you, but a story nonetheless.  One that is funny, sometimes ridiculous, and never, I say again, never predictable. If years were chapters, then I suppose this year would be titled, "Chapter 24 - In which Patrick becomes a live music junkie."

classy tea
<--- So let me drop this tea-bag into into my very classy styrofoam cup and I'll begin.

 Up to this year my live music endeavors have been a series of borderline comedic, completely dismal failures. I remember getting off work barely in time to watch the last two songs of Nickel Creek's Farewell For Now Tour in 2007, from a bridge where I could barely see just the back of Chris Thile's and Sara Watkins' heads, and then a year later on Halloween night standing in the upper nose-bleeds at the Verizon Center watching Coldplay's Chris Martin on a giant projection screen two days before leaving for my work-up for Iraq. That was the last straw. I swore that I would never buy tickets to another show where I couldn't at least the artist's face with my own two eyes.

me, being jaded.
Although somewhat better then most of the years before, 2010 was not a great year for live music. I went to see Natalie MacMaster, The Academy of St. Martin in The Fields at The Paramount, and a few local bands such as "The Likewhatevers" (now Herd Murmurs). But for the most part, I just didn't just have much to be excited about in music. Charlottesville was a fairly popular stop for a lot of top 40 artists, country and rock-and-roll, etc... and if I could have afforded $100-$400 for tickets, I could have seen some of them (probably again from the nosebleeds sections of a giant arena). I couldn't risk the money, the emotional letdown from live music experiences that simply weren't fulfilling. I know this sounds dramatic and jaded, but those two words pretty describe my mood throughout that year.

Perhaps because of this frustration, I was attracted more and more to Indie music - a big part of the genre being the accessibility of the artist. These were songwriters I could really identify and connect with. But still, none of them would come to my city. Perhaps because most of the venues were either too big or too small. But mostly because a lot of indie bands simply can't afford to tour extensively.

Standing shows in small packed venues bursting with excitement and knowing you're among a much smaller group of fans who love the music for it's own sake - this is something I knew existed in the realm of theoretical possibility, but I had never really experienced it. For the most part I knew what it felt like to be in a group of people who had were excited to see a really famous artist perform, or had a mild interest in live music, or merely a tepid tolerance of music for the sake of cultural enhancement. But the music scene I was about to witness was something different altogether on the night of...

Friday, February 11 - The Civil Wars w/Lucy Schwartz @ The Southern Cafe & Music Hall

I remember quite clearly the moment John Paul White and Joy Williams of The Civil Wars came rolling into my awareness, like a ghost train bearing the resurrected spirits of Johnny and June Carter Cash. I was working the night shift watching the Tonight Show with no particular interest save a vague desire to stay awake, and the camera rolled over to show a dark-haired couple, one of whom was a wild-haired fellow who looked distinctly like the fusion of Jack White and Johnny Depp, and the other a "long cool woman in a black dress" who swas rocking and when they sang that first "ooooh" in harmony, I remember leaning back in my chair with my eyes open wider and wider, then leaning forward with my foot tapping and head bobbing. No sooner was the song finished than I was tapping away on my laptop and watching their video for "Poison & Wine". I found that a horde of rabid Grey's Anatomy fans and people who thought John Paul looked like Johnny Depp (and just had to say so ) had gotten there first, but even that fact didn't keep me from falling completely in love with the duo.

Their music was a blend of both old and new sounds and souls, but anything but borrowed... or blue. It was more like a deep maroon or amber, like a bottle of red wine or bourbon whiskey. As soon I was able to gather my composure enough to take "Poison & Wine" off repeat, I did a quick scan of their tour dates and barely resisted shrieking like a little girl at a Justin Bieber concert when I saw they were coming to my town in a few weeks. So I promptly purchased a ticket - which was smart, as they were all sold out a couple of days later.

The day of the concert arrived and I headed over to the local record shop where they were doing a meet and greet. After waiting for about an hour with a group of fans that included a large bevy of teen-aged girls, an older countrified couples, and few others of various sorts, Joy and John Paul came through the door shaking off the cold, and immediately began to mingle with the fans. Joy plopped herself down in the middle of the group of girls and they started chatting away like old friends. JP talked with the store manager for a while as I talked about the music biz little while with Nate, Joy's husband and the duo's label manager. After a bit I got to talk to JP and Joy seperately, and then we took a photo.

W/ John Paul White and Joy Williams of The Civil Wars

Then they headed off to the venue, while I climbed back aboard my motorcycle with a small collection of autographed "merch" strapped on the back

The venue filled up quickly and Lucy Schwartz opened the show with set of great songs accompanied by her piano played very smartly and expressively. Her music reminded me of a blend of Regina Spektor and Ingrid Michaelson, with sweet melodies and vocals that were really quite impressive in their range and expression. "Gravity" was a particularly wowing piece to hear live. She was a brilliant choice for the opening act, as her music was very translatable with just one instrument for accompaniment, just as I would find The Civil Wars to be.

Her set ended and after heading out to the venue sitting area for fresh beer and mingling with rest of the audience and talking with Lucy for a couple minutes at the merch table, we all pressed back into the hall and standing close we waited breathlessly for the main act. They finally came on stage and the sound of cheering and clapping was a noise I didn't know to be possible for 300 people to make. I had found a spot sitting on the wings of the stage, a few feet from the center of the smallish stage, and when Joy and JP started singing their first song I didn't know if the amplifiers produce enough volume to carry above the audience who were singingly loud and confidently along with the lyrics. I have yet to be a part of an audience that knew a band's lyrics that well, not to mention on that had only just recently been formed. I could see that Joy and JP were a little shocked themselves. After a couple of songs, during which JP played guitar and sang with Joy, who swayed back and forth with graceful movements, teasing JP's hair, adjusting his tie, and various other playfully flirtatious antics that made the audience titter and smile gleefully, JP asked for anyone who had seen them live before to raise their hands. Only 3 or 4 hands went up. He paused for a second, a little taken aback. "Wow," he said. "Ya'll know all the lyrics." He and Joy looked at each other, smiling with a combination of shock and excitement. It was a special moment. It felt like the beginning of something fresh and new in music. Here was gathered a group of people who had found a place to rally and believe in good music again. We were all there together, without ever planning to be.

The set continued and the joy of the audience was tangibly increasing with each song. JP's guitar playing and vocals were impeccable and combined with Joy's voice and constant graceful swaying and intermittent dancing (which I affectionately call "Joy solos") they more than made up for the absence of the assorted instruments that accompanied the songs on the album. Then came the last song, and Joy walked over to the piano. It was a moment we had all waited for.

You can't really love The Civil Wars without also loving the song "Poison & Wine." If Barton Hollow is excitement of love and "20 Years" is the ache, then "Poison & Wine" is the mystery. The thumping guitar riff and the piano's first quiet reflective chords started and there were a serious of excited shrieks, then absolute silence in the audience. But not for long, because when JP started to sing "You only know what I want you to..." the audience nearly drowned out his voice. He broke out in a wide grin, and faltered a bit and then when Joy began to sing her part, there was a pure female chorus that rang out in unison with her. It sounded like a church with the congregation singing an old beloved hymn that they each knew well. It was the sound of 300 jaded music lovers closing the wound that had been laid open by an onslaught of Top 40 pop artists and the birth and death of countless independent artists. There in that room, that night, it felt right - and a whole lot less lonely to love really good music again.

And that was how 2011 - A Year of Music, began.

Friday, April 22 - The Fire Tapes @The Pigeon Hole
There is a quite natural relationship between less-well-known music and hole-in-the-wall bars. The Pigeon Hole was one such place.  I discovered it with some of buddies in the spring - a short time after it opened - and found it to be a cozy little nook with an eclectic assortment of microbrews, PBR served in mason jars, real silverware, and a quite large collection of pairs of salt and pepper shakers, each completely unique from the others. It was adorned with signs and notices that said various quirky and spunky things, written by the owner, Lex, who was coincidentally also a very quirky and spunky person. 

I happened to be frequenting this place on a Friday night, and a band I'd never heard of before was playing. The Fire Tapes were playing while wedged tightly along with half a dozen amps into the back dining room to a crowd of five people - two of whom were me and my brother, Andrew. At first it seemed that they had a sort of rural shoe-gazer vibe going on, and during the first song I was leaning against the wall, relaxed and enjoying a lush landscape of mellow funky sound. Betsy Wright Milton, the lead singer's voice was pleasant and unique, with undefinably european accents and tones.

Then she and her husband Todd broke out with this dual-guitar barrage that blew my ears back and for the rest of the night I couldn't stop smiling. It was unlike anything I'd heard before. It was as if a european indie band had spent the last few years drawing music from the roots of the trees and crumbling foundations of ghost towns in the rural heartland of America. Or something along those lines.

This was the first time they had played together as a quartet. Mark McLewee had played the drums with the band since their inception some months earlier, and bassist Rob Dobson was performing with them for the first time. Although the show had a few technical difficulties (with mic volume and such," they rolled along and played some great music. The lyrics were difficult to distinguish, but that actually helped to lend a cloudy atmospheric feel to the songs. It was very attractive music, even while in it's budding stages. I left feeling pretty excited to see how they would progress.

The Fire Tapes (from left to right: Rob Dobson, Betsy Wright Milton, Todd Milton, Mark McLewee)

Wednesday, May 11 - The Fire Tapes, Quilty, Phillip St. Ours (Pantherburn) @Magnolia
The opportunity to satisfy my curiosity came a couple of weeks later at a place that made The Pigeon Hole seem like a city landmark. "Magnolia" was a white-washed, early 20th century house right off the road, but quite well hidden behind a thick screen of low hanging boughs from a couple of ancient boxwood trees. It took me all of half an hour and half a dozen passes right by the place before I found it. For future reference, the only uninhabited looking spot on the street is Magnolia. Just look for a dark void in the streetscape and aim for it. The Fire Tapes were scheduled to play a set along with sets from a couple of other bands; "Quilty," a band from Brooklyn, NY, and a local band called "Pantherburn."

The show started two hours late, and first on was Pantherburn and I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. Phillip St. Ours, younger brother of Robert St. Ours of The Hackensaw Boys, played guitar and sang in a haunting, powerful tenor. Absent a few members of the band, his guitar playing filled the gap with an interesting blending of rhythm and lead, and together with just his drummer occupied the small performance space with full, rich sound, mined like rocks from the misty Appalachian mountains. Blues and bluegrass, folk and folklore, rocky-tops and rock-and-roll combined to make the songs examples of truly enigmatic Americana music.

During the performance a crowd of about 35 people were packed in, standing and sitting in the small room amidst the amplifiers and stacks of band equipment and spilling out into the adjacent room, sipping cheap beer from cans, bobbing their heads and tapping their feet. I looked around realized that this was a classic example of a hipster underground show. It was interesting to observe. I would have probably been more at home if I hadn't had slap on my security guard uniform in less than two hours. I didn't know at that point that Jack Kerouac, one of the fathers of the 50's Beat culture and unwitting and mostly un-acknowledged inspiration for the modern underground "renaissance" had spent some time wearing the uniform of night-watchmen as well. It didn't help either that I had just come back from a weekend duty with Marines, and hadn't really yet had a chance to "take off" that uniform either.

Quilty came on next and quickly drove more than a few of the people from the confined spaces and onto the porch. They. Were. Loud. That's truthfully all I can say about them.

But this gave me the opportunity to talk with Rob Dobson as well as Phillip St. Ours for a bit. I remembered  that I knew Rob and found out he knew me too from my occasional trips into the Music and Arts Center where he worked at the time. We talked a little music, and then he went inside to brave the wrath of Quilty. Phillip and I then struck up a conversation and we talked for while about his Appalachian roots. Then "Cinderella Pumpkin Time" came and I had to leave for work before getting to see The Fire Tapes perform

So I guess you could say I left with a glass half-full/half-empty, not getting to hear the band I came to hear perform, but finding a new local artist who had piqued my interest.

Sunday, May 22 - Brandi Carlile w/ Ivan & Alyosha @The National, RVA
Brandi Carlile is an amazing singer-songwriter. With crackly, unrestrained vocals, hard-rocking guitar-based and often anthemic songs with hard-to-ignore, yet easily relatable lyrics, she has been a source of inspiration to me since I discovered her music in 2008. Needless to say, when I got the chance to see her live, I jumped at the chance. It wasn't the ideal situation, being a seated show and my seat quite a few rows back from the stage, and facing the likelihood of having to leave for work before the show was over, but I decided it was worth the investment. So I rolled on out to Richmond, almost an hour drive.

Once again, I found myself in an audience that I felt a little out of place being there. Brandi has strong following in the lesbian community. Need I say more? I checked into Facebook on my phone and within a few minutes I got a message from one of my buddies from the Corps saying, "Dude! I'm here too! Where are you???" I was a little surprised... I didn't know he was a lesbian. (I'm just kidding. I had known that he was into chicks for a while now.)

Anyways, we met up and caught up. He deployed with my oldest brother and was left the unit when I was still an E-3 and I hadn't seen him in a while. So it was good to catch up and also to not be the only male military personnel there.

The show started with Ivan & Alyosha, an indie band from Seattle with a pretty amazing sound and this great energy on stage. I thoroughly enjoyed their set and I'd definitely like to see them again.

Then Brandi came on. It felt so weird sitting down and clapping and cheering, which definitely furthered my distaste for seated shows. But she rocked the house and I soon all but forgot that I was fifty feet away from her and sitting down. It was a great show, but then I had to leave before the last song was over. I would have stayed through it, but I knew that the five minutes of staying meant I would have had to fight for ten more minutes to get out of the parking lot, and I would have definitely been late. So I left. In the middle of the last song. Which was not cool. Glass three quarters full.

Friday, June 3 - Peter Bradley Adams @The Southern Cafe & Music Hall

Peter is one of a very small handful of artists with whom I have never hit "skip" on any of his songs... and I have them all. He writes truly peaceful and warm music, with hints of sadness and mystery. I have been a huge fan of his collaboration with Kat Maslich, "eastmountainsouth" for years, and those songs have been a huge influence on me since my first years of writing music.

Unfortunately it was another seated show - but without assigned seats so I was able to get into the second row center-stage. I was pretty sad to see that not many people came out to see him. I couldn't understand it. Then he started performing.

He was the epitome of unassuming on the stage. It was all about the music, and as such the experience was peaceful and enjoyable, just as I thought it would be, but I found that while sitting down I was starting to nod off, just as I had countless times while lying in bed, listening to his music. It was like Pavlov's dog. Or hypnosis. The only time I really got excited was when he played "Los Angeles" which was and still is one of my all-time favorite songs.

Anyways, looking back I realize that his music really wasn't made for the stage, per se. It's transportive to deep peaceful places. Not easy to get hyped and excited about. It just is - and feels like it's always been... like a meadow hidden in dark forest.

This being said, I will definitely go to see him perform again if he comes back to the area, and I'd like to get the chance to talk to him a bit more. But I'm thinking maybe I'll bring a comfy blanket and some hot tea to complete the experience.

Saturday, June 4 - Daniel Zezeski (Beako) & Phillip St.Ours (Pantherburn) @The Pigeon Hole

Speaking of blankets, despire being by this time much too warm for one, I could have used it on this June evening at The Pigeon Hole. Daniel Zezeski fell right in line with PBA with the relaxing theme. Daniel's vocals hover somewhere between a hum and a whisper, reminiscent of a mix between Coldplay and Radiohead, sans the bombast. If there was ever a voice that should sing lullabies, it would be his.

Phillip St. Ours "took the stage" (porch) and played a set. I could hear his lyrics better this time and they definitely cemented the impression I had of his music. "Hush Little Baby" was a particularly striking song, combining an old mountain lullaby with a striking social commentary.

Saturday, June 25 - The Fire Tapes and DBB Plays Cups  @The Pigeon Hole

Another night at the Pigeon Hole, which is definitely becoming something of a pattern by this time. The Fire Tapes are back, performing outside this time to 20+ crowd of about 20-/+. DBB Plays Cups opened the night, and though we expected an assortment of tunes played on the edges of cups filled with varying levels of liquid, it turned out to be one guy on an acoustic guitar walking around playing songs and singing quite out of tune. He had good lyrics though. Further research shows that he normally plays an electric guitar with a full backing band, and the songs definitely sound better on YouTube, but it felt like a trial to be endured...

And one well worth enduring, as the The Fire Tapes came out and played a killer set. The outdoor setting suited their music, which was definitely fleshing out. I was definitely completely hooked on these guys and gal by time the set was over. The lyrics of "Transistor, Monitor" could be heard a lot better this time, and I was struck by the contrast between references to technology and the undefinably timeless imagery. Betsy's vocals on this song are particularly haunting and dreamlike. I was excited to discover  while talking to the band afterwards that they were working on an album to be released in few months.

7 Down, 12 more to come...


  1. I like your tea cup. I recently bought one for work so I would stop stealing everyone elses. It's very pretty with purple flowers. It even has the matching saucer which comes in handy when the string on my tea bag starts siphoning the tea out of my cup like it is doing right now! lol.
    Where I am from there are quite a few of those hole-in-the-wall joints that play live music. I don't always get out to them, but when I do, I am sometimes shocked by the undiscovered talent (sometimes not, but it doesn't ruin my day). It's great that you keep track of some of these artists. I've never been good at that and can see a band once that I really liked and then never find them again. Luckily, I have friends that are those kind of people that walk into a bar and are instantly best friends with the first twenty people they meet. How do they do that?
    Anyway, glad to have you on board for the reading challenge this year.

  2. What's your poison when it comes to tea? I'm particularly fond of Earl Grey myself, though I do like to indulge in the herbals from time to time... Raspberry Zinger esp.

    I'm definitely a fan of the smaller venues. My younger brother is going to be working with owner of this place, "The Pigeon Hole", turning the basement into a sort of "speak-easy" type venue. It's going to be ridiculously cool when it's done.

    I'm working about half a dozen books right now... I'm just so A.D.D... I blame the Internet. :-)

  3. I'm partial to any kind of black tea. Especially Twining's Black Current. I also love Raspberry Zinger and the Tangerine Zinger.

    The pigeon hole sounds great. My favorite place right now is this little Irish Pub that is in the basement of one of the best restaurants in town. It's pretty much underground and dark, but they brew their own beer and have live music almost every night.

    I was actually stopping by to check on everyone's status in the book challenge for the first month. Good to hear you're knocking some down. I try to stick with one book at a time, but I usually end up with four or five going at the same time. Right now, I'm really only into one, but I have 6 books on my shelf with trapped bookmarks. I really need to finish them.