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On the Town

Last Train Home Is Making Tracks

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page WE05

FOR MORE THAN six years, Eric Brace wrote this column.

Now, Brace makes a Nightwatch appearance not as author, but as subject. That's because Last Train Home, the local roots-rock band he fronts, is celebrating the release of its latest album, "Bound Away," with a three-day residency at Iota Club & Cafe (2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-522-8340). The club has been the Last Train Home-base for the last few years while Brace took a leave of absence from The Post to pursue his muse in Nashville and on the road.

"I love the sound of a big band," says Eric Brace, leader of the roots-rock band Last Train Home. The group's eight-member hometown lineup can sometimes expand to add six more musicians. (Matthew Worden Photography)

Brace is the engine and conductor of this particular Train, which has a slimmed-down road version as well as the multiple-caboose version that will crowd the stage at Iota. It features not only Brace's songs, but some by local songwriters whose bands he's played in over the years, as well as by folks Brace is sharing the stage with.

"The thing about Last Train Home is we've got great songwriters within the band," Brace says. "My brother Alan [Brace];Scott McKnight, who's one of the all-time greats; Bill Williams. There's nights where I'll do a whole set and realize at the end of the night that we haven't done a single one of my songs, and that doesn't bug me in the slightest."

It's not just the range of writers that sets Last Train Home apart, it's also an instrumental arsenal wielded by a hometown lineup that starts with eight members and sometimes ends up with a half-dozen more players crowded onto the Iota platform, a battery of guitars (electric, acoustic and pedal steel) and a rock 'n' roll rhythm section augmented by mandolin, harmonica, saxophone, violin and trumpet. The last two are wielded by Kevin Cordt, who can be heard most Fridays leading his jazz quartet at Mr. Henry's (601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 202-546-6886) on Capitol Hill.

"He's classically trained and has jazz chops to kill for," Brace says of Cordt. "When he joined Last Train Home, it just added an incredible level of musicianship but also a huge repertoire of Tin Pan Alley songs and swing and New Orleans tunes and now we can launch into those, too."

"I love the sound of a big band, with all the different textures and instruments going at each other," Brace says. "For a while, I hid behind that as a performer because I wasn't all that confident in either my singing or my guitar playing, so it was always good to have a whole bunch of people around me on stage as an emotional safety net. Plus it was just really fun!"

The road version of Last Train Home, which played its first show at the Black Cat in 1997, includes the band's rhythm section, bassist Jim Carson Gray and drummer Martin Lynds, both of whom have relocated to Nashville. Brace says some members, including his brother and Williams, had "serious jobs and families" that left them unable to tour. On the other hand, the smaller lineup led to a major discovery, he says.

"The previously silent Martin Lynds turns out to be one of the world's great harmony singers! When you find a drummer to sing harmonies like that, you've hit the jackpot," he says with a chuckle, adding that "going out on the road as a four- or five-piece definitely made us rethink the songs, forced us to listen to the songs as works unto themselves, not as a great big orchestral ensemble piece."

What was originally supposed to be a year-long leave became two and now extends into a third year, though Brace contributes occasional stories to the paper. He is "trying to get Last Train Home off the ground as a sustaining, touring entity," Brace says. Still, he adds, "I do miss D.C. and having a weekly deadline that forces me to write. . . . But I really miss what I was writing about because I'm a huge champion of the Washington, D.C., scene. As we drive around the country, I hear people dismissing it, and I just reel off the names of our great musicians and songwriters. I miss going out and seeing all that."

Since December 2002, Brace has been a Nashville cat. He says one major difference between cities is that in Nashville, one is comfortingly surrounded by fellow musicians and songwriters.

"In most places, people look at you and wonder when you're going to grow up and get a real job," Brace laughs. "Down in Nashville, there's a sense that it's okay to be a songwriter and hang out in a coffee shop all day."

Not surprisingly, "Bound Away" is, at least partially, Brace's Nashville record, spiritual kin to new albums by Todd Snider ("East Nashville Skyline") and Josh Rouse ("Nashville"). It's not alt-country, a category Last Train Home is often saddled with, nor is it country -- "There's a whole, really alive world down there that has nothing to do with the commercial country scene," Brace says -- but it was inspired by a country icon.

"When Johnny Cash was dying [in 2003], it was almost like a pope-watch at the Vatican," Brace says. "It permeated every conversation, and the atmosphere was so bleak when it was clear he was about to pass. So Johnny Cash was on my mind -- he's definitely a big part of this record."

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