Monday, August 15, 2005

Crosby, Stills & Nash At Wolf Trap

What's in those immunosuppressive drugs, anyway? David Crosby sang his heart (and transplanted liver) out on Saturday; it's fair to say that he sounded better on the Wolf Trap boards than he has on many stages, at many stages of his problem-riddled life.

Crosby, Stills & Nash made what might have been merely a geezerfest into a credible musical event. The sexagenarians chose their newer numbers judiciously from 2004's "Crosby & Nash" album, including the meditative "Lay Me Down" and the Yucca Mountain-inspired rocker "Don't Dig Here." Stephen Stills, who offered a couple of selections from his upcoming release, seemed to exist largely in a separate universe from Crosby and Graham Nash, only rarely joining in the group's vaunted harmonies but happy to swagger to the edge of the stage for credibly coruscating electric-guitar solos.

While the backing band added atmosphere to big musical statements like "Cathedral" and "Southern Cross," it usually seemed more of a crutch -- an unneeded one -- than an enhancement. Though they're all fine players -- particularly Crosby's keyboardist son James Raymond and guitarist Jeff Pevar -- the five men muddied up the mix on a somewhat belabored "Marrakesh Express." When Crosby, on eloquent acoustic guitar with Nash on backing vocals, crooned "Guinnevere," he made time stop. When he and his gray buddies threw themselves headlong into "Almost Cut My Hair," they revealed how much time had passed since their heyday, but they did it with humor, affection and panache.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Devo at the 9:30 Club

Of all American new-wave bands, Devo had the most elaborate act. Indeed, the made-in-Ohio quintet's yellow jumpsuits, robotic moves and "energy" (aka "flowerpot'') hats often upstaged such hits as "Whip It" and "Girl U Want." Saturday night at the 9:30 club, however, the music proved sturdier than the shtick.

The latter was at a disadvantage partially because of a technical problem -- the group's video system was on the fritz -- but also because Devo's jerky rhythms and potent riffs have aged better than the musicians themselves. It's hard to look like streamlined men of the future when potbellies and receding headlines reveal your middle-aged mundanity.

Devo never officially disbanded, but has been inactive for most of the last 15 years. (The group's principal songwriters, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, support themselves by composing movie soundtracks and directing commercials and videos, respectively.) Heard today, the band's sci-fi synth-punk is revealed as the missing link between the Ramones and Depeche Mode. Yet the Saturday performance -- the first of two nights at the club -- surveyed the music's development in devolutionary order. Three of the five musicians played staccato keyboard riffs during the opening third of the show, but then raucous guitars took control.

It hardly mattered. Such taut, twitchy Devo standards as "Jocko Homo" and "Uncontrollable Urge" would probably have been just as visceral if played on ukulele. Some of the evening's songs fizzled, but overall the band's oldies were more compelling than such familiar props as Mothersbaugh's oversize cowboy hat. And it's unlikely that a functioning video setup would have changed that.

-- Mark Jenkins

Ray LaMontagne at the 9:30 Club

From what celestial sphere comes Ray LaMontagne, this mumbling, beardy fellow who looked like he'd stepped out of the New Testament and stopped by Urban Outfitters on his way to a sold-out 9:30 club on Friday night?

LaMontagne is downright spectacular, and it's hard to dissect why. His biggest hit, "Trouble," was received with enthusiastic singalongs, but it's probably his most ordinary number. He wailed soulfully through it, and through such other impassioned songs as "Hold You In My Arms," as a crowd that nearly drowned out opening act Sarah Blasko with its chatter went library-quiet, complete with people going "shhh."

But the opening series of solo songs, before LaMontagne was joined by a bassist and drummer, was especially mesmerizing. His keening voice -- what you'd get if Sam Cooke blessed Neil Young -- isn't that unusual. His guitar is mainly something he strums to fill in the gaps. His style isn't original -- the opening hook of "Hannah" is straight from the Band's "The Weight," and even the song titles look like stuff we've heard before.

His lyrics are as full of commonplaces as blues and folk ballads are full of whiskey rivers and roses on lovers' graves: It's as if he's soaked up the finest pop sounds of the1960s -- before some Edenic '70s fall -- and synthesized them into something so vital it doesn't need to be new. In his remarkably unoriginal vision, he proves that sometimes cliches are cliches because they're true.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Travis Tritt at Wolf Trap

Old habits die hard in country music. Which is why the crowd at Wolf Trap on Friday night was reminded not to toss coins at country singer Travis Tritt when he performed his 1991 hit "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)." Throwing a party out on the pavilion lawn, however, wasn't discouraged, and Tritt did his part to keep spirits high, voices raised and beers hoisted by supplying a two-hour, hit-packed soundtrack.

The stifling heat didn't prevent him from sustaining a swift pace right through the encores, either. He veered from his own hits long enough to cover Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" and pay evocative tribute to the late Johnny Cash. He also impersonated Willie Nelson's pinched nasal warbling while reviving "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." At one point, during an acoustic interlude, Tritt reflected on parenthood, but for the most part he seemed intent on living up to the title of his hit "Put Some Drive in Your Country." His powerful voice, with its gruff tone and Georgia drawl, never sounded better than when he was celebrating his southern rock roots with his Country Club band, or tearing through "T-R-O-U-B-L-E" with enough energy to evoke memories of both Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. The lulls, triggered by filler like "Girls Gone Wild," didn't last long.

The opening set by Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen and his seasoned band was far more relaxed, laced with wry, funny, keenly observed tales and capped by the rousing alt-country anthem "The Road Goes On Forever."

-- Mike Joyce

King Wilkie; Tony Rice Unit

Is there a more comfortable way to spend a sweltering evening than sitting on a concrete plaza beneath a sometimes noisy flight path at the Kennedy Center? No doubt string band fans were pondering that very question before King Wilkie and the Tony Rice Unit performed at the Millennium Stage on Saturday.

Both groups, however, were well worth hearing. Unlike many of its bluegrass influences, King Wilkie doesn't boast a dazzling soloist. But the Virginia-bred sextet does have two singers with complementary voices -- mandolinist Reid Burgess and guitarist John McDonald -- plus the wherewithal to generate waves of rhythmic drive. The band also has an interesting repertoire: a mix of contemporary ballads, traditional fiddle tunes and original songs. Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" was appropriately sparse and haunting, while "Trouble in Mind" and "In the Pines" robustly revealed the group's southern affections. In addition to contributing soulful drones and fills, fiddler Nick Reeb enlivened "Squirrel Hunters," an instrumental romp.

Perhaps the only person in Washington wearing a tie at that moment, Tony Rice was in typical form, flat-picking his acoustic guitar with impeccable precision and fluid ease. "My Favorite Things," sporting an arrangement that recalled Rice's jazz-influenced collaborations with mandolinist David Grisman, kicked off the quartet's performance. Later, Rice performed one of his favorite songs: the Carter Family's "Storms Are on the Ocean," distinguished by his group's beautifully woven sound. Flanking Rice and contributing vibrant solos were his younger brother Wyatt, on guitar, mandolinist Rickie Simpkins and bassist Bryn Bright. Alas, the twin bill didn't allow time for the band to stretch out.

-- Mike Joyce

Wolf Trap Opera Singers

The atmosphere was suffused with testosterone Friday night at the Barns of Wolf Trap, when the talented young Wolf Trap Opera Company gave a recital titled "Where the Boys Are." Beginning with a rousing ensemble performance of "Standing on the Corner," the program went on to musical treatments of such other favorite male preoccupations as football, tennis, trying to understand women and developing seduction strategies.

The program reached an emotional climax in a soaring performance of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and a peak of wit in an ensemble performance of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." A homoerotic sub-theme was woven through the program -- idealistic in Leonard Bernstein's "To What You Said," with text by Walt Whitman, desperate in William Bolcom's "A Great Man's Child," witty in "The Ball Is in Your Court" and in Gilbert and Sullivan's "I Am a Maiden Cold and Stately," and baffled in "The Boy From," whose female singer wonders why an unapproachable boy's "friends call him Lillian."

Men from this year's company were featured. Tall, cool, versatile bass Matt Boehler gave a classic performance of "When I Fall in Love." Tenor Jason Ferrante evoked the 18th century in a beautifully ornamented "The Lark Sings High in the Cornfield." Baritone Brian Mulligan was hilarious in Bernstein's satirical "Pass That Football," as was baritone Alex Tall in "Shiksa Goddess," about a Jewish man's yearning for a non-Jewish woman -- any non-Jewish woman.

A female element was needed to contrast with the macho theme, and it was superbly supplied by mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock and soprano Laquita Mitchell, the most beautiful voice among many beautiful voices.

Together, they deflated the men's pretensions in "What You Don't Know About Women." Mitchell was deeply appealing in "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men," as was Babcock in "My Old Man."

Steven Blier, who devised this imaginative program, played the piano accompaniment and gave a witty commentary on the songs.

-- Joseph McLellan

© 2005 The Washington Post Company