John Doe and Grant-Lee Phillips
Time has served John Doe well. The country-tinged, melodic L.A. punk sound he developed with the band called X flourishes in alt-country, and Doe seems happy to reap the benefits. He celebrated on Sunday in a dual-headliner show with fellow rootsmonger Grant-Lee Phillips at the Birchmere.
From the moment Doe joined the group onstage, he changed the agenda set by the Grant Lee Buffalo frontman and relative newcomer. Phillips, with backing vocalist Cindy Wasserman, drummer Kevin Jarvis and bassist Dave Carpenter, had already set up a big, sludgy sound, with only Jarvis's hypervigilant rhythms cutting through the smoke. Phillips's impassioned vocals might have been described as "lyrical" -- if one could make out the lyrics. But when Doe showed up with an unreleased song about a troubled neighbor child, he put humanity before attitude. The tender song blew Suzanne Vega's "Luka" all to pieces, with Doe the adult, in his warm tenor, vowing, "Someday I'll buy you glasses that won't ever break."
The group was at its diverse, high-energy best when both singers were onstage, offering rich harmonies with Wasserman on Phillips's arrangement of Gram Parsons and Bob Buchanan's "Hickory Wind," from Phillips's latest album, "Virginia Creeper," and dynamic, twangy reworkings of X favorites. Time worked one change, though: On "New World," Doe modified the line "It was better before they voted for what's his name" to "what's his name's son."
-- Pamela Murray Winters
Guitarist Larry Carlton, who moved from first-call session player status to smooth-jazz star over the past three decades, didn't sound entirely like himself Sunday night at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.
Instead of focusing on innocuous, radio-ready instrumentals, Carlton spent most of the evening playing full-tilt blues in the company of a blasting, four-piece horn section. Tracks from his latest release, "Sapphire Blue," were showcased, and though Carlton eventually paid direct homage to the "Kings" -- B.B. and Albert King -- their influence was unmistakable from the outset.
B.B. King's legacy, in particular, served as a touchstone, with Carlton playing a "Lucille"-like Gibson electric guitar and often exploiting the expanded blues scale King staked out early in his career. The horn-powered "Friday Night Shuffle" sounded as if it were torn right out of King's songbook, while other blues hewed to slinkier, Hammond B-3 organ grooves that proved similarly refreshing. The modern jazz anthem "Tenor Madness," brashly arranged to showcase the horn section, also proved far more invigorating than the kind of music that has made Carlton a fixture on the pop-jazz charts.
Not that he entirely overlooked other aspects of his career. With the help of his septet (including son Travis on electric bass), Carlton recalled his session days via an instrumental reprise of Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne." Later, after switching to acoustic guitar, he also resurrected his bland, Grammy-winning version of "Minute by Minute." But he quickly returned to the blues, clearly reveling in the luxury of traveling with a little big band.
-- Mike Joyce
Talib Kweli has a part to play. In a rap world overrun by puffed-up braggarts and mindless pleasure and treasure seekers, the Brooklyn hip-hop artist is steering his audience back to reality. Creating conscientious music that also makes people want to dance can't be easy, but at a sold-out 9:30 club Sunday night, the raucous, hands-in-the-air crowd seemed as receptive to his ideas as they were ready to party.
"C'mon D.C," he roared as he took the stage. "You've already lost the fight / if you don't know the cost of life." That was the first of many messages delivered over the next hour. Dressed in black with a baseball cap pulled down hard over his eyes, Kweli looked as if he could have been paying homage to earlier socially conscious rappers including Chuck D, KRS-One and Ice Cube. Prowling the stage while his DJ provided the beats and two female backup singers added harmonies, he seemed a man on a mission to bring meaningful hip-hop back into the mainstream.
On "I Try," Kweli got topical, rapping "Got searched on the plane, Arabic first name / disturbed by the pain just like Kurt Cobain." And with the uplifting, ferociously rapped "Get By" he warmed to the idea that everyone has a higher purpose: "Even when the condition is critical, when the livin' is miserable /Your position is pivotal, I ain't [expletive] you."
Having noble ideas or fighting for a cause isn't enough to make anyone an appealing hip-hop artist. But Kweli, whose new album "The Beautiful Struggle" is due in a couple of weeks, knows how to educate fans and throw a great party at the same time. "They ask me to speak at schools 'cause they say that I'm intelligent," he rapped. "No, it's 'cause I'm dope. If I was whack, I'd be irrelevant."
-- Joe Heim