John Prine and Kris Kristofferson
Protest singing has become something of a lost art, but two great American songwriters and old friends (not to mention Army veterans), did their best to revive the genre at Wolf Trap Friday night. On a perfect summer evening, John Prine and Kris Kristofferson's performances pretty much dashed any chance that they'll be invited to the White House this year. Kristofferson was up first and played a solo acoustic set. The silver-maned outlaw's voice is a little rusty, and he laughingly admitted that his guitar playing is nothing to crow about. Still, he seemed to relish playing his best-known songs, like "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Most of his 45-minute set, however, was dominated by his political material, including "They Killed Him" and "Anthem 84," which he ended by playing taps on his harmonica. He also played a new song, "In the News," a gloomy cataloguing of American societal ills that ended with the line "I want nothing but the ending of the war."
Prine, with help from bassist David Jacques and guitarist Jason Wilber, started off with the cheery "Spanish Pipedream," but it didn't take him long to join the political fray. He reprised "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," a witty song he wrote during the Vietnam War. He brought it back, he said, because of "a special request by our president. It seems like he was getting nostalgic for his draft-dodger days." Later, on a new song, "Some Humans Ain't Human," he referred to the president as "an [expletive] from Texas." Whew! These guys didn't hold back and, judging from crowd response, they were in friendly territory.
Prine had a few nonpolitical gems up his sleeve as well, of course. He and his band mates kicked it into gear for a fiery version of the Carter Family's "Bear Creek Blues," and Irish singer Maura O'Connell joined him for a soulful, stirring version of "Angel From Montgomery."
Kristofferson returned to join Prine at the end of the show and, well, the pair couldn't help themselves. They played another of Prine's Vietnam-era songs, "The Great Compromise," which now seemed targeted at current administration policies. Protest singing, it seems, is not dead yet.
-- Joe Heim
The Darkness and Jet recently made names for themselves by cranking their amps and putting a new title on every available 1970s glam and hard-rock riff. And while neither of those bands could be accused of being cerebral, they never properly captured the sheer stupidity of Me Decade groups like Uriah Heep, Black Oak Arkansas and UFO. Not so Bad Wizard. The New York-via-Athens, Ga., quintet keeps it gloriously simple and stupid, and delivers crunching riffs with the subtlety of a kick between the legs with a steel-toed work boot.
Anyone who saw Bad Wizard at the Black Cat Saturday night would realize that it isn't a band of mere hard-rockin' mouth-breathers. They would see that the Wiz innately grasps that a hailstorm of frenetic guitar solos and song titles like "Whoo!," "Love Machine" and "Loosen Up!" are key to a certain kind of hard-rock nirvana.
They also would understand that the band was having a rough night. The combination of breaking in a new bass player, a hint of internal strife and what singer Curtis Brown announced as reckless pre-show imbibing rendered the mighty Wizard pretty feeble. They did manage to get through a half-hour or so of songs, mostly from their new third album, "#1 Tonite!," Brown, usually an expansive, near-spastic frontman, seemed subdued, at one point actually buttoning up his shirt.
And though guitarist Tina Gorin held songs like "Bad Night in Brooklyn" together, admirers of Bad Wizard would have to come away from Saturday's show hoping it was simply an anomaly and not the signs of a lovable band falling apart.
-- Patrick Foster
At 50, Marshall Crenshaw is finally mellowing out. Not long ago, the bespectacled pop perfectionist would have become a little cranky at a pesky feedback gremlin, a less than tight three-piece backing band, and a well-oiled fan ceaselessly yelping " 'Mary Anne'! " 'Mary Anne'!"
But when faced with converging annoyances Saturday at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, the perennial pet of rock snobs didn't storm off the stage.
Instead, the Detroit native -- looking like a math prof on summer break in beach-bummy yellow shirt and porkpie topper -- smiled and strummed through sloppy but spirited garage-band takes of his usually seamless bittersweet confections.
The capacity crowd -- all bobbing heads and happy feet -- certainly didn't mind the rehearsal vibe of the 80-minute set, either. Crenshaw's regular lead guitarist, Jason Crigler, suffered an aneurysm earlier this month, forcing the cool-nerdy frontman to jam with often-lost replacements. But ear-candy classics "Someday, Someway" and "Whenever You're on My Mind" are such blissful lessons in melody, harmony and jangly chord progression to begin with, it would take a Norwegian death-metal band to drain the pure pop goodness out of them.
Crenshaw didn't just play Buddy Holly in the movie "La Bamba" and star as John Lennon in the stage's "Beatlemania" -- he has channeled their spirits throughout his 20-plus years of performing. The specters of Brian Wilson and Elvis Costello often show up to the beach blanket seance, too. This convergence of influences was especially evident during an acoustic interlude of old faves "There She Goes Again" and "Cynical Girl." And when Crenshaw dipped into his new album, "What's in the Bag?," for the show-closing "The Spell Is Broken," he proved that he still has the ear (and the yearning-teen voice) to merge the sounds of sock hop, Brit-pop and New Wave.
Oh, and as for the fan who wouldn't shut up about 1982's "Mary Anne"? Let's just say Crenshaw might have a tad more mellowing to do.
-- Sean Daly
Although the Russian Orthodox Church has inspired vocal music of incredible beauty, that music doesn't get sung much by stateside ensembles: There's a language barrier, and few singers can navigate complex modal harmonies without accompaniment. The solution? Import a Russian ensemble. Beltsville's Lutheran Church of the Abiding Presence brought in six members of Lyra, a St. Petersburg-based vocal collective, Saturday night.
Despite the church's flat acoustics, Lyra produced a pure a cappella sound that could both fill the intimate space and drop to an edge-of-your-seat whisper, and the ensemble coordination remained impeccable through even the most complex polyphony. The group's clear harmonies gave a sense of how the unique flavor of Orthodox music persists in both the clean, bright music of 17th-century Dmitri Bortniansky and the aching chromatics of turn-of-the-last-century Pavel Tchesnokov. Dobri Khristov's "Praise the name of the Lord" made the greatest impression of all, though, because it featured a solo by Vladimir Feliauer, one of those force-of-nature Russian basses, whose tone was rock-solid and velvet-smooth no matter how low he went.
After the sampling of intense, elevated Orthodox music, the singers' post-intermission entrance in traditional dress and singing a jaunty folk tune brought everything back to earth. The simpler music offered showcase solos for most of the singers, and lots of broad acting, like Ekaterina Isatchenko's charmingly coquettish posing in "Black-browed, black-eyed fellow," partially made up for the lack of texts and translations. Yet it was the Russian Orthodox music, especially in Lyra's fine performances, that left one wanting more.
-- Andrew Lindemann Malone