It isn't a music lover's Fairfax summer without a visit to the beautiful amphitheater technically known as the Filene Center but commonly called Wolf Trap. Whether you settle in for a picnic on the lawn or an up-close view inside (no food, please), this week is particularly ripe for singer-songwriters, including a venerable American classic and some cool young upstarts.
Even people who don't know John Hiatt's recordings have probably heard his songs -- they've been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop, Ronnie Milsap and the Neville Brothers, among others. And for those who have followed this critical and cult favorite from his 1974 debut album, "Hangin' Around the Observatory," to last week's release of "Master of Disaster," Hiatt's catalog is a cherished one, ranging from sweet ballads to high-voltage rockers, all with a master's sense of craft and a well-read Indiana boy's dry wit. Hiatt's also a versatile guitar player, from gentle acoustic picking to soulful slide, able to hold a large crowd as a soloist or as frontman with his longtime band, the Goners.
Hiatt's latest CD is a collaboration with members of the other act on Tuesday night's bill, the North Mississippi Allstars. "Master of Disaster" was produced by legendary Memphis musician Jim Dickinson, whose sons Luther and Cody are guitarist and drummer, respectively, for the Allstars and served in the backing band for Hiatt on the new album.
As kids, Luther and Cody listened to punk heroes Black Flag and the avant-rock of Captain Beefheart, along with the mainstream material supplied by MTV. But when your dad has played with the Rolling Stones (he did the piano on "Wild Horses"), produced the Replacements and co-written a song ("Across the Borderline") that's been covered by Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, you also pay attention to what's right around you.
Once the Dickinson boys, growing up in a rural area of Mississippi outside Memphis, heard the region's distinct mix of blues, soul, hip-hop and "chitlin funk," they developed their personal take on country blues. With Chris Chew on bass, the Allstars released their first CD, "Shake Hands With Shorty," in 2000 and have played major festivals such as Farm Aid and Bonnaroo in Tennessee. The 2004 Bonnaroo is where the most recent CD, "Hill Country Review," was recorded live with guest appearances by R.L. Burnside, the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson and Jim Dickinson.
Wednesday night will probably have a somewhat younger vibe, as Wolf Trap offers a grouping of singer-songwriters beloved by the teenage and twentysomething crowds. Michael Tolcher, who opens the show, might be labeled the newcomer in the pack, but Gavin DeGraw has made the remarkable leap to headliner status on the strength of his first CD, "Chariot," released in 2003. DeGraw started piano at age 8 and, in rapid succession, played in cover bands with his older brother, studied music at the prestigious Berklee School of Music and moved to New York City in the late '90s to hone his talents. A deal with J Records (home to Santana and Alicia Keys) led to DeGraw's debut, which made the big time with the single "I Don't Want to Be" and the title track. Reissued last summer as "Chariot Stripped," which includes an additional CD of acoustic material, the title has been riding high since.
Howie Day, who shared a summer bill at Wolf Trap last year with O.A.R., returns in triumph thanks to his own hit single "Collide," from the CD "Stop All The World Now," another 2003 release. As the album tenaciously clung to the lower end of sales charts and positive reviews flooded in, Day's record label, Epic, released a DualDisc (two-sided) version featuring live footage, videos and behind-the-scenes segments. Then "Collide" was played on the WB Television Network's evening teenage soap "One Tree Hill," and Day had a certifiable smash.
A crowd-pleasing live performer since he first hit the road at 16, booking himself at bars and clubs in Maine, Day released his solo debut, "Australia," in 2000 and has since opened for the likes of Tori Amos, Sting, John Mayer and Sheryl Crow. Don't be surprised if next year he gets his name at the top of the bill at Wolf Trap or another prestigious area venue.
-- MARIANNE MEYER
Wolf Trap is at 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna. Tickets are $36 in-house and $20 on the lawn for Tuesday, and $34 in-house and $25 on the lawn Wednesday. They are available at the box office, by calling Tickets.com at 877-965-3872 or going online at www.wolftrap.org. For more information, call Wolf Trap at 703-255-1900.
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