Our youths are filled with yearning, and during mine, Fugazi’s annual home-turf gig at the District’s Fort Reno Park was always the most anticipated night of my teenage summers. I remember spending one August afternoon in 1999, trapped behind a typewriter (a typewriter!) at my college work-study job, vibrating with impatience as I counted the hours until punk transcendence. But by the time I escaped campus that evening, one of those hallucinogenic summer storms was already swirling overhead — weird winds, strange light — and not long after the band tore into its set, the sky opened, dousing the thousands gathered below. It was tremendous. Fugazi routinely played with enough intensity to convince you that you were listening to the greatest band in existence, but this time, that greatness was consecrated in lightning.
There’s a recording of this concert available online, and it shows that the band managed to get 10 songs deep before powering down and packing up. Why did it feel so much shorter? Yet, I feel as if I still remember everything about it — the drums dictating the rhythm of the raindrops, the guitars arguing with peals of thunder. A nifty lesson had wrinkled itself into my still-forming punk brain: Listening to nature heightens our listening in whole.
Of course, it does. As a species, we have a lot more experience listening to the wind than we do listening to our favorite songs. On top of that, alert listening was once necessary for survival. For millennia, our ears were pricked for volcanic rumbles and predators stepping on twigs. We might be wise to reconnect with that kind of listening, not only by removing our ear buds when we cross the street, but also during our recreational listening hours. And summer is the best season for it, when so many outdoor concerts are accompanied by breezes, winds, drizzles, downpours, thunderclaps, birdsong and sumptuous waves of insect chatter.
At Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts — where the summer concert calendar is regularly stuffed with legacy acts — listening to the sounds emanating from the surrounding tree line might help prevent your brain from glazing over in a nostalgic reverie. Sure, we go to Wolf Trap to hear what we know, whether it’s the B-52s, Aretha Franklin or Lionel Richie. But there’s always something new to hear in an old song. Sharpened ears will help you locate it. (Also, not every show on the venue’s schedule is backward-looking. The singular British singer PJ Harvey is still writing intrepid songs, and she headlines Wolf Trap on July 21.)
At Merriweather Post Pavilion, the area’s other great outdoor concert venue, two celebratory events stand out. The first is the shed’s 50th anniversary concert on July 15, which features the great Willie Nelson, an aging superhero of American song who continues to deserve our most attentive listening. And on Aug. 5-6, the annual Summer Spirit Festival returns in the shape of a ’90s soul revue, with performances from Babyface, Bel Biv DeVoe, En Vogue, SWV and Guy. Should it start to rain anytime during this 48-hour quiet storm of superlative R&B, don’t let it ruin your good time. Listen to it.
Read more from the Summer Arts Preview: