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The performing arts center’s new season features the return of the smash hit musical next summer. By Sophie Gilbert
Get a second chance to see Book of Mormon when it returns to the Kennedy Center next summer. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

The Kennedy Center announced its 2014-15 season this morning. Here are the highlights:

Theater
The touring production of Evita stops by in October 2014.
The KenCen premieres its new production of Little Dancer, with direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, also in October.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is your holiday musical, arriving December 16.
Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer directs a new revival of Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi before it heads to New York, opening January 17.
Tony-winning musical Once arrives for a six-week engagement in July 2015.
Smash hit Book of Mormon (which, you may remember, crashed the Kennedy Center’s website last summer when tickets went on sale), is returning for two months in the summer of 2015.

Dance
The KenCen presents Martha Clarke’s Cheri in October.
Beijing Dance Theater stops by in October.
Ballet West provides this year’s Nutcracker from December 1 through 14.
The Mariinsky Ballet performs a mixed-repertory program in January.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns in February.
American Ballet Theatre returns in March with one unnamed full-length work and a mixed-repertory program.
The New York City Ballet brings two mixed programs to the KenCen in April.
The Scottish Ballet performs A Streetcar Named Desire in May.
England’s the Royal Ballet performs Don Quixote and a mixed program in June.

Music
Joshua Bell performs in the Season Opening Ball Concert September 21.
The Washington National Opera presents Florencia in the Amazon in September.
David Zinman conducts pianist Angela Hewitt in October.
John Mauceri conducts Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton in October.
Christoph Eschenbach conducts Midori October 30 through November 1.
Steven Reineke conducts an evening with Sutton Foster in November.
The WNO stages Puccini’s La Bohème in November.
The WNO Family Opera in December is Rachel Portman’s adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
Pianist Tzimon Barto returns in January.
Organist Cameron Carpenter performs February 4.
Emanuel Ax also stops by in February.
The WNO presents Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites in February and March.
Jason Moran performs In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959 in March.
The WNO revives Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in March.
Dianne Reeves returns in April.
Violinist Leonidas Kavakos performs in May.

The Kennedy Center also announced a festival dedicated to performing arts from Spain and Portugal. Iberian Suite: Arts Remix Across Continents will take place from March 2 through 24, and will feature theater, music, dance, and more.

Posted at 12:39 PM/ET, 03/04/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The prolific electronic musician talks about his new album and how he came to terms with his failed show at 9:30 Club. By Tanya Pai
Photograph by Ben Mistak.

RJD2 is something of a musical archaeologist. He sifts through music of every genre, from soul to funk to old-school hip-hop, and even occasionally movies and television shows, and digs up samples, which he builds into densely layered, beat-heavy tracks that are much more than the sum of their parts. His most famous work is, of course, “A Beautiful Mine,” a.k.a. the theme song to Mad Men, but Ramble John Krohn has been making his own brand of electronica for more than 15 years, starting in Columbus, Ohio, and moving eventually to Philadelphia, where he now lives. He’s experimented with drums, guitar, vocals, and all manner of production techniques, making for a constantly evolving sound that rests on the skeleton of soulful riffs mixed with killer beats.

He released his fifth full-length EP, More Is Than Isn’t, in October, the first album to be released on his own label, RJ’s Electrical Connections. He’s currently on tour (including a stop at the 9:30 Club on Sunday) and we caught up with him as he was driving to a show in New York to talk about his creative process, why he has no desire to move to New York, and that one DC show that didn’t go so well.

I noticed you still have a Columbus area code. How long has it been since you moved to Philadelphia?

It’s been about 12 years.

I went there for the first time last year—it’s a great city.

Yeah, it’s one of the few places in America I can safely say is living through a renaissance, particularly in the Midwest—it’s very much a city on the up and up.

How did you find the music scene there?

I was there in the mid- to late ’90s, and I was out and about doing the quote unquote underground hip-hop scene. It was a small place—there was a small handful of people doing things, and so everybody kind of knew each other. It was a tight-knit scene, for better or for worse; good and bad came along with that.

Do you feel pressure to move to New York for your music?

Part of the reason I moved to Philly was because I was having to commute to New York a lot for work at the time. But I knew that owning a home, and putting down roots in New York didn’t seem like a probable . . . it just seemed daunting. You have to be very rich. Whereas Philadelphia has much more affordable real estate, and it has a long history of music that I like, and it’s a much more working-class town. I also probably had more friends in Philly than I did in New York, so all those things kind of pointed to Philly. But from Philly you can get to pretty much anywhere on the Eastern seaboard, via train or whatever, so it was close enough.

Would you say a smaller music community like Philadelphia is more conducive to creativity?

I don’t know. In all honesty, I don’t feel like the context in which I make records is bound by Philadelphia city limits. I felt the same way about Ohio. From the onset I decided I was going to—even though it wasn’t really true—see my peer set as people I looked up to. And that’s still true: I see the context of what I do as a recording artist as being on an international level, more along the lines of what’s happening in the fields of music that I like and want to be a part of.

What was your goal with your latest album?

It actually is the first record I’ve made in a long time that wasn’t goal-oriented or that had a mission statement. If anything, it kind of had an anti-mission statement. I was just making songs; I went into it deciding I was gonna choose the songs and make the record based on what I liked, based on a visceral reaction, instead of trying to put together puzzle pieces, or thinking the songs would play a particular role. I went in with the same goal a batter goes into a season where all he wants to do is shoot for highest batting count possible. He really doesn’t care how that happens; he just wants the highest batting average at the end of the season. I was thinking of this the same way—I didn’t really care what the songs sounded like, or what style of music they leaned toward; I was shooting for the A-plus with the gold sticker.

Do you ever read reviews of your albums or shows?

I try not to. I went through a long period where I swore them off—the past six or seven years, by and I large actively avoided reading them. Occasionally over the last year or so I’ve not been so hard-line about that, but I still try to adhere to that. I don’t think it’s healthy to the creative process.

But with so many social media platforms available, it’s almost impossible to avoid it.

Exactly. That’s why I don’t take a hard line about it; it’s kind of inevitable. Like if I’m going to read my Twitter timeline or replies on Twitter, there’s tons. What, am I gonna hire someone to pre-read them and highlight the things that are comments, that essentially condense reviews of a record? It’s not really realistic, if you’re going to engage with a fan base, to avoid it altogether. The other side of that coin is you have to commit to not engaging your fan base. Everyone is gonna draw that line differently, but when you think about how extreme you’d have to go to to avoid it altogether, it’s pretty extreme; it’s not the kind of thing I think your average person is gonna wanna do.

Have you noticed that the social media component has changed how people consume your music, or has it changed at all how you put something together?

It doesn’t change how I do what I do. I come pretty firmly from school of thought that an album is an art form, and I’ve done that long enough that I have two feet entombed in concrete in that idea, for better or for worse. As to how I see people changing, I notice more often that there are more people who will just hear singles; they’ll only be familiar with singles, or something that’s got a video, or a leak or whatever. It seems like there’s a higher percentage of people who have only heard a couple of songs off the record, whereas if you go back seven or ten years, most of people listen to the entire album.

The same must happen with licensing songs for TV and media, which you’ve done often. Did you ever hesitate to do that because you don’t want one particular song to be the main impression people have of your music?

Well, I’ll say no to things, but not because of a perception. I don’t try to calculate what people’s perceptions are. To some degree I feel like that’s a fool’s game—music is subjective, and people are going to make up their own minds about what they think about a song, so I can’t imagine really caring or putting too much thought into how to carefully groom and nurture a particular image. It kind of goes along with the idea of branding yourself, which is a thing I can’t invest myself in. It’s fine—a thing a lot of people think a lot about it, a lot of management think about it—but that’s not really for me. My ethos around this is to just make records I believe in and make absolutely sure I’m confident in something I’m rolling out. Everything after that I feel like is out of my hands anyway, so why care?

Let’s talk about things you can control. Can you walk me through how you find an idea for a song and start to create it?

It can start in different places. It can start with a sample that has something intriguing about it, and I don’t know how to turn it into a song but it becomes a challenge or a puzzle. Other times I’ll be sitting at a keyboard or the drums, and I’ll just be noodling around and a thing will pop up, like a chord that’s interesting to me. Occasionally I’ll hear something, and for whatever reason it doesn’t sound like someone else’s song, it sounds more like an unfinished idea of my own—that sounds kinda crazy, but that happens to me sometimes. Usually it’s a relationship between drums and an instrument, so it’s basically the template for a groove sort of something like that—an alternate way of doing a thing—so I’ll go to studio and try to flesh that out.

How long does it take to get from idea to completed track?

It can be anything from two days to nine months. A few of the songs on the record are instrumental, and they’re shorter and not quite as complicated, so they came together quickly. It can sometimes happen as short as a couple of hours. But something like “Temperamental”—that took forever to come together, because I had that instrumental and was pitching it to vocalists and nobody really fit. The instrumental was probably a year old by the time [guest vocalist] Phonte took it on and said, “Yeah I think I can do this.”

So what should people expect from your show on Sunday?

It’s gonna be a hybrid thing—I’ve got a new band, and it’s f**kin’ awesome. It’s an incarnation of a bunch of songs I’ve never done, so I’m excited about that. People can expect part deejay, part band; without getting too into technical details, it’s a new way of presenting songs. I’m presenting these catalogue songs I’ve never done, and it works really well.

I remember there was a show of yours at 9:30 that you said didn’t go so well.

In 2010, I did a big US tour, like 60 dates, and the very first date of that tour was the 9:30 Club. At that time I was taking on the mantle of doing a lot of new things with the show . . . it was a complicated show with a band that had a bunch of change around it, and the 24 hours leading up to that show were a complete s**t show. The guys I was playing with were supposed to show up earlier in the day and didn’t get there until 11 the night before, so we were up til 2 or 3 AM. The preparation going into that show was—a lot of it was out of my hands, and there was nothing I could do, so it was a bit of a trial by fire.

When bands go out on tour, the common thing is to book a tour so the first couple of dates essentially don’t matter—that sounds cold, but that’s often what people will do. They’ll start in a small market, and play a couple small markets to iron out the kinks. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to go into that tour guns blazing. And for that first show, everything was happening way behind schedule; we were hours late, so I was freaking out, and a piece of gear got left in Philly, which I didn’t realize until I was down in DC. So ever since then I want to nail the 9:30 Club. But I feel like I got some presence of mind to some degree, like there was some redeeming element of the last show we played at the club, so that fire doesn’t burn quite as bright as it did before.

RJD2 plays 9:30 Club Sunday, February 23, at 7 PM. Tickets ($20) are available online.

Posted at 04:48 PM/ET, 02/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The annual music-and-food festival announces its lineup. By Tanya Pai
Foster the People are one of the headliners at this year’s Sweetlife festival. Photograph by Flickr user Jason Persse.

Here’s something to take your mind off the possible impending snowstorm: It’s time to get excited for outdoor-concert season, with the announcement of the lineup for this year’s Sweetlife festival, scheduled for May 10 at Merriweather Post Pavilion. The main headliners are Foster the People, whose latest album, Supermodel, comes out March 18; and Lana Del Rey, in case you have the urge to hear that song from The Great Gatsby soundtrack live. On the rap front is 2 Chainz, making a second stop in Washington after his show at 9:30 Club on March 24, and indie rockers Fitz and the Tantrums return to the festival a second time (they also played it in 2012).

Other acts include suddenly-everywhere Brit band Bastille, the DC-based two-piece GEMS, Bombay Bicycle Club, Chromeo, Spirit Animal, and more. Check out the full lineup on the festival’s website.

Sweetlife tickets go on sale this Friday at 10 AM; follow @sweetgreen on Instagram by 8 tonight for a promo code you can use to snag yours during the presale, which starts Wednesday at 10 AM.

See also: The 2013 Sweetlife Festival: Mud, 1; Salad, 0

Posted at 10:38 AM/ET, 02/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
No, this headline wasn’t bot-generated. By Sophie Gilbert

Here's some cheery news just in time for Christmas movie binge-watching: The Pizza Underground, Macaulay Culkin's pizza-themed Velvet Underground tribute band, will be coming to Black Cat's backstage March 21. In case you aren't familiar with the phenomenon of The Pizza Underground, Culkin and friends Matt Colbourn, Phoebe Kreutz, Deenah Vollmer, and Austin Kilham perform songs by the Velvet Underground with the lyrics rewritten to reference pizza.

Does it sound like a Sesame Street skit? Yes. Should you pay $15 to witness Richie Rich playing a kazoo live on stage? Only you can answer that question. But as Stereogum wrote in a review of the show a week ago, "I have seen the future of rock and roll, and it is delicious." Watch a video of the band performing below.

Posted at 03:50 PM/ET, 12/20/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Miley twerked against a human Christmas tree. Don’t act like you’re surprised. By Sophie Gilbert
Miley Cyrus “just being Miley.” Photograph by Andrew Swartz for iHeartRadio.

Everyone was there for Miley, from the pre-tweens who screamed every time an image of her was teased on the Verizon Center’s colossal screens, to the adults, who wanted to see which symbol of Christmas she’d be degrading this time. “Who is Miley going to twerk on tonight?” asked Robin Thicke, shortly into his brief Jingle Ball set of three interchangeable R&B songs plus the summer mega-hit “Blurred Lines.” “Not me.” He sounded faintly relieved.

But until Miley Cyrus’s closing set, the audience had to get through the long lineup of Top 40 mainstays billed below her, from the family-friendly Jason Derulo (whose one nod at controversy was pulling up his shirt to give the screaming audience a glimpse of his abs) to the distinctly more adult Flo Rida, who pulled a sweet-looking and palpably nervous teenager wearing a long-sleeved blouse onstage during his performance of “Whistle,” whereupon a backup performer dressed as Santa handed her an enormous, well, whistle. “You just put your lips together and you come real close,” crooned Flo, while the audience of several thousand teenagers screamed along.

Flo Rida’s performance was otherwise underwhelming, relying mostly on the vocal talents of a charismatic female singer with purple hair. His songs were all recognizable chart hits, from the breakout ode to casual club wear, “Low,” to the recent collaboration with Sia, “Wild Ones.” The same couldn’t be said for girl band Fifth Harmony, whose voices were impressive but whose X Factor-spawned songs were largely unfamiliar.

The artists were introduced throughout the show by radio personalities from Hot 99.5’s The Kane Show, who sported Christmas sweaters and Santa hats to amp up the crowd for the newly reformed Fall Out Boy (FWIW, the New York Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden December 14 featured guest presenters Lindsay Lohan and Katie Holmes). Patrick Stump, Pete Wentz, Joe Trohman, and Andy Hurley arrived after a curious holiday medley of instrumentals such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” launching into 2013’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark.” Even the youngest audience members knew all the words to the infectious “Sugar, We’re Goin Down,” a song that was older than some 20 percent of the people present. Meanwhile, the camera tracked Wentz non-stop as he careened furiously around the stage, a photo montage showed pictures of vintage punks circa 1980, the band entreated everyone present to rejoice in their weirdness, and jets of fire shot out of the front of the platform.

Fall Out Boy were followed by Enrique Iglesias, who sported a military cap and a wallet chain, and who delivered spirited if predictable renditions of “I Like It” and “Heart Attack”—and a profanity-free “Tonight (I’m Loving You).” Then emo-pop band Paramore came out, with magenta-haired front woman Hayley Williams appearing to be genuinely excited about performing “Still Into You.” During the ballad “The Only Exception” the crowd all launched the Torch apps on their iPhones, and a thousand little white stars glittered in the Verizon Center.

If not quite reaching critical mass, the screams definitely crescendoed upon the arrival of Austin Mahone, a sweet-looking singer who’s the caffeine-free Diet Coke to Justin Bieber’s Red Bull. The 17-year-old, who had perhaps the most meager discography of anyone present, made up for it by playing guitar through a cover version of Mario’s “Let Me Love You,” a song that came out when Mahone was nine. But with his floppy hair, his earnest smile, and his melodic pop songs, Mahone was the panacea for the rest of the Jingle Ball’s barely veiled sexual energy.

Not so Miley Cyrus, who descended upon the audience wearing a fur coat, a pair of high-cut white panties, a Chanel fanny pack, and a white turtle neck (the fur coat didn’t make it through the first song, Cyrus’ irrepressibly catchy anthem, “Party in the USA”). She twerked against a little person wearing a shiny silver catsuit and a Madonna-esque conical bra. She twerked against a performer dressed as a Christmas tree, but by this point in the year the twerking was so predictable that it almost felt mechanical. Still, Cyrus’s voice was strong and gutsy through “We Can’t Stop,” and through a cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.” Cyrus closed with “Wrecking Ball,” the power ballad from her most recent album, Bangerz, and toward the end of the number confetti shot out into the arena and helium balloons spelled out the title of the record (and its upcoming stadium tour, naturally).

Read More

Posted at 11:16 AM/ET, 12/17/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The outgoing president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has fostered community engagement, educational programs, and “a culture of listening” among musicians and audiences alike. By Kevin Nance

Deborah Rutter. Photograph by Todd Rosenberg.

When Deborah Rutter takes over as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts next summer, she’ll bring with her a sterling reputation. Over the past decade in the same position at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, widely viewed as one of the two best-run major orchestras in America (along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), Rutter, 57, has impressed the Windy City as a straight-talking manager, consensus-builder, and tireless fundraiser with excellent people skills and a heartfelt populist streak.

While it’s unclear how those skills will translate at the Kennedy Center—with its bigger budget, its more varied array of programs and tenants, and the greater prominence of political and society types among its funders and constituents—the feeling in Chicago is that if anyone is up to the task, it’s Rutter.

“She’s absolutely straightforward in a buoyant, positive way—she’s not any kind of a game player,” says Andrew Patner, longtime classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago’s classical radio station, WFMT. “The day she was announced here, she told me, ‘My job is to listen, and once I get to know people and see what they need, I go from there.’ Of course, people in her position always say things like that, but in her case it was true. Ten years later, the main thing she leaves here is a culture of listening. There’s a connection between management, staff, trustees, and musicians at the CSO that’s very, very unusual at orchestras around the country, and that’s largely because of Deborah.”

Most of Rutter’s major accomplishments at the CSO are familiar in arts administration circles: record-breaking ticket sales and fundraising the past three years running; lowering the average age of CSO concert-goers by about 10 years in a time when most orchestras are fretting about graying audiences; and luring the Italian maestro Riccardo Muti to Chicago as music director to replace the departing Daniel Barenboim. The last was no mean feat; Muti was famously skittish about returning to another music-director post after the collapse of his relationship with La Scala in Milan. (Following health issues that forced him to cancel dozens of appearances during his first year on the job in Chicago, Muti has bounced back in the past two seasons and is enjoying a prolonged honeymoon with CSO players and audiences alike.)

Less well-known is Rutter’s impressive track record as an impresario. When the frosty Barenboim gave two years’ notice as music director in 2004, he relinquished involvement with all concerts other than his own; Rutter and her staff filled the gap seamlessly, handling the bulk of the artistic side of the CSO season to an unusual degree. At the same time, Rutter continued to function as the principal presenter or co-presenter of performances at Symphony Center and other venues in Chicago, including festivals and other collaborations with theater, dance, classical, jazz, and pop music ensembles around the city.

In an interview with Washingtonian, Rutter emphasizes that interdisciplinary diversity of her experience in Chicago as preparation for the dizzyingly varied mission of the Kennedy Center. She also shrugs off a question about the political nature of the Washington and the Kennedy Center’s funding structure. “It’s true that in Chicago, I haven’t had the opportunity to deal with government funding because we get so little of it,” she says with a laugh. “But a huge aspect of our work at the CSO involves regular interactions with the mayor’s office and the governor here. When I was in Seattle [at the Seattle Symphony prior to coming to Chicago], we had a long-term relationship with the city that led to our raising $30 million a year to build a brand-new concert hall. So the experience of working with government is not new to me.”

Perhaps the least heralded but arguably most significant aspect of Rutter’s career in Chicago is her commitment to community outreach, in particular partnerships with arts organizations, schools, prisons, and other entities. Well before the widely publicized community engagement efforts of Muti and the CSO’s creative consultant, Yo-Yo Ma, Rutter was beefing up the orchestra’s outreach efforts and forging relationships with arts-education groups around town.

“Deborah really upped their game in terms of community outreach, the result of which is that the CSO is a lot of places now that they never used to be,” says Nancy McCarty, executive director of Storycatchers Theatre, a group that works with young women and girls in Illinois prisons and detention centers to create original musical theater based on their personal stories. During Rutter’s tenure, the group now works with Muti, who gives regular lecture-demonstrations for the inmates; CSO players, who perform as part of the group’s orchestra in their annual musicals; and members of the CSO chorus, who serve as teaching artists and mentors.

“It’s not just showing up for a one-hour assembly in high school and you never see them again,” McCarty says. “They’re embedding themselves in community organizations to make it a deep, committed, worthwhile experience. Our kids get to know the musicians who work with them, and our young composers form valuable peer relations with the CSO people. And it wouldn’t be happening if Deborah weren’t making those resources available.”

Rutter seems likely to build on that legacy at the Kennedy Center, where community outreach is a top priority. “I think this will be a way for Deborah to go national with her ideas, including notions about community engagement,” Patner says. “There are people who find their niche and want to stay in it, and then there are people who want to go on to bigger challenges every ten years or so. Deborah is in the second group; she wants to spend the last decade of her career riding that beast. She’ll be missed here, but it’s certainly good for the Kennedy Center.”

Posted at 12:19 PM/ET, 12/16/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Kennedy Center’s American Opera Initiative aims to show people how modern and relevant opera can be. By Sophie Gilbert
American Opera Initiative director Michael Heaston with Caitlin Vincent and Joshua Bornfield, librettist and composer of “Uncle Alex,” about Ellis Island. Photograph of Heaston, Vincent, and Bornfield by Margot Schulman.

Opera faces a lot of challenges in fostering new work. Struggling companies tend to shy away from the unfamiliar to sell tickets, and audiences often neglect new compositions in favor of classics. A Kennedy Center program is trying to remedy that situation. The American Opera Initiative, now in its second year, debuts three 20-minute operas this month, followed next June by the hourlong premiere of Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s An American Soldier.

“It’s easy for opera to be treated like a museum art form, where we’re only doing works by people who are dead,” program director Michael Heaston says. “We want people to know there are living librettists and composers creating new work and that there’s much more to opera below the surface.”

The trio of short operas taking a bow November 13 are Duffy’s Cut, a tale of three ghosts of Irish railroad workers seeking vengeance (by composer Jennifer Bellor and librettist Elizabeth Reeves); Uncle Alex, which explores an immigrant’s experience at Ellis Island (by Joshua Bornfield and Caitlin Vincent); and Breaking, about a TV reporter eager to win the news cycle (by Michael Gilbertson and Caroline McGraw). “Each says something about the American experience,” Heaston says. “And each deals with social change in an interesting way.”

The initiative benefits from its ties to the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, which gives emerging artists access to composer Jake Heggie, librettist Mark Campbell, and conductor Anne Manson. Heggie’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick has its local premiere with the WNO in February, and the composer will take part in a discussion.

Says Heaston: “We are making a case for continuing the operatic art form, but we’re also hoping to get people interested in being included in the process. The more people feel opera is accessible, the more successful it can be.”

American Opera Initiative. November 13 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets ($15) to the evening of 20-minutes operas are available online

This article appears in the November 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 11/11/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The lead singer of the Unifics was one of the local musicians featured in a photo essay we published in June. By Sophie Gilbert

Photograph of Johnson by Eli Meir Kaplan.

Back in June we ran a photo essay looking at some of Washington’s great soul musicians. We’re sad to report that featured artist Al Johnson, lead singer of the Unifics, died earlier this week following complications after surgery. The Newport News native and Howard University graduate found early success with “Court of Love,” recorded by the Unifics and arranged by Donny Hathaway. The song reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and led to a gig at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre with the then-17-year-old Stevie Wonder.

The Unifics reformed in 2004, and Johnson and the band regularly played shows in Washington and Virginia. A memorial service for Johnson will be held today, November 1, at 7 PM at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast DC. Read more about Johnson and some other local soul musicians here.

Posted at 09:52 AM/ET, 11/01/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The British chanteuse talks songwriting, being a “pessimist,” and the surprising inspiration for “Wildest Moments.” By Tanya Pai
Photograph of Jessie Ware by Paul Scala.

What do you do if you’re accepted to law school and then get an opportunity to tour as a backup singer for a former high school classmate? If you’re Jessie Ware, you put school on hold for a year, hit the road, land your own record deal, and never look back. The 29-year-old British singer/songwriter, who’s best known for her single “Wildest Moments”—a haunting, bittersweet, bassline-anchored track that’s a universally relatable reflection of a tumultuous romance—got her start as a supporting vocalist for friend and classmate Jack Peñate. (Florence Welch and members of the Maccabees were also classmates—something in the water maybe?) Peñate then connected her with electronic outfit SBTRKT, and their resulting track, 2010’s “Nervous,” snagged Ware a record deal. She’s admitted she wasn’t sure at first what she wanted her album to convey, but her first effort, Devotion, is as self-assured as it is eclectic, spanning sounds from dancey pop to butter-smooth, ’80s-influenced R&B, with some hip-hop thrown in for good measure—“If You’re Never Gonna Move” samples Big Pun, and a “Wildest Moments” remix features a verse from ASAP Rocky.

Despite her quick rise to success, Ware is charmingly humble and frank about the fickleness of fame. She’s currently touring the US, including a stop at Fillmore Silver Spring on Halloween. Before the tour began we chatted with her from London about finding her voice as a songwriter and the real story behind “Wildest Moments”—and broke the news that Drake is performing on the same night as her.

Where am I catching you today?

In my mum’s kitchen. I’m just making dinner for my family, so I’m frying some aubergines.

Your tour kicks off soon—anywhere you’re especially excited to play?

My first show is on the 17th in Dallas. I’m really excited about going to Texas. I’m excited about going to New Orleans, and . . . where else? Oh, Miami, just ’cause I want a bit of sun. I’m quite excited ’cause in Washington we’re playing on Halloween. Now, this could be a terrible idea because people could just be too busy going to their Halloween parties, but I’m hoping we can be, like, the pre-party for them, and I want everyone to dress up at the Silver Spring gig.

Are you going to be wearing a costume?

Yeah, standard! I’ve gotta find it first, but yeah, man. My makeup artist is amazing at fancy face paint, so we’re all gonna dress up.

Any ideas what you’ll be?

Whatever’s left in, like, CVS or something.

I know you’re a Drake fan—he’s actually playing the same night as you, at the Verizon Center.

Shut up! Shut up! Is he? Oh, my god, can you put a call out now and say Jessie would LOVE to meet Drake. Is he playing the same night as me? This is so annoying! I’ve got Drake in bloody Washington and I’ve got Kanye in Chicago. I know who I’d like to see.

You played at Coachella this year—what was the experience like?

It was wicked, man. I had, like, loads of people there; my album wasn’t out yet, and it was packed, and then you get to do it again the week after, which is kinda crazy. It was lovely; I loved it. It’s a funny one, ’cause Coachella was kind of at the beginning of festivals—it’s kind of the first one you do, because it’s the summer, isn’t it—so at that time you’re like, “Yes, oh, my god, loving it, feels really good.” I love festivals anyway; I’ve always been one that goes to them, and me and my friends have always been festival-goers. By September all you want is an intimate gig, but it’s like you always want the one thing when you’re doing the other thing. I definitely am ready to do my own tour now, but as soon as the festivals come around they’re really exciting.

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Posted at 11:54 AM/ET, 10/30/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Before their show at 9:30 Club on Wednesday, violinist/keyboardist Tom Hobden talks about the new album, headlining in Latvia, and being “ever hungry” creatively. By Tanya Pai
See English folk rockers Noah and the Whale at 9:30 Club on Wednesday. Photograph via Big Hassle Media.

Your first relationship. The devastation of your first real breakup. Those long, hazy nights of feeling invincible with your friends. And the moment you discover that somewhere along the way your friends started growing up—sometimes without you. For a certain kind of twentysomething, English indie folk rockers Noah and the Whale practically wrote the soundtracks to all those life events. Their debut album, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, was a twee celebration of young love, inspired by frontman Charlie Fink’s relationship with then-band member Laura Marling. Their breakup begat 2009’s melancholy The First Days of Spring. And with their fourth album, May’s Heart of Nowhere, they capture that nebulous, bittersweet realization that you’re becoming an adult whether you’re ready for it or not.

Over the years, the band’s roster has changed a few times; the current members are Fink, violinist/keyboard player Tom Hobden, bassist Matt Owens, guitarist Fred Abbott, and drummer Michael Petulla, who joined after 2011’s Last Night on Earth. They’re currently on tour in support of Heart of Nowhere, including a stop at 9:30 Club. We caught up with Hobden to discuss the band’s writing process, their experiences on the festival circuit, and their evolution as musicians and as individuals.

What are you up to today?

I'm in London, still at home; we kick off the tour next week. We’ve got a few little things going on—we’ve had quite a busy summer doing the festival circuit, festivals in the UK and Europe. There have been some really, really good ones, and some quite strange ones I wouldn't have expected to be good but turned out well. We did the Positivus festival in Latvia, and we turned up and realized we were headlining! At Glastonbury we had an amazing set, at 6 PM on Saturday. It was glorious; that was quite a moment for us. We had a really big crowd.

You just finished up a string of shows called Month of Sundays—what’s the idea behind that?

It was a tour focused on four London shows in West End Palace Theatre, so we had it every Sunday. It was really cool, and worked really well actually—I could kick back and watch a movie, and then get up when it was time for the band to come on. It was my ideal gig, really.

You released your fourth album a few months ago—how do you think your sound has progressed since the first album?

It's been interesting. When we were making it we were looking for a sound that best represented what we were doing live at the time, and other albums were quite different-sounding, so it was quite a challenge to figure out how to best perform those songs at our gigs. Now we’ve found a kind of common, binding sound, so we thought, Why not try to translate that to a record? We decided very early on to make a live album. Sometimes so much focus is on production and production value, but all our favorite records have been recorded live. It's quite a fun way to write a song in the first place.

Heart of Nowhere seems to be about that feeling of being in your twenties and thinking life is starting to move really fast.

Absolutely; I think about it all the time. It’s about a kind of common . . . a malaise, a sentiment you have when you get to this age that’s kind of looking for direction. In your teenage years don't have any responsibilities, so you can just do what you want. Some of the tracks focus on losing touch with friends, which is open-ended, whether it's in a touring band or you’re working and don't have enough time to socialize. It was inspired by an actual instance when one of Charlie’s friends got engaged and is about to get married, and that was quite a shock. We live in a world of instant communication, but you can still lose touch with people.

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Posted at 02:59 PM/ET, 10/14/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()