There are concept albums—and then there are three CD set, 43-songs-full concept albums. We'd call Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies the latter. The album, an effort by songwriters Christian Kiefer, J. Matthew Gerken and Jefferson Pitcher. To celebrate inauguration weekend, the three put on a concert with several local artists covering their tunes at the Sixth and I Synagogue on Saturday night.
DC folk rockers These United States, who only get more polished every time we see them live, kicked things off with a rollicking half an hour set of songs mostly from their most recent album, Crimes. Their Americana-tinged music and sweeping lyrics set the tone of the night perfectly.
The rest of the evening alternated between the CD's songwriters and their backing band playing their songs, and other folks like Jukebox the Ghost, Laura Burhenn, and musicians from outside of DC covering the songs.
Some of the songs were surprisingly poignant—though, we suppose we shouldn't be that surprised that the history of this nation's presidents can result in some heavy, moving material (a song about James Buchanan called "God Will Strike You Down," anyone?)
Other tunes were more playful, like Tim Fite's rendition of a tune about Grover Cleveland and his 21-year-old wife. Fite suggestively rolled up his pants leg while singing that "I love you but not like your parents do." Jukebox the Ghost broke with the mostly folky tone the other musicians set to play a funky version of a song about Jimmy Carter.
But while the set was enjoyable, and the musicians talented, we couldn't help but think that maybe 43 songs about 43 presidencies is a concept practiced better in theory than in execution. Some of the songs had their charms, but most of them blended together in a mix of forgettable folkiness and preciously quirky lyrics.
But hey, we can't complain too much. Where else other than DC could you listen to a full set of songs about every president in history? Mix that in with it being inauguration weekend, and you had yourself an "only in Washington" sort of night. And that's what we love about this city.