All words: Robert Winship — All photos: Olivia Gough
True story: I hit a biker on my way to this show. The guy was okay, but it really rattled me. So just sitting down and basking in a little mid-tempo blues rock was a welcoming prospect. In fact, having a frame in which to categorize an experience really set this night apart from so many others. I don’t think I’ve seen a bad show at Black Cat, but if you make it out to a number of shows, you need a varied experience. So thank you, poorly padded DC biker, crossing the intersection at a red light—you made this night stand out. Hope you’re okay!
Beanstalk library drew in the first crowd and began to bellow a more-than-palatable brand of blues rock. Their five-piece sound was complete with the requisite Rhodes organ and violin, which was sadly under-mixed and lost in the more standard rhythm guitar work. The Beanstalk Library is a much stronger and better band when they give into the blues and not as much when they pulled out the country crossover jams. Olivia Mancini joined the band on their second-to-last track, a swinging, throaty anthem with multiple harmonies. At that moment, they touched briefly on the clarity and punch of Delta Spirit, so it was their finest track.
The crowd is now scattered, but sizeable. In a quick glance around the room, I observe far too many glasses of beer and not nearly enough cans. In fact the mean age of the crowd is noticeably higher than just about any other night of the week. The value is, of course, most people are here for the show and to be seen and heard.
There is an automatically disarming charm and courage to the natural intimacy of Vandaveer’s set. The only physical instrument on stage is the guitar wielded by Mark Charles Heidinger, Vandaveer’s chief component. The execution of each song rides entirely upon Mark and band mainstay Rose Guerin’s ability to create harmony and melody over the beat of the guitar strum. Mark channels the high wavering timbre of Cat Stevens and often the low chamber of Bob Dylan. But Rose is the initial framing element of Vandaveer’s set. Her platinum blonde hair and cheerful smile are such a broad tribute to country music’s great female vocalists you might worry she hadn’t got the pipes to back it up. But as sure as Mark lead each song into deep folk strut, Rose accompanied him in beautiful range.
Mark hails from Ohio, by way of the land of whiskey and has retained an amazing tone and craft amid the bevy of entitled young intellectuals that pack these bars day nightly. It’s not difficult to wander down to IOTA or Jammin’ Java and find yourself a talented young singer -songwriter cashing in their best words and chords for a decent fan-base. It is difficult to find a genuine connection with such artists. Around the mid-point of their set Mark and Rose and explained that their newest album would be a series of renditions of “old-old folk songs”. They slipped into a cover of “Murder of the Lawsons”, an old Stanley Brother’s tribute to the eponymous (and real-life) murder. I came to this show for Astra Via, but if it’s not immediately clear, Vandaveer stole the show by playing to such an obvious draw of the Black Cat, the intimacy.
For Astra Via, this was familiar territory and they sounded strong in it. Their set began with a 16-count drum click into the bright pop of “Fame”. Compared to Vandaveer, Astra Via, the newest project from local staple Olivia Mancini, is quite charismatic. Olivia is comfortable behind her cherry Telecaster to the point of swagger, while Jarrett and crew handled the rhythm and groove so well. The bass player, especially, dropped deep hooks and punchy fretwork, though I couldn’t really hear him until about the third song.
During the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to the only available single from the Astra Via’s debut EP “Be Where You Are”. It sounds an awful lot like a Jenny Lewis project, but I mean no disrespect. It’s just the off-handed singing coming through the transistor filter feels just like “Portions for Foxes.” Olivia split vocal duties a little under half of the time with founding band-mate Jarrett Nicolay, who doubled down on guitar as well. The pace was steady moving through mostly mid-tempo jams. It was a short set. Their debut EP was cause for evening, so they played all of their material to a happy crowd of friends and family. This project has a really strong presence and I look forward to seeing what boundaries Astra Via can push in their songwriting.