all words: Colin Wilhelm
all photos: Rachel Eisley
It must be hard being an alt country/Americana rock band in D.C.; there’s not nearly the type of scene that exists for punk and other indie rock, despite a tight-knit community of cross-genre music appreciators as well as displaced Southerners and Midwesterners. Many Washingtonians will instantly dismiss any music labeled country for the over-produced, faux-blue collar, Nashville-produced schlock that populates most of country radio. The bands reviewed in this article don’t fit that mold, and because of that you’ll likely never hear them on WMZQ. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, which means some, like the Junior League Band, are tragically under-heard because of the genre they play combined with an less than fortuitous geographical location.
Writing about the Junior League band is impossible without first mentioning Lissy Rosemont’s vocals: they’re incredible. Her voice is smooth and distinctive—everything Keystone Light or those other cheap American lagers claim to be. She has a unique vocal style, shaky when the song needs vulnerability, powerful when it needs strength; her delivery can often be sound as if she were standing in a field singing and the listener were in a car with windows rolled down, fast approaching and to a sliding complete stop directly in front of her, and those building notes of hers sometimes seem impossibly high. Unique vocal descensions and builds aside, Rosemont’s voice sounds like a Sunday School girl whose Cheshire smile belies her boozing, smoking, and overall carousing; there’s a slightly dangerous playfulness to it. She can pick a banjo and blow a harmonica as well, though none of it compares to the smoky velvet in her voice.
It’d be unfair to make it through this article without praising her Junior League bandmates as well, especially guitarist John Lee, who provided some superb guitar riffs and solos, especially on New Orleans-funkified versions of Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues” and Rosemont’s “baby’s daddy’s” favorite song, the (underrated because Phil Spector overproduced the album it’s on) Beatles’ song “I’ve Got a Feeling”. Overall, with occasional horns and the kind of country funk that belongs to college towns in general, the Junior League Band sounded as though they belonged in a Bourbon Street club or Athens, GA as much if not more so than the 9:30 Club.
Likewise one could hear the Bostonian influence in earlier act Kingsley Flood’s music; in fact, they sounded a bit like the Dropkick Murphy’s if they’d listened to more of The Band and less of The Pogues. They bring the same hard-working intensity and momentous energy into their performance. Their lead guitarist, George Hall, looks not unlike Garth from Wayne’s World, drawn out of his Aurora basement 20 years later to lay down some sick guitar riffs, and occasionally he branched into weirder territory than typical for a band of this nature. Frontman Naseem Khuri provided a pace-setting energy, but his vocals often fell flat for me.
They felt underpowered and two-dimensional on several songs, more like the nasally singer of a pop-punk Warped tour band than an Americana band. Despite his positively directed maniacal energy, that the rest of Kingsley Flood seemed to feed off of, his somewhat generic singing pulled the force of their songs back sometimes. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of their band, which was at it’s strongest on their several uptempo, ruckus-ing songs (like one-time NPR song of the day “I Don’t Wanna Go Home”). Kingsley Flood had a fun and though almost cheesy vibe throughout their set, exemplified by the oversized drums and horns utilized on several songs and somewhat evocative (though by no means derivative) of Reel Big Fish and other 90’s swing revival bands.
Openers Typefighter took their Americana down the more folk rock route, evoking the Decembrists in both bombasticness and the understated four part vocal harmony of their closing song, the aptly titled “I Wrote this Song For You”. Lead singer Ryan Mcluaghlin’s raspy voice and melancholically capo’d guitar could not have conveyed the emotional impact of the lyrics, “It’s all I think about, it’s all I want/No one can take that away,” more powerfully.
A hearty but less than half full 9:30 Club seemed to appreciate the several strengths of these bands, who each brought down the house at least once during their respective sets, while overlooking some of those same bands’ shortfalls. The crowd served as a metaphor for Americana and bluegrass music in a city that largely rebuffed its former predominant, magnolia tree Southernness for a more Northeastern identity.
Still, there’s a renewed appreciation for ‘new grass’ and Americana throughout the country; perhaps that same renewal is on its way to sleepy, humid old Washington, with new Americana stars the Avett Brothers headlining the traditionally punk-dominated HFStival, though I don’t expect the skateboarders behind Wilson High School to start blaring aggressive banjo-laden tracks anytime soon.