Acoustic Music is Alive and Well

Christ Thile

Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers at Red Wing 2015

“When you go to heaven and hear singing, it will sound like these three women.”

So opined Chris Thile after the Americana trio I’m With Her finished a short yet moving set in the first half of an incredible three hours of music last evening at the Kennedy Center.  The concert hall’s acoustics were ringing all evening as the sold out crowd not only enjoyed the beautiful harmonies from I’m With Her’s Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, but also the instrumental talents and music-making of mandolinist extraordinaire Thile and the Punch Brothers, along with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyers, virtuosi of the banjo and upright bass respectively.

The Kennedy’s Center policy against photography leaves me using old photos from other concerts, but that hardly matters. The music was the focus last evening.

Thile was invited to curate a four-day American Acoustic Music Festival, and Friday evening’s show was clearly the headliner.  The Punch Brothers  opened the first half of the show with a tight set capped by the raucous Rye Whiskey.  I’m With Her followed, with a beautiful set of tunes with interwoven harmonies that belied the fact that this group hasn’t played together for much of this year. Finally Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyers closed out the first half of the show by demonstrating the musicality, technique, and compositional skills that made them the trailblazers they are in this genre. (And yes, there were jokes throughout the evening about first playing with people when they were eight.)


Bela Fleck

Bela Fleck, performing at Merlefest, 2012

The generous 90-minute second half featured collaborations among all the musicians, and that was when the magic was really made.  Fleck joined the Punch Brothers to kick off that half with one of Bela’s tunes from the influential 1980s album Drive, featuring the first of numerous delicious twin banjo romps between Fleck and the incredible Noam Pikelny.

Punch Brothers

Noam Pikelny

Virtually every tune in the second half was a highlight, beginning with Meyer and Fleck joining the Punch Brothers to play Blue Men of the Sahara, their composition from Strength in Numbers: The Telluride Sessions – an album that helped transform acoustic string music in the 1980s. O’Donovan and Jarousz took turns singing striking leads with the Punch Brothers. Fleck and Gabe Witcher played a wonderful banjo/fiddle duet in honor of Dr. Ralph Stanley – the last of the original triumvirate of bluegrass (Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs) – who passed away the night before.  (That led Pikelny to quip that Stanley’s death led to the crash of the entire world economic order.)

Watkins, Jarosz, and O'Donovan

Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan at Red Wing Roots Music Festival on July 11, 2015

As the night came to a close, Sara Watkins led the entire crew in the first of several encores – John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Days. Three tunes – and many more moments of high musicianship and amazing technique later – Chris Thile and his friends left everyone satisfied.

And I’ll leave you with a John Hiatt tune – Crossing Muddy Water – that was played last evening by I’m With Her.  Enjoy!

More to come…


Observations from the Road (The Celebrity Sighting – Obscure Music – Edition)

Aoife O'Donovan at Red Wing

Aoife O’Donovan

I have been on the road forever it seems.  So here are a few “Observations from the road…” posts which are – as always advertised – quirky and perhaps not ready for prime time.  You’ve been warned.

Celebrity Stalking:  True story.  As I was walking through National Airport earlier this afternoon following a flight back from Chicago, I noticed two young ladies carrying cases for a guitar and mandolin.  I had been focused on getting something for a late lunch before rushing to the office, but my brain did engage to the point where I said to myself, “That sure looked like Aoife O’Donovan – and I bet that was Sarah Jarosz with her.”

At this point you may be asking yourself, just who are Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz?

Well, for music lovers who veer away from the Taylor Swift variety of music, they are two-thirds of one of the most terrific – yet widely unheralded – music groups today:  I’m With Her. (And no, they are not connected to the Hillary Clinton campaign.  They’ve had the name for a couple of years.)  Sara Watkins – known to most as the female fiddle player and singer in Nickel Creek – is the third member of the group, and they gave a terrific performance last year at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival.

I quickly turned into the celebrity stalker, following them down the escalator towards ground transportation.  As they were headed into the women’s restroom (I’m not making this up), I called out “Ladies!”  Aoife, who was trailing, turned back, and I caught up and said, “I’m so looking forward to your Kennedy Center concert tomorrow night.”

Jarosz and O'Donovan

Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan at Red Wing 2015

She smiled and asked if I was on her flight.  I told her no, that I had just seen the two of them walking through the airport and wanted to let her know how much I enjoyed her music.  We exchanged pleasantries for 30 seconds or so, then I turned to catch my cab.  I refrained from saying that her “Oh Mama!” is the first song on my playlist about half the mornings when I listen to music while walking or exercising.

When I was a barmaid you were my mead
When I was a brave knight you were my steed
When I was so lonesome I wanted to cry
you came to me in the night…
You cried oh mama sing me a love song
pour me some bourbon and lay me down low
and ooh baby my poor heart is breaking
I feel the ground shaking right under my feet just put me to sleep

I’m With Her is playing with Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, plus Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer on Friday evening at the Kennedy Center.  I’ve had my tickets for weeks.  Should be a terrific show.

The Humidity Tour (or perhaps The Whiskey Tour):  In the past two weeks I’ve traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, Houston, Texas, and Chicago, Illinois – with a couple of brief stints in Washington thrown in the middle. Just about every one of those cities experienced major thunderstorms or otherwise violent weather while I was there. One of my colleagues quipped that I was on “The Humidity Tour!”  After about 145% humidity in Houston on Tuesday (only a slight exaggeration), I agree.  Perhaps some band would like to take up that for the name of their next jaunt around the South.

I’ve also been fortunate to find a few good bourbon bars while on this tour.  The best was probably Husk in Charleston (thanks to colleague Greg Kidwell for the recommendation).  Edgar’s Proof and Provision at the Georgian Terrace Hotel (across from the Fox Theatre) in Atlanta wasn’t bad. And while Andrew and Candice made plans to take me to Jack Rose here in DC for Father’s Day, a freak power outage changed those plans.  We’re scheduled to return on this coming Sunday, and with 2,687 bottles of whiskey on the wall, I can’t wait!

A Walk-Off for #20:  While in Houston, I took advantage of an Astros home stand to visit number 20 of the 30 Major League Baseball ballparks in my quest to see them all.  Minute Maid Park is a relatively new park in downtown Houston (and surprisingly urban in feel) with a retractable roof and excellent sightlines for baseball.  (That roof was needed on Tuesday evening.  Did I mention the humidity?)

Minute Maid Park

Minute Maid Park – Now two-thirds of the way through my MLB ballparks quest!

The Astros were playing the LA Angels – the second time I’ve seen these two teams in the last three weeks.  But where all the fireworks happened in the first inning in Anaheim (with back-to-back jacks by Trout and Pujols), this time the Astros waited until the bottom of the ninth to load the bases and then get a walk-off, two-run single.  It was a great night of baseball, and now I’m two-thirds of the way through my bucket list of MLB ballparks.

To celebrate, let’s pour a bourbon and wrap this up with Aoife’s acoustic version of “Oh Mama!”

More to come…


A Philly Family Weekend

Julia and Barry

Julia and Barry Katz (photo credit: Becca Marsh from Facebook)

Candice, Claire, Andrew and I gathered this weekend in Philadelphia to celebrate the wedding of Julia Pentz and Barry Katz.  It was a special time for us all.

Gathering with friends from our fifteen years when we lived in the Shenandoah Valley community of Staunton, Virginia (and with their children – who now live around the world) was a special treat.  Candice and I remember when Julia was born. Over the years we have seen Julia and her parents at least once a year and we are delighted that she has found such a wonderful life partner in Barry.  The setting at the Curtis Arboretum was beautiful, the new friends we made were delightful (good people attract good people), and the threat of summer thunderstorms never materialized.

We also had a great time getting acquainted with parts of the city.  As I posted earlier, Candice and I arrived first and explored some of the Philadelphia food scene at Amada on Friday evening.  By Saturday morning Claire had joined us as we wandered through the multitude of offerings at the Reading Terminal Market.  Candice and I decided to take the “when in Rome” approach for lunch, and had a Philly Cheese Steak.  Well, it was good going down…

Andrew showed up soon afterwards and we explored a bit more of the center city before getting ready for the early evening wedding.

Public Art

Candice takes in Philadelphia’s Public Art


The Philly skyline

The Philly skyline, as seen from the top of our hotel


Claire and Andrew ready for the wedding

Claire and Andrew ready for the wedding

Julia’s parents – Lundy and Ellen Pentz – are Andrew’s godparents, so we used the occasion to take a picture of Andrew and all three of his godparents since John Lane (Andrew’s other godfather) was also celebrating with Julia and Barry last evening.  The only other photo we have of the four of them together is from Andrew’s baptism, when he was a mere five months old!

Andrew with his godparents

Andrew with his godparents: Lundy, Ellen, and John (l to r)

Sunday brought a wonderful brunch, hosted by Barry’s parents, where we had the chance to spend more time with these terrific friends before we all scattered to the winds.  Then – taking advantage of being in Philadelphia – we had a Dim Sum lunch in nearby Chinatown with poet – and dear friend – Neal Hall from our time at the American Academy in Rome.  It was a delightful close to a beautiful weekend.

Family in Philadelphia

With Candice, Andrew, and Claire (clockwise from bottom left) as we wrapped up our time in Philadelphia

Thank you Julia, Barry, Ellen, and Lundy for including us in this special time in your lives.  We love you all.

More to come…


The Value of Six

Leonard Pitts, columnist for the Miami Herald, has written a sobering column this morning entitled “Trust me, you know someone who has been raped.”

“The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network says that one woman in every six has been the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault. It’s an awesome, awful number. Think about it in terms of women you know. Think about Bonnie, Kadijah, Heather, Consuela, Sarah and Kim. One, two, three, four, five …


Maybe she’s never told you, so maybe you think it didn’t — couldn’t — have happened, not to one of your six. But the numbers are what the numbers are. Maryum, Stephanie, Yumiko, Keshia, Laurie … and Pam. One, two, three, four, five …

And six.

It’s not a big number. You were counting past it in kindergarten.”

Of course he’s right.  We all know someone who has been the victim of sexual assault. And we all know people – from work, social circles, extended family, really anywhere – who have been raped and never talk about it.

Pitts begins his column writing about the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman, had his father plead for leniency in court because he didn’t want a steep penalty for “20 minutes of action,” and a judge – Aaron Persky – who granted that leniency in giving him six.  Months.  The final six from the column:  according to RAINN, only six in a thousand sexual perpetrators end up in jail.

“If you are a woman, or a man who cares about women, you ought to seethe, and then you ought to do whatever you can to fix a culture that makes possible a Brock Turner — and an Aaron Persky.

Because, either way you look at it, the value of six is small — too small for safety, too small for solace.

And way too small for justice.”

More to come…


Fine Food in Philly

Amada Barb

Bar in Amada Restaurant, Philadelphia (photo credit: Amada restaurant)

The Browns are gathering in Philadelphia this weekend to celebrate the wedding of Julia – the daughter of our dear friends Ellen and Lundy Pentz –  and Barry Katz.  Claire arrives from the west coast late tonight, while Andrew arrives mid-day tomorrow, after recovering from the adrenaline rush of attending tonight’s Beyoncé concert in Baltimore.  (Can we say “excited?!”)

That left Candice and me to our own devices today.  Naturally, we found some fine Philadelphia food.

Julia and Barry had included Chef Jose Garces’ Amada restaurant in their list of recommended places to eat near the hotel.  We checked out the web site and jumped on it.  Here’s the site’s description of Chef Garces:

“Since opening Amada in Philadelphia in 2005, Chef Jose Garces has emerged as an enormous talent and one of the nation’s most gifted chefs and restaurateurs. Today, he is the owner and operator of more than a dozen restaurants across the country, plus a thriving event planning division and 40-acre Luna Farm. He is a 2009 winner of the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic” award and one of only a few chefs in the country to hold the coveted title of Iron Chef. “

We love new takes on traditional tapas, and Amada didn’t disappoint.

Roasted Eggplant

Berenjenas (Roasted Eggplant, Whipped Goat Cheese, Raisin Escabeche) at Amada

Candice and I are big fans of small plates, because when it comes to food we share just about everything.  Tonight we sampled six of Amada’s tapas, including the delicious Berenjenas (roasted eggplant), octopus (with potatoes and chorizo), and Gambas Al Ajillo (or Garlic Shrimp). 

Garlic shrimp

Garlic shrimp

We felt very virtuous after walking ten blocks to-and-from the restaurant on a glorious summer evening. So virtuous, in fact, that we went to the “Bank and Bourbon” bar in our hotel for a nightcap!

Philly – located between the twin “mountains of conceit” that are New York and Washington – is often overlooked in the discussion of places to enjoy.  But Amada’s reminded us once again that there is some fine food in Philly.

More to come…


Radical Common Sense

Franklin, TN

Franklin, TN

“Radical common sense” is a term used by some preservationists to describe a mindset that values repair over replacement. Writing in the Fall 2015 issue of Architecture Boston, architects Jean Carroon, FAIA and Ben Carlson explore why this may be seen as radical.   Carroon and Carlson note at the top of their article that “while reuse of water bottles and grocery bags is rapidly gaining ground, reuse of buildings and building components is not.”

The authors note that it is “almost always less expensive and easier to replace a whole building and almost any of its elements — doors, windows, light fixtures — than to repair and reuse. Replacement also can offer measurable and consistent quality with product certifications and warranties not available for repaired items. Theoretically, a new building can ensure “high performance” and significantly reduce the environmental impact of building operations while creating healthier spaces. What’s not to like?”

But if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  And in the course of their essay, they make the case that in chasing new solutions, we have neglected the time-tested way towards sustainability.  In the process humans have used more raw materials and created more waste in the past 50 years than in all previous history.

I like their closing paragraph:

“Radical common sense requires moving past our throwaway culture to a regenerative world that creatively and persistently embraces stewardship. The path to a healthy, sustainable world is complex and certainly not linear, and it may never be fully achieved. But we cannot consume our way to sustainability. We must flip this dangerous paradigm and place real economic and social value on what already exists and the stewardship required to maintain it.”

I believe it is time to put that radical common sense to use.

More to come…


The Age of Wonder

Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder

During high school graduation ceremonies for Andrew, one of the speakers built her remarks around a relatively new work at the time that captured the love of knowledge and learning.

Five years later, I finally  picked up Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder (first published in 2008).  Sometimes it takes a while, but I try never to pass up a good book recommendation.

And I’m so glad I did.  The Age of Wonder is a terrific work which looks at the growth of science in the Romantic Age.  Holmes tackles this broad topic with a blend of history, biography, art, science, and philosophy. In 500 pages that seem to fly by, the reader follows the intertwined stories of such historical luminaries as astronomer William Herschel and his sister Caroline, botanist Joseph Banks, chemist Humphry Davy, and writers such as Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats.

The book rightly received stellar reviews from the start, which I cannot top.  “Flat-out fascinating,” “groundbreaking,” and “superlative” are just a few of the descriptions applied to this work.  I can only add “amen” and “highly recommended.”

Holmes has said that he wrote this book because,

“The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough.  We should be impatient with them.  We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.  Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain:  the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.”

I love that idea of a “wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective” built on wonder, the power of hope, and a belief for good.  I am so thankful that Richard Holmes captured that idea and its foundation for today’s generation in this fascinating book.

More to come…