I’m not going to talk writing today. Today’s a day for listening to music.
Sometime this year, The Writer’s Center will partner with the Songwriters’ Association of Washington and offer workshops for budding songwriters. Sounds pretty interesting, doesn’t it? Well, in light of that piece of news, I’ve decided it might be kind of cool to have a discussion on music here at First Person Plural, particularly local bands that are the musical equivalent of writers: working hard in (sometimes) obscurity. Luckily for me, Shannon Madden, a writer and music-lover who recently moved to D.C., contacted me. In fact, it was my conversation with her that sparked this idea. Anyway, here’s Shannon Madden on a local band:
Tom McBride and The Whig Party
Last month, Tom McBride and the Whig Party played under a canopy of white Christmas lights and a wreath on the stage at Iota. This club-and-cafe is an intimate venue, and except for anyone standing behind the large partition in the middle of the room, the view is up close and personal, and it was a pretty good crowd for a Tuesday. Around 10:30 pm, a collection of five musicians took the stage, all dressed in variations on a business casual theme, as if they had all left the office to meet up for an after-work jam session.
The band’s founder is front man Tom McBride, originally from Boston, who assembled the Whig Party from exceptional musicians hailing from Rockville, Maryland, who are all connected through some channel stemming from their high school or college days.
The band has a distinctly southern vibe, no doubt owed in part to the time McBride spent as a student at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University. The music picks up influences starting somewhere in the bluegrass tradition of the Smokey Mountains, traveling down through the hills to Nashville with its sliding melodies, galloping country-western cadences and the slow rhythm of the blues, and dipping as far south as the Louisiana Bayou with some light Zydeco.
The Whig Party has the same kind of dichotomously serious and playful dynamic as the Charlottesville-based Dave Matthews Band. Drummer Andrew Toussaint and Jason Mattis, on bass, laid the foundation and commanded the rhythm of the room, moving handily from swing time, to Zydeco, to the deliberate down-beats of their blues numbers.
On top of that foundation was the interplay between three very talented musicians. McBride showed his chops on the guitar with assurance, barely glancing down to see what he was doing. Chad Fisk had a similar command of the keyboard, and Colin Crawford on the alto sax conjured the same kind of soul as that of the late LeRoi Moore of Dave Matthews. There were significant and pleasurable stretches of pure instrumentals, allowing the three to show off their individual and collaborative abilities.
Smooth and consistent, McBride’s voice is multi-dimensional and occasionally seems to change as the textures of his songs do. You can listen to it here:
During certain moments, his vocal tone suggests hints of Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, James Blunt, and even Kurt Cobain. His deep voice ascends and descends masterfully.
McBride is also a gifted poet. Read his stuff here. Not afraid to test the vocabularies of his listeners, he tells musical tales that exercise the imagination, and tempt the brain to intellectualize and interpret, though the power of the music allows the mind to save the over-thinking for the silence that inevitably follows a night of good music.
Like those of our greatest folk singers, McBride’s topics run the gamut from bar fights to serial killers to the passing of loved ones. “Revelry” and “Headed For” are both examples of stories that roll along steadily and have the trappings of a plot, but which reach philosophical depths, similar to Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” or Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues.”
The pieces offer so much more than the regular heartbreak and lust to which so many singers often turn, though when he does visit these themes, his take on them is more articulate than that of many of his contemporaries.
As the show progressed, the band stayed definitively cool. Fisk wore shades throughout the evening as he tickled the ivories of two keyboards, and McBride barely broke a sweat as he traversed the fingerboard of his guitar. Plenty of smiles were exchanged by the band-mates and the fun they were having on stage permeated the audience, keeping the night-owls entertained until past midnight on a weeknight.
In the spirit of Christmas, half of all proceeds from the evening went to Bread for the City, a food bank that serves the less-fortunate of the DC metro area.
Anyone who wants to hear a local DC band with copious talent and minimal pretense needs to check these guys out while they are still playing small local clubs without exorbitant ticket prices, because this band is going places. Their album drops in February.