How to best spend $202 in the 202 this March
This month, it is possible to have a fulfilling and crowded month of mind-opening music experiences without spending any money.
This is all thanks to the Kennedy Center, who have flexed their relevant muscles to organize the impressively progressive and unexpectedly woke Direct Current festival:
In their own words…
Direct Current’s inaugural season traces an artistic narrative from the 1960s to the present through a thoughtfully curated collection of work — almost all of which draws on multiple disciplines – by some of America’s foremost cultural risk-takers.
They had me a “cultural risk takers.”
For if you read this column often, you will know that I prioritize challenging and confrontational artists, whether they’re performing in basements or sticky dive bars. The Kennedy Center, however, is an institution everyone from my optometrist to my mom has heard of. This has the two-headed benefit of giving said Kennedy Center cutting-edge relevance and positioning themselves as curators of progressive art and giving some very innovative, genre-bending, hungry artists a larger audience (and a bigger paycheck) than they’re normally offered.
This is certainly the case for two Baltimore artists scheduled to make their way down I-95: experimental rock group Horse Lords (performing Wednesday March 14th), who I last saw on a pop-up stage in a wooded campground, and hip-hop firebrand Abdu Ali (performing Wednesday March 7th), who I last saw in a narrow dive bar. Both exhibit the quintessentially fierce, and sonically deconstructed, sound of Charm City; Horse Lords with precise, unconventional, and hypnotic drone rock, and Abdu Ali with in-your-face electric hip-hop born from the black, queer, and punk identities he straddles and celebrates.
Meanwhile, on Thursday March 15th, the Kennedy Center will make space for DC’s innovative music communities, with Uptown Art House director and experimental hip-hop/jazz/electronic visionary Jamal Gray curating his network of artists into an “immersive piece of speculative fiction conveyed through the mediums of sound, movement and video.”
As with most performances under the mysterious direction of Mr. Gray, I can not predict exactly what it will be, though I can assure you it will be unrepeatable and inimitable.
Slightly more predictable, but no less powerful will be saxophonist Kier Neuringer and the Irreversible Entanglements collective (performing Tuesday March 14th), who sat at the top of my artist recommendation list for 2017 and whose members include 202 in the 202 regulars Luke Stewart and Moor Mother. The poetic jazz ensemble has not played in DC since releasing their self-titled LP, a four-song project that discusses the black experience in America with gutting truth and captivating poetry.
Moor Mother’s spoken word, backed by the ensemble’s tight avant-garde style, will leave you shook and inspired…
Lastly, yet certainly not leastly, the KenCen# is also featuring free performances by a collection of artists who would otherwise play prohibitively pricey venues in DC or may never have performed here at all. At the top of my list, on Friday March 16th, is Suzanne Ciani; a pioneering synthesist who defies expectations of what an electronic artist can be. Her rare live performances with the Buchla Synthesizer are organic and transporting, more akin to a sonic Imax experience than an “electronic music” performance (read more about her performance and relationship with technology in my 2017 Moogfest recap).
Now, if you (and your GCal) can handle it, I have also laid out below the best ticket-requiring, late-night, venue-housed shows in the 202 this month.
Even though clearly, this March, the best sounds in DC are free.
Starting budget = $202
Thursday, March 1st: Kelela
Location: 9:30 Club
Hometown shows for nationally popular, DC-reared artists are always special. Even if Kelela doesn’t exactly come from the “DC music scene,” her experiences in this city shaped her career leading up to the release of 2017’s Take Me Apart, an album that balances heartbreak and reflection with a sense of empowerment.
I am interested to see how her futurist overtones and vividly sensual production translate on stage. I presume that she’s in goods hands at the 9:30 Club, but I’ve read enough about her immense empathy and emotional complexity to know that it might the 9:30 Club who is in good hands.
Remaining budget = $172
Friday, March 2nd: The Effects, Natural Velvet, Park Snakes
Location: Slash Run
This show is a model of DC’s evolving and adapting punk history: The Effects are hard-working, harder-playing, prolific rockers under the Dischord Records umbrella; Park Snakes are the DC DIY-band-you-should-know, pushing post-punk with both attitude and enticing restraint #; Baltimore cousins, Natural Velvet have been sneaking into heats over the past year with an emotive and confident brand of post-punk (and a killer artistic eye in music videos like “Kristina”).
Housing this ripping bill is Slash Run, the ideal venue for this generation of exploratory punk, featuring absurdist murals of DC history, a succulently messy burger, and a bathroom full of intelligently inappropriate graffiti.
Shows like this, full of defiant and community-focused bands, make the city feel a little smaller.
Remaining budget = $167
Saturday, March 3rd: Ed Schrader’s Music Beat
Location: Comet Ping Pong
I ride very hard for the gritty, silly, elevated DIY sound of Baltimore’s musicians. Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, the two-man show, composed of Devlin Rice on bass and Ed assaulting a floor tom, is a minimalist triumph that pulls off punk-ragers# followed by ballads# followed by hilarious anthems to the mundane#.
Their latest album Riddles (or the three singles I’ve heard so far) is a noticeable expansion of their sound, with fellow Baltimorean Dan Deacon contributing production and electronic injections:
The duo’s aburist backbone and wry humor is intact on tracks like “Dunce” and “Seagull”#. As a fan, I have no fear their live show will retain its lovably raucous appeal. But will Ed Schrader’s famously minimal Music Beat feature a whole band this time? An electronic rig perhaps? A light show larger than a single bulb under a floor tom#?
You’ll have to stay late at Comet Ping Pong to find out.
Remaining budget = $155
Tuesday, March 6th: Cloning, Ami Yamasaki, Radiator Greys, Patrick Cain x Txnykill
For those showing even the slightest interest in this world of deconstructed, often abrasive music, this show at the ever-welcoming DIY space Rhizome is a good introduction. I can understand if my monthly pleas to attend “out-there” shows of drone, experimental, and often challenging noise music, can fall on deaf ears, but this space, its organizers, and the musicians prioritize inclusivity and artistic discourse.
Once you’re in the door, acts like Radiator Greys excel in leading the listener/audience up a steady incline of ambient anxiety and pulsing electronic rhythms, culminating in a chaotic, yet cathartic manipulation of tape loops and industrial noise collages.
Producer duo Patrick Cain and Tonykill have been toying with different experimental sets around DC recently, so I can’t give you a full picture of their sound, expect to say they’re both great at what they do, and what they do is wild. However, on the subject of Rhizome and local music, I want to quote the Washington Post’s Chris Richards, who himself is quoting Rhizome regular/saxophonist Sarah Hughes:
’Communities of artists and audiences create culture together.’ Which is to say, in a robust music scene, there are no spectators. Showing up night after night makes you a participant with a stake in what happens.
Though I try not to judge people who aren’t down for Rhizome’s ethos or this show’s sense or exploration, if this isn’t what you’re looking for in live music, then maybe you should spend your money elsewhere and stay home.
Remaining budget = $145
Wednesday, March 7th: Vundabar, Rat Boys, Thunder Dreamer
A month of progressive sounds should, for perspective’s sake, be balanced with the straightforward pleasures of rock.
Boston garage rockers Vunbarbar have been slowing chipping away at the DIY ceiling and making their mark in smaller venues like DC9 with a math rock that is not a total departure from the anachic sound of Ed Schrader.
Tracks like “Acetone,” on their brand new LP Smell Smoke, are upbeat and jangly with a strong emotional backbone. And at DC9, with a more advanced sound system than a DIY basement, Brandon Hagen’s ambulant vocals will rise above the necessary, yet controlled, loudness of Drew McDonald’s drums; giving the audience a peak at whether this group ambitions’ lie in the world of small, homey venues or larger, national stages.
Remaining budget = $133
Wednesday, March 14th: Oddisee, Ras Neybu
Location: U Street Music Hall
Let’s return to Chris Richard’s piece in the Post about the value of local music…
Catching a local musician in concert on a semiregular basis allows us to follow that musician’s struggles and developments. We can hear fresh ideas come into bloom. We can take note of old ideas being abandoned and swept away.
Most important, we can measure all of that change against the change in our own individual lives.
This applies perfectly of Oddisee. Even though it’s been a long few years since DC’s most conscious rapper left for the green grasses of New York, he comes back to our city with an open heart and a longing for U Street’s clubs#.
For this reason alone, no one should miss the impassioned funk of an Oddisee show. But those who have been following him for years will find even more emotional depth watching his career develop at a pace comparable to the dramatic change happening just above the crowds heads at U Street Music Hall.
Remaining budget = $103
Friday, March 16th: Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi
Location: Kennedy Center
We all need a good existential crisis from time to time. And if you didn’t find it at the aforementioned the Radiator Greys show, then Philip Glass is here for you.
I still claim that you can have a fulfilling month of music only spending money on buses to and from the Kennedy Center’s free programming for the Direct Current festival. However, if there is one paid show within the festival you shouldn’t miss, it’s Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi.
The legendary, contemporary composer Philip Glass will revive the score to his 1982 cult-classic film Koyaanisqatsi with filmmaker Godfrey Reggio. The music, on par with the actual film, deals with humanity’s destructive powers and imbalanced relationship with the natural world. The film’s eerie time-lapse imagery of urban destruction and the soundtrack’s relentless drama is an unmistakable product of Cold War anxiety, but has not lost its power 36 years later.
Remaining budget = $78
Wednesday, March 21st: Son Lux, Sinkane, Hanna Benn
Location: Black Cat
It’s a testament to the limitlessness of electronics music that a band like Son Lux can pull at your emotions on par with a string quartet or mid-aughts Death Cab for Cutie.
After three gorgeous albums, Son Lux is still bringing acoustic heartache and intimacy to synth-driven music:
Unlike many bands in today’s oversaturated electronic marketplace, Son Lux performs live with the tightness and expanse of an orchestra.
Their recordings, including the recently released Brighter Wounds, are detailed with horns and strings and sweeping, echoey vocal effects. And I too would be skeptical of their ability to pull it off if I hadn’t seen it before. On stage, vocalist Ryan Lott plays keyboards and synths alongside guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, who has otherworldly skill and a soulful style that distinguishes him from any hired technical drummer.
I highly recommend getting to this show early and scooting up front to watch these boys work. You’ll see the difference.
Remaining budget = $60
Saturday, March 24th: Glen Hansard
Location: The Anthem
I’ve seen Glen Hansard pull out an acoustic guitar, alone, on the 9:30 Club stage and shred with the same intensity of a thrash metal band. Only instead of imparting aggression to his audience, Hansard imparts a kind of emotional adrenaline so strong you might either drool or cry triumphant tears.
I don’t doubt the gruff Irishman will bring a sizeable band along to this show at the 6,000-capacity Anthem, though I’ll be going for the quick chance to see him fill that massive space with the warm wail of a single acoustic guitar.
Remaining budget = $25
Saturday, March 24th: Kelly Lee Owens, Carmen Villain, Black Lodge em.g
Location: Union Stage
I wouldn’t fault you for having negative impressions towards techno (neon-clad ravers of the 90s, stumbling over each other at 4am in warehouses south of London), but there is an undeniable mesmerizing quality that exists underneath these stereotypes and Kelly Lee Owens is one of the new names rejuvenating techno’s reputation.
Her music leans more toward the ethereal than the pulsating, which will appeal to fans of more traditional electronic acts like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith or Jenny Hval (who contributes some choice eerie vocals to the tracks). Think of it as an entry point to techno or ambient pop.
Importantly, this gig is also going down at the newborn venue Union Stage, which I can confirm has a sound system up to par with Owen’s atmospheric sound and sonic subtleties.
Go to this show to lose yourself in the sound. Drugs are optional, I promise.
Remaining budget = $10
I think I’ve given you enough for one month.
Save the last $10 for transportation fare to and from the Kennedy Center. I highly recommend the 80 bus, which swings from Brookland, along North Capitol Street, through Downtown, dropping you off at the feet of the Kennedy Center. For you crazy metro riders, the Foggy Bottom stop on the Blue/Orange/Grey line is an easy 10 minute walk away. Parking is a pricey option, but I don’t mess with that nonsense; you can figure it out for yourself.
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