I Was There: Landlady at Sweet Magnolia Farms
In an anxiety-driven tribute to the great musical experiences of his generation (the first Can show in Cologne, the birth of Captain Beefheart, the rise of dance music in Ibiza), Random Nerds’ patron saint James Murphy proclaims ad nauseum a wistful mantra of faux nostalgia: “I was there.”# For no matter how many ticket stubs one collects over their lifetime, no matter how many inflated service fees one has accrued, every impassioned music fan just wants to be able to say they bore personal witness to that gig.
With this series, we give those deserving live experiences the contextualization they deserve — all to prove I Was There.
Landlady, Sweet Magnolia Farms, July 7, 2017
Where was “there”?
There are three things every DIY show strives to be: communal, intimate, and spontaneous. At Sweet Magnolia Farms, these things are perfected, seemingly without effort. The expansive backyard-turned-“do-it-yourself” show space hidden in a quiet neighborhood of northwest Washington D.C. is owned by Emmy Award-winning photographer Josh Cogan, who opens up his rustic and eccentric home a few times a year for gatherings that function as casual artist soirees as much as they do “house shows.”
At Sweet Magnolia Farms, the character of the “farm” takes as much prominence as the performers. The glowing magnolia tree drapes the wooden deck-turned-stage in large leafy branches. Audience members watch the show from tree swings, or hang further back in the tangled, labyrinthine garden sprawling the back half of the yard.
Before a show, the typical Sweet Magnolia crew — composed of locals, neighbors, and other artists — can be found stringing up lights or making a communal batch of mint juleps. Earlybirds volunteer unasked to work the door or monitor the limited parking situation, and there always a few dogs who are as excited to be there as you are, and they’ve never even heard of these bands.
Where “are” they?
Landlady confidently balances their inventive musical abnormalities with accessible pop-rock. Their last album, Upright Behaviour, was a critical success despite never having a breakout moment, earning the band steady media attention and a congregation of loyal followers (often a certain type of hip, urban music nerd, whose admiration grew with every live show).
It is yet to be seen if their newest album — The World Is a Loud Place — will double down on their beloved and underexposed status, or elevate them to a more mainstream audience.
Who (else) was there?
The D.C. audience packed between the dual-trunked magnolia tree and untamed garden was peppered with a handful of dedicated Landlady fans (identifiable by their smitten grins during Landlady classics like “Dying Day” and “Girl”), but much of the crowd at your typical Sweet Magnolia Farms gig is there as much for the ambience of a “creative gathering” as they are for the show, and that night was no different.
Having seen this band live three and a half times (including a solo performance under the pseudonym “Mrs. Adam Schatz”), I can attest that bandleader Adam Schatz and his crew believe it is their duty to bring a sonically and emotionally fulfilling experience to whoever paid a few dollars to stand in front of them. Whether it’s the darkened caverns of U Street Music Hall, an opening slot at the 9:30 Club, or a friend’s living room, they consistently deliver a razor-sharp performance imbued with their singular brand of captivating positivity.
But Landlady is, admittedly, a band that asks a lot of their audience.
Landlady puts a visible effort into extracting an emotional connection from the nameless faces in a crowd. They ask for participation in song. They are endearingly honest about their need for you to buy merch, and they desperately ask that you find it in yourself to dance despite the fact that, in the liveliest of settings, it’s hard for an audience to get down to their disjointed art-rock, especially on first listen. I’ve even seen crowds put-off by the band’s whimsical eccentricities and Schatz’s theatrically manic performance.
Fortunately, on this particular night, the attentive, open-minded, borderline-Bohemian crowd was Landlady’s for the taking. Before a fire-lit farm in the shadow of the nation’s capital, Landlady’s oddball sincerity was rewarded with the rare alignment of an audience, a space, and an evening as sincere and singular as the band itself.
Sweet Magnolia Farms is by its nature an escapist place; a communal garden in the middle of a powerful city. Like Landlady, the caretakers of Sweet Magnolia Farms are not ignorant to the multiplying woes of the outside world, they just want to be a reprieve from it; or, more rightly, an example of how to live with open-hearted intention. And, in stark contrast to the ‘proper venues’ where I have seen Landlady — dark, sterile spaces with impressive sound systems, stage barriers, and a security staff — their urban Eden was the first space that allowed Schatz and the band to connect more organically to the offbeat and partially barefoot crowd.
The mood was lighter, friendlier, and more relaxed than a venue gig; a natural result of hosting a show in a place with no walls.
It’s a marketable fact that some music translates more effectively in the summer, that the music industry capitalizes on “songs of the summer.” For a smaller band like Landlady though, this doesn’t mean fruitlessly competing for radio play with “Despacito.” Instead, it calls for seizing the evocative nature of a hot July night and leaving every attendee with an inseparable link between their music and the idyllic charm of Sweet Magnolia Farms.
That night, the usual carefree groove of “Driving in California”# off their latest album had an elevated emotional tug, as they eulogized the American road-trip:
Driving in California makes me forget/
everything that’s wrong in the places that are not part of California.
Driving through Colorado makes me happy/
If you’re not familiar, darling you should drive through Colorado
On this particular evening, in front of a crowd of politically-weary DC residents, it made sense to double-down on the overtones of escapism.
Even more so during “Electric Abdomen”# — an energetic, almost desperate appeal to dance in public in spite of all the mental and social blocks that might hold one back — Landlady captured the live-in-the-moment pheromones of the night, emphatically asking their audience in the second verse: “You down to lose your mind?”
Meanwhile, Schatz physically stated his case, unleashing his own trademark dance moves (read: erratic flails) as he sang in a persuasive tone:
Nobody’s watching, nobody cares but you/
General Electric, breaking the cardinal rule/
Staring at people, daring yourself to move.
His request trickled into the crowd.
Bodies began to groove to the bass-driven rhythm, and by the second chorus a select brave few took him up on his offer to fully drop their guard and give into the electric impulse. They mirrored the sweeping movements that the band made on stage, both sonically and physically, swinging around in the remaining spaces between the crowd and the waste-high herb bushes. With the band’s permission, it was their moment to feel good and look uncool.
Schatz would rather his crowds resemble a more wholesome version of an uninhibited EDM show, though he gets credit for making a notoriously stiff DC audience shed their skin even a little.
Landlady’s grasp on the night was epitomized by the performance of their 2014 masterpiece “Above My Ground,” a track that balances hope and loss and feels just as rejuvenating live as the first time we Random Nerds experienced it back in 2015.
The song leans on the band’s skill for precision and restraint preceding chaos, while the repetitive lyrics # rely on Schatz’s desperate delivery to extract profound meaning out of a simple turn of phrase.
But as the waxing gibbous moon crept higher into the sky, the band’s final request was for the crowd to whisper-chant the song’s core idea and outro:
“Whatever that word means to you, sing it,” Schatz implored before grabbing a floor tom and hopping off the stage.
Perching himself on top of a small table in the middle of the crowd, his head grazing the low tree branches, he and guitarist Will Graefe played a simple undulating beat as the crowd whispered “always” for a prolonged few minutes of harmony; until the chant, naturally, faded into a tranquil silence.
Over the past few years, Landlady has been executing this song in a variety of crowd-participating ways and in a variety of large and small venues. But rarely are the chants of “always” succeeded by the lullaby chirp of crickets, as if it was always meant to sound that way.
For both audience and artist, it was the ideal and exceptional experience, bringing together the elusive intimacy, community, and spontaneity of a DIY show.
In the future, Landlady will play larger shows, with fatter payouts, and a wider barrier between them and the audience. Yet more than any venue, it was that Sweet Magnolia Farms show that perfectly communicated their artistic ideology.
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