WASHINGTON, D.C. — Heartfelt folk ballads, songs based on Greek myths, and punk odes to making friends with woodland creatures while drugged out, came together at the Rhizome Monday night.
Singer-songwriter Jesse Ainslie began the night with his jangly, melancholy, country-influenced tracks. Ainslie, who is signed to Takoma Park’s own Epifo Records came to Rhizome as part of a tour supporting his latest album, “Only In The Dark.”
Ainslie said the album, featuring many tales of loss and despair, is about trying to live with pain instead of trying to remove it. Despite the record featuring a full band, Ainslie, like the other performers Monday at the Rhizome, only had his guitar to back up his voice. Luckily his strong vocal performance kept his songs engaging despite the stripped-down approach.
“I went to Italy in May, and I was trying to sing lyrical songs in English to crowds that didn’t speak English. What I learned there is that you really need to arc the song; you need to tell a story bigger than the individual lines,” said Ainslie. “At some point, I was watching this crowd react to me, and I realized that this is the country that invented opera. And opera is about selling this story to people who don’t necessarily speak Italian.”
Viking Moses, fronted by the head of Epifo Records, Takoma Park-based guitarist/singer Brendon Massei, is touring with Ainslie. Moses had a unique presence due to bassist Nora, marking the performance as the only act with any backing musicians in a show otherwise comprised of solo performances. Nora’s thumbing bass helped add texture to the songs. Massei’s strained shouting vocals marked his songs as those of deep pain. His fingerpicking guitar style added some well-appreciated percussive energy.
“Esoterically, there’s the theme of Acteon, the hunter from Greek mythology. Acteon comes across Artemis bathing, and Artemis turns him into a deer,” said Massei about his recent songs. “Acteon comes across his [own] hunting party, and his dogs eat him alive. Metaphorically, the subject can go from cuckoldry to anything. There’s a lot of hunter lyrics.”
Richmond-based songwriter Abby Hudson had an R&B flavor, which helped her stand out amongst the more folk-based performers Monday. Her cover of the Alicia Keys song “In Common” marked a highlight of her set. The percussive, electronic-tinged track worked surprisingly well in an acoustic setting, and Hudson’s light, airy vocals fit the lyrics well. Hudson’s originals were off her album “Rich,” which instead featured a consistent backup band, Hudson featured a revolving cast of her favorite Richmond musicians. Released last March, “Rich” features some of the first songs Hudson ever wrote.
“It was mainly a confidence thing I didn’t even show any of my friends,” said Hudson when asked why it took four years for some of her songs to get recorded. “Then I met a guy who wanted to produce my songs and no one’s gonna produce covers, so I pulled out my originals.”
Headlining performer Joe Jack Talcum, lead singer of Philadelphia folk-punk pioneers The Dead Milkmen, finished off the night. The Milkmen are most known for their sardonic, witty sense of humor, and their MTV hit “Punk Rock Girl.” Talcum’s solo acoustic set placed emphasis on the folk part of the band’s folk-punk sound, with Dylan-esque, harmonica interludes in lieu of guitar solos.
The mix of humorous songs, such as “The Badger Song” – about wanting to befriend a badger while high – and more heartfelt songs such as “Like to be Alone,” a song about how the singer’s lover makes the protagonist lose his desire for solitude, created a fun, freewheeling atmosphere. Talcum even opened the floor to audience requests, making the show seem like a friend playing songs at a party, rather than a formal concert.
Talcum began performing solo sets while a member of the Low Budgets. The singer of that band put on an acoustic show and asked Talcum to open it, and Talcum reluctantly obliged. That gig led to more performances; since then Milkmen has broken open, as people began requesting Milkmen songs.
“Since the Dead Milkmen had not played shows in years, for me it was a challenge to remember songs on the spot, but I still tried to do it” said Talcum. “If I couldn’t remember the song someone requested I would make a point to learn it and play it at the next show. I make a set list, but I hardly ever stick to it.”