Show Review: Rodney Crowell Held Court at the Hamilton in DC

Show Reviews

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The legendary Rodney Crowell held court at DC’s Hamilton Saturday night, playing a truly magical show that took his audience through a full range of emotions. My photographer, Michael Aarons, who was a little familiar with Rodney before the show, said he was “blown away.” From the opening act by Australian guitar prodigy Joe Robinson to the encore, fans got an evening they will not forget.

Joe Robinson, who hails from rural Temagog, Australia, plays acoustic guitar with a style reminiscent of Chet Atkins and—as Michael pointed out—Mark Knopfler. If you’ve ever heard or watched the famous video footage of Atkins playing “Mr. Sandman,” then you know that Atkins made his guitar sound like almost a full band, playing the bass line, rhythm, and chords, in addition the lead part. Joe demonstrated this same feat, and it’s simply remarkable live. The acoustic guitar, in the hands of a master player, can produce incredibly rich, full-bodied, beautiful sounds.

When I interviewed Jon McEuen, he said that what he loved about Ray Bradbury was his use of science-fiction to tell very human stories. To the extent that Rodney Crowell was ever “country”—and he’s really more “Americana” now—it was to tell very human stories. Miranda, from my Washington Roots Music Meetup, described Crowell’s music as “more poetic” than anything in country, and my photographer, Michael Aarons, characterized it as “singer-songwriter…American songbook.” Along with his fellow Guy Clark proteges, Steve Earle and John Hiatt, and artists like Lucinda Williams, Rodney has made this depth of songwriting and storytelling foundational to Americana.

Last month, Crowell released Acoustic Classics, a retrospective album that revisits some of his best tracks from his long and varied career. Saturday’s show was in keeping with that project, and was all acoustic. He played lead on acoustic guitar, backed up by Robinson on rhythm guitar, and on the fiddle and violin by London-born Eamon McLoughlin, staff fiddler for the Grand Ole Opry. Crowell recruited fantastic players to support him, and their first-rate playing (and singing) added to the beauty of his wonderful songs.

I wasn’t sure how long the show would go, and I was pleasantly surprised that it was a solid two hours, maybe even a little more. Last year, Crowell had to cancel his tour because of an illness. I asked the delightful woman working the merchandise table about the tour, and learned that they had planned short sprints because Rodney had still not been feeling particularly well. However, she told me, Rodney is now feeling great, which is excellent news.

This concert had it all. We got to hear about Guy Clark putting some sense into Rodney, getting him to write “Stuff That Works,” which he played for the crowd. We heard even more about Guy, and we heard “It Ain’t Over Yet,” which Rodney made with Roseanne Cash and John Paul White. Rodney went all the way back to his early days with Emmylou Harris, playing “Till I Gain Control Again.” We got to hear stories about Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, and Rodney’s attempts to be cool. Rodney talked about having five number one hits off Diamonds & Dirt, a first, and how he kind of collapsed under the weight of that. As good as those songs are though, for me, the most poignant song he played was “I Wish I Would It Rain,” the story of an AIDS-infected male prostitute. It’s the sort of song that separates Americana from country; this song, as powerful, as beautiful, as moving as it is, is just not what’s on country radio.

It wasn’t all serious business, though. Rodney knows how to pace a show, and how to inject a little humor to lighten the mood. He threw in Vince Gill’s “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long,” and had the crowd, me included, busting a gut.

I even got to meet Rodney, and, I will admit, I was a little starstruck. I didn’t think of anything clever to say; I just politely asked him to sign his memoir and take a picture with me. I’m deeply honored that I had the opportunity to meet an artist who has meant so much to me and who has been so important and influential.  Find his tour dates, and new album info, here.

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