The Washington DC area’s “native son” band Last Train Home’s 2-night stand back in their home turf began at the venerable Rams Head Stage in Annapolis. It was January 2nd and the city was still bedazzlingly festive from the recent holidays.
LTH bandleader Eric Brace’s frequent partner, producer and musician Thomm Jutz, who played guitar with Nanci Griffith for some years, opened after a warm introduction by Brace. Jutz’s sincere songwriting held people in rapt attention even as he played solo acoustic to a full room, at times joined by Brace.
Jutz has two albums coming out in 2020: Two Live in Two Worlds, Vol 1 and Vol 2. The albums take turns juxtaposing songs first with solo Jutz, and then Jutz with a band that includes Tammy Rogers of the Steeldrivers, along with Mark Fain on bass and Justin Moses on banjo and mandolin, with Mike Compton as well.
On the albums is a tribute song to John Hartford, and Jutz played that song which was co-written with John Hadley (a close friend of John Hartford): “Hartford’s Bend.” He then joked that he had quite a few songs about 1925, adding that he would have liked to have lived then … only with antibiotics.
After plying the highly interested crowd with an anecdote about the research of Cecil Sharp, Jutz played another song he had written about old folks and how much the old English Ballads songs mean to them. At the end of his set, he caught the entire room up in a singalong: “You can’t unscramble eggs … if you can’t change the weather let the weather blow through,” with Eric Brace, who was seated in the audience, singing along as well. https://thommjutz.com/home
When the 9 piece band that becomes Last Train Home had arrayed itself onstage, Eric Brace shouted a rousing: “We’re all here, all 9 of us. We’re Last Train Home!” as the band launched into their exciting “Home For Christmas.” Then there was joking banter as the band played Philadelphia-based Frog Holler’s “Sleepy Eyes,” written by Darren Schlappich, for their second song of the evening. This song worked well in a number of ways, including that Frog Holler is an 11- piece band so the 9 layers of Last Train Home were true to the original intent. At around this point Brace mentioned the recently closed, much beloved, iconic DC area club, the Iota club in Arlington, where Last Train Home was once a regular staple.
Last Train Home has a new album coming out: Daytime Highs and Overnight Lows (Red Beet Records). The band was good and warmed up and segued into a song written by Luke Brindley. The Brindley brothers own nearby venues Jammin’ Java and Union Stage; in addition their brother-in-law Jared Bartlett produced the upcoming album, and was present onstage with the band. The song was “Hudson River” and it drew everyone in the area together both figuratively and actually, as the crowd clearly loved it. Next up was “Flood Plain,” written by a former member of LTH, Steve Wedemeyer.
During some more banter with the crowd, Eric Brace mentioned that Jen Gundermann was on their upcoming album, although she was currently out playing with Sheryl Crow. Eric’s brother Alan Brace is on it as well, although he was absent this night, and then Brace said “We recorded glockenspiel on this next song, but Jimmy (Gray) isn’t going to play that tonight because he’s on bass. This song is called “Dear Lorraine” and it was inspired by Nat King Cole’s “Sweet Lorraine”.”
Chris Watling’s accordion was particularly amazing on this one. It was delightful to watch the way that a song can be spacious and build, starting with a simple muted harmonica by Bill Williams and then broadening out in sonic expansion with 9 people onstage each playing their discrete parts. With Brace’s big personality anyone can easily understand how a 9-piece band can come together under his energetic vision. People are drawn to him and the loyalty shows in the music.
Following “Sweet Lorraine,” there were what sounded like Foley effects and the trumpet was striking on “Doughnut Girl”: “I fell in love out on Highway 1.” This clear fan favorite had the crowd leaning into its whistling and hypnotic deep tones as Chris Watling changed to a deep baritone sax solo.
It’s striking the way every one of the songs is lyrically intelligent, and the next up was “B and O Man” where Brace crooned: “I’m a Baltimore and Ohio man.” “Let’s do that Irving Berlin Christmas song,” he said next. “He’s known for a particular Christmas song but we recorded this one on our limited Holiday album.” It was “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” The band traded solos between Chris Watling on sax and Dave van Allen on pedal steel then Kevin Cordt on trumpet and then finished with a rockabilly close.
Jared Bartlett, the man who produced the record, was really smokin’ on the electric guitar, as he stood discreetly in the back shadows. “Don’t start thinking of all the ways we might break up, if i talk too much just tell me to shh..” Martin Lynds on drums with Chris Watling on baritone sax rocked the bottom end and the Rams Head floor was rocking right along with it.
Next Brace offered: “After the True North album, we came out with Holiday limited album and this song from the album is about New Years and Minnesota. I think I was listening to a lot of Jayhawks when I wrote this one.” With “old house on Otis Lane… we called out for pizza” “Christmas in St Paul” was an unexpectedly sad love song for the holidays.
Brace evoked the Iota club once more as he imparted that the band would be playing at the Birchmere the next night, then foreshadowed: “This next one involves a whole lotta horns.” “Sailor”‘s lines were compelling: “they call me a sailor” “I’ll find out when I get there. I’ll make it up as i go. Where I’m going I don’t know”.
Brace then said that Thomm Jutz wrote a song with Jen Gundermann: “But his is a sweet version, whereas we added all this band rumpus to it and made it our own,” and they played “Old Railroads.”
Then was the real magic of the night: “I hear dogs. Dogs on the east side angry at the trains that go oooo in the night,” was a fantasia number with more rockabilly and Bill Williams’ B bender magic was followed by a twisted solo by Scott McKnight and then Jared Bartlett stepped out from the shadows and the crowd went crazy.
“Here’s one from 1927” Brace called out and they regaled the room with “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” Then there was a song written with Carl on first record back in 1997: “Tonight” with its lines “clouds across the sunset look like bloodshot eyes tonight,” and the pedal steel solo by Dave van Allen crushed it then the harmonica took it away.
The title track off the new album was up next: “Daytime Highs and Overnight Lows.” Just before they started Brace said: “After this we’ll come out and talk to you and if you buy a cd, we’ll sign it, I mean you can’t say that about streaming, who’s going to sign your stream?” It was truly hilarious.
The first encore was the last song of new album written by Scott McKnight who had been flaming guitar licks right by Eric Brace’s side all night. Scott said: “This one was co-written by Eric but he won’t admit it,” amid laughter from the crowd. Eric replied “I really just don’t remember”and they closed the long set with “Wake Up, We’re in Love.” Then they launched into an uproarious “Feliz Navidad” and the night drew to a close, but not before all of the band members mingled in the crowd and outside in the hallway too. https://www.redbeetrecords.com/last-train-home