Drew Gibson at The Birchmere (Apr. 16, 2015 – Alexandria, VA)
If I deprive the world of an excellent musician, would that make me a bad person? … That sounds creepy; I should probably rephrase that. … Allow me to try this again. … If I talk a wonderful musician into giving up music in order to be my new short-form improv partner, will music lovers everywhere hate me? Because that’s the quandary that faces me. You see, about halfway through my post-concert interview with Drew Gibson, I realized that he would make a great improv partner. I floated the suggestion to him; but, with the mistaken assumption that I was kidding, he laughed it off. I haven’t started my hard sale yet, though. I have my eye on you, Drew Gibson!
Looking back on it all, I’m not surprised that I forgot that I was sitting in an Irish pub in order to talk to Drew about his music and not lobby him for a career change. The seeds for my possibly selfish desire to talk Drew off of one stage and onto another were planted while watching him in concert at The Birchmere. Last month, I had the joy of catching Drew Gibson’s two night stand opening for Joan Armatrading at the famed DC area venue.
For opening acts, The Birchmere offers a shiny gold coin of opportunity that has on one side a blessing and on the other side a potential curse. Unlike many other venues, the opener at The Birchmere is practically guaranteed a full house, and that means exposure and the opportunity to sell more merch in the lobby. Of course, that full house is mainly there in order to eat dinner before the opening act takes the stage. The opener at The Birchmere may not have to play to an almost empty house, but they might have to play over the noise and distraction of in-the-weeds servers taking orders, stressed DC area residents venting about the tourists or the traffic while they eat their red beans and rice, and people moving around the cabin, so to speak. This is the context in which my wife and I sat down at our table, roughly twenty minutes before Drew was scheduled to go on.
I had been to enough shows at The Birchmere to know how things could go down, and I was somewhat anxious. Not really for Drew, I had yet to meet him, but for me and my wife. Since reviewing 1532, so far one of my favorite albums of 2015, Drew Gibson’s latest album has been a mainstay at our house; I really wanted us to be able to hear/see him without having to listen over loudly told anecdotes about the high price of inside the Beltway nannies. Suspiciously eyeing the busyness around us, we ordered our food and drinks, and settled in to people-watch as we waited for the concert.
The room was loud, as anyone could’ve predicted. What worried me the most, though, was the number of people who sat in our section after we had already ordered. “Let me guess, all these people are planning on eating dinner,” I complained to my wife. I imagined servers running in and out of our sight lines and the general noise of people eating dinner magnified by the ordering and distribution of food – in other words, I imagined that Drew Gibson would probably be lost in the environment of an audience not yet ready to settle in.
Here’s the thing, the success of an opener isn’t always predicated on musical ability. Concert experiences are more about community than anything else. Audiences are generally invested, both emotionally and monetarily, in the headliner; they exercise a sense of ownership, and a good headliner shares the experience with the crowd instead of performing at the crowd. Drew is an excellent musician, and I knew that the crowd wouldn’t be able to deny that if they listened. I was afraid that his music would be a one-way-street of communication that would fall on never-tuned-in ears.
Of course, I’m often wrong.
The crowd was buzzing, but over their food and conversation, when Drew stepped onto the stage to a smattering of applause. I passive-aggressively sighed in the general direction of the table next to us that was full of loud talkers. My eye-rolling sigh accomplished nothing; Drew’s inviting and whimsical introduction shut them up. With zero pretension and 100% humble whimsy, Drew became everyone’s friend, and, hence, gave everyone a little bit of ownership over his set.
And then he began to play.
But, as odd as this may sound in a concert review, I’m not really interested in talking about Drew Gibson’s prowess as a live musician – which is considerable; I want to talk about his stagecraft and the way he makes the audience feel as if he’s sitting in their respective living rooms playing a house show for good friends. But, I have to talk about his prowess as a live musician, and not just because this is a concert review, but because I count his live performance as a refreshing breath of musical air in an otherwise stifling room filled with singer-songwriters jostling for position to underwhelmingly prove that they’re the next Janis Ian or Gram Parsons, and almost always failing to do so. I’ve sat through scores of singer-songwriter opening acts, and am usually left wondering how much money their booking saved, because I can rarely think of any other reason for booking them. Look, all the witty and warm banter in the world won’t overcome poor musicianship at a concert. And if you ain’t got either … well … know that, contrary to popular memes, just because you dream something, no matter how much you believe, that doesn’t mean it will happen. Drew Gibson doesn’t have that problem. His short set of six songs, while too short for an audience that, although having come to see Joan Armatrading, had been won over by this surprising opener, was long enough to demonstrate his incredible ability as a songwriter as well as showcase his compelling baritone voice.
I told Drew during the interview that his lyrics were the first thing that really caught my attention. Demonstrating a maturity and a willingness to take the time to find the right word or phrase, he understands that the emotional content of lyrics is found in strong storytelling. This talent pairs extremely well with his onstage charisma (not to mention his great voice and beautiful guitar playing), as he demonstrated at The Birchmere. During the highlight of his set, the song “Bettie-Jane,” a song about his mother, the loud talkers at the next table were brought to empathetic tears as Drew related the back-story. At that point in the set, Drew Gibson had already won the crowd over, but as he launched into “Bettie-Jane,” there was an obvious transition in the sold-out crowd from being impressed/intrigued to being fans invested in the storytelling experience. Without movement that wasn’t engendered by the music, everyone was listening, even as their Chicken Roulade became cold.
The remaining two songs in Drew’s set included the title track from 1532, one of my favorite songs from the album; and, continuing the pattern he had already established, Drew delivered a tight and pathos filled delivery of the story of his family – both the intro and the song. As his set concluded, my initial fears of having to fight an unengaged crowd in order to enjoy Drew Gibson had proven not only to be wrong, but also demonstrated my lack of faith in the power of an artist and stage-savvy performer to win over a crowd of artistic strangers. Based on the audience’s response as Drew took his curtain call, it was obvious that they wanted more.
As Drew Gibson left The Birchmere stage to resounding applause, my wife commented to me about how good he was with the audience between songs. His jokes and anecdotes did not come across as pre-planned – the exact opposite, in fact. A good performer will listen and respond to the audience as much as a good audience will listen and respond to the performer. It was apparent that Drew and his audience were communicating; that wouldn’t have happened if Drew Gibson didn’t have the talent needed to make a stage his own and then invite the crowd to join him. And that brings me back to my stated goal.
Look, Drew, (everyone else can feel free to stop reading and go buy 1532, which can be done here, the rest of this is a private conversation between me and Drew Gibson), I don’t know how many records you sold at your merch table at The Birchmere; I don’t know how many new fans you won over; and I don’t really care. You’re a wonderful songwriter and musician, I get that. I’ve plugged your album for you, and I promise that I will continue to talk it up to friends and strangers alike. But now it’s time for you to give back to me. You have a great stage presence! You have the unique ability to be equal parts witty and empathetic. That’s rare. Together, you and I would make a great short-from improv team. I realize that you’re committed to music, and that music fans will be justified in hating me if I do convince you to change careers, but I really want to get back on stage and you’re my best bet. At least promise me that you’ll consider it. In the meantime, I’m going to keep looking for opportunities to see you in concert because your show at The Birchmere was great!
 Made with ham, smoke pork, and andouille sausage, it’s delicious! I highly recommend it.
 Pro tip – I order three beers, that way the beers will be there when I want them and I won’t have to wait for the server to come back around in the dark, not to mention that I don’t have to stop watching/listening to the concert to place an order.
 With the caveat that I do understand that the community at a concert communicates and engages primarily through music, and that music needs to demonstrate a quality that adheres to the community standards.
 And having talent, drive, and a good work ethic doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that you’ll “make it” either. I get that. But I do believe that for those artists, adjusting the definition of “making it” will go a long way to helping them find a dedicated audience.
 An interview that has proven mostly superfluous for this concert review. Assuming that it’s going to be a waste of time, he’ll probably never agree to grant me another interview again.
 That’s not true, I do care. But don’t misinterpret my caring as a weakening of my request.