Last Train Home’s Indoor Fireworks
On the second night of a two night run over the Fourth of July weekend, Last Train Home frontman Eric Brace playfully lectured the audience about not setting off fireworks inside.
If there was rampant enthusiasm, it was in part to being back in the same nightclub where the band recorded Live at Iota a decade ago–and some twenty years since Brace and his brother Alan founded the D.C. band that the now owner of Red Beet Records faithfully regroups every now and then.
Brace is the transplanted Nashvillian and former Washington Post music writer who has been appearing recently as part of a trio with Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz. He made his semi-annual pilgrimage to the nation’s capital, bringing it all back home over two sets that was like a love letter to his former hometown.
Armed with an acoustic guitar and a lot of swagger, Brace doubled as lead vocalist and bandleader with pedal steel guitarist Dave Van Allen and bassist Jim Gray flanked to his right, guitarist Scott McKnight to his left and drummer Evan Pollack behind him. To his left were saxophonist Chris Watling and trumpeter Kevin Cordt. Last Train Home is an amalgam of American roots and pop influences. Sometimes they swung. Sometimes they rocked and other times they felt like a music hall band. Interspersed were a lot of melodic gems and references to country and rock’s golden ages. It would be hard to find another band that played songs by the Tijuana Brass and Freddy Fender in one night and still managed to make everything sound like their own.
The horns buttressed the underlying rhythm section and helped fill out the big band’s sound early on in a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” The band was loose and limber all night. Brace only needed to raise his eyebrows and shoot a glance Whatling and Cordt’s way to prompt them to blow their horns. During “Tonight,” the second set’s opener, Cordt took a solo that seemed a tad too short. Reading his lips, it seemed that he already answered his own question by the time it reached Brace across the stage. “Do you want me to play?”
The band swung back and forth with inclusive and democratic solos. Sometimes it would start at one end of stage and end at the other, with pedal steel, followed by sax, guitar and trumpet in various combinations of order. In the playful hilarity of “Doughnut Girl,” Cordt led a beautiful outro that felt like we were in a Beach Boys session. When Whatling switched to accordion he provided the rueful melancholy Tom T. Hall must have felt and imagined writing “I Flew Over Our a House Last Night.” Watling’s sax led to an explosive build in “Dogs On The East Side.”
Cordt turned Iota into a steamy New Orleans club during “Dogs on The a East aside.” The band was downright frenzied during “One Last Kiss,” the combined prowess of everyone chugging like a locomotive and recalling ancestral spirits of the southern rock band the Outlaws.
Brace touched upon history with a tribute to Neil Armstrong in “Tranquility Base,” noting the first man on the moon endorsed it as a “fine composition.” He also shared visiting the graves of Johnny and June Cash that led him to write “Hendersonville,” emotionally wrought with Van Allen’s mournful pedal steel. On “Wait a Minute,” Brace, McKnight and Cordt faithfully harmonized the song co-written by Herb Petersen and Chris Hillman and recorded by local legends the Seldom Scene. (Brace later cut it with Peter Cooper and the Seldom Scene’s Mike Auldridge and pedal steel legend Lloyd Green.)
The band alternated French and English wordsmchanneling the Tijuana Express in “What Now My Love,” the sonjg that will be part of an album of French songs Brace is set to release later this year. He sang in Spanish during Freddie Fender’s “Before The Next Teardrop Falls.”
Along the way we got a history lesson on the genealogy of D.C bands. Brace once played bass with Kevin Johnson’s Linemen before creating Last Train Home. McKnight is now part of the band on bass alongside Kevin Johnson who has started playing with the Linemen again. Johnson can be found during the daytime running Royal Books in Baltimore. “Don’t tell him I messed up the words,” Brace laughed, coming out of “Marlene,” a song he first recorded nearly thirty years ago with Van Allen and Johnson.
Brace also came bearing gifts, offering free dvds and cds of the band’s Iota show ten years earlier. He found them in his garage and said he didn’t need approval to share, adding “I am the label.” Brace also promised to come back in December, starting a Christmas sing-along that was like a trailer teaser.
But per the calendar and historic tradition, there was still a lot of summer and fireworks to be had first.