Last Train Home’s Tears for Iota
Christmas wasn’t supposed to come this way or this early. When Last Train Home promised to be back for a series of holiday shows at Iota, the calendar got moved up with the news that the club would be shutting down by October. Instead the D.C. band’s annual celebration became a goodbye to the venerable club that had been home for over two decades and some 150 shows.
Standing on the stage for the club’s next to last night, Eric Brace talked of how he and his brother Alan helped build the stage, something much larger than the days when onetime bandmate Kevin Johnson first established an open open mic night back in the early ’90s.
“Screw development,” someone chimed in from the bar, not quite sure who to blame but loud enough to direct the collective fervor an an affront to the culture that made Iota’s trademark “Live Music Forever” more than just a tagline.
If it felt like it was time to party like it was 1999, maybe it was because it felt like it was that year – or years close to it – when Last Train Home came of age. All night you could overhear conversations of people pinpointing the exact timeline when they first heard Last Train Home in the greater D.C. area. More than a few were wiping away tears.
“We’re Last Train Home and this is Iota Club and Cafe,” Brace said opening the show, savoring the words deliberately, as if the affirmation itself could change the inevitable. Bassist Jim Gray, like Brace and drummer Marty Lynds, migrated to Nashville 15 years ago. When he remembered to plug in the string of patio lights hung over the stage, the band was ready to go. They kicked into Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” like no time had passed.
The eight-piece band’s rich heritage drew upon an amalgam of influences from British invasion, California surf music, folk and Americana and R&B. The band featured original guitarist Bill Williams who, paired with Scott McKnight, provided the glistening guitar lines to melodic gems like “All Eyes Gold.”
The agile Brace, leaning in and out, left and right on center stage on acoustic guitar, used a variety of signals and gestures to lead the band, sometimes pointing but most of the time raising his eyebrows to prompt the next solo. Like a point guard running the Americana offense, he was the motivational coach urging trumpeter Kevin Cordt and sax player Chris Watling when to take the next solo.
McKnight and Cordt wore a stoic look of resolve to try and deal with emotion of the night. Sitting at his pedal steel, Dave Van Allen said the name of one song always described how he felt about Iota. It was Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd.” As Van Allen masterfully played and replayed the melody several times, the band watched reverently, never quite wanting to break in.
Sprinkled in the harmony-laden “Sugar” and “Lorelei,” a nod to the early Beatles, Brace sang in French during “What Now My Love” and pulled out the 1927 standard “My Baby Just Cares For Me.”
But he brought something new to be sung for the first time, an homage to the bar called “Goodbye Iota.”
“We’ve come to say goodbye Iota, trying not to cry Iota,” he sang, leading a raucous chorus that was a tribute to the people and times, and a place that will forever be emblazoned on the cover of their live album and DVD recorded a decade ago.
By the time encores came, it was getting close to midnight. The band pulled up an old holiday song they wrote the year McKnight’s mother died. It was “Christmas in St. Paul” and written during a tough year for all of their parents. The Stanley Brothers’ “Darling Say You’ll Be Mine” followed and lightened the moment.
We left with “Goodbye Iota” still ringing in our ears. But perhaps the words Brace said right after stayed the longest.
“I can barely get it out,” he admitted.