Sweet Rock ’n’ Roller

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of the D.C. Wharf. Before then, there was not much to hear. Unless of course you owned a sailboat or yacht. I own neither. However, on Oct. 12, Foo Fighters helped D.C. unveil its newest music venue, The Anthem, and an array of new waterfront restaurants and shops. Despite being less than a week old, our usual strategy for finding our way to an unfamiliar venue worked like a charm.

Step (1) Find someone wearing a band T-shirt.

Step (2) Follow that person until it becomes clear that they either know where they are going or are just as lost as we are.

Step (3) Repeat steps one and two until we end up somewhere with a lot more people in band T-shirts.

This time, however, we found much more than band T-shirts. We found Stick + Bars, a youth Marimba Ensemble, otherwise known as a Xylophone Band, comprised of adorable children, breaking in the outdoor stage. We found stylish couples on first dates; all shined up like the glossy pages of a fashion magazine. Lawyers, lobbyists and congressional aides flocking along the boardwalk on each other’s coat tails. High school seniors, who had made the drive in from the Maryland suburbs, trying to blend in seamlessly with coeds from Georgetown and George Washington. Some were there for the show (more on that in a minute), some were there for the hip new bars and restaurants, and some were definitely there just to be seen.

For an uncomfortable moment it reminded me a bit of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. As the night sky grew closer, pulling with it the glorious colors of another stunning D.C. sunset, I realized that as seamlessly cool as this place wanted to be, it was going to take some convincing for me. Something about the whole scene just made it hard to picture Foo Fighters tearing down the house here.

My skepticism about the whole operation only mounted as Anthem staff moved the already well-established line 180-degrees (and 100 yards) to a different location. Didn’t these guys already have enough experience at the 9:30 Club to know you don’t mess with a concert line? Hadn’t any of them ever been to a U2 concert? From the new angle, The Anthem looked unnervingly more like a fancy movie theater than a music venue. The Xylophone Band fans, so endearing a few moments ago, lost their charm as they shoved past us to get from the pier to the boardwalk. Gaggles of young men wearing bow ties and ray-bans, looking suspiciously like frat-boys, kept giggling what the big line was for at us as if reading the marquee violated some house rule. To be fair, I had no business acting as superior given that we were a few hours away from seeing them and I still could not have told you how properly to pronounce the name “Kaleo”.

I knew that I was being judgmental; I knew that the half a Belgium waffle I’d substituted for a meal was making me grumpy. As was the pain at the base of my neck, that was no one’s fault, but my own for moshing until one in the morning the night before at the Against Me! show. Still, I could not talk myself out of some internal whining. Just a little. Was this going to be a concert? Or were we in for a two-hour set split between three bands and lights out by ten so the people sleeping in the fancy apartments above could get some sleep?

When they finally opened the doors and let us in I decided to go with “rock concert” until proven wrong. In that spirit I sprinted across the floor to front-row center on the rail, encouraged by the sight of more than a few people running alongside me. Maybe this was going to be something we could all sink our teeth into after all! Once I caught my breath, we took our first good look around. It definitely was no movie theater. Nor was it a place built for quiet tidiness, early nights, and house rules. It was the 9:30 club dressed up and scaled up. It was The Hollywood Palladium meets The Great Gatsby, all chandeliers and concrete, golden lights and black piping. A cavernous speakeasy ballroom ready to witness the transgressive wonders of rock ‘n roll strut, howl, and shimmy across its stage. The drinks weren’t bad either.

Finally the lights went down. Things were starting to look up as that old familiar hush before the storm filled the room. Then I caught sight of the first band. Wilder. These were kids. They looked like kids, walked like kids, were all dressed in black like angry kids, and by kids I don’t mean they looked too young to drink — well I do mean that too — but what I really mean is that they didn’t look like they’d have much reason to drink even if they could. However, in keeping with the spirit of the night, thus far, I whispered a quick “hush” to the whining and looked to the stage with a pleading challenge — “Convince me.” And convince me they did.

This must be what you get when you give a young kid from Nashville Tennessee a guitar and a chance at a very early age. Sure you could sense a little timidity at the beginning of the set, enough to hedge a bet that this was either the biggest stage they’d ever played or, at the very least, the thought “Dave Grohl was the last person to play here” crossed their mind as they walked out. But after only a few songs, there was no mistaking that this timidity was the exception not the rule with Wilder. The lead singer, Chase Wofford, has a powerful voice and the unique talent of knowing when to use it and when to not. Vocally, he is the love child of Caleb Followill and Marcus Mumford, a unique and beautiful collaboration. The control he had of his voice and presence was all the more valuable because it gave his lead guitarist, Ben Booth, the chance to show off. And I don’t mean show off in the arrogant way. The kid had chops. I’m thankful he showed them off the way he did. As they left the stage, my skepticism had been replaced with something like gratitude, though I wouldn’t not for sure what for until a little later.

Plus, we had one more setback to get through until we were for sure in the clear. That setback’s name was, and I guess presumably still is, ZZ Ward. No not Top. Nothing like Top. As in, upsetting that the loose connection even exists. ZZ Ward was, and unfortunately probably still is, everything that Wilder was not. As Ward, and her band walked out, something cold and unsure replaced the honest camaraderie at the heart of Wilder’s, and most great band’s, music. The guitarist and bass player were both wearing dark sunglasses and never once acknowledged each other or their lead singer. The drummer, despite sitting direct center behind Ward, did not even look at the crowd let alone her. Now I’ll admit, sometimes this works. There is something to be said for a band that plays off of its own arrogance — I’m looking at you Lumineers. But this didn’t feel like arrogance. This looked and felt like purposeful aversion and possibly even embarrassment.

Even more unpleasant was the fact that ZZ herself seemed utterly oblivious to the lack of enthusiasm coming from her own band or, for that matter, the crowd. Like Chase, she too has a powerful voice, but unlike him, she did not know how to set it down. Did not know how to take a beat and let everyone rest. How to go quiet for a moment and let the music speak for itself. In fact, she seemed so uncomfortable with the idea that she would leave the stage whenever it was time for her extremely talented lead guitarist to take a solo. When she’d come back, it would be with some bluesy promise about how this song would be different from the last. But no matter how many times she called upon the gods and goddesses of blues gone by, every note hit you shrill, sharp, and desperate for attention. Despite my occasional hunger-induced grouchiness and aversion to people who cut me in line, it generally is easy for me to find something nice to say about almost anyone, but I got nothing for this.

That being said, there is something beautiful about a truly terrible opening act, in that it makes you appreciate that much more all the artistry and soul that makes the headlining band, the one you came to see, truly great. So, I suppose that maybe I owe ZZ a debt of gratitude for what we all got to experience next. Also, she correctly pronounced their name and I swear you could hear the “ah that’s how you say it’s” echoing through the crowd for a solid minute. It’s Kah-ley-oh for anyone who’s wondering. Also, for anyone who is unfamiliar, they are from Iceland, a fact that came up a few times earlier in the night as we were waiting in line, at which point someone remarked that there had been quite a few impressive bands out of Iceland in recent years; Kaleo, Of Monsters and Men, Valdimar. Not to mention the classics — Bjork and Sigur Ros.

That is a lot of talent coming out of a relatively small country. Our friend suggested that maybe there is something to Icelandic culture that accounted for all of this and because I happen to be an education policy nerd in addition to a concert junkie, I can’t resist sharing the idea. In Iceland, unlike America, failure is not only allowed, but encouraged. It is revered as an important part of development, success, and most importantly what it means to be human. The theory goes that maybe failure is the perfect soil for growing musicians, who are confident, creative, and willing to take risks. If I’m being honest, I find the principal of failure beautiful in theory, but hard to hold onto when staring my own personal failures in the face. I also think that is precisely why Kaleo’s performance moved me to tears.

Besides being phenomenally talented musicians and devastatingly attractive, the members of Kaleo have an even more exceptional gift. If you let it, their music can put your soul at ease. It is such a rare thing to witness, that it took me a moment to recognize it on stage. But there it was. Peacefulness. Maybe not all the time. In fact, certainly not all the time. You don’t write songs like “Way Down We Go” and “Hot Blood” without walking in the dark a little. But that is the thing about peace. You don’t know it unless you’ve felt turmoil and survived, unless your eyes have learned to look past the horizon, over the impossible mountains, and edge of the earth toward the next sunrise. Kaleo’s gift is a show that allows you to glimpse past that horizon for a moment even if you’ve never been there yourself.

At no point did this softness hit me harder than during “All the Pretty Girls”, a song I had heard many times purring along on the radio’s endless loop, but to which I’d never truly listened. Sure I felt it again when they played “Automobile” and of course “Vor i Vaglaskogi” — no I can’t help you with how to pronounce that one. But when those words — “So won’t you lay me, won’t you lay me down” — echoed across the floor, I swear for a moment I knew what it felt like to forgive your soul for all the heaviness you’d forced upon it and I realized what that immense feeling of gratitude was for. It was for the chance to hear live music. Good live music. Great live music. Even bad live music. To lose myself for a moment in someone else’s world and to carry my own memories there with me and see them in the light of someone else’s sun. For a solid 10 minutes after they closed out the show with the 60’s drive in beats of “Rock ‘n Roller”, many people, us included, were still bopping around the floor. Everyone’s steps were a little bit lighter, their smiles a little bit wider, and our love for this Icelandic treasure a little bit deeper.

As was our appreciation for The Anthem itself. We spend a lot of time up front at concerts. Waiting for hours outside, sometimes in the sweltering heat or pouring rain, for the chance to make an arena feel like our living room. In fact, at most shows, if I’m not fairly close, I’m pretty disappointed. Like anything, being so close to the stage has its pros and cons. The pros being relatively obvious. The cons being, no more drinks or food, holding your bladder, a little more pushing and shoving and most notably, a decline in sound quality. While we were front row, center stage for this show, the acoustics were some of the best I’ve ever heard. The Anthem was built for sound and built for sound it is. JJ Julius Son’s (Jökull Júlíusson) voice is nothing short of remarkable. Even being that close, it was balanced and perfectly echoed, floating above the rhythms and melodies like a studio mastered recording. Whatever the sound engineers did while designing and constructing that building, they did it phenomenally well. As we walked back out onto the wharf, still bustling with couples and coeds, I needed no further convincing that The Anthem will go down as a truly great venue. Until next time, Rock ‘n Rollers.

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