Live Last Night: Songs for Presidents

Over the next few days, plenty of tunes will be sung to, for, or about almost-president Barack Obama. But what about Millard Fillmore, Martin Van Buren or William Howard Taft?

Actually, those three didn't make the cut Saturday night at the 6th & I Historic Synagogue, where J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer and Jefferson Pitcher performed slightly more than half of their 3-CD project, "Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies." But Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes and James Buchanan did rate in the set list, along with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and most of the POTUSes of the last 100 years.

Gerken, Kiefer and Pitcher, who wrote the historical ditties, were joined by a few other out-of-towners and many locals. While the latter contingent included a fife-and-drum corps, the evening's default mode was a noisy brand of folk-rock. That was problematic, since too many numbers emphasized feedback over lyrics.

The wordy material was better served by folk or cabaret renditions. D.C.'s Laura Burhenn belted "When Ike Walked the Land," and New York's Nellie McKay crooned "A Beam of Light," a tune inspired by Jimmy Carter's UFO sighting. The Reagan-mocking "Such a Marvelous Dream" was rendered surprisingly pretty by Middle Distance Runner, another local act.

The most theatrical -- and effective -- performance was by Tim Fite, who used nothing more than a pre-recorded folk-blues track and a few simple gestures to turn the tale of Grover Cleveland's marriage into an amusing burlesque routine.

Two area bands, dance-punkers Jukebox the Ghost and country-punkers These United States, were so lively that it hardly mattered that the words were lost. And Gerken, Kiefer and Pitcher's "Malice, Charity and the Oath of God," a bluegrass dirge, benefited from having taken its text from well-known Lincoln speeches.

The tension between overstuffed lyrics and over-amped instruments was banished by the final song, an ode to Obama that exulted "everything's all right." That seemed overly optimistic, but the simple chorus did match the raucous tune. There's a reason more rock bands gravitate to "Louie Louie" than "The Gettysburg Address."

-- MARK JENKINS

By J. Freedom du Lac |  January 18, 2009; 5:02 PM ET Inauguration , Live Last Night
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Good review, Mark. IMO, If you're going to be evoking American history and the spirit of the nation, it sure helps if the audience can understand the lyrics.

These United States, warming up, were especially frustrating because they were monochromatic -- no variety provided by intelligble lyrics.

Too bad the lyricists couldn't have found something nice to say about a Republican president other than Lincoln, just to be a little bit creative and unpredictable. But then, alt-rock doesn't allow diversity of thought.

Denison Witmer was good. I'd see him again.

Anyway, interesting project in the abstract, mostly dull and loud in the practice. And pretty small audience.

Posted by: ncwood | January 19, 2009 11:44 AM

Speaking as a musician - there is usually frustratingly very little that we can do about the sound or can do to make lyrics more intelligible. It is entirely up to a) the natural sound in the venue and b) whoever is running sound.

At a venue like 6th & I the words just gets swallowed by the venue. The guys running sound there are great - they do the best they can with that space. And the bands that perform there are almost uniformly good - its not a bunch of kids banging out things at too-loud-volume. But ultimately, that space just isn't suited for lyric-centric music with any degree of intensity.

(Also - keep in mind that us onstage have absolutely no idea what you all are hearing - our monitor mix has no connection to the house sound)

There's a reason audiences (and bands) love the 9:30 Club and Black Cat and Birchmere - they're spaces designed solely for music performance. Alternative spaces like 6th & I are a challenge for audience and performer alike, and in this case the space was not acoustically suited for the performance taking place, unfortunately.

Posted by: thnatow | January 20, 2009 6:55 PM

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