Last Train Home brings down the Barns

Last train home

Eric Brace on acoustic guitar. (photo courtesy Wolf Trap)

By Anna Sebourn

ArtsPost staff writer

Last Train Home with Eric Brace, left, dubbed “one of the country’s most formidable roots-rock bands” by the Tennessean, returned to its first home — the Washington area — to perform to a sold-out crowd Feb. 27 at the Barns at Wolf Trap.  Fans of all ages, many of them  long-time supporters, also cheered the opening act, singer/songwriter Peter Cooper, who performed alongside his friend Brace in several numbers in the set.

Brace’s ties to the District run deep, starting with his 10 years as a music critic for The Washington Post while moonlighting in local bands before creating LTH in 1996.  The group’s success has progressed from performing in area venues to  earning the 2003 “Artist of the Year” award by the Washington Area Music Association.  The band has since moved to Nashville and released an astouding 11 albums.

The atmosphere at The Barns at Wolf Trap is a relaxed, lodge-like setting, perfect for what Cooper had in store for eager fans.  Cooper is a journalist as was Brace; he’s the music critic at the Tennessean. Though he only has one full-length solo album under his belt, his writing skills were apparent in his thoughtful, fluid lyrics.  He’s an exceptional performer who crafts his songs  with a storyline and a plot (which seems almost a lost art with today’s billboard toppers).  He moved effortlessly from light strumming on his guitar to adding humorous or touching words, and finally incorporating the music and story together into harmonious tales that filled the auditorium.  I caught myself closing my eyes and soaking in the musical stories, and it became an experience more than a concert.  The highlight of his set, “715 (For Hank Aaron),” told the struggle of race relations and Hank Aaron.  The lines, “Young man rising from the hard hot South, speaking his mind with a bat and not his mouth.  Holdin’ it inside, striding to the ball, turn of the wrists.  Crack, jog and touch’em all,” carry so much weight, yet he has such an innate sense of rhythm in the lyrics and composition that the listener is drawn in, waiting to hear the next story unfold.

Brace and his posse of musicians (including several top area musicians just for this performance) then took the stage amid wild applause and shouting from the crowd.  The timing seemed a little off, the energy low, before band members looked comfortable with each other onstage.  Brace managed to corral them into a cohesive unit, and the energy level rose considerably after playing an audience favorite, “Can’t Come Undone.”  The real turning point in their set, though, was “Last Good Kiss,” during which the balcony began shaking with all the toe-tapping, which continued through the set.  The audience cried out song names in the hopes of hearing personal favorites, and Brace apologized for their inability to play certain high-energy songs — no standing and dancing allowed in the Barns.

Vocals and acoustic guitar were tended to by Brace. Michael Webb was on the keyboard and accordion; Scott McKnight (dressed in a suit as if he just came from the office) performed on the electric guitar; David Coleman was also on electric guitar; Jim Gray played bass; and Paul Griffith was on the drums.  All played solos at some point, but steel guitarist Dave Van Allen, referred to as the “hillbilly scientist” by Cooper, added most of the flavor to this folk/country/bluegrass/jam band’s sound.   McKnight also showed his ability to rock despite the suit with a stellar solo on “Last Good Kiss.”

Cooper performed several songs from his duet album with Brace, “You Don’t Have to Like Them Both.”  Fortunately, I did happen to like them both, including their cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” and their original song, “I Know a Bird.”  Brace was more successful in this small venue with Cooper than with his own band.  There wasn’t a moment onstage together when I didn’t sense their strong connection with both each other and the audience.

“Play all night, Eric!” yelled a fan from the back.  But after almost three hours the show had to end, and it did so on a good note with some of my favorites: a tribute to Neil Armstrong in “Tranquility Base,” the soulful “I Know a Bird,” and “Soul Parking,” named for an old sign on 14th Street in the District.  Cooper, Brace and Last Train Home met with a standing ovation, the open arms of welcoming the Tennesseans back home to the District.