Tag Archives: Last Train Home

LTH: Storytelling and harmonies rock the night

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

While most musicians get a start by writing their own material, few have the experience of roots-rocker Eric Brace. After spending the first decade of his career as a music critic for The Washington Post, Brace decided to trade his pen and paper for a guitar. Fifteen years later, the blues, pop and country blend of Last Train Home has established a widespread following, thanks mostly to Brace’s smooth-as-silk tenor and unassuming presence.

In their recent performance at Virginia’s Barns at Wolf Trap, a sold-out crowd of mostly middle-aged Americana enthusiasts cheered on the seven-member band, joined for the night by guitarist, vocalist and current fellow music critic Peter Cooper. After writing a favorable review of Last Train Home’s first album for Nashville’s Tennessean, Cooper met Brace in person at a concert, and their collaboration began.

“Playing with Peter brings out the folk singer in me a little more, where we really focus on harmonies and acoustic guitar arrangements,” Brace said in an interview with The News Leader. “The material rocks a little more in [Last Train Home], and the songs can be a little more abstract, whereas the songs I play and record with Peter all have a little bit more of a story to them.”

The duo’s story came across loud and clear on the Barns’ stage as Cooper played an opening set featuring songs that told stories of his early years growing up in the South. As Cooper strummed away on the lonely stage, it was easy to imagine the singer sitting around a campfire playing for friends rather than entertaining a crowd of hundreds. While songs entitled “Dumb Luck” and “Last Laugh” were chock full of  jokes and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, Cooper’s thoughtful chords and tender voice transformed the performance into something much more revealing.

Brace, on the other hand, employed no tricks or gimmicks in his stage show, relying only on earnest songs and a good voice to achieve his band’s richly-layered sound. Cooper returned to the stage with Brace and lent a gentle harmonizing quality to the songs, which, while not particularly necessary, seemed to put Brace at ease.

Over the past years the band has been together, they have done a significant amount of traveling, both domestic and international. As Brace pointed out, their touring van now has more miles on it than the distance to the moon. During their national tours, Last Train Home frequently picks up and swaps out musicians as they go along, resulting in a unique experience at each live show.

“There’s definitely an element of ‘we’re not quite sure how this is going to go off,’ ” Brace said in an interview before the show. “There’s a lot of communicating. It’s hard, but you try to find the right people.”

And communicate they did, as Brace frequently left his position in center stage and walked among his bandmates, giving direction or signaling an impromptu solo. While Brace clearly commanded the group’s dynamic, he was also not afraid to step back and let his band shine on their own. Electric guitarist Scott McKnight stepped out halfway through the ballad “Quarter to Three” and showed off with a solo riff that left even Brace and Cooper smiling.

Though he had played off and on with bands since college, 1996 marked the first time that Brace decided to focus solely on a music career and recruited band members of his own to record a debut album. Nearly overnight, Last Train Home was born. Throughout the next few years, Last Train Home grew in prominence, earning the “Artist of the Year” award from the Washington Area Music Association in 2003. Since that time, Last Train Home has performed more than a thousand shows and has opened for the likes of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.

Last Train Home will be making its next stop in Winston Salem, N.C., before returning to Virginia at the end of March.

Maybe wait for the next Train

By Jeremy Walsh

ArtsPost staff writer

Last train home

A performance of Last Train Home courtesy Wolf Trap

Had the audience craved a night of sitting down, listening to slow, repetitive country songs in a quaint venue, Last Train Home would have given a lifetime performance Feb. 27 at The Barns at Wolf Trap.

Unfortunately, it seemed the audience wanted to get up and dance to the band’s more upbeat, powerful country ballads.  As a result, the hour and a half show seemed bland, dragging agonizingly into the night.

Many audience members, predominately in their 30s and 40s at a sold-out performance, swayed back and forth in their seats, bopping their heads or waving their arms, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to jump up and really get into the show.

Lead singer and band founder Eric Brace acknowledged this desire midway through the show by saying he understood their pain, and declaring that the quaint design of The Barns almost required the band to perform its slower songs.

It was fair for Brace to argue that The Barns is designed for controlled concerts with artists who perform slower music, considering the venue seats around 400 people and hosts primarily jazz, folk and acoustic acts.

Still, it would have made the concert exciting and memorable if the band had broken The Barns trend and played some of its loud, emotional songs.  But Last Train Home didn’t take that chance, making their concert just another show.

One troubling aspect about their slow set was that most of their songs sounded too similar.  Most of the songs, such as “Sally,” “Last Good Kiss” and “Drinking from a Swimming Pool,” did not seem to differentiate themselves from one another, dragging down the show’s quality by not capitalizing on the variety of the band’s song collection.

Perhaps the bands most engaging song of the evening was “Tranquility Base,” which asks astronaut Neil Armstrong what it was like walking on the moon.  The song itself was another slow song, but the originality of the lyrics and song idea stood out.           Brace also gave a fascinating introduction to the song, explaining its inception and the research he did before writing it, which Brace said focused on understanding why Armstrong hasn’t often spoken publicly about his experience on the moon.

Other than with “Tranquility Base,” the band did not perform especially engaging songs.   This could be traced to the fact the band members had never performed together as a whole.

Last Train Home is comprised of several full-time members, who generally always travel with the band, and other regional players, who play with the band depending on a concert’s location.  The band this night appeared unfamiliar with each other at times, compelling Brace to walk around the stage giving instructions or suggestions to his band members.

Another addition to the band for the evening was Peter Cooper, who served as both opening act and occasional duet singer and guitar player during the main act.  Cooper and Brace are longtime friends, who both started as music journalists (Brace being a former critic for The Washington Post) before shifting interests to focus primarily on producing music.

As opening act, Cooper performed lively and engaging songs.  Some were fun, like “Sheboygan,” his ode to drinking in Wisconsin, and some were informative and heart-breaking like “715 (For Hank Aaron),” his homage to the former home run king’s difficult path to breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record.

In truth, Cooper gave a more complete performance as opening act than Last Train Home gave as main act.  Cooper’s diverse song set activated the audience’s interest, getting them ready for a night of more engaging country music.

For some reason, Last Train Home was just unable to capitalize on the energetic crowd, and though they appeared entertained throughout the main set, it was clear the audience wanted and expected more from the band.