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.