While Wolf Trap is best known for The Filene Center, its 7,000 capacity giant performance venue, it’s true gem is found in The Barns. The Barns is really just one barn, a small, but lofty concert hall with great acoustics and a perfect sound system. With only a few hundred seats it’s perfect for small bands and acoustic sets, and Wolf Trap has gotten very good at programming music that fit their space and audience.
Tonight was no different. The evening opened with Rusty Belle, and 3-person band from Amherst, MA. They accurately self-describe as Roots-Rock/Junk-Folk. In other words, they are expects at blending genres and this is an ideal way for a small band to keep an audience engaged. Who needs back up dancers, when you can hold attention by simply keeping your music interesting. While some songs felt like straight bluegrass with band member Katie Lorenz rocking the washboard, others were folk dominant with brother Mat Lorenz’s smooth singing and guitar. The entire effort felt very collaborative as all three musicians sang, created harmonies and shared percussion while playing other instruments. Overall, Rusty Belle was surprising and unexpected without being over-the-top. They were a great way to start the evening, and my favorite part of the night.
Next up headliner Chris Smither took the stage, accompanied by The Motivators, a backup band featuring harmonic, guitar, and drums. The New Orleans native has a deep but raspy voice and unique guitar picking style that makes him not only an ideal blues singer, but ideal for the Barns. He had a nice rapport with the audience and a witty humor that informed many of his songs and eased the heftiness of the singing the blues. He broke out a few of his more well known songs including “Origin of Species” and “No Love Today” whose clever lyrics captivated the audience’s ear and laughter.
Unlike Rusty Belle, however, Smither was a victim of knowing exactly what he’s good at, and in a way it was a disservice. His bluesy voice lent it self so naturally to his folk/blues style that he glides from song after song with little change in tempo or feel. Meanwhile his back-up band remains just that, background. It was obvious that the other musicians on stage (whose names were neither in the program nor website) were good at what they did, but got no opportunity to highlight their skills, which could have broken up some of the monotony of hearing song after song that started to feel and sound the same. Halfway through I was wishing that he would heed the lesson Rusty Belle teaches in switching between styles, tempos and lead musicians. Obviously the crowd was there to see Smithers’ solo performance, but even the best soloists need to switch it up a bit to compete with modern attention spans. I found myself tuning in and out, and unfortunately missing some of his clever lyrics that I truly did want to hear.
What was clear, however, is that Chris Smither is an experienced musician and accomplished writer with a huge repertoire that he was happy to share with his enthusiastic audience at Wolf Trap. He was very generous with his time and gave us nearly 2 hours without a break, which demonstrated a pretty significant stamina and commitment to his music. Not to mention pleasing die hard fans. Once again Wolf Trap hits its niche well with both Rusty Belle and Chris Smither.
Running Time: 3 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Chris Smither & The Motivators plays one more performance tonight, November 22, 2014 at 7:30 PM at The Barns at Wolf Trap – 1635 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For tickets to tonight’s show, call Tickets.com call (877) 965-3872.
Chris Smither’s website.
Rusty Belle’s website.