Only a smattering of local music stalwarts made it out to catch the district’s own Vandaveer, the troubadourish solo project of Mark Charles Heidinger, for a midweek performance at the Black Cat’s Backstage. I felt a little disheartened, though not surprised, at the poor attendance. The Vandaveer alias of Heidinger, who also helms DC jangle-pop outfit the Apparitions, bears traces of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits, and his debut album, Grace & Speed, is an immensely listenable, underappreciated gem. Although he may be little known outside the mid-Atlantic Coast, Vandaveer has been making frequent noise around the area as of late. After returning from a UK tour at the end of 2007, he played the district five times in just over two months, and so the few audience members on hand for Wednesday’s gig had either missed their four previous chances or were returning for another dose of Heidinger’s warm, strummy ruminations.
The effect of a mostly empty room could be narrated in two ways: the setting takes on the aspects of a living room, fostering a family-like relationship between performer and audience; or the performer, miffed by a lackluster turnout, puts on a lackluster show. Oddly enough, both theses could apply here. Patient responses to audience song requests and un-self-conscious banter that included DC-specific anecdotes: these interactions spoke of a comfortable recital among friends. On the other hand: observe the flubbed notes and lines, a pie-baking competition that shunned audience participation, and the headliner’s increasing onstage drunkenness, and you might suspect that the artists weren’t taking their jobs seriously enough.
In addition to Vandaveer, a solo performance from another prominent local act was on display. Laura Burhenn is better known as half of the power pop duo Georgie James; alone, the classically trained pianist draws on Jewel Kilcher’s more tolerable vocal ticks as well as Leonard Cohen’s gauzily poetic compositions. Burhenn presented tunes from her 2004 disc Wanderlust, a few unreleased newbies for which she is still working through the kinks, and even a Georgie James favorite (“Cake Parade”, normally a big-hearted Sgt. Pepper-style moaner that benefited from being stripped to its piano-vocal core). Burhenn’s stage presence had a mellowing comfort, her lyrics a strange distillation of the evening news: car crashes and natural disasters, for instance, while a reference to the presidential race (“the ebony and the ivory talk politics”) was not lost on the politically saturated capital crowd. Burhenn’s solo act sounded slight next to the energetic, hook-heavy sound of Georgie James, and she came across as a much better than average coffeehouse singer who needs a backing band to really shine.
A silly intermission followed Burhenn’s set, in which the grungy Brooklyn kids of opening act Sean Walsh & the National Reserve (worth only a parenthetical description: alt-country-tinged white-boy soul, decent sax solos, otherwise underdeveloped) came back on stage for a pie-baking contest between band members. Burhenn, Vandaveer, and some other guy were the judges, and they chose a winner from three pies SW&NS members had baked and brought down from New York. Besides the obvious fact that when people come to a show, they want to see music performed, not pies eaten and giggled about, I felt a little insulted that I wasn’t offered a bite. With only about thirty spectators present, how hard would it have been to pass the goodies around and take a room-wide vote, surely a more democratic experience? Maybe I was just hungry and miffed about not getting any pie, or maybe the pies were pot-glazed and thus not suitable for group consumption. As a rule, though, intra-band bake-offs should be left for the afterparty.
Finally Vandaveer, who had gleefully washed down his pie with Maker’s Mark, took the stage. Joining him to sing backup was Rose Guerin, a powerful singer who did not appear on Grace & Speed but added soulful depth to Vandaveer’s songs. Vandaveer’s fingerpicking guitar style and his Dave Matthews-spliced-with-Donovan voice, supported by Guerin’s vocals, made for an entertaining sound, though the spare percussive flourishes found on his album were missed. The upbeat “Crooked Mast” and murder ballad “The Streets Is Full of Creeps” were highlights. The creepily plodding, almost funk of “Marianne, You’ve Done it Now” also killed, but one wished Vandaveer had brought out the sax guy from Sean Walsh & the National Reserve to reproduce that song’s eerie horn lines. Guerin’s presence was especially pertinent to the rousing chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs” on Grace & Speed’s title track.
Vandaveer admitted he hadn’t picked up a guitar in a week, which was not evident from his sure-handed acoustic riffing. But he did seem unpracticed at alcohol consumption, as indicated by his increasingly incoherent between-song conversations with Guerin and his increasingly deteriorating footwork around the stage. I’ve certainly seen sloppier performers: though he came close to tripping over an amp and ending the show with an embarrassing face-plant, Vandaveer was controlled enough to keep himself in line.
Vandaveer and Guerin come across as playful siblings onstage, and their vocals meshed as would two successors of the same womb. This was not the only reason their take on Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister” was such a showstopper, and bested Burhenn’s subtle vision of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” for cover of the night. Vandaveer sang it like a true Dylan devotee, aware that the key to getting a Dylan song is singing it as if it were your own, as if you have known the lyrics for so long that they’ve tattooed your inner being: “We grew up together / From the cradle to the grave”; indeed, as if the song were his fraternal twin.
A night of intimate performances, occasionally painfully intimate but more often beautifully so, came to end. It seemed fitting that outside the Black Cat a shoving match was brewing between two drunken concertgoers. “You’re always saying that…” complained one of the brawlers, who seemed to be longtime acquaintances if not longtime enemies. Sometimes, family members fight, and get annoyed with one other, and sometimes they need breathing room to realize how much they appreciate one another. Vandaveer was hitting the road soon to sell his musical wares in such far-away Midwestern cities as Des Moines, Iowa, and with hope, build his reputation outside the district. Maybe when he returns he’ll receive a warmer hometown reception, and in turn give a more inspired performance.