Capitol Roots: Growing Up with DC’s Bluegrass Scene

Sonny Landreth slides into The Hamilton on July 22. Photo: Bruce Schultz 

By and By

A decade ago, it wasn’t easy to find bluegrass music in DC. Diehard fans might seek out events of the DC Bluegrass Union or an occasional show in Adams Morgan, but music lovers with broader tastes weren’t likely to hear bluegrass in many other places.    

In the early 2000s, a bluegrass renaissance took root on Capitol Hill. Sova coffeehouse on H Street started a weekly bluegrass night, and a regular rotation of bands found a place to hone their material and build an audience. When Sova gave way to gentrification on H Street, the music moved a few blocks away to the Argonaut bar (now also closed).

The local six-piece band By and By got its start at those venues and was one of a handful of acts in the early years of the Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival, when the audience numbered in the hundreds. A few months ago, the band played on the main stage at the 2017 Kingman Island festival before thousands of people. With tight harmonies and crisp playing, the band seemed right at home in that larger setting, demonstrating how much it has grown along with the local bluegrass scene.

By and By returns to Capitol Hill on July 20 for a show at Mr. Henry’s, the venerable Hill venue that features roots music on Thursday nights.

By and By’s evolution can also be heard in the songs it is recording for a new CD it hopes to release later this year. The band’s first record, 2013’s “Get It While You Can,” was a fine snapshot of a band still discovering its identity. “We were finding our style,” said guitarist and singer Daniel Buchner, who also wrote most of the songs on the record. “We started as a bluegrass cover band that played an occasional rock song.”

One of Buchner’s favorite bands is The Grateful Dead, and that influence is front and center on the title track of “Get It While You Can,” with a bridge that echoes the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues.” On the new record the influence is more subtle, but it comes through in the sweet vocal harmonies.

The new album, still untitled, is more collaborative than the first one, Buchner said. The arrangements and some of the lyrics evolved through live performances, with all of the band members contributing. In addition to Buchner, the lineup includes Elise Marie, vocals and guitars; Claire Blaustein, fiddle and vocals; Steve Grossman, banjo; James Millward, mandolin; and Trevor Olexy, bass.

The result is a record that sounds less traditional than the first, with songs that reflect different perspectives. The only cover is “The Devil Is All Around,” by the punkish duo Shovels and Rope. And the instrumental “Metro Gnome” isn’t a breakneck bluegrass jam but a mid-tempo tune in an Indian raga mode.

In June, By and By played at Watermelon Park in Virginia, the site of the nation’s first multi-day bluegrass festival in the early 70s. A showcase like that is a far cry from a weeknight at a coffeehouse on H Street, and it showed how far By and By has traveled. With a strong new record on the horizon, the journey is certain to continue.

www.byandbyband.com

www.mrhenrysdc.com

Sonny Landreth

Sonny Landreth grew up in Cajun country, and his music has been called Slydeco – a gumbo of slide guitar, Zydeco, and other Louisiana sounds.  

Over the years he has played with John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and other blues greats, but he always seems to return home. He has been a mainstay of the Festival Internationale in Lafayette, and his brand-new double CD is titled “Recorded Live in Lafayette.” 

It’s his first live record in 12 years and a good way to get a taste of his virtuosity and range. Or you can catch him at The Hamilton on July 22with Toronzo Cannon, one of the best of a new generation of Chicago bluesmen.

www.sonnylandreth.com

www.thehamiltondc.com

Charles Walston played in the country rock band The Vidalias and currently plays in The Truck Farmers. 


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