At the 9:30 Club on
September 15, the young bard returned to the scene of previous crimes and took
care of unfinished business.
TEXT/PHOTOS BY ADAM
Iowa folk singer William
Elliott Whitmore is no stranger to Washington,
D.C. This year alone, he opened –
briefly, but enthusiastically – for Chris Cornell back in April at Sixth
and I Synagogue, and he was here just a few weeks ago playing a sold-out
headlining show at the Red Palace on July 24.
Last Thursday, Sept. 15, the whiskey-swilling banjo man
returned once again to the nation’s capitol, this time opening for Rhode Island
indie rockers The Low Anthem at the 9:30 Club.
Whitmore arrived on stage promptly at 8:30 p.m. and with
banjo in hand started his set with “Bury Your Burdens in the Ground,” the opening
track on his most recent album, Field
Songs. Compared to the bleakness of his usual opener – the vocal-only “Cold
and Dead” from 2003’s Hymns for the
Hopeless – “Burdens” is a much more upbeat way to open a set.
Building off that positive start, as well as an outpouring
of applause, Whitmore launched into his always-popular working class anthem,
“Lift My Jug (Song for Hub Cale).” In spite of the somewhat depressing subject
matter – a salute to Hub Cale, an engineer-turned-hobo – Whitmore’s charisma sold
the song’s optimistic vibe.
Taking a brief break between songs, Whitmore both introduced
himself to fans and tinkered with his malfunctioning banjo. The former resulted
in a front-row fan giving him a drink; the latter in a swap from banjo to
acoustic guitar after giving up, remarking, “Well, that didn’t do anything.”
Whitmore continued his set with “Field Song” and “Don’t Need
It,” two of the catchier tracks off Field
Songs, both of which reflect Whitmore’s admiration for farm life and honest
work – common themes in nearly all of his songs, but especially so on the
But good music wasn’t all Whitmore’s set had to offer.
Whitmore is one of few artists who can rival the Mountain Goats frontman John
Darnielle when it comes to endearing and humorous stage banter. Following a fan
yelling for “Midnight,” Whitmore not only agreed to play it, but reminded the
audience that he will take polite requests, “but it’s gotta be a song I wrote.”
Pointing in feigned anger at no one in particular, he added, “Don’t fucking say
Before obliging the fan’s “Midnight” request, Whitmore
continued by asking if it was Friday, implying it would be a good party night.
It was Thursday, and after the audience pointed that out, he agreed to vouch
for anyone who calls out of work the next day. “Tell ‘em I said you need off,
and tell ‘em I said you need a raise too.”
The rest of Whitmore’s set was enjoyable, if not surprising:
a handful of newer songs from 2009’s Animals
in the Dark, two tracks from 2003’s Hymns
for the Hopeless (including “Pine Box,” another fan request), and his
acoustic cover of Bad Religion’s “Don’t Pray On Me,” which was featured on the
2010 tribute mixtape / online album, Germs
Whitmore finished his set, as he often has lately, with his
higher tempo live version of “Old Devils,” which always yields an energetic and
emotional performance. The ever-appreciative performer, he again thanked fans
and shook hands with most of the front row before exiting the stage, amid
several sporadic yells for an encore.
The downside to William Elliott Whitmore so frequently opening for other
bands is the brevity of his sets – in this case, 11 songs, roughly 45 minutes.
With every show, however, his charm and showmanship seem to win over more fans
who had never heard of him before.
So it’s not hard to imagine that he’ll be back in D.C. just as frequently
next year, and hopefully it won’t be too long until he’s headlining the 9:30
Club instead of the Red Palace.