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‘Blue Hearts’ beating: an interview with Bob Mould

Gay musician brings latest tour to Annapolis

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Gay musician Bob Mould plays Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Friday. (Photo by Blake Little Photography)

If gay modern rock legend Bob Mould isn’t the hardest-working man in music, he’s definitely one of them. To prove that point, he’s wasted no time in following up 2019’s aptly titled “Sunshine Rock” with the somewhat bluer “Blue Hearts (Merge).” The album is blue in terms of its sexual content (check out “Leather Dreams”) as well as in the liberal political messaging in songs such as “American Crisis,” “Next Generation” and “Heart on my Sleeve.”

As always, the songs are delivered in his trademark crunchy and blazing guitar rock style, with Mould backed by longtime bandmates Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wurster on drums. I had the pleasure of speaking with Bob about Blue Hearts and the Distortion box sets.

BLADE: Blue Hearts opens with “Heart on my Sleeve,” which begins with the lines, fittingly enough for right now, “The left coast is covered in ash and flames/keep denying the winds of climate change.” The song was written and recorded long before the disastrous wildfire season. How does it feel to you when you listen to or perform that song now?

BOB MOULD: You can’t write this stuff [laughs]. When I started gathering ideas for this record, it was with the idea of being more of a journalist. Trying to make my thoughts known, these are the things that appeared. Specifically, on that line, we’ve been having years of fires out here. Now, it’s just so much worse. They tried to tell people this might happen, but I guess it wasn’t that important to the government to think about climate change until it was too late. So here we are.

BLADE: Has living in California heightened your awareness of the dire state of environmental issues and in what ways do you hope to make an impact?

MOULD: For the better of the last four years I was in Berlin, Germany, where we like to think that Germany and Europe is way more progressive. But even in Germany, coal is such a motivator over there, and the auto industry is so important. They’ve got issues with (gas pipeline) Nord Stream 2 with the Russians right now. I guess being back in California since November of 2019, I think I have a heightened awareness all the way across the board, not only how climate change is affecting the West Coast, but how the sensationalist mainstream news media, news as entertainment, has affected the psyche of the country and created such great division. For me, the juxtaposition is that in Germany, news is mainly still news. It’s not exciting. There’s nothing titillating about it. It’s just news, which is what news should be. Being back here, I think the over amplifying of things here has created beyond an echo chamber, almost canceling out truth, which is nutty to be thinking about at eight in the morning when I can’t even breathe outside.

BLADE: “Next Generation,” which follows “Heart on my Sleeve,” is also prescient, with the lines “Please pay attention/Take to the streets for your rights,” especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement’s rise to prominence following the murder of George Floyd and others. Would you agree that the timing of the release of “Blue Hearts” is extraordinary?

MOULD: It was a little unnerving. In life and, for lack of a better term, in entertainment and the arts, timing is key to things. When I set out to write the record it was just a general impression, speaking on 59 years on this planet and seeing what we as people actually need to do. Such as turning away from sensationalist force-fed media and talking to our neighbors, getting out on the street, protesting. Being in Germany, I don’t think a single week went by where I did not stumble into an organized protest that would take over the main streets of certain neighborhoods in Berlin. It was accepted behavior. To go from years of that and to come back here, writing these words was sort of a reminder to people that this is what we did in America in the `60s. This is not a bunch of radical, left extremists, who are going to loot Bergdorf Goodman. That’s not the intent when people take to the streets for their rights. What I just described is actually looting, which is different [laughs].

BLADE: It’s ironic, don’t you think, that the some of the people who were out there protesting in the streets in the ‘60s, have now, in their dotage, become so conservative, even going so far as to support Trump?

MOULD: It sure feels like that could be the case. I don’t have hard evidence, but I would suggest you may be right [laughs].

BLADE: It’s frightening, because these are the original hippies who are upset about protests.

MOULD: I think people protest when they feel like they’ve lost their voice or they have no means. Means being that they don’t have a large stake in the stock market, which the president speaks about when he says, “I didn’t want to cause panic.” Meaning panic on Wall Street. I worry, because my job is to observe the world through my oddly shaped glasses [laughs] and just report back on what I remember from being a 21, 22-year-old kid who had absolutely nothing but a band and a guitar and an amp with which to do things. Maybe these people who used to protest when they had nothing, once people get means, once people are invested, maybe they lose sight of the plight of the common person.

BLADE: When I interviewed gay writer David Leavitt about his novel “Shelter in Place,” we talked about the parallels for gay men when it comes to the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, similarities including Republicans being in power and the undue influence of evangelicals. “American Crisis,” the blistering first single from “Blue Hearts” shares a similar sentiment. Do you think gay men could teach the rest of the world how to survive a plague, both viral and extremist?

MOULD: I think David is illuminating what I think is a historical parallel, which you just can’t deny. Whether America’s ready to listen to older gay men beyond caricatures on network television, I don’t know. If they are, there are things we can tell them. For me personally, as a young gay man in the `80s, it sort of crushed my development, but I realized that I had to protect other people so I had to do certain things for 35 years until PrEP came along. Why was it not a problem for me for all those years, yet when you ask someone why they don’t wear a mask, it’s because it’s their liberty. What if I had been that cavalier?

BLADE: Right. It was such a simple thing for us to realize that to save our own lives, and the lives of others, you put on a condom, you relearn how to have sex. There’s just no comparison to putting on a mask.

MOULD: Yes, because this is just something that everybody’s doing on their face. When you’re asking people to make emotional sacrifices in moments of intimacy, I think that’s a little bit heavier than having a mask on your doorknob so you put it on your face when you leave your dwelling [laughs].

BLADE: The activist aspect of the album is reflected in that you donated the proceeds from the “American Crisis” single to OutFront Minnesota and Black Visions Collective when it was released a few months ago. Why were those two organizations chosen?

MOULD: That was a split choice. I chose the LGBT group in Minnesota because a lot of the record, as you have seen, speaks from an older gay male perspective. Merge Records donated its half to the Black Lives Matter related situation that was going on in Minnesota. We mutually said that this covers all the things we’re trying to say.

BLADE: “Leather Dreams,” which basically struts out of the speakers like a freeballing stud, manages to be both erotic and thoughtful, with its reference to “Tops and their bottoms, condoms and PrEP.” It’s also the sound of sexual liberation, so was it as liberating to write as it sounds?

MOULD: Yeah! I had a three-day sleepless stretch in January, right before going on the road and then right into the studio with these songs. I had the house to myself. I was writing like a madman. That one just fell out of nowhere. It was so hilarious because clearly these are the experiences of someone [laughs]. It’s really riotous. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as out front. There were moments on Modulate, back in ’02, but nothing quite as overt.  I think it’s outright hilarious. Who is this guy? Who has this life [laughs]?

BLADE: In addition to “Blue Hearts,” there is the massive CD and LP box sets Distortion: 1989-2019 and Distortion: 1989-1995, respectively. What does it mean to you to have these expansive retrospectives available and why was now the time to release them?

MOULD: I had been talking with Demon Music Group about this project for five years on and off. A lot it was a matter of timing. Back in ’16, Patch The Sky was out and I was doing a lot of touring and I kept that record alive for almost two years and then I went right into Sunshine Rock (in 2019). I thought that after Sunshine Rock wound its way down, I was going to take a longer break. Maybe I’ll take a couple of years. This would be a good time to have the box set. It will be something in between Sunshine Rock and whatever’s next. Then my head started burning with all this new music. Then I was faced with this interesting dilemma of having a current project and a retrospective at the same time. It’s weird because the current record sounds like the music that predates the box set [laughs]. That really aggressive simplistic songwriting style. But the box set is really great. Every time I put out a record, people are like, “Is this your 14th solo album?” and I can never remember; now they’re all in one place.

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Music & Concerts

Washington Arts Ensemble to host immersive concert

Creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture

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The Washington Arts Ensemble will host an immersive concert experience on Saturday, June 18 at 7 p.m. at Dupont Underground.

This concert will show how distinct genres influence pop culture and articulate the commonality between classical, jazz, and electronic music while creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture.

Some of the works that will be performed include “Switched-On Bach selections” by Wendy Carlos, “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals by Camile Saint-Saens, among other works.

Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on the Washington Arts Ensemble’s website

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Music & Concerts

John Levengood releases anthem “Say Gay!” to protest discrimination

Slated to perform new song at 2022 Capital Pride Festival in June

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Recording artist John Levengood’s latest song ‘Say Gay!’ is out Friday. (Photo courtesy Levengood)

“Say gay! Say gay! Say gay!
“Say what? Say what?
“One little law won’t shut us up!”

Slated for digital release this Friday, recording artist John Levengood’s latest song “Say Gay!” confronts anti-LGBTQ legislation such as the “Don’t Say Gay” law by encouraging others to “profess their queerness loudly, proudly, and never in the shadows,” Levengood said in a press release shared with the Blade on Tuesday.

On June 12, Levengood is set to perform the song’s live debut at the 2022 Capital Pride Festival in Washington, D.C., to streets teeming with community members, food trucks, and local vendors, according to the press release.

“The rise in oppressive legislation and proposals have many in the LGBTQ+ community alarmed,” the press release says. Levengood “hopes this song can be used as a metaphorical weapon to blast holes in the argument that teaching children about acceptance and diversity is more appropriate at home than school.”

The bill, enacted by the Florida Legislature earlier this year but not yet in force, would limit teachers’ ability to teach LGBTQ topics in some school settings and obligate school officials to disclose students’ sexual orientation and gender identity to their parents upon request.

A D.C. resident himself, Levengood currently works over the weekends as resident host and karaoke emcee at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, Va., an LGBTQ bar and restaurant.

Levengood is no stranger to the music scene, in 2013 moving through multiple rounds of auditions for the third season of “The X Factor” before coming up short of formally appearing on the show, according to the release.

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of rural Virginia, the press release added that music has been an outlet for Levengood to express himself from an early age. The new song marks his seventh musical release.

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Tori Amos spins magic at Sunday night D.C.-area concert

First show in the area since ’17 finds Gen X icon vocally subdued but musically energized

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As with many veteran rock stars, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on how hot or cold Tori Amos’s 30-year-old solo career is at the moment. It sometimes seems like she’s moving past the take-her-for-granted-because-she’s-never-away-for-long phase, and there certainly was that sense in the air Sunday night for her D.C.-area stop of her current “Ocean to Ocean Tour,” her first show here since 2017, which, with COVID, feels like a lifetime ago.

But there are also signs that it’s never been chillier for Amos in the overall pop culture landscape. It’s been a decade since she charted a single on any chart and there were no videos or singles from her “Ocean to Ocean” album last fall. It landed just outside the top 100 on the U.S. Billboard 200 album sales chart altogether, a new low that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago when her “regular” (i.e. non-specialty/concept) albums were almost guaranteed a top 10 debut. 

The slide has been swift, too: 2014’s “Unrepentant Geraldines” hit No. 7, the next album (2017’s polarizing “Native Invader”) only made it to 39, then came “Ocean’s” thud at no. 104. There’s a lot you could point to to explain it — streaming, her aging Gen X fan base, the endless undulations of the music industry itself — but in some ways it has started to feel like she’s getting less and less return on her artistic dollar than one would expect. 

Yeah, that always happens with veteran female pop stars once they hit their 50s and beyond, but Amos and her small but mighty fan base, who for decades exhibited a devotion of Grateful Dead-like proportions, outran the trend for so long, to see it finally catching up is a bit bewildering.

But then you go hear her live at a decent-size venue like The Theater at MGM National Harbor (which seats 3,000 and was about 97 percent full), and it feels nearly like old times. Sure, some of the excitement was just that we’re all gagging at being at concerts at all and having mask restrictions and vaccine requirements paused, but there was an electricity that, while mellower than it was at Amos concerts in the ’90s, still felt magical. I’ve never in my life seen so long a line for the merch table.

The concert itself was, for the most part, sublime. It was the first time since 2009 she’s toured with a band and while her solo shows are great too, there was pent-up yearning to hear her unleash full-on with a solid rhythm section (Jon Evans on bass, Ash Soan on drums) again. Beat-heavy songs like “Raspberry Swirl” and “Cornflake Girl” sounded tepid with canned beats the last few times out, so to hear everything truly live (save a few BGVs and effects) last night was heavenly.

It was Gen X queer night out Sunday night at the Theater at MGM National Harbor for Tori Amos’s first concert here since 2017. (Photo by Desmond Murray; courtesy Girlie Action)

The show had special poignancy too, as Amos grew up in the region. She has written and commented heavily on the immense toll her mother’s 2019 death took on her personally and artistically, so that the date happened to be Mother’s Day gave the proceedings added gravitas. “Mother Revolution” and “Jackie’s Strength” spoke, of course, to the holiday, though (and this is quibbling) I would have vastly preferred “Mother” from “Little Earthquakes,” a deep cut we haven’t heard live in eons. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Highlights included the slinky, rhythm-loopy opener “Juarez”; “Ocean to Ocean,” one of three cuts performed from the new record, which shimmered with Philip Glass-like piano arpeggios; the vampy, slinky interplay between the three musicians on “Mother Revolution”; and unexpected fan favorite “Spring Haze.” Amos, overall, is varying up the set list quite a bit less than is her norm, so it was one of the few surprises of the evening. 

The lengths of several of the songs were drawn out considerably. At times — “A Sorta Fairytale,” the aforementioned “Revolution” — that worked well and gave the band time to languidly jam. At other points, it felt a bit self-indulgent and even slightly boring — as on “Sweet Sangria” and “Liquid Diamonds.” 

“Russia,” a bonus cut from the last album, sounded just how it did when Amos performed it here in 2017, but took on added resonance because of current events. Closing line “Is Stalin on your shoulder” was chilling.

Overall, the show — lighting, pacing, everything — largely worked. The sound mix, which fans have said has been muddy at some venues recently on the tour, was pristine. Pacing only lagged a few times in some of the mid-tempo cuts from later albums, but just when you felt some were zoning — the flow of those entering and exiting is a good barometer — Amos whipped things back together with a fan favorite like “Past the Mission” or “Spring Haze.”

It all came to a satisfying, audience-friendly climax with “Cornflake Girl,” then the two encore cuts, “Precious Things” and “Tear in Your Hand,” both from the first album. 

Vocally, the range was there and sounded lovely, but the oomph was considerably held back. Vocal preservation for the many dates ahead? Probably. It’s understandable. Amos, at 58, may lack the stamina she had 20 years ago, but it did feel underwhelming in passages that in years past would have been full on, balls out like the “Bliss” bridge or the “nine-inch nails” passage from “Precious Things.” 

Not one acknowledgment or mention by Amos of the female folk duo openers Companion. I’d have invited them out for a few numbers to sing BGVs. I mean, heck, they’re in the house, why not? And other than the welcome, a brief soliloquy on Mother’s Day was the only Amos comment of the entire night. 

Still Amos never came off as aloof. She seemed genuinely excited to be playing live again and the queer-heavy crowd responded in kind. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)
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