Durand Jones and The Indications Try to Bring the World Together at The Birchmere

Durand Jones and the Indications lay down some soulful jams at The Birchmere (Photo credit: The Birchmere)I already expressed this opinion in my Top 30 Songs of 2019 countdown (will I ever get done with my Best Albums of 2019 article? Who knows!), but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the R&B and soul-based music released between, say 1960 to 1974 is the most beloved music in America, if not the world. Have you ever heard someone say that they just couldn’t get into Motown? Anyone ever tell you that James Brown or the Jackson 5 just isn’t their thing? Ever heard someone claim that Al Green is overrated? Probably not. But why? What is it about these genres that’s so widely appealing? I have a few theories. 

The first is that the genre’s biggest hits are geysers of positivity and ebullience. The Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” is about becoming so exuberant in the presence of your beloved that you have auditory hallucinations of a Berry Gordy arrangement following you around, and “Let’s Stay Together” is so evocative of the feelings of romantic bliss that you forget it’s also a plea to prevent a breakup. Songs within these genres just as frequently deal with heartbreak, too, but they express it in so many shades and complexities that are seemingly unequaled by other genres (I love a good splatter platter as much as the next guy, but imagine hearing “The Tracks of My Tears” for the first time in 1966? You’re not getting that same depth from “Last Kiss.”). Likewise, the production is focused on delivering silky, smooth sounds for listening, making orchestras sound like they’re from street corners and drum kits hit like romantic thunderbolts. But what I really think makes this music so appealing is the completely circular and unhelpful fact that everyone likes it

A snappy drum beat, peppy horns, and heavenly harmonies have the ability to reach across generational, political, and geographic lines, and the reason why it’s able to do so is less important than the fact that it actually does so. It doesn’t matter how old you are or who you voted for, if you’re at a wedding and the band strikes up “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” you’re gonna get up and dance, and so is everyone else because they’d have to be a joyless asshole not too. The idea that music can be a unifying force slid into parody around the time of “Another Day in Paradise,” and while a string of notes may not be able to end world hunger or bring about world peace, it can at least give you and your parents something to agree on for a few minutes, and, for many people, that’s no small feat. 

At least that’s what I got out of Durand Jones and The Indications’ show at The Birchmere in Alexandria last Thursday night. I went to the show with my father and two of my friends a mere two days after the New Hampshire primary and, needless to say, there was an acknowledged political divide in our foursome that mirrored the generational one. 1My dad is a lifelong Republican who hates and will never vote for Donald Trump but is also more likely to be elected president himself than ever cast a vote for a Democrat. My friends and I are Democrats. The political conversation that preceded the show was mostly good-natured, and we even ended up agreeing on some things, but the inevitability of the conversation, itself, was felt discouraging, nonetheless. Maybe it shouldn’t have, and, as someone who studied political science and has lived in Washington for almost 8 years, I should’ve come to expect that politics will be touched on in nearly every conversation I have, but it isn’t exactly comforting to have the fog of a divided America hanging over everything we do. The Indications offered the antidote to this spiritual disease, captivating a crowd of young, old (it became readily apparent to me that I wasn’t the only person who brought a parent to the show), black, white, and everything in between– dissolving the demographic and ideological barriers between us and, for the first time in a while, making me feel like a member of one positive, cohesive force. 

That’s not to say the performance was in any way apolitical. The clear highlight of the night was “Morning in America,” a Poor People’s Campaign-inspired, “What’s Going On?”-style message song that’s not afraid to take aim at Joe Arpaio and the Flint water crisis. The Indications’ most political work can feel a little out of place when taken in with the broader love and romance focus of the rest of their catalogue and, to the skeptical, could come off as just another box to check for an artist aping the trappings and themes of 70s soul, but, heard live, it’s searing and rallying, and you get the sense that Jones really feels what he’s singing as his persona switches from James Brown-style entertainer to a Marvin Gaye or a Sam Cooke pleading for change. Also, it helps that it gives him a  convenient chance to shoutout Richmond and Baltimore and rile up a DMV crowd. 

I’ve written a lot about how crowds atshows can be terrible and ruin the viewing experience, but, in the two times I’ve seen them, Durand Jones and the Indications have brought out the best in their audience. Instead of the attention-seeking jokes or disinterested chatter you here at some indie rock shows, they elicit a good-natured reaction to their music, including gentle swaying, all out dancing, singing along, and the occasional whoops and shouts of encouragement. Instead of cloying and performative, the crowd’s reaction felt spontaneous and participatory, reaching a peak during the halftime hip-hop melody, when Jones left the stage to hydrate and change his shirt, and the band went into an instrumental sampling of “C.R.E.A.M.,” “So Fresh, So Clean, “My Name Is,” “Express Yourself,” “It Was a Good Day,” and “Apache (Jump On It).” The audience did their part, shouting along the required choruses when appropriate, giving the show a looser, house party feel.

The band themselves put in a sweaty, soulful, and dexterous performance throughout the night. Taking the stage without any of the horns that punctuate their studio work and that accompanied them when I saw the band last year, I was worried that some of the songs might feel a little empty and lacking in dynamism. While the live and horn-less transition wasn’t always airtight, it highlighted the work that the core Indications — keyboardist Steve Okonski, guitarist Blake Rhein, new bassist Mike Montgomery, and drummer/singer Aaron Frazer, — put in, giving them new room to shine and leave an impression on the audience. Rather than feeling empty, the group’s sound felt svelte yet feverish, aching and true, full of emotion and musical muscle. 

The reduced line up forced the band to be a bit more economical with their sound, and their reliance on Okonski’s keys to carry the melodic weight afforded them a degree of smoothness and atmosphere. It felt spare compared to their studio work, but that increased space allowed them to build the peaks and valleys that gave their more forceful moments, like the James Brown aping “Groovy Babe” or the impassioned “Walk Away,” extra oomph. 

Great as they are, seeing Durand Jones and the Indications live highlights the fact that they’re actually a very poorly named band. Jones, whose voice and wardrobe look and sound so much like a Nixon-era soulman that he transcends pastiche and reaches a rare level of authenticity, is an exciting and worthy frontman, but the man everyone leaves the venue talking about is Frazer. Of slight build and boyish features, the Baltimore native has an angelic falsetto that compliments and contradicts the inherent physicality of his drumming. This unlikely union comes out in “How Can I Be Sure,” whose pleading coda requires Frazer to push his voice both in terms of range and volume, while also kicking up the tempo through his kit, making for a combination of wailing and flailing that hammers home the songs central desperation and hopelessness. 

He’s such an attraction and such a crowd favorite that I find it hard to keep my mind from wandering towards the possibility that there might be some tension between him and Jones, but their chemistry and very vocal appreciation of each other assuages those fears. They mixed together the best on smooth ode to unconditional love “That’s What I Know About You,” which finds them in silky harmony for most of the verse before tag teaming the chorus. “Sometimes, when the load gets heavy,” Jones tosses up like a wiffle ball, “we lock arms, and we keep it steady” Frazer swings and hits it out of the park. It reminds me of songs like “Bobby Jean,” an apparent love song that’s actually about Bruce Springsteen’s friendship with Steven Van Zandt. I have no reason to believe that “That’s What I Know About You” is about a lifelong bond between Jones and Frazer, but it hammers home their musical bond in structure, if not in content.

The set ended with a two song encore: first with “Is It Any Wonder?,” a sway-inducing slow jam that’s become Frazer’s signature song, and then jaunty, Bill Withers-esque “Long Way Home.” Halfway through the last song Jones delivered a rousing speech imploring us, no matter how far away from “home” we all felt in 2020, to go out and vote in the interest of our marginalized countrymen. “I don’t know about you, but everyone on this stage is voting for Bernie Sanders,” Jones announced to rapturous applause. I haven’t made up my mind about who I want to win the Democratic primary, and I remain a Sanders skeptic for the most part. But the power of the music and the crowd was enough to make you believe in anything, which is probably why politicians are always so eager to book musicians for their rallies. It had been so long since I’ve felt like I was a part of something positive, powerful, and cohesive. Here’s hoping we all get to access that feeling more often in the future.