- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Last Train Home might have started hitting the road this year, but it doesn’t mean the band has given up on the D.C. music scene.

“We play as much now in D.C. as we did before,” says singer and guitarist Eric Brace via cell phone. He’s not kidding — this weekend, there are no fewer than three chances to catch the band as it plays tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday at Arlington’s Iota Club.

That’s roughly five hours, if not more, of the band’s varied roots rock sound, a term that simply means Last Train Home plays rock with a lot of blues, country and jazz thrown in for good measure — not to mention the occasional Judas Priest cover.

“We really mix it up,” Mr. Brace says.

The group played its first show at the Black Cat in 1997, but every member had been in at least one, if not more, bands in the past. It wasn’t long before the friendly crowd and intimate atmosphere of Iota drew the group in, and Last Train Home has made Iota its home ever since.

“We kind of grew up with it,” Mr. Brace says of Iota. “It’s our favorite place to hang out.” Eric Brace and brother Alan Brace, who plays mandolin, harmonica and sings, grew up in a home where music was always present.

It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he began to discover local D.C. groups like Seldom Scene and the Nighthawks, who all seemed to have one thing in common, he says.

“They all looked like they were having such a good time on stage,” Mr. Brace says. “I wanted to be in that cool club of musicians.” In late 1996, he decided to concentrate on his own material, rather than playing other people’s music. With a group of friends and fellow musicians, Last Train Home was born.

Besides the two Braces, the band includes Jim Carson Gray (bass), Bill Williams (guitar, lap steel guitar, banjo, vocals), Martin Lynds (drums, vocals), Scott McKnight (guitars, vocals), Kevin Cordt (trumpet, violin, vocals), Dave Van Allen (pedal steel and lap steel guitar), Chris Watling (saxophone and accordion) and touring guitarist Jared Bartlett. Guitarist and keyboard artist Doug Derryberry also plays with the band occasionally; he will miss tomorrow’s stint.

“People responded to it, and they started responding to our live shows. … It just felt good and it felt like we were doing it for the right reasons.” Flash forward to 2002, when the band took home artist of the year honors at the Washington Area Music Association’s Wammie awards. That kind of recognition is in part what gave a few of the members the confidence to make the band a full-time gig.

But not everyone was ready to give up job and family obligations, which is why the group whittles itself down to a four-piece with a road guitarist while on tour.

The touring and non-touring parts of the band now perform about 10 shows a month, making sure to take a long weekend at Iota every other month.

Since its creation, Last Train Home has put out a steady number of albums, including 2003’s “Time and Water.” It’s the culmination of years’ worth of honing the band’s sound on stage and in the studio, and is a good starting point for delving into the group’s music.

Having played together for six years means that the band members know each other quite well and have tightened their playing accordingly.

“You do just get better,” Mr. Brace says. “It’s like having a great ensemble cast in a movie like ‘Nashville.’ ” He hopes to have another Last Train Home album available in the spring and even has a few other odd tricks up his sleeve — like the techno remix project. The idea is to pass along Last Train Home tracks to some of the city’s best remixers (there are more than a few to choose from) and see what happens, for good or for ill.

Regardless of what direction the band takes, Mr. Brace seems quite pleased to have taken the leap to full-time musician. Local fans can dress up in costume (and win prizes) for a Halloween night show, catch about three hours of the band’s music Saturday night and bring the children out for a matinee show on Sunday.

“There’s no reason why Last Train Home can’t continue,” he says.

• • •

It’s hard not to feel bad for Shelby Lynne. She spent a decade in the music business and had five albums under her belt before her sixth netted her the dreaded “Best New Artist” award at the Grammys, too often a kiss-of-death for musicians.

She followed it up with the rather mediocre “Love, Shelby,” which tried a little too hard to build on her newfound celebrity with too much of a pop sheen. The title of her newest disc, “Identity Crisis,” seems to hint a bit at the turmoil in her professional life, yet yields some of her best music to date.

Miss Lynne looks to the country of yesteryear — Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Chet Baker — for inspiration, creating an album of sparse ballads and smoky odes to love that feels genuine, rather than overly produced. Certainly the spotlight has faded some since her Grammy win, and it seems like Miss Lynne suddenly feels OK just to be herself again.

What’s more, “Identity Crisis,” sounds like it’s going to translate quite well live — all the more reason to see Miss Lynne at the 9:30 Club Monday fulfilling those “best new artist” expectations.

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