- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

When Christine Lavin isn’t twirling her baton or knitting a sweater this Saturday at the Birchmere in Alexandria, she’ll be singing warm, touching songs with titles such as “If You Want Space, Go To Utah,” “The Polka-Dancing Bus Driver and the 40-Year-Old Mystery,” “Shining My Flashlight at the Moon” and “I Bring Out the Worst In You.” Some of them are very funny, too.

For the past 20 years, Miss Lavin has been writing and singing songs with her own unique sense of romance and humor. Over the course of 13 solo albums, three albums with her group (Four Bitchin’ Babes) and eight compilations, she has established herself as a mainstay of the New York City folk scene.

Miss Lavin sings in a distinctive conversational rhythm that almost mirrors normal speech. It’s as if she were sitting in her living room telling stories, all full of wonderful truths.

“Ninety-nine percent of the songs I write come out of things that really happened,” Miss Lavin says. “That’s what really draws me to folk music, is that it’s real stuff.”

Sometime during the evening, she will get out her baton and twirl a bit. But that’s not all; there is also the “Brain-Buster Science Quiz” (10 questions that have nothing to do with science) and the “Best-Looking Man in the Audience” contest.

“It’s very interactive and unpredictable, and that makes it fun for me,” Miss Lavin says.

The latest addition to the Christine Lavin experience is knitting. About a year ago, Miss Lavin took a knitting class and got hooked. She now invites knitters to join her in a pre-show knitting circle. She has had as many as 25 people participating before a show. Recently, she was asked to submit a chapter to a new anthology of stories about knitting called “Knit Lit Too.”

Another thing that distinguishes Miss Lavin is her generosity. Through all the years she has been working to get her own music out, she’s also been working to get others’ out too.

Her latest effort involves a duo called The Front Page Follies — Michael Quinn and Peter Ekstrom, who have been playing a Monday night gig at small basement nightclub in New York City for almost two years.

“These guys, Miss Lavin says of the group, “are writing the kind of political songs that are funny, insightful; they’re biting, and they’re highly entertaining. This hardly ever happens.”

The group opens for her Saturday at the Birchmere.

“I feel like it’s my duty,” says Miss Lavin. “They should be playing in D.C. It’s time somebody gave Capitol Steps a little competition. And I do love the Capitol Steps.”

• • •

One other opening act deserves a special look this week. When veteran rock star Steve Winwood brings his new Latin-tinged, Caribbean blue-eyed soul to the 9:30 Club on Saturday night, get there early. That way you can catch superb roots rockers the North Mississippi Allstars.

Brothers Luther (guitar) and Cody Dickinson (drums) started the Allstars in 1996, soon after they discovered the depth of the roots in their home state.

“When I discovered that right there in my back yard, there was modern-day Mississippi country blues, with R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Othar Turner and the ghost of Fred McDowell,” Luther Dickinson says. “That just blew my mind.”

In 2000, the Allstars (including Chris Chews on bass) celebrated the Mississippi hill-country blues on their critically acclaimed debut album, “Shake Hands with Shorty.” Their second release, “51 Phantom,” showed even more of their own personalities.

“The three of us, we started stretching out,” Luther says. “Cody and I started playing more free, and including our earlier influences, like Southern rock. I think the combination of the hill-country blues, the gospel and the rock and roll, that’s really where we found our own unique, quirky little sound.”

That sound has blossomed this year with the release of their third album, “Polaris.” The addition of Duwayne Burnside, R.L. Burnside’s son, brings edgy guitar licks and some great lead vocals and songwriting.

Although the roots are still there, this is a fresh sound that mixes equal parts southern rock, blues, pop and hard rock with bits of gospel, R&B; and hip-hop. And live, it gets even better. These boys have learned from the best how to rock the joint.

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