Laughing Man at U Street Music Hall

DC's Laughing Man: Rock infused R&B at the U Street Music Hall. Photo: Laughing Man

WASHINGTON, January, 30, 2012 —There are a number of threads that cut through the heart of the DC music scene and keep rearing their collective heads from time to time. Most everyone familiar with underground rock music knows about the tradition of DC Punk. Almost as many people understand the city’s importance to Emo, which basically defined the mid to late ‘80s as far as rock music is concerned here. 

Also extending out from both those scenes was something of a Neo-Soul movement that materialized in the ‘90s. It combined some of the urgency provided by punk with much of the musicality embodied in the earlier Motown era R&B sound. For the most part the early flavor of R&B has fallen by the wayside over the years.

Today, for better or worse, audiences tend to  associate R&B with Rap and Hip-hop culture rather with its earlier roots. This misperception works creatively when punk aesthetics fuse with these reinterpreted sounds of Motown, with this fusion morphing into a uniquely modern sound that, at first glance, seems somewhat out of place, simply because  it’s not attempted that often.

This is the kind of musical space Washington DC’s Laughing Man attempted to occupy during their live set at the U Street Music Hall last Friday night. Their show here was in support of Bad Friends Records birthday, the label that will be putting out their next record. Their headlining showcase was an excellent example of the kind of sound Laughing Man is trying to push, as well as a statement of their musical ideals.

Laughing Man regards themselves a mixture of art, punk, and R&B, all of which seems like an odd mixture at first glance. Still, the refreshing looseness that some of the best ‘60s/’70s era R&B groups embraced at that time possesses the same aesthetic principles that ‘70s/’80s punk also embraced, although the actual musical application is entirely different. Laughing Man seems to get the feel of both genres, while musically leaning more in the direction of R&B.

The way Laughing Man appropriates the idea of punk is more stylistic than anything else. It’s the bare bones, stripped to the core sensibilities, that Laughing Man brings to the musical table. That doesn’t necessarily set them apart from the crowd, but it does give them an edge of grit that most bands aiming for their sound don’t necessarily achieve. That’s a rather odd thing to say about a band that actually boasts a traditional string section. But it’s true.

With just a normal set-up of guitar, bass, and drums, Laughing Man would still seem like a fairly solid live band. It’s enough that they accentuate their specific type R&B sound well enough and get into an all important groove without ever wandering off the tracks with too much improvisation. In the process, they never lose their momentum. In fact, they’d be a good band regardless of what touches they bring to their sound from outside a traditional set-up. It’s that string section, though, that gives them a more interesting sound and a different kind of depth.

Granted, their style isn’t something that audiences come across all too often – although it has a bit more history in DC than elsewhere – but it would still sound somewhat familiar to many.  Their string section, though, definitely gives them something unique to hang their hat on.

That said, although the strings provide surprising depth and richness to their output, the strings simply serve, for the most part, to smooth out the band’s musical edges. But they don’t really define what the heart of this band is.  Laughing Man is easily able to incorporate the grit of old blues while getting into a groove akin to some of the old soul bands. This output is then encased in a punk-like package that gives them a basic edge and looseness to the point where they never feel too orchestrated.

It’s this interesting mixture that makes Laughing Man seem modern but oddly familiar, even to older listeners. Their recent show at U Street was a perfect example of how they were able to merge these different musical ideals with a surprising but almost imperceptible level of professionalism and expertise.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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