Josh Berwanger at DC9

Indie rock and alt-country musician Josh Berwanger and his band perform at DC9. Photo: Josh Berwanger

WASHINGTON, November 4, 2013 —Josh Berwanger and his band did not get off to a particularly good start during their recent appearance at DC9. Before the show even began, they discovered their van had been broken into. The resulting damage and chaos threw into question what songs they were going to play in their set or how much of the set they could play at all. It may not be the first time Berwanger or the members of the band have had to deal with something like this. But the real life of a touring band isn’t often the first thing that comes to the audience’s mind when a band takes the stage.

During each performance, bands enter a weird little bubble of reality where, before, during and after their performance, they’re almost more as props than as live people. True, they are recognized as living, breathing people in the abstract but are more often regarded as proxies or prophets representing the human condition. This tends to be true even when the band or singer’s songs reach the most personal level in the collective mind of the audience.

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So there Josh Berwanger and the rest of his band stood up on stage playing at DC9, trying to put on a performance with real world problems spinning in their heads. They eventually did announce to the crowd what had happened after the break-in disaster and after their drummer had to spend time dealing with the police. Unfortunately they had to cut their set short as a result. It was all a bit jarring to everyone, but it was inevitable as well.

Yet this is the kind of life someone in music can encounter on the road from time to time. You can’t necessarily prepare for it, though, and Josh Berwanger probably knows this as well as anyone.

Berwanger started off his career as a member of the indie rock band The Anniversary, playing guitar and also serving as one of their primary vocalists. Along the way, both he and The Anniversary were quite successful, catching the tail end of the Midwestern emo scene and riding it along. 

After that band disbanded, Berwanger put together the alt-country outfit, The Only Children.  Observing Josh Berwanger’s current band, it’s important to keep both these predecessor bands in mind, because they inform a good deal about what he’s doing now as a solo artist.

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Hailing from Kansas, playing and listening to country music almost have to feel like an essential part of life to Berwanger. His Kansas and country background showed up strongly when he played with the Only Children, and his solo work definitely clearly has its roots firmly in the genre as well.

The Anniversary, on the other, had a pretty strong pop sense and was very much part of the scene when it formed. On balance, though Berwanger definitely leans closer to the Only Children now than The Anniversary. But some things so ingrained a musician, they’re impossible to shake, something that’s easy to see when listening to Berwanger’s current incarnation.

Berwanger and his band mates definitely play with a country twang that seems instinctive for a band originating in Kansas. But the ensemble gives off an unmistakable pop sheen that feels almost like it’s an emanation of the mid-1960s. Each of their songs possesses a quick burst of energy, creating compact, efficient music that also has plenty of substance. Berwanger manages to write songs that straddle the line, with subject matter that would work for nearly any country song, but with turns of musical and lyrical phrase that fit in cleverly with any pop/rock act.

That’s why their set here – despite only being about 22 minutes long – was still able feel fairly substantial despite the short length of time they appeared on stage. Berwanger’s songs were, at least momentarily, able to transcend his band’s earlier disaster, letting the audience know that there will be better nights ahead for these excellent musicians.

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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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