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Music on the 4th

July 5, 2012

The first thing I did after I first landed on the East Coast in 1998 was attend the July 4 celebrations. I was just about to embark upon a fellowship year at Harvard and I have dim memories of standing on the banks of the Charles River listening to the Boston Pops Orchestra, eating hotdogs and seeing the lights.

I've celebrated many Independence Days since, eating burgers, drinking beer and watching fireworks in the San Francisco fog, mostly. I've always found the experience to be pleasant enough, but I never felt particularly strongly about this holiday. I have always liked Thanksgiving much more.

Yesterday's July 4 experience was a little different however. For one thing, it was my first Independence Day as an American citizen. For another, it was my first in the nation's capital.

Best of all, though, was the music. I spent a few hours late in the afternoon in the company of By & By, a Washington DC-based bluegrass band. The band was playing a concert on a temporary stage set up in Rose Park and I was transfixed. It was hot as a geisha's kimono, but the band performed with verve and energy.

I particularly enjoyed Elise Smithmyer's singing. I gather By & By is the vocalist's first bluegrass group -- she was mainly a soul songstress before joining the band. As such, Smithmyer has the high notes of a diva -- she shoots straight from the hip. But she keeps the sound straight and unadorned, in the traditional folk style.

At one point, an audience member asked the group to sing a patriotic song for holiday. By & By obliged with a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" that was clean and strong and proud. Smithmyer didn't need Christina Aguilera's melismas to make her point.


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