Washington D.C.’s These United States march into Canal Street Tavern
By Benjamin Dale
It’s an interesting thing to watch when a band verges on the border between obscurity and fame, between struggling to make it and finally quitting that day job. Washington D.C. outfit These United States stand poised to make the transition, garnering critical acclaim from such music industry stalwarts as Spin, Paste and Alternative Press. Dayton plays host to the up-and-comers on Monday, September 12 at Canal Street Tavern, with Athens locals Southeast Engine as openers.
These United States have their finger firmly on today’s zeitgeist, as the struggling economy has coincided with a folk/roots rock revival across the nation. Championed by such notables a Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros and Avett Brothers, folkies are all the rage these days. Where These United States stands out against the throngs of imitators is in their storytelling sense. Each song is a story, mostly told in the third person.
“It sounds weird, but we’ve never been interested in introspection and personal stuff,” said Jesse Elliott, primary singer-songwriter for the band. “My background is in storytelling and the third person. I’ve heard from a few places that we’re accused of sneaking in as many allusions to things as we can, and that’s just not true. Characters are interesting. From a writing perspective, I like T.S. Eliot and Hunter S. Thompson and, musically, I like similar idiosyncratic characters in our songs.”
Elliott is in fact descended from one of the great American folk heroes of yore – John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed.
“That’s actually a funny story,” said Elliott. “I was hanging out with my grandmother, who lives in the vicinity where John Chapman, the real dude, planted orchards. Grandma and I were watching a movie with, of all people, Martin Short as Johnny Appleseed. Grandma goes, ‘You know, you’re related to him.’ Sure enough, he’s buried in Fort Wayne, Ind., which is close to where I grew up.”
Though the band formed in D.C. in 2008, These United States can call the road home now, in the tradition of folk greats before them like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Some of the band lives in North Carolina and others in New York. Right now they’re all in Kentucky, working with Duane Lundy of Shangri-La Studios in Lexington on their fifth album in three years.
“We’ve had more time to work on this one, so we’ve done a lot more demoing, it’s kind of a fun process,” said Elliott. “We’re just sort of experimenting right now with structures, tones — chopping songs up like Frankensteins, putting in unexpected instruments or noises.”
Their freewheeling live shows are a reflection of their lifestyles — flowing, sweeping, impulsive and spontaneous.
“I think that’s when we have the most fun together,” said Elliott. “All of us have gotten into this life because we have tried other things and not enjoyed them as much. If you’re going to enjoy rock ‘n’ roll, you may as well enjoy it for what it is, which is fast and loose and fun and made up.”
The band’s name has gathered its fair share of controversy as well, with many assuming a political undertone to the name and thus the songs themselves. In fact the name came from a poem by Chinese-American poet Li-Young Lee. It’s since morphed and come to define the nature of Elliott’s songwriting.
“Geography. Landscapes. Wide open places. City streets. It’s the playground my imagination has always run around, this great big country of ours,” said Elliott. “For better and for worse, it’s us. It’s really just a descriptor, in that sense. I’ve been asked about its controversial nature. Doesn’t seem so controversial to me. Just a, sort of, matter of fact. Here I am. This is what I see around me. It’s journalism. Could’ve named the project Planet Earth, but that seems like more than I know much about right now. These United States is, too, but it’s just close enough within reach to be something to aspire to. Planet Earth would be completely overwhelming. Boston and Chicago were taken already. Here’s where I am.”
Whether it’s sweeping folk ballads or country-fried Americana, These United States have got you covered. This show is not one to miss.
These United States play Monday, September 12 at Canal Street Tavern with Southeast Engine. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. and admission is $5. For more information, visit theseunitedstates.net.
Reach DCP freelance writer Benjamin Dale at BenDale@DaytonCityPaper.com.