Photo Courtesy of Dean Robbins

By Dean Robbins

Folk-punk musician Sunny War played the Songbyrd Music House on February 17 to a mostly receptive crowd. This current tour promotes her seventh album Anarchist Gospel, which was released in February of 2023. 

War’s music is characterized by virtuosic guitar fingerpicking and lacerating lyrics about love, politics, and the human condition. 

The concert was held at the Songbyrd Music House, one of DC’s finest small-to-medium sized venues. The space is small, but high ceilings lend it an airy, inviting atmosphere. 

War’s opener was singer-songwriter Brian Dunne, who seemed to command his own fanbase at the concert. Dunne is immensely charismatic, filling the space between songs with humorous anecdotes and a beaming smile. His fourth album, Loser on the Ropes, dropped in April of 2023. This release marked a move from country-inflected ballads to poppier indie rock tunes. His sound has a bit of Springsteen with a dash of Josh Ritter. Dunne switched between acoustic and electric between songs which helped to add variety to the performance. Every song sounded incredible. Dunne’s eight-song set unfortunately did expose the weakness of his recent sound change. 

Dunne’s Loser on the Ropes sounds better stripped-down live than buried beneath its  overproduced mix on the mastered release. The setlist featured five songs off the album, as well as the singer’s hit song “New Tattoo”, “If You Wanna Stay A While” off his second album, and a track from the supergroup “Fantastic Cat”, of which he’s a member. In one of his interludes, Dunne revealed that “New Tattoo” became inexplicably popular in The Netherlands leading to him playing arenas in the country. He breezed through every song while keeping the audience totally enraptured– this made for an impressive feat, and one that made me an instant fan. 

If Dunne was a bright ball of confidence, Sunny War was a quiet, giggly, awkward mess in the best, most relatable way. She spent the first few minutes of her set fiddling with the amp, before giving up on adjusting the sound to her liking. Her between-song banter often settled on topics of self-improvement, like wanting to have better posture. In any case, her apparent shyness disappears when the music starts; she appeared to communicate more fluidly through music than talking. 

When Sunny War starts playing her beat-up acoustic guitar, one experiences the sensation of leaving their corporeal body to join a cosmic rhythm. Her lightning-speed fingerpicking is a sight to behold, from the first song “All Life’s Worth” to the last tune “No Reason.” Her set consisted of fourteen songs, including her biggest hit “Lucid Lucy,” and one from her still-active childhood folk-punk band Anus Kings, titled “Downtown.” 

Sunny’s technical ability, however, did not totally distract from her often pained and melancholic lyricism. Examining refrains like “Love’s a villain, love’s a pill” from “He Is My Cell,” or “How would you know you had a heart if it wasn’t broken?” from “If It Wasn’t Broken.” As dark as songs like those get, there is almost always a glimmer of hope and beauty within the ruins, like again from “If It Wasn’t Broken”: “But the love you shared is worth the world and more.”

The one unfortunate aspect of the concert was that many fans clearly came for Dunne, and not Sunny War. There was a disrespectful level of background conversation for most of the headlining set. Attendees could often be observed looking judgingly at the back of the room, trying to locate the culprits. 

Sunny War and Brian Dunne are both magnificent performers in their own ways, and their show at Songbyrd was a shining example of that. Their music can be found on all major music platforms, as well as your local record store.

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