Facebook Share

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Hang with Your Hometown

An unusual gig is coming up this Friday at the Birchmere - a sort of Western themed musical called Hangtown Dancehall - spearheaded by ex- pat Washingtonian Eric Brace and Karl Straub. This one of a kind project involves a cavalcade of local musicians and features another formerly local player Kelly Willis as well.  Since Eric used to write  the "Nightwatch" colum for the Washington Post, I thought I'd let him tell you how this collaboration came about. His story includes a lot of old local stuff which I'm always a sucker for:

"I first encountered Karl Straub in the early '90s at Alice Despard's little club Roratonga Rodeo. Alice had opened Roratonga Rodeo in Clarendon in, perhaps, 1991, wayyyyy before Clarendon was cool. Before the Whole Foods!  I was in two bands then: One was called The Beggars, and I was playing bass in Kevin Johnson & the Linemen. Both bands played at the Roratonga Rodeo, and it became a hang out even when I wasn't playing. I'd park in the crumbling lot of the empty Sears (where the Barnes & Noble is now) and spend hours at Roratonga's little bar. (Alice transformed it into Galaxy Hut a few years later.) 

And the Rodeo was where I first saw Karl's band -The Graverobbers- which immediately became my favorite group in town. They also had a Sunday night residency at IOTA when that opened in '93, back when it was 1/3 the size it is now. I loved the band's bash-it-out garage rock, loved Karl's singing and guitar playing, but especially his songwriting -- surreal lyrics floating over spectacular melodies and chord progressions.

Karl was also one of my inspirations for starting my band Last Train Home, partly because there were songs of his I always wanted to sing like "Tonight" and "It Doesn't Matter." 

But I always wanted to be in a band and collaborate more with Karl. We would have long conversations about songwriting, guitar playing and a myriad of things like Ernst Lubtisch's pre-Hollywood musicals.

The Gold Rush was always in my head. Being a kid in Northern California, I always imagined digging up a big old gold nugget. As an adult I read up on the history of that time, and was hit by how many great songs could be written about it. As I started crafting a story line to hold the music together, I remembered Karl's thoughts on movie scores, and I asked him if he would be up for composing an overture to the whole thing. (He had recently gotten a degree in composition from Howard University.)
He said he'd get right on it. 

That never happened.

But he did become part of the whole process. He co-wrote much of "Hangtown Dancehall" with me as well as some of my favorite moments all by his lonesome including "Smile and a Little Skin" and "Hangtown Fry." 

For more details, here's a review of the show from Steve Kiviat  or just come and see for yourself.  It's sure to be a hometown kind of thing with lots of reunions going on both on stage and in the audience.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Going Back

DC ROCKS' Song of the Month is "Goin' Back"- a must for all you DC music fans to add to your playlists.  Although the song credits go to Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the only version I really like is by DC 's own Nils Lofgren.

Nils might be nationally known as a guitar slinger (and acrobat) for  Bruce Springsteen, but around here everyone likes to tell stories that swirl around his roots in Bethesda, his early escapades with Neil Young and of course, his band Grin. It seems like countless fans of a certain age either know him or his brother, or heard the band practicing in a garage somewhere. Grin even played Fort Reno way back when. But it was just after Grin and way before Springsteen that Nils came out with a solo album which included "Going Back."The Byrds did it. Carole King did it. Freddie Mercury did it for Pete's sake. Phil Collins has a beautiful version, but to me Nils is the only one that lifts this song out of its sugar glazed gauze and puts it on solid ground.

His version lacks sentimentality which is hard to do with a song so deeply steeped in nostalgia. I don't know if it's the up beat or the piano, but in the end, this song defies its title and is as much about moving forward as it is about going back.  I think Nils Lofgren is the one that delivers that message with joy. Play it if you can.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Get Out

September weather can be dang near perfect in DC so now is a good time for a walk-about. This Saturday check out my favorite food and music frenzy- the H Street Festival which is a huge yet still eclectic celebration of a neighborhood. Make sure you get a piece of one of those  Dangerously Delicious Pies. (the most deadly being the Baltimore Bomb)  These hefty slices of heaven are brought to you by a musician who honed his baking skills while touring and managed to bake his way off the floor by the cat box to a couch. Now he has his own shops- two in DC and one in Baltimore.

Also in the mix are multiple stages, sometimes every block, and all kinds of activities and bands including MH and his Orchestra, Little Red and the Renegades and Vintage 18.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Dive In

Wednesday's Kojo Nnamdi show on WAMU was right up DC ROCKS' alley. The discussion was all about dive bars and included Jackie Greenbaum who rescued The Quarry House from extinction and kept the atmosphere in tact right down to a low hanging but now defunct heating pipe.

 Even though I knew almost all the bars mentioned, I learned a lot from this show. I knew JVs was old, but didn't know it was born in the oldest strip mall in the DC area. I knew Quarry House goes way back but didn't know it might have been a speakeasy, and that there is no heat. I'm not sure why I 'm drawn to the darker side of sticky floors and creepy bathrooms with bad locks, but at least I know I'm not alone. This show also turned me onto a rather outrageously perfect punk rock explanation called Burn Down the Brixton by Jack On Fire- a band I can't wait to see.

Curious? Quarry House has live music every Saturday night with The Rock-a-Sonics coming up this week. JVs somehow churns out shows almost every evening- often twice on the weekends. Already have a favorite hang out? You can use the link above to chime in on Kojo's  dive bar survey.

Two not mentioned on the show that are a couple of my favorites (though relative new comers) are The Galaxy Hut which has a capacity of about 60 people, and a formidable beer list, plus  The Big Hunt. With it's furry chandeliers and dark strange atmosphere, I have to put this one on the list.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Why did all my cucumbers come in one week? Why do celebrities die in threes? And why are so many  bands playing Saturday and not Friday?

Ruthie and the Wranglers are back at Gypsy Sally's, one of the better places to see a show these days if you are looking for a decent size space and dance floor, but also cramming in this Saturday night we've got The Vi-kings at Clyde's, Little Red and the Renegades at Quarry House, and Beat Hotel at Harp and Fiddle.

And for all you day owls: Bumper Jacksons and more will be at the Atlas Brewery Anniversary Party Saturday afternoon.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Northwest Cowboy

Labor Day. Those two words describe a holiday meant to honor workers, but Labor Day also portends the end of summer, back to the grind and back to school. But what happens AFTER graduation? My daughter and her friends graduated from Wilson in 2011, and DC ROCKS will be digging around to see where they are now.

First up is Will Mitchell, who like many students, spent his high school years somewhat confused.  He knew "something was wrong" with the way the world worked, but didn't know what exactly. Then, after changing his major multiple times at Penn State, a stint on a cattle farm in Maryland helped Mitchell find his focus.


Mitchell then graduated in four years with a double major in Geography and Energy Business and Finance, plus a minor in Environmental Inquiry(!) One smart cookie, he took that diploma right back to Glen Mary Farm where he teamed up with owner JD Schmidt to grow grass in just the right way for beef cattle. Soon after Mitchell started his own venture- the Tenleytown Meat Company. Check it out!

Unlike most farm to table vendors, there's an economic twist here. Beef and lamb are sold in bulk for two reasons: to keep prices down and to give the farmer some economic stability. (The web site shows a only fairly small amount of freezer real estate needs to be devoted to an order, but if you are really short on space, consider sharing a purchase with a neighbor.)

Plus cattle are not just grass fed, but completely grass finished- something not easy to find- even at Whole Foods- partly because there is no legal definition of how long an animal has to be in the pasture to qualify as "grass fed."

Finally in keeping with that sustainability theme, orders are delivered by a very cool custom fitted bicycle. (pun intended) Mitchell hopes his model will "influence other businesses to incorporate bicycles into their plans for growth and evolution."

By the by, when Mitchell is not wrapped up in business, he is back at his alma mater, coaching the boy's novice crew team.  (Just can't hide that Tiger Pride.)

Will Mitchell- DC ROCKS salutes you!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Trio of Talent

I first saw The Walking Sticks at a tug of war between Annapolis and Eastport, but that's another story. I think this young band is worth keeping an eye on. Catch them at a somewhat rare DC based event at the 9:30 Club this Saturday with M.H. and His Orchestra and Black Masala. This "illumination" is being put on by the Brindley Brothers- the guys who brought you Jammin Java- and it looks to be an imaginative, crazy and creative show.

Ticket prices are $15 which I think is the economic equivalent of days long gone at the old 9:30 where you could see 3 bands for 3 bucks and still live to tell about it.

Door at 8 p.m.