DC’s Music Scene Gets Flashy

Dynamic female trio “Special Dish”, featuring Rachel Lord, Catherine Woodiwiss, and Jaclyn Zubrzycki, draws an eager crowd.

Two months ago, Neal Humphrey, avid fiddle player and project manager at an energy efficiency nonprofit, was itching to connect with other musicians. For over a year, Neal had been part of a bluegrass band (The Family Hammer), but when two band members moved out of the city, he was left band-less and anxious to start something new. He added, “After four years in DC, I knew about twenty-five decent musicians that I could call up to jam with, but most were of the folk or bluegrass genre. I wanted to experiment with some new styles, and find people that I really connected with musically.”

Dubstep Prayer (Caleb Astey, Adam Stern, William Cody, and Alex Mills)

Good ideas move quickly. Within a few weeks, a cohort of musicians, eager to experiment with new sounds and new people, had devised a plan. Brannon Walsh, EPA environmental scientist and guitar/harmonica player, offered to host the event. Another person offered to provide professional recordings of the performances. With a location set, the recruitment process began. Neal described his community-based outreach strategy – “I told all the musicians I knew to tell at least three other musicians. Pretty soon we had forty people signed up.”

At the end of February, a swath of DC musicians with an array of musical backgrounds came together for a meet-n-greet that strayed far from the normal business card schmoozing. After six hours of high-energy trial and error, nine bands had formed with one month to prepare, practice, and perform a fifteen-minute set of their choosing, including at least one original song written since the bands’ inception. This past Saturday, April 14, marked the culmination of Neal’s labor – over 30 musicians who were previously strangers churned out a one-time, four hour performance as “flash bands”. If you didn’t hear about this event, there’s a reason. No facebook invites, no emails. Strictly word –of-mouth hype for a night of genuine musical talent and genre exploration. Over one hundred people came out for a fusion-filled night of everything from dubstep hip hop to indie bluegrass to punk(ish) rock.

It’s easy to develop a superficial feeling of what music DC has to offer. The city receives a lot of criticism for its deficit of authentic music; most recently, Slate magazine aggressively asserted, “The fact of the matter is, however, that DC is not ultra-hip no matter how many young people have moved here.” The Atlantic responded with a seemingly medical rebuttal, looking at economic indicators of various artistic careers to conclude that DC is “a not-so-great place for visual artists, a slightly better than average place for musicians and a pretty good place for writers and editors.” While the District may not be seeping with the 24/7 isolated bo-ho types, it’s far from the visionary vacuum the media often projects. No, most of these “Flash Band” musicians aren’t part of the starving artist routine. They’re lawyers, teachers, analysts, consultants, policy wonks, researchers. Hill junkies. And the term musician usually isn’t synonymous with “job”. But it doesn’t make the city a void of creativity and musical talent.

Red Ted and the Smoking Loons (Nick DePrey, Ted Collins, and Kyle Deane Stewart)

In DC, we see the rise of the hobbyist. Many local jobs don’t have the cut-throat, 16 hour work days of faster moving cities like New York or Chicago, allowing time to cultivate and pursue interests. In many ways, DC has a uniquely creative environment where people aren’t necessarily interested in having their hobby become their career. Since people aren’t trying to “make it” in the music industry, it fosters an authentically collaborative atmosphere, especially evident in the “Flash Band” performance this past weekend. Admittedly, this crammed house concert, with backdrops of Diego Rivera-like murals and LED certified Christmas lights, at times felt like a college party revival (and will undoubtedly be snubbed by some as a byproduct of pervasive gentrification of Columbia Heights). But, the energy, attitude and talent are a reminder that DC can be both a straight-laced policy grate and a creative hub.

The next Flash Band event will start at 5 PM on Saturday, July 14 at the Half Street Fairgrounds beside Nationals StadiumCheck out the newly updated flashbandproject.org for up-to-date information about future events and recordings of Flash Band performances

If you’re interested in participating in the next Flash Band event, or are otherwise interested in creative ways to grow the local DC music scene, please contact Neal Humphrey at humphrey.neal@gmail.com.

Taking a LEAP into The Dunes

Howard Liebers (MarbleRoad Founder), Jonny Grave (Bluesman), Patrick Hawkins (of Benny), and Linsay Deming (Singer/Songwriter)

Performing for a cause is different than the average concert; there’s a certain appeal philanthropy brings to a musical experience. Musicians can’t be stereotyped as self-promotional or egoistical; instead, they’re lending their voices as a catalyst for change, creating new pools of potential fans and interested attendees. The LEAP Sessions event this Wednesday, Feb. 29th, presented in partnership with Listen Local First (LLF), sheds light on the relationship between philanthropy and music. No, it doesn’t have the publicity of Bono and the ONE Campaign, but it’s a microcosm for the power of 21st century art and advocacy.

Howard Liebers, founder of MarbleRoad, followed the typical path of many DC transplants: college, then an entry level position at a non-profit, and ultimately a director level position working in health policy with the DC Primary Care Association. As a young professional in DC, Howard was a driven 9-5er, using his free time to map his love for indie pop culture around the city. But, unlike most DC dwellers in their early 20’s, who are slowly making their way out of the Adam’s Morgan bar crawl, Howard was unexpectedly faced with the death of one of his closest friends, Craig Nolan. Prior to Craig’s death, Howard didn’t know anything about “rare diseases”, but after Craig’s tragic experience with a rare cancer, a type of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Howard became passionate about learning more about this issue – what qualified, who’s affected, and how society addresses these health issues. What he discovered was extremely disheartening.

Firstly, it’s difficult to be diagnosed correctly if you have a rare disease because of the disconnect between primary healthcare physicians and rare disease specialists. Rare disease researchers are often siloed within their own specialties with limited patient interaction. The general knowledge base of primary care physicians often cause rare diseases to go undiagnosed and subsequently untreated. Additionally, since rare diseases in the US are defined as diseases affecting less than 200,000 people, there is little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest in research. Treatments are often extremely expensive and unaffordable.

In 2010, Howard Liebers incorporated the organization MarbleRoad here in DC, and saw an opportunity to integrate his love for indie culture with his newfound passion for rare diseases. MarbleRoad utilizes a campaign called IndieMatch to raise funds to support its mission. The IndieMatch strategy seeks to develop strategic partnerships between independent artists and musicians to support philanthropic opportunities. Using this model, MarbleRoad launched a kickoff event on Make a Difference Day in 2010, held in Alexandria, VA, featuring donated artwork by David Foox, Meredith Towsand, Elizabeth Jameson, Regina Hooliday, and Vesna Jovanoic, and Julie Gideon-Smith. In 2011, MarbleRoad hosted the Flammable Heart Exhibition  during National Health Center Week, displaying collections of artwork at the Lyons Wier Gallery in New York City, in partnership with Lutheran Family Health Centers, a Federally Qualified Health Center in Brooklyn. Money raised for the organization goes towards subsidizing rare disease treatments and bridging the communication gap between rare disease specialists and primary care physicians.

Fast forward to 2012 – MarbleRoad’s third event, but the first ever “LEAP Session”.  By now, it’s not difficult to see why MarbleRoad and Listen Local First have partnered for this debut. In contrast with previous MarbleRoad events, LEAP Sessions brings together indie musicians (not artists). Yet, the IndieMatch concept still holds strong. As an advocate of the local music scene, LLF is bringing together some of DC’s best artists and bands, and introducing some new acts to the excitement of the DC music marketplace: Nelly Kate (Richmond), Linsay Deming (DC), SoftSpot (Brooklyn), Caged Animals (Brooklyn), Benny (DC), and Jonny Grave & The Tombstones (DC). Together, IndieMatch and Listen Local First will be able to connect individuals through music and philanthropy by showcasing local talent and raising awareness for rare diseases.

The first of many to come, these LEAP sessions will be held annually on the last day of February. (Rare Disease Day is always held on the last day of February – the fact that Feb. 29th only happens once every four years reflects the low incidence rate of rare diseases, hence the name – LEAP Sessions: a rare day for rare disease.) Deidree Bennett, Managing Director at the Dunes, shares her excitment:

“As managing director of the Dunes, and I’m looking forward to the LEAP
SESSIONS event on a very personal level; I suffer from a rare
hereditary form of Primary Lymphedema. Therefore it is my pleasure to
welcome MarbleRoad to help spread awareness about the more that 6,000 rare diseases in the U.S., and the people with them who need your
support. Here is my story.
I look forward to hearing your stories, and rocking out to Benny, Jonny Grave, and everyone else Wednesday night from 7:30 – 11:30 PM at The Dunes. Be a Rockstar!” http://leapsessions.eventbrite.com/

Stir It Up: What are the Ingredients for Local Music?

Image Courtesy of Facebook.*

In our attempt to uncover what “local music” is, the subject of cover bands is undoubtedly a divisive issue. On the one hand, cover bands are local performers. They’re providing music for people in the area, satisfying a demand for raw moments of on-stage impulses and audience engagement. On the other hand, they’re exploring music rooted in a different time and place, using words and sounds from distant stories and experiences.

DC may have some music shortages, but cover bands are not one of them. White Ford Bronco, a 90’s cover band, has approximately 1900 Facebook “Likes” and over 470 Twitter followers. Yet, their musical inspiration doesn’t stem from a deep-seeded desire to make it in the music industry (on their info page, the “Record Label” field says Who’s going to sign a cover band?), it comes from “the critical parental advice of Danny Tanner and the food at the Max. And the Peach Pit. The cuckolding of 90210 and Melrose Place. The red one pieces and the authority of David Hasselhoff that looks over the Los Angeles County Beaches.”  For the DC community, White Ford Bronco serves as a medium to bring life back into polyester pantsuits and the Olsen twins. And, while the band members are all DC dwellers, with an allegiance to the DC music scene, the majority of their music (if any) is not. When almost every song performed can be searched and played within seconds, it’s evident that the cover band appeal comes from the performance, the individual musicians and the experience they cultivate locally.

In fact, it could be argued that cover bands exclusively serve the local community by reviving an era or genre in the most authentic form of localism possible – through their present audience. Human Country Jukebox, a country cover band, credits their appeal to the personal touch they incorporate into classic hits. Jack Gregori, Human Country Jukebox singer and guitarist, cautions against cover bands being “too authentic” and sounding too much like the original recording. “The crowd zoned out because you’ve heard that all before. I try to avoid that particularly as a cover band. You have to be feeling it, particularly playing a part – interacting with the crowd. Especially the back and forth connection you feel with people listening to you. With some cover bands, this doesn’t exist. Struck me as something to be avoided – you can be ‘too good’ – too precise.”

Image Courtesy of Facebook.*

As a cover band, you’re rarely aspiring for a musical breakthrough – you’re aspiring to engage and satisfy your audience through pre-existing content. Sean Pool, a local fan and music connoisseur, makes an interesting analogy: “Cover bands are definitely local. It’s like a micro-roaster – the coffee beans come from all over the world, but they roast them and serve them in-house.” The fact that they’re not writing music in DC or about DC doesn’t discount them as local musicians or performers. The value added to the music community illuminates that where a piece of music is written is not the only determinant of locality.

That said, the significance of original work cannot be understated. At Listen Local First, we exclusively feature musicians who produce and record their own work. Local music, music that is written and produced in a specific place, becomes an avenue to highlight local experiences, places, and circumstances within the universality of human understanding. Songwriting and musical production tap into deeper principles – those periods of understanding and empathy, jealously and despair, that “speak to the soul”.  DC activist Zach Zill discredits cover bands as local music, claiming that “local music is about the creation of culture that people in one small geographic area can share in common and relate to. Most cover bands don’t fit that criteria because they’re rehashing cultural reference points much larger than that.”

While cover bands are (arguably) created through their performance, songwriting and musical production compound many dimensions, exploring an inward sense of physical places and communities. John Evantin, a local singer/songwriter, differentiates local bands from local music:  “Physically speaking are cover bands local bands? Yes. Is the music they’re playing local music? I don’t know.”

So, what do you think? Do cover bands localize the voices of great musicians or is original songwriting a necessary ingredient in local music?

*White Ford Bronco Facebook Page and Human Country Jukebox Facebook Page