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.”
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.
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 Stadium. Check 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.