local music dc

D.C. Gon’ Give It To Ya: How We’re Listening Local, Now

The bricks of Blagden Alley glinted under a Hunter’s Moon as pairs and small groups of people – many carrying six packs of beer and cider — began to filter toward the back door of Beyond Studios. They filled back-alley space with a buzz of energy atypical for a Sunday night in the middle of downtown DC — they were waiting. Upstairs in a lofted photography studio-turned-performance venue for the evening, three bands were finishing sound check. On the next floor up another group of local musicians were hard at work laying tracks in a recording studio.

The gig was a Sofar show — attendees didn’t know where they’d be going until that morning, or who they’d be seeing perform until arrival. Turns out, local rock and rollers Wanted Man headlined the evening’s three acts.
The setting couldn’t have been a more appropriate microcosm of the current state of music, performance and sonic artistry in the District – an internationally-recognized organization sponsoring killer local talent in a pop-up venue in an alley.
For all of the changes the DC music scene has undergone since its revered post-punk heyday, one of the greatest aspects we’ve got going for us in 2016 is the variety and breadth of music that spreads throughout our capital city and beyond. Looking at the increase in opportunities for DC listeners and artists to connect in the past year alone, it’s hard not to be excited, and a little impressed by how far we’ve come.

Enter through the back: A resurgence of new, small and alternative venues
This year has seen the much-lamented departure and/or imminent demise of some long-standing alternative performance spaces, notably the original Paperhaus, Above the Bayou, and Union Arts. Despite these losses, we’ve seen several individuals; businesses and smaller venues fill the gap, and then some. Beyond Studios, for example, has opened its back door in Blagden Alley more than once to let the music in (and out!) Songbyrd Music House and Record Café — which just celebrated its one-year anniversary — has quickly become the place to see and be seen. Mission-driven Blind Whino is reppin’ in SW, and Josh Cogan has merged sustainability and the arts with Sweet Magnolia Farms — a twinkle-lit backyard performance paradise. As DIY goes, the Scooby Doo Mansion stands strong in Mt. Pleasant; and, if you listen closely as you walk down the street, you’re likely to hear notes floating out of any number of basements and back alleys.

Peter Lillis, who is Songbyrd’s Media Director, part of the team at Babe City Records, and a musician in his own right says, “I think there’s a relationship between the rise of DC music and house show culture. People want to eat locally, but they also want their punk band to come from down the street. They identify with people in the community.” He sees the smaller venues playing a big role in the future of DC music. “People are gravitating toward rising above the DIY world, and are hungry to get to the next level.”

Label It Indie
Though that hunger for getting “to the next level” may well be alive, DC musicians are getting there with a little help from their friends. While Dischord Records dominated the local label market for years (and certainly still holds weight), several other small and independent outfits and projects have also cropped up. Native DC musician and sound engineer Peter Larken owns and operates Lighthouse Recording Studio out of Del Ray, VA; Young Rapids, Foozle and The Sea Life are among the acts the babes over at Babe City support; and Sean Peoples is back on the scene with limited-run cassettes and digital output via his new project Atlantic Rhythms.

Raul Zahir De Leon, of the “multi-disciplinary creative studio” Wilderness Bureau sums up the move (back) towards indie best:

“Our studio has always been really influenced by the city’s longstanding DIY ethic, and we’ve always strived to bring that energy and motivation to all of our work. Part of the impetus behind filming bands and artists was that we were really excited about being surrounded by so many people who were making amazing work, and we wanted to document and share that with as many people as possible.”

Festival Frenzy
For a relatively small town, we’ve got no shortage of big festivals. The Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival and Fort Reno Concert Series are classics. There’s also Landmark, which landed ambitiously in West Potomac Park on the Mall in September 2015. Though it didn’t reappear this fall, the All Things Go Fall Classic did, bringing acts like Empires of the Sun, Passion Pit and Sylvan Esso to Yards Park. SXSL was the White House’s attempt at giving Texas a run for its money, while this year’s Art All Night theme of “Made in DC” had local acts playing well into the wee hours. And of course, in that ever-present spirit of DIY, In It Together Fest returned for a third year running to “celebrate underground art music and activism”. Like many other local musicians, bassist John “Scoops” (of Wanted Man, Typefighter, Deadmen, Jauze, etc.) played several sets during the festival. For him, the biggest draw of InFest is coming together as an artistic community to “raise money and hopefully boost awareness for the nonprofits that are doing helpful things for people in the city.”

Did someone call Donna Summer? ’Cause we on the radio…
… and TV! This year the much-hyped Live at 9:30 thrust DC’s most storied music venue into the televised spotlight with a musical variety show filmed at the club. Episodes are available for streaming and are aired on local PBS affiliates MPT2 and Howard University’s WHUT, with an eye on eventually landing a cable spot. But video didn’t kill the radio (or podcast) star. In Takoma Park, low power FM community radio station WOWD 94.3 came on air this summer broadcasting local voices and music of all genres to northwest DC and Prince George’s County. Further expanding the local net-waves is Goat Rodeo, a DC-based podcasting collective and audio network. Two of the Rodeo’s shows, Revivalism and Between the Liner Notes, are musically-focused, and co-founder and COO Carlisle Sargent says to be on the lookout for a new variety show premiering soon which will feature exclusively DC bands. “It’s a really unique, surprisingly gritty, and worthwhile collection of musicians that seem to live around here, which I love.”

High Art Gets Low
Finally, DC is famous for its plethora of high caliber museums, galleries, concert halls and performance spaces, from the Smithsonian to the Kennedy Center, the Phillips to the Kreeger. While those institutions play an important role in presenting and preserving culture, they do not traditionally cater to live (or local) and current art/music. But this is shifting. As larger cultural venues struggle to expand and retain new audiences, they too have gotten creative. For instance, Gourmet Symphony brings NSO-quality classical music tableside at local restaurants. Then there’s the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Luce Foundation Center for American Art, where a monthly music series, Luce Unplugged features all local acts and is free to attend. Hometown favorites Beauty Pill, Den-Mate, Paperhaus, BRNDA, Baby Bry Bry, Young Rapids, Fellow Creatures, Pree, Paint Branch and Near Northeast, to name a few, have all let loose among the gilded frames in the museum’s marbled main hall. And now that it has re-opened the East Building, the National Gallery of Art is taking a page out of Luce’s book with its new series: Evenings on the Edge. And what a page they picked — remember the time Grammy-nominated DC hip-hop artist Cristylez Bacon teamed up with cellist Wytold to kick off the series?

Clearly, the DC music scene is alive, evolving and thriving. Anyone who claims otherwise just isn’t listening.

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Courtney Sexton

Courtney Sexton is a New Jersey native who grew up between the Delaware River and the sandy Pine Barrens. She has called D.C. home for long enough to now be considered a “local”. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the co-founder of D.C. literary reading series and writing community, The Inner Loop. She listens to a lot of music and sometimes even tries to make it. She writes a good deal about places and human relationships to them, constantly exploring the intersections of nature and culture. Her dog, Rembrandt, features prominently in her life and work.