Well, aren't you a parasite for sore eyes.
By some measures, 2019 was a sad year for folks in the Washington region who love to hear their music live and in person.
Bethesda’s Villain and Saint and The Pinch in Columbia Heights both closed. Georgetown’s Gypsy Sally’s is about to shutter.
But Seven Drum City in Truxton Circle got into the live show business. And some say the options for hearing new bands and old favorites in this region aren’t narrowing as much as it might seem.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Some say it was a sad year in the Washington region for people who love to listen to live music. Sure, we've got our share of enormous venues to hear legacy bands and national acts, but we seem to be losing more and more intimate spaces for local and not-quite-famous musicians. Villain and Saint in Bethesda and The Pinch in Columbia Heights closed this year. And Georgetown's Gypsy Sally's will host its last show on January 5th.
KOJO NNAMDIStill, there were openings to cheer, and some in the business say the scene is still vibrant. They note new and different sorts of places to hear local talent and favorites. So, what's the state of the D.C. local music scene, and where can you still go to hear your favorite band? Joining me to discuss this is David Ensor. He is the co-owner of Gypsy Sally's. David Ensor, thank you for joining us.
DAVID ENSORGlad to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Rachel Levitin. She's a D.C.-based singer, songwriter. Rachel, thank you for joining us.
RACHEL LEVITINThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Marcus K. Dowling is a music journalist and creative entrepreneur. Marcus K. Dowling, thank you for joining us.
MARCUS K. DOWLINGIt's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. Give us a call: 800-433-8850. Why do you love your favorite D.C.-area live music venue? What closed D.C. venue do you miss? David, why are you closing?
ENSORWe're going condo, Kojo. (laugh) Unfortunately, I won't be living in one of them, but it's been an issue for a while. So, we signed our lease exactly seven years ago. And within a year-and-a-half of opening, one of these deals came up where somebody wanted to put four floors and a penthouse on top of our building, which is an old warehouse. We occupy only a quarter of it. There's about 30,000 square feet. We have about 7,000 square feet of that.
ENSORSo, in the end, we're lucky to have (laugh) lasted as long as we did. This last deal came up pretty quickly. It took us a little bit by surprise, because a couple deals fell through and we thought, oh, well, that's that. Right? It's just going to be too expensive to develop. But...
NNAMDIThat was not the case.
ENSOR...it came up, so we have a bitter sweet moment but we're proud of what we've accomplished in the brief time we were on the scene.
NNAMDIGypsy Sally's is only open for four more nights. What do you have planned for those shows?
ENSORWe are bringing back John Kadlecik, who really helped put Gypsy Sally's on the map when he played his first shows in 2014. We've been courting him for a while. He had just finished six or seven years playing with former members of the Grateful Dead in a band called Further, with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. And he came in, and he did six Tuesdays in a row, all of which sold out.
ENSORAnd we had had other local Grateful Dead cover bands in and had some success with that, but this brought folks from all over. I mean, people come from, you know, not only Maryland and Virginia, but Delaware and Pennsylvania, other surrounding states. And then he did -- I think we did that three times that year, where we did this six Tuesdays in a row.
NNAMDISo, those nights are sold out.
ENSORThese last three? Well, you know, Kojo, everybody loves you on the way out the door. (laugh) So, I mean, John's shows tend to sell out. We did five years in a row of Thanksgiving shows where we did a benefit for D.C. Central Kitchen on all of those Wednesday nights. So, John has performed over 60 times, so there's no more fitting person to take Gypsy Sally's out.
NNAMDIYou opened Gypsy Sally's in Georgetown seven years ago. As I recall, seven years ago, Georgetown was not a major destination for live music, maybe outside of Blues Alley. (laugh) Why did you pick Georgetown?
ENSORWell, it was a two-year search. We searched all over. We looked at spaces in every quadrant of D.C. D.C., with its older architecture, you know, you come up against a lot of narrow spaces. And then the wide spaces have columns. And, you know, we just kept turning them down for one reason or another. One day, I'm coming out under the Crescent Trail, under the Key Bridge. I look over, I see this warehouse, and, well, what's up with that?
ENSORAnd, eight months later, we had a lease. And because it -- you know, we are a dedicated music venue, so we wanted that wide, open space. And we released once we gutted the front room -- we have two spaces at Gypsy Sally's, the main room and the Vinyl Lounge. But, in the main room, there's only one column. And in a room that can hold 400 people, that's a very rare find.
ENSORThen the nostalgic kicked in. I'm old enough to remember when Georgetown was the center of nightlife in D.C. in the '70s. And then it started to dwindle in the '80s. And then by the time the Bayou closed in 95, I think, you know, Blues Alley was all that was left.
NNAMDIThat was about it. Marcus, tell us about growing up in D.C., the lover of live music. Where did you go, and who did you hear?
DOWLINGOh, gosh. So, that's a voluminous question. I spent a lot of time at the old and new 9:30 Club. I...
NNAMDISo, you mean on F Street?
DOWLINGYes. Yeah, so, like, all of that stuff. And growing up like, you know, like enjoying punk and hardcore bands, and also loving go-go. So, knowing that the Black Hole was a place and knowing that all those venues that, you know, are so iconic in that genre were there. Also, let's see, gosh, moving into the late '90s, early 2000s, places like Black Cat and Black Cat Backstage, and also at DC9.
DOWLINGAnd, you know, like, as a music journalist now, gosh, like, you know, I go everywhere. But especially when I was younger, like, having a really thriving and vibrant scene where you could see pretty much any level of act was important. Because the locals are as important as the national acts, because especially in a place like D.C., with its vibrant musical tradition, you want to be able to enjoy those acts within your own environments.
NNAMDIWhat do you make of the eminent closing of Gypsy Sally's and recent closings of The Pinch in Columbia Heights and Villain and Saint in Bethesda?
DOWLINGIt's just a matter of economics, and also a matter of being able to keep up with, you know, just where we're headed as a city. I think that the nature of the city kind of like flipping into a local-to-national powerhouse, as far as, you know, just the offerings and things that we can do as a city, is impacting the music scene. Because a $7 ticket or a $12 ticket or a $50 ticket doesn't necessarily cover the rent (laugh) for a venue.
DOWLINGAnd if you have a developer -- it was fascinating when you said what you said, because the Anthem is built under, theoretically, a giant high-rise condominium building in Southwest Washington, D.C. And when a developer did that, that's shocking and astounding and amazing. And the fact that a developer did want to do that in Georgetown is sort of dismaying, but, you know, I understand that, too.
NNAMDIYou started a dance party at Bethesda's Villain and Saint.
NNAMDIWhy do you think that venue didn't make it?
DOWLINGWell, okay. So, here's the major issue with that. Number one, it's in the right area, but it's the fact that that area is flipping in the same way that downtown D.C. is flipping, as well. Like, if you go into downtown Bethesda right now, there are giant cranes in the sky. There's, like, 30-plus in the city right now. There's like three or four when you're going down Wisconsin Avenue. And there's just not that population of people that see live music destination two blocks away from their front door of their apartment building is something that they necessarily want to do.
NNAMDIRachel, after you graduated from American University, you began playing gigs around town and became particularly attached to one venue, as both an audience member and performer. What was it about Clarendon's IOTA that enchanted you?
LEVITINWell, Kojo, IOTA became -- you know how they talk about home, work and then your third place? So, IOTA became my third place. Fresh out of school, I had been dealing with some life changes, personal things going on, and I just needed a place to go where I felt a little bit away from home, but still homely enough.
LEVITINAnd so I started going to IOTA, and I started making friends there, because the majority of my friends weren't in the music scene yet. I hadn't met them yet. So, IOTA, their open mike weekly and just meeting people while having sandwiches or coffee and tea and just going there and knowing any time I went there, I'd likely either make a new friend or run into a friend, it just became a place that it felt comfortable to me. Even back in 2008, I covered a show there for Amword Magazine, as a student. And I just remember it being a comfy, cozy place.
NNAMDIWhen it closed in 2017, after nearly a quarter of a century, you created a sort of musical tribute to it. What did you do?
LEVITINI created a project, a digital docuseries called the IOTA Chair. And so what happened is I went to their closing fire sale. They had a little thing where you could go and purchase some items from the club. And so I went, said my goodbyes to Steven, and bought a $5 chair that I sat in earlier today, even. And I started inviting -- you know, I was having a house party. I had just moved, and I had this chair, and very little furniture in my apartment. So, I texted my friend Jasmine Gilleson, and she was coming to a housewarming party that I was throwing. And I said, hey, I have this idea. Do you want to sit in this chair, tell some stories, sing a song, and we'll take some video?
LEVITINAnd it turned into a weekly series for 23 weeks that gave voice to the stories of the people who went to IOTA from the D.C. local community so they could share. You know, we were all mourning, and we mourned together.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What are some of the best memories of going out to hear live music in the D.C. region for you? 800-433-8850. Rachel, you also host open mike nights around town.
NNAMDIIn light of recent closings, where do you suggest people go to find some of the music and community that you found at IOTA?
LEVITINOh, honestly, any and all venues in this city. We have an enormous wealth of cultural options in this city. And every venue that is still currently open is somewhere you should be going. So, whether that's Union Stage or whether that's Song Bird, or whether that's DC9 or 9:30 Club or anything in between, all of these venues have something to offer to you. The Pie Shop down on H Street is one of my favorites that I just played, because its cozy.
LEVITINYou know, I find that my favorite rooms tend to be the 150, 200, if only just to make these intimate memories and new friends. And then you go the bigger rooms and have your fun. And it's just a magical experience, if you just choose to go.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Mark Segraves. Mark Segraves, thank you for joining us.
MARK SEGRAVESHey, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIMark, people know you as a reporter on NBC4, but you've got a keen and personal interest in today's conversation. Tell us about the After Dark Fund.
SEGRAVESYeah, thanks. So, I created the After Dark Fund along with my partner Tommy Bowes -- who's a longtime local musician -- a couple of years ago, when we saw there was a need to, one, promote local music and musicians and also create a fund for when musicians fall on hard times and need a little help with stolen equipment or sick health bills or anything like that. And how we do it is by promoting concerts in D.C., Maryland and Virginia at some of the venues that you're talking about.
SEGRAVESAnd I named the After Dark Fund after my father's column, which appeared in Washington Star in the 1960s and '70s, where he covered the local music scene. And, on New Year's Day, I reposted his column from 1972, January 1, where he lamented the closing of about a half a dozen clubs in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and listed the clubs that were remaining, all of which, the only club still remaining today is Blues Alley.
SEGRAVESBut, you know, we remember the Cellar Door and Blues Alley, the Bayou, Desperados. Georgetown was a hotspot for live music as of recent years. And so it is cyclical that we'll continually see venues come and go. It is the nature of that business, sadly.
SEGRAVESBut, as your other guests have said, there are a lot of opportunities and a lot of spaces that are opening up that aren't traditional spaces. You know, we're seeing a lot of the VFWs and American Legions and Knights of Columbus Halls are opening their doors. You know, in Takoma Park, Hells Bottom has music every night, and it's free every night of the week, just about. We're seeing a lot of that coming up.
SEGRAVESI've started producing shows, you know, that -- you know, I was doing shows at Villains and Saint the first Saturday of every month. And we were selling out there. And, unfortunately, you know, they just couldn't keep it going. So, we're finding alternative spaces, that the music scene is vibrant here. And I don't care what kind of music you're looking for, it's out there, every night of the week. And oftentimes, it's free, and a lot of times these musicians are playing simply for tip-bucket money.
SEGRAVESAnd so it's out there, but, you know, I will say IOTA is probably the most heartbreaking closure in the past couple of years for a lot of us. But, you know, we're seeing new clubs open. I'm standing, right now, at Hank Dietle's on Rockville Pike, which is the oldest roadhouse in Washington, D.C., burned out about two years ago.
NNAMDI(overlapping) You mean you're not working today?
SEGRAVESI am working today, Kojo. I'm actually doing a story about Hank Dietle's reopening.
NNAMDIOh, there you go. (laugh)
SEGRAVESAnd so it's going to reopen in the spring and it is going to have live music every night. It's being opened by my friend Tommy Bowes, who's a musician. So, we do see things that are coming back online, hopefully, and getting some more places.
NNAMDIOkay. Running out of time very quickly, Mark, but it's clear that you're carrying on your father's work. He's very proud of you.
SEGRAVESWell, I appreciate that, Kojo.
NNAMDIMark Segraves. He's a reporter for NBC4 and a friend of mine. Mark, thank you so much for joining us. Here is Michael in Greenbelt, Maryland. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHey, Kojo. How you doing today?
NNAMDII'm doing well.
MICHAELI don't know if you remember a couple years ago, you came to Greenbelt for a town hall meeting.
NNAMDISure, and then I went to New Deal.
MICHAELThat's right. I'm calling from the New Deal Café right now. We're entering our 25th year. We're a not-for-profit music venue. A small venue, 65 to 75 seats in our backroom. And we have all genres of music. We have jazz, blues, we have drum circles every Saturday, in the morning. And we have all kinds of music, and never a cover, never a minimum. And we're here. It's our 25th anniversary. We're a community cooperative, so we're non-profit. Our musicians work for tips. And so wanted to let people know that we're still alive.
NNAMDIThanks for sharing that, Michael. I really enjoyed it there. Thank you very much for your call. David, what were the most challenging obstacles to keeping a place afloat?
ENSOR(laugh) Well, I guess, you know, you could call us a non-profit, (laugh) as well, except without enjoying that status. There are many. I think that, you now, the rise in the minimum wage, which I'm actually a supporter of, but when you look at -- you know, and I think all D.C. businesses are challenged by this.
ENSORI think when we opened, the minimum wage was $8.50. It's now $14.25. It'll be 15 later this year, which I think is a great move. But your payroll is, you know, larger -- you know, everybody talks about the rent, but when you get to be a business our size, your payroll is your biggest monthly expense. And so not only coping with those increases, but also finding the bodies. (laugh) Because it's one thing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It's another thing to find somebody who's actually worth that. And are they going to be reliable and represent you? Because, in the end, it's all about people.
NNAMDIMarcus, where do you go nowadays to experience music the way you think it's meant to be experienced, locally and intimately?
DOWLINGWell, gosh. Let's see. I throw a party called Dobo. It's a Afro-Latino dance party at Big Chief, because Big Chief has enough space to hold 700 Afro-Latino kids who want to go and dance. And it's got no pillars, like he stated. I also enjoy U Street Music Hall. I enjoy places like Echo Stage for EDM. I think that there's -- and also, I would want to mention, there's a couple of, like, you know, pop-ups that are coming up. I went to see jazz at this place called Sand Box, which is behind Café Milano. And, you know, there's a mix. And as long as the music is good, I'm there to see it.
NNAMDIOnly a couple of minutes left, Rachel. When it comes to people coming out to hear live music, you put a lot of stock in the relationship between musicians and fans. Why is that important?
LEVITINOh, because human connection 100 percent is what brings people out to see shows. We're all about making memories with people. So, the ways that artists and fans can connect, especially in those more intimate rooms like Gypsy Sally's and what we still have in existence here in D.C. The reason why these small rooms are so important is because it cultivates that relationship. You're all in one room, together. That's what made IOTA so magical, too.
NNAMDIHere, briefly, is Sonny in Maryland. Sonny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SONNYThank, Kojo. I just have a question for the guests, if they noticed over the years whether or not there's been more or less presence in concert-goers with the way music is presented on the internet or how music is delivered in the industry with Spotify, Pandora, if they've noticed more people coming out to see acts that they've never seen before, or if they're really just there to see, you know, really big name acts?
DOWLINGI will say that artist discovery with Spotify is one of the greatest things that they did on that platform. Being able to, you know, source an artist and then be able to see where they play. And then, you know, that forces the hand of the live music-goer to then go and find the venue. And if you find a venue that you like, then you're willing to probably, you know, go through more acts there. Song Bird does a great job with that, especially. I could think off the top of my head, and other venues could probably do the same. And I think that's really one of the benefits of the streaming age.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. David Ensor is the co-owner of Gypsy Sally's. David, thank you so much for joining us, and good luck. What are your plans?
ENSORKojo, it's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIHeaded for the beach, huh?
ENSORYeah, I'm going to the beach, (laugh) and then I'm going to go back to teaching guitar, and maybe do some consulting for some businesses that want to develop a music program.
NNAMDIMarcus K. Dowling is a music journalist and creative entrepreneur who is also known as Royal Violet, Post-Modern Blaxploitation Superhero. Want to know where I found that, huh?
DOWLINGYes, I love it. I love it. Thank you, sir.
NNAMDIRachel Levitin is a D.C.-based singer, songwriter. We'll be going out on Rachel's song, "Dreaming."
NNAMDIThis conversation about live music was produced by Lauren Markoe, and our segment about homelessness was produced by Monna Kashfi. Coming up tomorrow on The Politics Hour, D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie talks about his bill to help legacy businesses facing rising rents. And Virginia Delegate Hala Ayala tells us about challenges in Prince William County, ratifying the ERA, and more. That all starts tomorrow at noon, on The Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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