He Loves DC: Jonny Grave

Photo by Rachel Levitin

She/He Loves DC is a series highlighting the people who love this city just as much as we do.

It’s no easy feat pulling off a performance in honor of late Blues guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn but that’s exactly what Jonny Grave and his band The Tombstones did this past Saturday night at Iota Club in Arlington, VA. The performance was part of the 1983 Classic Albums Concert featuring three other DC area acts and Jonny’s job was to close out the night.

Despite being a bundle of nerves, Jonny executed the performance with precision and passion. He went into the project knowing what musical challenges lied ahead and came out victorious on the other side by the night’s end.

Jonny was first introduced to American folk music at an early age by his very musical family while growing up in the DC area. By fifteen, he started learning slide guitar techniques by listening to old Blues records. By seventeen he was performing them live. Since then, he’s become a staple of the DC Blues scene.

What is it about DC that makes it home to you?

Well, for starters, I’ve lived in the area my whole life. I was born in Silver Spring, very close to Sligo Creek. I spent a lot of time going downtown, seeing museums and galleries. When I was a teenager, I started venturing on my own into DC, away from the large attractions, and into the neighborhoods. Adams Morgan fascinated me. Eastern Market was like a dream. Michael Jantz got me to start playing at Wonderland, and the folks at Nanny O’Briens finally got me on their stage. When I was 21, I moved to 10th and S st., and that’s when I really fell in love with the city. I made friends with a lot of musicians, artists, bohemians, Hill staffers, and bartenders. I started playing more. The city kind of opened up for me. They say that home is where the heart is, and mine is right here.

18th St. NW18th St. NW
courtesy of oddlittlebird.

Describe your perfect day in DC. Where would you go and what would you do?

That’s such a tricky question… It depends on the day of the week, really. If it were a Saturday in December, and you happen to have a date, I would suggest you get breakfast at the Diner, walk from Adams Morgan to Dupont, see who they have on the walls at the Phillips Collection, take the 42 to Metro Center, walk East to Chinatown, grab some noodles from Chinatown Express, try to walk with chopsticks from the Chinatown Gate to the Mall, head over to the Sculpture Garden’s ice rink, skate for awhile, head back up 7th, take a left on E st., catch a movie at the E st. Cinema, and then strut over to Old Ebbitt Grill for the seafood happy hour after 11pm. Get a cab home.

What’s your favorite hidden gem of a location in DC? How did you find it and why do you love it?

The Washington National Cathedral. My father was a minister of music for a small, underground folk service there every Sunday morning. When I was about 8 years old, I began sneaking off from the service, and wandering around the Cathedral’s cavernous hallways, endless turrets, spiral staircases, and stained glass windows. The more I hang around that place, the more I discover. All of the blacksmithing, stone carving, and carpentry were all done by hand, using incredibly low-tech and traditional methods. I started leading tours of the bell tower when I was 16, and almost ten years later, I’m still discovering new areas of that building. It’s seldom visited by the locals– I haven’t a clue as to why.

Who’s your favorite DC personality and why?

That’s a tough one… I think some of the most fun I have talking to folks is when I get to hang out with the older musicians in the city. There’s a wealth of guys like Walter Tates Jr., or Brian Gaffney who have been playing music in this town for years. If you hang around them long enough, you’ll learn a lot. Brendan Mulvihill told me about how some bars have completely changed, and how some never will. Danté Ferrando figured out how to get burlesque performers into the Black Cat without causing a stir (fun fact: the entire nipple and areola must be covered at all times). BIlly Duggan explained to me what “long-standing ties to the community” means, and why they’re important. Listening to your elders talk about the past can help you see the road ahead a little better.

If you were to try and describe the DC music scene to a traveler passing through town, what would you tell them and why?

I have a lot of experience at this, actually. My band’s residency at Madam’s provides ample opportunity to meet out-of-towners. It never fails– Every week, there’s a tour group from Rhode Island, or businessmen from New Zealand in town for a medical convention, or a couple from Norway on their 23rd wedding anniversary. When they ask what our scene is like, the most concise answer I can give is that we live in a city with a great show somewhere in town every night. For as small as DC is, there’s a ton of diversity within the music scene, with world-class acts in every corner. If singer-songwriters aren’t your thing, the indie/garage rock shows are getting louder and louder. Not into seeing raucous bands at Black Cat? Twins Jazz is just up the street. P.T. Barnum’s concept of “something for everyone” is alive and well in this town. I’m lucky to play here, have friends here, and live here.

Jonny Grave and The Tombstones have a couple big shows coming up. They’ll be at Gypsy Sally’s on Friday, September 20 and The Black Cat for their annual Halloween Circus on Thursday, October 31.

Rachel moved to DC in the fall of 2005 to study Journalism and Music at American University. When she’s not keeping up with the latest Major League Baseball news, she works on making music as an accomplished singer-songwriter and was even a featured performer/speaker at TEDxDupont Circle in 2012. Rachel has also contributed to The Washington Examiner and MASN Sports’ Nationals Buzz as a guest blogger. See why she loves DC. E-Mail: rachel@welovedc.com.

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