The District

He Loved DC: Marion S. Barry (1936 – 2014)

The news hits you like a ton of bricks, if you’ve ever lived in the District of Columbia: Marion Barry passed away this morning at United Medical Center. Barry was a four-term mayor of the District of Columbia, and a four-time council member for Ward 8, with a career in DC politics spanning 35 years. 

The contentious council member and former mayor was often a polarizing figure, censured for his actions with his constituent service fund, frequently in trouble with the IRS for failing to pay his taxes and with the city for failing to pay his parking tickets, he is best known for his six-month stint in prison related to a drug charge after a videotaped sting operation in the Vista Hotel on M Street (now a Westin Hotel). 

Beyond those charges, and those misdeeds, it is impossible to ignore Barry’s humanitarian streak. His focus on jobs programs for youth brought the Summer Youth Employment Program to fruition during his first term – something many residents of the District say was their very first job. It is also impossible to ignore Barry’s time in the civil rights movement as a co-founder of Pride, Inc, which provided relief for those whose houses were destroyed in the 1968 riots, as well as job training and food for the poor.

It is sometimes impossible for me to resolve the Marion Barry of the civil rights movement and his focus on his constituents in Ward 8, with the Marion Barry of the Vista Hotel, the tax scofflaw, and council misconduct. The extremes for which Barry is known make him out to be larger than life, with impossible conflicts of character. No man better represented the constant fight between the better angels of our nature and our human flaws than did Marion Barry. He was a complicated figure who did much for many of the least of us, but couldn’t keep himself out of trouble.

If while he was alive, Barry’s presence was a target for criticism from the rest of America – some would say the image of Senator Marion Barry was the single greatest argument against statehood for the District – in his passing, he gives one last gift, freeing the city from that association. 

I visited the Wilson Building recently, to see some friends at Councilmember McDuffie’s office, and up on the fifth floor, just past the council chambers, is a set of standees made for the 40th anniversary of the Home Rule Act. There were a number of pictures I’d never seen before from the early days of the city’s new, more free period. In so many of them are a young and vibrant Marion Barry in his shirt-sleeves working on the city. I think I would’ve liked Barry better if that was the one I knew first, instead of the one that made the city into a series of jokes. Thankfully, those jokes are over now. I think that is one last gift he can give us all.

Rest in peace, Mr. Mayor.

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We Love Arts: Fiddler on the Roof

Jonathan Hadary as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jonathan Hadary as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater October 31, 2014-January 4, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

It is easy to produce a decent production of Fiddler on the Roof. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Fiddler on the Roof has enjoyed tens of thousands of productions throughout the world. Set against the background of Imperial Russia in 1905, the musical tells the story of poor milkman Tevye and his attempts to adhere to his Jewish religious traditions, despite the outside influences that encroach upon the lives of his family and village. The script and music, written by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick, are so nearly perfect in their form and structure, even a theatre lacking in any creativity can still end up with a decent production. Because the show’s constructs are so specific in terms of setting, time, and place, the design, direction, and casting for the show end up fairly staid, regardless of production, which is why it is easy to produce a decent production of Fiddler on the Roof.

And yet, the very same thing that makes a decent production so easy to do, is also the reason why producing a truly incredible production of Fiddler on the Roof is so challenging. Directors, designers, and theatre artists wanting to not simply recreate the same production of Fiddler on the Roof that has been seen on the tens of thousands of stages over the past 50 years is extremely hard. This is a show where keeping the integrity of the material is the foremost priority, so trying to find ways of making this iconic musical-theatre staple feel original and unique requires a team of visionaries who understand that sometimes the way to do this is to not try to do something original and unique. Whether or not this was deliberate on the part of director Molly Smith and her creative team at Arena Stage, the final result was that what could have been merely a decent production ended up being truly incredible.

What I appreciated about this production is that Smith and her team kept the visual and directing aspects simple, basic, and consistent with what one would expect to see with any production of Fiddler on the Roof. The show is so well written that it doesn’t require embellishment and they recognized that, remaining true to the text and the original conceptual intent of the piece. There were a few bits of visual charm throughout the show, including the clever use of hydraulics in The Dream and Parker Esse’s incredible choreography in To Life and the Wedding Dance, but for the most part, the show was lacking in technical frills, which allowed for the true magic to emerge—the story. Fiddler on the Roof is, above all else, the tale of a man whose life doesn’t turn out as he thought it would. Try as he might to ensure that he and his family are provided for and happy in the way he wants them to be, he finds himself repeatedly being filled with disappointments in his children, himself, and his God. Forced to redefine what happiness, family, and faith look like, Tevye’s story really is the story of every man, despite being set in 1905 Russia.

Understanding that Tevye really is an everyman, Jonathan Hadary in the lead role was amazing. Although very different from the well-known and iconic performances of Tevye as created by Zero Mostel or Topol, which have since been imitated by thousands of actors over the past 50 years, Hadary made the role his own. His Tevye was sweet and sincere, a vulnerable man whose love for his family was evident, but also a man who uses light-heartedness as a defense mechanism, since to do otherwise would highlight the cruel injustices of life. Hadary’s Tevye remains an optimist, finding that nugget of laughter or happiness in the most grim of circumstances even when he is forced to the breaking point of sorrow. Without a trace of the gruff or hardened Tevye audiences are perhaps used to seeing, Hadary really shows the resilience of the human spirit when he is faced with adversity, disappointment, and sorrow. He can’t choose his circumstances, but he can choose how he reacts to them and Hadary chooses to see the world with rose colored glasses. It was a refreshing take on the role and brought a whole new perspective to the show.

Also amazing in the production were Joshua Morgan as tailor Motel Kamzoil, and Maria Rizzo as Tevye’s daughter, Chava. Most of the actors in the show, in fact, were very talented, but the performances by Morgan and Rizzo stood out because, like Hadary, they found unique approaches to their characters. Instead of simply being nervous and squirrelly, Morgan’s Motel was more focused and driven. Still a bit socially awkward and clumsy, Morgan was able to keep the loveable aspects of Motel while proving to be more assertive and ambitious than he appears. Similarly, Rizzo’s Chava was not ,merely headstrong, but was, instead, curious, soft-hearted, and wise.

Director Smith was also wise in choosing to cast a large group of local performers whose onstage chemistry as an ensemble was incredible. Knowing that these actors are friends both on and offstage produced an energy that was palpable and evident, as each scene and musical number found the performers in total and complete synchronicity. It also made the eviction of the Jews by the Russians so much more powerfully sad. Not only were the Jews in the show seen as the victims of the Imperialist edicts, but the Russians were as well, to some degree, since their pain in having to force their friends out of their homes was unmistakable. This camaraderie was where the real magic of the production happened. Fiddler on the Roof is a show about love, family, and community. To distinguish this version from every other one required something special and, in casting such a well-meshed collective of performers who clearly formed a community of love and became a family, the end result is a tightly-knit show, simple but lovely, and definitely special. This isn’t the movie, nor is it your average decent production. Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage has heart. And that’s so much better.

Fiddler on the Roof performs at Arena Stage’s Fichandler Theater now through January 4, 2015, located at 1101 6th St SW, Washington DC 20024. Tickets start at $50. For more information, call 202-554-9066.

We Love Music

We Love Music: Sonic Highways

Foo Fighters at Black Cat

When I heard on Tuesday around noon that the Foo Fighters were going to play a club show in DC to go along with the premiere of the second episode of Sonic Highways. When the news was confirmed by the Black Cat, people left their downtown offices and headed for the 14th Street club to stand in line. By 3pm there was a line, and by 4pm, it stretched for blocks. By 5pm, all hope was lost for the second half of the line. 

When I arrived on Friday night, 90 minutes before doors, the line for entry stretched halfway to T Street. They opened the doors early, catching most of us by surprise. By the time ten o’clock rolled around, the crowd was thick and driving, as the monitors started the traditional HBO static. If you haven’t yet watched Sonic Highways, it’s something you need to see. From the Jazz Age of Ellington, to the rise of Go-Go and the bounce beat, to the Revolution Summer and the rise of DC Hardcore. Out of all of that, director Dave Grohl said, came the Foo Fighters.

It was an hour-long love letter to the DC of Grohl’s youth, the grittier, harder DC. A place where bands had to forge their own record labels to build an audience, a place where the hard scrabble of work met up with the idealism of the Capitol to influence style. From Minor Threat to Bad Brains, to all of the little single season bands that came and went like butterflies. Shirlington’s Inner Ear Studio was the venue for this episode’s recording session, where Dischord Records defined the iconic sound of 1980s punk music. The story of its owner and engineer, Don Zientara, is interwoven with the musical history of the District.

After the episode’s conclusion, the Foo Fighters took the stage and played an energetic three-hour set that spanned their twenty-year history and pretty much their entire catalog. They lead off with the first track off Sonic Highways and focused on the Chicago metro area. They followed with extended versions of The Pretender, New Way Home and Up In Arms and an extra long version of Arlandria, named for the neighborhood along Four Mile Run on the border between Alexandria and Arlington where Grohl once lived. 

RDGLDGRN at Black Cat with Foo Fighters

All Photos by Tom Bridge, Used with Permission

No one’s going to hold up Foo Fighters as if they defined an entire genre out of whole cloth, or as a groundbreaking effort, they’re not that sort of band. What they are is a damned fine group of entertainers. You need only look to drummer Taylor Hawkins, who played Friday night as if he was the living embodiment of the Muppets’ Animal. His frenetic play and mastery of his craft was absolutely electric on stage. Hawkins would take the lead on covers of Cheap Trick and David Bowie & Queen that Grohl would call reminiscent of the better art of the Springfield Keg Party band. Grohl bounced between showman and rocker, sometimes being nostalgic for the Springfield Keg Parties of his youth where, as he put it, “lesser musicians interpreted the greats”. That was shortly before they played David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure.

Probably my favorite moment of the night was Grohl calling up local band RDGLDGRN to the stage to make sure that everyone could do the chop in the middle of a gallop beat/bounce beat rendition of Monkey Wrench that I’m pretty sure has never been done before, and may never get done again. While the predominantly white crowd tried their damnedest, no one was mistaking the Black Cat for a Go-Go on Friday night, but that didn’t matter. 

When I was 21, and finishing college in Ohio, I took a trip with my college radio station to New York for the CMJ festival. Shows, showcases, panels, all the good stuff, set against the megalopolis’ backdrop. The weekend smelled like hot garbage, the feast of San Gennaro, and it sounded like punk rock, rock n roll, and stuff too weird to categorize. What I remember from that weekend are two things: the diavolo sauce at Umberto’s Clam House is too hot for human mouths, and the Foo Fighters’ show at Bowery Ballroom. I also determined I’d never, ever want to live in New York.

That Foos show stuck with me, not just because it was hard to get in, but because I saw someone who did what he loved, did it well, and could have a good time doing it. I saw a lot of workman-like sets at CMJ, I saw more still at the Newport in Columbus, where bands would play meaningless sets with no drive or passion. I thought that was just an Ohio thing, but CMJ proved to me that the dead-eyed musician wasn’t something limited to the Buckeye state. When I moved to DC, I was petrified I was going to see more of the same. I was thankfully wrong.

What I did see on Friday, though, was a crowd that loves this city the way that Grohl does, and that shared environment that makes this place unique. There’s no question of The Black Cat’s place in rock history, but the places that DC Punk called home are long since gone and demolished to make way for a DC that the 1980s wouldn’t even recognize. Gone are the brutalist buildings of the 60s, and the older buildings that the riots ran down, and the 70s modern that’s made way for the cranes and the backhoes of the late 90s and mid 2000s. Places like the old 9:30 Club on F Street, The Bayou, and dc space are long gone. 

I’m anxious to hear the rest of Sonic Highways as the first two songs have woven in historical elements of note both into the lyrics and into the musical structure. This is the sort of ethnomusicology that I find fascinating, and that some mark with terms like “cultural appropriation”. It’s clear from the episode this week that Grohl and Big Tony from Troublefunk go back a ways, as Grohl threw a party for Troublefunk at 9:30 Club early this year, and I would argue that, if anything, Foo Fighters is working to elevate the profile of Go-Go for additional attention. My main wish is that Grohl had done this years ago before Chuck Brown had passed, as while I enjoyed Troublefunk’s contributions, Chuck Brown’s would have been a next level grab for them.

There has been a lot of (earned) criticism of the last two albums from the Foos, that neither carried enough weight to have been from the band that gave us “There Is Nothing Left To Lose” and “The Colour and The Shape” which were triumphant pieces of both good writing and rock engineering. That is not something that I can attribute to either of the tracks that we’ve heard from Sonic Highways. If they’re indicative of the rest of the album, it looks like the Foo Fighters are back to their old selves. That’s a welcome development. Look for them to play a large arena show next year (RFK stadium perhaps, given the picture of them with DC United Jerseys with #15? That would be excellent.) and I look forward to seeing them play again.

As the three hour set drew to a close, with one song left to go before last call, I wondered if Grohl would make Everlong the final song of the night. I was right. He’d done it before in New York, jumping down off the stage to play amid the crowd. Maybe it’s age and experience, maybe it’s better security, he played from the stage this time. It was no less poignant. “Everlong” was one of the Foos first hits, and Grohl credits the song with the longevity of the Foo Fighters, and much of its DNA.

At the chorus, Grohl wonders aloud, “If everything could ever feel this real forever / if anything could ever be this good again”. 

For me, fifteen years after that New York show, the answer was a resounding yes.

Taylor Hawkins fronts the Foos for a cover of Cheap Trick

Speaking of DC Punk history, tonight, at The Passenger, Brian Baker (Bad Religion, Dag Nasty, Minor Threat), Brendan Canty (Deathfix, Fugazi, Rites of Spring) and John Davis (Title Tracks, Q and not U) are holding an event at The Passenger and Warehouse Theater, with DJ sets from each, to help build the DC Punk Archives. Admission is $5, or a piece of DC Punk Scene to be donated to the event (posters, records, zines, flyers, set lists, t-shirts, that sort of thing), and there will be cocktails from Tom and Derek Brown. 

Capital Chefs, Food and Drink, The Features

Capital Chefs: Aaron Silverman of Rose’s Luxury

Aaron Silverman in the kitchen of Rose's Luxury (Photo courtesy Rose's Luxury)

Aaron Silverman in the kitchen of Rose’s Luxury (Photo courtesy Rose’s Luxury)

We’re revisiting our Capital Chefs feature with a series by music reporter Mickey McCarter. A lot has been happening recently in kitchens in D.C. restaurants, and Mickey takes a look into them from his usual seat at the bar in this series, which runs occasionally on Thursdays.

Aaron Silverman credits his neighborhood, Barracks Row in Eastern Market (on Capitol Hill), with the success of his restaurant, Rose’s Luxury.

And a desire to stay connected to that neighborhood is one of the big motivators for why the chef/owner does not take reservations, despite some controversy surrounding the policy.

“We don’t like kicking people out of their seats to sit the next person down,” Silverman told me in a recent phone conversation, “but a big part of it is that it’s advantageous to the neighborhood. All of the people in the neighborhood are at an advantage because they don’t have to drive for an hour or fly to get to us and then find out that we are full. Their risk is much lower. They can just walk across the street.”

Whether a restaurant takes reservations or no, its customers still have to play a waiting game. With reservations, they are calling on the phone every day with hopes to get a seat—four, six or eight weeks out. With no reservations, diners have the opportunity to show up that very day, but they may have to wait in line.

“Anybody who wants to be at Rose’s today can eat there today—guaranteed. You may have to get in line early and you may have to wait, but you are guaranteed to eat dinner there today if you want to,” Silverman declared. “If we took reservations only, we would be booked and there would be no way. You couldn’t just go.”

The policy of no reservations is the “lesser evil” because people who have waited can enjoy their meals for as long as they like, Silverman said.

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Music, The Features, We Love Music

We Love Music: Ought @ DC9 –10/16/14

Ought (Photo courtesy Constellation Records)

Ought (Photo courtesy Constellation Records)

Tim Beeler is on your stage, and he has something he wants to say to you.

Guitar in hand, sometimes he sings it to you, but just as often it seems, he speaks over the snappy art punk beats of his band, Ought.

And Beeler wants to talk about being in the moment, being in love, putting things together — but all in a perspective from “every man.” In that way perhaps, the lanky vocalist is extremely reminiscent of David Byrne or Lou Reed in his delivery.

Thursday night at DC9, Ought opened with “Today More Than Any Other Day,” an amazing tribute really to living one’s life. It’s a bit like lyrics by Byrne superimposed over melodies that could have come from Television. Musically, Ought could have sprung straight from 1977 via New York City.

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Music, The Features, We Love Music

We Love Music: Yelle @ 9:30 Club — 10/11/14

About two-thirds of the way through her set, French pop siren Yelle strides up to a platform to situate herself between the two drummers comprising her band.

Performing the bright electropop song “Tohu” from her new album, Complètement fou, she picks up a disco ball and holds it in her hands before her. Laser-like lightbeams crisscrossing the stage until this point changed direction to target the ball.

The lights scatter from the disco ball. The resulting light shower rained out over the room and the audience, and everyone was dazzled.

Yelle followed up the theatrics by bouncing right into the popular “Safari Disco Club,” the title track to her second album.

Indeed, light tricks or no, the sold-out audience was consistently dazzled by Yelle when she stopped by the 9:30 Club on Saturday, Oct. 11 in a tour supporting the latest album, released last month.

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