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Every generation has its own Fort Reno. In the summer of 1968, the first concerts at the Tenleytown park were intended as a balm for a riot-scarred city. In the ’70s, before the Metro opened and the neighborhood upscaled, Fort Reno was a home for hippies and blues rockers. As the city’s DIY rock scenes blossomed, it became a place for new wavers and then punks—an identity Fort Reno has kept even as D.C. hardcore has given way to D.C. post-hardcore and today’s atomized indie-rock scene.
Fort Reno’s picnic item of choice these days may be the Whole Foods box, but it’s still where the city’s punks—ones who live in group houses, as well as ones who now have kids—hang out. It remains an icon of the Washington music scene even as other legendary venues, like d.c. space and the old 9:30 Club, have gone away. Booking remains stubbornly local. It’s free, doesn’t advertise, and has no sponsors. A Good Humor truck is a reliable mainstay, but otherwise it’s a rare example of art without commerce.
Local legends like Danny Gatton, Liz Meyer, Root Boy Slim, The Nighthawks, The Razz, The Slickee Boys, Rites of Spring, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Bratmobile, Unrest, Jawbox, The Dismemberment Plan, Q and Not U, and Black Eyes have all played its haggard stage. So have a lot of less famous bands, too—including my own.
Fort Reno Park was really a fort—a stronghold of the Union army that eventually became a home for freed slaves and, later, a reservoir. Today, the fort and the park are managed by the National Park Service. If a ranger were ever to offer a history tour of D.C. music, it might sound a bit like this.
The concerts began during the summer of 1968, the year riots erupted following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Along with Barbara Luchs and other Tenleytown residents, Father George Dennis, a Jesuit priest, filed the papers to form Neighborhood Planning Council No. 3, which organized the series. In the early years, the concerts featured acid-drenched hippie bands and blues-driven roots rock.
Barbara Luchs, 88, served as secretary of the Tenleytown Neighborhood Planning Council from ’68 into the 1990s, and as board member of the Northwest Youth Alliance from the late ’90s into the 2000s: The city virtually blew up in 1968, and people all over the city, especially those of us who had teenagers, did everything that we could to bring peace back to the neighborhood.
Emily Swartz, 67, worked for the Neighborhood Planning Council in the early 1980s: After the riots, so much was destroyed that the city was in shock. There was a real need for programs for kids. A lot of kids, little kids on up, were on the street with nothing to do.
Amanda MacKaye, 41, books Fort Reno, played in The Routineers, Desiderata: After the riots in D.C., there were free concerts in D.C. all over, outdoor events for people to go to. All neighborhoods had to do was get together a planning committee and plan it. People in Tenleytown just got their papers together.
Eric Blitte, 50, owns Tenleytown Painting: I was probably 6 or 7 years old, and we would ride our bicycles up there. I lived, like, five blocks away, and we’d hear music and go on up. As soon as [Fort Reno] started, we started going. I remember seeing Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady there before they moved to San Francisco and became Jefferson Airplane.
Marshall Keith, 57, played in The Slickee Boys: I went to Wilson High School for half a year in 1970, and I started going that summer. I think I saw Claude Jones; Joe Triplett was in that band. That was still in the hippie days—alcohol drinking, drugs floating around. At that point they didn’t start cracking down.
Blitte: The old stage was over by Belt Road toward Wisconsin. It was an old wooden box, a concrete slab, a basketball hoop, and a pavilion that we called the shelter. The street gangs hung out by the shelter. Sometimes you saw 50 chopped-out Harleys in the late ’60s to the mid-’70s….I remember being a little kid and seeing 2- or 3-foot plastic bongs, people getting stoned and drinking, and no one said anything. It was a blue-collar town back then.
Keith: Me and my friends were so young none of us drove. We probably hitchhiked there…All my friends were from Rockville and would come to my house to do things in D.C. We went to a lot of anti-war marches from late ’68 through 1970. They were basically an excuse for us to party, get out of the house, and hang with freaks. Fort Reno seemed like an extension of that—a bunch of kids hanging out on the grass.
Blitte: We saw Root Boy Slim there; he was D.C.’s finest. He was a maniac, Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band.
Paul Strauss, 47, D.C. shadow senator and former chair of the Neighborhood Planning Council: It was state-sanctioned entertainment and these subversive acts merging together in a bizarre counter-cultural movement.…On the 25th anniversary, we tried to dig deep into the history, and some people said the [Grateful] Dead played once, but I was never able to verify that.
As the ’70s wore on, blues and bluegrass flourished alongside power-pop and proto-punk acts like The Slickee Boys and The Razz.
Mark Wenner, 63, plays in The Nighthawks: In the ’75 or ’76 era is when we first started playing down there. The bands that were playing there were our generation of bands around D.C….The local sound that was really dominating was a very roots-oriented sound—people were mixing soul and blues and rockabilly.
Tommy Keene, 54, played in The Razz; plays solo: I was in a band in junior high school; we were called Blue Steel. We played parties and dances and such, mostly covers. There was a Fort Reno board at the time. We auditioned for them there and they said, “You’re not right for Fort Reno.”
Ian MacKaye, 49, played in Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Fugazi; plays in The Evens: The first time I went was in 1977 or 1978. I went to Wilson High School, and it was across the street, so kids were like, “Hey, there’s a concert up here.” Acid rock and kind of hippie rock bands would play. I remember seeing a band called The Frogs, if I remember correctly. It was very rough scene.
Keene: I joined The Razz in April of ’78, and we played Fort Reno in September of ’78, and I remember over a thousand people there. I’m sure Dave Grohl and the Fugazi guys were there. Kids couldn’t get into the clubs, and all we played were bars usually, but this show was free and The Razz was at their pinnacle.
Wenner: We had some motorcycle-riding friends keeping us safe from any rowdy elements. We were playing there and a bottle cap whizzed by me, and the next bottle cap hit the bass player. I was looking around, and I see two kids in the back—14-year-old guys slapping hands like, “We hit ’em!” I was a little crazy back then, a lot younger. I jumped off stage and grabbed a hold of one of these kids, but by the time I had a hold of him, two of my buddies jumped down and relieved me. They had a hold of this one poor kid and had him like you hold a puppy at the scruff of his neck, and they removed him from the scene. I don’t think they beat him up or nothing, but they scared the living shit out of him. I don’t think he threw a bottle cap again.
Keith: The Slickee Boys started in ’76, but we didn’t really take off until ’81….When we started playing, that was kind of a weird time. It was way post-hippie; it was sort of normal people who had long hair and smoked pot. D.C. has always been a very R&B, country, bluegrass kind of town, but the niche we really fit into sort of came around with the new-wave punk scene.
Hardcore began to break in in the early ’80s with acts like Bad Brains and Minor Threat, but because of their frequently violent early shows, they were rarely booked at Fort Reno for several years.
Blitte: Those punk bands, they all went to Wilson. I remember Henry Rollins worked at the Animal Hut by the Volvo dealership [in Tenleytown]. There were other bands playing there too though; it wasn’t just punk.
Ian MacKaye: In the summer of 1979, Teen Idles were supposed to play. We had a gig booked there and it got canceled. I think it got rained out, but I can’t recall. It’s funny, we had a flier for the show, but we never played it.
Blitte: Yeah, the ’80s were nothing but punk and new-wave bands, kids in their basements starting bands. We were the long-haired rednecks, we listened to country music.
Wenner: It was almost the next generation of people—in some ways, it was almost a reaction to it—the great punk scene and the scene I came up in. The difference was the age and the audience, but the motivation in both movements was to get away from the bullshit industry stuff, to get back to real, made-by-people, vibrant rock ‘n’ roll music. At one point, people called what [The Nighthawks] were doing “blue wave.” The motivation was the same. The new-wave scene, especially the hard punk scene which D.C. was a hard part of, they were just trying to get back to something elemental and direct, which is what we were trying to do to, but we were just 10 years older.
During his first mayoral term, Marion Barry created his signature summer jobs program, which made seasonal employment available to all school-age children, regardless of income. The Neighborhood Planning Council provided jobs through this program at its office near Fort Reno Park on Chesapeake Street NW.
Brendan Canty, 45, played in Fugazi: In 1979, my first job was picking up trash [at Fort Reno] when I was 13 years old. It was through the Neighborhood Planning Council and the summer jobs program through Marion Barry.
Mary Timony, 41, played in Helium, Mary Timony Band; plays in Soft Power, Wild Flag: I played in a band that was part of the summer jobs program—one of them was called Fat Kids Rule. It was with Dante [Ferrando] from the Black Cat and Gray Matter, he sat in on drums, and Chris Thompson from Circus Lupus and this girl Melody….It was part of the Marion Barry program to give kids jobs for the summer. The job was you got paid minimum wage to play music all day at Murch Elementary School. I feel like a lot of the people who came out of that went on to do music for a living.
Guy Picciotto, 45, played in Rites of Spring, Fugazi: I worked for two consecutive summers for the Neighborhood Planning Council. The first year my job was to visit all the sites of the different jobs to get kids their paychecks. I had a car and would drive downtown and deal with these Marion Barry bigwig people. There was one year the checks were delayed for like two months and I had to go to all these work sites with kids demanding checks and not have any checks for anybody. It was horrible. It was kind of an intense job with weird responsibilities, but almost every kid who went through that program ended up in bands.
Swartz: They were amazing—all of the kids. I sent home a letter to their parents to say they couldn’t go on vacation during the summer, because they had to be there every day. We couldn’t have run this program without kids being responsible.
Ian MacKaye: Teen Idles, because I worked there at the [Neighborhood Planning Council] building, at one point we needed a place to practice. Before leaving one Friday, I left a window unlocked, and then came back around one in the morning, climbed through the window, unlocked the door, and we practiced in the building until police showed up. They asked us if we were having a party and if we could turn the stereo down.
Picciotto: We had access to an office which had a Xerox machine, and we had our own headquarters—we used that Xerox machine to make every Rites of Spring flier and we did a lot of business back there. Now it’s just boarded up, but it had an enormous history…My boss was this woman Emily Swartz who was, like, one of my greatest friends, and this guy John Libby. They were in the front room, and basically they just let us use the back room. The amount of autonomy they gave everybody is still kind of startling. It was pretty incredible.
Ian MacKaye: The first time I actually played Fort Reno, I played bass for Pea Soup. It was kind of a joke band led by this guy Joey Picuri, who went on to be Fugazi’s sound man. In the early ’80s, he had kind of a James Brown kind of band…it was him singing and other rotating band members. It was me on bass, Franz Stahl from Scream on guitar, Kent Stax or Jay “Rummy” [Spiegel, of Half Japanese] on drums, Pete Stahl, and Amy Pickering.
The summer of 1985 is remembered by local punks as Revolution Summer—so named for the scene’s heightened focus on politics and move away from violence.
Natalie Avery, 44, played in Fire Party: The year Fire Party started, Amy Pickering, who was in Fire Party, worked at the NPC. That was in 1985, and I was working at a record store, but I would go to the NPC every day and see her. There were these ransom note things that she and Chris Thompson [of Circus Lupus] would make in the NPC. They would say, “The time is now, it’s Revolution Summer,” and they wouldn’t be fliers for bands. They would be typical 1980s photocopier fliers with letters and pictures cut out. Then they would mail them, and you’d get this letter in the mail that would say “Revolution Summer.”
Post-hardcore juggernaut Fugazi played Fort Reno every year from 1988 to 2003, consistently drawing massive crowds. The scene continued to expand through labels like Dischord and DeSoto while more melodic indie-rock acts found a home on labels like Slumberland, Teenbeat, and Simple Machines. In 1996, Father Dennis created the Northwest Youth Alliance, which in lieu of the Neighborhood Planning Council began organizing the shows.
Jem Cohen, 48, filmmaker, directed Fugazi documentary Instrument: The music scene in D.C., it was the air that we breathed. It wasn’t a hobby amongst millions of other hobbies, it was crucial. When a band played Reno, it was like you heard the dinner bell and kind of got your place at the table.
Travis Morrison, 38, played in the The Dismemberment Plan and Travis Morrison Hellfighters: My first Fort Reno show was Fugazi in the summer of ’91. I remember going with my punk-rock Mormon friend who had not quite left for mission.
Natasha Stovall, 40, booked Fort Reno in the early ’90s: George was right in there, engaging kids…On the surface, that’s an affluent community, and you wouldn’t assume there are kids in need there, but the truth is….even in affluence there are children in pain and children in need. In terms of community outreach, it was a great place to reach kids.
Carleton Ingram, 38, booked Fort Reno 1996-1999, played in The Better Automatic: Chris Norborg from Chisel was booking in ’95; he got really busy with Chisel and asked me to take over. I was the last person who worked closely with Father George Dennis.
David Arbury, 38, ran the first unofficial Fort Reno website, played in The Better Automatic: Since I was doing mid-’90s webmaster work for [local label] Resin Records, which was really just basic HTML, I just threw up the Fort Reno schedule on there. In no time it became the page with the most hits.
Ingram: We tried to diversify the series, so we had a ska band play. I can’t think of the band’s name, but there were a bunch of fist fights at the show that rolled into the streets and onto the Metro. The MPD asked not to have that kind of band again.
Stovall: Bratmobile played their first D.C. show at Fort Reno, as part of the whole Riot Grrrl revolution. I think I must’ve tried to get Bikini Kill to play there….I booked Gwar, but they weren’t Gwar, they were Rawg because they played without costumes.
Hugh McElroy, 33, played with AKA Harlot #1, Black Eyes, Horses, The No-Gos, Hand Fed Babies; plays in Cephalopods: From like ’96 to like the last couple years, the attendance fluctuated greatly because of the bands, and in particular some of the shows were pretty poorly attended if there wasn’t a big band. It’s kind of nice that there’s just this built-in audience now that just shows up.
Ted Leo, 40, played in Chisel; plays solo and with The Pharmacists: When I saw Unrest there, there were not a lot of people there to see Unrest. In retrospect, they might seem like a big deal, but at the time, there weren’t many people there.
Morrison: There were the Fugazi shows where they were playing under terrifying electrical storms. I remember one where the storm was behind them, and huge webs of lightning would extend across the sky. Everyone would run, and then they’d be like “Oh, they’re playing ‘Repeater,’” and everyone would run back.
Jeff Miller, 32, policy analyst at the Government Accountability Office: It had been looming the whole show, but it hadn’t really rained. Fugazi was near the end of their set, and they were playing one of the songs on The Argument. In the middle of the song, there was a stop, and a lightning bolt shot down in the middle of the stage, framed perfectly. Everyone was like, “Whoa,” and Fugazi kept playing.
Arbury: The Fugazi show—I see it get mentioned as “that Fugazi show at Fort Reno” on the Internet—I think it was 2000. They played this show where a storm came in, and it was sporadically raining. It looked like the show was going to get rained out. The power went out so there was a delay, and the storm was coming in….The power came back on, but the storm was clearly coming. Well, back in ’91 or ’92, they said they wouldn’t play “Waiting Room” at a show again, and they hadn’t up until this point. So, they said they were going to play whatever they could before the storm, and then they started playing “Waiting Room.” Black clouds were rolling in over this sunset, the lightning was flashing, and you could see the storm was violent—all of this over the best Fugazi set I’ve ever heard. They only played three songs, and at the end of the third song, it opened up and started pouring on us.
Morrison: One of the cool things about it is it doesn’t have that aggressive, “This is a show I’ve paid money to see” pressure. Oh, it’s raining? Let’s go to Guapo’s and get a margarita.
Arbury: [The Dismemberment Plan] did a Fort Reno show in ’99, and two guys showed up in 9-foot-tall costumes.
Eric Axelson, 40, played in The Dismemberment Plan, Statehood: I think it was Ryan Kidwell [of Baltimore electronica/hip-hop act Cex] and a couple of his friends that came down from Baltimore—people would come to Plan shows and make it their own.
Arbury: One was in a 9-foot-tall Pikachu outfit, and one was in a 9-foot-tall box with a hole for his face. There was a sign on it that said, “Box of Pubes.” I don’t know what seized them, but it had been part of a Conan O’Brien sketch the week before.
Every year since 2003, beginning with what was meant to be The Dismemberment Plan’s final U.S. show, one Fort Reno show each summer has been designated “Night of 1000 Cakes”
Tina Plottel, 39, played in Claudine, Torches: Jason Hutto, who was in The Aquarium, he was playing the show that was supposed to be the last Dismemberment Plan show. Jason and I were in his truck, and I said, “You’re playing Fort Reno with The Plan on your 30th birthday…we should do something.” He said, “I would love it if everyone at Fort Reno could have a piece of cake.” So, I sent an email to a bunch of people we knew with the subject line, “Night of 1000 Cakes.”
Miller: It started pouring rain for over an hour, really heavy rain, but we didn’t want to miss it. There were a good number of people that stuck around.
Plottel: Bob Massey [of Telegraph Melts, The Out Circuit, The Gena Rowlands Band] was still living here, and he and I had this ginormous box of cupcakes. We were giving them out saying, “It’s Jason Hutto’s birthday, have a cupcake.” We gave a cupcake to this one girl, and five minutes later she came back and said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but are there drugs in these cupcakes?” We burst out laughing, “No, there are no drugs in these cupcakes.”
Axelson: We got off maybe eight songs and fucked up some gear. The Aquarium was playing at that show, and there was a massive crowd with lots of umbrellas. There was lightning, and it was not a safe thing for us to be doing.
In 2010, founder and continual supporter of Fort Reno Father George Dennis died at a retirement home for Jesuits in San Francisco.
Henry Rollins, 50, played in Black Flag, Rollins Band: I believe I have been four times total. Three were Evens shows and one Partyline show….To my knowledge, I don’t know of any gatherings like this. I think it’s a great idea. Free shows where you can walk around, the kids can play, it’s a cool scene.
Patrick Kigongo, 29, plays with Ra Ra Rasputin: Last summer when The Evens played, Henry Rollins was there. When I was 14, I was at JFK Airport with my parents and I saw him with his black suit bag and I was absolutely terrified of him. I had only known him as the police officer in The Chase with Charlie Sheen—that was before my friend gave me a copy of [Black Flag’s] Damaged. Fast-forward 14 years later, I finally got to say, “Hey, I met you at the airport; what’s up man, I love your work.”
Leo: There are tons of places in New York where people try to do similar things that are more community-focused and feature local bands. I think one of the big differences is that everything around here, in order to have it happen, it has to be sponsored out the wazoo. It’s so hard to do anything Fort Reno is trying to do without a giant Budweiser sponsorship.
Mike Kanin, 34, booked Fort Reno in the late ’90s, played in The Better Automatic, The No-Gos, Trooper, Black Eyes: The first time that I spent time with the woman who’s now my wife, we walked from a house I was living at in Tenleytown to Fort Reno. I don’t know why we were there, but we ended up sitting on the stage. I think it played a subconscious role in our relationship.
Amanda MacKaye: I do ask people to tell me the ages of their band members when they submit, and I do have a particular interest in getting people under the age of 18 on stage. They don’t have that many opportunities, and they don’t have the same information that I did when I was a kid. They don’t know they can have shows in their houses. I feel like if these kids got a band together, they should get a chance to play.
Ray Brown, 13, plays in The Black Sparks: Before Fort Reno [in 2010], we were just advertised as a kid band…like it was a family-friendly kid thing. Here we were treated as a real band. We weren’t a gimmick.
Pat Walsh, 25, books shows for Positive Force: In 2009, I went for the first time. That was like a turning point of me getting into D.C. and feeling like D.C. was home….I love that it’s families and high-schoolers and 20-something hipsters all hanging out together eating salads from Whole Foods.
Avery: When I think of the ’80s, it was like a teenage wasteland. That’s my memory of it. When I think of it now, I think of, like, shining happy people.
Ian MacKaye: In many ways, you might say it’s defanged. It’s less snaggly, which I think is fine. What’s revolutionary is it’s a point of gathering and it doesn’t make a difference who’s playing. By and large, people just come out for music. That kind of gathering is sorely needed.
Cohen: Over the course of, well, for me it was 15- or 20-year span, I just don’t remember it changing. Like, wow, there’s that little stage and that field, and there’s a tower. The rest of D.C. changed very radically. A lot of the landmarks of my youth are gone. The city became a lot more gentrified and lost a lot of its rougher charms, but Fort Reno felt eternal—not because of its grandeur, but because it was a nice hang.