City Paper is not for tourists
It’s Friday night in a private, fourth-floor space in Chinatown, and Emil, a skinny creature clutching an acoustic guitar, has a slightly unusual message for his crowd: Drink. Relax. Talk.
Emil begins generating a quiet storm of lite-disco strums, plaintive vocals, and tinny iPod beats. Good luck hearing it—the cocktail conversation swells, fueled by free Flying Dogs and Tito’s Vodka. The frontman of Emil & Friends may have traveled from New York to play a low-key gig, but the vibe in the Gibson Guitar Showcase—where a caterer produces trays of fried mac-and-cheese rectangles every few minutes—feels like a strangely upscale indie-rock happy hour. Tickets are $15, and the place is packed.
Tonight’s show is the first in a series of music parties hosted by All Things Go, a local mp3 blog. All Things Go started as a high-school project more than five years ago. But the editors of the site—who all grew up in D.C.—are now between ages 23 and 27. Last year, they gave the blog something of a bourgeois makeover and started planning events. First, they curated a show with some of their favorite D.C. bands at Rock & Roll Hotel. Then, they hosted a series of after-parties at Bourbon in Adams Morgan, centered on DJ sets by indie-rock luminaries like Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal. They started interviewing cool bands and filming daytime acoustic sets in the Gibson space.
With a cover charge and brand-name alcohol sponsorship, this evening represents a further step up the creative-elite ladder. The show features three acts from New York’s Cantora label who’ve barely played in D.C.: Emil and his iPod, Slam Donahue, and Bear Hands. There’ll be more events like it. “Whenever we tell people what we’re doing, they’re like, ‘Why aren’t you in New York doing this?’ And it’s because there isn’t this kind of scene in D.C.,” says Zack Friendly, one of All Things Go’s editors. “But there are the kind of people that want this scene.”
Of course, you can see plenty of hip bands in clubs this summer. Or at Fort Reno. Or, if you know where to go, at DIY spaces. (Some DIY venues, like Subterranean A and Red Door, are even flirting with the mainstream by participating in the D.C. Jazz Festival.)
And then there’s All Things Go’s milieu, which you could call “refined DIY”—a music-specific take on the undergroundish, see-and-be-seen lifestyle events put on by Brightest Young Things, The Pink Line Project, and ReadysetDC. The venues are alternative. The talent is just-below-the-radar. But the production value is high. The party is a central selling point. And there’s probably a photographer snapping your picture.
In fact, there’ll be plenty of other refined DIY shows this summer: The All Things Go editors want to host label showcases at Gibson every month (the next is with New York’s Neon Gold Records*). A series called Sofar Sounds has been curating one-off shows in unusual spaces. Brightest Young Things, the local indie-scene juggernaut, will host bands at a multipurpose temporary space underwritten by Vitaminwater. A new blog, Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie, is hosting a two-day, 100-band festival in Ethiopian restaurants—it’s essentially an indie-rock version of the art-and-mingling mega-exhibit Artomatic.
Bands in D.C. have played in warehouses and art galleries since the beginning of time. But the increasingly visible confluence of indie rock and gallery-opening aesthetics is evidence that Washington’s art-party scene has produced admirers, and some not-so-random variations.
The appeal of alternative spaces is obvious: They’re novel. “D.C. is a smallish place, and you’ve been to all these [clubs] a billion times,” says Svetlana Legetic of Brightest Young Things. “Why do people really love museums’ After Hours? It’s new. It’s something to do.”
Like Brightest Young Things’ Family Hemerlein shows and the avant-minded Irish arts organization Solas Nua before it, All Things Go is lucky to have landed the Gibson Guitar space. Decorated with musical instruments, it’s swanky and free to use—except for a small cleaning fee, plus you have to be interesting enough. (“We won’t have your birthday, graduation, wedding or other ‘special event’ here, so don’t ask,” advises the Showroom’s Facebook page. “Unless you’re Slash.”) All Things Go also reached out to Philippa Hughes and curated the music at a recent Pink Line Project party. Like its antecedents, All Things Go’s blog feeds its events, and its events feed its blog.
And like Brightest Young Things and the Pink Line Project, All Things Go is hoping to eventually go from labor of love to an actual business. They’ll keep doing what they’ve been doing, says Friendly—throwing bigger and bigger events, getting the site’s name out, “and hopefully the money will come.”
Slam Donahue is a couple of songs into its All Things Go set at Gibson when I head north to Shaw’s new Lamont Bishop Gallery, where a Sofar Sounds show is about to begin. Here, organizer and videographer Ora Nwabueze has a request for the 150 or so people crammed into the space: Kindly shut up.
Sofar, he explains, is an international series featuring unsigned artists that sidesteps show promoters, booking agents, and traditional venues. “Basically saying ‘fuck you’ to that,” Nwabueze tells the crowd. Every Sofar show captures high-quality video, which is why he needs a room free of side conversations.
Nwabueze has collaborated with art-scene doyenne Philippa Hughes and with Brightest Young Things, but the Sofar shows seem to reject a few aspects of their model. There are no corporate sponsorships; drinks aren’t free, or even cheap. One reason is because Nwabueze doesn’t see the party as a carrot. He wants people to be there for the music.
Sofar is a London-based outfit, and Nwabueze, 37, inaugurated its D.C. shows last December. Nwabueze did it through a local group he leads called The Dunes LLC, a “creative think tank” which has a core of five people (a mixologist, a photographer, an audio engineer) and, to hear Nwabueze tell it, some 400 members who contribute ad hoc to projects. Those include brand consulting, networking, and—most visibly—events: fashion sales, for example, and pop-up art shows.
Nwabueze is a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer and former investment banker, and he wants crowds that are willing to pay for the art. Like the All Things Go guys, he says he’s trying to help D.C.—though unlike them, he’s not personally trying to make money through his cultural curating. The day after the Lamont Bishop show, he says tells me he dislikes the term “creative class.” “I think it’s all about the creative economy—the interaction between artists and business. My friends that are in advertising in New York hang out with artists in warehouses.” So many artists can live as artists in New York, he says, because commercial opportunities fuel the world they work in.
“I think D.C. largely has had a supply-side boom in people who are bringing creative ideas,” he says. “I feel very little progress in the assets necessary for a successful creative economy to come together”—venues, patrons, disposable income.
That’s why Nwabueze’s The Dunes is going from event planner and brand consultant to venue owner, starting with a multi-purpose gallery at 14th Street NW and Meridian Place that opens in June. Nwabueze’s work with Sofar comes from the same impulse: to provide extra venues and sources of exposure for musicians. Alas, videos shot of maudlin multi-instrumentalist Matthew Hemerlein at a Sofar session have clocked less than 150 views each. But Nwabueze, with surplus cash from Dunes events, is taking Hemerlein and singer Jeremy Teeter on a tour of European cities this summer, booked using Sofar contacts.
On this Friday, Sofar’s crowd appears to be at least five years older than All Things Go’s. People are mostly respectful; no one seems to be especially hammered. Jenn Wasner, the singer of popular Baltimore band Wye Oak, opens the evening with the D.C. debut of her project Flock of Dimes—whose abstract, soulful art pop seems particularly suited to a gallery setting. It doesn’t all go smoothly: White Life’s paint-by-numbers, blue-eyed funk is a poor fit for the room, and one band doesn’t get to play because the other sets stretch too long.
Nwabueze has certainly filled the room with ideal types: I spot musicians, communications workers, photographers, other journalists. Whether everyone is here for the music is less clear. I ask an acquaintance who works in P.R. about the bands. She shrugs. She just came for the party.
It ultimately doesn’t matter how loud or respectful a crowd is, just as it doesn’t matter how grating I find jargon about creativity. Nwabueze is right: What matters is the music. And that’s a matter of taste.
I can’t knock having a greater diversity of venues in D.C., but what makes D.C.’s best DIY spaces successful isn’t just that they showcase music you haven’t heard in a rock club; it’s often music that’s too challenging to be there. All Things Go’s showcase is a fun time, but on Fridays, the music doesn’t quite merit the pomp: It’s de rigueur indie pop which you’ll never hear about again because it’s so bland, or which will score placement on a Starbucks compilation for the same reason.
There have been four Sofar shows in D.C. in different spaces, and they’ve been a mixed bag of genuinely interesting musicians and some of D.C.’s most derivative and uncurious. Nwabueze says he and his fellow Sofar curators aren’t interested in how challenging or unique an artist is. “If I do it, it’s not because it’s new, it’s because I think it’s great.” To play a Sofar show, you first and foremost have to act like a professional, he says.
It seems like Nwabueze’s doing good things for the artists he’s passionate about while applying a time-tested concept of attracting a cool crowd with novel, alternative spaces. His model is intriguing, but it might not be replicable: Except for him and Philippa Hughes, I don’t know many beneficent hipster lawyers.
Nwabueze breaks the art-party mold in one other interesting way, too. The Dunes doesn’t have a blog, it doesn’t do outreach to press, and the events don’t emphasize The Dunes’ brand, but rather their individual names—Sofar Sounds for music, Get Trunk for fashion, Art Crimes for art. He doesn’t want to become a creative-class cliché. “My view,” Nwabueze says, “is that people get sick of people well before they get sick of ideas and content.”
*Update, May 16: While All Things Go’s concerts will occur every month, the Neon Gold showcase has now been moved to later in the summer, and won’t take place in June.