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It’s a Wednesday night in Adams Morgan, and things are pretty much as usual at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room: Before a half-empty bar, a lanky, long-haired Swedish guy is wailing away on the guitar like you’ve never heard—unless you were here last Wednesday. There’s no cover, and though the Swede, a 42-year-old Glen Echo, Md., resident named Robert Lighthouse, keeps a plastic tips pitcher by the stage, he never bothers to pass it—or even point out its existence.
That might be because he plays like a man possessed—so much so he makes you wonder at which crossroads he sold his soul. Or it might be because just about the only guaranteed audience on any given Wednesday is Lighthouse’s biggest fan and de facto producer, Wayne Kahn. Kahn is always there. Sometimes he’s got headphones on, which means he’s recording. At his home in Mount Pleasant, Kahn has dozens of hours of the guitarist’s songs on tape. He collects them, waiting, as he puts it, “for energy.”
Tonight, Kahn isn’t recording. Instead, he distributes Lighthouse fliers to the tables or carries beers up to the stage. But mostly he listens, intently. Kahn knows every number in Lighthouse’s repertoire—he’s recorded most of them a dozen times over. When Lighthouse announces an old Muddy Waters number, “Standing Around Crying,” Kahn suddenly slaps his head. “I’ve been trying to record this song for months!” he exclaims. He lowers his voice, then adds, “He doesn’t intentionally fuck with me.”
Recording Lighthouse, Kahn admits, has been a struggle. “Robert’s not necessarily the easiest guy to work with….He’s the kind of guy who says, ‘Just do what you want.’ I had to fight to get him to include ‘Voodoo Chile’ on the CD because it was so singular, so outstanding. And it took me three years to get him to thank me.”
The CD he’s talking about is Lighthouse’s first and, so far, only solo disc, Drive-Thru Love, released in 1997 on Kahn’s own Right on Rhythm. Since he started it 10 years ago, the label has released 12 CDs, nearly all by local blues and roots players. Out of everything, Lighthouse’s “Voodoo Chile,” a spare, Delta-style take on the Jimi Hendrix classic recorded live at Woodley Park’s now-defunct City Blues Cafe, is Right on Rhythm’s best-selling song: It’s been downloaded, Kahn says, about 100 times.
Neither Lighthouse nor Kahn is likely to hit it big for the other. But their relationship does keep either one from being totally obscure. You might say that’s Kahn’s special calling: keeping fairly obscure Washington musicians from being totally obscure. He publishes a newsletter that meticulously tracks the goings-on in the D.C. blues scene. He fills the liner notes of Right on Rhythm releases with pep talks about local music. He sends fired-up missives to the Washington Post, including one accusing the media of “not being aware what an important role Washington has played in the history of music in this country and the world.”
“The way I put it now is, I say, ‘Name your five most important cities in the history of popular music.’ And they’ll say Chicago, New Orleans, whatever,” Kahn says. “And then I’ll say, ‘Drop it to 15.’ They’ll say Memphis, Seattle….D.C. is at the bottom. But when you assemble a lineage of the players who started here and left, you have the people who provided the springboard, molded popular music. Not just Ellington or [Charlie] Byrd, but also Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, Bo Diddley, John Hurt.”
He’s made some version of this speech again and again. And in 2004, just because he missed the sound of music in his neighborhood, he ran for a seat on his Advisory Neighborhood Commission—and won. “Mariachi bands—really good mariachi bands—used to go in and out of the rooms all along Mount Pleasant Street,” he says. “Now they have to play in the street, and so they’re not around much anymore.”
Kahn, 53, was little more than a zealous fan until, one day in 1994, he hit five numbers out of six in the Virginia lottery and won $1,500. He bought a digital-audio-tape deck and some mixers and, he says, “used to just walk into a room, tuck myself into a corner, and start recording.” At first, the idea was simply to help the musicians out by making tapes for their own use—and to help satisfy the native Alexandrian’s lifelong music jones.
“I had been trying to figure out a way to participate in the local scene and do some good for it,” says Kahn. “I’d go to the club, make the tape, go home, set it up to dub overnight onto cassette, and then I would make copies for the band. It was just a service.”
He kept at it for a couple of years before he began to think about getting those recordings to a larger audience. In 1996, he put together and released his first CD, a compilation of the different local artists he’d been recording, and called it The Blues You Would Just Hate to Lose, Vol I. It was the first time that several of the musicians, including Lighthouse, had ever been recorded.
The disc got good press: “What Kahn has done is highly commendable and a case study in how to document and present the local blues scene,” wrote a reviewer for Canada’s Real Blues Magazine. The next two releases were albums by zydeco accordionist Roy Carrier and Lighthouse. Soon, other, more established local artists such as drummer Big Joe Maher and guitarist Tom Principato began to approach Kahn to do smaller recording projects because they admired what he was doing.
“God bless him,” says Mark Wenner, who plays harmonica for the Nighthawks, a Maryland blues band that plays some 200 shows a year in the United States and Europe. Wenner has recorded two solo records with Kahn, and the Nighthawks appear on The Blues You Would Just Hate to Lose, Vol. II. “He’s a man on a mission, a man with a cause. He’s an archivist and an activist. He’s willing to do things that need to get done. Plus, he’s not an asshole.”
Indeed, Kahn tends to form very friendly relationships with his artists. There’s Lighthouse, of course, who’d been approached by other record-label types before Kahn but always refused them. There’s also the Lawtell, La.–based Carrier, who is Right on Rhythm’s only nonlocal artist. When Carrier plays in Washington, he sleeps at Kahn’s house. When he had a minor stroke while on tour earlier this year, Kahn kept fans apprised with Internet posts.
And then there’s Nap Turner, for years a legend in the area’s jazz scene and a longtime DJ for D.C.’s WPFW-FM. Not long after meeting him, Kahn discovered that Turner, who’d played with Charlie Parker and other greats—and whose own career had been periodically interrupted by hospitalization for drug addiction—had never been recorded. So Kahn recorded him, releasing a song on The Blues You Would Just Hate to Lose, Vol. I and later cajoling Turner to let him put out full CDs, including 1999’s Live at City Blues and 2002’s ¡Live at Cada Vez! The first disc features Turner’s one and only composition, “Good Morning Blues.” When he died of cirrhosis, in June 2004, the song was played at his funeral. Kahn was a pallbearer.
“Whatever I can do to help, I try to do,” says Kahn. “People trust me….It’s not like I’m riding on their backs….I haven’t made any money.” Ah yes, money—a touchy subject with Kahn. His discs sell here and there. He makes a little from his Web site and from subscriptions to his newsletter. He’s also started to act as a promoter, arranging gigs and special events, and that helps. But not much. “[Right on Rhythm] barely covers the overhead,” he says. “It takes care of royalties. It generates enough to keep itself going. But that doesn’t pay me.”
Kahn, who does work as a handyman to help make ends meet, is still unable to pay himself for the time he devotes to his label—which is most of it. He’s always hoping, he says, for the “critical mass” that will make Right on Rhythm profitable. But even he isn’t holding his breath. “If one of the musicians I produce becomes a star,” he says. “Everyone says that’s a possibility, but how realistic is that?”
Besides, Kahn doesn’t even know how many CDs or “Voodoo Chile” downloads he’d have to sell to reach critical mass. “I just can’t answer that,” he says. “My wife becomes upset with me because I don’t have a business plan—and I don’t have a business plan. It’s not a profession—it’s a hobby. It’s an obsession.”
“Everybody says I’ve made a difference,” he says. “But I don’t know that I have. Until everybody makes a living at it, including me, I don’t know that I have.”
One recent Wednesday, Kahn says, a producer connected to a local studio stopped by to catch Lighthouse. He told Kahn how much he thought of the guitarist’s playing, and he even mentioned the possibility of Lighthouse’s coming into the studio—which, Kahn affirms, he’s free to do. Then Kahn mentioned his live archives. “That stuff’s all worthless,” the producer said casually.
To Kahn, it was a slap in the face. Nearly all of the albums he’s released are live recordings—music performed in intimate spaces before breathing audiences. “My true love is the music of small rooms,” he says. “It’s where everything begins.”
Chief Ike’s, in fact, is the very same small room where Kahn made his first recordings, and it’s the recordings made here, over the last few months, that are the basis of Lighthouse’s second CD, due to be released by Right on Rhythm this fall.
Lighthouse and Kahn were introduced in 1994, about five years after the guitarist came to the United States from Göteborg. After a stint in Montana, he eventually wound up in Washington, where he began working his way up from playing for change on the street. When he lost a regular job at City Blues after the club closed a few years ago, it was Kahn who helped arrange another gig at the nearby Zoo Bar, where Lighthouse still plays.
“[Kahn] has definitely helped him,” says Wenner. “Robert’s amazing….I’m a harp player, and I hate the fact that he can play harp as well as he plays guitar—it’s like, fuck you, you know? But Robert’s not very talkative, doesn’t have his career very organized. Without the help of a guy like Wayne, he would be an untold story.”
Lighthouse, in fact, isn’t very talkative. But he likes Kahn, he says—respects him. When asked why he’s chosen to stick with him as producer, he bucks a little: “Wayne’s not that kind of person,” he says. “We don’t ‘stick with him.’ There’s no contract.”
The new Lighthouse album will be much like the first—all live recordings. The song list isn’t yet finalized, but we can expect, Kahn says, a few of Lighthouse’s Muddy Waters covers, which were left off of the first CD. There will be at least one of the Bob Dylan songs that Lighthouse has added to his set list over the past couple of years, too, as well as a terrific, folksy original called “Deep Down in the Mud.” The last one, written about Hurricane Katrina, has become a staple at Chief Ike’s.
At some point on most Wednesday nights, Lighthouse will call, “Hey, Wayne!” and ask Kahn to come up and play with him. Kahn always smiles modestly and always obliges. He plays the washboard, strumming it with a pair of spoons. He learned the instrument from Carrier, and it remains his only one.
Kahn is no natural musician: When he dons the washboard, he sits with his back carefully straight and his head pointed down, paying rapt attention to Lighthouse’s rhythm. But he keeps the beat, and when he and Lighthouse finish a few songs and the guitarist invites what scant audience is available to give a hand for Wayne Kahn, the producer’s face registers a subtle glow of pride.
When he returns to his seat, Kahn resumes his listening. After so many nights, so many years, of hearing these same songs, he still claps after every one.CP
Principato, the Daryl Davis Band, Link Wray’s Raymen, and others perform as part of the Right on Rhythm Roots and Blues You Would Just Hate to Lose Show No. 6 at 9 p.m. Friday, June 30, at Chick Hall’s Surf Club, 4711 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg. For more information, call (301) 927-6310.