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In his youth, Tom Hudon was mesmerized by the power of art rock: the dramatic presence of Emerson, Lake and Palmer; the brainy, controlled maelstrom of Genesis; the ability of prog to elevate rock ’n’ roll to a level of highbrow sophistication. “I just never outgrew it,” says the 49-year-old Reston, Va., resident. “I hate to say it that way.”
Detractors may argue that aging arena-rockers such as Rush and Yes are past their peak, that the glory days of art rock are far gone, save for the odd (and inevitably depressing) reunion show. Hudon and 55 other members of the D.C. Society of Art Rockers—or D.C. SOAR—aim to prove the contrary.
A little over a year ago, Hudon—an oceanic engineer who’s not in a band himself—and four other posters from the e-mail community Baltimore Washington Progressive pooled ideas and booking resources to establish the society. It’s a diverse mix—the oldest member is nearing 70; the youngest is still in high school. “There’s a lot of rock, and it gets pretty intense,” says Hudon.
The society, which is legally a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit educational corporation, plans to book monthly gigs around the Washington area to promote the metro-area art-rock scene. Using the power of the Internet, D.C. SOAR provides an open forum to educate and advance all things art-rock. Members meet up before shows to grab food and discuss the intricacies of a six-string-bass solo.
“We just floated the idea of starting something like NewEARS [New England Art Rock Society], and we just talked about doing something similar down in Washington,” says Hudon. “We just wanted to get something going.”
Together, the musicians and fans of the society seek to keep their craft alive. But they face a common criticism when trying to get grant money—which they have yet to receive. In fact, the Virginia Commission for the Arts flat-out wondered whether the members should “have moved on to classical by now.”
But these guys see no need to “move on.” “We enjoy classical music, too, and sometime it gets worked into the art rock,” says Hudon. “But we like rockin’ out.”
When Hudon and his group began to search for appropriate venues about a year ago, the only locale routinely booking art-rockers was Baltimore’s Orion Sound Studios. (The 9:30 Club and Jammin’ Java would book prog acts on occasion.) “But [we] wanted more,” says Hudon, who notes that it’s not uncommon for touring prog-rockers to skip D.C. altogether.
“It just seemed Washington was having a hard time drawing quality acts,” says Hudon. “We just weren’t seeing them in the nightclubs.” An upcoming show at Takoma’s Electric Maid with Oakland, Calif., Grammy-nominated bassist and composer Michael Manring will be the group’s maiden voyage. The venue isn’t likely to become the group’s permanent home, though, and Hudon says he’s been discussing booking possibilities with Alexandria’s Old Town Theater.
According to Hudon, the terms “art rock” and “progressive rock” are practically synonymous, but he prefers the former “because it’s not the bombastic orchestral thing.” Art rock can be avant-garde, jazz-fusion, improv—but its soul, says Hudon, is thought. “It’s about musicianship with some pretty wild time changes, but it comes down to the thought and approach.”
And some of the bands that D.C. SOAR is attracting to the Washington area really rock out, to use a favorite phrase of Hudon’s. “Manring will go the whole gamut. He’s just playing solo, so there’s only so much he can do. He sometimes plays three basses at once, and gets some real polyrhythm going.”
The group’s next show, featuring local Chapman Stick player Greg Howard and instrumentalists the Might Could, will take place at the Maid in late March. But what of that Yes tribute band? “We wouldn’t want to encourage that,” says Hudon. “I think there’s enough original music out there.”
Manring plays at 7 p.m.Thursday, March 10, at the Electric Maid, 268 Carroll St. NW. For more information, visit www.dc-soar.org.