The Fort Reno summer concert series could be doing a lot more for itself.
These days, the summer lineup at Fort Reno presents a lot of bands that I really likethe local punk and indie-rock scene is well-representedbut, unfortunately, not much else. The series features an annual appearance by Fugaziwho have championed the Fort Reno cause of bringing local artists to a public space for freeand has otherwise become a who’s who of upcoming local rockers. Fine by me, but on most nights, the series draws a lily-white smattering of roughly 60 to 100 people. Absent from the lineup are the inventive go-go bands, hiphop acts, techno wizards, folk singers, and jazz artists who round out the D.C. soundscape and would attract a much more diverse audience. It’s no wonder that the Northwest Youth Alliance, the series’s current caretaker, is having trouble finding financial backers.
That said, last week’s show with the Boom, the Sorts, and Youngstown Smokers should have been an exception. Granted, these are bands whose mostly white male members are well-rooted to the family tree of D.C. punk, but all three are notable among this summer’s Fort Reno lineup for instrumental experimentation that steps firmly outside of the local alt-rock sound. In these bands, the standard four-piece guitar rock ensemble gives way to various combinations of trombone, saxophone, trumpet, accordion, upright basseven banjo. Still, their audience seemed uniformly indifferent to anything happening onstage, and it became clearer over the course of the night that the Fort Reno serieslike the local music scene in generalneeds a kick in the backside.
Just one week before, the park had filled with hundreds of suburban teens out to see Fugazi. But Youngstown Smokers, newcomers to the local scene, took the stage at 7:30 before a crowd of about 30 people and considered themselves lucky. At the Black Cat’s backstage, it would have felt like a good showing. On this occasion, it was kind of sadthough not sad enough to detract from the band’s refreshing exploration of American folk traditions, or from the larger fact that young local artists were leaving the safety net of guitar distortion to try a hand at bluegrass standards and Western ballads about Jesse James and “powder puff kegs,” and being surprisingly un-corny about it.
Youngstown Smokers’ acoustic set had the air of a historic re-enactment, played as if its members had just unearthed the great secret of bluegrass and felt a sincere need to share it with the local rock scene. Bassist Cret Wilson didn’t bother to put tongue in cheek as he stomped out lines such as “His grin grew wider ’til his teeth fell from his mouth/But that stitch in his lung won’t fade away,” in near-authentic drawl. The band could comfortably share a bill with veteran bluegrass bands that should bebut aren’tpart of the Fort Reno lineup; its appearance felt like a refreshing step in that direction.
With the Boom and the Sorts on deck, the evening seemed full of promise. The Boom’s Movin’ Out and the Sorts’ More There are probably the best local album releases of the past year (both released by the upstart label Slowdime), yet both seem to be going largely unnoticed. Both bands regularly play to small audiences at the Black Cat, as if they’re unwilling to explore new venues and audiences with the same gusto they invest in transcending musical frontiersthe umbrella of the insular punk-rock scene appears to suit these musicians even as their own music moves farther and farther out from under it.
Whereas the Make-Up, among other local acts, taste-tests the African-American musical experience by way of flashy imitation gospel and soul, the Boom strikes at the down-on-my-luck chords of gritty blues rock on Movin’ Out. Trombone, alto sax, and trumpet add a mournful, fiery edge to the Boom’s explosive blues at a time when horn sections are used almost exclusively as bright, poppy accompaniment to bouncy ska. On the album, as at most of the band’s live performances, guitarist Fred Erskine fronts the band, singing in a high gravelly rasp that isn’t radically altered from his days of screaming for Hoover and the Crownhate Ruin.
When Erskine croons such lines as “She grew up way too fast/Still don’t know a damn thing/She thinks she’s growing them angel wings/She’ll hold you all year, then for life/If she can crack you with her bitter spite,” he could be at home in the dingiest of roadhouses. At the Fort Reno show, however, he shied away from the microphone all night, except to take a turn at trumpet (he has a remarkable way of playing the trumpet to sound like his own strained voice), and even his guitar took to the background.
On nights when Erskine is way off, alto sax player Carlo Cennamo and bassist Booker T. Sessoms III (one of only two African-American musicians I can recall setting foot on the Fort Reno stage this summer) keep the dark, muddy blues grinding on. Sessoms wears his Rickenbacker bass slung low around his hips in Mod-rocker fashion and inhabits the loud, booming low end to counteract the horns and guitar. In the absence of Erskine’s vocals, the songs from Movin’ Out benefit from live improvisation by the other band members. “Tired Eyes” and “Horny Devil,” the album’s best tracks, become loose structures to hang blues jams on, and new songs like “Biloxi Boardwalk” show the band increasingly at ease with heavy, free-form atonal jazz.
But many fans of local music can’t be bothered to expand their horizons;
I overheard one disgruntled indie-rock guy gripe, “If it weren’t for Fred Erskine up there, everybody would recognize this for the shitty-ass jam band it is….It’s like Jerry never died.” Though
the Boom is one of my favorite local bands, I too found its set disappointing.
Fortunately, the Sorts went a long way toward saving the night. They stand out by virtue of their devoted musicianship, taking up a variety of instruments and musical styles to craft loose, airy jazz-rocka description that would normally cause me to cringe. But these guys totally love to play: Guitarist Joshua LaRue also handles trombone for the Boom and drums for Sea Tiger; Stuart Fletcher plays guitar as well as he does bass.
You’d think the Sorts’ brand of music would draw a wider audience than the one that showed up at Fort Reno. Their songs owe more to Eric Clapton than to anything remotely punk, and they appear to eschew all the off-putting trappings of inner-circle local scenesters. The highlight of the set was “Slow Camera” (which, incidentally, features the Boom’s Erskine on trumpet), a rambling, effects-heavy tune that allows drummer Chris Farrall to move in and out of rhythm changes with sharp snare fills. The Sorts excel at subtlety, creating intriguing spaces within their songs and allowing themselves to stretch out musically rather than masking their music in dense noise.
But even as the band embarked on the adventurous territory of learned jazz musicians with punk-rock backgrounds, everybody in the crowd looked markedly bored. To be fair, this simply isn’t the kind of music that people can get up and dance to and get really psyched about. Much as I admire the Sorts and many of the little-known local bands who populate the summer lineup, the Fort Reno series may not be able to survive on their ilk alone. It’d be great to see more interest in challenging local bands and to have Fort Reno continue as a free, outdoor forum for cutting-edge music, but the series really needs to mix things up a bit. CP