Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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On a recent muggy Saturday afternoon, a small crowd huddles under the shade of a large tent at the Old City Farm & Guild while a band starts tuning up. It’s the first time the sprawling urban farm on Rhode Island Avenue NW in Shaw has hosted live music, and it’s for a music festival. 

As Juanita Ca$h, a cumbia-style Johnny Cash cover band, kicks things off, more and more people start to gather under the Baldacchino Tent. An eclectic lineup of 14 bands and artists played the tent for the Capital Fringe Music Festival over the course of two days. A wide range of acts were included, from locals like surf-rock quartet Shark Week and Afrofuturist ensemble Nag Champa, to Virginia-based primitive guitarist Daniel Bachman and New York anti-folk musician/artist Ed Hammell. A bona fide free music festival is a first for Capital Fringe, which has  transformed the local theater scene over the past decade with its DIY approach to a theater festival, but it’s not unprecedented.

In the past year, Capital Fringe has subtly been making music more of a priority for its operations, regularly hosting shows at its headquarters at the Logan Fringe Arts Space in Trinidad and at more unconventional venues across the city, like public libraries, dowtown parks, and public pools. With the guidance of curators Jim Thomson and Luke Stewart, Fringe has earned a reputation for putting on some of the best and most diverse bills in the city, for both local and out-of-town artists. And it’s slowly shaping how audiences experience live music in D.C.; eschewing single-genre bills at bars and nightclubs for more mixed lineups at places you wouldn’t expect to see bands perform live. 

Music at the Capital Fringe Festival is nothing new. In past years, local bands, artists, and DJs performed at Fort Fringe, the festival’s rented space on New York Avenue NW. But when Fringe bought a permanent space—the Logan Fringe Arts Space on Florida Avenue NE—Capital Fringe founder and president Julianne Brienza wanted to use it for more than the festival.

“Julianne started talking about [doing more music stuff] when they started talking about acquiring the building,” says Thomson. “I think she started saying, ‘Oh there’s potential to do other stuff here, it’s such a massive facility, it’s going to be permanent.’”

Thomson, who comes from an eclectic musical background, has been steadily booking bills all over the city in the past few years through his Multiflora Productions moniker. When he moved to D.C. from New York in 2012, Thomson saw a gap in the city’s live music scene. Rock music dominated, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities to play for bands and artists with more global-oriented sounds—mostly artists whose music is rooted in Latin and African cultures—unless it was for something like The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, he says.

“The rock venues… they would occasionally book a global act, but only if they knew it was going to be a knock-out,” Thomson says. “But there wasn’t a home to sort of snag the music at the cultural intersection. I knew there was a niche to be filled.” 

Thomson began booking shows at the self-described “global dancehall” Tropicalia on U Street NW until the club had to drop him as its full-time booker for financial reasons in 2014. He still books shows there, as well as at Adams Morgan’s Bossa Bistro, but he says booking shows with Fringe, mostly at its Logan Fringe Arts Space and at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown, is a more liberating experience. He doesn’t have to worry about the hassle that comes with booking a show at a bar or club—like making sure the venue will make money to pay its staff and turn a profit, along with enough money to pay artists. All Fringe shows are all-ages, usually free, and all the artists are compensated. 

“It’s nice for me. It’s almost like a swan dive into the unknown, the unorthodox venues, making something work in a space that’s site-specific,” he says. “Every space that you can play has its own vibe, if you will.”

Stewart, an accomplished and prolific musician who’s been involved in the D.C. music scene for more than a decade, similarly feels that vibe. In May, he booked Philadelphia Afrofuturist artist and musician Moor Mother Goddess at the Georgetown Library—the perfect pairing of an artist whose music and message aligns with the history of the space.  

“There’s a lot of historical presence in that area,” Stewart says, “especially pertaining to the kind of work she does: afrosurrealism and thinking about the time, place, and being of black Americans. There are a lot connections in the physical. It was a library that burned down. Georgetown is the home of an unmarked slave graveyard. The storied history of it being one of the first and more prominent settlements of freed slaves. Her material itself has a lot of depth in that regard, in terms of research and really analyzing physical and metaphysical ideas.”

Though Stewart’s been booking experimental and avant-garde bills on the local DIY circuit for years (mostly at the soon-to-be-shuttered Union Arts space at 411 New York Ave. NE) he rarely gets the kind of booking opportunity that Fringe offers: the freedom to put together these kinds of shows at alternative venues like libraries, which one wouldn’t really think of as a venue for boundary-pushing experimental music. “I think that Fringe is doing a really good job of having a space and creating these opportunities around the city for these unique happenings to occur,” he says.  

Like curating a gallery, or programming for a film festival, there’s an art to putting together a good music bill. It has to feature artists who will draw a crowd, obviously, but it’s an opportunity to pull together a mix of musicians of different race, gender, and cultural identity across different musical genres.

It’s easy to put together a bill of all indie rock bands, or jazz ensembles, or experimental noise artists. But how often do you see a bill that has all three?

“I just feel like people naturally tend to get stuck in the grid—I don’t know if it’s a neurological thing or what—and that’s just not my bag,” Thomson says. “I’d rather be knocked over the head with something I didn’t expect and go, ‘Oh shit, this is cool.’ It’s a truer reflection of life; your collisions with other cultures.”