City Paper is not for tourists
As at any good gathering, the kitchen is a whir of activity. It’s a Sunday evening in October, and 20-somethings are descending upon a Columbia Heights rowhouse, slipping in the front door and tossing their instrument cases in the hallway as they walk inside.
On an island in the center of the kitchen, there’s a stash of name tags. As guests load up on bottled beer and finger food, conversations drift from last night’s parties to people’s musical tastes.
One guy, who heard about the meet-up just hours before, wonders whether he’ll get to play today. He shouldn’t be worried. “I’m telling you, if you break out that trombone,” someone says, “people will be like, ‘Who’s that guy?’ and they’ll come join you.”
Half an hour into the get-together, as the scene in the kitchen begins to feel like speed-dating for amateur musicians, host Neal Humphrey asks the group to gather close. He runs through instructions, and invites everyone to join in one of three jam sessions happening in various rooms.
Percolating inside this house’s walls is the third edition of the Flashband Project, which Humphrey drummed up this spring to bring musicians together, enable them to create new bands, and—after a short period of rehearsals—book them for a one-night-only show. Like a creative version of D.C.’s culture of sports leagues for young professionals, the experience is meant to be social, with low barriers to entry. The musicians it reaches aren’t pros; they’re mostly hobbyists who don’t get many opportunities to make music with other people, let alone play a well-attended show.
And while some of the instruments might be old-timey, there’s also an element of zeitgeist to the project: Flashband comes at a time when local artmakers are embracing the intentionally ephemeral with zeal, from pop-ups to yarn-bombing to flash mobs.
Tonight’s meet-and-greet is the first step in the process. It culminates several weeks later with a concert at Adams Morgan’s Club Heaven and Hell on Nov. 10. The middle step—the real matching—will take place just after tonight’s event, through flashbandproject.org, a website Humphrey and associates Caleb Astey and Amanda Kirby built just for linking musicians. “Treat it like Facebook,” he says. Afterward, the groups will have several weeks to rehearse sets.
Forming a group, like assembling a dodgeball team, is a free-for-all. Humphrey only steps in if things are getting out of hand. If 20 people try to form a megaband, “I might have to break that up,” he says.
Back at the house, Humphrey passes from room to room, checking in every 30 minutes, hinting at players to move on to another jam session. But like many other components of Flashband, it’s a suggestion, not a steadfast rule. Before long, the back room has become such a string-instrument orgy that a stray guitarist is summoned to mix things up.
Musicians take turns blurting out cover-song ideas, and the idea that arouses the most response is the winner. While earlier Flashband events skewed toward folk and alt-country, plenty of tonight’s suggestions are straight-up pop. Salt-n-Pepa’s “Shoop,” Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” and Maroon 5’s “Payphone” get tinkered with. A request for The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face” languishes. But a rousing version of “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” lures musicians from across the house. It may be the first time the James Brown song has been covered using an oboe and a mandolin.
Humphrey, a fiddle player, came up with Flashband partially to expand his own musical community. He had been in a group with friends he met at the Dupont Farmers Market until a few left the area, leaving him bandless. To find new musical partners, he sent a mass email to every local musician he had met, heard of, or played with, inviting them to jam together. But he wanted to take it to another level. “I wanted something a little more formal than a jam session,” he says, “where musicians could play off of each other, learn from each other, and perform.”
The first Flashband was a success. Held in the same Columbia Heights house, the session involved 25 musicians breaking off into nine bands, with some ambitious participants joining more than one. Promotion was entirely word-of-mouth, but 200 or so spectators still showed up, cramming into the home to hear mostly acoustic folk and indie-rock sets.
That seemed like enough of a hit that Humphrey moved the second Flashband to the Fairgrounds adjacent to Nationals Park. The format of the show, despite the much slicker venue, stayed the same: three or four songs per band, four weeks of rehearsal time, and a not-quite mandate to perform at least one original song.
The theme for the Nov. 10 show was “dance party.” That meant bands had three weeks to gel and interpret an assigned—albeit loosely defined—dance-friendly style. “I thought it would be a fun kind of push,” Humphrey says. “From the beginning, a lot of what I wanted this to be about was trying new styles and genres, so this [allowed] us to do that.”
By now, Xaq Rothman’s a Flashband veteran, having participated in the first two sessions. He plays bass as a hobby when he’s not at his 9-to-5 job as a Web developer.
When the Montgomery County native moved back to the D.C. area after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Rothman used Craigslist to track down other musicians, soon forming the space-rock band Humble Fire, which plays around town from time to time. He says Flashband played a big role in forming the group. Now, he just keeps coming back to Flashband—because it’s addictive, he says. And it’s more thrilling than just playing house shows and participating in regular jam sessions.
“The short time frame frees people up to get wild with it, which brings out the best,” Rothman says.
Unlike the typical musicians Flashband attracts—skilled amateurs who fiddle around during their free time—Sam McCormally is a member of the band Ugly Purple Sweater, a more or less established act around town. So why does he take time out for Flashband?
In short, he says, it’s a low-pressure excuse to play the kinds of music his main act—“an acoustically tinged indie-rock band”—doesn’t. “It’s a creative avenue that I wouldn’t normally have,” he says. “Performance is really the best practice.” Plus, he wasn’t playing another show Nov. 10.
McCormally’s Flashband crew is called Confused Bird—a reference to the noisy neighbor usually perched on a tree outside singer Hannah Cole-Chu’s house. Leading up to last weekend’s show, the foursome practiced a few times, holding collaborative songwriting sessions and generally rocking out to “dancey, sunshiney, dramatic pop songs,” in McCormally’s words.
“Someone throws in an idea, and the end result has been pretty good,” McCormally says. “It’s really an interesting combo of low stakes with imminent deadline. It’s sort of a case of having to produce something that you don’t care about, yet have fun with.”
A few weeks later, it’s showtime. When the big day rolls around, the “heaven” level of Heaven and Hell is decorated with the regular hodgepodge of Buddha portraits, American flags, and black lights.
The stage is just a foot high. This is good news for many of the musicians: As Flashband goes bigger, its diehards hope the shows’ DIY feel stays intact. “Most of the time there’s a clear demarcation,” says McCormally. “You’re either the one on stage or in the audience. I love participating in something like Flashband where that’s not the case. It’s music in a more participatory way. Even though there’s a stage, it’s all just sort of a joke. People are taking turns playing songs, and it creates a different, cool vibe.”
The house is packed. With each of the eight sets, the crowd gets livelier. Confused Bird’s male members are clad in spandex, miniature orange shorts, and mesh tops, eliciting whistles from the audience. After a technical delay, their singer jokes, “We live up to our name.” They tackle ABBA’s “Does Your Mother Know,” followed by a song about middle-school love that inspires the guitarist to throw his Ron Burgundyesque mustache into the audience.
Mustang and The Assateague Ponies are up fifth. They have a different spin on the theme: Donning slicked-back hair and white undershirts, they sing 1957 party-starter “At the Hop.” Their sendup draws pleased shouts of “Who are you guys?” from the front row. Rothman’s band, The Horn Ultimatum, has more modern tastes: Wearing a potpourri of random costume pieces, including a Santa hat and a dinosaur hoodie, they rollick through M83’s “Midnight City,” Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” and Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”
As the band wraps up its final song, the group forms into a circle and envelops each other in a sweaty group hug. They became the band Rothman had hoped for—for one night, anyway.
Due to a reporting error, the original version of this story misidentified the location of the house where the Flashband meet-up took place. The house is in Columbia Heights, not Mount Pleasant.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery