I had to take a leak. It was mid-morning a couple of weeks ago. I was in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Nothing was open. Nothing, that is, except for a diner that wasn’t really a diner—not in the classic sense. It was the sort of post-gentrification joint that someone might open after staring at an Edward Hopper painting for too long. Fine. Whatever. I walked in. Made a beeline for the bathroom. While trying to avoid eye contact with the wait staff, I noticed that one of Tortoise’s records was playing on the stereo.
Why doesn’t this happen in D.C., I thought? Transient population? If so, it’s time to revisit this nugget from the City Paper’s archives: “Capitol Records: Forty local music scenesters select their top 40 or 50 or 60 pieces of local music.” I can offer some favorites of my own. So, here goes, suggestions for a city that is perhaps unaware of its own musical legacy:
Jazz: Duke Ellington is an obvious choice (and Money Jungle with Chuck Mingus and Max Roach is my personal favorite). But I’m going to go with Weather Report’s Sweetnighter, a record that features D.C.’s Andrew White, a saxophonist/oboist/electric bassist who sidelined his cultish, polymathic tendencies long enough to record two albums in the early ’70s with this much-abused fusion act. Anyone who is fond of Miles’ electric period would do well to check this out pronto.
Folk: John Fahey is undeniable, but let’s go with his University of Maryland pal, Robbie Basho. The acoustic guitarist and vocalist’s 1969 Blue Thumb LP, Venus in Cancer, is easy to find, thanks to Tompkins Square, and is arguably his best. The post-coffeehouse songwriting is transcendent enough to make up for Basho’s cosmic gush vocals, which, I swear to Satchidananda, become less problematic the more you listen to them. I think this one is up there with psych-folk act Comus’ First Utterance (1971) for sheer otherworldliness.
Metal: Thanks to David Dunlap Jr., I’ve become enamored with Vampire Circus, the latest from Frederick’s Earthride. Though the quartet makes records for Southern Lord, one of the hippest, artiest labels in metal (see: Sunn O)))), Earthride’s music is more like blackened biker rock than metal of the highbrow variety. It reminds me of Deep Purple’s In Rock, an album that, like Vampire Circus, is brutish and blues-drenched in equal measure.
Art rock: Back in 1979, British guitarist Fred Frith traveled to the Maryland suburbs and made half of his best record, Gravity, with local prog outfit the Muffins. Frith is perhaps best known for his post-Mothers noodle-rock outfit, Henry Cow, a band that was often too democratic for its own good. Here, Frith shows his more accessible side. His songwriting sparkles and the Muffins hint at a wonderful career that never materialized: prog rock pickup band.
Punk: It’s hard to ignore Dischord, so let’s not even try. Mid-’90s act The Monorchid seemed odd at first. Guitarist Chris Hamley, who is a friend, dropped the Frippertronic riffs he played in Circus Lupus, and reverted to simpler, bluesier style, perhaps rooted in the classic rock of his Wisconsin youth. At the time, the band’s debut, 1997’s Let Them Eat, struck me as some kind of bastardized take on the Yardbirds. Every song sounded like “Train Kept A-Rollin” with the Fall’s Mark E. Smith on vocals. I remember seeing the Monorchid around that time in an Ethiopian restaurant in Adams Morgan. I dragged along a couple of friends who were into indie rock and reggae, respectively—but not aggressive hard rock—and both were impressed with the band’s ragtag tunefulness.
So, what are some of your favorites?