DAM Festival Brings the (Indie) Rock to D.C.
Every autumn, music fans in the D.C. area are likely to feel a twinge of jealousy when the lineup for New York's annual CMJ Music Marathon is announced. And it probably happens again in the spring when South by Southwest descends on Austin. And it may also happen around Noise Pop Festival (San Francisco) or Pop Montreal (we'll let you figure out where that one takes place) time. While D.C. has its share of smaller festivals that appeal to niche audiences -- the recent Sonic Circuits and All Our Power being two excellent examples -- it has long lacked a major multi-venue festival that can compete with any of those mentioned above. That may change with the innaugural District Awake Music Festival -- or DAM Fest -- which will lure nearly 50 bands and DJs to four different clubs around town from October 26-28.
Admittedly, if you don't dig indie rock, you probably won't find too much to your liking on the schedule. Principal festival organizer Eric Boucher isn't apologetic about this. "You are what you eat, and many of the people involved with the festival love indie rock, so that's what we came up with," says Boucher, 30, a personal consultant who lives in D.C. and edits the Web zine Big Yawn. It's hard to fault his logic, too. When taking on an ambitious endeavor like this one, it makes more sense to focus on what you know rather than try to be all things to all people from the beginning.
The lineup lacks a truly big name, even in indie rock circles -- there's no Spoon, Yo La Tengo or New Pornographers here -- and instead features many up-and-coming bands who are currently best known to avid readers of MP3 blogs. Those include Cold War Kids, whose skewed pop songs are highlighted by singer Nathan Willett's soulful vocals, literate rockers Bishop Allen, New York post-punk vets Longwave and theatric Milwaukeeans Decibully. In the midst of all those guitar-based bands, the biggest name might actually be avant-garde turntablist extraordinaire DJ Spooky, who headlines an Oct. 26 show at the Rock and Roll Hotel.
The local scene is very well-represented by the likes of Travis Morrison, Laura Burhenn, 302 Acid, Carol Bui and Soft Complex. The final lineup shows a deft mix of national and local with only one show lacking a local presence. "We had to keep the local flavor. It wouldn't have made sense not to," Boucher says. "This is about D.C. after all."
So the festival is about D.C. and it's about indie rock, yet the Black Cat, long the city's home of all things indie rock, is not a participating venue. "I don't think the Black Cat took us very seriously," Boucher says. "We tried really hard to set some shows up there, but a lot of things prevented that from happening, including the bottom line and unfamiliarity with our effort." In the end, Boucher's own planning may have worked against him. It's no coincidence that DAM Fest is happening the weekend before CMJ takes over New York. When trying to launch a multi-day, multi-venue festival from scratch, it helps to have hundreds of bands already on the East Coast for one of the music industry's biggest showcases. "We thought if we could lock in all the venues that weekend, we would get great bands involved by default -- if they wanted to play D.C. they would have to do the festival," Boucher explains. "We did get bands because they were coming to town, but because this is the heavy touring season, certain venues knew they didn't need us to give them a big weekend."
The Black Cat would be one of those venues. The three headliners booked for Oct. 26-28 -- the National, Spank Rock and the Wrens -- are arguably more popular than any of the DAM Fest bands, so it's hard to fault the Black Cat for simply going on its own. Boucher said that not securing some of the bigger venues, including the Black Cat and 9:30 club, was "disappointing, but it wasn't going to stop the festival from happening."
The DAM Fest does have a key partner in Bryan Deily, who owns DC9 and two of the city's newest live music venues, the Red and the Black and the Rock and Roll Hotel, but Boucher is hopeful that the 9:30 club, Black Cat and other venues not participating in this year's festival will join in for next year's edition -- yes, he is already looking ahead to 2007. In addition to diversifying the lineup and drawing bigger names, Boucher is looking to expand the festival beyond simply club shows at night. Ideas include a filmfest, panels that would include the Future of Music Coalition, and an exhibition that showcases the history of D.C. music. The festival has already gotten into the giving spirit, as it will have musical instrument drives at each show to support CHIME (Community Help in Music Education), which supports music programs in D.C. public schools.
But for all the talk about logistics and future planning, it really comes down to the music. And while the lineup may lack a can't-miss show or act, there seems to be overall plan that helps give the DAM Fest an identity. That was one of the problems I had with the Six Points Festival back in the spring: It felt like any other weekend in town, just under the Six Points banner. The DAM Fest feels like a more unified event, with local flavor, national acts and logically booked shows. Want to see two of the area's best female singer-songwriters? Check out Laura Burhenn and Carol Bui at the Red and the Black. Want some aggressive, uncompromising rock? The show headlined by Bleeder Resistor and Gito Gito Hustler should be up your alley. More "on-the-verge" indie rock than you can shake a stick at? Saturday's show at DC9 with De Novo Dahl, Bishop Allen and others should do the trick. For more highlights, fellow Gurus Fritz Hahn and Rhome Anderson and I offer our picks in the latest addition of the Nightlife Agenda Podcast, which includes audio clips from all the bands we talk about. Download it here, or find it on the site's podcast page.
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