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Posted at 3:00 PM ET, 02/24/2010

In defense of the D.C. rock scene

By David Malitz

In the past few weeks, the D.C. rock scene has been dragged through the mud on a couple of local Web sites. The braintrust of local label Fan Death Records (one of the very best niche labels, local or otherwise) claimed there were only two good bands in D.C. and that the scene, in their words, "sucked." Meanwhile, over at the Onion's A/V Club, a couple ex-members of Q and Not U -- D.C.'s preeminent band of the last decade (a third member of that band is The Post's current pop music critic, as you probably know) -- voiced their disappointment with the current state of things. The crux of their arguments basically boiled down to: Things should be more like they were in the '90s and early '00s.

Look, there's no denying that D.C. rock was once more of a force then than it is now. There's a reason people still identify Dischord (or even Teenbeat or Simple Machines) as the D.C. standard bearer. Nothing has really come along with the singular impact to knock any of them from the throne. But that doesn't mean it's a wasteland out there. And one need only to have been at this past Saturday night's show at the Cherch to know that things are alive and well.

The Cherch isn't a nightclub; it's a house. One of the criticisms extended was that there aren't enough shows at alternative spaces. This weekend alone that living room on New Jersey Avenue hosted eight bands. (Friday's show, an experimental showcase featuring former Lungfish guitarist had competition in the form of another house show at Mt. Pleasant's Crab's Claw.) Saturday's gathering featured three local bands, none of whom sound alike. I take this as a good thing. A decade or two ago, there was a definite, identifiable D.C. sound: bands such as Fugazi, Jawbox, Dismemberment Plan and Black Eyes all created jagged songs with halting rhythms and emotional heft. Should the fact that the current crop of bands draws from wider influences be seen as negative?

The Laughing Man plays an all-encompassing folk-soul-blues-jazz hybrid. This band is so into the idea of alternative spaces that drummer Michael Harris attempted to open his own all-ages, DIY performance space (Mini Gallery) before it succumbed to permit issues. True Womanhood -- about to embark on nearly three months of touring, to answer another bit of criticism lobbed at the locals -- is creating its own genre: double timpani space swirl. Drummer Noam Elsner's rumbling rhythms have become the band's defining feature, and they actually serve as a nice modern update of the percussion-heavy sound favored by old D.C.

And then there was Hume, another band that can't be accused of laziness. Britt Powell is known to put together different ensembles for nearly every show he plays. He took an eight-piece band on an extensive summer tour to play one specific piece, "Mirroring." He's in the process of creating an alternative performance space. Simply put, he likes to stay busy. Powell merely had a guitar/bass/drums trio backing him on guitar Saturday, but the results were explosive.

It was so crowded in the house that I had to watch the performance from a staircase right behind the band (also, I was out back getting a beer right when it started) but that proved to be the best vantage point. As the four band members jumped from one jittery time signature to another, they stayed perfectly in sync, playing loud and clear as could be. This was a social gathering, but the music was unquestionably the focus; the crowd packed into the living room kept their eyes directly on the band. Members of at least half a dozen bands stood slack-jawed at Hume's performance, as well they should have. It raised the bar, it put everyone on notice and it undoubtedly served as motivation to try to best them.

And that's exactly the way a scene gets better. Not by people simply instructing bands on how to do things better or giving an interview saying what's wrong. Things get better when the people involved cram into some dude's living room and watch a band light it up. Maybe it will happen Saturday when the Laughing Man, Child Ballads and Matthew Hemerlein smush into Fort Awesome. Or Sunday's matinee punk show headlined by the Shirks at Quarry House in Silver Spring. Or at some DIY show at Big Bear Cafe. Or when True Womanhood and Hume share a bill together at the Black Cat on April 6. See for yourself.

-- David Malitz

By David Malitz  | February 24, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Music  
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I was at this show, and I have to agree-- One of the best I've seen in a long time. The house show circuit in DC is as lively as it's been in a long time. Cheers to all the people making it happen.

Posted by: DC07 | February 24, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

That Zomes set Friday was captivating. I was stunned by the size of the crowd that night as well; the proprietor of the house also appeared to be.

Posted by: azaghal1981 | February 25, 2010 1:11 AM | Report abuse

Does Clutch count, or are they working too much out side the area these days?

Posted by: EricS2 | February 25, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

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