“Awakening”: Modern Roots Reggae Inna 21st Century

It may be kind of hard to believe now, but at one time in the 1990s and the early part of the new century, the DC area was an important center of activity for roots reggae and other Caribbean sounds.  Georges Collinet, for instance, was broadcasting his internationally distributed radio show Afropop Worldwide out of DC, as Takoma Park played host to the West Indian Record Mart – where staff would spin vinyl records on a bona fide sound system, the way reggae music is meant to be heard but too rarely is here in the States – while Silver Spring served as home base to RAS Records (“Real Authentic Sound”), a respected roots label, founded by Gary “Dr. Dread” Himelfarb, that helped breathe new life into the careers of such storied Jamaican artists as Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse, Israel Vibration, Freddie McGregor, Yellowman, Inner Circle, Don Carlos, and Joseph Hill & Culture among many others.  And, as if by some divine bit of orchestration, these “conquering lions” of reggae could then record at Lion & Fox, a state-of-the-art recording facility just across the Potomac named, incredibly, for a real-life Lion (Hal) and Fox (Jim).

Charging into this robust music scene, playing strictly original songs and helping to bring roots reggae into the Modern Age, was (and is) JohnStone, who braved winter’s wrath in early 2005 to lay down tracks at Lion & Fox for their first full-length release, Eyes Open — which included the uplifting “Awakening”:

Awakening – JohnStone

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Awakening” by JohnStone.]

Eyes Open - JohnStoneEyes Open Dub - JohnStone

Reflecting DC’s diverse international community, JohnStone brought together players from Jamaica (Andre White), Guyana (Alfred Adams) and Ghana (Chet Nunoo-Quarcoo), as well as the United States (Brendan DeMelle and Joe Mannekin).  Guitarist/vocalist – and NCAA Division III soccer star – Andre White, formed JohnStone precursor, Zion Express, in 1995 with bassist DeMelle (whose brother, Jeff, has played bass with Clinton Fearon & the Boogie Brown Band) and Peyton Tochterman, before moving to DC in 2000 and forming JohnStone with drummer/vocalist, Alfred Adams.  By the time the band went into Lion & Fox to record their first album, Mannekin (keyboards) and Nunoo-Quarcoo (percussion) were also on board – with Ben Crandall joining in on sax.  Eyes Open would also receive a royal remix in the form of a dub version by engineer extraordinaire, Jim Fox.

JohnStone at Voice of America in 2003


[Bottom row]  Adams, Nunoo-Quarcoo & White — [Top row]  Mannekin & DeMelle


JohnStone has won several DC Annual Reggae Music Awards, including Song of the Year for 2001 (“Live On”) and 2005 (“Shashamane Land”), as well as Recording of the Year (“Eyes Open Dub”) in 2005 and Best Reggae Band in 2012.  Besides being headliners in their own right, JohnStone have also opened for such legendary reggae artists as Burning Spear, Toots & the Maytals, The Meditations, The Itals, Third World, Sister Carol, and Yellowman.  2007 would see the release of Innocent Children – whose title track was originally conceptualized and written by Adams, horrified by reports of the use of child soldiers in Haiti’s coup d’etat in 2004 – while 2010 would find the band issuing their second all-dub disc, Dub Confidence.

JohnStone’s personnel, anchored by White and Adams, has evolved over the years – Warren Pedersen II now anchors the bottom on bass while Reggie Moore spices up the treble on lead guitar – but their songs and sound are as vital as ever.   Click here to see where you can enjoy upcoming live performances or here to purchase their recordings.

johnstone at rockville town Center – 2010


Secret Hidden Bonus Track

Andre (who sings lead on “Awakening”) and Alfred share lead vocal duties in JohnStone — here’s another track from Eyes Open – “Never Ever” – that features Alfred’s voice:

Never Ever – JohnStone

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Never Ever” by JohnStone.]

“Miscellaneous”: What Comes After Post-Punk?

Sometime in the run-up to the new century, in the course of checking out live music, it began to dawn on me that blues was no longer the lingua franca for musicians operating within the realm of modern rock.  For many bands, Velvet Underground had become the new common denominator, although for DC bands there is no mistaking the enormous shadow cast by Dischord and the bands formed by the label’s principals — Teen Idles, Minor Threat & Fugazi.

That having been said, DC’s own, Gist, moved modern rock forward right out of the gate, forging a sound that is very much its own, as demonstrated on “Miscellaneous” from 2005 full-length release, Diesel City:

Miscellaneous – Gist

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Miscellaneous” by Gist.]

Diesel City - GistHigh school friends, Nayan Bhula and Fred Burton, formed Gist in 1995, with Jennifer Moentmann, recording demos and a couple of EPs.  Despite changes in personnel over the years, their first full-length release, 2002’s Art Is Now Human, as well as Diesel City, and 2008’s Conversations, Expectations all feature Gist’s “classic” line-up of Bhula on guitar and vocals, Burton on drums and Finley Martin on bass.  Recorded at Arlington VA’s renowned Inner Ear Studios with Chad Clark (Dismemberment Plan, Beauty Pill), Diesel City was the band’s third and final recording with Clark.

Gist at DC’s Fort Reno in 2005

Gist @ Ft Reno

        Nayan bhula                         Fred Burton                           Finley Martin

Nayan BhulaFred BurtonFinley Martin

“Miscellaneous,” according to Burton, is “about our bass player quitting the band suddenly when we were just getting going.”   Undeterred, Burton and Bhula took the plunge, forming their own label, Red Stapler, in 2000, and then – in an act of audacity in the downloadable digital era – opening a bricks & mortar music store, Revolution Records, in 2003.  The experience, unfortunately, revealed the stark economics of selling hard copy recordings to a generation who increasingly expected their music to be free.  As Burton and Bhula point out in an interview with Brightest Young Things:

“Currently, the music industry is [screwed up].  We ran Revolution Records in DC for a few years and discovered that CDs just don’t sell anymore.  Many people expect music to be totally free these days. Downloading and burning seem harmless enough, but what they don’t understand is how much time, money and energy is put into an album. Especially, for indie musicians like ourselves who have to foot the bill for recording, duplication, marketing etc…

The industry is partly to blame for pushing one-size fits all music labels and not lowering the cost of CDs.  Consequently, big box places like Wal-Mart and Best Buy have decimated small record stores (i.e., Revolution Records) by undercutting costs, and selling CDs at cost or below cost.  It’s one of the few industries that lets someone sell something at a loss and gets away with it.  Even indie labels like Merge [Spoon, Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields] are available at Best Buy.  People need to get off their computer and experience the fun of record shopping, but it might be too late!”

Revolution RecordsBhula and Burton’s label, Red Stapler, was initially started for the band’s own purposes. However, as Burton explains, other groups were later added “as we got to know and become friends with like-minded bands” – including Bhula’s latest musical project,         The NRIs, (“Non-Resident Indian” – a term used to describe Indians when they visit their motherland but do not reside there).

All three full-length Gist recordings can be purchased, interestingly, from Dischord.

“Trains”: Not Bringing My Baby Back

One of my favorite impromptu musical moments occurred when I unwittingly stumbled upon Prabir and the Substitutes in the parking lot of Chick Hall’s Surf Club rehearsing the harmony vocals for this train-based tale of heartache and woe:

Right there on the spot (which I now know took place on July 10, 2008, thanks to the indispensable blog, DC Rocks), I was utterly charmed.  And what a triple bill it was that night — preceded by the comedic burlesque stylings of Shortstaxx:  (1) Ottley, featuring Martha Hull & Marshall Keith (Slickee Boys) with Bob Berberich (Nils Lofgren’s Grin); (2) The Beatnik Flies; and (3) Prabir & the Substitutes, admittedly a Richmond, VA band but by then a DC fixture and one that had been generating a lot of excitement with its high-energy performances.

Prabir & the SubstitutesWritten by vocalist/guitarist, Prabir Mehta (who, along with Joel Gion, once possessed the most impressive mutton chops in modern rock) is a near-instrumental that, if you listen closely, contains but a single lyric.  As Prabir kindly elaborates on the concept behind the song:

“I wrote the song as a kind of song-writing exercise.  I wanted to see if I could write a song that visually went along with a theme, in this case a train, and to see if it was possible to get away with an instrumental song that only has one line.  So, the music starts off as the chug-a-chug motion of the train, gets into cruising speed, then apparently something happens to cause tension/chaos on the train and then you get the frantic high speed recovery/driving off into the sunset kind of vibe.  The end of the song was fun because it was one of those things where I wanted to use all the instruments to play a key role in moving the end of the song forward literally note-by-note.  All in all it makes for a fun weird song to have on a record, but my favorite time with the song was on stage.  The band is easily some of the best musicians I’ve ever played with and we had a blast putting together some of the craziness that makes this a ‘song’…sorta.”

“Trains” – released 2008 on the group’s CD release, Five Little Pieces – was recorded at Richmond’s Sound of Music Recording Studios.

Prabir & the Substitutes CD

Musical Personnel

– Prabir Mehta – guitar & vocals
– Chris Smith – guitar & vocals
– Charlie Glenn – organ & vocals
– Robbie King – bass & vocals
– Tyler Williams – drums & vocals

While the group has since disbanded, all is not lost:  Prabir is now creating music with his group, Goldrush, while Charlie, Chris & Robbie have formed Trillions, and Tyler Williams is now out on the west coast with Seattle outfit, The Head and the Heart.

“Lucky Stars”: Buddy Holly is Still Alive!

As DC Week heads into extra innings, Zero to 180 ponders the metaphysical with a song I always suspected to have been written with the spiritual assistance of a certain bespectacled singer-songwriter from Lubbock, Texas.   My instincts, as it turns out, were eerily prescient, for I later confirmed that Bob “Newscaster” Swenson – guitarist with Dagmar & the Seductones – did, indeed, channel the spirit of Buddy Holly in the course of composing an instant classic, “Lucky Stars”:

Lucky Stars – Dagmar & the Seductones

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Lucky Stars” by Dagmar & the Seductones.]

Bob Swenson reveals the mysterious forces at work in an exclusive interview with Zero to 180:

“In the summer of 2002, I was out of work and starting to get back into playing guitar after a long hiatus.  For no particular reason, I woke up every day with a piece of a new song in my head. I thought that I must be having a stroke.  But I went ahead and started writing down song ideas, sometimes two or three a day.  Out of the dozens of fragments came several rock and roll songs that were eventually recorded by me with Dagmar and the Seductones and others, including ‘Lucky Stars,’ with J.P. McDermott and Western Bop, on indie labels.

“One song came to me fully formed, as if I’d heard it all my life – verses, chorus, arrangement – and it was finished before I could even get out of bed. That song was ‘Lucky Stars.’  I’ve often said that it really was a Buddy Holly song, but Buddy never got the chance to write it.”

Swenson, a (second-generation) Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductee who has recorded with DC artists, Tex Rubinowitz, Bob E. Rock, Billy Hancock, and Eva Cassidy, has also performed with Bo Diddley, Jack Scott, Big Sandy, Evan Johns, Eddie Angel, and Robert Gordon, among others.  Bob’s musical roots run pretty deep and can be better appreciated by clicking here for the full story.

Vocalist Andrea Dagmar-Swenson Brown, no slouch either, is a classically-trained pianist and violinist, whose grandfather was a renowned and gifted craftsman of violins (of which only three are known to exist).

DagmarDefying familial expectations, Dagmar secretly embarked upon a musical path that embraced roots rockabilly and electric blues, first with John Previti (Danny Gatton, Paul Simon, et al.) and later with the first incarnation of the Seductones, a three-woman, one-man punkabilly outfit that played regularly at beloved (and defunct) Bethesda, MD music venue,  The Psyche Delly.

The Seductones circa 1982:

Dagmar (Left) with Newscaster, Elizabeth Thompson (Drums) & Erica Hunter (Bass)

Seductones - circa 1982

Never one to stand still, Dagmar has plied her talents here and around the world as a graphic artist, photographer, television producer, video director, songwriter – and even teacher of English at the high school level.  Dagmar loves to paint – having enjoyed a residency in 2012 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art – and she and Bob have even collaborated on Cretaceous-themed comic art.

“Lucky Stars,” from 2004’s Little Bitta Love, also features bass work from Bryan Smith and drumming from Dave Elliott – one of Danny Gatton’s original “Fat Boys.”  Over the years, the Seductones have enjoyed a wide-ranging extended family, whose members have included Chris Watling of The Grandsons, multi-instrumentalist Ira Gitlin, guitarist Dave Kitchen, drummer Jeff Lodsun, and many others.

Dagmar & the SeductonesNewscaster with Dave Elliott, Bryan Smith & Dagmar (photo by Bill Hanke)

Disclaimer:  “Lucky Stars” – as with each and every song featured on this blog – is a copyrighted work of art.  Please show your support for these hardworking artists by purchasing their music, patronizing live shows, and even better – buying songs directly from the artists themselves at musical performances.  We can only enjoy the fruits of a civilized society when our artists get paid.

“When I Go to the Beach”: The East Coast Surf Sound

June 1967’s single release, “Hit the Surf” by The Sea Shells, may or may not have been the last recording of surf music’s original Golden Age:  Sgt. Pepper‘s release that same month might well have been the final nail in surf’s fiberglass coffin.

The music scholars at Rhino Records — in the liner notes to their surf music box set, Cowabunga! — inform me that “In 1980, a surprisingly large number of surf bands appeared in major cities across the country and overseas.  However, most of the action was smack dab in Southern California.”   DC’s Slickee Boys, fortunately for the rest of humanity, pioneered an East Coast surf sound in 1983 with the release of their seminal single, “When I Go to the Beach”:

Second-place winner of MTV’s Basement Tapes in 1983, “When I Go to the Beach” consequently gave The Slickee Boys the distinction of being the first DC-area band to appear on the burgeoning music network (it’s true:  MTV once played music videos).  “When I Go to the Beach” – written by Mark Noone and featuring the twin guitar attack of Kim Kane & Marshall Keith – was included on The Slickee Boys second long-playing release, Cybernetic Dreams of Pi, a Twin/Tone album that also enjoyed release in Germany and France.  Voted Record of the Year in 1985 at the first Washington Area Music Association Awards, “When I Go to the Beach” would also be featured, thrillingly enough, in Frankie and Annette “retro-surf” film, Back to the Beach from 1987.

Slickee Boys LP

All Roads Lead to Mark Noone

If Pete Frame – pioneer of the Rock Family Tree – were to map out the DC music scene of the 1970s, 80s and beyond, Mark Noone would certainly be in the thick of things.  In addition to his work with The Slickee Boys, Mark has not only sung and/or held down bass duties for The Wanktones, The Hula Monsters, Ruthie & the Wranglers, and The Rhodes Tavern Troubadours but is once again tapping into the Zeitgeist via current side project, The Yachtsmen – “dock rockers” for our New Gilded Age.

don’t make me tell you again:  Dc’s the telecaster town

Mark Noone & Andy Rutherford

Mark Noone (left) with Andy Rutherford

[photo courtesy gerald martineau]

“Luxury Dreamride”: Surprisingly Affordable

When’s the last time you heard an instrumental on contemporary hits radio?  I was talking with my brother about this, and we both agreed that “Where’s My Thing?” from Rush’s 1991 album, Roll the Bones, was the last time we remember hearing an instrumental on modern pop terrestrial radio.  Did I miss any instrumental hits between then and now?

Apparently, I’m not the first person to conceive the idea of an Instrumental Hall of Fame, but if one were to actually exist, I would readily nominate “Luxury Dreamride” by longtime renegade DC band, The Beatnik Flies, as one of my first selections:

Luxury Dreamride – The Beatnik Flies

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Luxury Dreamride” by The Beatnik Flies.]

Beatnik Flies LP We can thank The Beatnik Flies for helping to reignite the instrumental as a potent musical form back in 1984 when they released their debut album, From Parts Unknown, which included “Luxury Dreamride” – written by guitarist/vocalist, Joe Dolan, and brought to life by guitarist/vocalist, John Stone, bassist/vocalist, Kenny Bugg, and drummer, Britt Conley.  Their first album — produced by then-Slickee Boy, Mark Noone — was released domestically here in the States, as well as in France, curiously, on the New Rose label.

The band might be fascinated to learn that this track has been used as part of a physical therapy regimen for infants born prematurely.  Research has shown that this instrumental, in particular, improves heath and vitality – yet science has not yet been able to explain why.

Beatnik Flies

“I Say Tomato”: Gershwin for the Honky Tonk Set

I guess it was inevitable that Ruthie Logsdon would pursue music professionally since it was, literally, in her blood:  cousin Jimmie was a one-time King Records recording artist who bestowed upon the world, “I Got a Rocket in My Pocket” – a rockabilly classic.   Ruthie, sure enough, did end up one day wrangling a band, whose fourth long-playing release, Someday, was voted 2003’s Album of the Year by the Washington Area Music Association.

Ruthie & the Wranglers CD

“I Say Tomato” – written with fellow Wrangler, bassist/vocalist Greg Hardin – updates the George Gershwin pop standard with a wry and modern honky tonk sensibility:

I Say Tomato – Ruthie & the Wranglers

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “I Say Tomato” by Ruthie & the Wranglers.]

Ruthie & Wranglers

Who’s that squeezing off those lonely, soulful lines on the baritone guitar, you might ask – why, none other than Phil Mathieu.

seriously, Dc’s the Telecaster town

Phil Mathieu - TelecasterBill Starks tickles the ivories on this tune, as well.  The album – recorded and engineered at Hit & Run in Rockville, MD – was produced by the band.

“Smoke and Mirrors”: Truck-Drivin’ Cautionary Tale

We will likely never know just how many people were lured to the truck driving profession as a result of the romantic and freewheeling images fueled by truck driving country music during its 1960s & 70s heyday.   Fortunately, we can all thank Alan MacEwen of veteran DC band, The Grandsons, for painting a considerably more balanced and forthright portrait of life on the road in his truck driving cautionary tale, “Smoke and Mirrors”:

Smoke And Mirrors – The Grandsons

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “Smoke and Mirrors” by The Grandsons.]

This witty and wise track from 1999’s delightfully eclectic release, Pan American Shindig, features Alan MacEwen on vocals & guitar, Chris Watling on saxes & accordion, and Matt Sedgley on drums.  If you’re thinking to yourself, “That sounds like Bill Kirchen ripping some classic dieselbilly riffs on this track,” well, that’s pretty spooky … because he is!  Alan and Chris would return the favor soon after by laying down some horn and vocal lines on a couple tracks from Kirchen’s Dieselbilly Road Trip on the Cracker Barrel label.  “Smoke and Mirrors” was co-written with Susan Lowell – all songs were recorded at DC’s Groovetown USA studios.

Grandsons CDParody:  Protected by Free Speech – If You’ve Got the Dough

Back in the early 90s when my good buddy, Karl, introduced me to the band, the boys enjoyed a more elongated name, The Grandsons of the Pioneers.  No doubt many folks assume the band shortened the name to The Grandsons to save time, but the shocking truth is that the band was a victim of humorlessness – with deep pockets.  As the boys explain on their website:

“After eight years of plying their pop sound around the country as Grandsons of the Pioneers, the group’s increasing notoriety resulted in a high-noon showdown with singing cowboys, Sons of the Pioneers, who balked at the idea of acknowledging paternity to a low down, trumpet-toting, sax-blowing rock and roll band. Counseled by their team of cut-throat lawyers to keep on playing rather than pause to litigate, the band shortened its name to The Grandsons and has been going full throttle ever since.”

did i mention that dc’s the telecaster town?


Fact: DC’s the Telecaster Town

Jake Flack of the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours makes an air-tight case for proving that the Nation’s Capital truly is the Telecaster town – and he’s not afraid to name names:

DC’s the Telecaster Town – Rhodes Tavern Troubadours

[Pssst:  Click the triangle to play “DC’s the Telecaster Town” by The Rhodes Tavern Troubadours.]

Danny gatton & Evan Johns flying blind

Danny Gatton & Evan Johns Roy Buchanan                                                 Bill Kirchen

Roy B - TelecasterBill K - Telecaster

dave chappell                                                   Jake Flack

Dave Chappell - TeleJake Flack - Tele

Chick hall Jr.

Chick Hall - TelecasterFrom 2002’s most excellent (and transit-inspired) album, On the Red Line, recorded in Rockville, Maryland at Hit & Run, with Dave Chappell and Jake Flack on guitars & vocals, Mark Noone on bass & vocals, and Jack O’Dell on drums & vocals — with special guest, Bill Kirchen, on Telecaster.

“Fever” & Strings: Little Willie John Gets the Last Word

1995’s King R&B Box Set yielded a couple other rarities in addition to Hank Ballard’s unreleased piece of mod soul – such as this rare strings version of Little Willie John’s biggest (and hugely influential) hit, “Fever”:

Somewhere in my archive of Mojo back issues there’s a small piece with Dr. John recounting his days under the tutelage of Cosimo Matassa at J&M Studios in New Orleans and mentioning that “Fever” – recorded March 1, 1956 at the King studios in Cincinnati – had a particularly great drum sound that was envied at the time.

Fever - Little Willie John LP

“Fever” – written by Eddie Cooley & Otis Blackwell and recorded first by Little Willie John – has been covered by a diverse array of artists from Peggy Lee, Elvis, and Ray Charles to The Jam, The Cramps, and Tom Verlaine.