Of all the times I saw Chuck Brown perform live, one of the most memorable was undoubtedly a sunny evening at the Lorton Workhouse, where he once spent several years in prison for
armed robbery murder. And I think it was memorable for him too.
The occasion, in August 2010, was an open house for the artists who now work in the long cell blocks that once housed prisoners from the District. Out in the main yard was a large white tent. Under the tent was a stage, rows of wooden folding chairs, and between the two was an open area covered in large gravel. Sort of a dance floor meant to discourage dancing. Outside the tent was a table of folks selling Sam Adams for $2. I made many contributions to the arts that day.
The arts patrons were politely summoned to the tent for the entertainment, and they politely sat bolt upright in the wooden chairs, awaiting this mysterious musical group from Washington. Chuck and his large crew hit the stage, and if the polyrhythmic go-go thunder wasn’t baffling enough, how about “The Theme from the Godfather” in go-go style?
But a number of folks crowded to the side of the gravel dance floor, many having made the trek from the distant land of D.C. Armed security guards watched nervously, no doubt hired with go-go’s rowdy reputation in mind. My wife and I broke the ice, stumbling into the gravel DMZ with our neighbors Adam and Leslie, whose only knowledge of Chuck was what they’d heard in the car on the way down. The groove unfolded. The crowd from the sides flowed in. The people in the wooden chairs grew more mystified, though a few stood, hesitantly. Gimme the bridge y’all.
Chuck appeared to be genuinely moved by being in this place where he was once incarcerated, and reminded his audience on a couple of occasions that this wasn’t his first visit to Lorton. The dance floor was packed and sweaty. “Wind me up Chuck” went the inevitable chants. Chuck, who wasn’t always front and center at some of his 9:30 Club shows in the mid-2000s, was energetic and grinning.
Then he brought up a fellow whose name I didn’t catch. He was a counselor at Lorton when Chuck was there, and Chuck said the man had taught him how to play the guitar there. Chuck said the man helped save his life. We applauded him heartily. Then it was back on the go-go train.
This show was no marathon from the days of Kilimanjaro, or the Roxy, or the old 9:30 Club. But it did the trick, and we felt like we’d witnessed something special. The Godfather coming full circle. We staggered out sweaty and exuberant.
Who will wind us up now? So long Chuck.