Old-School D.C. Spirit

Rare Essence helped invent go-go. Saturday, the band will show how the District gets down

August 1, 2013

Guitarist and vocalist Andrew Johnson is the only original member of Rare Essence left in the band, whose sound continues to evolve.

Go-go has evolved over the decades since bands like Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers ruled the D.C. scene. In recent years, hip-hop has been blended into go-go’s sound, but some originators remain. Rare Essence is one of them, with its propulsive rhythms, call-and-response vocals and improvisational live concerts.

Thirty-two years since the band made its debut with the 12-inch single “Body Moves,” guitarist and vocalist Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson is the only original member in the band. Like go-go, he says, he was “born and raised here.”

Johnson and Rare Essence’s current incarnation — with Michael Baker on bass, LeRoy Battle and Byron Jackson on keys, Darrell Arrington on drums and six additional members — are taking a break from mixing their first studio album in 13 years to play the Summer Spirit Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion. They’ll join big names in hip-hop and soul, including D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Busta Rhymes.

Ahead of Saturday’s show, Johnson offered his observations on D.C.’s changing music scene, the future of his legendary band — and his incongruous nickname.

On the new go-go: Johnson says he’s seen two major changes in go-go in recent years. “Some of the groups have gotten smaller,” he says. Bands used to include as many as 20 people to create a dynamic sound. “And instead of being more funk- and soul-based, it has become more hip-hop based.”

On why they call him Whiteboy: In the ’70s, members of Rare Essence dubbed Johnson, who is black, “Whiteboy” for two reasons: The first is his skin color. “I’m not really light-skinned, but I was the lightest guy in the group,” Johnson says. The second reason was that he brought pop influences to the group. “I used to listen to a lot of pop music back then,” he says. “The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Kansas.”

On the upcoming record: Rare Essence released a few live albums over the years, but this is the band’s first time back in the studio since 2000’s “RE2000.” “We used a lot of live samples in the music, so we kept that live feeling to it and polished it up,” he says. Expect a go-go record with an R&B bent.

On taking go-go out of D.C.: Johnson says he loves hitting the Carolinas because so many D.C. expats live there and come out in droves. “They’re super excited to see us because they haven’t seen us in years,” he says. “We always get the audience singing along.”

Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.; Sat., 5 p.m., $46-$125; 410-715-5550.
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