By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Most music venues make their mark by attracting the best-quality bands. The Grog and Tankard's claim to fame? Mediocrity.
Okay, perhaps that's unfair, perhaps the Wisconsin Avenue club was merely practicing a form of musical democracy for the past 24 years. Pretty much anyone could play there. No need for a tryout, no need to send a homemade CD in advance. In other words, if you owned an ax and loved to shred with your high school buddies, you could play there. If you scored a babysitter and your new work band called the Illegal Briefs was looking to test the rock waters, you could play there. Let's put it this way: In its 24-year history of hosting bands, not once did this newspaper publish a review of a show there.
This home for often-middling musical acts is no more. Former owner Abdul Hossainkhail said that business was slow and that he sold the place last week. The Grog and Tankard will soon become Gin and Tonic, with leather seats, 14 beers on tap and a "preppy vibe," according to Jessica Gibson, spokeswoman for new owner Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld. Oh, and the new tavern will have a DJ, presumably with more curatorial vision.
"The Grog will be missed as a place for bands to sort of get out there and play the music for their family and fans," said Andrew Deerin, vocalist for Utris, a band that at one point played a regular Sunday gig at the Grog.
"It wasn't like a prestigious place to play," recalled Jon Rustad, guitarist and vocalist for Underwater City People, who played there. "We would get a good crowd. People would come because they knew us. Our band was synonymous with getting totally bombed and drunk." He added, "I bet for a lot of people, [playing] there was the first gig."
In fact, the Grog liked to book untested musicians, according to the management, figuring they would be the ones to really push their friends to come out and pay the more recent $7 or $8 cover.
"We brought all kinds of music there, but they were the kind of bands that didn't dedicate their time to the music over the years, practicing and getting better," said Khaled Hossainkhail, who goes by Colin Hoss at the club and is the booking agent, the sound engineer and a brother of the owner. At the Grog, "when most bands get together, they get together for fun."
He considered about 15 out of 20 bands that played there to be good, but "even the mediocre bands, we gave them the opportunity to play the Grog."
On a recent night, a trio called D.C. Flow played to four people and sang, "Put your fists in the air 'cause we don't stop." But other nights, such as when the Tim Egan Band played, the place packed a capacity crowd of 150 students from nearby Georgetown University. "The Grog was the only local venue that was open to letting college students play," said Egan, who graduated from Georgetown this May. "If you want to come play and you told them you could bring people, you could come and play. Other places ask for a CD."
And just as the Grog was relaxed about the band quality, it was also relaxed about band shenanigans. "People would come and we would do crazy antics," Rustad said.
Underwater City People once set up a TV monitor onstage and played a whole show pretending that Rustad was live via satellite from Alaska. (He was actually in the back room.) "I'm sure it sounded like [ick], but it was a lot of fun," Rustad said. "The Grog is the kind of place that they would put up with that."
The point was, the Grog was a place to start, to play to your friends and (good or bad) hear them cheer. "The Grog was a great place to get a gig and kind of sharpen our craft," said Tom McBride of the Tom McBride Band.
The "decor" of the dark dive is already being taken down. Goodbye to the moose head, the photo of Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, the bar's somewhat rotted wood, the Budweiser posters, the "Women" and "Men" bathroom signs written in blue pen on a waitress guest check above the doors. (Is it a stretch to think of a couple of intoxicated college buddies laughing as they steal the signs for their dorm room?)
It was owner Hossainkhail who in 1984 brought live music to the Grog, which opened in 1964. (Abdul's two brothers, Khaled and Hammed, helped him run the place.)
Some bigger-name bands played the Grog over the years, recalled Hossainkhail/Hoss, including Vertical Horizon, whose guitarist Matt Scannell was quoted on the Grog Web site as saying, "If it's not happening for you at the Grog, you need to reassess." Shudder to Think, a local '90s punk band, played the Grog, as did Hootie and the Blowfish before they hit it big (guitarist Mark Bryan is from Silver Spring).
"I'm going to miss the fun, being in touch with musicians and customers," said Abdul Hossainkhail.
To some extent, it's hard to say who, other than the musicians themselves, will really miss the Grog.
"Musicians will miss it as a bar where they will be able to cut their teeth. People that don't play music I don't think will miss it," said McBride.
But the bands -- the good and the not so -- will feel a loss.
"Here's the thing: Everybody's a musician on some level," Rustad said. "If somebody works hard enough to put together a set, they'll be genuine. Everyone thinks they've just started the greatest band in the world." The Grog and Tankard, RIP, regularly proved otherwise.