Chris Richards on Music: The White House Attracts the Top Acts

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Washington's hottest music venue certainly doesn't feel like one. There aren't decades of Marlboro ash, Rolling Rock or sweat soaked into the hardwood. Then again, the sound system thumps, the lighting is resplendent and the bouncers are some of the most intimidating dudes on the planet.

It's the White House, and since February, the place has been crawling with pop stars of every lumen: Stevie Wonder; Earth, Wind and Fire; Paul Simon; Foo Fighters; Will.I.Am; Fergie; Ziggy Marley; Martina McBride; Sweet Honey in the Rock; Diana Krall; India.Arie.

A formidable list, sure, but nowhere near as long as the queue of musicians vying for a slot on the White House Music Series -- a program of genre-specific concerts celebrating uniquely American strands of music.

President Obama first expressed his desire to "open up the White House" to artists in December and has since made good on his word. The series launched in June and has already hosted jazz, and country. Latin music will be honored on Oct. 13 (the list of performers has not yet been finalized). Classical will get its shot Nov. 4.

Meanwhile, publicists and booking agents in the music biz have been scrambling to make nice with White House Deputy Social Secretary Joe Reinstein, the man responsible for booking the series. Reinstein's prior experience in the music industry? Zilch. "I'm not a music expert," he says. "I wasn't booking talent for venues before this. I'm just lucky I have a venue everyone wants to play."

So much so that every time Reinstein's name appears in the press, his inbox is flooded with "thousands" of queries from musicians hoping to score an engagement. But don't call Reinstein -- he'll call you. "We look at a particular genre and find the best and brightest that are out there," he says.

For that reason, the series largely traffics in marquee names (jazzmen Wynton and Branford Marsalis) or bona fide legends (country great Charley Pride). But for an up-and-comer, an invitation from the White House can be priceless. Emerging jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding has played twice since the Obamas moved in -- once alongside Stevie Wonder as he received the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize in February and again for a spoken-word celebration in May. That practically counts as a residency at the White House, and the impact on her career has been invaluable.

"It's such a blessing that this administration values the arts," Spalding says. "One of the first things they did was create this platform to celebrate and honor these art forms that are uniquely American. And I know that sounds corny and patriotic, but it's true!"

For country superstar Brad Paisley, a visit to the White House proved to be equally humbling. At the country music celebration in July, Paisley performed his new single, "Welcome to the Future," live for the first time. The song finds Paisley praising American progress and racial justice while delivering nimble guitar licks.

"I had a song that made me very emotional to sing there," Paisley says. "To be able to do that, and deliver this message myself and keep it together -- which I did somehow -- that's a big deal."

Paisley's star might be hung higher than Spalding's, but he felt a similar career boost from his appearance -- and maybe even a little backlash from red-state fans. "I'm one of those guys who sits it out most of the time," Paisley says of his political stance (or lack thereof). "I know I'm out on a limb with this single and I need all the help I can get."

And while the White House Music Series aims to host each genre's leading figures, what about the artists booked for the black-tie events? The Easter Egg Roll? Fourth of July on the South Lawn? Are the Obamas making requests?

"They don't get specific," Reinstein says. "Everyone has what's on their iPod that they listen to in their downtime. I think they're open. . . . If anything, I think they're excited about new experiences and what they haven't heard."

That might be true for the White House Music Series, but in the summer of 2008, Rolling Stone gave readers a coveted peek into the then-candidate's iPod. Obama's most played artists: Stevie Wonder (honored at the White House in February); Earth, Wind and Fire (played the Governors' Dinner in March); Yo-Yo Ma (performed at the inauguration). Obama also cited rap icon Jay-Z and rock colossus Bob Dylan. Hosting either at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. would make for a thrilling first.

And while the Obamas might not be the first first family to bring music to the White House, they might be on track to bring the most. More than 20 artists have already performed there in the past eight months, putting the administration on track to host over 100 performances by the end of the president's term.

"We're going to keep going until we run out of music genres," Reinstein says.

Note to the shining stars of American polka, grindcore and Miami bass: Come December 2012, you might want to keep your schedules open.

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