The Bayou, Washington's longest-lived nightclub, will close after tomorrow night's Everything concert. The club, located at the foot of Georgetown under the Whitehurst Freeway, has been a music showcase since 1953, when it first offered Dixieland jazz.
The 450-seat venue has had an erratic history over the ensuing 45 years -- it offered the first American concerts by such soon-to-be superstars as U2, Dire Straits and Foreigner, while also harboring some of the blandest bands this side of Muzak -- but the closing was less a matter of changing musical tastes than of real estate machinations. The Bayou's building -- indeed, the whole block of K Street NW between Wisconsin Avenue and 31st Street -- was recently purchased by Millennium Partners and Eastbanc Inc., which plans to build a complex with a 100-room luxury hotel and upscale apartments as well as retail shops and a 3,000-seat movie theater complex.
The club's current owner, John Boyle, admits to mixed feelings about the closing. "I have a real love and passion for this building," says Boyle, calling it "the historic heart and soul of rock-and-roll music in Washington."
"Everyone has some fond memories of seeing shows there," says Seth Hurwitz, who owns the competing 9:30 club. "It was an icon of Washington musical history."
Boyle, who first started working at the Bayou at age 16, bought the club just two years ago from his father, Jack Boyle, CEO of Cellar Door Productions and the recently installed "commissioner of concerts" for the nationwide concert industry giant SFX Entertainment. The Millennium Partners acquisition came as a surprise, says the younger Boyle, who also owns the Ballroom and several clubs in Virginia Beach. Now, he concedes, it may have been "a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to bring the Bayou into the '90s. A new location was needed -- we grew out of this size and we needed to upgrade everything."
Over the last 50 years, there have been only a handful of Washington clubs with national reputations: the Cellar Door, which closed in 1979; Blues Alley, which recently celebrated its 34th anniversary; the Birchmere; the 9:30; and the Bayou. Except for the short-lived Wax Museum in the '80s and the new 9:30 club, which opened in 1995, the Bayou was also Washington's largest nightclub at 450 seats. "Or 500 -- I can say that now that it's closing," says Dave Williams, co-owner of Cellar Door Productions, which owned the club from 1980 to 1997.
Williams first came to know the Bayou in the '50s, when lawyer Vincent Tramonte bought the building (which dates to 1910), named it the Bayou and started booking traditional jazz, with Wild Bill Whelan and the Dixie Six as the house band and out-of-town guests like Wild Bill Davidson, Illinois Jacquet, Woody Herman and Count Basie. According to Williams, the venue's history actually goes back further to the mid-'30s, when it was a blue-collar watering hole known as the Pirates Den or, less invitingly, the Bucket of Blood and was owned by Errol Flynn, Rudy Vallee and Johnny Weissmuller.
From 1953 until the early '60s, the Bayou thrived with Dixieland, following that with a brief run as an exotic dance club. It first became associated with rock in the mid-'60s, when the Telstars became the new house band. According to Telstars drummer Ronnie Wilson, there were always lines around the block and "it seemed to be mostly suburban kids who were of age, or weren't -- they had very good IDs -- and it was crowded all the time, with three females for every male. It was a great time!"
With one of the largest under-25 populations of any American city, Washington had a lively rock scene during the '60s, centered downtown at clubs like Rand's, Bennie's Rebel Room and the Hayloft, and in Georgetown, home to such clubs as the Silver Dollar, Keg, Crazy Horse, Roundtable and Bayou. Just as deejays dominate today's club scene, so did live (mostly cover) bands then. And back when the drinking age in the District was still 18, those clubs attracted crowds of teenagers from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, along with young servicemen and, as the '60s progressed, adherents of the emerging counterculture.
The Bayou, says Dave Williams, was "a dance club with live music instead of recordings."
It also provided the seed for Mike O'Harro's singles club empire. In 1964, O'Harro was in the Navy, sponsoring mixers at military bases, when he read that the Bayou was booking rock-and-roll. Taking advantage of the city's blue laws, which closed bars on Sundays, O'Harro began the Junior Officers Professional Association, a "private" club that charged $3 at the door and offered "all the beer and sodas you could drink," he recalls. O'Harro eventually moved on; now his Champions sports bars are found in 24 cities across the country. Even the club's bouncers contributed to its history. The forbidding Mr. T did some of his first forbidding there before heading to Hollywood. Another bouncer reportedly invented the Plexiglas bong.
The Bayou's emergence as a showcase club dates from the mid-'70s, partly fueled, Dave Williams says, by changes in the drinking age to 21. For years, the Bayou had refused to book national acts on weekends because the club's regular clientele -- "1,000 people or more every weekend," says Williams" -- covered its weekly overhead. After the drinking laws changed and the Bayou started losing up to two-thirds of its weekend business, "we took national acts whenever we could get them," Williams notes.
For the past 30 years, the Bayou has been known as the Washington home for mainstream rock-and-roll, and on a more limited level, metal, blues and soul, and as a home base for commercially attuned local and regional bands. It pretty much missed the punk revolution, but did catch hold of new wave with early '80s performances by Joe Jackson, Boomtown Rats and U2, who gave their first American concert at the Bayou in 1980, opening for Washington's Slickee Boys. The club presented Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel (who recorded parts of a live album there, though he incorrectly identified the club as "The Bijou"). Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan made his Washington debut there, as did Kiss and Dire Straits.
In recent years, the Bayou has nurtured so-called "hippie/groove" acts like the Dave Matthews Band, Everything, God Street Wine and Pat McGee, and has tried to present a mixed schedule. But over the last 15 years, the club saw much of its programming thunder usurped by the 9:30, which has been consistently more adventurous in its bookings, particularly of British, funk and hip-hop acts.
"The 9:30 had a better, bigger club than us," says Cellar Door's Dave Williams. "The Bayou outlived its usefulness to us. I'm sorry to see it go, but only for the history."
According to John Boyle, a club bearing the Bayou name could reappear at a new location in the next few years, or "it might never reopen again," he says. "It's a great name and we want to let it sit for a while." He's about to temporarily close the Ballroom and has just purchased Club Alcatraz, the former Roxy club at 18th and Connecticut. After expansion and remodeling, both will reopen in early February. Club Alcatraz will be renamed the Garage, with live music booking policies similar to the Bayou and the original Cellar Door. And, says Boyle, he's scouting locations in the District for a new 1,000-to-1,500 capacity club that will eventually bear another fabled name -- Cellar Door. CAPTION: Aimee Brillhart, left, and Karen Hwang, both of Arlington, came to the Bayou last night for one last look. ec CAPTION: The Irish supergroup U2's American debut came at the Bayou. (Photo ran in an earlier edition) ec CAPTION: Patrons line up outside the Georgetown nightclub, which closes its doors for good tomorrow night. ec CAPTION: Dave Matthews, left, and Wild Bill Whelan were two of the many acts that have played at the Bayou, which filled with loyal fans last night. ec