Most of the seats in the rear sections of the Lincoln Theatre remained empty during the Backyard Band's 15th anniversary celebration Saturday night, but that wasn't because the concert was sparsely attended. Many in the audience wanted to be up close, and hundreds of fans were wedged in front of the stage.
It was their celebration, too.
The Backyard Band plays go-go, the home-grown funk music style that developed in the District during the mid-'70s and remains one of the city's most vibrant music cultures. The band got its start practicing on tin cans and plastic buckets in the back yards of the 1300 block of Parkwood Place NW. Now it is a top go-go act. And because the music is chronically undervalued and misunderstood outside the go-go community, its audience dogged by a bad reputation, the members of the Backyard Band figured they might as well honor themselves.
Hence this formal event at the storied Lincoln Theatre, marked by pricier-than-usual tickets--$25--and a quartet of roving searchlights that emanated from a truck parked across the street. The festively attired audience sipped champagne and Hennessey. Band members in matching silk shirts presented and received citations ranging from the Marion Barry Humanitarian Award for Community Service (to front man Ralph "Genghis" Glover) to the Mother of the Year Award (to Genghis's mom, Veronica Glover).
"The city's not respecting us. The music industry's not respecting us. So we got to do this type of affair ourselves," said Backyard manager Terrance Cooper, better known as "Coop" in go-go circles. "This is the beginning of a new era. We're proving that we are a strong music industry."
The Backyard Band plays four shows a week. Three are weekly go-gos, recurring gigs at specific locations, usually for an audience of regulars: Every Wednesday night, they play the Icebox, a club on Adams Place NE. Thursdays, they perform at Deno's, on Bladensburg Road NE. Fridays they're at the Capital City Pavilion on Georgia Avenue NW. On Saturday nights, they move around. Altogether, Backyard plays for enough fans each week to overflow the Kennedy Center Concert Hall--drawing power rare for local pop acts outside the go-go scene.
"They're number one, the only band I listen to," said Krystina Bryant, dressed in glistening electric-blue pants and a black halter top. Bryant, 18, lives in Cheverly and has been partying at Backyard shows since she was 14. "They've got the sound and the beats. And they take other material, like hip-hop, and put it into a go-go type of thing."
Many women wore tiny sparkly dresses, and some wore the glitter just on their skin. The males seemed less inclined to dress for the occasion. "I was surprised that Backyard was having an anniversary show here, because they're a band for regular people, not the kind who dress up," said Dante Jones, 22, a graphic designer who lives in Upper Marlboro. He was wearing a DKNY T-shirt, Versace jeans and black leather shoes. "I dressed up a little," he said, and shrugged his shoulders.
His friend Darrell McKinley, 35, was one of the few in the audience old enough to remember when go-go's thumping funk was heard regularly in the city's historic theaters. "When go-go first started, those were the venues that were used--the Atlas, the Howard, the Colony," he said. But no matter where go-go is played, it has the same effect. "There's something about the music," he said. "Go-go fans, we all have a special bond with each other."
Backstage, a comedian known as Nutman wandered around proclaiming that the evening was "one of the greatest events ever," while band members explained why the night was so important.
"We've been through struggles. I've been through everything--getting shot, breathing again, keeping it real," said the lanky, much-beloved Glover. "Tonight means everything to me--it's my life."
In October 1997, Glover was shot onstage while the band was performing at the Del Rio nightclub in Langley Park. The previous February, the group had suffered another setback when a man who'd been ejected from a Backyard show at the Ibex club on Georgia Avenue fatally shot D.C. police officer Brian T. Gibson. The Ibex was permanently closed after that incident, perhaps the bleakest moment in go-go's history.
"We're trying to change people's view of go-go music, which at times is negativity," keyboard player "Whitehead" Mike said Saturday night. "The people that know know it's a positive thing. That's why they come out in such numbers."
"There's a lot of negativity about go-go, people fighting, the cussing, but fights are gonna happen everywhere you go," said bassist Leroy "Unk" Coward. "It's all what you make of it. But we pray before every show. And we've been fortunate."
Coward is known as "Unk" because, at 32, he's the oldest member of Backyard. "I grew up in Washington, D.C., listening to go-go, which is kind of like saying the same thing twice," he said. Like most of the band members, Unk works a day job--he's an engineer for the Smithsonian Institution. "It's hard, and I've been doing it for nine years now. Four days a week I get home at 3 in the morning, then I have to get up at 5 to go to work. But I have a good supervisor. He knows what I do at night, so he's kind of lenient.
"This is a big event for us all," Coward said. "We're showing the people that we grew up with and our fans that we appreciate everything they do for us by coming out to see us."
After all the awards--and a terrific set by another go-go band, the Legends--Backyard opened with Tony! Toni! Tone's "Anniversary," while Glover walked through the audience, passing out long-stemmed red roses to the women.
Then the band slipped into go-go's signature percussion rhythms, one thundering layer on top of another, and worked its way through 15 years of party chants. As they exhorted the audience to "shake what your mama gave you," people did just that. They danced in front of their seats, on their seats and up and down the aisles. On the way to the restroom. In the restroom. On the way back from the restroom.
Traditionally, go-go is characterized by minimal separation between audience and performer, and Saturday night was no exception. It wasn't long before the stage was crowded with fans, and several of the band members videotaped one another and the audience.
Miyesha Perry, 25, kept her distance from the stage, carefully protecting her perfect red rose. "I'm gonna put it in water, then I'm gonna save it," she said.
Just after 2:15 a.m., the theater's gold curtain fell, and the audience streamed outside. They were met by nearly a dozen police cruisers whose flares and flashing lights effectively closed four blocks of U Street. And as people lingered, extending the evening just a little longer, saying goodbyes and collecting phone numbers, they were interrupted by an official-sounding voice that boomed from an unseen loudspeaker. "The concert is over. Go home! Go home!" And they obliged, leaving trails of crushed rose petals behind.
CAPTION: The Backyard Band parties hearty Saturday night at the Lincoln Theatre.
CAPTION: Great shakes: A go-go institution, the Backyard Band celebrated its 15th anniversary in unaccustomed style at the Lincoln Theatre.