It's 2:30 a.m. late Saturday night (or early Sunday, if you'd prefer), and Heroes & Friends has just taken the stage for one last set. It's a late one, but then, it always is at Chick Hall's Surf Club (4711 Kenilworth Ave., Bladensburg; 301/927-6310).
That's Chick Hall Jr. up there on guitar, his brother Chris Hall on bass, Randy Leith on another guitar and Nick Davis behind the drums. They're the house band, and they play every Friday and Saturday night (and, with a slightly different lineup, every Thursday). They've already ripped through nearly 50 songs with another 10 or 15 to go, and the joint's still packed. The tunes are familiar, danceable tunes from days gone by, mostly country and country-rock ("Six Days on the Road," "Jambalaya") but some R&B gets thrown into the mix ("Mustang Sally" and the like).
The regulars hit the dance floor with an eagerness you rarely see in a rock club. Their average age is probably the same as the average age of the band (around 50) and when I say "regular," I mean "regular."
"I'd say I know the names of about 75 percent of the people in here," says Chris Hall in between sets. Chris is also the manager of the club his dad, Chick Hall Sr., bought in 1955. "And those people are here every weekend." There are more than a hundred folks inside the box-shaped club of brick and cinderblock, sitting at tables or at the bar that separates the stage and dance floor side from the pool table side.
Waitresses bring out baskets of fried everything (shrimp, potatoes, onions, chicken, mozzarella) to whet your thirst ("Yes, please, several more long-neck Buds, if you don't mind.") As the band rips through song after song, my mouth is hanging open like a big dumb dog. I look around to see if other people are hearing what I'm hearing. Hard to tell. They move from the dance floor to their seats without clapping, just happy to have had a few nice minutes of shuffling around to "Sleepwalk" (you know, that old instrumental that just forces you into a slow-dance clutch.)
What I'm hearing, rather than the glory days of youth, is one of the best bands I've ever heard, fronted by one of the best guitar players I've ever seen. Chick Hall Jr. is up there with the greats. Danny Gatton. Albert Lee. Paul Burleson. Vince Gill. His Telecaster draws down magic from the ether, then his hands coax it from the strings and send it to his amplifier, showering us with glorious notes. I'm feeling very lucky to be there.
On the opposite side of the stage from Chick Jr. is Leith, who's a Telecaster master himself, and when one of them's soloing, the other is vamping smoothly, being nothing but supportive. The band is utterly fluid and potent, even on the most mundane tunes.
They're the reason to search out the Surf Club, not that the general ambience isn't enough. It is, in that it's such an anachronism. "Chick's is the last honky-tonk inside the Beltway," says Ruth Logsdon, of Ruthie & the Wranglers, who play there every Wednesday night (more on that later).
Chris Hall supplies the definition: "A honky-tonk to me is a place where no matter if you're a doctor, a lawyer, a construction worker, a plumber, you can come in here and feel comfortable. Everyone's equal. No one's asking questions about what you do or who you are. Everyone just comes here to have fun."
And they've been coming to Chick Hall's since 1955, when Chris's dad bought the Surf Club, a hopping spot with an unexplained name that stood at 4201 Bladensburg Rd. in Colmar Manor. Chick Sr. was a renowned guitarist himself who'd played in swing bands during WWII and had formed his own band when he settled in this area after the war. "His band, the Chick Hall Trio, had played at the club about a year before he bought it," Chris says. "It had been a jazz club, but had changed to country music around that time. He wasn't the kind of guy who liked to travel around for his music, so he just bought it and made it his place to play."
Chris, who's 47, remembers Colmar Manor and the neighboring Cottage City area as the "hot party spots" back in the '50s. "Right at the District line there was the Surf Club, the Crossroads, Rusty Cabins, which turned into Burt Motley's, the Dixie Pig, Angelo's, the Wheel, Basin Street. Most of them had music seven nights a week. There was always a party going on." He remembers many country greats coming through his dad's club: "Oh, sure, most of the big names at the time would come through and play. Jim Reeves, Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline. I was very small, but I remember Jim Reeves and Patsy."
In 1975, a developer came around and made a good offer on the Surf Club, so Chick Sr. sold it and built another one just up the road. That's the one that's here today, at the corner of Kenilworth Avenue and Crittendon Street. "We had a good run of about eight years here where we'd get 250, 300 people in here on weekend nights, but demographics change, drinking laws change," Chris says with a shrug. His dad retired in 1991, and Chris retired from his electrician job to become the club's full-time manager.
"We're still open seven nights, and I'd like for things to get big enough that we could go back to having music seven nights a week," Chris says.
"I love's Chick's so much," says Ruth Logsdon, "I used to go in all the time to hear the band, and I started hammering them to let the Wranglers play there. They kept saying they don't have outside bands, but I guess I bugged them one too many times and they gave us the gig on Wednesdays." Starting about two months ago Ruthie & the Wranglers began their weekly performances at Chick's, and they've become so taken with it that this Wednesday, they're bringing in a big sound board and recording a live CD.
"This band has become such a great live band, we just decided we really wanted to capture it, this moment in time," she says. "Plus, it'll make a great CD title: `Ruthie & the Wranglers, Live at Chick Hall's Surf Club.' How can you beat that?" The band is guitarist Phil Mathieu (who's also in the classical combo the Washington Guitar Quintet), drummer Joel App and bassist Mark Noone (also Logsdon's husband). Noone, familiar to local club rats as the frontman for the Slickee Boys, the Wanktones and Out Behind the Barn, matches his wife's lead singing with fine country harmonies.
"We have to be careful about the C word," Logsdon says. "People don't really understand country music these days, so we say we play `rockin' American roots music.' That seems to cover our bases, though we still have to explain that, too." Logsdon is talking to me from a pay phone in Roanoke, on the way to Nashville, where the band always gets a good response. But despite very good reviews for the band's first two records ("Wrangler City" and "Life's Savings"), no big company has stepped up to the plate to sign this local band to a big contract.
"I want a million people to come see us live, and a million people to buy the records," Logsdon says. "Unfortunately, it's hard to do that when you're doing it all yourself. It would be nice to have a record company behind you, getting you on the radio and into every store."
She says she calls her band a bunch of urban hillbillies, and going by that description alone, Ruthie & the Wranglers and Chick Hall's Surf Club are a perfect match.
CAPTION: Ruthie & the Wranglers get 'em up and dancing at Chick Hall's Surf Club.