"I'VE ALWAYS WANTED to follow in the tradition of a band like Earth, Wind and Fire, one of the greatest bands ever, and make good, sustaining music that can be played years from now. And Stevie Wonder and that live, beautiful big-band sound in an R&B setting is something that I took to."
Michael Thompson, one of the vocalists for the Lissen Band, is sitting upstairs at Ortanique (730 11th St. NW; 202-393-0975) before his group's new Thursday night gig, ticking off his influences: Donny Hathaway, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder. He smiles. "Definitely the old soul guys."
You can hear touches of Hathaway and Marvin Gaye in Thompson's smooth delivery, to be sure, but such an admission can be surprising when it's coming from the musical director of one of the hottest go-go bands on the scene today.
Go-go, Washington's indigenous dance music, is a homegrown mix of funk and hip-hop grooves with sing-song chants and layers of brass and bubbling percussion -- mainly congas and cowbells -- designed to keep the crowd moving. For more than 25 years, it has been the soundtrack to the city, although not all go-go is cut from the same cloth.
"What we play, for better or for worse, is labeled adult go-go," Thompson admits. The style has other names, including go-go soul or pocket jazz, but the common thread is an emphasis on tight musicianship and funky, soulful grooves, instead of the aggressive, hip-hop-influenced beats and bravado that mark many of the new-school go-go acts. Some ads and promotions tout Lissen as go-go for a "grown and sexy" audience. "The music that we play is the music we feel most comfortable with -- the Marvin Gaye, the Earth, Wind and Fire, the Gap Band," Thompson says. "We definitely play an older style of music, more R&B with an old soul delivery."
But the 13 members of the Lissen Band -- including five vocalists, a brass section that features veterans of the H.D. Woodson and Eastern high school marching bands, and two percussionists -- take the music of their idols and skillfully salt it with go-go touches. They throw percolating congas into "Georgy Porgy," a Toto song remade by Eric Benet, or add thumping drums and call-and-response vocals to an upbeat rendition of Wonder's "Superstition." Lissen doesn't shy away from modern covers when the mood strikes, tackling Erykah Badu, R. Kelly or even a punchy version of Jay-Z's "Heart of the City."
"All of us have very heavy backgrounds in go-go -- this isn't a fluffed-up or softer version of it," Thompson says, a bit defiantly. "We play go-go the way it was meant to be played by [go-go godfather] Chuck Brown. . . . Our band is built in the way of the older Experience Unlimited or Rare Essence bands, where they had a horns and a big front line with singers. Every base is covered, whether it's old-school, pocket jazz, whatever."
What the crowd hears really depends on where they see the band. Midweek concerts, for example, find a "more relaxed, dressed-up type of an atmosphere," Thompson says. "That's where we do a lot of our R&B, our power ballads, the old-school, a lot of Stevie Wonder," all performed with panache. Weekend shows are slightly different -- the night begins with quiet-storm R&B and builds through the up-tempo '70s numbers, adding more and livelier percussion, until the band is absolutely cranking on go-go-flavored hip-hop covers, including the Terror Squad's "Lean Back" and 50 Cent's "In Da Club."
"It really makes for a great experience, because each night you get a different shade of Lissen," Thompson says. "A person that comes to see us a lot won't get to hear the same thing every night."
That would take a lot of stamina -- Lissen keeps up a schedule that would drain lesser groups. Mondays find the band at the new Xcalibur Restaurant & Lounge (2519 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-223-3135) in Foggy Bottom; Wednesdays are reserved for "ladies night" at the Icon (2106 Crain Hwy., Waldorf; 301-843-9964), one of a growing number of clubs catering to African Americans in Charles County; and Thursdays bring Lissen to Ortanique, an attractive Caribbean restaurant with excellent tropical cocktails and a great sound system.
Younger crowds turn out Fridays at Kili's Kafe (2009 Eighth St. NW; 202-232-1562), a stylish supper-club-style spot near Howard University that was formerly known as 2:K:9, and Saturdays at the sprawling Club Amazon (13501 Baltimore Ave., Laurel; 301-210-3466). Beware: Cover charges can become astronomical for the latter shows. Admission to last week's show at Kili's, for example, was $30 at the door if you arrived about midnight -- about 20 minutes before the band went on. But you're in luck this Saturday, as admission at Club Amazon will be free until midnight.
Earlier this month, the three-year-old Lissen Band recorded a live album at Zanzibar on the Waterfront. It is expected to contain a mix of covers and the band's original compositions; songs such as "Sunshine" and "Your Love Is So Good" have been steadily working their way into set lists over the last few months. "Our art form has been based on cover tunes, for the most part, but . . . we have to be able to stand on our own feet and create our own original music," Thompson says. "We definitely have the musicians and the talent to do it."
A bit of luck helps, too. Over the years, the founders of Lissen have lost friends and bandmates to drugs and violence. In August, Thompson was critically injured in a car crash and only returned to the Lissen lineup earlier this month. But he's pushing ahead with his vision. "I like to think of Lissen as a different animal in this whole framework of go-go," he says. "We definitely play go-go. But I'd like to think of us in the way that Earth, Wind and Fire was looked at: maybe not just an R&B band, maybe not just a funk band, but a very good band that could play a little bit of everything."
THE END IS NEAR
One of the great things about the Washington nightlife scene is that it's always changing. A number of bars and clubs opened in recent months, from neighborhood hangouts to sleek lounges, but some less pleasant changes loom on the horizon.
Revitalization plans for Southeast Washington will bring striking changes to the neighborhood. The D.C. government revealed that the plans for a new baseball stadium would require displacing a number of gay nightspots along O Street near the Navy Yard, including the cabaret Ziegfeld's, home to weekly shows by the talented drag performer Ella Fitzgerald.
And Potomac Investment Properties, which owns the site occupied by Nation (1015 Half St. SE; 202-554-1500), filed plans with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that would allow it to raze the nightclub and erect a 10-story office building in its place.
A popular venue for punk, hip-hop and heavy metal concerts, as well as the weekly Cubik and Velvet Nation DJ dance parties, Nation's future has been a subject of speculation for several years. But Steven Gewirz, principal with Potomac Investment Properties, says the $20 million proposal doesn't point to Nation's imminent closure. Instead, the plan -- which has been reviewed by the DCRA, but still requires some corrections -- allows the company to keep its options open. "There's no timetable for going ahead" with construction, Gewirz says. "We wouldn't go spec on a building without a tenant."
How soon could that be? A year? Three years? Says Gewirz: "Who knows? I have no way of knowing."
Primacy Cos., which is the company that owns and operates Nation, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Two local institutions are under the gun, however, and will shut their doors this weekend. The homey little Luna Park Grille (5866 Washington Blvd. Arlington; 703-237-5862), known for its live music and barbecued ribs, closes Saturday night after 19 years in Arlington -- long before the area became a happening night life destination.
Offering a monthly showcase for up-and-coming bands, Luna Park welcomed local blues, rock and country bands for free shows Thursday through Saturday and had a loyal group of regulars who stopped by for fellowship and cold beers.
Earlier this month, owner Eric Ploeg agreed to sell his bar to Ross Underwood, the owner of the neighboring pizza-and-beer joint Lost Dog Cafe. "We're not leaving because we have to," Ploeg says. "I'm moving to Easton, Maryland, I have a new son, so I'm starting over again, and I'm not going to be in the bar business. It's been a wonderful run. It's been almost 19 years, but I haven't had the enthusiasm that I needed over the last couple of years."
Saturday night's farewell features the local band Laughing Man -- "the first band to officially play here," Ploeg says. "It's going to be really, really crazy that night. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm also a little bit apprehensive."
Some Luna Park regulars are a bit apprehensive. After all, the Lost Dog has a reputation for being a nonsmoking, family-friendly restaurant that enforces a strict limit of three beers per customer. At the moment, Underwood says, plans for the Luna Park space are "still up in the air. We're taking it down on the first of November. We're going to do some remodeling. We haven't decided if we're going to have bands or what." But, he says, rumors that Luna Park is going to be become a wine bar are not true. "There's going to be more wine on the menu," Underwood says. "But it's not going to be a wine bar."
If all goes well, Luna Park's regulars should be able to see for themselves on Dec. 1.
Also closing on Saturday is the art gallery Signal 66 (926 N St. NW; 202-607-3228). Known for its edgy exhibitions, Signal 66 also sponsored concerts by local and touring bands two or three times a month, says gallery partner Tom Dodd, focusing on indie rock and avant-garde electronic music. Events were never publicized widely, but Signal 66 provided a valuable spot for bands that needed a place to play -- and an arty crowd interested in the cutting edge. When Signal 66 opened six years ago, the large warehouse gallery -- run by artists, for artists -- was a pioneer in the Blagden Alley area. Now, with the addition of the Washington Convention Center, hotels and condominiums, "rent is getting too expensive," Dodd explains. "For six years though, it was a pretty good run."
Saturday night's farewell concert is billed as a Masquerade Ball, featuring performances by the local melodic power-pop band the Phobes, Murder Skit Corpses and DemiVolt & Humungo Ginormous. Admission is $5, and the party runs from 8 to 1. After that, Dodd says, "we're going to keep the [Web] site going and support some other venues we think are worthwhile. We probably won't do anything [else] right away."
Finally, the Gaithersburg branch of Buffalo Billiards (317 E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg; 301-977-7665) is going to become Olde Towne Firehouse Cue, although it will keep the old name "for a little bit longer," says former owner Geoff Dawson.
Dawson, a partner in the Bedrock Management group, says they made the decision to sell Buffalo Billiards after Montgomery County's smoking ban caused business to drop at least 20 percent in recent months. "The smoking ban was the final nail in our coffin," Dawson says. "We went down fighting at least. We tried bringing in live music," and, to get around one provision of the ban, began offering patrons "memberships" that allowed them to smoke at "members-only charity nights." The county, though, decided that wasn't in "the spirit of the law," Dawson says, and leveled fines.
Bedrock runs a number of the area's coolest bars and pool halls, including Buffalo Billiards, Atomic Billiards, Bedrock Billiards, Carpool and Mackey's Public House, and Dawson says his company isn't interested in going back to Montgomery County anytime soon. "They don't want entertainment venues," he says. "They want people to run family restaurants."
That's a good omen for new owners Un Lee and Maurice Aguilar, who plan to keep the pool tables but switch the business's focus to a restaurant serving barbecue items.