"SIR" WALTER Robinson plays his right-handed guitar upside down -- just like his idol, Jimi Hendrix. A Native American dream catcher hangs from his Stratocaster's neck. He sings in the same husky tenor and wears a black bolero hat pulled low over his eyes.
It's no surprise that every time I've visited Pharaoh's Rock N' Blues Bar & Grill (1817 Columbia Rd. NW; 202-232-6009), where Robinson is an owner and leader of the house band, I've heard the Walter Robinson Band roar through a few Hendrix tunes, vamping on "Changes" or stretching out the epic "All Along the Watchtower."
Not that I'm complaining: Robinson is an excellent guitar player, who moves seamlessly from wailing psychedelic jams to nimble, soulful blues riffs and plays with passion, whether he's doing justice to Cream's "Crossroads," a funky version of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" or B.B. King-style standards such as "Goin' to Chicago."
Robinson has brought his blues-drenched classic rock and R&B to a number of local venues over the years: a regular gig at Chick Hall's Surf Club in Bladensburg, the D.C. Blues Festival, a spot hosting the open mike at the 94th Aerosquadron in College Park. Robinson and his band even recorded an album called "Haze of Purple" (no points for subtlety there), but he wasn't playing out as often as he liked. "We were trying to get him gigs, and it was really difficult," says his partner, Pam Kinser. "So we just said, 'Let's open our own place.' " Pharaoh's, which the couple took over just before Christmas and opened in February, is basically everything they dreamed of: a stage where Robinson and his band can perform on Fridays and Saturdays, a bar with a comfortable, unpretentious vibe where the ghosts of classic rock hang heavy in the air.
Large tapestries depicting Jim Morrison and Jerry Garcia hang alongside posters of Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson and Texas legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. One wall contains reproductions of classic albums by Grand Funk Railroad, Jeff Beck and Ten Years After, as well as Egyptian-style art, which reflects Robinson's 15-year study of Egyptology. Some of the photos have come straight from the centerfold of Guitar World magazine and are just nailed to the wall. It's all reminiscent of a college dorm, which is fine with Robinson. "I had a lot of fun in my college dorm!" he laughs.
It's yet another reason why I've enjoyed spending time at Pharaoh's: Robinson and Kinser are friendly folks who didn't try to create yet another stylish lounge or scope out the latest trends before unveiling the club. They simply created a bar where, if they weren't running it, they'd like to hang out.
Some nights, college students wander in, make requests for Grateful Dead songs and boogie on the small dance floor. Other weekends find Pharaoh's is packed with music lovers a generation older, who jitterbug when the mood strikes. Pharaoh's doesn't feel like Adams Morgan at all, though you're just steps from the buzzing, rowdy strip. "People of all ages love all types of music," Robinson says simply, adding that the neighborhood's foot traffic has drawn in visitors from as far afield as Milwaukee and the Netherlands. "We get lots of out-of-towners," Kinser says, "so we send them back home with CDs."
A native of Goldsboro, N.C., Robinson credits his musical development to his childhood as an Air Force brat. "We lived in Turkey, Spain -- all over," he says. "We didn't have TV in those countries, so we listened to the radio. Blues, rock, jazz -- we got exposed to a lot of music, a lot of rock."
When the family returned from Europe in the mid '60s, settling in Syracuse, N.Y., Robinson developed a love of R&B. "James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone -- and we got into that really heavily." Eventually, he discovered Jimi Hendrix, Cream and the Allman Brothers.
Robinson says he came from a musical family, but he didn't get serious about the guitar until his early twenties. ("That was about 25 years ago," Kinser helpfully adds.) The highlight of his career, Robinson says, came in the early '80s, when he was invited to jam and rehearse with legendary guitarist Gregg Allman and his band.
Over time, though, Robinson kept coming back to one particular influence. "Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton -- I love 'em all, but Hendrix just seems to come out. People see you pick [a guitar] up left-handed and they yell, 'Hendrix!' " But, he says, he also likes sticking more obscure tunes on his trio's set lists. "Gary Moore, Herbie Hancock's 'Chameleon' . . . there's a lot of young ones who've never heard [Freddie King's] 'I'm Tore Down' or [Santana's] 'Evil Ways.' "
Pharaoh's offers a jam session on Thursdays, but the pace is slower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when there's no live music. Up a half-flight of stairs is a small, low-ceiling lounge with more seats and tables littered with checkers, Connect Four, Trivial Pursuit and other board games. (If Robinson isn't on stage, you may find him playing backgammon with Kinser.) If it's not too crowded, the staff may put a classic James Brown or Allman Brothers DVD on the flat-screen televisions around the bar and turn up the sound. Drinks are reasonably priced, and the specials are as good as you'll find in the neighborhood: Saturday night, for example, includes $2 domestic beers for women and $2.50 Pabst Blue Ribbons for men all night.
In coming months, Robinson says, he'd like to start booking more bands and maybe take the occasional weekend off -- not because he's tired, but because he remembers what it was like before he had a guaranteed gig. "It's hard if you don't have connections or you're not in the inner circle," he says. "If you're practicing and you don't have anywhere to go and show your talent, it's frustrating. I was one of those guys sitting at home on a Friday night, going, 'Why didn't they call me?' I guess you got to do it yourself in the world today."
ASYLUM GOES LIVE
Pharaoh's isn't the only bar bringing the rock to Adams Morgan. Asylum (2471 18th St. NW; 202-319-9353) offered a few punk and alternative concerts in late August as part of the bar's 14th anniversary celebrations but really put itself back on the map with the unauthorized "Sanity Side Stage" at Adams Morgan Day earlier this month. Asylum staff had installed a large paneled window that can be drawn up like a garage door, and during the annual community festival, they pulled up the glass and punk bands began to play, drowning out the blues and Latin music coming from the "official" stages.
"We were told not to do it and that we'd be shut down if we did, so I did it, just to be shut down," says owner John Andrade.
Hey, who said there was such a thing as bad publicity?
Live music has been a long time coming for Asylum. The bar offered concerts nine years ago, when it was in the U Street corridor, but Andrade says the Adams Morgan space "was just too small" to host shows.
He hoped to try again when Asylum expanded to two levels last year, "but we couldn't cover everything because of permitting with the city," Andrade says. "And we went over budget [on construction]. So we said, 'Let's just get [the bar] open.' "
In the last four months, though, Asylum's staff has managed to make all the upgrades, moving the upstairs bathrooms, relocating the main staircase from the front window to the side of the room and shoring up the floor. Now bands take over the main floor most Fridays and Saturdays, as well as occasional Thursdays.
The music has been what you'd expect from a bar decorated with skulls, swords and motorcycle paraphernalia. "We've had hardcore punk, we've had hip-hop. The weekend stuff, we're mainstreaming a bit," Andrade admits. "Saturdays, it's a little more friendly to the masses. It's not just hardcore and punk, though we want to keep our roots in that." Booking is in the capable hands of longtime bartender Damon "Boo" Dixon, so I'm not worried about Asylum selling out anytime soon. No matter what, he tells me, "the music has to rock in one way, shape or form, whether it's punk or whether it's hip-hop."
This Saturday's featured act is Sons of Disobedience, which features members of the defunct Dischord Records band Branch Manager and local ska group Eastern Standard Time. Andrade's particularly looking forward to a reunion of '90s punk band Chuckie Sluggo on Oct. 30. "It's my birthday, and I'm really excited about that one," he says. (Local music fans may remember Chuckie Sluggo's David Byers, who played in a number of bands, including Human Rights with Bad Brains singer HR.) With bands comes the institution of a $5 cover charge, which some customers haven't been happy with. At first, access to the basement-level bar was free, but Andrade says they'll begin to phase in a $5 cover for the entire bar during concerts. As a compromise, Andrade says, "everyone who pays the cover gets a free shooter at the bar, and we've been making some pretty good ones." (He's not kidding about that.)
While live music is a welcome return, Andrade says the reconfigured space is allowing them to expand the rest of their calendar. Belly dance performances are on the last Sunday of the month, and coming weeks herald the return of indoor bike races, popular with Asylum's bike messenger and cyclist contingent.
For this contest, bikes are mounted on wind trainers, which are stands that allow cyclists to practice riding against resistance without the wheels touching the floor, and computers monitor each rider's speed and distance traveled. Competitors race in stages of 100, 500 and 1,000 meters, with the quickest times in each distance moving to the next round. "The next one's going to be in October," Andrade promises. Somewhere down the pipeline is live-band karaoke, which allows you choose a song and sing with musicians instead of a DJ.
"Amateur female applesauce wrestling" was part of Asylum's anniversary, and it was exactly what it sounds like: women in bathing suits sloshing around in an inflatable pool filled with applesauce ("Jell-O's not vegan," so it conflicts with the bar's vegan-friendly menu Andrade explained at the time) while a predominantly male crowd hooted and hollered. "At Thanksgiving, we'll do wrestling again, but with mashed potatoes and cranberry instead of applesauce," Andrade says. "I'd like to do it again for Valentine's Day, but I'm not sure with what."