Local music? I love the stuff. I’ve spent the past 20 years listening — ravenously, rapturously — to music made by my neighbors, and it keeps getting better. Go-go, bluegrass, jazz, rap, hardcore punk, doom metal, all of it. So why do those bumper stickers urging us to “SUPPORT LOCAL MUSIC” still make me gag?
I think it’s because the word “local” feels parochial, as if the musicians who live nearby have little chance of being heard elsewhere, and therefore need our “support.” It feels like an insult to local musicians and to local listeners. Either way, it’s become a moot point. With the Internet allowing any artist on God’s green earth to send their recordings around the planet in an instant, every musician on the digital plane suddenly needs our support.
But things work differently in our immediate physical reality. Listening to local music isn’t an act of charity. It’s a long-term enrichment project.
Even if local artists spend most of their lives on the road, they still probably perform on home turf more than a few times every year. For local listeners, that’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Catching a local musician in concert on a semiregular basis allows us to follow that musician’s struggles and developments. We can hear fresh ideas come into bloom. We can take note of old ideas being abandoned and swept away. Most important, we can measure all of that change against the change in our own individual lives. Music is always giving us chances to cultivate our empathy, and continuously engaging with the music being made in your community is among the most fulfilling ways to do it.
It works both ways, too. A crowd of familiar faces can help a musician feel comfortable enough to test-drive ideas, approaches, tunes. And when everyone in the room is taking a chance on something new, it starts to feel less like an exhibition and more like a collaboration.
Sarah Marie Hughes, a rising saxophonist who performs jazz and improvised music regularly at Rhizome in Northwest Washington, explains it this way: “Communities of artists and audiences create culture together.” Which is to say, in a robust music scene, there are no spectators. Showing up night after night makes you a participant with a stake in what happens.
Sometimes the dialogue between artist and audience is direct. “At Rhizome specifically, I feel like I’m playing for an audience that’s well-listened,” Hughes says. “I’ve had lots of personal conversations with these people. . . . They do some deep listening and they help me to realize what’s grown in my playing, the things they’ve noticed changing. So their feedback educates me.”
Can things ever get too close for comfort? Sure. Venues that feel intimate one night can feel claustrophobic the next, and touring musicians tend to be hyper-aware of that line during homecoming performances.
“Personally, I’m a lot more nervous playing local shows than tour shows,” says Dave Lesser, singer-guitarist of BRNDA, an indie-rock quartet preparing to embark on a tour to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin this month. “Playing for your community is much more than just presenting your own art and expressing what you want to say. . . . You have to give people a reason to want to come back to see you after they’ve already seen you 20 times. So you have to make it more about them than about you. I think that might make you a better person, but maybe not a better artist.”
For Alfredo Mojica, years and years of repetition have helped erase those kinds of concerns. As the lead vocalist, timbale player and bandleader of the Alfredo Mojica Group, he has been performing salsa music at Bossa Bistro and Lounge in Adams Morgan every weekend for more than 15 years. On a recent Friday night, his crowd was as diverse and enthusiastic as Mojica has come to expect — die-hard locals and passing-through tourists, all wearing their dancing shoes, ready for the ritual.
“My God, man, the audience is always great,” Mojica says. “Sometimes, they’ll ask for a song we haven’t played in a long time, and we’ll do our best to make them feel at home. But you always have to put your own flavor into it, your own soul into it. That’s the most important thing: to make the music yours and please the crowd.”
That really is the most important thing. Local musicians have to find ways to make it work for everyone in the room — the newbies, the regulars, the faithful and themselves. In that sense, a local music performance isn’t just a model for community. It’s a manifestation of community — a place where everyone can be themselves, together.
This lively, long-running salsa troupe is closing in on two decades of packing the dance floor at Bossa Bistro and Lounge every Friday night, and as ever, the rhythms are as spirited as the vibe is intimate. “It’s close-knit,” promises René Ibañez, the group’s conga player, “like being in a living room.” Every Friday at Bossa Bistro & Lounge.
Does touring make a band tighter? Or does it cause things to unravel? This boisterous indie-rock outfit gives us an opportunity to listen and find out, having bookended its Southern tour with two hometown shows. (Bet on tighter.) March 4 at the Black Cat and March 29 at the Dew Drop Inn.
Hughes is becoming one of the more distinctive young voices in the local jazz scene, but the Baltimore saxophonist insists that she’s only ever trying to blend in with the sound of her collaborators. “You make peace with the different artists who create beside you,” she says. “Peace is a product of individuals, one by one, being at peace in themselves.” March 2 at Rhizome.
Those who have been fortunate enough to witness a wildstyle performance from this entirely unpredictable D.C. rapper, you know he’s telling the truth when he explains his showtime head space: “When I perform, I’ll be in my own world, no matter the environment.” March 6 at Comet Ping Pong.
This dynamite bluegrass quintet has an astonishing secret: They don’t rehearse. Which means anytime you catch them onstage, they’re figuring everything out in real time, often at breakneck speeds. March 9 at the D.C. Bluegrass Fest at the Sheraton Tysons Hotel in Tysons Corner; March 29 at Mr. Henry’s; and April 11 at the Pearl Street Warehouse.
Under the nom-du-punk of Sneaks, Silver Spring native Eva Moolchan has been forging a style of music that seems to generate clarity and mystery in equal measure. Hearing her perform it live is probably the best way to get closer to both. March 3 at Comet Ping Pong.