An attorney and an architect met at a bar. A decade later along a bustling strip of nightlife, they created Songbyrd, a music house and record cafe in Adams Morgan.
Neither Alisha Edmonson, the former architect, nor Joe Lapan, the lawyer, is a musician. But these owners have dreamed up a music lover’s paradise. No matter what genre you groove to, you can buy it, hear DJs play it, watch artists perform it, learn to spin it and even record it yourself in this multifaceted venue. Songbyrd (2477 18th St. NW) marked its first anniversary last month.
“The idea is that there’s a place that’s going to have a variety of interesting, unique, high-quality music experiences in a social environment,” Lapan says.
Lots of them.
Staple events include Shaolin Jazz’s monthly Can I Kick It? series of kung fu films accompanied by a live mix of hip-hop and soul by DJ 2-Tone Jones; a monthly live jazz night called The Preparation produced by members of CapitalBop; and DC Vinyl Headz’s twice monthly Bring Your Own Vinyl night, during which anyone can play records on Songbyrd’s turntables.
“These are people and groups that we really believe in, that we think create a really great music experience and community within D.C.,” says Edmonson. Beyond the offerings of regular event partners, she says, “[we] open our arms to all types of music.”
Songbyrd hosted listening parties for new albums by the rock band the Dead Weather and country artist Sturgill Simpson. The lower-level performance space has a 150-person capacity and frequently hosts live shows, such as local soul singer Tamara Wellons’s recent album release party.
Wellons discovered Songbyrd when her guitarist, Zach Cutler, celebrated his birthday with a jam session there in January. She chose the venue for her own event because it’s intimate and has space for people to dance, she says.
She returned before her show to see what it would be like for her audience, and because, says Wellons, the mother of 14-year-old Daniel Washington, “I thought it was just a cool spot to go to and take my son.”
There are layers of cool at Songbyrd, including visually. In the record cafe, an alcohol-free coffee shop, a Gibson guitar case serves as a coffee table, and bins hold vinyl albums for sale. In the adjacent restaurant and bar, menus are affixed inside folding album covers.
At the front of the cafe is a recording booth where patrons can make a three-minute 10-second record on a restored Voice-o-Graph machine — a relic from the 1940s. At the front window of the restaurant sits a DJ booth. Descend 14 concrete steps, walk through two sets of curtains and you’ll find the performance stage, where Songbyrd builds on its history.
Late jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, best known for popularizing Brazilian bossa nova in the United States, was a central figure at this address when it was the Showboat Lounge in the 1950s and ’60s. Lapan and Edmonson selected the name Songbyrd as a tribute to Showboat and to the artist who made it his musical home.
“Look at it like, ‘What is the soul or what is the intent of this space?’ ” says Lapan. “We were really excited to try to present and pay homage and recapitalize on that story.”