The party scene surrounding this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner is looking about as exciting as an afternoon of meetings.
Media companies last year pulled the plug on various glittery parties, not liking the optics of hobnobbing with an administration that’s openly hostile to them. Hollywood celebrities, who for years had flocked to the massive black-tie confab of journalists and assorted Washington types, are expected to stay away, just as they did last year.
One exception to the boldfacer-free (and fun-free?) zone just might be the annual White House Correspondents’ Jam, a concert and party thrown the night before the big April 28 dinner by Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who founded the annual event and sponsors it with his environmental news organization, Mother Nature Network. Leavell usually enlists a bona fide celebrity band to headline, then rounds out the lineup with bands whose members include moonlighting journalists.
This year, the main act is the Bacon Brothers, made up of actor Kevin Bacon and his brother, musician Michael Bacon. The pair, who occasionally visit Washington for gigs at the Birchmere or to see their sister, local real estate developer Elinor Bacon, say they’re looking forward to sharing the stage with the Fourth Estate.
“Press people are the worst musicians — just like actors,” joked Michael Bacon, who declares himself to be a “news junkie.”
And Kevin Bacon, whose IMDb listing is lengthy (the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon exists for a reason), empathizes with folks who have day jobs in addition to bands. “There will be months that go by, and my guitar is sitting there — I literally feel like it’s mocking me,” he said. But when inspiration hits, finding the time to write songs isn’t an issue. “If a song is coming for you, you’ll find the time — I’ll stay up late or get up early,” he said. “It’s finding time to record and tour that’s difficult.”
Joining the professionals will be NBC anchor Lester Holt, performing with his band, the Rough Cuts; CNBC’s senior economics reporter Steve Liesman with his jam band, the Mooncussers (which also features Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary); Wall Street Journal senior editor Michael Siconolfi and the Six Stars; and Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles with Suspicious Package.
John Roberts, the chief White House correspondent for Fox News, is taking on the evening’s emcee duties.
Even among that crowd, one name jumps out — sober, silver-templed network anchor Holt, moderator of presidential debates, is a closet rocker? Does this mean he occasionally doesn’t wear a tie?
This is not Fake News, Holt informed us. He’s a self-taught bass player who started noodling on a guitar in junior high, and although he’d mostly played jazz, he switched genres when he joined some “Dateline” colleagues who wanted to form a band. “I’m embracing my inner rocker,” he said.
His band’s origin story has an unlikely and yet completely appropriate setting: It was at a “Dateline” holiday party a few years ago, when Holt and some of his colleagues planned to sing a few carols for the crowd. A quick rehearsal led to talk about who played what instruments, and before you can say “hidden camera investigation,” they’d made it official.
He describes their sound as hard to pin down, with a repertoire that includes covers of Bruno Mars, Adele and the Rolling Stones. They’ve played a few gigs and even tried to put one together in PyeongChang, where several bandmates were covering the Olympics (it didn’t happen because they couldn’t locate equipment). And here’s one way that a musical outfit made up of journos is different from your average band: The news always comes first, Holt said. “Every gig comes with a disclaimer that if there’s breaking news …” he said.
The Correspondents’ Jam, though, is their first road trip (which has prompted the bandmates to joke, Holt said, about how they want to paint their bus), and the thought of playing with Leavell — who usually sits in for a number — is a bit intimidating, he said. And in what seems to be a page from the playbook of politicians he’s covered, Holt engages in a little expectation-setting — after all, the night is about having fun. “We’re not selling ourselves for more than we are,” he said.