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A Musical Model CitizenBy Eric Brace
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 21, 1997; Page N15
SOMETIMES WHEN you watch Clarence Greenwood play, the strangest thing happens. The band brings it down real low, and Greenwood strums his hollow-body Epiphone guitar with his big right thumb. It glides back and forth across the six strings, keeping the beat, while his left hand holds a chord. Then, even though the band has cut out entirely, you can still feel the tune, the groove. Soon, the thumb isn't even hitting the strings, it's just rocking up and down, and you're hypnotized in the silence.
Seconds pass, then, BAM! The song kicks in, cooler than ever for having disappeared and then come back, as if the sound waves just flew out and circled the globe then found their way back through the ether to the stage.
At 28, Greenwood (who plays this Friday at State of the Union, 1357 U St. NW, 202/588-8926) is making some of the best music in the country. If Beck can be the cover boy for all the major music glossies, then Greenwood (a k a Citizen Cope, which is also what he calls his band) should be the centerfold. Not because of his looks (though he's got them too), but because of the road he's taking through the musical mess of millennial America. Using many of the same ingredients as Beck -- folk, rap, rock, soul -- Greenwood makes music that is emotionally enveloping, unlike the postmodern ironic distance given everything by that overrated L.A. wonder boy.
"If I get a chance to play in front of people, they're going to feel it," says Greenwood. It? "What I feel in my heart. They're going to get some of that." He speaks in a really slow, low voice. It's a raspy drawl that carries with it all of the places he's lived: Memphis, Mississippi, Texas, D.C., the same places that color his music.
With his band (drummer Carlo Salvo, bassist Daniel Parker, keyboard player Alex Nyan), Greenwood takes chances that don't always win him fans. "I've been booed off stage before. Man, that's sad," he says. "But then again I've been in a real loud room and played real quiet, and made the whole place turn to see what was up. You could hear a pin drop."
With songs based mostly on a groove or two, Greenwood knows that it's the dynamics of the arrangements that will make people listen, and maybe take note of the words. "My skill's in the lyrics," he says. "For the rest, I just make sure the music goes where the song is," he says with a shrug. "I think a lot of the power of music is in silence, in being able to listen. Most people don't want to listen, they want to talk, but if you're in a rush, or just trying to hang with your friends, you might not dig what I'm doing."
A few years back a tape of Greenwood's caught local musician Michael Ivey's ear soon after Ivey had gotten Basehead up and running. Greenwood was mining some of the same quiet hip-hop, and ended up touring with Basehead and co-producing its third album, "Faith." Money got in the way of that friendship, and Greenwood blames Basehead's label, Imago, for "putting everyone in a bad situation."
So for now, even though a couple of labels he won't name have made Greenwood substantial offers, he's happy to wait until the right thing comes along. "I'm not going to take a deal just to say I have a deal. I know I got something good, something different going on, and I know it's better than what they've got. I put my heart into it, you know? I'm gonna find someone who'll get behind the music all the way, you know?" To hear a free Sound Bite from Clarence Greenwood, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8128. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
SMOKIN': PART ONE
Nothing like a drive to Centreville to give you the blues in a big way.
Even at 10 p.m. last Sunday, Route 66 heading west was loaded with traffic. Exit 53 dumped me out into a retail hell: Centreville Shopping Center, Centreville Square Shopping Center, Centrewood Plaza, Newgate Shopping Center. It took several turns through badly laid out parking lots before I saw the big neon saxophone that told me I'd found what I was looking for: Smokehouse Blue (6001 Centreville Crest Lane, 703/222-8707).
Since nothing cures the blues (even the suburban blues) like listening to the blues, I was grateful to stumble into the Smokehouse, a shiny new joint that's been open less than two weeks, where blues bands play seven nights a week. Live music every night is rare these days, so you wonder how long they can keep it going. "When I say live blues every night, I mean every night," asserts owner/creator/head carpenter Bill Beckwith.
And for more good news, there's no cover charge to hear regulars on the area blues circuit. (This week's offerings: Friday: Charlie Sayles & Memphis Gold. Saturday: Whop Frazier. Sunday: Duffy Kane. Monday: the Linwood Taylor Band. Tuesday: Big Jack Johnson. Wednesday: The Chris Polk Band. Thursday: Whop Frazier.) Beckwith says the cover policy may change. He might start charging a nominal amount after 10 p.m. or on weekends to help pay the bands.
"I'd like to get someone big like Jimmy Thackery, and do a dinner and show combination, with reservations," he says. Then he blurts out his dream: "By this time next year, I want to get B.B. King in here, playing Lucille." Hey, as Clinton said, no one ever did anything big by thinking small.
Beckwith, who turned 35 this week, dreamed up Smokehouse Blue after more than 20 years in the restaurant business. From washing dishes at age 14 in a Florida Red Lobster to general managing Old Glory in Georgetown, Beckwith learned the biz from top to bottom. And like many longtime restaurateurs, he wanted his own place. "I live just a couple of blocks away from where the Smokehouse is now," says Beckwith, "and I saw the building sitting there empty for nearly a year, so I started working the place out in my head."
In September, Beckwith had a lease to the free-standing octagonal building that once held a Chesapeake Bay Seafood House. He designed it with three things in mind: the blues, barbecue and steaks. The stage and sound system are nicely integrated into the whole, but don't overwhelm it. You can see and hear the band from every angle of the big room, which can legally hold 380 people. For the barbecue, there are two large smokers stuffed with beef brisket, chicken, sausage, beef and pork ribs. The steaks are cut on premises daily (there's only an ice cream freezer, all the meats are fresh), and for the hands-on crowd, you can grill your own.
A 12-foot grill burns hot until after midnight, and customers can grab tongs and a steak (or kabobs or sausage or ribs) and indulge their inner caveman. A grill cook is on hand to advise and monitor, and help splash on just the right amount of Smokehouse Blue's custom barbecue sauce.
And how is the stuff? Excellent. Soft and smoky pork ribs were some of the best I've ever had, while the chicken and shrimp were obviously fresh. There's also duck, salmon and buffalo for folks bored by ribs, as well as soups and salads and some fine apple pie. "I figure some people will come for the blues and then taste the food and want to come back," says Beckwith, who is also counting on the dinner patrons to stay to hear the bands. With the kitchen and the music going full-tilt until 1 a.m. every night, it's a tempting combination for late-night folks.
While the place is a bit stark, with its simple plywood booths, tile floors, bare walls and some harsh sunken lighting, it'll develop its own charm as it ages. And the enormous square bar smack in the middle provides plenty of stools from which to watch the aging process.
SMOKIN': PART TWO
The phone number listed for the Grand Hyatt's new nightspot, Butlers -- the Cigar Bar, mentioned in this space two weeks ago, was wrong. The correct number is 202/637-4765.