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D.C. Dissidents: Behind the Frontlines of Washington’s Anti-Inaugural Concerts

on January 18, 2017, 12:00pm

Photograph by Clarissa Villondo

The House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and now the Presidency. As we approach the rejected issue of Marvel’s What If? that is the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, the only place where the left might retain a power advantage in Washington, D.C. is its music scene.

The Trump team’s struggle to fill out its inauguration entertainment schedule has been well-documented by this site. As of this week, the headliners of Trump’s “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” include buttrock jobbers 3 Doors Down, hungover cowboy hat Toby Keith, and Lee Greenwood, the musical equivalent of the American flag-waving smiley in an email forward from your aunt.

Meanwhile, those in town for the weekend’s protests can catch Common and The National’s Planned Parenthood concert at the 9:30 Club or head to the sold-out Peace Ball at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to watch Solange and Esperanza Spalding take their rightful places among luminaries including poet Alice Walker, author Angela Davis, and activist Van Jones.

If you didn’t snag a ticket to either of those, don’t worry. While this weekend won’t see a repeat of Barack Obama’s jubilant (and culturally relevant) 2009 inaugural musical performances, there will be plenty of shows; from clubs around the city to a humble DIY house, the venues of Washington, D.C. will welcome musicians bent on reawakening the spirit of opposition in what promises to be one of the city’s most important music moments of the decade.

For some of the artists, inauguration weekend in D.C. is simply the quirk of a busy tour calendar. New York-based singer-songwriter Steve Gunn called his own Friday set with ex-Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo at H Street’s Rock and Roll Hotel “an intense coincidence,” one that changed the meaning of the pair’s entire tour.

Originally, we were really excited to do this tour for other reasons, because we’ve both been on the road with bands for a long time, and this was an opportunity for us to pare our gear down and play some different material,” Gunn said. “Once Trump got elected, we realized that we were going to be on the road during inauguration time, and we both feel that it’s important to be out there, to be speaking with people and playing music.

“I can’t say that I’m excited to be there, but I think it’s important. We’re not really sure about what kind of shitshow we’re going to step into, but we certainly want to be there in numbers,” Gunn added. Those numbers will include one Thurston Moore, who’ll join the night for a just-announced cameo with his old Sonic Youth bandmate.

Meanwhile, in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, around the same time Gunn and company take the stage, the guitar rock torchbearers of Public Access T.V. will be awaiting their own introductions at Songbyrd Music House.

“Let’s just say I’ve been watching a lot of footage from Chicago 1968 to get prepared,” guitarist Xan Aird told me. Although his own band’s brand of nervy new wave-inflected rock never looks too closely to political topics, he recognizes the opportunity to help fans extend their day of dissidence.

Public Access TV

“Everybody has a duty to push back in some way,” Aird said. “Maybe we’ll pied piper our crowd into some act of civil disobedience. We’ll play the show, then we’ll march to the White House and we’ll all take a shit.”

Of all the clubs in D.C., none has a busier inauguration schedule than the Black Cat. By the time Donald Trump takes the oath on Friday afternoon, the club on the now-trendy stretch of 14th St. NW will just be approaching the crescendo of a full week of anti-Trump coverage.

Cheekily entitled Can’t Grab This Pussy, the Black Cat’s counter-inaugural programming includes dystopian film screenings, a cabaret night, and benefits featuring guests including Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, Antibalas, and more.

One performer making an appearance is Katie Crutchfield, better known as Waxahatchee. She’ll join Dupuis on the bill at Thursday night’s “No Thanks: A Night of Anti-Fascist Sound Resistance in the Capital of the USA,” which benefits D.C.-area LGBTQ support center Casa Ruby and neighborhood leadership organization ONE D.C. In an email, Crutchfield said that despite a full schedule writing the follow-up to 2015’s well-received Ivy Tripp, she’s excited to lend her voice, and her ear, to the struggle.

“Watching the election results was like watching a national disaster or tragedy unfold,” Crutchfield said. “I’ve tried to talk it out with friends, like process together, but mostly I’ve tried to just listen to people whose lives are directly affected by this more than mine is. I’ve been trying to tune out the noise and just prepare to be as supportive and conscientious and diligent as I can be.”

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Photograph by David Brendan Hall

Behind the scenes at the Black Cat, while Crutchfield raises money, owner Dante Ferrando will spend the weekend keeping a close eye on the crowds. A veteran of numerous administration changes, Ferrando nonetheless senses that this year is different. He told me that, since the election, the bar’s been more subdued, with the mood closer to that of 9/11 or the days of the D.C. sniper.

“There’s this blanket of intense uncertainty over everything, which I just think, psychologically, is really stressful,” Ferrando said. “It’s had an emotional impact on people in this city and the rest of the country. It’s hard not to know what the hell’s going on.”

For him, that means both business concerns (“What are we going to deal with in terms of customer base? Are people still going to want to move to D.C.? Is growth going to happen, or is there going to be a pullback?”) as well as incoming policy changes. It also means dealing with elements of the right emboldened to cause trouble.

“There’s a lot of people tailing people and going to their work, and there’s a lot of lists circulating on the internet of music places that need to get shut down and house shows that need to be stopped,” Ferrando said. “There’s definitely a background here of an assault on culture, arts, and music that is unique to this time period and that I haven’t seen for a very long time.”

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If the Black Cat’s schedule is the busiest, then the schedule at Comet Ping Pong may be the most symbolic. The pizza parlor and punk space at the center of Pizzagate, the post-election period’s dumbest (and scariest) conspiracy theory, has soldiered on since the December incident, which saw delusional gunman Edgar Maddison Welch enter the business to liberate non-existent child sex slaves from a non-existent basement where they were held by a non-existent cabal of high-ranking Democratic Party elites.  

All of this surreality (and added security) hasn’t stopped Comet Ping Pong from being a haven for local bands. Three will take the stage on Saturday in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. For Jimmy Rhodes, the drummer and manager of headliners We Were Black Clouds, the show is a chance to support a slandered venue while simultaneously giving protesters someplace to unwind.

“We wanted to fight the good fight,” he said.

So too did the members of Foxhall Stacks, who open along with Loud Boyz. Made up of D.C. scene lifers from acts including Minor Threat, Jawbox, and Velocity Girl, the band boasts a lengthy local perspective that few acts playing in D.C. this week can claim.

“I think people who call Washington home have seen these kind of cycles in the past,” said guitarist and former CNN contributor Jim Spellman. “I sat with a couple thousand other people in front of the White House in the early ’90s watching Fugazi play in the snow before US military action in the Gulf. There was a very active scene under Reagan, as well. People are used to seeing these ups and downs, but Trump is such an unknown that I think it’s a different kind of uncertainty.”

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It’s a sentiment echoed by vocalist Bill Barbot, who also noted an uptick in the level of fear surrounding expressions of progressive culture.

“Back when I was touring a lot in the ’90s, the biggest thing that we would have to worry about was either some jocks showing up at the show and busting some skinny punk rocker’s head, or skinheads,” Barbot said. “Now, there seems to be a very concerted effort that is targeting people who are left-leaning, and the level of aggression and violence and harm that might be visited upon gatherings of these people seems to be a little bit more intense. I want to make sure that it doesn’t come to a place where I’m literally afraid to take my wife and kid to a show.”

Spellman and Barbot also decried the December assault on the city’s DIY spaces, part of an effort by the white nationalists of 4chan’s Right Wing Safety Squad to leverage Oakland’s Ghost Ship tragedy into a campaign against cultural spaces that members deem hostile to Trump’s cause. Having dealt with threats to DIY culture’s existence for longer than many of today’s house show organizers have been alive, the pair remain optimistic about the scene’s resilience.

“Any effort that people make to shut places down almost immediately backfires,” Spellman said. “There’s such a rich history of bands playing in church basements or abandoned department stores or a park in front of the White House. D.C. has always been a place where there are alternative structures and a thriving scene of house shows and weird spaces, and I have no doubt that that will continue in proportion to the amount it is discouraged.”

“Shut down the Black Cat, shut down the 9:30 Club, we’re still going to put on house shows,” Barbot added. “We’re still going to plug in wherever there’s electricity and play until you drag us off in handcuffs.”

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The threat of the Right Wing Safety Squad campaign hit especially close to home at 16th Street House, the long-running DIY house that’s the site of this week’s Not My Inauguration Music / Arts / Wellness Festival. The space was one of numerous D.C. DIY spaces targeted in the December message board posts, which also led to the shuttering of longtime DIY resource site DoDIY.org.

In a Facebook post, the house’s residents responded: “Bring it, cowards. As Barry Crimmins likes to say, ‘We are whatever frightens you.'” When I caught up with 16th Street’s Ben Tufts and Erin Frisby, that bravery came with a sense of humor.

“We were actually really flattered,” said Frisby. “There’s a certain defiance in knowing that outside sources who know nothing about you have listed your private residence as a place to be targeted. We don’t want to give into that.”

They haven’t. Instead, they’ve spent the past months plotting the logistics of a home-brewed festival that’s ballooned from two to four days and features a lineup that mixes local artists and friends with out-of-towners including Baltimore’s War on Women and Winnipeg’s Kino Kamino.

In the grand Fugazi tradition, the fest’s suggested donation is just five dollars, with all proceeds going to Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center. That same ethos also led Tufts and Frisby to set aside space for self-defense and legal training targeted at those heading to the protests, as well as yoga sessions for those returning.

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Though Tufts and Frisby see the fest as the beginning of their fight against the rising tides of the right (as Tufts put it, “It’s not like Planned Parenthood and the SPLC are going to stop needing donations after inauguration day”), their biggest enemy might not be Trump, but economics. Adjusted for inflation, rent in Washington has nearly doubled since 1980, a market trend that’s as enticing to landlords as it is worrying to working artists.

In an email after our initial exchange, Frisby revealed that even 16th Street, which has been home to shows and the people who play them for more than a decade, isn’t immune: The property’s owner plans to move back to Washington later this year, meaning that the house’s time as a DIY space is coming to an end.

“Like many artists and musicians in the area, we will be looking for space to work, perform, and provide community discussion and expression,” Frisby said. Until then, there will be more shows and more practices and more moments spent wondering what, in this new weird reality, could possibly happen next.

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