Rare Essence Will Be The First Go-Go Band To Play SXSW. Could It Mean Another Shot At Fame?

By Maxwell Tani

D.C.'s Rare Essence, the "Wickedest Band Alive," will be the first go-go group to play SXSW.
D.C.'s Rare Essence, the "Wickedest Band Alive," will be the first go-go group to play SXSW. Liaison Records

This month, thousands of bands, industry execs and people with the word “guru” in their Twitter bios are descending upon Austin, Texas, for the annual South By Southwest music, film and technology festival — and for the first time, D.C.’s homegrown go-go music will be there alongside them.

Local legends Rare Essence are scheduled to perform at the festival Tuesday, sharing a bill with other D.C.-area artists including Prinze George, Oddisee, Paperhaus, Black Alley, Kokayi and Asheru. The showcase is technically part of the Washington, DC Economic Partnership’s technology campaign during the festival, but Rare Essence is paying for the trip itself with a combination of private donations and money it raised at a recent fundraiser concert.

Bandleader Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, the group’s only remaining original member, says Rare Essence has been looking to play SXSW for several years to meet with industry representatives and get its sound in front of new audiences.

“We’re trying to expand Rare Essence and go-go music beyond the beltway,” Johnson says.

Now nearly 40 years old, Rare Essence could seem like a strange fit for SXSW. It’s not a buzz band with a recent Soundcloud hit or a nationally known group hitting the summer festival circuit. It’s a treasured local band that’s been performing in clubs and gymnasiums across D.C., Maryland and Virginia for decades.

Rare Essence’s fans still call it the “wickedest band alive.” They’ve seen the group through peaks — like the success of singles “Body Moves,” “Lock It” and “Work the Walls” — and tragedy, namely the deaths of trumpeter Anthony “Lil Benny” Harley and drummer Quentin “Footz” Davidson.

But like most go-go bands, Rare Essence hasn’t built a strong national following. It hasn’t had a hit outside the D.C. region for years.

Johnson says his band wants to play SXSW, in part, to change that. He says the best way to market a band like his is to perform live. That’s how go-go music must be heard.

“People like live music, and that’s the main ingredient to go-go,” Johnson says.

There’s a good chance Tuesday’s District music showcase in Austin will attract an audience that’s more D.C.-aware than the rest of the SXSW crowd, but still, Johnson says it could be a challenging performance. Rare Essence shows attract familiar faces. Band members used to do shout-outs by reading the name and neighborhood of fans from a card. Now, Johnson says, the band knows most of the shout-outs by heart. They can’t expect that level of local love in Austin.

During SXSW, Rare Essence will probably play the same songs it performs in D.C., Johnson says, but the shorter set time means the group probably won’t break into extended jam sessions like it regularly does at home — unless the audience demands it.

“We’ve been in situations where people would walk in and not know what this is and stand around for the first couple of songs,” Johnson says, “but by the end of the set, they’re into it like everyone else.”

SXSW isn’t Rare Essence’s only attempt to define itself for new audiences: The band’s trip to Texas coincides with the release of its first batch of new songs in more than a decade. Johnson says the new release contains some of the band’s best music ever. Perhaps a few business meetings and a good performance will yield more concert dates outside the D.C. region and new ears for its fresh material.

Though scholars and music journalists have already declared go-go a strictly local phenomenon, Johnson suggests maybe they’re wrong. Maybe go-go just hasn’t broken out of D.C. yet.

“The reason for us even going to South By Southwest is for us to expand Rare Essence and go-go as much as we can try to get to that next level,” Johnson says.