Looking For D.C.’s Most Interesting Music? Try The Library.

By Steve Kiviat

Heroes Are Gang Leaders (with Margaret Morris on vocals) are just one of the acts brought in to energize D.C.'s public libraries.
Heroes Are Gang Leaders (with Margaret Morris on vocals) are just one of the acts brought in to energize D.C.'s public libraries.

Who’d have thought that the cutting edge of D.C. music could be found in a library?

“Obviously, at first, music and libraries seems like a head-scratcher because libraries are quiet,” says local promoter, artist manager and record-label owner Jim Thomson. But for the past six months, Thomson has been helping change expectations about what goes on inside D.C.’s public libraries.

On behalf of scrappy theater nonprofit Capital Fringe, Thomson has been programming “Fringe Music in the Library,” one of two series bringing live music to the D.C. Public Library system. The other series is strictly punk rock, presented by the library’s D.C. Punk Archive. DCPL has been hosting those noisy gigs since October 2014 to help promote its growing collection of D.C. punk ephemera. The latest show takes place downtown tonight — with D.C. bands Give, Puff Pieces and The Maneuvers — then Friday it’s back to Thomson, who’s bringing in D.C.’s CooLots under the Capital Fringe banner.

For the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library — D.C.’s central library downtown — these shows help it build a reputation as a cultural center. It’s a rebranding for a facility that’s been dogged by systemwide budget cuts and criticism of its Brutalist architecture. (The District is planning to overhaul MLK Library in two years and add an auditorium.) DCPL has also had to confront complaints from residents who openly — many would say crudely — gripe about homeless residents who utilize the library’s amenities. Then there’s the bigger picture: Libraries all over the world are facing questions about their role in the 21st century. Could it be prudent to focus on libraries not just as information warehouses, but cultural beacons?

“One of our primary goals is to establish the library as a go-to place for local culture.” —Linnea Hegarty, executive director of the D.C. Public Library Foundation

Linnea Hegarty, the executive director of the D.C. Public Library Foundation, seems to think so. She says the foundation covers the costs of both D.C. Public Library concert series — including fees to the bands — and says they’re now funded through 2016. “One of our primary goals is to establish the library as a go-to place for local culture,” Hegarty writes via email.

Capital Fringe is best known for its annual performing-arts event, the Fringe Festival. But last year, under Julianne Brienza’s leadership, the organization hired Thomson to take over music-booking at the festival, then asked him to handle the eclectic library shows she had set into motion. Those events overlapped with the D.C. Punk Archive’s basement shows, which Martin Luther King Jr. Library music librarian Maggie Gilmore says were “designed to increase attention to and support of the D.C. Punk Archive,” its ongoing effort to document the District’s three-chord rock scene.

Michele Casto, one of the librarians who helped get the D.C. Punk Archive off the ground, says DCPL wants to show that the punk archive isn’t just about long-gone history.

“Having shows that feature current local bands helps reiterate the point that the archive is 1976 to the present, that we’re documenting local music that’s happening now not just local music of the past,” Casto writes in an email.

The punk gigs also aim to support the next generation of D.C. musicians. “For every show, we’ve tried to include a band that’s either just getting started, or that consists of kids — i.e. bands that might have a hard time getting a gig in a club,” Casto writes. “This gives them a place to get experience performing.”

The punk shows take place every other month and have included raucous performances from Joy Buttons, Hemlines, Flamers and Priests. Under Thomson, the Fringe gigs have dabbled in punk, too — roping in punk provocateur Ian Svenonius multiple times — but they’ve prized diversity, bringing in the rarely seen soul singer George Smallwood, Afropop vocalist Anna Mwalagho, jazz/poetry act Heroes Are Gang Leaders and the Ethiopian Jazz Quartet with Feedel Band‘s Araya Woldemichael.

“I hope that the citizens will come in and get inspired by seeing an Ethiopian jazz quintet and go, ‘Wow,'” Thomson says.

Some younger residents, it seems, have already found that inspiration. When guitarist Anthony Pirog performed at the downtown library with his surf band, The El Reys, librarians projected the film Endless Summer while kids bopped around. They were “dancing and bouncing around wildly, full of excitement for the music,” Gilmore emails. “That put a smile on everyone’s face.”

Now, if only more people would come to the shows.

Woldemichael guesses that at his recent library gig, “50 percent of them were curious folks and the rest were my friends, family members and fans.” Thomson acknowledges that a recent performance at the Benning Road library only brought a handful of people. “The branch libraries are a little more challenging to get attendance,” he says. “Mainly location, location, location. It’s hard to get interest in it, or to publicize it.”

The promoter hopes that momentum will build over time. “I know from when you are working with regular venues, you don’t get a slam dunk in the beginning, always,” he says. “You have to plant a seed and let it have a chance to germinate. We are really in a very early stage.”

Meanwhile, artists seem appreciative of the series’ benevolent mission — even if the room doesn’t fill up.

“Heroes Are Gang Leaders really felt that this performance [at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library] was a special opportunity to reach out to and interact with longtime D.C. residents, amidst the city’s advanced stages of gentrification, displacement and widespread oppression of many Washingtonians,” band member Luke Stewart writes in an email.

Plus, it gives residents a chance to absorb culture — for free — that they wouldn’t normally come across, Thomson says. In a way, that’s the role of a library in the first place.

“For me, the side benefit is to go into libraries that are in parts of the city that are not part of my everyday life,” the promoter says. “It helps you interact with the city. I like to see these different things that makes the city as an organism come to life.”

Give, Puff Pieces and The Maneuvers play the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at 6 p.m. June 11. The CooLots play at noon on June 12. For a complete schedule of Capital Fringe concerts at D.C.’s libraries, consult this calendar. The Punk Archive basement shows are usually publicized on the D.C. Public Library’s Facebook page.

Top photo courtesy of Jim Thomson