Washington, D.C. is known as a historic city for music. From the golden days of Duke Ellington through the indie scene’s heyday of Dischord Records and Fugazi in the ’80s and early ’90s, the walls of the clubs and bars of D.C. are long used to echoing greatness.
Recently, though, the D.C. scene has fallen into disrepair – the echoes have faded. Despite a glut of talented local acts, the scene has suffered from disunity.
Eric Boucher was sick of the D.C. music scene’s fragmentation. A founder of bigyawn.net, a D.C.-based music website, Boucher felt that despite the large amount of talented local bands, the scene as a whole suffered from a lack of cohesiveness.
Part of the problem, as he saw it, was the lack of a true D.C. music festival. Tired of just griping about it, Boucher and a few friends decided to do something. “It seemed that this year, more than other years, there’ve been a lot of festivals throughout the country, and there’s been nothing here. I was like, ‘I’ve booked shows in D.C., I know people who own venues. I have some [musical] relationships going, so why not do this?’” Boucher said. He began recruiting bands, lining up venues and chatting up the event.
After recruiting some local bands, Boucher moved to find up-and-coming acts from around the country. Alongside local rock and hip-hop acts like Exit Clov, Bellflur, DJ Spooky and former Dismemberment Plan singer Travis Morrison, The District’s Awake! Music Festival (DAM!Fest) will spotlight indie heavyweights Bishop Allen and Chicago up-and-comers Bound Stems, among others. “Since the whole idea of this was by D.C., for D.C., for the D.C. fans, it made sense in a lot of ways to recruit D.C. bands,” Boucher said. “We definitely wanted to bring in outside talent, so we could make people recognize [the festival] nationally, but at the same time we’re celebrating the D.C. musical scene, which has so many subsets, that to not have D.C. bands heavily featured would be sort of silly. There’s so much here that people don’t know about, so much that this city has yet to discover in terms of locals, that it just made sense to have D.C. bands. The split between out-of-towners and local bands will be about 50-50.”
The national bands playing have mixed opinions on the D.C. scene. Bound Stems singer and guitarist Bobby Gallivan said, “We have been to D.C. three times so far, and had a blast every time we’ve been here. People are attuned to what’s going on, willing to check out bands.” On the other hand, Bishop Allen’s Justin Rice expressed concern over the state of the city’s scene. “I like D.C. and there’s always a lot of good music coming out of there, but it’s hard to have a good show there, it’s hard to get people enthusiastic,” Rice said.
Boucher agrees: “Sometimes this city can be… I won’t say apathetic, but there are limits to how much this city can really care about music. There are a lot of skeptical people here that are hard to win over.”
Bellflur’s Carlos Gonzales expressed hopes that the festival will be a building block for a more unified music scene. “This city has so much diversity, but as far as I can tell the people in the different genres live in completely different worlds, and they won’t even hear about bands who are playing or living down the street from them. I hope the DAM! festival can help make the D.C. scene more aware of itself – make it more communal, less fractioned.”
Emily Hsu, Boucher’s girlfriend and a member of Exit Clov, shares Boucher’s and Gonzales’s hopes for the festival. “I don’t know it will unify the scene, but it’ll help bring national attention to what’s going on here. D.C. is not known for being a happening music town, so to have national bands alongside local bands will bring attention to the city,” Hsu said.
Boucher is confident the festival will show D.C. in a positive light. “Every city has its own character, and that will come through,” Boucher said. “This is by D.C., for D.C. – no sponsorship money, no one’s getting paid for this, we’re all just busting our asses to do it. I think that that shows – it’s a group of people who’ve come together to do something with no pretext other than ‘this would be something cool,’ both for ourselves and other people to enjoy and get behind and celebrate, and that doesn’t happen a lot of places.”
The music festival will take place over three nights, from Oct. 26 to 28, at clubs around the city. There will also be a pre-party show Oct. 20, and a post-party show Nov. 2. Used musical instruments will be collected at each show by Community Help in Music Education (CHIME). The instruments will be given to D.C. schools’ music programs. For festival information, visit www.damfestival.org. For more information on CHIME, visit www.chime-dc.org.