Legends Continue at Del Ray’s Birchmere Music Hall
I wrote about the Birchmere a couple years back and decided to do an update because I finally made it out there.
As the original article stated, the Birchmere sits just a tad outside Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood, an area I’m becoming familiar with (for the uninitiated, this is a great place to walk or run, with streets and sidewalks crisscrossing this way and that, so you’ll always be able to switch up the route. Cars don’t go 600 miles an hour down them either, always a plus. That and all the dogs you’ll see).
Walking up to the venue, the first thing you notice is that, in typical club fashion, it looks like a big rectangular block, nothing special; the only inkling of what may be going on inside are the colorful murals on the outside walls.
To be honest, and for flustered first-timers this may be important: You can’t see it from the road, only a small, lonely marquee on Mount Vernon Avenue a little ways away (due southwest) even tips you off that you’re close.
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Most shows here start at 7:30 p.m., somewhere between KISS’ exhortation to rock ’n’ roll all night and party every day.
Once inside, you may get fooled into thinking you’ve made it into the venue, with tables and a stage to your right. Well, you have, sorta. Turns out you’ve only made it to the Flex Stage, where people can stand and watch performances. Now, your band or performer could very well have been playing here. But on this night, showing up and seeing no one should have been a clue I was missing something.
That something was the Music Hall – and for that you need to cross an open space and head through another door to your left where you’re greeted by more tables and another stage: Here, everybody sits, kinda like a dinner theater.
Ah, bunch of people, nice performing area, I made it.
Once there, the Birchmere does its darndest to extract as much money from you as possible with steep prices on their menu and drink list. And why not? They’ve got you where they want you.
You sit in your seat (first come, first served) and wait for your waitress to come by. I was there to see Black Francis, aka Frank Black, aka Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV (and his longtime sidekick opener, the annoying Reid Paley, who the less is said of the better. For the initiated out there who may’ve seen him back in the late ’90s, he’s got shorter hair these days, the same sardonic puss and the same tired work-the-audience-aren’t-I-a-clever-song-and-dance-curmudgeon shtick he must’ve learned in the Catskills in another life. It would help if I could hack his whiskey-and-Camels-soaked voice). Charley likes him, so that’s all that matters – to him.
As for the great Black Francis, both he and Paley played their sets unaccompanied by anyone else, guitar and mic, and even did a few songs together for an encore at the end of the night (they released a record together in 2011).
It was like coming full circle seeing the Pixies frontman sans band again (back when I last did – my second time seeing him – he was most decidedly the Pixies ex-frontman; these days he’s the sometimes-frontman of indie rock’s greatest achievement). And if I remember correctly, back then, in the Paleolithic Period, he walked out onstage at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of the George Washington University with a bunch of different guitars strapped to his person looking like some type of cartoon.
And ho, did he play a great mix of songs the other night, and from many different Black eras, killers like “Los Angeles,” “Velouria,” “The Swimmer,” “Wave of Mutilation,” “Gouge Away,” “(I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain” and “California Bound.”
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He also did a spate of songs off recent (2007) winner “Bluefinger,” including “Tight Black Rubber,” and the best jaunt (and closer) from 2008’s follow-up EP “SVN FNGRS,” “When They Come to Murder Me.” He was also smart to play probably the best song off either of his Nashville records, a made-for-venue “Sing for Joy.”
In fact, he played so many good and great songs it’s a wonder the place was still standing when he bowed out. He’s lost some weight but still sports that trademark belly (I hear the wife’s got him into yoga and some other things in Massachusetts). Whatever makes you happy, Frank.
It was a great set in front of lifer fans, many older than me (and fatter, and uglier, and dorkier, and … and … and … I’m feeling secure, aren’t I?). It was also a rare taste of a rock legend at America’s Legendary Music Hall whose work is sometimes quite un-Birchmere-like (the place likes to trade in singer-songwriter, roots, country, soul and blues, not so much noisy post-punk. The great thing about Frank Black Francis is that his oeuvre has traipsed through many a genre, and even his most demented stuff translates well to a one-man show. That’s called songcraft).
The waitress was nice, the food was OK and the view and sound were good. The Birchmere is a great place to bring a date or a bunch of friends to hear some quality music. Renting an apartment in and around Del Ray would be a good move, too.
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