Thanks, Iota

My favorite bar in the D.C. area is pouring its last pint this weekend. That makes me sad.

When Iota Club and Cafe opened in the summer of 1994, Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood was nobody’s idea of a nightlife destination. You had some good and cheap Vietnamese restaurants, a few dive bars (though not enough to string together a proper bar crawl), and a surplus of used-car lots.

Iota helped change that. The place had great beer on tap, the owners booked good musicians–although the tiny stage in its initial cozy confines couldn’t accommodate more than a quartet of skinny people–and they didn’t slack off when it came to food. It worked for an indie-rock Saturday night and a recuperative brunch Sunday morning.

A search of my calendar shows a long list of both local musicians (Jenny Toomey, The Kennedys, Alice Despard) and better-known out-of-towners (Kristin Hersh, Mike Doughty) that I saw there. But the Iota act I caught most often was my former Post colleague Eric Brace’s band Last Train Home.

That roots-rock group provided the soundtrack for a lot of evenings out with friends, and then for many of my first dates with my wife.

As other bars and restaurants opened up, Iota expanded into two adjacent spaces. The larger stage made bringing an upright bass or a piano an option, while the kitchen raised its sights and started doing new-American dishes good enough for me to take my mom there.

(I wrote the non-bylined ode to Iota’s catfish wrap that ran in the Food section in 2006. I already miss that, along with the fries that came with it.)

Iota even got a prime-time shout-out when an episode of The West Wing had a few of its White House staffers head across the Potomac for an evening out. For years later, a framed copy of that script hung on one of Iota’s brick walls.

The past several years saw the place retrench a bit. Management took away the good tables and the nice tablecloths and pared back the menu to sandwiches–really good ones.

Parenthood put a major dent in my own attendance, and my less-frequent visits found fewer people in the place. When I stopped in before 5 a few Saturdays ago, I was the only customer in sight.

But what finally did in Iota was something too predictable in its changing neighborhood: a redevelopment proposal that would have forced the place to relocate for a couple of years, then most likely pay a higher rent.

The developer’s renderings of the expanded building included Iota’s black-and-white facade, but I wasn’t shocked, just sad to see Iota’s owners announce three weeks ago that it would close at the end of September.

Of course, Last Train Home returned to play two final nights at Iota; I caught the last two-thirds of Thursday’s set and was glad to see a few Post pals there.

Now I have to put Iota’s absence on my list of neighborhood sorrows, along with the demise of most of the Vietnamese places, all the dive bars, and some of the newer, fancier restaurants that couldn’t cover escalating rents.

I still prefer the Clarendon of 2017 to its identity of 20 years earlier–I can do almost all of my shopping on foot, and we couldn’t have bought our home without the condo I’d bought nearby in 2000 doubling in value over four years. But this progress hasn’t happened in a straight line or without costs.

Some of you reading this have probably never heard of Iota until now, and my words may not adequately express what made it special.

But you probably do have some quirky bar or restaurant nearby that’s been around a while, doesn’t attract all the beautiful people, doesn’t have much of a social-media game and can’t be found anywhere else. Why not stop in for a drink tonight or brunch tomorrow?

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A D.C. summer isn’t complete without a Fort Reno concert

I don’t get out to concerts much these days, but Monday allowed me to check out a couple of indie-rock bands for free. The Northwest D.C. venue I attended lacked such typical amenities as a bar, air conditioning and walls–but I couldn’t miss what I thought was my last chance to catch this summer’s Fort Reno concert series.

These free shows in that Tenleytown park at 40th and Chesapeake Streets NW, named after the Civil War fort, have been on my calendar since it existed on paper–so my first would have been sometime in 1996, but I can’t tell you when. They’ve been on the District’s schedule since 1968, which is an amazing record for a volunteer-run production.

The format hasn’t changed over the two decades I’ve been attending, or trying to attend, Fort Reno shows. Three local bands play short sets on a bare platform from about 7 to 9 p.m. in front of an all-ages crowd picnicking or dancing on the ill-kept grass around that stage.

I wrote “trying to attend” because an evening thunderstorm is guaranteed to cancel the proceedings–I blame that for scrubbing at least one show featuring the Dismemberment Plan that I’d had on my schedule. And the more frequent scenario of swampy heat in the high 90s will discourage a lot of music fans from spending two hours sweltering to the beat.

But if the weather cooperates, you can see some pretty great bands. My all-time favorite show would probably be Fugazi’s August 2001 set there, but I’ve never seen a bad performance there. Monday introduced me to Makeup Girl’s peppy alt-rock; sadly, I only caught one song from Bacchae and missed Numbers Station.

Fort Reno is easy to get to, provided the Red Line isn’t a mess and traffic on Foxhall Road or Wisconsin Avenue isn’t the same (at least there’s plenty of free parking on the nearby blocks). And while you do have to bring your own dinner and a picnic blanket, you need not think too hard about nourishment: Duck into Whole Foods, get some prepared food and a non-alcoholic beverage in a non-glass bottle, and you’re set.

(The three things forbidden at Fort Reno shows are alcohol, drugs, and glass bottles. Don’t be a jerk; you can get a beer later on.)

Nobody will mind if you walk around the park to explore the scenery. Telecommunications nerds should appreciate the radio and TV transmitter towers looming overhead, while geography-minded types can summit the highest natural elevation in D.C., all of 409 feet above sea level, by walking uphill behind the stage past a large oak tree until the slope levels off, then looking for a small metal marker.

And the crowd is always a delight. Monday’s show featured the usual mix: cool moms and dads bringing their kids up right, aging hipsters (one sporting a t-shirt with the 1980s political commentary “Meese Is A Pig”), and slam-dancing teenagers. There was also one boy wearing a wolf’s-head mask, who got a “wolf boy! wolf boy! wolf boy!” cheer from the band and the crowd.

I also found out Monday that it wasn’t the last show of the summer: The organizers had rescheduled a rained-out show for this Thursday. As I type this, the weather looks… not fantastic, but definitely not rainy. So you should go.

Wintry mix: a Christmas playlist with a little indie-D.C. cred

By now, your brain is probably crammed full with the holiday songs you’ve heard since you were five–and they’re all stuck on repeat, right?

Playing the traditional earworm cleanser, AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” wouldn’t be seasonally appropriate on this day. But maybe the following playlist will help: songs by artists based around D.C., or who at least got their start there, that either speak to the holiday or to the time of year.

 

Merry Christmas!

(Links are to Amazon’s MP3 store or if unavailable there, to iTunes; if unavailable there as well–yes, that remains possible–I pointed to Amazon CD listings. You can also hear most of these on a Spotify playlist.)

Springsteen, and the persistence of good art

I saw Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band play Nationals Park last night. Besides being at least the 10th time I’ve seen the poet laureate of New Jersey live (details after the jump), the show also got me to thinking about how long Springsteen’s work has been helping me make sense of my own life.

It started when I was maybe 12 or 13 and began developing my own musical tastes beyond disliking the easy-listening stations Mom and Dad felt compelled to listen to in the car. I can’t think of any other artist whose work has held up for me for so many years. (U2 comes close, but I didn’t get into them until later in high school). Back then, I didn’t know how well and how often Springsteen’s words and music would explain things around me. And that there would be times when I’d need the help.

I thought about quoting “Walk Like A Man” in my father’s eulogy, but I didn’t think I could hold it together while reading those words. “Lonesome Day” and “Empty Sky” still encapsulate what Sept. 12, 2001 felt like better than any story or photo. And I knew I had to marry my wife when I started tearing up listening to a  version of “If I Should Fall Behind.”

I hear many of these songs differently now than when I was an angsty teenager or an underemployed 20-something. I expect that to continue as they and I age in our own ways.

As a writer, I also find it fascinating how Springsteen’s lyrics have evolved from the baroque exuberance of the early ’70s to the sparser language of today (and, along the way, have lent the occasional turn of phrase to my own prose). I try to use fewer words than I once did too; that, and the both of us being born in the Garden State, are about the only parallels I can get away with here.

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