Rock in a Hard Place

Rock ‘n’ roll on the friends-and-family plan

ONE SATURDAY AT AROUND 7 P.M., Colin Hoss is at his bar, the Grog and Tankard. The joint is open for business, but the club is nearly empty as the 36-year-old Hoss steps into a tiny sound booth for a quick double-check of the equipment. In a couple of hours, a band you never heard of will be jumping and sweating and shouting on the wooden stage sticking halfway into the middle of the rectangular room. It wouldn’t do for the eardrum-shattering sound to cut out while the kids are standing around not dancing.

Whoever walks in the Grog’s door later that night will not have read about the show in the Washington Post. Or the Washington City Paper. In the next day’s paper, there’ll be no reviews of the show, no mention of the deer head on the wall, the big cloth butterfly floating over the pool tables, the sweating rock fans crowded into a narrow, smoky room. Word of the performance will have leaked out only through the primitive channels that seem appropriate for the Grog’s throwback look: People will have heard about it from their friends, who will maybe have friends in the band, which will have sent out an e-mail. Maybe the audience will be mostly family.

They’re certainly not the usual “North Georgetown” yuppies who ply the strip of Wisconsin Avenue on which the Grog has squatted for 40 years–the folks who chew upscale pizza at Faccia Luna Trattoria or down margaritas at the Austin Grill next door. And they’re probably not regular patrons of the adjacent strip club, JP’s.

No, the scene at the Grog is its own little bluejeaned world in the middle of pressed-khaki Glover Park, a world that changes ever so slightly from one night to the next, depending on which band has coaxed enough of its mailing list to the show.

The club’s Web site makes much of the fact that there is no built-in audience. Every band must bring its own crowd. Phishy jamheads one Wednesday, aggressive rap-metalers on Thursday, bluesy roots-rockers the next Friday, power-poppers on Saturday.

The Grog draws largely from the nearby colleges: American University, George Washington, Georgetown. Unlike the moody dreamers and self-defined outcasts who populate the Black Cat, Velvet Lounge, or Galaxy Hut, a Grog crowd usually looks to heavily represent the pre-law, pre-med, pre-middle-management aesthetic.

And the Grog has perfected a business plan for catering to that demo. Family entrepreneurs in the time-honored American tradition, the Hossainkhail brothers left Afghanistan to come to, as Colin says, “the greatest country in the world called U.S.A.,” when Colin was about 14. After acquiring the Brit-pub-style club from Englishman Nicky Williams in 1984, the Hossainkhails grafted the same name onto a second club, in Baltimore. The chain grew to include another Baltimore venue and Planet Nova in Virginia. Now the family concentrates on the D.C. Grog. Oldest brother Abdul handles the day-to-day operations, as well as dealing with the D.C. bureaucracy over permits and the like. Middle brother Hammed watches the door. And Colin, né Khaled, has been in charge of the music–both booking the bands and running the sound–since he was an 18-year-old high-schooler.

The fraternal collaboration has brought local rockers five or six nights of live tunes each week–for the past 20 years. That’s 60 to 70 bands a month, upward of 16,000 bands total. Some, such as Hootie and the Blowfish and Vertical Horizon, have used the club as a launching pad. Before their big break, 2 Skinnee Js broke the stage with their enthusiastic pogoing. Others, like Zox, are still waiting, touring relentlessly in support of CDs on infinitesimal independent labels.

It’s a remarkably consistent record of lower-middleness. The Grog is located on lower-middle Wisconsin Avenue. It hosts bands of lower-middle caliber. Its patrons are lower-middlebrow. Its owners are lower-middle-aged.

And they even speak of the place in lower-middle terms. Hoss, for instance, says the grungy, musty Grog qualifies as a “regional showplace.”

“Who are you here to see?” Hammed Hossainkhail asks of everyone who steps in the door. At Hammed’s side is a sheet of paper carrying the names of each act on tonight’s bill, three of them. As people declare their loyalty, Hammed makes a check mark next to the band name. Many fans arriving for their first Grog experience are momentarily stymied by the question.

This system, explains Hoss, ensures that the cover charge is distributed proportionately among the evening’s acts, which together claim half of the door take. “We want to make sure that we pay bands fairly,” he explains. “Because it doesn’t really make any sense if you charge $5 [and] one band draws everybody [and] the other bands don’t. So we can’t really split the money three ways. Because that’s unfair to the band that drew most of the crowd. So what we do to make sure everybody’s happy, we keep track of how many people are here for which bands.”

Not everyone appreciates the system. Kate Belinski stands at the back of the crowd, waiting for her friends’ band, Down to This, to go on. A George Mason University law student and, she says, a historian, she lives in the neighborhood and often finds herself at the Grog.

“I wish there were more nights when you didn’t pay a cover charge,” she says. “Because they definitely haven’t established themselves as a neighborhood place to go. Because every night you come here you have to pay a cover charge, and sometimes the bands are not that great.”

“I understand that bands want to get paid,” Belinski continues, “but some nights, honestly, when there are mediocre bands, they really shouldn’t charge $7 to get in.”

“We’re cheap,” counters Hoss.

However, the club has a flexible policy just for locals like Belinski, who aren’t groupies and who find themselves sauntering down Wisconsin Avenue, thirsty for a drink and a dose of rock. “Actually, we don’t charge the neighbors,” says Abdul. “Neighbors come in for free. If they come to the door and say, ‘Well, we’re here to socialize and get some drinks…'”

THE GROG MANAGEMENT’S ATTEMPT to make patrons and performers happy doesn’t always work as intended. Musician Steve Bowes, for example, has not played the Grog since the mid-’90s, when a gig for his band ended very badly. (To this day, Bowes prefers not mentioning the name of the band, because of “ongoing unpleasantness.”) “The complexity of these calculations for who gets what percentage of the door are amazing,” he says via e-mail. “If Hussein really wanted to develop nukes, he should have rounded up some thick-necked meatballs working the door at rock clubs and put them to the task. They’re mathematical geniuses in too-small Beefy-T’s.”

Bowes claims that after his last Grog show he asked for his “guaranteed $25.” “‘You didn’t make shit–go ask the bartender,'” is how he recalls the conversation. “I figured even if I didn’t really understand the algorithm, that if there was indeed shit collected–and we were supposed to get some percentage of the shit–that we were entitled to at least some measure of said shit.”

Armed with “a bellyful of pure rock fury and crappy domestic beer,” the diminutive Bowes went round and round with the bartender before leaping on the bar and yelling, “Give me my $25, motherfucker!…Give it to me!…Give it to me!”

He soon found himself flat on his back, the bartender’s boot on his chest. Bowes was told he was banned for life from the Grog and Tankard.

Hoss says he has no memory of the incident, and he has no comment other than to restate that the club makes no guarantee of a flat fee and the policy that each band “make their money off their friends and fans.”

“I’m pretty sure I could walk in there just fine, as so much time has passed,” says Bowes today. But he refuses, “until I get that $25 and a private tutoring session in quantum economics from the doorman. I do have principles, after all.”

But not every performer is so quick to anger. Kevin Avery, lead singer with the Fairfax aggro-rock outfit Element, faces the cash question with a philosophical shrug. “You make what you’re worth,” he says. “And what you’re worth is what you bring in the door. So that’s fair enough.”

It’s not hard to figure why the joint has strict rules on cover charges: There aren’t too many revenue streams at this gin mill. The party-room Grog concept offers the basics: microphones, a stage, and big speakers for bands; standard alcohol choices for their fans. The microbrew revolution passed the Grog by. And nobody’s coming for dinner. A handwritten sign over the bar spells out the entire menu:

SNACK FOOD
POTATO CHIPS
CHEESE CRACKERS
$1.00

At 8 p.m. on a miserably cold, snowy Wednesday, the club is rapidly filling up. Of course, there are five acts on tonight’s bill, including MFA (Motion for Alliance), an electro-rock combo from Boulder, Colo., which was passing through and which Hoss agreed to give a last-minute gig.

As much machine as manpower, MFA cranks out amusingly hypnotic sample-based jams. As the set ends, the musicians are basically standing around cheering on their computers. It’s damn entertaining, if not exactly radio-issue programming.

Though now living in Colorado, MFA drummer Jonathan Modell grew up in Arlington and played in some Dischord bands as a teen, along with some hiphop groups, including 3LG. His impression of the Grog when he was growing up was that it was the place for frat rock: “You weren’t really going to see any of the Dischord bands or, like, experimental music.”

But more experimental music is on the bill tonight. As MFA clears its gear off the stage, local percussionist Anthony Allen moves his electronic drum kit into place. Tied onto the rack is an HP laptop. Allen also has a slide projector ready. Tonight, he’s joined by keyboardist Justin Custer, in from Baltimore. They’ve never performed together before and will improvise a short set of spacey sounds and visuals.

“We’re coming through for our first time, and this was the only place that we could get a gig, that would give us a chance,” says Modell. “They don’t know us. We could bring one person in here tonight. They took a chance.”

Fortunately for the owners, MFA has actually brought out a fair number of family members, high-school friends, and fans. Even Modell’s mom and dad are here. Tonight’s crowd is more diverse than usual. The MFA and Allen crowds skew artsy, and tonight there’s even a member of uber-hap’nin’ Thievery Corporation, not usually associated with old-fashioned rock venues. Kristen Putchinski, singer for Baltimore trio Ellen Cherry, is doing a solo acoustic set and has a contingent of Charm City alt-poppers. And Frederick hard-rock band Brother Trouble has brought out the T-shirt-and-jeans crew, though the drummer will be shirtless by the end of the night.

Thievery Corporation representative Rob Myers says the Grog doesn’t feel like the sort of place Vice President Dick Cheney could walk to. “Actually, my girlfriend, Vida, and my friend Steven Albert were just saying they totally felt like they were in a Boston club,” says Myers. “Like, it felt like they were in Boston. Because it does not have a D.C. feel in here. Steven used to live in Boston, and he said he felt like he was 17 years old in Boston, so I think he’s having a bit of a time warp.”

“Yeah, it felt like I’d just stepped back in time,” Albert confirms.

“But, I mean–look at it,” Myers continues. “That’s probably what the D.C. crowd holds against the Grog and Tankard–that it doesn’t have the prototypical D.C. feel.”

If the “prototypical D.C. feel” arises from exclusivity, Myers has it exactly right. “My door is open for all bands,” says Hoss. “We don’t have one generic music, a blues room or a folk club. This place is all about live music. It’s all about bands. Anything from post-punk to punk to folk music to reggae to blues to rootsy bands. That’s how this place was established. And we want to keep that, because we want to make sure that everybody gets a chance.”

Which may explain part of the Grog’s less-than-stellar rep among the hipoisie. A true musical democracy is anathema to the taste-making elite, who prefer to unilaterally confer hipness upon their own discoveries.

Hoss puts it succinctly: “Even if you suck, you know what? We’re not going to tell you. But we wish you good luck.”

THE GROG’S LUST FOR VERY COMMON-MAN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL reaches its maximum expression on Monday nights, when more elite clubs are keeping barbershop hours. Monday is open-mike night at the Wisconsin Avenue standby, which lends its big room and humongous speakers to pretty much anybody who steps in and signs up.

The whole concept of open mike–that is, generally bad musicians playing their favorite tunes in front of other impatient wannabes–takes on a particularly stark feel in the environs of the Grog.

“I gotta tell ya,” says keyboardist Ben Doepke of the Cincinnati-based Homunculus, “the biggest positive with a room like this is the band’s got nothing to hide behind. If you want to come down here and see if the band is really good…[As a musician,] you’ve got nowhere to hide. The stage faces a wall that’s 15 feet away. All you’re doing is looking at that reindeer. And that reindeer’s got no patience for bad music. It sits and looks at you. And I think the feeling’s contagious. ‘Cause when you look in the audience, they kinda got that same look as the deer. It feels like we’re playing Inside the Actors Studio. When you finish you feel like, OK, does anybody have any questions?”

Yes, about the decor. There is that stuffed dear head mounted opposite the stage. And that huge butterfly hanging from the ceiling, and a bunch of pictures of celebrities ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Einstein. “Very random. Very random,” admits Hoss. He points to a large sculpture of a sort-of-human head hanging on the wall next to a speaker. “The story about that face right there—-this guy had run a tab, right? He didn’t have money to pay his $25 tab. So he goes home, brings me that face. So that took care of his tab.

“Those weird pictures, abstract pictures, paintings we have,” Hoss continues, “I was dating this girl in Baltimore when we had [our place in Baltimore]. She was an artist. So I paid her some money, and she did that.”

“But most of the pictures—-Einstein, Marilyn Monroe–they’ve been here ever since the Grog first opened. Of course, we added a few…”-—he motions to the standard mall-issue sports posters hanging by the pool tables–“a couple TVs for games.”

The butterfly used to hang over the stage at the Baltimore Grog.

“So it’s random. It’s an old building. We didn’t want to do too much about this place as far as fixing it up, because then Grog and Tankard would lose its character. A lot of people would not like it. They come here for the originality of the room itself.”

Against this “random” backdrop, singer and guitarist Bruno De Lima-Campos has run the open-mike show since April 2003. By day, he heads the car-stereo-installation department at the Myer-Emco in Seven Corners. Bruno likes to keep his evening “real open, whatever happens.” None of that “three songs and you’re out” stuff here. Plus, other open mikes are too cliquish, he thinks. Tonight, the guitarist is so loose he has arrived without a pick. Whatever.

Bruno’s laid-back management style is in full effect as he sits onstage riffing through half-finished licks on his Takamine, bantering with buds at the bar, waiting for the club and the sign-up sheet to fill. A couple of pool players–happy-hour types–pay no attention. Bruno does an impressive Segovia-style excursion up and down the neck, tapping out harmonics. He asks Hoss if he wants to sing. “Led Zep,” is the non sequitur reply. There are no other takers.

“I really like Pearl Jam,” says Bruno, after singing one of the band’s hits, “so I hope I didn’t ruin that for everyone.” He then segues into one of the ballads from the songbook of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

One of the waiting open-mikers calls out, “Have you played every song from 1994?”

“Not yet, dude,” laughs Bruno.

“‘Cause all these songs are on a mix tape I listened to on the bus,” responds the heckler.

“Remember this?” asks Bruno, plucking a playful riff. It’s from a movie, he hints. No response. “Top Gun!” reveals Bruno, surprised that nobody has picked up on this obscure incidental music. “That’s the sunrise. The sunrise from Top Gun.”

Aside from the pool players, most of the audience consists of Andrew Dunn, Matt Jacobs, and Kevin Steffen. Dunn is a junior at American, and this is the first club he’s been to since arriving in town from Nashville. “The open-mike scene, the pool tables–this really reminds me of home,” he says.

“Back home,” says Steffen, referring to his Kansas City roots, “you’ve got a lot of people just driving really hard to make a big impact and try to get signed. You come out here, you’re dealing with people like these cats….” Steffen motions to the stage, where Bruno is aimlessly plucking. “They just want to play an instrument and receive acclaim from their peers. That’s satisfaction enough. They don’t really need the recognition that everybody else is looking for. You come here, and it’s an open and honest music scene. People come here because they love music. That’s basically why I come here, for the music.

“To come here on a Saturday night and there’s three bands playing that maybe I’ve never heard of, but who’s to say that five years from now you’re not going to be hearing their music on the radio and buying their albums on the Billboard charts? It’s fun to think of it in that way,” says Steffen.

One doesn’t have to think too hard. Hootie is the obvious example.

“When Hootie and the Blowfish started off,” says Hoss, “they gave me a call about 10, 12 years ago, 14 years ago. Mark [Bryan], the guitar player from Hootie and the Blowfish, he used to come here with his parents when he was still in high school for half-price pizza and beer.”

“So, like three or four years later, he calls me from Chapel Hill. ‘Hey, Colin, do you remember me? I’m in college, I have this really cool band–we wanna play at the Grog.’ So, I’m thinking, Oh, great–another band from out of town. I’ll be lucky if I get 30 friends out of these guys. Sunday night, summertime when school is out, I drive by the Grog, right? I see a line of 400 people on a Sunday at 8 o’clock. I’m like…” Hoss makes a stunned face. “I get in here. I call all my employees, everybody I know. I say, ‘You better get your ass in here right now–otherwise you’re fired!’ I put a crew of, like, six together within, like, half an hour.”

Hootie played the Grog for two years, almost every other Saturday, before getting signed and moving to larger clubs. And, apparently, forgetting the little guys. Repeated calls to Hootie’s management for this story went unanswered.

Not all famous Grog alumni are stricken with amnesia about their roots. Vertical Horizon got its start on the Grog stage, and it’s still accessible. On the phone from Los Angeles, Vertical Horizon singer and guitarist Matt Scannell remembers “walking to the Grog and Tankard from my place in Burleith.”

“The great thing about [the Grog] was that we didn’t have to play someone else’s music. We could go there and perfect our own,” says Scannell.

“The thing that was special about the Grog wasn’t the atmosphere so much as the spirit of the place. You were encouraged to come in and be creative, be an artist. You don’t find that too often. What you find are Jimmy Buffett songs. And that gets old, even for the people listening.”

The Grog, says Scannell, allowed him to take chances. “I have memories of saying, ‘I have a song I wrote this afternoon. If you don’t like it, I’ll probably never play it again. If you like it, I’ll probably put it on the next record.’

“The Grog is a club where you pay your dues, in the truest sense. You’re proving to yourself that you are good enough to make it to the next level. If it’s not happening for you at the Grog,” Scannell says, “you need to reassess.”

Tony De Rosa, who launched the bar’s current open-mike night, appears to be reassessing. He’s standing at the bar, staring into the mirror. Lost in thought, or maybe in gin or vodka.

De Rosa is concerned that this area hurts for metal outlets. “It’s very difficult, because most of the venues are coffeeshops and the like. I mean, college rock rules around here,” he says with a sneer. “There’s just no real good venues to play at.” For now, De Rosa concentrates on singing with his band, Three Faces of Eve, in Northern Virginia.

“I think the Grog has the potential to be something more than it is,” De Rosa says, warming slightly to the topic. “And more that it might probably end up being. It’s cool. That’s why I come back. There’s something cool about it, and I don’t think it’ll ever be as cool as it actually is. If that makes any sense. There’s something that’s here, but nobody’s gonna fuckin’ ever see it. None of the right people are ever gonna do the right thing to make this place as cool as it should be. ‘Cause it’s a cool…cool place for music.”

De Rosa pauses.

“It’s a place. And there’s music here. What more do you really need?”