Reuters Congressional correspondent/Dirty Bomb guitarist Andy Sullivan is ready to put his skills to the test against fellow journalists-turned-rockers.
Do you want your face melted in a deadline-oriented, first-draft-of-history kind of way? Are you ready to rock objectively?
Journopalooza is counting on it. The annual event, which showcases bands anchored by journalists, returns Friday for its fourth installment; proceeds go to Writopia Lab and Reach Inc., two charities that help local children with creative writing and literacy. Objectively, it could be the greatest Battle of the Journalist-Dominated Bands you’ve ever seen — by being the only one you’ve ever seen. Regardless, it’s fair and balanced to say that some of these bands can play.
According to organizer Christina Davidson, a writer and book editor who has worked for the Atlantic, the competition started as a joke. She had crossed paths with Tom Toles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post, and had seen a private performance of a journalist-heavy band that had been incubating in Toles’ basement for ages. Suspicious Package refused to play in public. “A lot of us, me starting the list, were not really ready,” Toles said.
Davidson had friends in other journalist bands — she’s the Bill Graham of D.C.’s media-oriented music scene and is an operatically trained soprano (though she says, “I’ve been too heavy a drinker for years to ever get into that range again”). She joked to Toles that a battle of the bands “would be hilarious,” and when Suspicious Package emerged as a cover-playing butterfly, the joke became reality.
This year, seven bands will take the stage for sets in the 20-25 minute range. And it’s a nice stage: The event has moved from the National Press Club to the Hamilton, a new venue at 14th and F streets. The downstairs concert area seats hundreds, and the upstairs restaurant looks like Old Ebbitt Grill and Clyde’s had a huge, wood-paneled baby (it’s the same ownership group). It’s an upscale, 24-hour facility, and it might be the only place in town for when your embassy party breaks up at 3 a.m. and the ambassador announces he is so over Denny’s.
For the music, you might envision Wolf Blitzer in KISS makeup, but on average, the bands have a bit more skin in the game.
Andy Sullivan sang as a soloist with the Portland, Maine, Symphony as a tween, he picked up guitar as a teenager and he played with a Minnesota country-rock band in his 20s. Copy editing supplemented his income, but “the label fell apart, the van broke down, the girlfriend kicked me out.” He changed careers — Sullivan now works as a Congressional correspondent for Reuters — and the timing was perfect. “I was leaving music right as the music industry was about to be destroyed by the Internet,” he said. “And I made the wise career choice to go into another field that was about to be destroyed by the Internet.”
His hard-rock band, Dirty Bomb, has recorded unarguably the finest concept album ever inspired by the Jack Abramoff saga. He plays a Paul Reed Smith Mira guitar and has an onstage strategy: “Go completely over the top and employ every hackneyed rock-and-roll cliche with enough enthusiasm that it will tend to lift people out of their seats.”
When he’s not gigging at a local Irish bar as part of the acoustic group Paddy Goes West, Dennis Dunlavey is the senior Washington editor for ABC News. He’s had his Martin D28 acoustic guitar since 1970 — about as long as the band members have played together. The songs on their set list are all linked, historically or culturally, to the old country. And as a true testament to their semi-professionalism, they have found polite ways to refuse all requests for “The Unicorn.”
Then there’s Toles. After drumming in the requisite garage band of his youth, he got back into drumming based on a casual conversation at a party, soundproofed his basement a little and started jamming with friends each week. The success of Suspicious Package has spurred a second band with Toles as a drummer, which is also playing this year’s contest. Lethal Bark is guitar-free and plays original songs. It also practices in Toles’ basement — it is the Motown Studio A of journo rock — and the repertoire includes “a courtship song that features a catapult as a method of transportation.”
Suspicious Package “won” the battle last year, in that voting is measured by the charitable donations stuffed into ballot boxes. Those interviewed, professionally able to spot a leading question, generally declined to throw other bands under bus or predict victory, noting that it’s a fun charity event. Post columnist John Kelly would only shove his co-worker in the bus’s direction: “I always thought that if you won the Pulitzer Prize, you weren’t allowed to compete in other things.” Kelly drums and sings for the Stepping Stones, a Monkees cover band competing in its second Journopalooza. “I’m loud, and I have a good sense of time,” he said. “I have a van big enough to fit the drums in, and I have a basement. That’s all anyone wants.”
Sullivan, after an unethical level of goading, went for the jugular: “Tom Toles must be stopped. ... You notice how he’s cheating by having two bands?” Altamont could break out at any moment.
As to what draws journalists to the stage? No one knew for sure. It could be escapism from a busy job or an extension of a semi-public career. For Sullivan, a father of two young kids, “This is my one chance in the year to actually leave the house.”
Or maybe it’s that bands are cool. Musing on the recently departed Davy Jones, Kelly remembered lines from “Steppin’ Stone.”
“How could any journalist not love that song, with its lyric, ‘Now you’re walking ’round like you’re front-page news’?” Journopalooza is a chance to walk around like you’re inside arts coverage in a specialty publication. Not bad, right?