Steve Lambert has quietly kept his nose to the grindstone on the H Street corridor while his venue has not-so-quietly risen to prominence as one of D.C.’s greatest spots for upcoming, rising, and already risen musical talent. The co-owner and talent buyer of Rock & Roll Hotel has had perhaps the best vantage point on the strip’s progression: from ghost town, to hipster haven, to a fully gentrified boon to neighborhood nightlife. He’s got a lot of fond memories. Memories of raucous crowds, of stars in the making, and of people doing their best Spiderman impressions scaling roofs into sold out shows.
So with R&R about to celebrate its 10th anniversary with a week of carefully curated shows, I spoke to Steve about ten things that stood out the most during his time there. His appreciation for the hundreds of staff that made the joint what it is today rang loudest. But he did share some moments where the talent was kind of cool, too.
1. He Had No Idea Who This Guy Was
SL: Talking to Justin Vernon of Bon Iver before he went on, not knowing or ever hearing of him, before he went on stage. I was out front of the venue because his agent had tipped me off that “Hey you really need to see this guy” and just being like, “Yeah dude, your agent said I should really check you out, so here I am.” That was actually the very day that Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago came out on record (it had its wide release on indie super label Jagjaguwar in February 2008). The actual day it was released, he played Rock & Roll Hotel. And I only ever knew that because he said it on stage. And those were the only songs he was playing, off that record.
2. When the Venue Was Way Bigger
SL: When Phoenix played here, off their Wolfgang Amadeus record. A couple weeks before [the show], they played Saturday Night Live. At that time, and still, is one of the best bands I’ve ever seen play here. And it’s only because they made the room sound like a full-fledged arena, and it was perfect. Their engineer was a magical man, a scientist. Now they’re festival headliners, y’know?
3. The Time They Stopped Traffic
SL: Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam was playing in this other band called Brad that he tours with. First of all, two things happened. These are like total seasoned musician pros, right down to their tour bus driver. The tour bus driver pulled up, parallel parked the trailer, into a spot. Not the whole bus. Just the trailer, perfectly into a spot. And then laid the bus all the way across H Street. I see this, and I go out there just seeing how they’re doing. And Jeff Ament is loading in his own gear. Jeff Ament, who plays with Pearl Jam, who could headline any festival or any coliseum around the world, was loading his own gear. I went up to him and said, “Hey dude, when was the last time you’ve loaded in your own gear?” and he said, “This tour.”
4. That Special Something
SL: When Odd Future played here and it was the entire original lineup: Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator, the entire package. You see a lot of bands, I book a lot of bands. You just know when a group of individuals together are like legit, the real fucking deal, and that they’re going to do something. Odd Future had so much hype, but they fucking owned it. They had such a rabid fanbase even then. We had security walk them anywhere they were going. They couldn’t go through the front door. To know where they’ve gone from that point to now is really cool to see.
5. Making It
SL: I remember seeing St. Vincent playing to like 60 people at Rock & Roll Hotel and their agent going, “What do you think?” And I didn’t really know what to think yet. And the next time she sold it out. But you just never know where these artists are going to go. I’m naming artists that could very well be around for another __ years. I’m not naming any that I just don’t believe will have the legs or longevity to really make something in music. There’s been a lot of great bands that have played here, but I want to see bands make this their life and career. There’s a lot of bands that think they’re making it their life and career, but will probably not make it to the next level.
I think Grimes played here one time, and was like a first of three openers…but it wasn’t really Grimes, the Grimes that we know now. Some of these artists, they were the name, they were the person, but they weren’t the band that they are now. There’s so many of those situations.
6. Local Bands: What It Takes and Who’s Got It
SL: That’s really up to them. They have to tour. They have to have their own sound, create their own sound. I’m really anti-cookie cutter copy of whatever sound is big at this very moment, and I think that happens a lot. I think there’s so much influence now that it’s beyond even what [the bands] realize…they just end up sounding like something that’s already been played out a million times. I hope someone does, though. Ex Hex, they’re doing it. Every time I see them I’m like “Yes, they definitely could do something nationally, and do numbers in markets across the country.”
7. Spiderman and The Black Brad Pitt
SL: One time when Danny Brown played here, some people climbed up the building a couple buildings down from us, and tried to get in from climbing across the buildings and onto our roof to get into the show. That was just one of the many issues that night that security had to deal with. It might have been H Street Country Club that they’d climbed up. I think it was, because I think they tipped us off that it was happening.
8. Growing Pains
SL: There hadn’t been a room like Rock & Roll Hotel in D.C. This small 300-400 cap room that bands could start out in. And it was H Street back then, and it was a whole different area of the city that no one had ever come to see an indie rock band play.
Going back, we opened down here in 2006. It is unimaginable to think, and not many people could really have done it, unless you actually love it, and are in it to win it, and it’s your life to be in something like this. You gotta understand. In 2006, we were the only thing open on both sides of H Street after 5 p.m. Everything was abandoned. It didn’t change for another couple years that anything else opened up near us on the block. I’m talking like 13th to 14th. So basically you bring people down here and they’re like, “Where the fuck are we?” They’ve never ever been to this part of D.C. at all. We’re not near a metro. There is no Uber. There was no streetcar. There was nothing. Unless you had a car, or walked the 14 blocks from Union Station to here.
I just give it up to all the people and the bands that came down here early on and stuck with us 10 years later. It was hard to get staff to work down here. Bartenders and doormen and security and ticket booth people. The other venues that had been around [the city], those neighborhoods might’ve been sketchy beyond imaginable early in their careers as well, but at least it was somewhere in the vicinity of the fucking White House. We were LEAVING TOWN in terms of where we were located. Really the first seven years were hard, were very hard. We went through hundreds of employees, a mountain of general managers. The turnover has been great. I really appreciate everybody who has worked here and came to the venue in the first decade, because it really feels like only ten years later, we can kind of sit back a little and appreciate the success that we’ve had.
9. The Other Experience
SL: Rock & Roll Hotel has had DJs on that second floor every single Friday and Saturday since we opened. That’s been a big driving force to our success as well. There’s always been local DJs up there. There’s never been a cover. If it was just the bands on the first floor, Rock & Roll Hotel would not have made it. It needed other things to attract people down here. And the second floor really did that in so many ways. So many people will be like, “I’ve only been here to dance. I’ve never been to a show.” It’s easily 50/50. We’ve had huge ball drop New Year’s Eve parties on the second floor. It’s always crazy, and always has been between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., for ten years. People always came down here for that late night experience, even back in 2006, which amazes me. Hats off to those people, for sure. Hats. Off.
All the DJs have always been D.C. DJs, there’s never been any kind of national name DJs or anything like that. That’s not what it was. It was strictly D.C., and nothing else.
10. What to Expect This Week
SL: The marketing manager, Molly Majorack, and I have been working on the anniversary on a weekly basis since February. It’s been an exhausting effort for such an important milestone. Everybody has worked really hard. The goal was to have it on the same week that we opened ten years ago, which it’s on. The goal was to have seven straight shows for the anniversary, which we’ve done. A lot of these bands are flying in to do the anniversary, and this is a slow touring season at the end of August. So a couple of bands are flying just to do it, or actually routed small tours around the date. So I’m thankful for all them for doing that, and supporting an independent music venue, and that’s what really matters, and they know it too.
I explained it to them and their agents, I said, “Listen, if you don’t support independent music venues, y’know, they drop like flies these days around the country, just as much as independent record stores are.” Independent music venues are going out of business or being torn down to become some condo unit or some shit like that. My goal was to only really work with independent bands and only independent small boutique agencies for the most part. And I’m excited for every single show. Literally. It was handpicked. I’ll tell you right now, Ex Hex, they were the top band I wanted to play. They were planning to record a new record. They adjusted that to play the date. A couple of the shows are underplays. Playing a smaller venue than they usually would when they came back around on a usual fall tour schedule. If this was like November, they’d be selling like 1,000 tickets.