all words & photos: Joel Mittleman
The myspace page of the DC music collective, Spelling for Bees, describes them as “Washington DC’s Superest Supergroup!” This may be true. Unfortunately, judging by Tuesday night’s residency at the Velvet Lounge, our city’s supergroup still has its kryptonite: moderately inclement weather.
The Bee’s third monthly residency was a sparsely attended affair. The combination of already falling snow and rumors of a second weekend snowpocalypse limited the crowd to musicians, musicians’ significant others, and one out of place blog photographer. Still, the six or seven assembled musicians were happy to see me, even if made somewhat awkward by my presence. And, despite the awkwardness, I was happy to see them.
The group is the brainchild of Dave Mann, bassist and singer of the DC band the Mittenfields. Though their web presence promised 40 members, Mann explained that, as of Tuesday, the group had grown to a full 53. They roll deep, bringing together musicians from other DC-area bands, such as Dangerosa, Red Satellites, and World’s Fair. Since December, Mann has collected the crew at the Velvet Lounge the first Tuesday of each month for an evening of theme-based communal music making.
Though past months played it safe with their themes—who can argue with Radiohead or “guilty pleasures?”—this month’s theme, “Fugazi in the key of Minor Threat,” upped the ante. Reimagining two of the District’s most important contributions to popular music is a weighty task. And, judging by the comments exchanged on this blog’s announcement of the event, some believed the Bees weren’t up to it. After Tuesday, I’m afraid most involved would admit that the naysayers were right: performers consistently prefaced their songs with apologetic disclaimers, and one singer/guitarist even admitted to having never heard either of the bands being celebrated.
But, to see the night through a critical lens is to miss the point. What I walked into wasn’t so much a performance as a jam session among old friends and new friends. There weren’t many musicians, but the ones who came made the most of it by swapping instruments and spontaneously joining one another’s acts. Singers recruited their spouses to sing backup. Tambourines got passed throughout the crowd. Numbers were exchanged and new band members recruited. And, though Mann kept apologizing for the evening’s lack of musicians, fans and remembered lyrics, he captured the mood best when, after a drummer lost the beat, he said “Don’t worry, man, these nights are just about having fun.”
Spelling for Bees, explained one of the girlfriends in the audience, is “a really good idea.” In a city as transient as DC, she said, it can be hard for musicians to find a network of people wanting to make music. I’d agree, but I’d go one step further. For those of us coming through DC from places like Philly or Brooklyn or Portland, it’s easy to expect an art and music scene to be established, vibrant and easily accessible. Spelling for Bees reminds us that these things take work and that there are artists around us—53!—putting it in for the rest of us.
So, while DC’s superest supergroup probably isn’t going to overtake Broken Social Scene anytime soon, I’m happy they’re doing what they’re doing. Let’s hope the “good idea” of Spelling for Bees becomes a reality sometime soon.