Arlington’s Hottest Musicians
Meet the biggest names in local music, from rising stars and Grammy nominees to legends of blues, bluegrass and reggae.
It’s a Sunday night at Iota Club & Café in Clarendon, and Don Zientara has just taken the stage with his guitar under strings of tiny, white lights.
“I’m used to being on the other side of the glass,” says the sound engineer and founder of Arlington’s Inner Ear Recording Studios, giving his tuning peg a final turn. “We’ll see how things go.”
Things go just fine as he performs originals and a few covers for a close-knit crowd in what is something of a nexus for the Arlington music scene: Zientara, a local legend who has recorded and produced albums by hundreds of artists—from Fugazi and Bad Brains to Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl—performing at a club that has featured live music in the heart of Arlington for more than 20 years.
When Zientara launched Inner Ear in the early ’80s, Arlington was a sleepier suburb, dotted with independent record labels and counterculture musicians who didn’t seem to sleep much at all.
“Back then it was punk. Now it’s called DIY,” says local artist-photographer Cynthia Connolly, who made concert posters as one of the first employees of Dischord Records, the punk label founded by Minor Threat (and later Fugazi) front man Ian MacKaye and several bandmates, and headquartered in a burgundy bungalow in Lyon Park.
Connolly—who most recently served as Artisphere’s visual arts curator until the venue was scheduled to close in June—still remembers the empty lot in Clarendon that played host to indie music festivals before it became Whole Foods. She ticks off the names of cottage-industry record labels (Dischord, Teenbeat, Slowdime, Simple Machines, Arlingtone) along with the coordinates of group houses where garage bands once held brain-rattling house concerts.
“I rode my bike everywhere,” she says. “You’d just go out and see a show and then ride home.” (For more on Arlington’s punk house history, check out kansashouseproject.com.)
Today’s Arlington is a far different place—more diverse, more urbanized and more polished. It’s also more expensive, and the housing costs are hard for struggling artists to manage, Connolly says. But amid the office buildings in Rosslyn and the brick colonials of Madison Manor, music is still being made here.
If you were to take a bus tour of the local hot spots, Inner Ear Studios would still be on it. On a recent evening, Zientara was back on his side of the glass in his studio space on Four Mile Run, recording Lisa Said, a Rosslyn-based artist who performs what her friends call “dusty Americana.”
Nearby on Columbia Pike, The Salsa Room is ever humming with Latin jazz and conga beats. And it’s not only Latinos who frequent the place, says co-owner Franco Villarreal. Ten years ago, three-quarters of its patrons were Spanish-speaking, he says. “Now, that number is 25 percent.” The rest are a mix of Asians, Europeans and Americans obsessed with salsa and bachata, a type of music and dance that originated in the Dominican Republic.
Elsewhere during any given week you’re apt to find lunchtime acoustic jams in Rosslyn; open-mic nights at Busboys and Poets in Shirlington; live music at the Ballston and Mosaic District farmers markets; and shows at the independent record store CD Cellar (which has locations in Clarendon and Falls Church City)—not to mention a host of bars, clubs and restaurants (see page 53) that stage everything from Celtic quartets to garage bands made up of local dads with white-collar day jobs.
There are festivals, including the annual Rosslyn Jazz Festival in September, the Columbia Pike Blues Festival in June and the Tinner Hill Blues Festival (also June), which draws some 3,000 attendees to Falls Church annually, according to Nikki Graves Henderson, executive director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.
Less formal are the occasional impromptu parking-lot dance gatherings, which may or may not have been county permitted. “It’s a big thing with the refugee and immigrant communities,” observes Mary Briggs, who retired a few years ago as Arlington County’s director of cultural development programs and now lives in Pennsylvania.
Though they are fewer and farther between, you may still encounter the occasional house party—like the ones staged by David Holiday of Stone Room Concerts. Holiday started out organizing small concerts in his home, but has since expanded his venture into a nonprofit that also brings live music to area churches and to Bikenetic in Falls Church.
“The joke is that I married my wife for her basement,” says Holiday who, in recent months, has organized such diverse performances as Tuvan throat singers, folk musician BettySoo and a D.C. saxophone quartet.
Music in Northern Virginia “is very eclectic,” observes Jim Byers, director of marketing for Arlington Cultural Affairs, citing a talent base that includes Mongolian classical pianists, Latin percussionists and legends of bluegrass, blues, punk rock and reggae. “The history is still there,” Byers says. “I don’t believe those shadows ever go away.”
At the same time, new artists are still finding their places in the local landscape, notes Brian Lowit, who grew up in Falls Church and came back after college to be closer to the D.C.-Arlington music scene. He now serves as the label manager for Dischord Records and runs his own indie-punk label, Lovitt Records.
“It’s not the same as it was 10 years ago,” he says. “But nothing ever is.”