At around 6:00, the opening of the doors inside the Birchmere Music is a ritual that is ingrained with music history spanning over forty years and the countless legends who have played on this stage in Alexandria, Virginia just outside Washington, D.C.
Outside the 500 seat listening room, fans would gather in the early afternoon in line hoping to be first in line for a coveted seat in the table seating surrounding the stage.
And it was the venue’s owner Gary Oelze who gave it a personal touch every night. Oelze, who recently passed away, made the Birchmere one of the most revered listening rooms and one could say he was part of each show. While waiting in the outside bar area of the main foyer, Oelze swung the entrance doors open with an urgency and certain theatrical flair and his game face on followed by his team which began the nightly ritual they had done so many times.
It was Oelze’s personal imprimatur that he imparted as he personally called out the numbers that brought you to the main door.
“The evening begins when the staff hears my voice,” Oelze wrote with Stephen Moore in his book All Roads Lead To The Birchmere: America’s Legendary Music Hall. “I feel they know we are all a team when we open the doors for seating.”
Oelze added that over the years he knew people by name and their faces. But the personal touch also gave him the vantage point of sensing how the night would go depending on the crowd. If it was a folkie show, he knew the kitchen would be busy. The bar would be busier if it was more of a rock show.
In the hallways of the Birchmere, it is like going to a museum with posters of the great progenitors of bluegrass, folk and blues and seeing the history of present-day Americana before it got that name. The list of people who have come is too long to print here but includes luminaries such as Bill Monroe, Hazel Dickens, Vince Gill, Steve Earle, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Every time I walk the halls it feels like the eyes of Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock are looking at me as I go past the framed Flatlanders poster.
A few weeks before Oelze’s passing, Eric Brace & Last Train Home made its annual appearance at the Birchmere. If there’s such a thing as homecoming, Last Train Home seems to know something about it. January is traditionally when this band that originated in the DC-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) area over twenty-five years ago re-assembles for its annual reunion here. With two new albums in the last few years, the band, whose members straddle Nashville and the DC area, has a renewed focus and its show doesn’t seem like just a class reunion.
The last night of a three-night stand took the band to Annapolis’ Ram’s Head Richmond’s The Tin Pan and the storied Birchmere, a mainstay of the area long before there was a word called Americana.
Throughout the night the nine-piece band played seamlessly trading trumpet, sax, guitar, harp and pedal steel solos democratically and without fanfare like an Americana version of sultans of swing. Front man Brace’s black jacket sparkled in the hazy club lights that might have been mistaken for smoke and evoked a jazz club as the band played “What Now My Love” and “Et Maintenant.”
Band leader Eric Brace dedicated the show to Oelze and confessed to some of his own history with the venue. When he was sixteen, he snuck past the doorman named Tiny into the club. A waitress named Linda overlooked his age as she brought him a pitcher of beer. There Brace got the tutelage of seeing the local bluegrass band Seldom Scene to whom he paid tribute, covering a rousing version of “Wait a Minute.”
When Oelze asked Seldom Scene to switch their regular gig to the Birchmere, he changed the course of the venue and indirectly the direction of Brace’s life. Brace emerged as a musician and future band leader and record label head. He now operates Red Beet Records out of Nashville.
Kicking off the set per tradition, the band easily fell into the familiar comfort of Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” In All Roads Lead To Birchmere, there is a funny passage of how Dylan’s camp once called the club and said Dylan was in the car and heading over and wanted to know if Seldom Scene could stay and play another set
With the melodic gem of “All Eyes Go” which Brace dedicated to his eye doctor who was in the house, Last Train Home pulled out a song they’ve played at every show for the last twenty-five years. Written by Scott McKnight, it first appeared on their True North album which is long out of print. Dave Van Allen’s rollicking pedal steel came in after mandolin and in between guitar and trumpet and sax that was true magic.
The band’s two worlds straddle the DMV and Nashville or as Brace calls it that “66-81-40 thing.” The former provided comic relief as US Route 1 is the backdrop for the love song “Doughnut Girl.” The latter is the locale for the song “Dogs On The East Side” which drew inspiration from the consternation for canines as freight trains came through Nashville. As Brace quipped the city is all gentrified so the dogs are happy.
It was Brace’s friend Peter Cooper who was inspired to write a song about a burly doorman in East Nashville named “Big Steve.” The swinging, hilarious romp drew from Cooper’s philosophy that “Music lives with people who love it the most and it lives with Big Steve.”
Cooper was a local high school student who, like Brace, made his trek to Birchmere to hear Seldom Scene. Cooper went on to be an accomplished music journalist and songwriter. The two didn’t meet until Brace went to Nashville and they bonded over their love of Seldom Scene, forming a long creative partnership. One project that brought them together was actually with Mike Auldridge, the dobro player of Seldom Scene and steel guitarist Loyd Green backing the duo for the album Master Sessions. Talk about the circle of life.
Cooper tragically passed in December and Brace spoke of his friend reverently. (A memorial is being held in Nashville February 24.) At the show, there were many reminiscences of old friends who had passed like Evan Pollack and John Prine who was Cooper’s favorite songwriter. Brace and Cooper got to open for Prine five times. The band played Prine’s “Souvenirs” which Brace prefaced by observing the legend played the song at every soundcheck, describing it as “his opening benediction to the space we were in.” They closed the show with a strong cover of The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” that evoked the powers of the Brothers Gibb and the fraternity of singers who had covered it including the late Janis Joplin.
There was a lot of emotion in the air for friends lost and the burden of carrying on without them. There was also a renewed sense of purpose for Last Train Home which came out of the pandemic with a lot of new music and a newfound creative spark which makes its shows feel like more than just looking back. (Perhaps having a new Last Train Home coffee cup available at the merch table is a good sign the band will push ahead to a thirty-year mark and beyond.) When Brace turns a melodic meditation on life in a song like “Just a Moment” into something larger, it feels transcendent.
I imagine there were moments when Brace felt overcome by the history and aura of the great listening room from where so many greats have stood. In All Roads Lead To The Birchmere, singer Southside Johnny who has played 32 times here since 2005, described the intimacy this way: “There are times when you’re singing that you get so lost in your soul and feel the communion with the audience and the band that you forget who you are. Your ego falls away, your worries, all the quotidian crap, the day-to-day mundane stuff and it’s like a golden moment where you escape into this other consciousness. I had one of those experiences at the Birchmere early. It was a mind boggling experience. And I really had to climb down form where I was to get the next song started, The Birchmere lends itself to these experiences.”
As I walked through the foyer, memories of Birchmere shows past always come over me. When Margo Price signed autographs after her show, opener Sam Lewis mingled and remembered being with Chris Stapleton on the flex stage before Stapleton’s popularity exploded and he became larger than life. On another night at the Birchmere store, Rusty Young of Poco played for longtime Poco fans who call themselves Poco Nuts and signed in the Birchmere bookstore
“Here we are still together,” he said from the stage during Poco’s set with emotion rising in his voice. “All of us and you.”
At their tables people gathered like they were at a class reunion, a little grayer and polder but joyous as songs like “A Good Feelin’ To Know” and “Crazy Love” evoked life’s memories flashing before their eyes. Young described it as the feeling of history going by while you’re playing. “We’ve all grown up together. We’ve all grown old together.”
Sadly Young passed a few years later and is no longer with us.
Before a Southside Johnny show in 2021, my friend Bill Burke who was at the Birchmere for the first time, went out for a cigarette and came upon a man standing outside. He struck up a conversation.
“Do you hang out here much?
“You could say that,” the man replied before pausing. “I own the joint.”
The two spoke for a few minutes and then Oelze graciously signed a copy of his book my friend had just bought and went back inside.
Now the foyer and hallways of the Birchmere suddenly seem a lot emptier.