On the eastern end of the infamous U St. Corridor, nestled at the corner of 11th & U NW, is Solly’s Tavern. While it may not have as rich a history as countless other venues on the District’s premiere music strip, something is definitely happening there. Seemingly small upon entrance, a few steps to the left reveals an inviting wooden staircase. The second floor offers another bar, dance floor and stage, the perfect space for hosting a monthly ska & reggae night.
Every third Thursday of the month, a devoted group of friends arrange for local and touring bands to play at the cozy corner bar. This month’s show was particularly special, as it hosted the birthday celebration of BlueBeat DC’s founding father, “King Duncan.”
The venue buzzed from 8pm onward as friends and locals wandered upstairs, lured by the sweet sounds of saxophones, trombones and drums. The birthday boy himself kicked the party off with his band The Shifters, transitioning immediately into a set as backing band for Queen P, member of the former group, Ocean 11. The singer flew in from California to perform as her gift to the King. Her previous band was well known among the underground, but never managed to tour the east coast. Headlining were the Hub City Stompers, a ska band formed in 2002 which hails from New Brunswick, NJ. In the song “Ska Train to Dorkville” they voice their disdain for the movement’s transition from its Jamaican roots to white-bred ideals and cookie-cutter sounds. The crowd goes wild, raising and lowering their arms as a conductor sounding off his horn. Anyone doubting history is invited to “get on that train.”
So what's the story behind "His Majesty" and how did he come to be celebrated in such a way?
Making the leap from the western coast in 2007, Duncan found himself rather disappointed in D.C.’s ability to host decent ska and reggae shows. As he began playing with bands specializing in such genres, eventually taking on managerial duties in addition to performing, he became increasingly frustrated with club owners’ lack of interest. He wasn’t alone. Over the past few years he discovered that many bands within and outside of the area were just as dissatisfied. In 2009 while at a concert in Baltimore, a conversation with a member of the band Deal’s Gone Bad inspired Duncan to start his own dance night.
The idea was originally borrowed from Chris Murray, founder of the now defunct BlueBeat Lounge, which operated within Los Angeles for about seven years. Dave Simon, guitarist for Deal’s Gone Bad, mentioned how he’d gained Chris’ permission to use the BlueBeat name back in Chicago, and prompted Duncan to do the same. Knowing the endeavor would be difficult; Duncan called upon good friend Michelle Chin, owner of Rude in DC Productions. After an extensive search and finding most locations unsuitable, they managed to work out a relationship with Solly’s U St. Tavern, thanks to Michelle’s friend Ric Winkler.
It is important to know that BlueBeat DC is a non-profit organization. Door fees on show nights directly support the bands, which makes this partnership so unique. Duncan considers Solly’s to be an ideal venue. The intimate setup is perfect for live performances, and the management is cooperative. “They completely trust us to run our promotions and rarely question our practices…Solly’s staff is by far the best bar staff in D.C., hands down. They’re fun, helpful, and they treat their customers respectably. I’d go there even if I didn’t have BlueBeat to run,” says the King.
While he seemed to enjoy himself that night, Duncan informed me that his job isn’t always easy. “I came to hold this position out of necessity, not because I thought it would be a fun hobby,” he says. Turns out booking bands is difficult, to say the least. Duncan goes on to explain how live music is becoming rarer these days, with most clubs looking to hire DJs. Furthermore, with genres such as Ska, Reggae and Rocksteady playing second fiddle to that of Rock and Hip-Hop, venues aren’t as willing to host if they fear they won’t draw customers. In the end, he makes a valid point – “When things go well, the promoter is rarely credited. When things go badly, the promoter is the first person to be executed.” It seems those interested in such business would be wise to heed his words.
Currently, Duncan and the team have begun prepping for their anniversary show in January. The dance club will be celebrating its second year, so be sure to make it out and show your support for local music!