Tag Archives: WCP

Listen to the Dark Doo-Wop of Cinema Hearts’ Burned and Burnished

“Cinema Hearts frontwoman Caroline Weinroth was a theater major in college, and when it came time to name her band’s second album, she looked to the world of musical theater for inspiration. Burned and Burnished is a riff on a line from The Fantasticks, the world’s longest-running musical. In that show, two fathers fake a feud so that their children will fall in love. They plot a mock abduction, hoping that the boy will save the girl and end up together, which they do, by the end of Act I. But in between acts, as the fathers and their children are frozen in a happy tableau, the narrator explains, “For the story is not ended/ and the play is never done/ Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit/ And burnished by—the sun!” Their happiness doesn’t last, of course: when the ruse is revealed, the couple breaks up and spends the second act learning about heartache and the harsh realities of the real world.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.

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Mat Men

In less than two years, NOVA Pro has become the D.C. area’s preeminent indie pro wrestling organization.

It’s Friday night in the middle of February, and the Annandale Volunteer Fire Department is electric. There’s the scent of fried food and the sound of butt rock in the air. A couple hundred people are seated around a deep blue wrestling ring, surrounded by wrestlers hawking merchandise off card tables. Promptly at 8 p.m., the rowdy crowd is treated to three hours of everything from a half-ton tag team to a pair of female Hot Topic devotees. The crowd eats it up, chanting, cheering, booing, and throwing streamers overhead. This is pro wrestling, in all its carnivalesque grandeur. This is NOVA Pro Wrestling.

Independent pro wrestling (known collectively as the “indies”) is the scrappy, low-budget cousin of World Wrestling Entertainment, the billion-dollar company that made everyone from Hulk Hogan to The Rock to John Cena into stars. Until the rise of WWE in the mid-1980s, a collection of territorial promotions that ran shows out of arenas, civic centers, and armories across the country controlled pro wrestling.

Eventually, WWE became the only game in town. The monopolization of pro wrestling led to a renaissance in the independent wrestling world, the spiritual successor to the territorial era, albeit on a smaller scale: the arenas replaced with VFW halls, the TV deals basically nonexistent. These promotions would become home to a new generation of wrestlers and wrestling fans who loved pro wrestling—not WWE’s homogenized brand of “sports entertainment.”

Two of those fans were Northern Virginia residents Mike King Jr. and his son Mike E. King. Pro wrestling was a family tradition: Big Mike had watched with his father and grandfather, going to wrestling shows at the Baltimore Arena and the Capital Centre in Landover. He started taking Little Mike to indie wrestling shows when his son was 6 years old (earlier if you count the one that he attended at the Capital Centre in utero). Because indie wrestling didn’t really exist in Northern Virginia—the closest shows were in Richmond or the Baltimore area—they would spend nearly every weekend driving up and down the East Coast and as far west as Indiana for their wrestling fix. “Some kids play soccer or baseball on a traveling team,” says Big Mike. “We liked to do wrestling.”

In early 2015, after thousands of miles on the road, the Kings “buckled down” to figure out what it would take to start a “homegrown” wrestling promotion in Northern Virginia. Big Mike wasn’t daunted by the paperwork the task entailed—he’s an office administrator by day—and they got to work, booking the first NOVA Pro show in September 2015 at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.

Little Mike had a vision for NOVA Pro Wrestling that combined all the things he loved about indie wrestling around the country. He wanted the classic pro wrestling storytelling of Southern promotions and the buzz-generating “dream matches” that fill the cards in Northeastern promotions. Every NOVA Pro event—the February show was their tenth—has built on that vision. Helping to execute that vision is Brad Stutts, a veteran of the North Carolina pro wrestling scene. “Wrestling is like a sideshow or a circus,” he explains. “If you don’t like the lion tamers, maybe you’ll like the jugglers, and if you don’t like the jugglers, maybe you’ll like the fire dancers.”

In that spirit, NOVA Pro has certainly tried to deliver something for everyone. They’ve brought in high-flyers and hosses; local upstarts and nationally-known veterans; men and women. In the first year, storylines explored a put-upon wrestler’s battle with his money-loving manager; a tag team bromance that toyed with pro wrestling’s dueling homoeroticism and homophobia; and a blood feud between two men vying to be the face of the franchise.

The latter pitted North Virginia natives Sonjay Dutt and Logan Easton LaRoux against each other. Dutt, a 17-year veteran was the hero, or “babyface,” while LaRoux was the villain, or “heel.” Each successive meeting raised the stakes, a Jenga tower of no-holds-barred and tag team matches that culminated in a steel cage match (at the JCC, optics be damned) last September. It was the highlight of NOVA Pro’s first year and the essence of the promotion: wrestlers at the top of their game, working in their backyards.

The 34-year-old Dutt—“The Original Playa from the Himalaya”—was born in D.C. and has spent almost all of his life in Northern Virginia. His parents emigrated from India in 1979, and the spectacle of pro wrestling was one of the first things his father saw on TV.

“As far back as I can remember, pro wrestling was always on in the house,” he says. “I fell in love with it right off the bat.” Turned off by the rigid structure of high school baseball, he started wrestling with his friends, gaining his first bit of notoriety at 16 when he appeared on The Best of Backyard Wrestling VHS tapes. He started training properly two years later and signed with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (a distant second-place promotion to the WWE) at 21 years old.

Since then, Dutt has wrestled hundreds of matches around the world, including many in the indies that the Kings patronized, and their connection goes way back: One of Dutt’s first matches was at the very first indie show Little Mike attended. Dutt had been friends with the Kings for years when they reached out about starting a local promotion, and it wasn’t a hard sell. “There’s something appealing about growing something locally,” Dutt says. He offered to help however he could.

That meant anchoring NOVA Pro shows with LaRoux, a 27-year-old who calls Fairfax County home. Like Dutt, LaRoux has been wrestling since his teens, driving the miles and putting in the work (often at “real shitholes”) that it takes to break into the wrestling business. It really started to click a few years ago as he developed the Logan Easton LaRoux character, the self-described “Champion of the One Percent,” who is billed as coming from “a gated community located within a gated community that is surrounded by yet another gated community in Great Falls.”

At first, LaRoux was a little hesitant about NOVA Pro. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he admits, “because the reality of Virginia independent wrestling can be fat guys in t-shirts doing scoop slams.” Thankfully, NOVA Pro isn’t like other Virginia indies, and LaRoux embraced the opportunity to work with Dutt. “I think he’s by far the most underrated wrestler working today,” LaRoux says about Dutt, who he calls “the godfather of NOVA Pro.” Dutt is proud of the year-long feud as well, saying, “it has created a star in Logan.”

But if a star is born in Northern Virginia, is it bright enough to be seen in the pro wrestling world at-large? Years ago, the answer would probably have been no: Guys like Dutt and LaRoux—who are billed generously at 5’8” and 5’11”, respectively—were rarely regarded as WWE prospects.

That has started to change. In the 2000s, the WWE started poaching some of the indie stars that the Kings had followed around the country. Since then, the indies have been a pipeline of talent for the WWE, and in recent years, the hiring of wrestlers who didn’t fit the typical mold—men and women not traditionally tall, taut, or telegenic enough— increased to a fever pitch.

Dutt is at peace with the fact that—despite the successes of his 17-year career and the changing landscape—he had never received a tryout with the WWE. “Life is just about timing,” he says. “But anything can happen.” And he’s right: he recently spent a few weeks at the WWE’s Orlando Performance Center, helping to train recruits and produce events.

It’s unclear if that will be the extent of his work with the WWE. All he can do is keep performing. “Other than the bumps and bruises, I feel like a million bucks,” he says. His full-time schedule still includes dates with NOVA Pro, ones that present him a unique opportunity: the chance to have his children see him work. The first match his six-year-old daughter saw was a no-holds-barred match with LaRoux that included some steel chair shots. “I told her ‘daddy is out there with friends, we’re having fun, don’t worry,’ and that’s all I needed to say,” Dutt explains. “She was fine—she loved it.”

The then-five-year-old was a natural, getting in LaRoux’s face and cheering for her father. She was also at the match in February … as was Dutt’s 12-week-old son. “My daughter really wanted to come and my son is too young to be with a sitter yet, so my mom brought him,” Dutt says. “He did amazing. I’m surprised that nothing really freaked him out!”

Time will tell if his son enjoys watching wrestling as much as his sister, but Dutt has an idea how that might turn out: when the time is right, “he might want to get in and fight, too.”

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.

How Church Night Is Bringing Their Wacky, Hilarious Gospel to the Masses

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A pastor in cargo shorts. A youth minister wearing a rictus grin and a fanny pack. An adult altar boy in bike shorts with the mark of the beast on his forehead. They are Reverend Dr. Stevedore Maybelline Bidet Esq., Kathy Piechota, and Randy St. Oates Jr. And this is their Church Night.

What follows for the next two hours at the Black Cat’s Backstage is a church service like none other. The irreverent reverend spits fire and brimstone throughout a call-and-response sermon; the church lady recalls smoking meth on the way to Burning Man and leads the flock in a Tears for Fears sing-a-long; the altar boy (or “altered boy,” as they pronounce it) speaks in tongues and serves a shot of whiskey and a tater tot as communion. And they’re not alone: there are a pair of stand-up comics, a flying spaghetti monster burlesque dancer, and a capacity crowd of parishioners.

If it still isn’t clear, Church Night is not a real religious service: it’s a comedy-variety show that updates Dana Carvey’s famed “Church Lady” Saturday Night Live sketch for the Tim & Eric generation. For more than three years, the Church Night crew have turned bars and clubs—in D.C. and beyond—into ad hoc altars. They’ve also turned their show into an award-winning web series, which, if the success of web-to-TV series like Broad City and Drunk History is any indication, could be the first step in bringing their gospel to a global audience.

Church Night began in the summer of 2013, when Linsay Deming (AKA Kathy Piechota) was tapped by You, Me, Them, Everybody host Brandon Wetherbee to produce a show at the Wonderland Ballroom. Before then, she had been hosting a “wacky” variety-potluck show at St. Stephen’s church with her band SweetBread Jim’s, bringing together music, comedy, burlesque, and even edible food sculptures.

“I loved that she made it a family affair, both figuratively and literally,” Wetherbee says. “It wasn’t just music or art or food or poetry or whatever that made it great, it was the curation and variety behind it.”

The Wonderland show would allow her to take things to the next level. “I wanted to make a variety show that had a through-line that would keep the audience engaged,” one that would create “an immersive experience that took people out of their own reality,” Deming says. She realized that a church service is the perfect format for a variety show.

Deming soon recruited her friend Landon Letzkus and his roommate at the time, Jeremy Frank. Letzkus had already developed the Stevedore Maybelline Bidet character for another project and knew he could easily make him into a pastor, while Frank—who studied theater and dance at George Mason University—would be perfect as the show’s scantily-clad altar boy (it was his decision to make Randy mute). They held their first show in April of 2013 at Wonderland to a packed house. “I think we’re onto something with this,” Deming remembers thinking.

***

Church Night quickly established the rituals and structure of a real religious ceremony: attendees are entreated to high-five their neighbors; Deming’s character plays keyboard for a pop music hymnal; Randy gives out the shots-and-tots communion. The trio believes it is the ritualistic nature of their show that has made it so popular with audiences. “People like that aspect of going to church,” Deming says. “It’s all the other nonsense they don’t like.”

While the group did some less-than-extensive research when first crafting Church Night (“We went to, like, two-thirds of a church service,” Deming admits), all three have religious backgrounds. Deming grew up in Sioux City, Iowa and went to a Methodist church, but moved away from religion when college exposed her to new, secular ideas. Frank grew up in a “really, really small” Orthodox Jewish community in Newport News, Virginia, but—like Deming—chose to live a more secular life in his late teens.

And while Rev. Bidet’s Southern-fried sermons suggest that Letzkus had a Baptist upbringing, that couldn’t be further from the truth. His parents are members of Sufism Reoriented, a spiritual community with an ashram in D.C.’s 16th Street Heights neighborhood; Letzkus was its only child.

“I was terrified by how abnormal this was, especially in D.C.,” he explains, “but my parents went to great lengths to explain that spirituality was up to me.” As a rebellious teenager, Letzkus enrolled at St. John’s College High School, a Catholic military school in Chevy Chase. That didn’t stick, either: “It made me wary of both organized religion and the military.”

Despite the differences in their religious backgrounds, the three principals of Church Night all appreciated the community that a place of worship can provide. Both Letzkus and Frank speak highly of the communities where they grew up.

“We live in a relatively secular circle of friends, and none of us are particularly religious now, but church is really great at bringing people together, looking out for each other, having this core group you can count on seeing,” Letzkus explains. “Maybe the most baffling part of [Church Night] is that we set out to do a comedy show and we ended up with something adjacent to a religious experience,” says Frank, although Deming adds: “But ours is based on absurdity, not on substance.”

***

That absurdity has forged a community of Church Night fans—whether they have religion in their background or not. Kusuma Prabhakara has been going to Church Night for about two years, and says that she has never ascribed to and was not raised under the auspices of any belief system. For her, it’s Church Night’s satire of organized religion’s hypocrisy—“the bullshit fundraising, the highly-flawed selling salvation to the desperate, the over-the-top theatrics, the forced modesty, the pandering drivel”—that keeps her coming back.

On the other end of the Church Night spectrum is someone like Katie Beard, the daughter of missionaries who grew up in the Baptist church. For children of pastors and missionaries, there are two paths in life: following in their fathers’ footsteps or discovering the secular world. “I have blue hair and tattoos,” Beard writes, “so you can imagine which way the pendulum swung for me.”

But even as she has moved away from the church, Church Night provides a “safe space” to revisit the religion of her youth like “a modern-day 700 Club.” “They are helping me to relive these situations in ways that can make us laugh at ourselves,” she says.

Still, the makers of Church Night take great care to walk the line between transgressive, loving parody and reverence for the good aspects of religion. “We don’t want to make fun of faith or belief in something spiritual or bigger than yourself,” Deming explains. “We’re just taking the structure of church to make a show about these morons who are using religion for their own personal gain.” Or as Frank puts it: “They’re dumb as shit, and sometimes they ask the lord for guidance but he’s got other stuff to do.”

While religion provides the structure of the show, the Church Night crew stresses that it’s all in service of their comedy. Deming is influenced by Mr. Show and Amy Sedaris and grew up doing sketch and improv; Letzkus watched Saturday Night Live with his family and eventually got into underground favorites The State and Stella; and Frank points to the physical comedy of The Carol Burnett Show as a key influence. The format of Church Night allows them to provide different flavors of entertainment: sketch, stand-up, and burlesque; jokes about everything from bodily functions to more biting material about politics. “We want to span the gamut of comedy as much as we can,” Deming explains.

To that end, the trio launched Church Night TV, a five-episode webseries that they produced with filmmaker Theodore Jones, who is also Deming’s husband. The idea was to bring Church Night to the cable access format, adding guest interviews, commercial plugs, hot dog breaks, and segments like the Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee-inspired “Inside Kathy’s Volvo” and a spoof of The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. With no real budget and full-time jobs, the show took a year to make, but it was worth it: Not only did it strengthen their character work and writing, but the series won awards at LA Webfest and was an official selection at Miami Webfest and Webfest Berlin this year.

“Our dream would be to get Church Night to a place where we could have a show on TV or streaming or whatever and tour the live show,” Deming admits. “That’s the dream, but why wait?”

Doing Church Night TV DIY-style let them cut their teeth and left them with a digital calling card that can open Church Night to new audiences. “It takes a little while to find the people that are into what we’re doing,” she explains. “We’re not for everybody. We’re the opposite of cool.”

Originally published in the Washington City Paper.

Are Abhi//Dijon R&B’s Next Breakout Stars?

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“Last month, Abhi//Dijon tweeted, “we are r & b to the core and will wear that label if people need it but trust we intend on turning the genre and everything else inside out.” It was a bold, confrontational statement from the duo, which is comprised of Ellicott City-raised, Los Angeles-based musicians Abhi Raju and Dijon Duenas. But with the release of their latest EP, Montana, it definitely reads as a mission statement.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.

Can Sofar Sounds Bring Intimacy Back to Live Music?

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No matter how transcendent a concert at 9:30 Club, Rock & Roll Hotel, or U Street Music Hall, the live music experience is plagued by the same distractions: overtalking conversationalists, smart phone documentarians, boisterous drink-orderers. But while this may feel like another problem with the New D.C., it’s probably universal. “No matter if you’re in Jakarta, Melbourne, or Chicago, it’s the same issues,” Rafe Offer concurs. “Live music has become background noise.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.

Meet The Grand Ancestor Sound System, D.C.’s First And Only Custom Built, Jamaican-Style Stack

“During the day, the wholesale warehouses around the oasis of gentrification that is Union Market bustle and brim with commerce and action. At night, it’s a different story: Heading northwest on Morse Street NE leads to an abandoned market and bare loading docks surrounded by panel vans and off-duty food trucks.

One night in July, I headed towards one of these warehouses for a party. I felt lost amid this industrial and commercial decay until I turned a corner and heard the bassline and patois of reggae gradually getting louder. This must be the place. Past industrial mixers and slop sinks is a dark room strung up with Christmas lights, a DJ table butted up against a speaker cabinet that measures 10 feet tall.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.

On Its Debut Album, Technophobia Channels ’80s Darkwave

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“There is something strangely familiar and comforting about Technophobia’s debut album Flicker Out—especially if you’ve ever gone long stretches wearing only black or stayed up late watching John Carpenter films just for the soundtracks.

As Technophobia, Katie and Stephen Petix craft darkwave dirges full of icy arpeggios and pneumatic death marches, their analog synthesizers and drum machines battling as Katie unleashes operatic vocals, incanting gothic poetry. The duo’s music draws from the tried-and-true tropes of synthpop and industrial, connecting the dots between early Ministry and Pretty Hate Machine–era Nine Inch Nails to contemporaries like Cold Cave and Light Asylum.”

Read more in the Washington City Paper.