Buster Poindexter at the Birchmere

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
Gig hall and performance review

Submitted: August 10, 2014

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Submitted: August 10, 2014



I won tickets to the Buster Poindexter show Friday night.  I wanted to see him but I wasn't gonna pay 40 bucks a piece.  The Vinyl District DC web site had a review of his recent gigs and asked people to comment at the bottom with a suggestion for a song request.  I didn't see any comments so I added "Witchcraft" (originally sung by Frank Sinatra) to the nonexistent list.  Apparently, either everyone who wanted to go had tickets, or no one noticed the blurb mentioning the tix so the web site sent me an email saying two would be waiting for me at Will Call.  I think I found out why later, but more on that in a bit.

Got there and after a bit of confusion they told us they didn't have anything at Will Call but we were on the guest list, and told us to give our names when we got to the door.  The Birchmere has been in Alexandria, Virginia since 1966 and is more of a giant warehouse/dinner theater than a gig hall.   From Henry Rollins to Kenny G, I think anyone who is anyone has played there.  You enter the building through the doors equidistant from both ends.  The box office is on your left where you either show them your ticket or get marked off the Will Call list.  They then hand you a ticket with a number (just like at the butcher shop (Now Serving...)).  Ticket numbers are first come first served, just like the butcher shop.

Number ticket in hand, you then enter a large open area with a swag room behind you off to the left (behind the ticket booth), bar and tables are straight away and back to the left, and a decent sized dance floor and stage to the right.  Opposite the stage and directly to the left where you’ve entered the room are double doors with a marquee above, with the name of the evening’s performance listed.  That is the room with the main stage.  The building opens for business at 5:00 for people who want seats close to the stage.  You can sit and mill about until six when a person steps up to a podium next to the double doors, microphone in hand, and begins to announce numbers.  People wait patiently as their number is called, present their ticket, and get a hand stamp to acknowledge eligibility to participate in the festivities.  I thought then that I knew why we were the only ones commenting on the web site.  We had to be the youngest people in the place.  The only vinyl these people had were 78’s.  We handed our ticket, I gave them my name, podium person validated it against the list, stamped our hands, and we were ushered through the open doors.

A second set of double doors sit about ten feet beyond the entrance.  A long vestibule covered with memorabilia from previous acts runs the complete width of the hall with the kitchen at one end and rest rooms at the other.  Our British friends always laugh that the Americans call them restrooms (or bathrooms).  No one ever goes in there to rest, and certainly not to take a bath.  Technically, and correctly, they call them “toilets.”

First impressions after passing through the second set of doors at the back of the main hall are that it is a much more intimate and scruffier version of an old Vegas show hall.  The stage runs almost the full width, with speakers stacked at both ends; relatively standard design.  Tables long enough to seat eight or ten people extend outward from the stage, followed by an aisle way and a row of bench seats and tables along the back.  The back section is raised about a foot and has the same long table configuration all the way to the back wall.  There is not a bad seat in the house, except half of them.  If you are not sitting on the side of the table with a view of the stage, you have to turn your chair or pretend you are an owl and wrench your neck around to see what’s going on.

Strings of incandescent light bulbs hang overhead to light the place and are dimmed when the show starts.  I assume they have a warehouse full of these since the energy saving law prohibits making them anymore. My guess is that some enterprising person will just rename them as filament based heating devices and remarket them that way.  After all, they are better at heating than they are at lighting.

In addition to getting there early and getting a decent seat is that they serve dinner.  No expense is spared to provide the best canned and frozen entrees the area has to offer.  All for the low, low price of about twenty bucks a pop.  Beer, including the new local DC Brau, is something like seven or eight bucks.  In all, you are probably not going to walk out of there for less than a c-note.

Shows start promptly-ish at 7:30.  As the lights dim, an announcement is made to please remain seated during the show and to not yell out to the performers.  Basically, sit there, shut the fuck up, and enjoy the show.  Patrons have also previously been warned, via a large sign at the entrance, not to use cell phones, cameras, or other electronic devices while in the hall.

Buster entered the stage with the band (piano/accordion, slap bass, guitar, and drummer) and told a few jokes.  As I had seen from the previous shows on the Vinyl District site, he played mostly bluesy, lounge-type standards from the first half of the last century, and shied away from the calypso stuff that had gained him fame in the eighties.  About half way through the show I looked around and it hit me.  Wham!  Everyone was chair dancing and clapping their hands.  I am surprised that the fumes generated from the friction of polyester pants vigorously meeting the vinyl chair cushions didn’t overwhelm the ventilation system.  The sad thing is that this was the second show we had seen at the Birchmere.  I think I am being assimilated.  Resistance is futile.  Everyone was having fun but, my god, it looked like a PBS oldies special.  I expected Peter Noone to come out on stage any moment and introduce The Four Tops as the next act.  

The band didn’t leave the stage and come back for an encore, they just kept playing and Buster kept singing; noting that encores were bullshit.  He was staying out onstage until he was done, and then he was leaving; which he did.  It must be said that his voice was the best I have ever heard.  He sounded much like Tom Waits circa mid-seventies and the set list complemented his vocal style.

In all he played for about an hour and fifteen, which is good because us old people need to be home and in bed early.  In the end, a good time was had by all.  Luckily, I am seeing the band “Off!” this coming week.  That should remove any lingering effects of the show.


© Copyright 2017 Robert Fontaine. All rights reserved.

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