The horrors

I was a cop reporter back in the day, and I saw a number of bullet wounds in person. They often looked just like they do on TV — a small hole, often more or less echoed on the other side of the body. Even most murder victims didn’t look that awful, and they died at the scene because they bled out or got shot in the heart or brain. Honestly, a lot of auto accidents I covered were far more grisly — a fact that got me to start wearing seat belts at a time when a lot of people didn’t.

I’ve never seen in person what someone looks like after getting shot with an AR-15. I’ve seen photos, though, and have talked to emergency personnel who treated victims. Let’s just say that you can lose a chunk of meat if you’re shot with one of these, especially if you get hit repeatedly. There’s often no coming back from that.

I thought about that yesterday after the latest school shooting in Texas. Nineteen kids and two adults are dead in the latest high-powered-weapon mass shooting. You’d think people would be horrified into action en masse but, you know, guns.

The parents of these dead schoolchildren lined up for DNA testing just hours after the shooting. They’re not suspects. This is how the remains of their children will be identified. And this is the only place in the allegedly civilized world where these shootings have become commonplace.

If this is OK with you, if you think that accepting this somehow protects your freedom, you are lost. It’s never too late to find your way, though.

Musicians (and audiences) of a certain age

It used to be that as you got older as a musician, your options for getting gigs shrank. Nowadays, unfortunately, that’s true for all musicians. The hangout/live music/stuff-on-the-TV bar that I took for granted for decades is fading, and with that is going lots of places for live music.

But there are a few still around, where you’ll see bands with decades upon decades of experience still throwing it down, often with a level of talent that will make your jaw go slack. We lost one recently — the Lahinch Tavern in Potomac — but we also gained one a while back when Hank Dietle’s Tavern in Rockville returned to action. Still, the trends for this sort of place are not favorable, so you should seek them out while you still can.

All of the places below are in the DC metro area. There are a bunch of others that aren’t far away — places like the Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill, Va. or Apehangers in Bel Alton, Md. — and lots of wineries and microbrewers in the distant-ish ‘burbs will book music for grownups during the summer in particular. But I’m going to focus on the locals here. Here are the ones I know:

JV’s: This absolute Falls Church institution got an overhaul a few years back, doubling in size and just becoming a much better music venue overall. The food is still good-diner quality, the beers are still cold, they don’t serve hard liquor and you’re still likely to meet Lorraine. And there is live rootsy music every night, from open mics to all-pro acts. On weekend afternoons/nights there are often two shows.

Hershey’s Restaurant & Bar: It looks like a roadhouse, it’s next to some railroad tracks in Gaithersburg, you probably aren’t going to find it accidentally and it has the best damn fried chicken I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. It’s another joint that’s been around for more than 50 years, and they have music on weekends. They also serve breakfast on Saturday and Sunday.

Hank Dietle’s Tavern: One of the dangers of being an old dive-ish bar is that it might suddenly burn down. That’s what happened to Hank’s a few years back, and given its unlikely location on Rockville Pike, surrounded by strip-mall suburbia, that should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t.

219 Restaurant: Speaking of burning, this Old Town Alexandria complex-in-a-townhouse puts its live music in a cigar bar. That requires all sorts of restrictions in this no-smoking era for clubs, but the all-the-way-upstairs space (it’s a memorable hike if you’re a musician with gear) features live music most nights. The place has a strong New Orleans flavor and brings in some of the best local blues and jazz musicians, and my harmonicas have tasted like cigars for weeks after doing a show here.

The Hamilton Loft: On the second floor of the big D.C. restaurant that bears most of its name — which itself is atop a large live music club that hosts national touring acts — sits this sometimes-open performance space. It’s another roots-jazz-blues kind of place that’s often ideal for hanging out after the show in the basement.

Hell’s Bottom VFW: The fact that there’s a VFW hall in the People’s Republic of Takoma Park at all seems odd, but there is, and this one has live music on a regular basis. Shows are early, in part as a nod to the neighbors, drinks and cheap and the vibe is excellent.

Old Bowie Town Grille: This place is a longtime supporter of live music with one of the better-known open mics in the area. Musicians generally work for tips and/or the door here, so you should act accordingly with your tip money.

New Deal Cafe: If you’ve played rootsy music in bars for any time in this area, you’ve probably done a show or two here. The place is run as a cooperative and calls itself “Greenbelt’s living room” (an accurate claim). It has live music almost every night.

Weird wheels

I’ve owned or co-owned nine cars in my life, starting in 1982 and continuing to this day. Most of them have been what a lot of folks would think are weird choices, but they’ve been surprisingly practical as well.

I’ve been pretty lucky on the car front — I’ve generally been happy with and have enjoyed every one except the first, a 1975 Ford Mustang II that was craptastic in every way a car could be craptastic. Since my jobs were also craptastic at the time and I couldn’t afford a replacement for years, it taught me how to perform all sorts of minor repairs. It also taught me that I didn’t want to perform minor repairs going forward, and that became a big part of my subsequent car decisions.

Here are all of them, ranked in reverse order of how much I liked them:

1975 Ford Mustang II. Think of a Ford Pinto in a different skin. I think the moment I absolutely snapped came with the half-covered-in-vinyl roof suddenly peeled away one day on the highway, exposing a big pile of rust underneath. This was one of the most terrible cars from the era of the absolutely most terrible cars, and an ignoble death in a car crusher was too good for it. I’m still bitter.

1981 Plymouth Colt. This was from an era where small Dodges and Chryslers were actually made by Mitsubishi, and I bought this car out of a rental fleet. It was white, it was bland, it was a boring small 4-door sedan, it was completely and utterly reliable and that’s what I cared about after the Mustang debacle. It served me well for many years.

2002 Ford Ranger. It was a decade old when we bought it as a get-around-after-work vehicle for my wife, and we kept it for another decade. She loved it and I hardly ever drove it. The truck did truck things perfectly fine, was generally reliable and only ranks here because I just never messed with it much. It was a decent truck.

2005 Nissan Murano. This was my commutermobile in an era when I drove about 40 miles a day to and from work. It was comfortable, it was easy to handle, it was reliable, it could haul Home Depot stuff and it had some power. It also was embarrassingly big for a vehicle that contained one person most of the time, and a sudden surge in gas prices made it a whole lot less desirable. Still a worthy car, though; would have been better as a family hauler.

1992 Isuzu Amigo. The blandness of the Colt finally got to me and I may have overreacted when I bought this as its replacement, especially since I lived in D.C. where this Jeep-like vehicle wasn’t the best choice. But it was fun to hop around in and was easy on the gas, and the tailgate-mounted spare bounced away more than one urban driver who decided to follow too closely. However, it was very, very vulnerable to break-ins.

2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser. We got this in an era when I was a fairly busy musician, and I liked the old-school look. But the best part of this was its highly configurable interior — the rear seat folded flat, or vertically to create a barrier, or could be removed completely. The front passenger seat also folded flat and provided a nice platform. Unfortunately, it was underpowered, drank gas like a much more powerful vehicle, and had reliability problems (brakes needed replacement after 30,000 miles; radiator had to be replaced after 60K). The latter problem made me realize that a lot of other expensive repairs were probably coming, so I dumped it.

2022 Ford Maverick. This is my wife’s current vehicle; she had a company car for years but they pulled it, and now she drives this to/at work. It’s really a SUV that replaces the typical back end with a truck bed; it rides much more comfortably than a typical truck. It’s an excellent value and gets good gas mileage for what it is. I like it but I’m not a hopeless fanboy; this wouldn’t have been my choice but my wife is doing 90 percent of the driving in it, and she loves it. And people ask us about it all of the time.

2015 Mini S 4-door coupe. This is my current driver. Almost all of my driving is in the city, and this is an unbelievably fun city car. The ‘S’ designation, with its larger-horsepower turbo, also means this thing can hop up and go. I’ve torn away from rednecks on the interstate who think it’s hi-larious to tailgate a Mini, and this vehicle is also just big enough to be more useful than its smaller 2-door sibling. It’s getting up there in age and I’m concerned about long-term reliability (and repair costs), but I’ve certainly enjoyed it so far.

2008 Volvo C30. Here it is: My favorite car. Small without being too small, an actual hatchback made by Volvo, surprisingly utilitarian, funky, safety-oriented and sneaky-powerful, this was what I drove during my busiest car-commuting period of my life. I put about 100K miles on this thing in a little more than six years, and decided to move it when it became clear it would need a good chunk of work for the next 100K. It never was a big seller; if it had done better, I would have replaced the old C30 with a new one, but new C30s didn’t exist when replacement time came. I still miss it.

Bad baseball is better than no baseball

I have steeled myself for this version of the Washington Nationals. After the Great Talent Dump of 2021 (you knew the Nats had given up when they traded away Trea Turner), the upcoming pain was apparent. In fact, the Nats have been one of baseball’s worst teams since winning the World Series in 2019, as a combo of pitching injuries, trades of talent for prospects and declining skills among veterans have conspired to sink the team.

The current version of the Nats is 4-6, about where you’d expect them to be as a winning percentage for the entire year, and have disappointingly lost two out of three to the Pirates as of this writing. Only six team members are hitting above .200, although Juan Soto is still Juan Soto, and Josh Bell has started out hot. Victor Robles, once the organization’s biggest propsect, is 0 for 18. Carter Kieboom, he of the multiple failed attempts to make it in the bigs so far, is out indefinitely with a forearm injury. Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, two big reasons why the Nats won the 2019 series, are hurt again and possess an ERA of nearly 11, respectively.

But the bullpen has looked OK and it’s fun to have Sean Doolittle (who has looked good so far) back in town. Erick Fedde, Josh Rogers and Josiah Gray have been solid starters. Anibel Sanchez is on the cusp of returning (whether he’ll be effective is another matter), Strasburg might pitch again in a few weeks and Joe Ross also might be back in June.

But for now, we grind. I desperately hope we don’t become Orioles South and echo baseball’s most incompetent franchise — one so bad that it hurts the Nationals through their terrible O’s-controlled joint TV network and the long-outstanding TV payments the Orioles have foot-dragged. O’s fans: You definitely deserve better.

It’s sometimes hard to pick out the path ahead with what looks like a pieced-together team. But there are some rays of sunshine in here, and it’s not absurd to think this Nats team will at least be reasonably competitive and entertaining.

A brief (yet surprisingly long) history of my guitar amps

I was thinking the other day about all the guitar amps I have owned over the years, even though I play harmonica through them and have never owned an electric guitar. I have bought and sold a bunch of them as I got smarter about what I needed and started gigging out enough to justify owning multiple amps. And I recently went on a buying-and-selling jag, selling some old (and pretty good) gear to fund the purchase of an amp I’ve always wanted.

My first amp was a Gibson G-50A, a transistor amp from the late ’70s. I bought it in the mid-’80s when I knew nothing about amps and needed something relatively cheap and loud (sort of like my playing at the time). It was not special, but I was a long way from having great tone or skill anyway, so it did the job. I sold it before I left Memphis in 1990 and moved to D.C.

I then spent a few years on the road for my day job, and didn’t pick up another amp until at least 1993. That was a Fender Princeton Chorus, another solid state amp. It sounded OK-ish, but I had a tendency to turn up the distortion too much to cover up my sloppy play. It also didn’t punch through the band well.

I finally gave up on that and in 1994, bought my first great gigging amp. It’s one that I regret selling to this day: a 1963 Fender Vibroverb reissue. This was a beautiful amp with tone to match, but I was still learning how to perform and didn’t entirely realize just how good it was. I traded it in after about a year for the wannabe amp of all harp players at the time: a 1959 Fender Bassman reissue.

This particular Bassman was brand new (I almost never buy new amps) and was as sterile as a surgical suite. There was nothing I could do to warm it up. It was too loud for most of the rooms I played, and it was an expensive mistake.

I replaced it with a Crate Vintage Club 50, which was just as loud, almost as sterile and made snobbier musicians turn up their noses at a brand associated with newbies. I kept it for a while, mostly because I was blowing too much money buying amps, but I never loved it.

While I still had the Crate, I went to a vintage guitar show and lucked into a cheap Gibson GA-30 Invader, probably from the early 1960s. This was my first vintage amp. The Tolex covering had been completely stripped away, the cabinet wood had been stained brown, the grill cloth appeared to have been vomited on and it was missing a speaker. Once I solved that last problem, I realized it was a tone beauty on the inside and it became my main stage amp for a few years. I still have video of me playing it at my wedding 25 years ago.

But the Gibson couldn’t get across in big rooms. I kept it for a few more years, but I also acquired Yet Again Another ’59 Bassman. This one sounded great! It was well broken-in, especially the blue Alnico speakers, and with a little bit of work, it had nice tone even at lower volumes. I played it for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the Gibson started giving me issues and I traded it in on another vintage amp: A Danelectro DS-50. I loved it when it worked, but it often didn’t, and it occasionally would deliver me a nice electrical shock on stage for my troubles. I got tired of the hassle and sold it.

I then got a great deal on a silver face Fender Super Reverb, which was like the Bassman but even bigger and heavier, and I kept them both for a while. They covered the same territory, though, so I sold the Super.

Next was a Fender Blues Junior, a workhorse amp I played for a couple of years in smaller rooms. It did the job but I never found it terribly inspiring. As a result, I purchased a Ceriatone ’59 Fender Deluxe chassis, a Ted Weber cabinet covered with white Tolex, used a 12-inch Fender speaker I already had and put the whole thing together. I named it Teresita after my wife’s middle name, had a label engraved for it at a store and still have it to this day. It could use some time on the bench and probably some new filter caps, but it basically works fine.

As I got older and house PA systems became more common, I decided to sell the Bassman. Sound mixer guys preferred smaller amps that didn’t pound them in the skull, and using a mic made it possible to use pretty much any amp anywhere, so Teresita became my main player. I also picked up a Traynor DarkHorse head and a cabinet with a 12-inch speaker, and it took its place alongside Teresita on and off.

But I also started getting into small practice amps. First came an Electar Tube 10, which I junked after blew a power transformer and would have cost more to repair than it was worth. That was followed by a Bugera Vintage 5, which was extremely flexible and also annoyed the snobbish because of its bargain price. I thought it sounded and looked great.

But then I was surfing Craigslist one day, perhaps seven or eight years ago, and came across a guy selling a blackface 1966 Fender Champ. I’d never owned a real blackface Fender, and he was selling it at a below-market price — under the condition that it went to someone who was actually playing out. I fit that bill and, although he had a lot of inquiries, he sold it to me. It needed a few minor repairs (which he disclosed up front) but it took maybe an hour for me to perform those. I remain grateful to this day to own this piece of music history and have actually gigged with it many times. It’s also become wildly popular among old guitar guys and has nearly tripled in value. Remember what I said about sound guys? I’ve played this amp at big outdoor gigs in front of hundreds of people with just a mic pointed at it, and it’s made more than a few of those guys very happy.

But I also got bored, and when Lone Wolf Blues Co. issued an inexpensive purpose-built 10-watt harp amp called the Harp Train, I purchased a used one for less than $300. I used it more and more over time, right up to when I sold it a couple of months ago.

At the same time, I also sold the Traynor and a couple of harp mics (a whole other rabbit hole). With the proceeds, I bought what I suspect will be my last amps: A reissue 1965 Fender Princeton Reverb and a funky Quilter 101 Mini head. The Princeton was another Craigslist find, and it’s a special edition with tan Tolex, white knobs and a Celestion Gold G10 speaker, but I got a reasonable deal for a hugely popular amp. The Quilter is a solid-state head that does an astonishing job of sounding and reacting like a tube head, even though it’s not an emulator.

Both sound wonderful, but I hope I’m done with the swapping. Probably not, though, given my history.