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D.C.’s music scene goes ‘Live at 9:30’

May 26, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
For more than 30 years, D.C.’s 9:30 Club has been widely acclaimed as one of the best music venues in the country, topping Billboard’s annual club rankings an unprecedented 11 times. Now, the new PBS show “Live at 9:30” sets out to give viewers a firsthand look at great performances past and present, while also hearkening back to the golden era of variety television. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: A new music variety show debuts on PBS, set in a club with quite a legacy in rock and alternative music.

Jeffrey Brown explains.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s called “Live at 9:30,” and live is important. This is a musical variety show aimed at giving viewers an experience as close as possible to being at a rock ‘n’ roll show.

Unlike the much-loved “Austin City Limits,” now 40-plus-years old, each hour-long episode of “Live At 9:30” will feature performances by several groups, old and new. The first includes Garbage, a band formed in Madison, Wisconsin in 1993, Ibeyi, a French-Cuban sister act, and Yonder Mountain String Band.

There are also behind-the-scenes interviews, and short sketches from popular comedians like Hannibal Buress.

HANNIBAL BURESS, Comedian: Who’d freestyle better, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?

JEFFREY BROWN: The setting for all this, the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.,

SETH HURWITZ, Co-Owner, 9:30 Club: When you want is, when that band that goes on the stage, you want the band and the audience not to be thinking about anything else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seth Hurwitz is the club’s co-owner, and has made it into one of rock music’s best venues. Over the years, it’s hosted the already famous Bob Dylan, Prince and Dave Grohl and those on the rise, Sonic Youth, Psychedelic Furs and Fugazi, just to name a few.

“Rolling Stone” magazine dubbed it number one big room, best sound, best backstage. And “Billboard” has named it top club 11 times.

Now Hurwitz wants to reach a larger audience.

SETH HURWITZ: When I grew up, we watched “The Midnight Special” or “In Concert,” or, in the old days, “American Bandstand.”

I really wanted an “Ed Sullivan” kind of show, because that was fun, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

SETH HURWITZ: So, we really are curating this for everyone. I have this fantasy vision of three generations sitting around at the couch because “Live at 9:30” is coming on.

JEFFREY BROWN: One performer in the new series is three-time Grammy winner Ben Harper, known for his mix of blues, soul, reggae, and rock. He’s played here often with his band Innocent Criminals.

BEN HARPER, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals: The 9:30 Club was build to plug in and go. It’s made for modern music. There’s not a bad seat in the house.

It’s just — the wraparound balcony is always a great rush. Music-first venues are some of my favorite worldwide. You can tell by their archive here as well. It’s music first. It represents one of the best aspects of the human experience. And I think music preservation is as critical a cultural component as science.

JEFFREY BROWN: On our visit, crews set up for Harper’s act, placing a dozen cameras around the venue to create a you-are-there experience for the viewer.

After the sound check, Harper did a short interview for the TV show. A portion of his live show will be featured in a coming episode.

BOB BOILEN, NPR: This club, you talk to any artist who comes through here, they love it here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bob Boilen is best known today as host of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and “Tiny Desk Concerts.”

He’s also a musician, and used to perform at the 9:30 Club in its early years. He’s now serving as one of the rotating hosts on “Live At 9:30.”

BOB BOILEN: A lot of people when they have families, for whatever reason, they lose the thread of music that was important to them, because they can’t get out, everything from baby-sitters to exhaustion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Life happens.

BOB BOILEN: Life. Life happens.

The nice thing about the show is that you will get a variety. You might like three of the four things, or — and then you get a little mix of comedy in there. So, you can’t like everything as a viewer, but if you could understand who these people are, you make a connection with them, even if you don’t like the music, you understand why they make their music, why they do what they do.

JEFFREY BROWN: More than 40 bands have already been recorded to weave into the series, something for everyone.

Live at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: The 12-episode season will air on PBS stations in June. Check your local listings.

Online, Seth Hurwitz takes Jeff to the basement of the 9:30 Club to discuss the early days of the music scene there. Plus, we have five tips on how to take great photos at the next concert you attend.

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