Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Five Years of Thrills at the Sunset Grille, Part I

The way panties were flying onto the stage this past Thursday at the Sunset Grille, you would have thought Tom Jones was playing there. But, as far as I know, Tom Jones was back in the U.K. having a facelift. The band on stage Thursday at the Grille was the Thrillbillys and they were celebrating the fifth anniversary of their regular Thursday gig there. The panties were being tossed as head Thrillbilly Johnny Castle hammered his was through his composition "Hot Pink Panties". By the time the band had finished a few more songs, panties were everywhere and bandmembers were wearing panties as ascots.

Although this sort of debauchery isn't typical of a Thursday night at the Grille, the fun loving atmosphere and interaction between the band and the crowd defintely is. The Sunset Grille continues to be one of the last "come as you are" places in the D.C. area where folks can be themselves, let their hair down, blow off steam and have a little fun with the band.

But five years ago, things at Annandale's Sunset Grille were were a bit uncertain. Bill Kirchen, who had held court there most Thursdays for close to 15 years with his band Too Much Fun, had announced he was leaving the D.C. area and relocating to Austin. Kirchen's final Thursday gig at the Grille was shut down by Fairfax County fire marshalls because of severe overcrowding. At times that night, there were upwards of 100 people in a room that had a maximum fire code capacity of 49. Soon, the Grille was forced to close for a week becuase of the violation.

Although several bands played the Grille on a regular basis and drew good crowds, Kirchen's Thursday night gig's and his occasional weekend performances drove a large portion of the Grille's revenue. Similarly, a bartender at the Grille once told me she sometimes made more in tips on a Thursday night than she did on all her other weekly shifts combined.

Around the same time Kirchen announced he was relocating to Austin, Jan Zukoswki, longtine bassist in The Nighthawks, a staple of the D.C. music scene for over 30 years, announced he was leaving the band. When all these changes were announced, Johnny Castle, Kirchen's bass player of 12 years, stepped in to fill the voids. Castle was invited to join The Nighthawks in Zukoswki's place and the Sunset Grille's management approached him about putting together a band to replace Kirchen on Thursday nights. Castle joined forces with drummer Robbie Magruder, singer-songwriter-guitarist David Kitchen and guitarist Andy Rutherford to form the Thrillbillys and a new Thursday night tradition was born.

Early on, when asked what type of music the Thrillbillys played, Johnny would answer "party music". At first, I didn't get the answer. But, after hearing the band a few times, I began to understand his answer. The Thrillbillys repetoire consisted of songs that were good for drinking and dancing. And, most of the songs, while covers, were songs that had not been beaten to death by every other band playing bar gigs. There were lesser known songs by Chuck Berry ("Dear Dad", "Oh What a Thrill"), the Beatles ("I Call Your Name") , Los Lobos ("Evangeline") along with garage classics from the 60's like "Have Love Will Travel" and "Shakin' All Over'". Add in the occasional odd modern cover like Patty Loveless' "Timber, I'm Falling in Love" and Steve Earle's "Sweet Little 66", and the band was on its way to having something on its set list that pleased just about.

After the Grille reopened from its forced closing due the fire marshall raid on Kirchen's last show, it was a different place and had a different groove. Management removed part of the bar, thus opening the room a little and, more importantly, they adhered to the maximum capacity of 49. With a little more breathing room in the Grille and a "party music" band on stage, everyone seemed more relaxed.

In the five years the Thrillbillys have been playing the Sunset Grille, their repetoire has expanded even more, but no songs seems out place. Much of the variety is driven by the vast and varying experiences of the band members. Drummer Robbie Magruder toured and recorded with guitar legend Roy Buchanan and later with Mary-Chapin Carpenter. Castle has toured, recorded and/or shared the stage with country guitar legend Joe Maphis, the early newgrass band II Generation and D.C. rockabilly Tex Ruebenowtiz. He also fronted his own bands, Switchblade and Johnny Castle and the Hard Knights before joining Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun in the early 90's. Guitarist Andy Rutherford has played various genres in numerous D.C. bands and singer-guitarist David Kitchen has played on the D.C. scene for years while continuing to write songs and teach guitar.

The Thrillbillys' song list has spanned out in all directions over the past five years also. On any given Thursday, you may hear a Ramone's-esque version of Burt Bacharach's "Little Red Book", Nick Lowe rockers "Switchboard Susan" and "Raging Eyes", pumped up versions of country standards like "I'll Be There" or "Break My Mind" and, lately, Castle orginals from his Switchblade days like "She Make's Me Rock Too Much", "I Got That" and the aforementioned "Hot Pink Panties".

To be continued....

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