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“You came in and just felt good,” says Eric Brace.
When the IOTA Club and Cafe, a Clarendon venue whose motto was “Live Music Forever”, closed its doors in autumn 2017 after more than 23 years, Brace took it hard. Although the Last Train Home frontman played IOTA with his roots rock band on two of the club’s last three nights, he couldn’t bear to return to the club for the final night.
“I didn’t go on the last day because I was kind of sad,” said Brace, who lived in the DC area for about 20 years before moving to Nashville. “I was just wiped out physically and emotionally.”
In a somewhat ironic twist, Last Train Home – a band that had one of their first gigs at IOTA in the mid-90s and played the annual New Year’s Eve shows there for years – played a set at Birchmere at the end of December just a few hours after our conversation. The legendary music meeting place Alexandria was an inspiration for the founders of IOTA, the longtime Arlington residents Jane Negrey Inge and brother Stephen Negrey, who called him one of their “idols” in a press release before the club closed.
Now, more than a year since the storied art space closed – which featured performances by Norah Jones, John Mayer, Ryan Adams, Dawes and countless others between 1994 and 2017 – Arlington has yet to fill the void.
For Josh Stoltzfus, associate director of Arlington Cultural Affairs, the county’s art scene is essentially a series of microscenes defined by the venues and events in each neighborhood. But when it comes to specific music rooms, Stoltzfus says, “There’s no such thing as a flagship that’s all about.” Fortunately, the county has many restaurants and bars with live local music including Galaxy Hut, Rhodeside Grill, Westover Beer Garden, Cafe Sazon and Bistro 29.
Yet none of these establishments regularly hosts a mix of national touring acts, musicians from the DC region, and poetry readings, as IOTA has been doing for more than two decades.
Today the Wilson Boulevard building, which once housed IOTA, rests with a dangling string of lights and a well-preserved, albeit inappropriate, welcome sign. The block is slated for redevelopment as Market Common Phase 2, owned by Regency Centers, with construction expected to begin earlier this year.
In the press release announcing the closure, IOTA owners cited the upcoming construction and expected rent increase as factors in their decision. But as a cultural mainstay that managed to survive for nearly two dozen years in a changing neighborhood, IOTA and its legacy has not been forgotten.
One project that is reminiscent of the room is “The IOTA Chair,” a video series directed by DC musician Rachel Levitin, who bought a chair from one of the venue’s fire sales and used it as a set piece for performances and interviews with former IOTA members. Performers reinterpreted, she posts on Facebook. Another notable tribute is on the way – in September Inge launched a GoFundMe campaign for a book that will retell the story of IOTA through her and Negrey’s eyes. So far, the effort has only hit about 13 percent of the $ 30,000 goal, but has received dozens of supportive comments.
“IOTA was one of the most beautiful music communities I have ever met on my travels; it has contributed to making my life worth living, ”writes one donor.
Inge declined to be interviewed for this article but reflected on her venue via email: “At IOTA, live music was the center and purpose of everything we did,” she writes. “We were looking for inspired live experiences and creative new music for our stage. Stephen and I have had the privilege of meeting and working with wonderful poets, musicians and musical performers, both on tour and in the field. We got to know the people who appreciated the shows, got it and supported IOTA to keep us going for so long. “
For DC singer-songwriter Laura Tsaggaris, who started IOTA in the early 2000s and has performed all over the area, the club was “the center” of the local songwriting scene.
“It felt easy – just stretching out and doing what you wanted to do there,” says Tsaggaris. “I’ve never felt as comfortable as there.”
To acquire an IOTA-esque mystique, an Arlington music venue would need to not only strive to attract talented national artists, but also to serve as a desirable hangout for the local arts scene. The Arlington-based singer-songwriter Justin Trawick, founder of the songwriting series “The 9” and co-host of the podcast “The Circus Life”, made his way from Leesburg to IOTA in 2005 for the club’s famous open mic night to pursue. IOTA had a scene, he says, that today may only be reached from Jammin Java in Vienna or a few newer DC locations such as the sister location Union Stage.
“They really created an amazing culture, not just of the bands that play there, but of the people who want to hang out there like ‘Empire Records’,” says Trawick. “IOTA had that.”
Although IOTA certainly had a successful open mic culture, with two sign-up times per night to accommodate the dozen of eager performers, Arlington’s open mic capabilities live on. The musician Alex Parez from Alexandria has hosted IOTA’s weekly Open Mic for the past three years and has since broadcast the IOTA format to Rhodeside Grill. While saying “no place can replace IOTA,” he expresses pride in the local talent that continues to emerge in Arlington.
Brace, who is also a retired music journalist for the Washington Post and founder of Nashville-based Red Beet Records, expressed doubts about whether modern Arlington can provide affordable space for an IOTA-sized venue that had expanded its capacity to around 300 when it was closed.
“Arlington’s square footage is so expensive; It’s hard to have a place where you can afford to just have a big empty space in the shape of a stage, and it’s hard to invest a lot of money in a great sound system and have a great sound person every night like IOTA did, “says Brace.
But with the imminent arrival of Amazon HQ2 in the newly named “National Landing”, it is not inconceivable that music venues such as The Wharf’s Union Stage or Pearl Street Warehouse could be part of the development mix.
A spokesman for National Landing developer JBG Smith declined to comment, but the property’s website highlights JBG’s plans for the Central District redevelopment project, which is “a 130,000 square foot entertainment and shopping destination with a 49,000 square foot Square meters Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, grocery store, restaurants, bars and other entertainment options. ”Could a live performance space be such an offer?
Right now, Arlingtonians hoping for an IOTA-like experience will have to wonder and wait for an existing Arlington music center to expand (not to mention its presence) or for a completely new venue to emerge.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” says Brace. “There are always people making music and they have little pop-up clubs in basements or house concerts. I will choose to be hopeful. “
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