A New Tradition of American Music: Gypsy Sally’s
There was a time—during the 1970s, the 1980s and a little beyond—when Georgetown and its surrounding areas vibrated with the sound of music coming from all sorts of venues, up and down M Street, on Wisconsin Avenue and on K Street by the waterfront.
Almost all of that is gone, surviving only as legend. Neil Young recently issued an album based on his appearance at the Cellar Door, and there was a movie documentary shown on PBS about the golden age of the Bayou. Only Blues Alley, still presenting top-tier jazz in a classy (and one-of-a-kind setting) remains, just off Wisconsin Avenue in Blues Alley, NW.
But wait. There’s a new kid on the block, or rather there are new kids on the block. That would be David and Karen Ensor, who remember the Georgetown music scene well and hope to begin to revive that scene with Gypsy Sally’s, a new music club which opened last fall under the Whitehurst Freeway at 3401 K Street, also known as Water Street that far west in town.
The club—more of a total environment than just a music venue—specializes in the elastic genre of Americana music, which goes back as far as folk legends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (who died yesterday) and runs through Appalachian-rooted banjo music, the kings and queens of singer-songwriters (Emmy Lou Harris and Bob Dylan) come to mind. It’s got its own Grammy category (Harris and Rodney Crowell won the best album honors). It’s roots music steeped in tradition, but it is also as new as tomorrow, when the next legend, packing a guitar on his or her back, comes in and sets up on the main stage at Gypsy Sally’s. We stopped by Gypsy Sally’s on a quiet, icicle-cold mid-week afternoon to talk with Karen and Dave Ensor, the couple who are fulfilling a long-held dream and hope to jump start a Georgetown music renaissance.
“We remember that time when if you were talking about D.C. music, you were talking pretty much about what was going on in Georgetown,” Karen said. “But right now, as far as Georgetown is concerned, what was left was Blues Alley and that was pretty much it. I think we complement Blues Alley, right down the street from us, and maybe we can start something going again.”
“We love Georgetown, we live here, we’re raising my two teenaged daughters here,” she said. “Almost ever since we knew each other, we wanted to open a club. That was what we wanted to do. We looked all over the city at first, but then a friend of ours told us about the space here. He said, ‘You’ve got to check this out,’ and we did. We thought the space was perfect for what we had in mind.”
“It’s more than just a rock club or something like that,” said Dave Ensor, who knows a thing or two about rock clubs. “We’re trying to give folks an experience, so that they have options about how they want to experience things here, or what they want to experience.”
David, a local from Northern Virginia, spent some time in Los Angeles, wanting to be an actor at first, then working with bands, including his own. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think you really have to want to be an actor. It’s really hard. I think music suited me better. I did everything— singing, playing, the roadie thing, the process, you know. But I got to know a lot about how the business operated, what it took, touring, getting gigs, booking, the mechanics of setting up bands in venues.” He calls himself a big fan of Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens.
The Ensors make a circular kind of couple in the sense that they round each other out, opposite on the surface with a passionately held dream that they’re working on together.
She was raised in the South, went to Vanderbilt, has a law degree from the University of Maryland, is a registered nurse and businesswoman. She’s an admitted Dead Head, i.e., super-fan of the Grateful Dead, but also of the kind of rock-and-roll—a rite of passage in the South—personified by the sound of the Allman Brothers. She’s high-energy. He’s more reserved and cautious, except when he’s talking about music. He still has the kind of quiet charisma of a guy who would be comfortable in front of a camera or raising the roof on a rockand- roll stage. He came back from L.A. in 1990 and had an album in 2009, called “Building a Life,” and he still teaches guitar. He acquired a nickname—“Silky Dave”—which seems exactly right in a good way.
Gypsy Sally’s—the name apparently comes from an old Townes Van Zandt song called “Tecumseh Valley”—displays an eclectic personality.
When you get the tour—minus the music, but with lots of atmospherics—you get the seating arrangement, a tiered experience for a capacity of 300 with both seating and standing (and if you’re inclined) dancing room.
“We love it that you can do that if you want,” Karen said. You also have a dining option, with a menu that’s ripped from the pages of some of today’s healthier and funkier cookbooks: hello hempseed fudge brownies, as well as hempseed hummus, Lake Caesar Salad and voodoo potato chips. “We wanted above all for people who come here to find their comfort zone, to be comfortable,” she said. “We know we have great venues in the area—the Birchmere or the 9:30 Club. But in one place you can’t stand, in the other you can’t sit. Here, you can do both. That’s for starters.”
“This isn’t just about nostalgia,” Karen continued. “It’s about contemporary music, a particular kind of music. It’s the Americana genre, roots music, singer-songwriters, with bands and groups that tour and record nationally, but also new musicians, local musicians, we hope it will be a place for that kind of thing, too. We’re not hip hop or Euro-pop or anything like that, there’s plenty of other places in town that do that.”
You can get a sense of the music just by the sound of the band names who are either coming there soon or have already played there—the incomparable Kelly Willis, for instance, or “Covered With Jam” with Ron Holloway, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, the Walkaways, Yarn, Steel Wheels, the Railers, Rico America and the Midnight Train. It’s a flavor, tinged with banjo and guitars, railroad cars and diners and songs written by young men and women waking up feverish with a line that sticks in their minds, a beat and a rhythm you just have to fashion a song out of. Upcomers include a Johnny birthday celebration on Feb. 26, John Hammond on Feb. 19 and the Flashband Project.
Physically, Gypsy Sally’s comes at you in sections. It’s on the second floor of a building that fronts K Street with the restaurant Malmaison.
When you walk in you’re in the Microbus Gallery, which features an old “hippie bus,” designed to give you a feeling for the rustic days of touring cross-country or hanging out with Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters.
Exhibitions are a regular thing here, too. The William Adair construction, “The Golden Doors to Infinity,” which honors the late and legendary musician Gram Parsons, and “Martyrs of Rock,” portraits of lost rock musicians—Jerry Garcia, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious and others—by Walter Egan will be seen here, beginning Feb. 4.
There’s also the Vinyl Lounge, with its own entrance, a shiny bar, and a small stage—for open-mike nights—and a collection of vinyl records, singles and albums, which are making something of a comeback these days. On the stand, you can see a collection of old albums, including the blue hues of a Dylan greatest hits album. You can bring your own—records, that is—and play them.
“We care about each and every artist— roadie or lead singer, or drummer or bass man who comes in here,” Karen said. “That’s what we’re about on the whole. It’s the music and musicians and the audience.”
To meet that goal, Karen and Dave split the stuff that keeps Gypsy Sally’s going.
“Dave knows everything about the music business and being a musician—the setting up, the mechanics, the burnt out fuse, the decibel level, all the music and creative stuff,” she said. “Everything on paper, that’s me—the books, the money, the dates, the business end.”
Together, they’ve got Gypsy Sally’s humming to a point where people might hear an echo all over the city up on Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, the way it used to be.