Arts Desk

The Bayou: D.C.’s Killer Joint, Reviewed

In the Bayou's no-frills, stone-and-brick building on K Street under the Whitehurst Freeway, a singer was once fed a rat sandwich as a practical joke. Employees had sex under the club's stage. Jazz bands swung. A manager nicknamed "Little Hitler" ruled the roost. Foreigner played there—twice.

The Bayou: D.C.’s Killer Joint, a 90-minute, locally produced documentary that airs Monday night on Maryland Public Television, tells a lot of stories about the Georgetown music venue that closed in 1998 after nearly 50 years in business. The club that began in 1953 as a Dixieland jazz restaurant reincarnated as a burlesque spot, a rock 'n' roll joint, a cover-band bar, and later a hotspot for national and international acts. When it closed, an AMC Loews movie theater eventually took its place as Georgetown's K Street transformed into another stretch of pricey real estate.

The film takes us back to a time when the block wasn't so posh, but still pulled big names: Billy Joel recorded live at the Bayou; Bruce Springsteen made a surprise guest appearance. But the venue pissed off just as many famous people as it charmed: Viewers will learn that the Bayou sent Mickey Mantle fleeing, kicked out Robert Plant, and stoked the rage of Todd Rundgren, D.C. blues rocker Mark Wenner, D.C. punk Ian MacKaye, and a healthy number of regular ol' music fans.

This documentary, too, might be alienating for regular folks: The thing goes deep, sometimes too deep. With a fanatic's energy, it pulls out grainy footage, newspaper clippings, and loads of interviews with musicians, promoters, critics, and old employees—the product of 14 years' work. It came together with the shared efforts of several dedicated locals: Dave Lilling, president of Metro Teleproductions; former DC 101 producer Bill Scanlan; former Washington Post staffer Vinnie Perrone; onetime Washington City Paper employee Dave Nuttycombe; and New York University film school grad Adam Bonsib, who was added recently as editor.

The film begins with the club's pre-Bayou roots, telling the story of the 1951 shooting death of convicted killer George Harding at the same address, for which D.C. mob boss Joe Nesline was charged and later acquitted. The club remained closed for two years, until the Tramonte brothers and another partner bought 3135 K St. NW for $5,000 apiece, later settling on the name "The Bayou."

The documentary takes us through the venue's early years, when politicians flocked to what was then a jacket-and-tie establishment. It shows how as decades passed, larger societal and cultural changes began to trickle through the club's doors, particularly around the time of the Vietnam war. But it omits mention of the Civil Rights movement and the club's relationship with D.C.'s black community. The film does mention some African-American performers—it includes an interview with Godfather of Go-Go Chuck Brown—and it speaks to black Bayou staffers like manager Wilbur Slaughter, but it doesn't contribute much context to the issue.

In the early 1970s, the Bayou became a haven for mainstream, regional bar-band rockers, and by later in the decade, major-label rock acts like Kiss, The Runaways, and Dire Straits. Members of Cherry Smash and FaceDancer are filmed reflecting fondly on the club—much more fondly than a subsequent generation of musicians hired by its new owner, Cellar Door Productions (now part of Clear Channel) that bought the club from the Tramonte family in 1980.

Interviews with MacKaye and the 9:30 Club’s Seth Hurwitz show just how corroded the club's reputation became with the emerging alternative-music community. While footage of Bad Brains opening for The Damned rolls, MacKaye tells a story about using a fake ID to get into the venue and dealing with "asshole" bouncers. Both Mark Noone of The Slickee Boys and Wenner of The Nighthawks remember the club's staff much the way I do: obnoxious types, constantly telling folks where they could and couldn’t stand.

The film itself may, too, leave indie fans feeling a little dissed: While it covers in depth both Foreigner gigs and U2's debut at the club in 1980, it skips over shows from bands like Gang of Four, Madness, and Echo & the Bunnymen.

The club soldiered on through the 1990s, booking national acts and jam bands, but the film only briefly alludes to its declining booking schedule in the 1990s and its eventual sale to a developer. After a final New Year's Eve performance in 1998, the Bayou closed its doors.

The Bayou: D.C.'s Killer Joint may not convince the Bayou's many critics that the place was a treasure, but that's probably not what it aspires to do. It serves as a valuable document of the venue's long, influential history as a D.C. pop-cultural center—not to mention its simple, timeless importance to some as a boozy refuge.

The documentary airs at 9 p.m. Feb. 25 on Maryland Public Television. Channels 22, 219, 220, 612, and 1022 in the D.C. region.

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  • Kevin Spence

    I'm a former manager and talent buyer for the Bayou and foremost I would like to thank Dave Lilling and crew for the countless hours devoted to preserving an important piece of the musical history of the DC metro area. I would guess there may be literally millions of warm memories of a wonderful music experience or life-story that took place at the Bayou. Thank you Dave for the celluloid bookmark!
    I would like to comment on the remarks in the film and in this review about " the club's staff.... obnoxious types, constantly telling folks where they could and couldn’t stand."
    It is true, it was club policy during the Cellar Door era to keep the pathways to the fire exits clear. I don't think anyone would argue that we were not the safest venue in town. I confess, safety was a priority, but we tried very hard to be polite and minimize interference. In light of the club tragedies around the world, perhaps we former Bayou management should be given a 'pass' on this complaint and the focus should be put where it belongs: the awesome creative genius that happened there. Visit The Bayou in Georgetown on Facebook to share your cathartic experience. Howard Jones? Roy Orbison? Slickee Boys? Robert Gordon? Dickey Bettes? Red Hot Chili Peppers? Dave Matthews? Guns and Roses? Nighthawks?Fishbone? Phish? Ramones? Billy Joel? Robert Cray? appropriate that 'Everything' was the last band!!


    Kevin Spence

  • sara

    will the documentary air on the web as well? many of us do not own TVs.

  • GFriday

    All I know is I tried to see the Ramones there and was turned away b/c I wasn't 21. Never went back.

  • Liam G

    It is true that the vibe of The Bayou changed with the purchase by Cellar Door. Exit waitresses, enter "waitrons". Bye family owned sensibilities, enter corporate mindset.

    The club still was a wonderful place to see a show. We are lucky that the DC/Baltimore area still has venues for new national acts to debut (Rams Head....). By far the good memories outweigh the bad ones. It was a nightclub and underage patrons were turned away, especially after the drinking age changed to 21. A nightclub cannot survive with out a liquor license.

    There were few clubs that could have hosted Joe Jackson one night, Earl Scruggs the next followed by Nina Simone, Steve Hackett, Muddy Waters and so on. It was such a great time for music and The Bayou was one of the finest venues around. It was never just a rock club, or jazz club. To me it was a treasure. YMMV.

  • sk

    The 930 Club and some other locations sell alcohol and let all-ages in, by stamping the hands of underage customers and ensuring that they are not drinking. The Bayou did not do this when the drinking age was 18 or when it changed to 21.

  • E-Dogg

    The reality is that the Bayou SHOULD have been designated an historic landmark, but instead greed took hold (as it's prone to do) and instead, "luxury" condos and another G-town shopping mall took it's place. What a country...

  • Matthew Langley

    While it does indeed cover both Foreigner and U2, I'm surprised no one mentioned the Adam and the Ants show of 1980 - it was quite a scene - Way oversold - many of the ticket holders could not get in, while an overflowing group of industry people from NYC and DC were able to get in. Funny enough very few press people were able to - which actually formed the entire review of the show in the Washington Post that week.

    Jesus I"m old.

  • Bruce Davis

    Kevin, I'm glad you mentioned Robert Gordon playing The Bayou. As The Newports in the mid-60s we were fronted by Robert Gordon for Sunday night JOPA parties. We also filled in for the Telstars one vacation. Robert returned to The Bayou with Link Wray in 1977 as a headliner (The Night Hawks opened for him)and later with Danny Gatton. He fit both criteria of being a local act and later a national celeb. I was hoping he'd get a little play in the documentary.

  • Creative Alliance

    Hi, saw your nice writeup of Curley Taylor & Zydeco Trouble. FYI, he plays Mar 29 at Creative Alliance in Baltimore, MD. This follows our zydeco show with Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys this past fall. We try to keep it jamming' up here.