Book traces history of Birchmere Concert Hall in Alexandria

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When Gary Oelze bought a small restaurant in south Arlington called the Birchmere in 1966, the only sound he cared about was the scraping of knives and forks against the plates. It would take some time before a music menu replaced the food menu as the venue’s main offering. Now in its third location in Alexandria, the Birchmere has a sound that is prized by both the artists who play it and the patrons who listen to it.

In fact, there’s an entire chapter on Birchmere sound engineers in “All Roads Lead to the Birchmere: America’s Legendary Music Hall,” Oelze’s new book and co-author stephen moore.

“It’s important to me because it’s what people pay for,” Oelze (pronounced “OLE-zee”) said.

Oelze came to the DC area from Kentucky after leaving the military. In the beginning, the Birchmere restaurant which he co-owned with Bill Hopper makes a pretty good lunch and dinner swap. But when locals started moving away – to places like Woodbridge and Dale City – the crowds thinned out.

Oelze – who had played in bands as a teenager – thought the music could attract people. And he noticed that a certain type of music was then particularly popular in the bars of the city: bluegrass. Although not a huge bluegrass fan himself, Oelze had a respect for the music. He didn’t really respect the bars.

“The sound there was terrible,” he said. “Of course these bars also kept the TV on in the bar and had a pool table.”

Inspired by the Cellar Door, the famous club in Georgetown, Oelze imposed a rule of no talking when the band plays. And he eschewed equipment like the ubiquitous Shure Vocal Master PA system — speaker-packed columns that adorned many gymnasium dances — and installed a Bose sound system.

He lured bluegrass innovators from the rare scene to their weekly gig at Bethesda’s Red Fox Inn and began managing their live sound himself, experimenting with how to take intimate acoustic music and make it listenable to a wider audience. .

“When I started doing sound for the stage, they only used one microphone,” Oelze said.

The five members would do what Oelze calls “that old coordinated bluegrass move”, where each member would lean into the single mic when it was time to sing or solo.

“I convinced them, Hey [Dobro player] mike audridge needs its own microphone,” Oelze said. “John Duffey needs its own mandolin mic, instead of flipping the vocal mic up and down.

Oelze bought an Echoplex – a machine that uses magnetic tape to add delay to a sound – and ran Auldridge’s Dobro guitar through it.

“He thought he was dead and went to heaven with that echo,” Oelze said. “No one had used echo in a PA system on him.”

Over time, the Birchmere’s music has expanded to include not only bluegrass but also country stars like Vince Gill and Marie Chapin Charpentieras well as rock and R&B bands.

“When the country bands came in and the rock bands, they needed a really serious control system,” said co-writer Moore. It is the equipment that allows musicians to hear themselves on stage.

Says Moore: “Gary brought this and then brought Billy Wolf put that on steroids.

Wolf is the sound engineer who designed the Grateful Dead sound wall. Other sound engineers who have masterfully turned the knobs on the Birchmere include gardner bud, Tim Kidwell and Justin Kidwell.

In 1996, the Birchmere moved to its current 500-seat location in a former photo lab on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria. Not long ago, Lyle Lovett was there with his group. The Ohio players will be there at the end of the month and Johnny on the south side & the Asbury Jukes in June.

It was in 1974 that Oelze switched from food to music, not as part of a big project, but simply as a means of attracting customers. Many clubs don’t last more than a few years. What is the secret of the Birchmere’s longevity?

“Not trying to grow,” said Oelze, who at almost 80 still works at the club, lining up customers who arrive early to get the best seats. “I stay at 500 places. It’s intimate and it’s like you’re almost sitting on stage. I never said “I’m going to go to 1,000 places” because I can sell 500 places.

“And the Birchmere is well disposed. It’s not a long room. It’s a big room: no bad seats, no bad sounds.

Some things change. Oelze has just ordered new sound equipment for the hall, made in the United States by a company called Meyer. What Oelze calls a state-of-the-art system will debut in June. Keep your ears open.


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