Your Backstage Pass To The Birchmere Music Hall

Alexandria’s first-ever Live Music Week is coming to a close this weekend, but jazz, blues, country, bluegrass and more continue to rock year-round at venues across the city. Our most famous music hotspot? That would be the Birchmere.

Do you know where Ray Charles played his last public concert? Where the Dixie Chicks played on their way to fame? Yes, it’s the Birchmere, known as one of the top “listening rooms” in the world. With a nightly line-up of live music in an intimate setting, this world-famous concert venue is beloved by fans and artists alike. And for good reason: the Birchmere’s 500-seat music hall keeps the audience close, just two feet from the legendary stage.

We spoke with Americana music pioneer Robert Earl Keen, country duo The Secret Sisters and Birchmere staff to get you a backstage pass to this Alexandria gem:

 alexandria-va-birchmere-live-music-mural-550Image credit: Visit Alexandria

What sets the Birchmere apart as a music venue?

Robert Earl Keen: When I started playing out on the road 30 years ago, doing some of my first shows, I remember vividly calling up the Birchmere several times, and the phone would ring and ring. But I finally got ahold of them, so the Birchmere was one of the first places I played outside of Texas. Back then there used to be all these clubs for folk music, like you see in Inside Llewyn Davis. But since then, venues have changed. Now the Birchmere is one of the last standing great listening rooms in the United States. The performer has the freedom to talk and explain to people, and they sit there and listen.

Ben Finkelstein, the Birchmere: The Birchmere is known as “America’s Legendary Music Hall,” as we are one of only a few “listening rooms” in the country, where customers sit down to watch the show, and are here to listen.  We are all ages all the time, and encourage parents and family members to bring along young music lovers.

Next year is our 50th anniversary in business, under the same owner and same name, which is very rare in this business.

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What brings musicians back to the Birchmere time and time again?

Robert Earl Keen: Back to that performer-audience thing: you can stand there and talk about your songs, where they come from, your mandolin, where it comes from. So it’s not just entertainment, but you can also find out a lot you never knew. But it’s not a history lesson, it’s just a casual and intimate feel. This is not “Hello Cleveland!” It’s really truly an experience more than just a show.

The Secret Sisters: When you play The Birchmere, you feel like you must have done something right to have performed that stage. To look at the walls backstage and see who all has played there makes you realize why it’s so revered among everyone in the music world. It manages to stay intimate while still seating 500 people. The staff is always lovely and more accommodating than they have to be. We’ll sing its praises all day!

 

alexandria-va-birchmere-live-music-signed photosImage credit: Visit Alexandria

How do fans respond to you when you play the Birchmere?

Sisters: The fans of Alexandria are listeners—they pay attention and study up on your music, then give you the warmest applause when you’re done. They’re also devoted—we’ve seen the same people show up to all the concerts since we first played there in 2011. It’s an audience that’ll stay with you for life.

Keen: I have a story about one song in particular, from about one year ago. Lyle Lovett and I wrote “The Front Porch Song” together. When I perform, I come out and play by myself and tell the story of how the song came about and how Lyle and I forged our friendship through this song. Then the band comes out and starts playing the song at the end of the story and I join in singing.

This night at the Birchmere there was this young woman right by the stage, and when the band comes out, you can see tears  just coming down her face. That’s the thing about the Birchmere. It’s a level of intimacy, this heartfelt thing, when you have the right moment. And the right moment occurs a lot at the Birchmere.

 alexandria-va-birchmere-live-music-mural-name-smallImage credit: Visit Alexandria

Any little-known facts?

Ben: We ask everyone who plays the Birchmere to sign something for us, hence the hallway full of pics.

Another little-known fact about The Birchmere is that Ray Charles performed his last public concert on our stage, July 20, 2003.  Also, way back in September 2008, a last minute opening act was added to our Laura Marling/Johnny Flynn tour named Mumford & Sons.  Who knew how big they’d get in the next few years?

 

To learn more about live music in Alexandria, click here.

Header image credit: Visit Alexandria