Savannah’s Eric Culberson preaches the blues religion in DC

Photo by David Gignilliat
The scene at Madam's Organ, Eric's favorite spot to play in the DC area.

THE BLUES is all about tradition.

From Peg Lee Howell to Blind Willie Johnson, and from Buddy Guy to John Lee Hooker, one could say tradition runs deep in the medium. To borrow a few choice words from Shakespeare’s blues dirge ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the blues are submerged in tradition ‘as deep as a well and as wide as church door.’

So, it was through that looking glass that one of Savannah’s great musical traditions, Eric Culberson and his tight three-piece band, blew the roof off of one of DC’s fabled music venues at an intimate and balmy Friday evening gig in Georgetown.

“This is the epitome of a rock and roll bar. It has a great sound, and a great staff. It’s in a great neighborhood. It’s got a little bit of everything,” said Culberson, just a few time signatures after finishing his final sweaty set Friday night.

Culberson often plays three or four gigs in Washington, DC each year, and only at Madam’s Organ, a self-described favorite spot on his earnest tour schedule that takes him down as far as Key West and parts in between.

“If you’re from Savannah, you should come here. It’s a great destination, and I love playing here,” he smiled.

The multi-floored club is situated in the heart of one of DC’s most lively neighborhoods -- Adams Morgan -- and much like Savannah, it is a playful downtown area that stays alive and kicking well after the bars close after 2:30 a.m.

If James Oglethorpe had another 24 squares (or bars) to work with, he probably would have gotten pretty close to L’Enfant’s vision for DC, another Cartesianly efficient laid-out urban grid and port city.

“As I got older, I got into music a ton. Creatively, I feel like blues, it’s so much better than today’s popular music,” said Eric Clarke, 25, a welder by trade from Rockville, Md.

“He’s very creative. And the thing about welding is that you can be very creative, but at the same time you need to have your focus on what you’re doing. And he definitely had focus.”

Madam’s Organ is the type of club where people come and go all night, as its four floors, numerous alcoves, bonus rooms and rooftop bar offer many choices for the United Nations of music lovers that come looking for a good time.

The popular nightspot, run by General Manager Carlos Wilcox and longtime owner Bill Duggan, is run tight like a drum but loose like the long-neck guitars that often make their way on stage.

“I’m from Austin, so I wanted to come and hear some live music. I grew up on the blues,” says Ryan Farley, visiting from Austin, Tx. He currently runs PR at the upstart Lawnstarter.Com, which he described as ‘Uber’ for lawn care.

“When I listened to Eric, he makes me want to go to Savannah and stay for a week and see him play. Maybe even live there for a little bit.”

And like Savannah, the streets outside are an absolute hub of activity. Gritty and fun, they might remind a Savannah native of Congress Street after closing time, except with several more late-night revelers and scores of Sweet Melissa’s and 520 Wings analogues lining the busy intersection of 18th and Columbus Streets NW.

The neighborhood gets its name from two former places of education, The Adams School and The Morgan School. Sixty years ago, one school was designated for white people and the other for black people, so the hyphenated name now stands for the bringing together of the people, across ethnicity, race or any differences that often divide.

For familiar Savannahians, or visitors that have seen him before, Culberson put on his usual gritty, professional and whimsical show. Some originals, and some blues standards with his usual South Georgia aplomb.

His show had all the Culberson traditions Savannahians have come to expect from the master bluesman -- playful crowd interplay, long sets, and a performance style that is both smooth as shea butter and rough as three-a.m. scrapple.

In other words, Culberson let it all hang out, just like the nights at the Bayou, or in yesteryear, at Mike Warren’s Mercury Lounge.

“We wanted to come out and have fun. I just like this place because it gives me a New Orleans style,” said Ciaris Deloach-Lopez, who lives in Bowie, Md., and is originally from Florida. “Eric is awesome. He is amazing. I love him. He can sing really well. He just gives me the blues. And he’s cute … He’s definitely a treat from Savannah tonight.”

At the end of the show, before his last song, Culberson gave a raspy shout out to the Lowcountry. And a nod to the blues tradition he respects so deeply.

“I’m going to give a shout out to the S-A-V. Hello Savannah,” Culberson rasped before beginning his last licks.

And so, another night in the books, the tradition continues. For both Culberson. And the blues.

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