Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Working musicians in our county have several recording studios in which to play out their dreams, among them the Washington-area stalwart Inner Ear Studios in South Arlington and the Rosslyn-based Get Me Produced.

But as of this month, Arlington will host one less refuge for tune perfectors. Birdsong Studios on North 27th Street is decamping over to Maryland.

Actually, Birdsong is more a labor of love than a commercial enterprise, albeit one where I have whiled away many happy Saturdays jamming with baby-boomer garage bands.

Birdsong Productions is the project of Ron Watt, a 59-year-old telecommunications technician who built out a well-equipped home-made bandstand over two decades in the basement of his brick rambler.

“The studio is equipped with a full set of drums, bass amp, keyboard amp, five guitar amplifiers, piano, piano amp, a utility amp, and a 16-port P.A. system that make the room plug-and-play for musicians to jam and network,” says Watt, a percussionist. “The room was prewired for recording mics, monitors and a P.A. that eliminates clutter and safety hazards.” Plus today’s requisite PCs and display monitors to gauge recording quality.

As one of myriad youths from the ‘60s whose creative aspirations were molded by American rock-and-roll and the British invasion, I retain rich memories of the Arlington band scene.

I can still picture posters from my teen years announcing coming dances featuring such groups as the Open Roads, the Back Bay and Nebulous, some alumni of which have jammed at Birdsong or in shifting configurations with its regulars.

Among today’s local semi-professional brand names, Birdsong has hosted Jeff Carmella of J.C. and the Hepcats, Tom Zimmers and Kerry Miller of Lesson Zero, and Mike Tramonte and Fraser Kinnear of the Benefactors. These bands have been booked at Fairfax outdoor festivals, Arlington’s Knights of Columbus and at the late, lamented Bangkok Blues in Falls Church.

Other Birdsong participants such as I (a dabbler on keyboards) hang there for the pleasure of resurrecting old chord patterns, instrumental breaks and call-and-response vocals you just can’t get at home alone in your fantasy studio.

Watt, with help from wife Deb, generously provided instant print-outs of lyrics, take-home CDs of a session’s highlights, and vanity musician photographs. (Not to mention a fine spread of food and a fridge stocked with libations.)

The fun of jamming is the instant creativity. But generational differences complicate session-mates’ familiarity with “oldies.” And bands that will actually perform publicly, of course, must repetitively rehearse each cut until it’s polished and everyone’s in sync.

In preparing the move to Port Tobacco, Md., Watt sold off surplus such as a cymbal and stand, a microphone, one amplifier and guitar-effects pedals. “A Bradley Les Paul guitar copy was sold back to its original owner to give to his son after he had traded it to me at a jam session in 1986,” he says. “Total proceeds were enough to move the majority of the equipment to the new studio, which will be twice the size of the present space.”

Before leaving, Watt pulled from a wall a home-recorded CD from 2007 titled, “What I Put in the Wall.” It contained songs recorded by all of the musicians who had participated in Birdsong sessions to date.

No neighbors ever complained about Birdsong’s daytime sounds, Watt says. Many of us in Arlington will miss them.