Ex-Fugazi member makes appearance at the Green Bean

by Amy Kingsley

The scene Jan. 21 at the Green Bean could have happened on Saturday night at any coffee shop anywhere: An acoustic musician struggling to be heard over the crowd noise encroaching on the fans gathered within an intimate perimeter. Stragglers walk in for a glass of wine and ask if it is an open mic night.

The first performer, Don Zientara, acknowledges the casual feel during bantering interludes.

‘“If I’m disturbing anyone doing a crossword puzzle or anything,’” he says, ‘“then I am truly sorry.’”

The unique thing is ‘— for people familiar with the performers’ backgrounds ‘— that this line is delivered without a hint of irony. Zientara, dressed in khaki shorts cinched with a narrow brown belt and a plain green shirt, made a name for himself running Inner Ear Recording Studio in Washington, DC. It is a name most closely associated with the standard-bearers of East Coast punk for the past two-and-a-half decades: Minor Threat, Dismemberment Plan, Fugazi and Q & not U.

He is playing in support of a solo album that he recorded live to a single track. The decision to eschew multi-tracking came down to a choice between art and professional compulsion.

‘“I really have a hard time watching the meters and thinking about the art,’” Zientara says. ‘“So, I just turned on the tape player and recorded. If I liked it I kept it and if I didn’t I threw it out.’”

Ian MacKaye released the album on a subsidiary of Dischord Records, Northern Liberties. The imprint is dedicated to musical releases by MacKaye’s friends.

Although he is known primarily as a producer, Zientara has played guitar since childhood, a product of his Polish upbringing.

‘“When I was growing up it was either play the guitar or play the accordion,’” he said. ‘“I chose the guitar.’”

He played in several bands and started Inner Ear as a two-track studio in his basement. Around 1987, the band Fugazi formed and recorded their debut with Zientara. Joe Lally, the bass player for Fugazi, joins Zientara for this show and the four-day tour.

Normally, Lally is half of a legendarily lockstep rhythm section. Together, he and Brendan Canty have knit the cadenced underpinning for almost 20 years of hardcore evolution in Fugazi. Tonight it is just Lally, his bass guitar and an occasional sonic wash from his laptop.

The bass lines evoke early Fugazi, and many of the fans crowded in chairs came to the show because of Lally’s association with the famous DC quartet.

But the music that greets them tonight is, by Lally’s own admission, nothing like Fugazi.

‘“It’s all really about the song,’” Lally says. ‘“Every one of the songs you heard tonight I kind of heard vocally.’”

For the first and last numbers, he even abandoned his bass guitar for a capella numbers that feel influenced by West Coast indie luminary Calvin Johnson. He opened with an anti-war tune accompanied only by maracas.

‘“In Fugazi everything was written musically,’” he says. ‘“Then you would have to find a square inch to fit in some words.’”

To prepare himself for the paradigm shift, Lally took a vocal lesson from an opera coach in Los Angeles who learned alongside Freddie Mercury.

‘“Somebody said that 50 percent of what they learned to do they learned in the first lesson,’” he said. ‘“So I took one lesson and worked like hell on it.’”

The seasoned performer, with thousands of shows before sold-out crowds under his belt, also had to steel himself for the solo undertaking.

‘“The first show I played was in a record store in the afternoon in front of six of my close friends,’” Lally says. ‘“By the end of it I was like paper.’”

This is only his sixth performance since he threw himself into performing in October. As the show wraps and the employees start closing shop, Lally delivers a cover. It is Morrissey’s ‘“America is not the World.’”

Without any musical accompaniment, and with his voice straining to reach the extremes of Morrissey’s vocal range, Lally sounds a bit like he is singing an anthem, right up to the fade out on ‘“I love you, I love you, I love you.’”

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