Let’s Put on a Show!

How a lawyer from Chevy Chase with a penchant for rock became a music impresario.

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When the day finally arrives, the weather’s perfect, a needed reprieve from the smothering, hellish heat of July. A crew has been busy since 10 a.m., doing prep work at the black box theater at the Lab School in Northwest Washington, D.C. Rented tables, chairs, china, silver and glassware are received and arranged in the building’s outdoor loggia.

A middle-aged guy in cargo shorts holds the keys to this kingdom. No matter what the question, comment or problem, Doug Mangel is on it. This is his party; he’s the nucleus around which everything revolves.

In a few hours, 170 people will arrive for a sit-down dinner followed by a rock concert. Mangel has devoted months to dealing with everything from sound equipment to lime slices for the bar. The evening is riding on him, a guy who normally spends his time dissecting the finer points of liability law at Drinker, Biddle & Reath in the District. Little wonder his face seems flushed and a bit distracted as he takes a swing at one detail after another.

“It’ll all work out,” he murmurs.

What is it about middle age that starts the heart yearning? A successful architect gives it all up to start a clinic in Bolivia. A software engineer bolts to the country to herd goats. A New Yorker chucks her life to seek a good meal, enlightenment and love abroad. The lure of a different direction can be a potent tropism.

Some people don’t need to give up everything to be reinvigorated, however. In his late 40s, Chevy Chase resident Doug Mangel was propelled onto a new path simply because he wanted to hear a favorite musician sing.

A college friend, Bob Klausner, had turned him on to California roots guitarist Jackie Greene, and Mangel had to hear him live. Klausner had been staging private concerts in a tent in the driveway of his New Jersey home for about five years, and in 2007 he asked Greene to appear. The singer-songwriter required a two-show guarantee to come East, however. So despite having spent most of his professional life at a desk at a law firm, Mangel decided to put on a concert himself.

Like any good boomer, his musical tastes had begun to develop in adolescence and college. He was first knocked flat by live rock at a Bruce Springsteen concert when he was 18. Besides the generational favorites, he liked indie musicians, and relished falling in love with someone new. He didn’t see himself as an impresario. But if he wanted to hear Greene live, he’d have to become one.

His initial plan was simple: He’d team up with four longtime friends, find a venue in the D.C. area, invite their friends, sell tickets, and—hey, kids!—put on a show. In the three years since, he has staged seven private concerts by up-and-coming musicians and built a local following by offering full-service concerts in an intimate setting.

There are no leather pants, tattoos or attitude among Mangel and his buddies; just polo shirts, shorts and a whole lot of good humor. Mangel has known Jason Baum, who works in marketing, since they were 6-year-olds in Bethesda. Longtime buddy Tom Jester is an architect and lives in Chevy Chase; Adam Kushner, whom Mangel met at a dog park in the early ’90s, lives in Bethesda and is an attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency; and Mark Lewis, a friend since the late ’90s, lives in Chevy Chase, D.C., and teaches at John Eaton Elementary in the District. They’re willing roadies for the man who has become, as Kushner puts it, “the Don Kirshner of Bethesda.”

Finding a venue for that first concert was a challenge. It wasn’t until Mangel attended his 14-year-old son Daniel’s end-of-the-year program at the Lab School that he realized its Kelly Theater would be perfect. There were 160 seats, a number he figured he could fill, and not one of them bad. The place offered ample parking, air conditioning and lovely grounds, which inspired another idea: a pre-show buffet dinner and drinks. For one price, he could offer a catered meal, an open bar and a night of great music.

That first performance, by Jackie Greene in 2007, was a curiosity. The invitees were all friends, boomers of a certain age who might not otherwise have turned out for a relative unknown. But the concert wasn’t just music and food. It was hamish, as they say in Yiddish: comfortable, friendly, “like Cheers,” Baum says, a rock experience where everybody knows your name.

As word of the evening spread, friends invited other friends and subsequent audiences grew. Today Mangel stages two BlackBox Live concerts a year, one in summer at the Lab School and the other in winter at the Edmund Burke School in the District (though this past year, he staged a fall concert, as well). The fare is indie rock with blues, folk and country inflections. Friends—especially Klausner, whom he calls his “music guru”—recommend bands, and Mangel follows music blogs such as twangville.com for ideas. Each BlackBox show has sold out, and each has generated a warmth rarely evident in popular music venues.

The yearning for that kind of experience has spawned a trend toward house concerts throughout the world—21st-century salons, if you will. There are even websites for those hoping to get started, such as www.concertsinyourhome.com. A gathering might include 20 to 50 friends and neighbors who pay a nominal fee—$10 to $20 is typical, although some hosts pass the hat—to listen to frequently unamplified folk, jazz, blues or even Celtic. Norm Stewart and Beth Auerbach, for instance, have been staging Sleepy Hollow Folk Club House Concerts out of their Falls Church home for 15 years.

Performers like the home venues because of the close connection with the audience. Rod Picott, a Nashville singer-songwriter, performed 60 out of 150 shows last year in private homes.

Not surprisingly, bonds frequently form between host and musician. After Washington Post attorney Mary Ann Werner invited a colleague, Eric Brace, to perform his Americana roots music in her Chevy Chase, D.C., living room, she ended up marrying him and moving to Nashville. Although Werner no longer stages house concerts, she and Brace love to go to “guitar pulls”—sessions at someone’s home where musicians perform their newest songs, pulling the guitar from each other to take a turn.

Former Maryland State Sen. Cheryl Kagan also bonded at a house concert with the man she married, now-retired Montgomery County public school teacher David Spitzer. They met at a concert in Rockville, and have staged performances in their own Rockville home for the past eight years, turning their basement into a club for visiting acoustic folk and blues musicians and organizing a grand potluck. Their suggested entry price is $15, with every penny going to the musicians. “A performer can make more money with us for an evening than they can at the Birchmere,” Kagan says.

Mangel and his friends see themselves as somewhat distinct from the home concert crowd. Their events have the best sound system available, for one thing. Mangel was able to get the 9:30 Club, one of the area’s premiere music venues, to provide the sound for the Jackie Greene gig, and they continue to crew at every performance.

“By the day of the show, everyone’s sick of me,” Mangel says. He has emerged from the Lab School to deal with the first of the last-minute snafus: There isn’t enough lime juice for the vodka gimlets, the featured drink of the evening. Someone is conscripted to run out for more and, like the White Rabbit, Mangel disappears. The real concerns are inside, and they have to do with chairs.

Earlier in the day, Mangel learned that a Lab school employee borrowed 50 chairs for his daughter’s wedding. So there are too few seats. To make matters worse, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, the headlining band, has brought an inordinate amount of paraphernalia, which takes up more room than usual.

An emergency call for more chairs goes out to the rental company, but Mangel is still worried about getting perfect placement. He, Kushner and Jester spend the next hour arranging and rearranging chairs, a dicier job than you might imagine: Everyone needs a good view, and they can’t obstruct the stage equipment or violate fire code. And will there be enough of them? Row by row, section by section, the guys position, straighten and count the chairs. Meanwhile, someone discovers that the colored-light filters are missing, so there will be no colored effects during the show. Mangel’s wife, Liz Lyons, runs out to a store for replacements.

While Mangel and his cohorts continue to count chairs, the light and sound checks start. The band’s sound guy, Luke Meeks, stands by the console with the 9:30 Club’s Jeff Kane. “Hey, hey, hey. Check, check, check. One, two, one, two…” continues for 40 minutes or so as each band member has a go with his instrument. Meanwhile, the chair schlepping continues.

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