Bob Brown returns to the record store, this time with his guitar
By Chris Richards April 7, 2016
There are at least two myths about record stores: They’re snob temples. And they’ve gone extinct.
In Washington, both presumptions are moot thanks to a tenacious cluster of vinyl emporiums in Northwest where the business is brisk and the clerks are friendly. Visit five of them in an afternoon — start up on 18th Street (Smash, Crooked Beat), continue east along U Street (Red Onion, Joint Custody), hang a right on 14th Street (Som) — and you’ll find that these aren’t just nifty boutiques for snapping up old John Coltrane LPs. They’re spaces for talk, discovery, serendipity, even magic.
All four of those things seemed to be happening simultaneously inside Red Onion Records in February 2013 when Bob Brown walked through the doors and found a mint-condition copy of a solo album he’d released 43 years earlier. According to a story in Washington City Paper, Brown’s daughter, then 10 years old, took one look at the hairy guy on the cover and said, “That’s you, isn’t it?”
Sure was. Brown recorded two floating folk albums for Richie Havens’s Stormy Forest label in the early ’70s, but his career stalled soon after. The Maryland-raised songwriter continued penning music, but he eventually found success working as a consultant in the hospitality industry. Still, over the years and across the Internet, young fans slowly began to discover his recordings, and now Brown’s first two albums — 1970’s “The Wall I Built Myself” and 1971’s “Willoughby’s Lament” — will be reissued on the Tompkins Square label in May. To celebrate, Brown, 67, is playing shows again, including one at Red Onion on Friday evening.
The resurgent singer sees his full-circle trip as a chance for young ears to hear his forgotten ballads anew. “It’s like an awakening for them,” Brown says of his new fans. “And that’s what’s cool about it: I have that same awakening every time I play these songs.”
Josh Rosenthal, the founder of Tompkins Square, will also be on hand Friday — as a co-headliner. He’ll be reading from his new muso-memoir, “The Record Store of the Mind,” a high-spirited book about his search for obscure albums and the underloved musicians who made them. Chapter after chapter, it reads like passionate record store chatter — a special kind of music in and of itself.