A rock legend, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Kevin Bacon walk into a bar….
That’s not a joke set-up, but rather a description of the latest incarnation of what’s become a hot springtime ticket in the nation’s capital. The White House Correspondents’ Jam—the looser, decidedly less political precursor to the following night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner—returns for round four this Friday, April 27 at DC club The Hamilton.
The event is hosted by Mother Nature Network and venerable pianist Chuck Leavell, the Rolling Stones’ touring keyboardist, former Allman Brothers keys man and purveyor of this unique Venn diagram of journalism and music that’s been increasing in A-list stature since it debuted during the Obama era. No matter who’s in the Oval Office, Leavell says, the evening is about providing a stage for talented media professionals who open for a headliner—which this year is the Bacon Brothers.
“So many of them have amateur bands, and they don’t get to play a lot—so I thought, ‘Let’s give them a chance to bring it out in open,’” Leavell tells Billboard of the media realm. “And much to our surprise, it just exploded. It’s their time to shine. We pick a song I’ll sit in with them on, usually a Stones piece or an Allman Brothers song, everybody has a good time.”
Those lucky enough to get on the list this year will get a special treat. Bacon Brothers Kevin and Michael are using the stage to showcase material from their new record, finished only a few weeks ago. “We’re playing a lot of the new stuff in the set, trying to get that stuff out there, so that’s fun for us,” Kevin Bacon tells Billboard.
“Depending on how much of a party atmosphere it is, we’ll play more rockin’ stuff,” he adds. “We always try to play the best we can and put on best show we can, but we plan on having fun. I don’t think you can take this kind of gig too seriously. We’re not going to get too heavy about it—we want to go have a good time.”
This year’s roster of moonlighting journos is an impressive lot, both in their respective media platforms and in the musical chops they’ve been honing for years: Lester Holt & the Rough Cuts (NBC), Mike Siconolfi & the Six Stars (Wall Street Journal), Tom Toles & Suspicious Package (Washington Post), and Steve Liesman & the Mooncussers (CNBC), also featuring Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary.
Several of the bands are back for a WH Jam encore—and to perpetuate the mutual admiration society they’ve got going with Leavell. “The first time I ever heard Steve play, I went on CNBC to do an interview with him and the moment I got there he said, ‘I’m a guitar player, can I play something for you?’ And it blew my mind how good he was,” Leavell says of Liesman.
Liesman returns the tip of the hat by thoroughly researching the tunes he plays with Leavell. “What I’ve been doing is searching Chuck’s history and doing some of the more offbeat stuff. A lot of people don’t know Chuck was the piano player on the legendary album Unplugged album by Eric Clapton, so last year we did two songs with Chuck—‘Running On Faith’ and ‘Layla.’ And it turned out it was only the second time Chuck had played ‘Layla’ live,” he says. “He did it once for the album and video, but they didn’t take that song on tour.”
“A thrill beyond description” is how Toles, the WaPo political editorial cartoonist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, sums up his first WH Jam last year, where his band performed “Sympathy for the Devil” with Leavell. “When we did ‘Sympathy’ I was drumming so hard I broke a drumstick,” he says. “Of course I saved the drumstick I broke playing with Chuck Leavell—who wouldn’t?—as proof.”
Newcomer Holt tells Billboard he’s looking forward to “being in the company of some really talented people, and finding a little camaraderie with other media bands. And of course I’ll be listening to my own applause meter,” he says with a laugh.
“I don’t get nervous being in front of live TV, but I always have had a little anxiety about being in front of crowds when I actually see their faces,” Holt adds. “Until I see people start to sway and dance, and then it all fades away and it’s just about having fun.”
Fun is a word rarely bandied about inside the beltway these days. But the night’s talent and guests aim to party away any discord.
“What’s cool about this to me is we’re in this environment where there’s this huge political divide and the weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner it’s even more acute. And there’s Chuck bringing everyone together with a common language,” Siconolfi, who heads the investigative reporting team at the Wall Street Journal, tells Billboard. “Music is something that unites everyone as opposed to divides, and it’s a perfect time to have that language. There’s no fake news in music.”
Michael Bacon is looking forward to a feisty mix in the room. “Hopefully it’s everybody—Fox News and CNN, all over the place. That’s what I think would make it fun,” he says, then jokes, “I’m hoping everyone’s just arguing the whole time and I’ll jump in when I can.”
“The mood of the city definitely felt different,” Leavell says of last year, the first Jam of the Trump administration. “[But] the event we hosted was probably the most fun we had since we started the thing. I think it was because people said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re supposed to be having a good time no matter what.’ So now there are a lot of people trying to get in the door.”
“I was a traditional attendee of either the dinner and the side parties, so I’m well aware of that atmosphere,” Toles says. “I’ve pulled back from most of that stuff voluntarily. This seems to be its own unique thing, and music is the universal solvent. It really does break through all barriers.”
A self-professed “political junkie,” Leavell let slip to Billboard a different stage may be in the offing for him. “Maybe at some point I may try to run for an office,” he says. The musician and his wife are already active in local politics in their home state of Georgia. Earlier this month they hosted a fundraiser for Democrat Jessica Walden, niece of former Allmans manager and Capricorn Records co-founder Phil Walden, who’s in the state delegate race.
In the meantime, Leavell’s hard at work at his day job. Bright and early the morning after the Jam, he’ll be back on a plane. “I have Rolling Stones duty,” he says. “I’m headed to London for rehearsals for our tour. I’m excited to get back to it.”