- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Gym Class Heroes have worked up quite a sweat recently. The alt-hip-hop outfit’s most recent (2006) effort, “As Cruel as School Children,” produced two MTV-worthy singles (“The Queen and I” and “Cupid’s Chokehold”), earned billing on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and provided strong momentum for their current headlining tour, where they’re opening for acclaimed hip-hop artists P.O.S. and k-os and progressive ska-punkers RX Bandits.

While taking a break from rehearsing in Miss DeGeneres’ studio last month, drummer Matt McGinley explained that life feels more surreal to him with each passing day.

“[There are] a lot of moments where I’ll look at somebody else from my band and think … ‘This is for real,’ ” he said, only moments before receiving a gift bag containing “Ellen”-logoed boxer briefs, a robe and a candle.

“I can remember learning to play drums and playing along with records and pretending I was on the Conan show and all my friends were watching me around the country. Then getting to do it ….”

While the group’s visibility has certainly increased in the past year, founding members Travis McCoy (vocalist extraordinaire) and Mr. McGinley have been making music together for a decade now.

Both punk fans who were then playing in upstate New York bands, the kindred spirits found one another during the late ‘90s in high-school gym class (natch). At the time, they were “just kind of jamming” together; then, in 2001, they recruited guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo and bassist Eric Roberts and began to forge the group’s unique sound — think of it as something between the Roots’ live hip-hop, punk-edged rock, sunny Maroon 5-ish pop, and Soulive’s funk-fueled instrumentals.

After self-releasing their 2002 LP, “… For the Kids,” a fortuitous connection with Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz led to their signing with his Fueled by Ramen imprint, Decaydance (also home to Panic! At The Disco). Their next disc, 2004’s “The Papercut Chronicles,” stirred underground buzz and led to tours supporting acts like the Academy Is … and a slot on the Vans Warped Tour.

The band’s current disc is certainly their most commercially successful and has also earned nods from critics. Its playful tracks wax poetic on an alcoholic girlfriend, naughty teacher’s pets, lyrics biters and even MySpace (one of the album’s best). Lunch-room gossip vibes have ensured the album’s popularity among teens and recent college grads, while obviously, older listeners like Miss DeGeneres have found points of entry as well.

When asked how long the now-twentysomethings plan to carry on the school-kid shtick, Mr. McGinley jokingly replied, “I’d say until we’re in our mid- to late-40s. That’s what we know, so that’s what we write about.”

The Gym Class bell rings on Wednesday, when they’ll perform a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club (www.930.com). Doors open at 6 p.m.

The other Reagon

Soulful singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon may be a Brooklyn resident these days, but she’s got deep Washington roots.

First off, the outspoken warbler spent her childhood in the District, and has lavish praise for its influence on her.

“Washington, D.C. is a really important city for me, and just being African-American and growing up in a city that’s primarily African-American gives you a lot of confidence everywhere you go,” she says.

Also, the musician has returned to the capital city countless times to work and perform. Her mother, Bernice, is the founder of hometown a capella favorites Sweet Honey in the Rock and one of her most frequent collaborators.

“Sweet Honey is a Washington — a world institution now,” the younger Reagon says, “but I grew up with them. Every person in that group has played a role in my life. And when my mom retired a few years ago, 21 different women had passed through that group.”

In addition to opening for Lenny Kravitz on his first world tour, backing Elvis Costello on “Late Show with David Letterman,” and playing many other high-stakes gigs, Miss Reagon has joined heads with her mom for dozens of projects over the years, including a recent job creating the music for Robert Wilson’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony.” The duo also performs “sacred music concerts” periodically in New York City, which Miss Reagon hopes to turn into a new album later this year.

Right now, however, the guitar-toting vocalist is gearing up for a special homecoming of sorts: she plays North Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore (www.strath more.org) on Saturday, which she is thrilled about.

“I feel really good about this show; it’s definitely the biggest place I’ve played in D.C.,” she says. “This is kind of taking it to a different level.”

For this particular date, the musician will perform with her five-piece band, BigLovely, and shares the bill with Lizz Wright, another woman whose earthy, R&B-tinged folk digs down deep.

Showtime is at 8 p.m.

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