- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Every summer, a new generation of youngsters flocks to a small park in Northwest Washington for a little free music, and more than a few leave wanting to start their own bands.

It was only a little more than a decade ago that guitarist Mike Schleibaum was one of those teenagers, coming into the District from his hometown of Fairfax to check out the bands at the annual Fort Reno Park summer concert series.

“I went to some of my first shows there,” Mr. Schleibaum, 28, says by phone. “We even played there once a really long time ago.”

Now he and his band, Darkest Hour, are giving back by headlining a benefit concert for the Fort Reno series at the Black Cat on Saturday. Although listeners will have to pay to get in, those ticket fees help make sure the park shows remain free this summer.

A close friend of Mr. Schleibaum is booking bands at Fort Reno this summer and approached his group about taking part, he says.

For those unfamiliar with the Fort Reno Summer Concert Series, the all-ages, alcohol-free concerts have been a mainstay at the park at Chesapeake Street and Nebraska Avenue NW in Tenleytown for years, featuring some of the area’s best local talent and always a few up-and-coming high school groups.

The shows run from 7:15 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays. Those interested can catch a free show tonight featuring the Evens and the Routineers. The series continues through Aug. 18.

“The thing that’s really cool about Fort Reno is we tour all over the world and there are very few music scenes where you have all local bands playing all summer long. That’s special to D.C.,” he says.

The price of a $10 ticket at the Black Cat benefit this weekend also gains one the chance to see a homegrown act that is quickly becoming one of the hottest young metal bands in the country. The show is doubling as a record-release party for the band’s fourth album, “Undoing Ruin,” which was released Tuesday.

Darkest Hour began life when Mr. Schleibaum and singer John Henry attended Robinson Junior-Senior High School in Fairfax. The lineup has changed over the years as the band has honed its sound. The group became a full-time venture in 2000 and released its first full-length CD for Victory Records, its current label, in 2001.

Since that first record, the band has toured steadily and gained a spot last summer on the metal-friendly Ozzfest tour.

The band went into the studio with most of the songs for “Undoing Ruin” already written, but producer Devin Townsend helped Darkest Hour take its act to the next level by focusing on making each track better than the one before it, he says.

“This one was much more intense,” Mr. Schleibaum says. “He got very involved with the songs.”

On the Victory Records Web site, a trailer for the new record describes it in the vein of metal classics such as Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” and suggests that if a new classic album comes along every decade, then “Undoing Ruin” will be the one for the ‘00s.

Darkest Hour is not for the faint listener, as Mr. Henry’s vocals are intense and screamed at a level few other singers would find possible to sustain for long. But underneath the heavy exterior, there is stunning musicianship: blistering guitar work, a thriving rhythm section and tight interplay among the members.

While it has been hard work to go from standing in the crowd at Fort Reno to headlining shows around the world, Mr. Schleibaum says it’s been worth it.

“It’s all or nothing,” he says of their decision to pursue their music.

“Hopefully, it’ll continue to pay off.”

n n n

Nellie McKay hasn’t tried heavy metal yet, but that’s not to say she might not. The young songstress began her career with a double album that includes both torch songs and rap, so it’s safe to say she’s not afraid of experimentation.

She plays tonight at the Birchmere in Alexandria with the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players.

Miss McKay is also not above a good joke. Her debut was called “Get Away From Me,” a slight poke at another young piano singer named Norah Jones and her multiplatinum first album, “Come Away With Me.”

Over the course of 18 tracks, Miss McKay lives up to expectations raised by critics who have called her a cross between Doris Day and Eminem, though her work doesn’t sound old-fashioned or dated and isn’t as crass as the comparison to Eminem suggests.

Where Miss McKay goes next musically is anyone’s guess, but it’s sure to be an interesting journey.

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