Blues brothers – GW siblings bring bluegrass to D.C. music scene

They’re talented, they’re twins, and they go to college together. They’re the Olsen twins! Okay, they’re actually David and Jonathan Kantor, two members of a bluegrass/folk quartet called the Bear Mountain Pickers.

“We have an unsaid musical connection,” Jonathan, who plays saxophone and clarinet in the band, said. David plays guitar and banjo and sings. The other band members are GW graduate student Alex Hirsch, who plays mandolin, and sophomore Tash Neal, who plays bass.

The Kantor twins, seniors from Greenwich, Conn., came to GW “kind of by coincidence,” David said, and this year they’re living together. Growing up, they both played a variety of musical instruments. In high school they played together at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Most college students start up derivative rock or punk bands. They decided to try something different. “People are always so forceful about trying to create something new,” Jonathan said. “Our band is different from anything else happening on campus.”

Still, their main audience is college students, and they make their music a little more accessible for people who never owned a banjo. Some of their songs mix traditional arrangements with inane lyrics about drunken accidents and overweight girls. At shows, they cover songs from bands including the Cars, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead.

“If we played all original music I think we might distance ourselves from the crowd,” Jonathan said.

Jonathan is mostly a jazz musician, and his influence makes the Bear Mountain Pickers unique among bluegrass bands. They don’t even have a fiddle in the mix, a very important element in bluegrass (they say they haven’t found anyone on campus who knows how to play one). Their name is a reference to a mountain in New York, which is also the subject of a Bob Dylan song, “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.”

The group’s formula has been successful; the band plays at Staccato in Adams Morgan once or twice a month, and they say that about 100 people show up for each show. “I don’t think people know they enjoy this kind of music until they hear it,” David said. Still, he admits that “when older people hear us play, they get really excited.”

The two are happy with that gig, but they’re hoping to play some more venues and reach a wider audience.

“We’re not very good at self-promoting,” David said. While David was proud to say that he has never made a dime off his musical talent (except for a stint as a Potbelly resident guitar player), Jonathan points out that he’s made “a fair bit of money” playing in jazz bands around the District. He’s performed with illustrious groups such as Neil Sedaka’s band, Glen Miller’s Orchestra and the Mat Grayson Quintet.

After college, they both plan to move to New York. David is interested in music therapy; Jonathan hopes to work in the music business or study music in graduate school. They aren’t sure they’ll work as full-time musicians: “we’re very realistic people,” Jonathan said. But David added, “It’s always been in the back of our minds that we could be playing music for a living.”

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