DC’s best kept secret, and maybe DC’s best band!  

Gantt Kushner
Guitarist, producer, and owner of Gizmo Recording Company 

Cairo Fred is the unicorn band. They work hard, write good songs and we are proud of their achievements as musical citizens. They are doing it well and doing it right. 

Jay Keating, President of  Songwriters Association of Washington (SAW)

After two decades, Cairo Fred starts to build a songbook


By Michael J. West 
October 20, 2021 at 8:00 a.m. EDT 

Cairo Fred collects descriptions and genre labels the way some people collect passport visa stamps. Its music has been called pop, alt-rock, Americana, adult contemporary and pop-jazz, among others. The band also has been compared to David Bowie and Steely Dan. 

In the view of the D.C. sextet, who released their album “Freedom Street” earlier this year, all those descriptors are valid. 

“We are many things. A disparate bunch of things put together,” says Desson Thomson, the band’s lead vocalist and (with guitarist/pianist Bradford Heck) songwriter. “Brad and I just entered into the Songwriters Association of Washington contest, and the only category I felt comfortable in was called ‘Open.’ ” (They won an honorable mention.) 

The band came together in 2000, with Thomson and Heck’s songwriting partnership (which has extended over more than 30 years) as its nucleus. The singer is English, the guitarist American and they each bring their perspectives — cultural and otherwise — to the music they’ve written together for 30 years. 

“I would never come up with the musical ideas he does, and then what I add is nothing he could ever possibly conceive of,” Thomson says. “The two of us come together and make this third entity. That’s what I love about this partnership.” 

Cairo Fred’s other distinctive ingredient is in Buddy Griffin’s pedal steel guitar. The instrument is almost synonymous with country music, which is where Griffin usually plays it. Country was one of the rarer elements in Thomson and Heck’s writing, but they loved the pedal steel sound and recruited Griffin to make it “speak for itself in a whole new language.” 

Second guitarist Andris Plavnieks, bassist John Dawson and drummer Brian Riordan had previously worked together, and with D.C. music veteran Heck, in various contexts across several decades. All except Riordan also are singers, allowing Cairo Fred to develop some intricate background vocal arrangements. 

While Thomson describes them as a family unit, each one plays in other bands and has a day job. Heck is a teacher in Prince George’s County schools; Thomson is a political speechwriter and former film critic for the Washington Post. (Weekend readers may remember his byline, Desson Howe.) 

Cairo Fred has done a couple of homemade CDs, but its members’ schedules were always too full to do a properly produced, mastered and packaged album. The pandemic, however, created lots more free time for everyone. 

“So this is where I finally said, ‘It’s time to really knuckle down and start making the songs we put together, starting to build a songbook,’ ” says Thomson. 

Freedom Street” is exactly that. Its tunes run the gamut from “Raincoat,” a jazzy heartbreak ballad that was the first song Thomson and Heck ever wrote together, to “Everything” — which the band thinks might be the world’s first track to combine hip-hop influences with pedal steel. 

The wait for their second proper album won’t be nearly as long. Thomson and Heck are already at work on songs for a follow-up, one that the singer says will eclipse “Freedom Street” in quality and ambition. 

“We are pop’s ultimate late bloomers, you might say,” Thomson says. 

Friday at 8 and 10 p.m. at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. bluesalley.com. $35