Alice "Granny" Donahue, 82, and her band Granny’s Ball of Odds is one of the main attractions at the Showtime bar.
Sundays aren't usually great bar nights. But on this night and every Sunday, the Showtime bar in Northwest has a special draw. And it’s not the $3 cans of Natty Boh. It’s Granny.
Granny is Alice Donahue, the 82-year-old keyboard player with Granny’s Ball of Odds. Or Granny and the Boys as they’re called at the bar. They're a funk fusion band that plays every Sunday at Showtime.
“We like to call ourselves an ‘old school’ band. Emphasis on the old,” said Roberto Santos, the band’s bassist. “I'm the baby of the bunch now. I’m 58.”
It should be noted that Santos and the other men in the band are black. Donahue is white. As such, they're not exactly your average bar house band.
Richard Lynch, the band’s drummer, knows Donahue is an oddity.
“A black couple walked up to her and the wife said, ‘Do you really play with them black boys?’ And they were black!” he said.
Visually, it is a little jarring. With her head of loose white curls, long skirt and Velcro sneakers, Granny, well, looks like a grandma. You half expect her to invite you over to her house for some milk and cookies after the show.
Donahue has definitely gotten some confused looks from people in the bar.
“Some of them will come up at the bar and watch my hands and look at my shorthand music to make sure I'm actually playing that. That I’m not just a prop, sitting there pretending, you know,” Donahue said. “I shouldn't say it this way, but I’m almost like a gimmick.”
How a funk favorite is born
The makeup of the band might seem gimmicky, but its origin story couldn't be more organic.
Donahue began playing the piano when she was 3 years old. But somewhere along the line, she left the keys behind.
“Sometimes when you're married, you sort of have this split role and there’s not too much time for being Alice. You're the wife and the mother and everything else,” she said. “You sort of forget yourself along the road.”
In 1996, Donahue’s husband of nearly 50 years died. A year later, she enrolled in University of Maryland’s continuing ed program for seniors to study music. That’s how she met Richard Lynch, who was working at the Roy Rogers on campus.
He says he saw her sitting at the restaurant reading her music book and wanted to meet her.
“I just wanted to be funny and mess with her and I did. I just walked up behind her and I just snatched the book out of her hand and said ‘Thank you,’” Lynch said.
Donahue was annoyed by the adolescent move. But Lynch’s brazenness worked. Soon he convinced his new squeeze to manage his band. Donahue agreed. Then one night, the band needed a fill-in keyboardist.
“Richard just said, well you're going to have to play the concert. So I did. I did pretty good,” she said.
Strange band for a strange land
Donahue’s been in the band ever since. And unlike the many band romances before them that flamed out, Donahue and Lynch are still together. Lynch says Granny is the reason he plays music.
“If I wasn't playing with her, I wouldn't be playing music any longer. I'd still play music, but I wouldn't be playing in any bands,” he said.
Lynch had a chance to make it big in music, he says. Back in the day, he played in a local band called Rare Funk Ghetto, which opened for all greats — Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Sly and the Family Stone, to name a few. He had some opportunities to cash in, but he didn't take them. It left him feeling used up.
But Donahue reinvigorated him. Despite their 20-year age difference, the pair inspires each other.
And the band is its own kind of inspiration. In the two years they've been playing Sunday nights at Showtime, they've gained a steady following. People come out for Granny, but they stay for the boys.
“We're a very strange band,” Donahue said.