I love D.C. I really do, but the local music scene hasn’t been anything to talk about since Bad Brains went reggae. That’s not to say we don’t love our icons, though. In fact, when our state quarter was issued recently, none other than Duke Ellington was chosen as the iconic figure to represent the city. That’s the point, however. We long for the days when we were breaking barriers and moving things forward.
Back in the early nineties, the city was undergoing some major changes. Our Mayor was arrested for a motel room romp with a hooker and a little crack, our public schools were in shambles and, worst of all, the city lacked the basic support for a music scene. In 1993, some notable investors (Dave Grohl, included) decided to give back to the city that raised them. As a result, The Black Cat was opened in the heart of the U street district that once was home to the ground breaking jazz scene of the ’60s. While the club itself is relatively new, its area is rich in D.C.’s artistic history. Once opened, the club would instantly go on to serve as the city’s access to the world of underground rock. (I can only imagine what it could have been like to catch Radiohead in that small space when they toured on the heels of Pablo Honey.) Over a decade later, it still serves that function as the go to spot to see indie music’s latest darlings.
For whatever reason, mostly the naivete of my youth, I only started going to the club a few years ago and since then, I haven’t left. There’s reason for this. The Black Cat has consistently managed to bring in the acts I have wanted to see over the years, even as my tastes have changed. It doesn’t hurt that they have a great bar, which is separate from the stage areas and sports a killer jukebox, one that features everyone: from local heroes Fugazi to out of towners like Vampire Weekend — and who could forget the classics from the Parliament Funkadelic (Chocolate City was written for D.C.)?
The club breaks down as such: you walk in, fight past the will call lines, and you have a couple of options (unless you are under 21…sorry). To the right, you have the entrance to the jukebox bar. It’s dark with glowing crimson lights, which makes sense given its name, The Red Room. It’s pretty laid back, too. There are couches off to the left and small tables in the middle, with a pool table adjacent to the closed off artist area doors. If you continue deeper, however, there’s a smaller space aptly named the “backstage”. It’s a tight room (200 capacity), where smaller, often local, bands can perform. More times than not, this is the place where you can later say, “Yeah, I saw them there.” It’s very quaint and it’s very accessible. The stage is just off the ground, putting you face to face with the performers (as it did with The Headlights and The Submarines last summer), and at points you feel like you could butt heads with the bands. What’s more, there’s an intense energy there, which lends itself to great experiences, some that may require a drink afterward.
Now to get to the main stage, you have to walk back out the way you came, through the Red Room, and into the obnoxiously crowded main entrance. This time, however, you head up two flights of stairs with opposing walls, covered in glossy posters for the upcoming shows (if you ask nicely, the staff will let you take one home). If you turn around on the second flight, you’re faced with a black and white mural of a family digging into a delicious atomic bomb dinner (it’s impossible to miss on the way back down). It’s very cartoonish, yes, but it’s just another reminder that people here love a little political satire with their rock n’ roll.
The main room itself is another dark place with its low ceilings, exposed pipes and checkered flooring. It’s the kind of rock club you would see in movies, with the stage barely off the ground (about waist high) and no separation between you and the band. The low ceilings tend to make stage diving a bad idea, as Keith Murray of We Are Scientists found out a few years ago, but that still doesn’t stop a few ambitious front men from trying anyways. In the back, there’s another above-level area with tables and couches that’s perfect for either passed out rockers or relaxing couples (or both). Unlike many other clubs’ “comfort zones,” the view is never an issue, even when slouching on the comfy leather, and the sound has just as much punch in the front as it does in the back.
Clearly, The Black Cat has become like a second home for me over the years, yet most of D.C. might say the same thing. After all, its intimate atmosphere provides a setting for fans to not only see the bands they love, but to sometimes meet them, too. In the past, the tight venue has given me the chance for more than a few memorable conversations, such as when I ran into Benjamin Curtis after his set with SVIIB just before M83 took the stage. But that could happen to anyone. The openers always come out to watch each other and are more than happy to talk to an overly excited fan. That’s the appeal of The Black Cat. It’s the comfort food of venues. It’s much more than just a club, but rather a home — for musicians and their fans. Come to think of it, I still can’t think of a better place to spend a night in this city. Yet even after all this praise, I’m still not too sure about the vegan nachos.
The Black Cat
1811 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20009
04/04 – Wag: ’60s Garage and Soul Backstage
04/05 – Obits, The Points Backstage
04/06 – Ibid, Cat Furniture, Head-Roc (CD Release for gaza:comp) Backstage
04/07 – Title Tracks (7″ Release), Pash, Authorization Backstage
04/08 – Comet Gain, Crystal Stilts, Cold Cave Backstage
04/09 – Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Jennifer O’Connor Mainstage
04/09 – Tim Barry, Austin Lucas, Josh Small Backstage
04/10 – FYM Presents: Depeche Mode Dance Party w/ DJ Steve EP, Krasty McNasty, Killa K Mainstage
04/10 – BLACK CATatonia: 80s, Hip Hop, Soul, Electronica Dance Night w/ Turntablist DJ DK Backstage
04/11 – Cloud Cult, Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Ice Palace Mainstage
04/11 – RIGHT ROUND: 80s Alt-Pop Dance Night w/ DJ lil’ e Backstage
04/12 – The Wooden Birds (ex American Analog Set), LYMBYC System Backstage
04/13 – Ribbons, The Surge Backstage
04/14- Great Lake Swimmers, Kate Maki Backstage