“The reason this is the best club in America is the people that work here. Trust me, most nightclubs are terrible places. You don’t want to go there.” – Neill Fallon of Clutch.
“I can not imagine a DC without the 9:30 Club. It is unimaginable. It’s just unimaginable” – Mark Noone of The Slickee Boys.
“I love the fact that I’m from DC!” – Henry Rollins
“Let’s kick on the way back machine and get this thing over with.” – Bob Mould.
One of the truly singular music events I have ever attended took place on Monday night at the 9:30 Club. It was a special free concert held in celebration of this legendary club’s 30th anniversary. The night was also a celebration of the people who work (and have worked) there, the icons who got their start there, and the wonderful music that has been played there over the last 30 years. The night was full of anecdotes and music from 13 bands and artists that have strong ties to both the old and new 9:30 Club locations. For some the evening was a living, breathing, crash course in DC music history; for others it was a fun and at times even emotional trip down memory lane.
The 9:30 Club (original location) is the nightclub I cut my teeth on when I moved here in 1993. Within a few days of arriving I was catching my first show there (British twee-band Heavenly); and in the months and years after many, many more shows followed. I once took a date there to see The Boredoms and she left with a black-eye. My little brother did his first stage dive when I took him there to see Helmet. I was completely enthralled with industrial music after hearing Einstruzende Neubauten on the PA before the melodramatic, dynamite-strapped Sheep on Drugs brought the house down with their industrial-dance mayhem. And I was seduced along with everyone else in the crowd by Toni Halliday and the sounds of Curve. The old club opened my mind to most of the music that I still passionately love today.
The V st. location is without a doubt the best club-venue in the country. I’ve been to concert halls all over the U.S.A. and it always comes back to the 9:30 Club’s awesome sound-system (which I have written/gushed about at length over the years). Seeing a concert at the 9:30 Club is a sublime experience for a die-hard music fan. Perhaps none more-so than the amazing show that club-owner Seth Hurwitz treated dedicated DC music fans to on Monday night.
The evening featured 15 to 20 minute micro-sets of about 3 or 4 songs each by acts spanning the history of the 9:30 Club. There was a loose chronology at work in the order of the line-up, which introduced club fans of different ages to the whole gamut of the 9:30 Club musical family. For the first half of the night each band was introduced by either club-owner Seth Hurwitz or the club’s iconic bouncer Josh Burdette. Planned MC Henry Rollins was stuck on a tarmac somewhere en route but would arrive later in the evening.
Starting things off Rockville-born, world-famous, electronica artist BT set the tone as he mixed new wave, goth, and 80’s tunes while the club slowly filled up with sun-baked, ticket-lottery winners. He played some choice tracks through the night. My favorites being “Cuts You Up” by Peter Murphy and later some Art of Noise.
Tiny Desk Unit were up first. Introduced as the first band and the last band to play at the old 9:30 Club location, they were invited to kick-off the next 30 years of club history. This band featured NPR All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen on keyboards, who got much love when introduced thanks to his awesome 9:30 Club concert broadcasts. I had never heard TDU before and I really enjoyed their off-kilter, post-punk, creativity. Boilen’s Devo-esque keyboards squeaked and squealed, as Michael Barron laid down some high-pitched guitar, while lead singer Susan Mumford crawled onto the stage hooded by a red shawl. Mumford treated us to quite a performance as she slinked up the mic stand, and began singing in an unsettling sing-songy, almost Siouxsie-esque fashion. Their set was a lot of fun and a lot weirder than I expected.
Next up were The Fleshtones. These CBGB/Max’s KC-era garage rockers lived up to their legendary pedigree by blowing the roof off the club with a balls-out fun set that featured awesome choreographed dance moves, glittery shirts, and noised-up, classic 70’s punk energy. I thought I knew The Fleshtones from their recordings. Their epic micro-set on Monday night showed me that I had a lot to learn. I have to see these guys play a full show sometime. They are amazing.
courtesy of godieinhell2.
The Slickee Boys hold the distinct honor of having played the most shows at the 9:30 Club. Monday night’s abridged set was their 80th time performing on stage there! I have never made it to one of The Slickee Boys’ famous Christmas shows but after seeing this band of miscreant, rock-n-roll, madmen I may have to rearrange my holiday schedule come December. I greatly enjoyed their rock-n-roll chameleon nature sounding at one moment like Dick Dale gone punk and few minutes later like a cousin of The Cramps with the tune “The Brain That Refused To Die”. The Slickee Boys’ costumes were also hilarious and awesome; from the Fu Manchu robes, to the neon pink goggles, and of course let us not forget the awesome flower-topped, Pacific island rain-dance mask!
Duo Marti Jones & Don Dixon represented the dawning of the WHFS-era with their acoustic guitar, electric bass, vocal duets. I was sort of dumb-struck by how beautiful Marti’s voice is live. I even asked some chatting folks to shush up so we could hear her better. I thought they put on a really sweet, classy set. For their final song Marti and Don invited Tommy Keene to join them on guitar and Seth Hurwtiz to sit in on drums. The final number was a fun and a little more up-tempo. Hurwitz sat in on drums a number of times through-out the night.
Tommy Keene stuck around on stage as the next act and was joined by 3/4 of his original band. I was very excited to finally be seeing this power-pop hero play live and he did not disappoint. Keene’s set was full of fiery guitar solos, great pop-vocals, and an energy that was simply infectious. His band sounded fantastic on the club’s sound-system and rivaled the best Brit-guitar-pop bands I’ve seen perform there. For his final song, Keene invited his teenage nephew Hunter to play drums and I have to say the kid did a great job. Keene’s set left a smile on everybody’s face.
When I first walked into the 9:30 Club for this event, I knew it was going to be special. For both the club, its extended family of staff and musicians, and for myself as a life-long music fan. Looking around the club I could not help but notice that on the far left balcony a performance area had been set-up. A drum-kit, an amp, a little sound-board, between two standing-lamps, on top of a Persian rug. It was obvious something cool was going to happen up there, so that’s were I chose my spot for the night.
Sans introduction The Evens, Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina, climbed into their intimate little area surrounded by adoring fans. Ian turned to face the floor of the club and the house-lights were turned up to illuminate the packed house below. Ian did his polite version of a sound check by asking everyone if they could hear him okay. “Are you sonically getting me?” Then he told a story about being banned from the old 9:30 Club after his first show there with Teen Idols. Everyone laughed at the irony. In typical MacKaye fashion he talked through a lot of The Evens’ allotted time, but he’s such a good story-teller no-one seemed to mind. The Evens played three songs all of which were great. Ian’s singing is as intense as ever, as he occasionally would ram the mic with his lips before singing a line. It was great being right up next to them as they performed. Ian dedicated their last song to the 9:30 Club staff (past and present) saying “they seem to really have their shit together.” It was classic MacKaye and a great mini-set of tunes.
Up next on the main stage, Seth Hurwitz introduced Harrisonburg-native Justin Jones and his band as “the next big thing in music”. It was a bit of a music “industry”-feeling moment as Jones’ album is set to be the debut release on the new 9:30 Club record label. I don’t know if it was that or me just not digging Jones’ music very much, but I unplugged a little bit during this set. The music was fine, and Jones definitely has the chops to make it big in mainstream radio-land. But I wasn’t feeling it, knowing that indie music icons were en route to the stage. Jones’ set wrapped up after a song dedicated to farmers and it was obvious the guy is living his dream playing on stage. Who knows, maybe in ten years we’ll all be able to say we saw him when…
In no short order, Henry Rollins bounced onto the stage. The travel-hindered MC had finally arrived. The club really came to life seeing ol’ Hank and he launched into a very inspired anecdote about the dread of performing after Bob Mould’s brilliant band, Husker Du, back in the day. Rollins called Mould one of the few men of integrity left in the music business from the old days and likened him to Ian MacKaye and Corey Rusk (of Touch & Go Records). It was a great intro and I was extremely excited to finally be seeing one of my music heroes perform.*
Bob Mould simply owned the stage. He stood stage left and played unaccompanied. Just himself and his electric guitar. It was a breath-taking fifteen minutes. He played amazing renditions of his Sugar song “Hoover Dam” and his solo tune “See A Little Light”. I noticed that the crowd around me fell into hushed reverence as Mould played. I myself was subconsciously holding my breath. This was a personal music history moment and I could not believe what came next. Mould launched into his Husker Du song “I Apologize”. It was a beautiful, gnarly, heart-felt version which he then followed with Husker Du’s “Makes No Sense At All”. By the end of these two songs, I have to admit, I was wiping away a few tears. Later in the evening I heard many people saying Mould’s set was one of, if not the best set of the night.
courtesy of godieinhell2.
For the rest of the night Henry Rollins delivered inspired introductions to every act. The man was born to MC this event. He has DC music pumping through his veins. On the 9:30 Club forum, someone suggested that Henry Rollins should host the next Oscar telecast and I have to say I completely agree. He is one entertaining dude.
Poor Ted Leo had the difficult task of following Bob Mould, as Rollins had so many years ago per his story. Ted Leo did an admirable job though. He too was playing solo with just a guitar. He attacked his instrument playing nosier than I remember him usually being. He played a great mini-set of tunes that felt right at home with 90’s DC indie-rock. Leo played a song he wrote in Mt. Pleasant 16 years ago, and also treated us to a cover of “To Whom Were You Born” by the Baltimore/DC band Lungfish (which he also covered on a split-single back in 1999).
Rounding out the solo, guitar, samurai performances of the evening was the invite-hinted-at, surprise guest of the night. DC-area-rooted, international rock superstar Dave Grohl did indeed show up to play. He was met with loudest cheers of the night as he walked on stage and strapped on his baby-blue guitar. Grohl told Rollins that he had a half-finished Black Flag tattoo that he tried to give himself when he was twelve. Then Grohl told a story about getting his first record made thanks to a hook-up with Corrosion of Conformity drummer Reed Mullin at the old 9:30 Club. After muttering thanks to all his friends, Grohl launched into a great version of the Foo Fighters’ song “Everlong” which got the crowd singing along. It was a sweet moment. A lot of guys hugging their gals from behind and swaying to Grohl’s honest lyrics and guitar swoons.
Being the true class act that he is, Grohl made his set less about himself and more about his old band-mates in Scream who he invited on-stage to perform with him. Grohl played guitar while Scream’s original drummer Kent Stax (the guy he replaced in the 80’s) took the kit. Fritz Stahl was the only Scream member not present. This impromtu Scream reunion was awesome. Pete Stahl sang a melodic, soulful version of their old tune “Chokeword” and then the group launched into not one, but two Bad Brains songs.** They played “At The Atlantis” (in honor of the 9:30 Club’s original name) and “Stay Close To Me” (a b-side Rollins noted he had never heard played live). The Grohl/Scream/Bad Brains set left everyone in the crowd buzzing with good old DC Hardcore P.M.A.
courtesy of godieinhell2.
Next up VA/DC ska upstarts, The Pietasters launched into a very energetic and classed-up four-song set. I enjoyed their set immensely. I sort-of grew-up with these guys and have seen them play all around DC over the years. I hadn’t caught up with them in many years though and I was instantly struck by what a professional act they have become. No longer the scrappy ska kids I remember, The Pietasters presented a grown-up hooligan ska that was very cool. I might have to catch these guys again soon to relive some of the old days. Of course my favorite of theirs on Monday was “Maggie Mae” which singer Stephen Jackson said they wrote about the 9:30 Club bartenders.
The manic, party-fun energy of The Pietasters’ ska gave way to a massive three song set by Maryland rockers Clutch. Singer, Neill Fallon’s beard is almost as impressive as his voice. He is truly one of the best hard-rock vocalists on the planet, a fact that he proved without a doubt during Clutch’s three song run. The band sounded fantastic, completely working the club’s sound system unlike anyone else Monday night. Clutch are simply the evil masters of the 9:30 Club. I have seen them play there twice before and each time was mind-bending. The energy and racket of their three song set ramped up perfectly, ending in an unholy maelstrom of deep, heavy, stoner-rock sound. Clutch’s set was so huge that it felt like nothing on earth could possibly follow it without sounding minuscule by comparison.
courtesy of godieinhell2.
As Henry Rollins put it in his introduction for the last group of the evening, the only thing that could hold up to the mighty Clutch was “the sound that defines the 202 area code.” Rollins told a great story about riding around with his best friend Ian MacKaye back in the day and hearing Monday night’s final performers on AM radio for the first time. He said that they pulled the car over just to listen to their song without traffic interruptions. He said that what they were hearing was the beat that they had been waiting to come out of DC all their lives. That beat was Go-Go and the band was Trouble Funk.
Trouble Funk played the longest set of the night and they killed! Playing all of their party hits, “Pump Me Up”, “Drop The Bomb”, and “Hey Fellas” this massive group got the whole house dancing, chanting calls & responses, and waving their arms in the air. I had only ever read about the attempt to have Go-Go and Hardcore bands play together back in the 80’s. On Monday night it was incredible to experience this amazing original Go-Go act share the stage with Hardcore legends like Rollins, MacKaye, and Bob Mould. I can think of very few cities where a crowd would react as warmly as they did to the variety of acts on display at the 9:30 Club on Monday night. This is one of the things that makes the DC music scene so great and its flagship the 9:30 Club such a special place.
Happy 30th Anniversary 9:30 Club! I cannot wait to see what you have in store for us for the next 30!
courtesy of godieinhell2.
* I never saw Bob Mould perform before Monday night and it is too long of a story to print here.
** Bad Brains – a group that more than one musician on Monday night had mentioned as a major inspiration.