Black Cat: A changing club with a changing scene in a changing city

By:
09/09/2004

In daylight, the corrugated steel shutters of 1811 14th Street NW are as unassuming as any closed-for-business city storefront or locked-down warehouse. The only feature setting the building slightly apart is the plainly-lettered black and white sign hanging above the main entrance that reads BLACK CAT. Pass the same address on any given evening, and you’re greeted with a crowd of shaggy-haired scenesters shuffling around the doors, streaming past the ID checkpoint or staring morosely out of the window of the Food for Thought vegetarian cafe within.

Inside, the most distinctive feature of the club is the rows of disheveled, bespectacled youth trying to look more romantically jaded and disinterested than the kids next to them, watching the great independent rock groups of the day wrench art out of their guitars. At the bar, patrons can be blindsided by intellectual-vogue pickup lines like, “Ever read any Ayn Rand?”

For over 10 years, the Black Cat has been the place to watch the best rock bands the District has to offer before the rest of the world finds out about them, if any of them even last that long. Since its founding in 1993, the club has been thoroughly committed to the music of Washington, D.C., above everything else. Having grown out of the energy and ethic created by the D.C. hardcore bands of the 1980s and nurtured by the independent rock bands that grew out of that community, the Cat holds a unique position in Washington’s musical history.

A certain affinity for the club extends to regular concertgoers as well as the musicians who play there. “It’s definitely preferable to the 9:30 Club because not only do they charge you less, but it’s more low-key, said Tiffany Chan (CAS ‘06). “I like the ambience. You’re closer to the bands.”

The man behind the cat

The guiding force behind the club is its omnipresent but seldom visible founder and owner, Dante Ferrando. While the Cat lies silent to the rest of the world, he works ceaselessly within the club’s cavernous, almost eerie emptiness, doing everything from booking bands and filing taxes to fixing leaky toilets in the restrooms.

“I started it in ‘93, and I was running a small cafe down the street, a little coffeehouse type place, and the local music scene was really hurting at that time,” he said. “There weren’t very many places for local bands to play. DC Space was sort of on the way out, and the 9:30 Club was pretty run down at that point.”

Although the 9:30 Club had been an important rock venue for years, the club tended more towards booking national-caliber bands rather than cultivating local talent.

To Ferrando, “It seemed like a really necessary thing to do.”

The club grows up

One of the most pivotal moments in the club’s history came with the opening of the new 9:30 Club in January of 1996.

Kim Coletta (CAS ‘88), ex-bassist of D.C. band Jawbox and head of local DeSoto Records, said, “All of a sudden, even mid-sized bands could not and probably would not be booked there. It was a whole different, more high-profile club, and then all of a sudden the Black Cat was completely essential.”

With the closing of the aging, ramshackle and shoebox-sized original location of the 9:30 Club, the Black Cat cemented its reputation as the only place in the city to see underground rock. As Coletta said, “Black Cat wasn’t just a luxury; it was one of the only games in town again.”

Of course, one major factor in the club’s success has been that it provides a stopping point for touring independent groups from outside of D.C. “You can’t make any money if you just book small local bands, and if you don’t make any money then your club doesn’t keep functioning. Dante has come up with this nice blend of local, regional and national stuff that clearly works, because he’s been in business a long time for a club,” Coletta said.

Georgetown’s contributions to the District’s musical blend may surprise those familiar with the university’s more traditional image.

“I went to school at Georgetown and then never left. I moved here in ‘84 as a freshman,” Coletta said. “We figured out how to take buses from Georgetown to DC Space.”

The school can also claim such eminent D.C. rock legends as Guy Picciotto, frontman of seminal District bands Fugazi and Rites of Spring, and Jenny Toomey, member of ‘90s indie rock band Tsunami and co-founder of the legendary Arlington record label Simple Machines, as alumni. D.C. scene godfather Ian MacKaye saw his first punk concert on campus in the late ‘70s, and some even claim that WGTB, Georgetown’s student radio station, was the first to break the first wave of UK punk on American shores.

Regardless of the changes in the music scene and the U St. neighborhood, the Black Cat still remains a beloved focal point for the music scene that takes place around it.

“We’ve always really enjoyed our Black Cat shows and they’ve been really supportive of us the whole way. It’s nice to have a club we can consider friends as well as one we enjoy playing at,” John Davis, drummer for D.C. art-punks Q And Not U, said. When faced with the question of what the second ten years will hold for the Black Cat, Ferrando remained confident.

“I have a hard time picturing at this point why we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “It’s always hard to think out more than a couple years, but at the same time, I don’t see anything I’d rather be doing right now, or any reason why the club would close.”

The new District gentry

In recent years, the Black Cat has seen major changes in the music scene, the neighborhood it inhabits and even its own physical location. Three years ago, owner Dante Ferrando was forced to move the club to a new, larger location three doors down from the original Black Cat due to difficulties with a new landlord.

“Our old landlord was really cool,” Ferrando said. “Our new landlord was a property development company that had just bought the building and was trying to get the most money out of it.”

The move turned out to be a great benefit for the Cat, as the new location is larger and more versatile than the original club, and has allowed room to build a second small stage, a bar and a cafe.

But the club’s difficulty with its landlord is indicative of the greater changes wrought in the neighborhood. The U St. Corridor has been transformed by the indomitable march of gentrification, going from seedy to trendy in the space of a few years, to the point where a Whole Foods organic supermarket and a pawn shop occupy the same block. From the perspective of both a neighborhood resident and business owner over the years, Ferrando is slightly wary of the changes.

“It’s happened too fast for my taste,” he said. “I don’t mind the idea of neighborhoods getting better, and more businesses moving in is always good. It’s depressing to be the lone business on the block with ten shuttered buildings next to you, which is kind of sad. And I do like that there are more stores and that it’s safer, but eight years ago, almost 80 percent of my staff lived within walking distance of the club. Now, they can’t afford it anymore. Everyone, myself included, has been priced out of the neighborhood.”

Coletta shared his mixed feelings.

“Of course I want neighborhoods to be safer and better,” she said. “But it’s so hard when it’s at the expense of driving out longtime D.C. residents.”

While he recognizes that the Black Cat has benefited from the influx of money and people, Ferrando sees a problem in the rapidity of the neighborhood’s development.

“I see a difference between growth and gentrification,” he said. “I don’t mind growth, but gentrification does kind of bug me. Things move so fast that it really does displace people and totally changes the flavor of a neighborhood in two or three years as opposed to 20 or 30 years. It’s a little uncomfortable.”

Still, it’s possible that the Black Cat has even helped the process of gentrification by virtue of its existence. The club has steadily become more prominent outside the relatively small circle of musicians that gave rise to it, and attracts higher caliber acts than it had previously.

“When we started, we were drawing almost exclusively on the music scene, and it was a smaller music scene,” Ferrando said. “Now that we’re an institution, I feel like if somebody comes to D.C. going to college or something, someone’s going to tell them to check out Black Cat. We don’t have to go beating down people’s doors.”

When asked if the Black Cat could have been a factor in the neighborhood’s gentrification, ex-frontman of the now-defunct post-hardcore band Dismemberment Plan Travis Morrison pointed out that “the Black Cat was down there for years, and nothing happened to the block.”

“Maybe you could consider the Black Cat an early presence that said ‘Hey, why can’t there be a business here?’ but the 9:30 was up there around the same time in an even more raw neighborhood,” he added. “I think people are just realizing that D.C. is an incredible city to live in. Everyone was scared of the murder rate, but you only got shot if you were buying crack in a parking lot. It was actually a very safe city if you weren’t involved in the crack trade.”

The schism in the scene

It’s also possible that the neighborhood today helps crowd out the other, even more localized D.C. music scene: go-go. Based almost exclusively out of D.C., go-go, a variety of slow, funk-based dance music, has been thriving for twice as long as D.C. punk and hardcore, and is even more peculiar to the region.

“I’m always fascinated by the new trends in go-go; it almost sounds like Brazilian metal right now,” Morrison said. “It’s sort of split between the traditionalists who are doing soul covers for the 40-year-olds, and the kid’s stuff which has gotten really radical; it sounds like they’re listening to a lot of System Of A Down.

“I grew up around here, but I didn’t get into punk rock until I was 18 or 19. My favorite DC music was go-go … When you talk about the DC scene to me, I think of Trouble Funk.”

But there is nary a go-go band to be found on the Black Cat’s concert calendar. While the local rock scene thrives in the neighborhood, go-go happens in an entirely different milieu, with a whole separate group of clubs, characters and local histories. As gentrification continues to creep out along the edges of Northwest, the District’s other, even more distinctive local music continues to be confined to some of the city’s poorer, more dangerous and predominately African-American neighborhoods.

While the Black Cat is certainly a great axis for one half of the ever-evolving music of Washington and the neighborhood as a whole, the fact remains that DC’s boldly original musical heritage is as segregated as the city itself.

In speaking of his own personal inspiration, Morrison touched on the city’s completely unique nature, which has provided an unusually fertile breeding ground for its music over the years. “It’s fascinating to me, and the thing that makes it fascinating is that it’s both a government town, the capital of the United States of America, and also a very rich immigrant town, and also a very Southern black town. The blend is astounding; the craziest things happen in Washington that don’t happen anywhere else.”

The legacy of the Cat

Morrison exemplified the feelings of many District musicians towards the club.

“We had a very deep sense of loyalty to the Black Cat, and I still do, personally. The 9:30 is a great venue, but they don’t put themselves in a position to nurture local artists. It’s much easier to do that because the Black Cat actually takes risks on smaller bands.”

Coletta has been involved with the club since its inception through both her band and her record label, as a matter of necessity as well as loyalty.

“You really can’t not interact with the Black Cat,” she said.

“We come from a musical tradition where bands play in different spaces, not at clubs,” Davis said. “When I first started going to shows in DC it was never at a club, it was almost always at Saint Stephen’s Church or one of the many alternative spaces.” The self-righteous politics pioneered by early Dischord Records hardcore bands often led bands to play in more public, less profit-driven venues.

But Ferrando’s experience as a musician in Washington, and specifically as a member of that same tight-knit community, has set the Black Cat apart from other traditional rock clubs since the beginning. Davis acknowledged that in terms of the traditional D.C. punk ethic, the club, “Stands apart from it because it’s a bar, it’s a club, not a DIY space. But what’s great about the Black Cat is that it’s informed by those things.

“Even though it still boils down to that it is a bar and not a community space, it’s special in that they’re aware of the scene, they’re aware of the bands and the community,” he added.

At a show that Brooklyn dance-punks The Rapture put on at the Cat last fall, the usually somber rows of scenesters had mutated into the frenetic glee of a sweaty room packed full of traditionally staid hipsters dancing maniacally and very unprofessionally. Frontman Luke Jenner hopped off the stage and sauntered through the churning crowd like an indie rock Moses to personally serenade and place his hand over the heart of one gentleman concertgoer. Similarly, amidst the chaotic evolution of the music within the club and the neighborhood without, the Black Cat has coolly weathered the fortunes of its 10 years in its mission to tap into the heartbeat of one of the city’s great traditions. Reflecting on the future of the Cat, Ferrando said, “People seem to enjoy the place, and we’ve got a lot of flexibility to do a lot of different things, so I don’t see why we wouldn’t be around another ten years or more.”

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