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Beck and his band had just finished a promotional whirlwind for their new CD The Information. After stops in Oslo, Norway, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Edinburgh, Scotland, they landed in New York for a Saturday Night Live stint and a little bit of Letterman.
On Oct. 30, the band boarded a bus bound for Los Angeles. Then, somewhere between the Turnpike and the Beltway, they decided to do some surprise shows. D.C.’s Black Cat would be their first stop, followed by Atlanta, Dallas, and El Paso.
To hear Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando tell it, the Beck show almost didn’t happen. Surprise performances are difficult to coordinate, and as a matter of policy Ferrando doesn’t bump bands to make room for a surprise headliner. When Beck’s people called, “I almost turned them down,” he says.
Fortunately for Beck and his fans, however, the conditions were right for a surprise. The Black Cat’s Backstage happened to be available, and Beck is a big enough name to draw a last-minute crowd. All someone needed to do was leak it.
As it turns out, the leak came directly from Beck’s PR headquarters in New York. Eliot Wadsworth, of Nasty Little Man, Beck’s publicity firm, called Kyle Gustafson, who posted an alert on his blog informationleafblower.com. Blog-about-town DCist, where Gustafson serves as managing editor, linked to his site.
At about the same time, Fritz Hahn, one of the Washington Post’s Going-Out Gurus, posted a notice saying that, at midnight, after the other artists (Benjy Ferree, the Archie Bronson Outfit, and Apples in Stereo) finished their sets, Beck would appear on the Backstage.
Full disclosure: S&T didn’t attend the show. In fact, we at the Washington City Paper didn’t even know about it until DCist and the Going-Out Gurus posted exuberant announcements and people had already started lining up.
The first fans got to the Black Cat as early as six hours before Beck’s band was due to arrive. There was some cutting, and as midnight approached, a little pushing and shoving, Gustafson says, but mostly the crowd was civil and the Black Cat employees managed to keep order.
At about 8 p.m., there was supposed to be an e-mail blast to fans from the Beck Web site, Ferrando says, “but there was already a huge line.…We didn’t want a whole crowd of people who were hanging out.” So the fan-blast never went out. “Once the line was over 250 people, we would tell people there’s no chance.” Roughly 200 people were let in, Ferrando says.
Before, during, and after the show, the blogosphere percolated with debate about who got in and why. A couple of posters accused DCist of spoiling the surprise. “DCist is a ruiner,” one wrote.
Gustafson, however, dismisses the critics. “These are the people who appoint themselves the arbiters of who can know about things and who can’t,” he says. “Something like this is going to get out. The Washington Post did it, and no one says, ‘The Post ruined this.’ But they say, ‘You pesky bloggers.’…It’s a good way to get the word out.”
Catherine Andrews, a DCist contributor and former music/entertainment editor for the blog, says it comes down to a basic philosophy of fandom. “Something I don’t like is the idea of superfans who don’t want the information to get out,” she says. “There’s nobody who can say they’re a bigger fan. There’s no way to define that.”
Take my comedian, please.
If you’re a D.C. establishment hoping to cozy up to the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, here are some pearls of wisdom.
1. Don’t serve alcohol to minors.
2. Quickly and peacefully diffuse any violent situations.
3. Never, ever allow comedians to tell jokes without getting the proper paperwork first.
Yes, that’s right: Under D.C. law, if you’re going to have comedy, you’d better have permission. Think that’s funny? Not for Nanny O’Briens, the Cleveland Park watering hole where this little stipulation translated into some hefty fines, a battle with the ABC Board, and a night without brew.
ABRA investigators first discovered Nanny O’Briens was a hotbed of illicit humor on April 4, 2006. It was a bad night for Nanny’s. The manager who was supposed to be on duty had fallen ill and was not at the pub—violation No. 1. Plus, said ABRA investigator Yazmin Delgado at a Nov. 1 ABC Board hearing, there was a comedian on stage—violation No. 2.
“It’s not that we’re saying that comedy is a threat to public safety,” board chair Charles Burger said at the hearing, “but you never entered that you were having comedy.”
Under D.C. law, any restaurant, bar, or tavern providing live performances must have an “entertainment endorsement,” approved by the ABC Board, that outlines exactly what kind of entertainment goes on under its roof. It doesn’t matter if it’s karaoke, belly-dancing, or ballet. If it’s not listed on your entertainment endorsement, it’s not legal.
Nanny O’Briens didn’t file for an entertainment endorsement until Oct. 31, 2006, a year after the law went into effect and one day before the bar’s scheduled ABC Board appearance. Instead, the quaint Cleveland Park pub had been operating under its current license, which permits live Irish and American folk music only. Neither its old license nor its new entertainment endorsement application makes any mention of comedy.
Tasha Hardy, an attorney representing the District, asked how Delgado could be sure there was a comedian performing on April 4.
“There was a man sitting on a stool telling jokes, and the audience was laughing,” she explained.
That wasn’t all. On March 30, 2006, Delgado said, she and her fellow investigator observed “rock” music being played at the pub.
“Are you familiar with the band U2?” Andrew J. Kline, the attorney representing Nanny O’Briens asked. “They’re Irish, aren’t they?” While many might characterize U2’s music as rock, Kline said, it is also, undoubtedly, Irish.
Before long, the board was steeped in an ethnomusicology debate. “My idea of folk music would be the Mamas and the Papas. Has folk music graduated?” asked board member Audrey Thompson.
“To the average observer, it probably would be a fine line,” replied Brian Gaffney, Nanny O’Briens’ manager and a musician himself.
But Kline wasn’t interested in quibbling over musical distinctions.
“Guilty as charged. Comedy without a license and no manager on duty,” he said. But “I hope that I’m not the only person who would be extremely uncomfortable if this board was charged with defining types of music.”
The board ultimately dismissed the rock-music allegation. “We should not and will not be in the business of determining the terms of music,” said Burger.
Still, he said, “we would caution: Be very aware of the regulations.”
The board slapped Nanny O’Briens with a $1,000 fine and a five-day suspension, one day served, for operating without a manager and for allowing unlicensed laughs.
“That was the last comedy show,” Gaffney pledged.
And that’s fine with Ryan Conner, a comedian who used to perform at Nanny O’Briens. Conner had his first stand-up show at the bar, but he maintains no sentimental attachment to the place.
The first problem with Nanny O’Briens was the crowd, he says, which seldom consisted of more than five or six people. And comedians rarely got paid; best case scenario, he says, you’d get a grilled cheese and a beer for your efforts. Worst case, the reverb on the mic would be turned all the way up so that “it sounded like you’re in Madison Square Garden, but you’re in a little shitty bar in front of five people.”
Jay Hastings, who used to book comedians at Nanny O’Briens, was actually relieved to learn of the ruling. After Nanny O’Briens informed Hastings that his services were no longer needed there because the bar wasn’t allowed to host comedians, “I thought they were blowing smoke up my ass,” he says. “Now that I know it’s true, I no longer harbor any ill will.” —Jessica Gould
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