It’s half an hour before his set at the Velvet Lounge is supposed to start, and Richard Morel is standing on the curb outside watching fans jam into the tiny U Street club. Tonight is the first local show in support of his band’s new album, Queen of the Highway, and the guest list has spiralled out of control. “I thought it would be a cool place to do a little show and work out the record,” says Morel, 39. “Things have kinda snowballed.”

The band’s new bassist, Pat Flood, agrees from where he sits nearby: “Bring a bunch of ‘close friends’ and it packs the place.”

With the exception of Flood, whose first show with the band—also called Morel—is tonight, the group (singer Morel, percussionist and backup vocalist Dwayne Tyree, drummer Rob Black, and guitarist John Allen) has been playing together for years.

Queen, released at the end of January, is a local effort all the way: Mixed and engineered at D.C.’s Pink Noise Studios, issued on D.C.’s Yoshitoshi label, and executive-produced by Yoshitoshi’s Dubfire and Sharam—better known as D.C. house stars Deep Dish—the album is a mix of house grooves and rock grit. It’s something of a departure for the label, which is known mainly for its club music. “Doing the album on Yoshitoshi keeps it all in the family,” says Morel.

Morel’s relationship with the label began four years ago, when the Takoma Park resident started doing vocals and writing with Deep Dish. “They brought me into this underground club culture. I was finally hearing new stuff—stuff you only end up hearing in clubs,” Morel says. “My music was always heavily groove-based, and once I got into that culture more, it was a natural progression” to the rock-dance hybrid of Queen.

“[The album] reminds me of dance meets Garbage or grunge,” says Flood, who joined the band after the album was finished and sees the sounds as a new challenge. “I like going to work and having a slight tinge of uncomfortableness.”

So toward the end of its Saturday-night set, Morel makes sure to pulse out its 1999 house hit “True.” The song’s chorus (“I’m a man that is all/It’s true, the faggot is you”) garnered negative publicity when it hit the club circuit two years ago, but tonight the track elicits nothing but bouncing heads in the tightly packed room. (An abbreviated version of the song appears on the new album.) “I did the song kinda tongue-in-cheek,” Morel says. “I considered it amazing people could even raise an eyebrow. There’s so much [worse] stuff out there, and then that comes out, and everybody makes a big deal out of it.”

The reception Queen has received so far in the music press has Morel equally baffled. Early reviews of the album have focused on his sexuality, describing him as a “leather queen-cum-beat poet” and his music as “gay as Elton John’s fanny pack.” “I’ve been a homo forever, and it’s not a big deal to me,” Morel shrugs. “It’s more of a deal for writers than to me and what I’m doing….It’s kinda sad that in 2002 it can be such a paramount issue.”

Morel is scheduled to play at an upcoming ASCAP showcase, and there’s talk of the band opening for acts including Bob Mould and the Pet Shop Boys. For now, though, Morel seems content to push the capacity of the Velvet Lounge. “I’ll be happy with anything that goes on,” he says. “I’m very focused on what’s in front of me.” —Andrew Curry