“Let’s hear it for intonation,” yelled somebody in the audience as Most Secret Method bassist Johanna Claasen wrapped up her second song at Getting to First Bass, a night of solo bass performances held Monday at the Black Cat. The show shone a rare spotlight on local low-frequency musicians who usually shy away in the background. The coffee-and-cookies affair on the Black Cat’s intimate backstage turned out to be the kind of gig where the crowd comprises mostly musicians and the vibe is entirely good.
Between sets, people in the audience asked technical questions about the musicians’ instruments and raved about each performance. “Somebody wanted me to ask, ‘How many bass players are in the audience tonight?’” says Bernie Wandel, the self-proclaimed local bass historian who organized the event. Out of about 50 people in the crowd, roughly 30 hands go up.
“Yeah, I thought so,” Wandel says.
“These are those songs that bass players write and never get a chance to play,” said Claasen, tuning an upright bass in preparation for her last song. Besides Claasen and Wandel, the night’s lineup featured Stigmatics bassist Christina Calle, onetime D.C. Divisionaries rocker Keenan MacDonald, and local musicians Doug Kallmeyer, Eugene Bogen, Joe Gretz, Lorne Phillips, and Anthony Wellington. The solo artists let loose an array of jazz, rock, pop, funk, and ethereal noise soundscapes to demarcate the far-flung boundaries of the state of local bass playing, with each musician wielding variations on the ax of choice: Wandel played a retrofitted 1970 Fender; Kallmeyer opted for six-string bass and electric upright; Claasen and Gretz wrapped themselves around big upright basses; and MacDonald went in for a reverb-heavy wall of electric sound. The others worked the standard four-string electric bass for all it’s worth. “It’s not even my first bass,” joked Bogen, as the crowd inspected his instrument. “My first bass I sold to somebody for some money. It’s a long story.”
Wandel, a full-time behind-the-scenes man at the Black Cat, says he’s just looking to do something for the up-and-coming kids in the diverse smattering of local music scenes. Hardly a has-been himself, he breaks into his own set with a Johann Sebastian Bach cover, originally written for cello, and two pensive, complex tunes of his own. Getting to First Bass was the first in what Wandel hopes will be an ongoing local series focusing on the instrument. Second Bass, he says, will be a showcase of bass duets scheduled to take place in early December.Colin Bane