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The crowd at the last 9:30 Club show on F Street packed chisels and screwdrivers and carried the place away. They deftly pillaged stall walls, sinks, and the condom machine while headliner Tiny Desk Unit banged out its bass-popping art-funk to a half-empty room. The (club-encouraged) looters got their crusty souvenirs; meanwhile, label exec/archivist/recording engineer Gene Rosenthal captured TDU’s delightful 3 a.m. set. Rosenthal recorded most of the last-week-of-’95 nostalgiarama and has the master tape narrowed down to four songs each by TDU, the Insect Surfers, Urban Verbs, Tru Fax and the Insaniacs, Black Market Baby, and Mother May I. The two-CD 9:30A Time, a Place, a Scene has just been released on Adelphi Records, one of Rosenthal’s small empire of labels.
A few weeks ago, Rosenthal was still tweaking the mixes (upping the crowd noise on TDU’s set, for one thing) and waiting on club anecdotes and archival photos from the bands. “This album is immortalizing that whole scene….You need the history,” he says. When he read that the club was closing, Rosenthal quickly got the proper permissions and hired Larry Packer to record from a vandal-free zone in the club’s basement. He’s happy with the marathon session: “Every group started out rusty, and then, boom, it was like a time warp. It’s 15 years earlier, and they were giving the best performances of their careers.”
A listen to the mixes mostly bears him out. The sound quality is uniformly good (Rosenthal says Robert Goldstein of Urban Verbs suggested remixing to make it sound “more live”). And the bands did stumble upon their groove despite, in some cases, years off. The Surfers catch fire on the garagey “Wavelength,” and TDU and the Verbs recall the spiky braininess of late-’70s Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, and Lene Lovich. Tru Fax, sporadically still a band, contributes a dreamy new song, “Chinese Wall,” along with the band’s new-wave hits.
As a member of what he calls the “East Coast blues mafia,” Rosenthal has coaxed records from musicians way older than the NPR directors, no-nukes activists, CBS producers, mommies, daddies, and still-at-it rockers who appear on the new disk. He recorded Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and other rediscovered bluesmen in the early 1960s. “My friends and I were all into the folk revival, and I was the only kid with any recording equipment,” Rosenthal recalls. He began distributing small labels in 1965, and in 1969 put out his first record, by “a local folkie….Then I was recording studio, distributor, and label.” In addition to Adelphi, he now runs the Genes and Sunsplash labels, and his music-stuffed Silver Spring home and HQ is, he says, the “largest vault of unreleased blues music in the world.”
Rosenthal does not expect 9:30 to be any bigger a seller than his James, Hurt, Bukka White, or Rev. Gary Davis releases were. (The Nighthawks and Toots and the Maytals are his labels’ big moneymakers.) “I spent a lot of money on the mixes, because the 9:30 Club was so important….My label was recording other stuff, blues, folk, at the time, but I was a fan. I went to the clubs to hear these bands. It was strange music, like outside jazz. The Urban Verbs were doing new music.”Virginia Vitzthum