1. A public waiting room, as in a hotel or an air terminal, often having smoking or lavatory facilities.

2. An establishment or a room in an establishment, as in a hotel or restaurant, where cocktails are served.

—from the American Heritage Dictionary

In case you’ve missed it, welcome to the latest refuge for the culturally clueless: lounge music. Lounge is the next stop on the meandering quest for a break from the tiresome mainstream. When the next big thing stops being new, it’s time for the next next big thing. But everything old is new again, right? The 9:30 Club and WHFS took a spirited stab at the lounge thing on Friday, May 31. Of course, this is the bigger, better, new and improved 9:30, so it couldn’t be just Lounge Night—the evening was christened “Ultralounge.”

Is it just me, or is there just a hint of sarcasm in all this lounge craziness? I wonder if anybody can be a devotee of lounge without a wink, nudge, and a mutter of, “Hey, get a load of this!” Indeed, much like the big retro-disco craze, lounge gives its devotees a chance to play dress-up; the clubgoer ahead of me in line came dressed in a set of red paisley satin pajamas with a pair of patent leather shoes, accompanied by a woman in feather boa and platform heels.

The best costume I saw was a green polyester sports jacket with wide leopard-fur lapels. “It’s real fur,” bragged its owner, showing off his get-up to some female admirers. “I hunted it myself.” Of course, the twin pillars of lounge, the cigar and the martini, were omnipresent that night, for what lounge encounter is authentic if not viewed through the double refractors of blue smoke and gin? The club ran a martini special—five bucks and you get to keep the glass as a keepsake of your Ultralounge experience.

Lest anyone confuse Ultralounge at the 9:30 Club with an evening at Ozio, K Street’s upper-crusty martini-and-cigar lounge, the seats aren’t nearly as comfortable. No matter, at least there was a show. Bounding to the stage at 8:25 p.m. was Fred Schneider, host of the evening, with his friend, a harmonica-playing midget who juggled ping-pong balls. After some onstage hi-jinks, Fred introduced the Friends of Dean Martinez.

It seemed that people didn’t know what to make of the band at first. As the set began, a smattering of clubgoers littered the floor downstairs; most preferred to lounge upstairs. The band used steel guitar and vibes to set out a laid-back, Pulp Fiction-derived mood; imagine a Dick Dale 45 played at 33 rpm. “We’re the band that never kicks in,” vibist John Covertino explained later. Guitarist Joey Burns put it a different way: “We keep it at a nice mellow level.”

That they did. FoDM had some of the standers-around bopping their heads after a few songs. They inspired one couple to a few twirls and dips before they ran off, fearful of starting a trend. But if you listened hard enough you could become entranced by the reflections from the steel guitar, and imagine the bubbles floating around the 9:30 stage, the dancers in grass skirts, and the tiki torches burning brightly. Sure, I could get into this lounge thing, I thought, as the steel-guitar tones floated even above the wafting cigar smoke. FoDM’s cover of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” the jazz standard that is the title track of their album, even incited a soul or two to pull up a space and lounge on the floor.

But some of the 18-and-over crowd wasn’t ready for the instrumental portion of Ultralounge. “This band sucked,” complained one impatient listener. “It was just the same thing over and over again. It sucked.” Another asked me if the next band was playing “elevator music,” too. “My friend woke me up and told me it was over.”

The crowd awaited New Wet Kojak, featuring Johnny Temple and Scott McCloud of Girls Against Boys. Kojak laid down a much heavier, clunkier groove, marked by a persistent tenor-sax squealing noise—the kind that only John Coltrane could ever make sound like music, but it was a worthy try. I was looking for the connecting thread—what puts Kojak in the lounge column—when I saw the band sipping from their martini glasses. Apparently that’s enough these days—that, and that there were still more people lounging than dancing.

The 9:30 patrons appeared a bit unclear on the lounge concept as well. “It was a nice, hard groove, a mellow groove,” expounded one confused clubgoer. Is New Wet Kojak a lounge band? “I don’t know…they had the sax and maracas….It was kinda slow,” explained one fan before her companion broke in: “They were so cool! He gave me a cigarette….” “And he gave me a martini glass!” boasted the first.

I took advantage of the break to peruse my complimentary copy of Lounge magazine. It contained a tribute to Dean Martin (“the National Drunk”), a column on “How to be an Alcoholic,” and for anyone not convinced of the camp value of lounge, a circa-1957 recipe for “7-Up Emerald Island Fluff—an airy party dessert with that lively tang of 7-Up.” Hey, it’s an up thing.

That crazy, campy, loopy thing has been Fred Schneider’s shtick, of course, ever since the B-52s took off. He leapt back onstage, decked out in a black ruffled shirt and plaid pants (“It’s Ultralounge night, I thought I’d dress for the occasion”), his eyes pointing up to the disturbing cowlick that haunted me inside his CD booklet. His power-strumming quartet tore right into the task of backing Fred’s shouted vocals. He might as well have been ranting about his Chrysler—it’s as big as a whale and it’s about to set sail—but this time he was going on about how “your kiss is a whip” or “radioactive lady eyeball” or how “I saw you puttin’ sugar in my hog.”

Fred was a gracious showman, even speaking to the audience between songs, as well as the most energetic of the neo-loungers (does that make him anti-lounge?), but scattered among the now-enthusiastically bouncing mass near the stage were a few people just staring up at him. You could almost get the sense that Schneider wasn’t buying into his own craziness anymore, but just when the bubble seemed about to burst, a contingent from the balcony started yelling lyrics back at their beloved master of ceremonies.

I met a girl who had driven nine hours from Buffalo to see Schneider at the 9:30 and at the HFStival the next day. I followed this Fredhead and her friend up to the balcony to accost him; I wanted to shake him down for a few pearls of lounge wisdom. Sadly, Fred didn’t want to talk, and I was forced to settle for an autographed poster.

But what could he have said? Can Fred Schneider explain how the aggressively laid-back Friends of Dean Martinez ended up under the same umbrella as his own aggressively in-your-face act? “Lounge,” rationalized FoDM’s Burns, “is an excuse for something to be different….It’s more of a mood than a scene.” So under that same lounge umbrella, there must still be room for Love Nut, whose lounge legitimacy apparently springs from frontman Andy Bopp’s pink shirt and the cocktail glasses in the band’s logo; the group is much more Green Day than Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Love Nut was able to get a rise out of the crowd with its cover of the Lemon Pipers’ psychedelic hit, “Green Tambourine”—lounge is nothing if not eclectic. But saddled with closing the show and wrapping up the Ultralounge package, the Nut wasn’t able to tie the neat little bow on top. “They were good,” gushed a Baltimore woman. “They had a multilevel appeal: rock, progressive, new wave, headbanging….” Even as the band went through its finale, big finish and all, it appeared as if some of the masses still weren’t sure what they had witnessed. Is it over? Is there another band? Is Fred Schneider coming back?

Is lounge simply the latest E-Z label for new groups trying to escape the alternative mainstream? Or is it a legitimate expression of ’50s nostalgia updated for ’90s consumption? Is it just based on the time-tested truth that when people drink enough they’ll listen to anything? The night regrettably provided no answers to these questions; you are left to personalize your own Ultralounge experience. My only thought was that it might have been better with some good lounge chairs. It was only 12:30. Most people weren’t quite ready to call it a night; they were sent crawling out into the night, in search of their next cocktail.CP