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Designed to fill the long-aching void left by the closing of d.c. space, the Black Cat has turned out to be something altogether larger. The club, which opens to the public Sept. 11 with a 9353 show, will have a performance space with an in-house sound system and a capacity of 400—twice the legal limit at the 9:30 Club—as well as an adjacent restaurant and bar. “We’re not trying to compete with anyone,” says Chris Thomson, who’s booking local bands into the club. “I think it just gives people other options.”
When Thomson talks about people, he means musicians as much as listeners. Many of the club’s staff have done time in local bands, mostly from the Dischord demimonde. Club proprietor Dante Ferrando is a veteran of Grey Matter, Thomson was in Circus Lupus, and Alec Bourgeois, who’s overseeing the club’s monthly promotional magazine, has Severin on his résumé. No wonder that Thomson intends the Cat to “give a whole lot of support to local bands.”
The new venture will take over the premises of the shuttered Kalabash near the suddenly hip intersection of 14th and U Streets NW. That the building “was already set up and ready to go,” Thomson notes, was a decided advantage for the club, which will have an all-ages admission policy and, ultimately, be open seven days a week. As at d.c. space, bookings will favor the up-and-coming, the non-commercial, and the underexposed.
“I think the big problem with D.C. is that there’s not a radio station here,” notes Thomson, who sees the Cat as in part a musical-consciousness-raising exercise—even for its operators. “We don’t know everything. We’ve been asking a lot of questions,” he says.
There are plenty of little-known but deserving bands in the area, Thomson’s discovered. “It’s been kind of eye-opening for me,” he says, “because I’ve been getting so many tapes in.”
Named after a Greenwich Village spot that Ferrando’s great-grandfather ran in the ’20s, the Cat will not just be a punk-rock outpost. “We want an eclectic mix,” says Thomson, who hopes to schedule poetry and theater as well as jazz and folk acts, perhaps bringing downtown some performers who’ve lately been Birchmere regulars. Most of the out-of-town performers already booked, though, are not folkies: Free Kitten, the Kim Gordon/Julia Cafritz team-up, is due Sept. 15, and the Fall will play Sept. 16. Also due soon are Huggy Bear (British counterparts of and tour-mates with Bikini Kill) and Band of Susans.
Though nightclubs are a “preferred use” under the zoning that governs the renaissance of the 14th Street corridor, the Cat has encountered some resistance to its liquor license from locals who fear that it will be a massive dance-music club like Tracks. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission supports the club’s opening, notes Ferrando, and he expects to receive a liquor license soon, although “we may open without it.”
“A bar that I can have regulars at and a restaurant that gets some of the theater crowd” is part of his plan, says Ferrando, who already runs Dante’s restaurant a few blocks further down 14th. Still, the music is the most important thing, which is why the club will open with or without booze.
Thomson cites Pitchblende, Unrest, and Lorelei as D.C. bands that draw better elsewhere than in their hometown and need a club that’s dedicated to finding their audiences. “We can provide that service for these bands,” he says. “We’re just trying to provide a comfortable space. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to treat a band well.”
Bands that want to play at the Black Cat should send tapes and information to the club at P.O. Box 73338, Washington, DC 20056.