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As 2018 came to a close, so did one of D.C.’s most prized spaces for live music: Black Cat’s Backstage. The last show I attended there was in late November, and the mourning was well in effect. Thirty minutes before the opener was set to take the stage, the Cat’s famed Red Room bar—probably one of the last true dives in D.C.—was packed. It was a typical Red Room scene: a crowded bar at the end of the work week, with regulars piled in waiting to see a storied local band set to rock the Backstage. Every seat at the bar was filled, every pinball machine had a body hunched over it. Many of these patrons weren’t even there for the show, they were just there to unwind on a Friday, with a muffled cacophony of rhythmic screaming in the background. This is the kind of place the lower level of the club was: a ramshackle collective of sorts. On paper, the space was unremarkable. For its regulars, it is irreplaceable.
Since 2001, Black Cat has occupied an expansive structure between S and T Streets on 14th Street Northwest. Its original home is only steps away. It opened in 1993 with the intent of filling a void in D.C.’s live music community. And, at that time, it did. The building that stands now has four distinct areas: The Mainstage, which occupies the entire second floor, is where larger acts play when they roll through town: Dinosaur Jr.,The Jesus Lizard, Municipal Waste, and Yaeji all sold out dates at the club last year. Immediately to the left of the entrance is the Food For Thought Cafe—a sparsely decorated room that boasts both a claw machine filled with PBR shirts and the club’s legendary vegan lasagna. To the right of the entrance, a hallway leads to the Red Room.
For years, these spaces served as a second home to Washingtonians who prefer bikes over BMWs. And while the Red Room and Backstage will be reimagined in some form in the club’s second story, the Cat that locals have come to know and love, is no more. Take it from those who knew the place best. Below, some memories of Black Cat, from those who, over the decades, found a sanctuary in its offbeat novelty:
Kaleab Elias, vocalist/keyboardist, XK Scenario:
“[My band has] always enjoyed the Backstage much more due to the fact that it always felt as though it was more of an intimate experience. I think it’s an effect of the Backstage being smaller, but it’s not like those usual scenes where people show up with their cliques and only stay within their groups. At every show, including ours, we saw people from differing backgrounds conversing and enjoying the night with one another. Just seeing that camaraderie between people gave my band a wild boost of energy, which led to a really rowdy but beautiful night; it was also really great to see how our night of local bands was able to bring so many people. If there’s anything I’m worried about in terms of the removal of the Backstage, it’s that there might not be as many local bands playing at the Black Cat.”
Bryan Allen Moore, organizer, Food Not Bombs:
“The Black Cat played host to our 3rd annual Food Not Bombs fundraiser on the Backstage. This event featured local artists who raised money at our prior house shows: Abby Huston, Cherry Ames, BabeRage, The OSYX, The Greek Police, Soul Meets Body, XK Scenario, and I Against Eye. Many staff members of the Black Cat have contributed to our Washington, D.C. chapter over the years, so it was a legitimate honor to be able to have a proper event and raise the equivalent of three years operating budget … Later that fall I joined [Black Cat’s] staff to support the remaining events of this year’s concert season and the last months of Red Room operation … For a moment, promoting our basement-show fundraiser at this coveted venue and then joining the staff made me think I had gained some kind of access. I am just a sliver of this large association of proletarian artists, as I have been for 20 years, who loves not only what they do but the people who support them.”
Kevin Tit, comedian and guitarist of Chill Parents:
“I moved out to D.C. from Hawaii a few years back to do stand-up comedy everywhere I possibly could. On Wednesday, June 25, 2015, David Combs let me play the roll of MC/host on a show for RVIVR, Shellshag, and The Max Levine Ensemble [at Black Cat]. I got a chance to get on stage and crack jokes before introducing each band. It was so cool because I was still new to town and that night really broke me out of my shell. I met so many new people, some of them are my closest friends to this day. The Black Cat Backstage, Red Room, and Food for Thought Cafe played a huge role in helping to make D.C. feel more like home; almost to a Cheers level. Sad to see it go.”
Mike Sosinski, vocalist/guitarist, Kill Lincoln:
“The Backstage will always hold a very warm, sweaty, semi-delirious place in our hearts. Wonderfully run by some of the kindest and most professional people in the business, yet still always had the feel and freedom of a DIY show … And any room that can accommodate and tolerate 200 ska nerds is O.K. in my book. Sad to see it go, but excited to see what happens with the new space upstairs!”
Chris Moore, Black Cat Sound Engineer and drummer of Coke Bust, The Rememberables:
“The first show I went to was at the old Black Cat in 2000 to see The Varukers … The first show I played there was in 2008 … By then I was friends with a few people who worked there but even the people I didn’t know made us feel right at home. In 2015, either Coke Bust or The Rememberables played a show there and Aaron Estes was doing sound that night … After the show I said to him that I do sound at DIY shows around the city but wanted to learn more and eventually start mixing at clubs. He offered for me to shadow him at Black Cat. Little did I know that my first day there turned into a job interview with him and Dante and they offered me a job! The Backstage room was the room I cut my teeth in. I learned so much mixing in that room … As a performer you couldn’t feel more comfortable playing in any other room. In that room you could truly connect with the crowd. It didn’t matter if there was two people or 200 people. It was very intimate and always fun … The Red Room and Food for Thought will be sorely missed too … Even before I knew the bartenders, they were always really friendly and made you feel like you were in the right place. FFT was great because it was a meeting place and the food was cheap and tasty. Depending on what freak was working you could get some demented combination of food that was seemingly perfect after a show.”
Helen Hennessey, Black Cat regular:
“The Red Room was where I had my first ‘job’ working in music. I handed out flyers for the Communion Record’s monthly club nights and as a reward, the guys from Brightest Young Things invited me to ‘help out’ back stage. For someone who was 16 and obsessed with music it was heaven. I saw Nathaniel Rateliff sound check and play pinball, I even met Ben Lovett of Mumford and Sons and Communion Records. I also saw Bears Den on the [Backstage] and distinctly remember them taking the show into the middle of the crowd, singing with no mics and help from the audience. As one of the few bars that allowed underage people to hangout it was a go-to spot for my friends and I before we turned 21. We could play pinball and pool, lay around on the couches, or just talk for hours and no one minded.”
Ryan Zellman, Manager, Smash! Records:
“I think my favorite Black Cat Backstage memory is from this year, I took a nap back stage after Damaged City and then woke up to some riffs and realized it was The Flex, just in time to catch them and mosh to ‘The Herd.’”
Torrey Sanders, Black Cat staff:
“I’m one of the most recent hires at Black Cat, and I’m not from the area so my history with the space is very short (less than a year and half). I knew no one when I started, and knew very little about the history of the club. But even though my time with Black Cat is short, I’m immensely grateful for my time there so far because it’s an important part of D.C. history and community. Black Cat is important because of the people that have spent years caring for the space and the community around it. Those people (my co-workers and the dozens that have worked there over the past 25 years) are some of the most thoughtful, funny, interesting and caring people I’ve met in D.C. They know how valuable a physical space like Black Cat is—and that spirit is becoming increasingly rare. Though Black Cat is so new to me, it’s had a huge impact on my life, in ways I never expected. I’m excited that this new chapter of the club will ensure that this valuable cornerstone of D.C. can carry on.”
Ahmad Zaghal, Photographer and Writer:
“The Brothers Unconnected (Sun City Girls) [played on] June 25, 2008. This was the only time a moment in a show came close to making me physically ill. In 2007, Sun City Girls’ drummer and lyricist Charles Gocher died. A year or so later, the surviving members of the band went on a last tour in tribute to him. I didn’t know about this going in but roughly halfway through the show on each night of the tour, they’d sprinkle a bit of his ashes onto the crowd. I was close enough to get some on me and spent a good five minutes after the fact making sure I’d gotten all the charred human remains out of my hair. My last Backstage show [was] Hammered Hulls/Bad Moves/Clear Channel [on] Dec. 19, 2018. It happened to fall on my birthday. The bands also happen to be comprised of many friends of mine. Katie Alice Greer baked/brought a cake and we held a small party between bands. I couldn’t have asked for a better note to end on.”
David Combs, Former Black Cat staff member and guitarist/vocalist in The Max Levine Ensemble and Bad Moves:
“Food for Thought had been an institution in D.C. when it was [located] in Dupont Circle, and when it moved into the Black Cat it just continued to be a punk hang out. You’d roll in and you’d be waiting for your food and then a bunch of bands would show up after a house show they just played. In 2009 I got a job at the Black Cat. I worked there for five years and carried on the tradition of making weird food with the ingredients around the kitchen. At some point, the combination of veggie chili, lemon tahini salad dressing, and barbecue sauce made it on top of some fries, and people started calling it gozanga fries. I stopped working at the Black Cat four years ago, but when I found out the cafe was closing, I decided to do one more night in the kitchen. Billed on the Black Cat schedule was Spoonboy’s Last Gozanga Night. A lot of people came out to have that experience to be at FFT one more time. Even some old employees came in and asked to wash dishes just for old times sake.
The Max Levine Ensemble played its first show at the Black Cat Backstage in 2004. It was a big deal for us to play at a real venue. We opened for This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb. Since that show we’ve played the Backstage more than any other venue. Having worked there, it felt like home. It was the best room for small-to-medium bands in the city. It’s sad to see that go.
The Red Room was just fun to hang out in. I like it when bars have games and stuff to play so there’s something to do for people who aren’t big drinkers. One New Year’s Eve, I was tasked with unclogging a toilet, and I had to dig through layers upon layers of excrement. Finally when I got to the bottom, I found that the culprit was someone tried to flush an entire Washington City Paper down the toilet.”