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On Thursday, May 11, the 9:30 Club’s lead sound engineer Shawn “Gus” Vitale died from cancer at age 61. Vitale, who was born in 1961 and raised in Forestville, Maryland, had worked at the club for nearly 30 years.
Testimonials have poured across the internet from those who knew his contributions to 9:30 Club but also from his earlier soundboard work in the ’80s and early ’90s with his company Gussound. For decades, Vitale helped local musicians sound strong and coherent during live shows. As 9:30 Club noted in their announcement of his passing, “He was the first face folks see when they load-in for a show and the last when they load-out, and had the most welcoming smile every time.”
Prior to his nearly three decades at 9:30 Club, Vitale ran his own sound engineering company, Gussound. A 1993 City Paper article by Stephen Kuhn called it the “company of choice for local bands with lotsa heart but little cash.”
“Vitale’s contributions as sound man make him the ‘fifth Beatle’ in dozens of bands, a background player whose sonic manipulations add an extra dimension to live performances,” Kuhn wrote. Gussound worked with the city’s counterculture leaders, including punk benefits, Fort Reno’s long-running concert series, and NORML’s Fourth of July smoke-ins along the national mall. “Vitale’s openness, along with his easygoing personality and cheap rates make his bearded face a common sight at the area’s smaller gigs,” Kuhn wrote.
In 1991, Gussound ran sound for the activist group Positive Force’s anti-Gulf War show in Lafayette Park, which featured Fugazi. “I don’t remember how much we charged for it, but it didn’t nearly cover the hassle,” Vitale told City Paper two years later. “I did the Gulf War show because I believed in the cause.” It was one of many Positive Force-organized protests and benefit shows Vitale did sound for.
Mark Andersen, of Positive Force and senior outreach and advocacy nonprofit We Are Family, recalls via email, an early Positive Force show in late 1986 or early 1987 where they had a terrible turnout and lost money.
“Somehow Gus figured this out, and when I came to pay him for the night, he refused, he said his work that night was his donation to the cause,” Andersen says. “I realized then that he cared about more than just his art as a sound technician, or a paycheck—he cared about the cause, the music, the community, all of it.”
At a 2002 Fugazi gig at Fort Reno Park, captured on film and available on YouTube, singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye heralds Vitale’s work onstage, noting that while Vitale didn’t get paid much for lugging around the sound system and running it twice a week every summer for 10 years, he “did good.”
Vitale’s son, Jay Vitale, tells City Paper via email that his dad played in bands after graduating Bishop McNamara High School. Together with his Killer Bees’ bandmate Jimmy Barnett, Shawn started doing sound work for both their own band and briefly for others. According to Jay, Barnett is the one who coined the nickname “Gus” because “he felt like Shawn Vitale didn’t roll well off the tongue.”
For a period, Jay says, his father also worked a day job as a clerk for the FBI (which made Gus’ mother happy), but he quit after his mother’s death to focus solely on his fledgling sound engineering company, Gussound. In the 1980s, he began doing sound for gigs at d.c. space, a progenitor in the city’s divergent art and nightlife scene, as well as other downtown venues including the 15 Minutes Club. He also worked area reggae shows and raves as well as rock club gigs. Those jobs eventually led to his role at 9:30 Club.
Outside of his sound work, Vitale was also known in some circles for his love of motorcycles and cooking.
Since Vitale’s death, the accolades from musicians and others who have known him over the decades have spread on social media.
From 1987 to 1994, Danny Ingram, drummer for D.C. band Dot Dash, was in local goth act Strange Boutique. They used Vitale regularly to do their sound. Ingram, in a phone call with City Paper, remembers seeing “Don’t fuss, call Gus” ads in City Paper and, he says, many did. “He was like another member of the band. He was such a sweet guy—he was not full of ego,” Ingram says. “He made us sound better than we probably were at the time. He really knew his stuff. Because he was so ubiquitous and did so many bands, he really understood how to get the best out of them.”
Brendan Canty, of the Messthetics and Fugazi, writes in a private Facebook post (which he said City Paper could share publicly) that Vitale was “never ever a know it all or grump in the face of a million kids doing this shit for the first time. He was supportive and joyful and was always someone to aspire to. An adult who still got his fingers in the dirt because he loved it. I follow by that example and I love him for showing me it was possible.”
Brian Liu of Toolbox DC, who did graphic art work and more for 9:30 Club, writes on Facebook that “no one else in the industry was more patient, kind, knowledgeable, and always happy to see you.”
In a statement to City Paper, Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P. and owner of the 9:30 Cub, says, “My son Sam summed it up quite nicely… ‘He is on the Mount Rushmore of 9:30.’ Never met anyone that didn’t love Gus.”
D.C. reggae artist and sound engineer Derrick Parker shares that “GUS was ALWAYS there to help me through all the crazy challenges.” Local drummer Arika Casebolt says, “He NEVER condescended to me or underestimated me as a female musician EVER. Another of the billion wonderful things about Gus that was so very cool, and he 100% passed that way of respect to his sound interns.”
Artist and activist Robin Bell says Gus’ “kindness was contagious, and his behavior became a positive example for many of us on how to be better people in the production world.” Singer Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen writes on Twitter: “Always really liked Gus a lot. Known him for…wow 30 years. He was one of the only pros to be nice to me when I was total amateur hour.”
Andersen, of Positive Force and We Are Family, describes Vitale on Facebook as “one of the great unsung heroes of the DC music scene over the past four decades.” Vitale provided sound engineering for Andersen and Positive Force benefit shows and protest concerts from 1986 to 2002 and after, though more sporadically, at rented locations including St. Stephen’s Church.
“Gus was a wizard at the sound board and also astonishingly gifted at navigating the egos and eccentricities of so many talented but often demanding artists, keeping his focus and equanimity through challenging moments in ways I can only hope to someday achieve,” Andersen says.
He adds that Vitale “was a constant, solid, steadying presence through all the Fugazi years, working well with the band and their own sound mixer, Joey P” (short for Picuri). Some of those shows, according to Andersen, included a 1990 performance at Lorton Prison Complex, a 1992 protest at the U.S. Capitol with Bikini Kill, a 1993 March on Washington anniversary show at the Washington Monument, and a 1996 End the Drug War rally at Malcolm X Park.
“When the pandemic hit and all live venues shut down, Gus could not pursue his passion/craft, but used the free time to reach out to me, becoming one of We Are Family’s most stalwart volunteers” and helping D.C. seniors through 2020 and 2021, Andersen says.
“For Gus to become so terribly ill after such an extraordinarily generous offering of himself, and just as he was finally able to return to his true vocation doing live sound, is one of life’s most bitter twists,” Andersen says. “Words can’t possibly express the love, admiration, and respect I have for Gus. I know I will miss him horribly, but will always be grateful for the gift he was in my life, as he was in so many others.”
Funeral and memorial service details for Shawn “Gus” Vitale have not been announced. His wife Tammy Vitale is asking those who want to donate in his name to give to the I.M.P. Family Fund.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated with a statement from 9:30 Club owner Seth Hurwitz.