The building at 1811 14th St. NW was purchased long before mimosa brunches and high cost real estate were commonplace on the stretch connecting Logan Circle to U Street NW. The past five years have seen the area transition for a variety of reasons, both planned and unplanned. But the Black Cat has weathered gentrification, a changing music scene, and a global pandemic, and is still doing what it’s always done: as the song goes, “the ground’s unsolid, don’t forget to keep your ear to the ground.”
This past weekend, the Black Cat celebrated its 30 years of longevity with a sold out, two-night anniversary party. Multiple bands with roots in D.C., both old and new, were on hand, including Ex Hex, Gray Matter, Flasher, the Messthetics, and Birthday Girl on night one, and the reunion of Velocity Girl, playing for the first time in 21 years, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Bad Moves, Hammered Hulls, and the Owners on night two. But it was a reunion in the usual sense too, as parents brought their kids, friends ran into old friends, and those community ties that often get broken as you get older were refastened. In the words of Mabel Canty, lead singer of Birthday Girl and daughter of man-in-every-local-band Brendan Canty, “the Black Cat is the one still standing club that can connect me to the music my dad made, the music of the original D.C. punk music generation.”
Ten years ago, for the Cat’s 20th anniversary, City Paper published an extensive history about the club and its owner, Dante Ferrando. We talked to Ferrando again this month to see how the past decade has been and the changes he has seen both inside and outside the venue.
Washington City Paper: Between 2013 and 2023, what have been some of the major milestones for the Cat?
Dante Ferrando: We’ve changed so much over the last 10 years. We’ve done it in little chunks, so it was probably a five-year process to get from where we were physically back then to where we are now. But that was preceded by years of planning on what we would do. Originally we were going to put a roof deck on the place, kind of take everything that was on the first floor and plop it on the roof. Then we had to modify that plan for a variety of reasons and scale that back and ended up with the Red Room on the second floor, closing the coffee house, closing the Back Stage …
Then that brought us up to COVID, and we finished the project during the COVID years … Luckily, we could still do minimal construction, and bit by bit, we managed to get it done, which is fantastic.
The Red Room was really beloved by many. Was that hard to get rid of?
It was hard to get rid of a lot of the stuff, but there were reasons to do it. There are certain things I like, and things I don’t like about the changes. But there’s been a lot of years of running four businesses under one roof, which is really tough on me, really tough on the staff … In the long run we made the best decisions because we kept the things we do best, and we do it better than we did before. I don’t know we would have survived COVID if we were set up the way we were before.
It was really hard, certain elements of the neighborhood have changed a lot in 30 years. The idea of having an underground music scene bar, as large as the Red Room, was a really different animal in the time period of the first 10 years of the club, or even 15 years … versus after the smoking ban, internet changing social behavior dramatically, after the neighborhood became unaffordable for almost anybody who would go to the bar. People come here to go to shows. I loved having the Red Room and we still have a Red Room, it just doesn’t operate in the same way. The seven night a week thing? I miss that. [But] trying to get enough people to make that not just throwing money in the garbage on a Monday night is just not a doable thing around here any more.
Have you noticed a big change in people’s behavior since the reopening post-pandemic?
I think it’s leveling out a little bit now … All of the young people in college, they go to shows, they always go out … Then the older they get, they phase out of going out. And then there are some people who still go to shows … That middle group didn’t come back really, they phased out all at once and people got very comfy on their couches. I think a lot of those people had kids, which made it more complicated going out after COVID … I think those various combinations, retired people who would have retired over the next five to 10 years, I think those people retired a little early.
You tend to book bands early on in their career; I’ve heard the Strokes opened for Guided By Voices, the Foo Fighters opened for Mike Watt. What’s been a favorite act early on that you knew would blow up?
Jeff Buckley. I think we paid him $50, it was a free show in the Backstage—when we used to curtain off the back of the main room. But his contract was like 12 to 14 pages already. It was so apparent that his people knew he was such an amazing songwriter … they were treating it that way, and you could tell from the performance.
What’s the best thing about the Black Cat to you?
I like building and hosting, and I like the ability to create a world that I enjoy living in. If I have to boil it down to one thing, I like the people I work with, the people who come here, I like the music we do, I like my job. It’s definitely hard … but generally, we do it our way … the people who come here get it, the people who work here get it, and I get to be part of it. ◊
Leading up to the weekend festivities, City Paper also spoke with bands who have played the Black Cat and patrons, and two words were repeatedly used to describe the venue and Ferrando: “community” and “home.”
It turns out the Black Cat is more than just a music club: It’s also a matchmaking service, a wedding venue, and might be haunted by a ghost or two.
Brendan Canty (Fugazi, Deathfix, the Messthetics): It’s pretty fucking amazing that Black Cat has made it 30 years, considering that it functions like a real independent venue. They have always supported local musicians because they are themselves local musicians. They treat everyone like family and are just so kind and inclusive.
I wish Dante and crew all the luck in the world. It’s a hard environment to maintain your independence in a world dominated by Live Nation, the evil overlords and obvious villains in every music scene. But if anyone can do it, Dante can.
Ted Leo (Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Chisel): I would not be a functioning artist without the loving embrace of the Black Cat.
Marc Cisneros (Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds, Hammered Hulls): Baby Alcatraz [local DJ aka Alyssa Bell] and I first met and were married there. The Black Cat is one of the most special places on Earth for us. We were introduced to each other one night in the Black Cat’s downstairs Red Room bar by a dear friend, Laura Harris of Ex Hex and The Owners, who has worked there for years as a bartender. When we got news that the club was going to move everything upstairs as part of a downsizing strategy, we made plans to get married in the Red Room. The ceremony was officiated by another dear friend who was a hall-of-famer bartender at the Black Cat, Lili Montoya.
That building and all the staff are like family to us. So thankful for Dante making this beautiful place available to our community for so long. And after 30 years, it is needed more than ever.
Justine Gulledge (patron): I love the Black Cat. To me it’s the absolute authenticity. It’s a real place, dedicated to music. Believe it or not, that is rare. It is owned by a member who was a part of and created the original D.C. punk scene, that no matter what you thought of it, was genuine as fuck. It was a DIY, run by kids and driven by a love of putting it out there and not looking back with anything but love for what was. That’s how I see Black Cat. It’s not trying to recapture the past. It’s not trying to be everything. It’s not trying to pretend it is anything but what it is … Their commitment to old, new, and experimental shines through. In the vein of places of old like d.c. space and the like, they embrace the diversity of the art as well as host some very hard-to-see-in-a-smaller-venue bands and the feeling inside is always the same. The crowd varies but the Big Family vibe is consistent.
Ana Toribo (patron): One of my earliest memories was going to see Moby at the old location, and there were maybe 15 people there. I remember one night during Right Round and Gossip was playing upstairs, the back door next to the DJ booth swung open and Gossip had been dancing in the hallway.
Erin Williams (patron): I had a ghost encounter in the downstairs bathroom about 10 years ago. I was in there by myself washing my hands and—in the mirror—saw a girl walk in dressed in ’80s clothes (like the kids do for ’80s parties now—over the top bright colors, spandex leggings, a Flashdance-style top, dangly earrings, big hair…). She walked into a stall and never shut the door. I started to feel uncomfortable about that and turned around to walk out. She wasn’t there. I checked every stall. No one! I got back to my barstool and said, “I think I just saw a ghost!” The bartender said “Oh wow! He comes down here, too?!” Apparently there are a couple of them. A guy in the upstairs bathroom and a girl in the basement bathroom!
Shantel Mitchell (former NPR photographer): Ahhh the first time I ever saw Joy Formidable in the Backstage room, I walked out and texted Bob Boilen to get them on [NPR’s] showcase at SXSW.
Chris Richards (Q and Not U, Washington Post music writer): As blindingly cool as the Black Cat was to me as a teenager in the ’90s, I somehow felt like I always belonged there. Even when my parents were dropping me off and picking me up. It wasn’t an all-ages nightclub so much as a gathering place, a place run by people with style and principles who allowed this amazing scene to come together and get stronger. Everyone from Q and Not U was hanging out there for years before we formed the band. When we were writing the very first Q and Not U songs I would close my eyes and imagine us playing them at the Black Cat. All these years later, I’m still there all the time, hearing all this exciting new music. What a gift. Musical communities do not endure without places like this.
Chris Murray (patron): Best memory? Old Black Cat, pre-move. Had to be early 2001. Guided By Voices headline with pre-first album Strokes as the opener. Immediately knew they were going to be huge.
Kid Congo Powers (Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds, The Cramps, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds): “The most artist friendly venue I have ever been to” was what I thought the first time I played Black Cat in the ’90s. Dante and his amazing staff treated musicians like artists, had great food, and a comfortable dressing room. Most of all they did not make us feel like bums. Things you certainly don’t get everywhere. Thrilled to be playing there again later this month!
Dana Colley (Morphine, Vapors of Morphine): The Black Cat was always great for Morphine, mostly due to Dante, who really lived and breathed music and community.
Mac McCaughan (Superchunk, Portastatic, owner of Merge Records): Since it opened, the Black Cat has been THE punk place, the indie place, the truly alternative place in D.C. for bands like [mine] to play. One particularly memorable show was the last date on Superchunk’s Here’s To Shutting Up tour in 2001, a tour that happened in the shadow of 9/11—even being on tour at all felt a little weird. Openers were Aereogramme and Rilo Kiley, and the Black Cat show to end the tour managed to feel loose and fun and celebratory where much of that tour was not. I think it had a lot to do with the venue and us feeling like we were both almost home and also “at home” at the Black Cat.
Shirley Sexton (patron): I met my husband at Black Cat in ’95. Me, D.C. girl, him, Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers! I asked for his autograph after they played. Then I did their website!
John Davis (Title Tracks, Q and Not U, curator of University of Maryland’s DC Punk Collections): In the summer of 1993, I first heard that Dante Ferrando was opening a new club. The feeling at the time was that there was a major need for another good-sized, reliable venue in D.C. for punk and other music shows. The 9:30 Club was great but it wasn’t enough. Knowing that someone like Dante, whose roots in the scene went back to some of the community’s earliest years, was behind the club was encouraging news.
I went to my first show there—Cupid Car Club and Free Kitten—a few days after the club opened in September 1993 and I immediately felt at home. It just seemed completely in step with what the D.C. punk community needed. Chris Thomson, who booked shows there in the early days, was very supportive of my band Corm, even though we were just a bunch of high school kids from the suburbs. When we got to play Black Cat for the first time on Dec. 13, 1993, it felt like a dream realized. Granted, it was a Monday night, maybe 10 people paid to attend, and it was freezing inside the club, but it really was incredible.
Over the next 20 years being in a band that was able to sell out a mainstage show at the Black Cat was, without question, one of the proudest moments of my life.
Mark Zimin (DJ of Mousetrap, a Black Cat dance night): By ’97-98, I was going to almost every other show at the Cat, but one show stuck out at me in a way that hadn’t before. Tarot Bolero played, it was a concept band that sounded and dressed like a Nick Cave carnival waltz. It was so shockingly distinctive, my first reaction was, “What town are these guys from?” Eric Morgan was on keyboards, Myra Power was playing an old Gretsch Tennessee Rose. This was an oddball local band that caught both my ears and eyes … and it was at the Cat.
Franco Fernandez (patron): I have so many incredible memories from Black Cat, but there is one moment that my wife and I still talk about till this day. It was a Kimya Dawson show … I remember it being an angry time. [George W.] Bush was still in the White House, people were pissed about the Iraq War, and you could just sense this angst in the crowd. She felt it too and started the show by asking us to sit down on the floor. Which sounds kinda gross to do at Black Cat, but every single person in the room sat on that floor. She played every song everyone wanted to hear. She talked to the audience and just led us through this beautiful communal experience. At the end of the show she asked us all to stand up, hold hands and come together in a circle for a big group hug. For all the huge acts, punk, and hardcore shows I’ve seen at Black Cat, it’s funny I think about that special, intimate Kimya Dawson show the most.
Kenny Inouye (Marginal Man, former Black Cat staff): This may sound corny, but honestly, it seems like almost every time I’ve gone to Black Cat something memorable happened. No lie. Almost every time I go there something transpires that merits being mentioned in the days that follow. Perhaps the most memorable thing that happened to me at the Black Cat was that it was where I met my wife, although at the time she was totally not into me and there was really no sign that dating, let alone marriage, was in our future.
The party there after the Salad Days movie premiere at the American Film Institute in 2014. Seeing so many people I knew from the early D.C. punk days was great, but what really blew me away was realizing how much of an impact that period of D.C. music had on people. To this day, meeting someone who traveled all the way from Japan so they could be one of the first to see the movie, as well as meet me, was truly humbling.
When done right, a club is more than a venue; it’s a place where a community can thrive.
Derrick Baranowsky (Government Issue, History Repeated): One show that stands out for me is one that I was involved with setting up to raise money for [Government Issue lead singer] John Stabb‘s medical bills. Despite Thurston Moore living in London at the time, we somehow got him to do this show. There were many seminal members of the D.C. punk scene there, who along with Moore, took turns jumping up to sing Government Issue songs with the remaining members of GI. Seeing Thurston Moore along with these D.C. punkers singing GI songs with the original band members was both memorable and very special.
Another show that stands out was a Melvins show at the old location. It was only a few days after the VH1 Behind the Music on Leif Garrett debuted. To everyone’s surprise, Buzz Osborne announces a special guest to sing the next number, and it was Leif Garrett himself. They did “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the place went nuts. A rather strange and surreal moment.
Whether playing there, going to see a show, or just lounging out in the Red Room for some drinks or pool, Dante and the Black Cat staff have always been fantastic. Here’s to another 30 years!
Jim Smalley (Honest Halloway): I used to spend many nights at Black Cat between 2006 and 2012. The Black Cat was the crossroads for anyone who was even slightly alternative; there was no more important location in the city for getting to know creative peers. This time period roughly overlapped the revival of the indie rock band, and as such there were a lot of local bands playing then.
There was no need to call or text anyone beforehand—you just went there, and you were guaranteed to see at least half your friends on any given night. Anyone who hung out at Black Cat at that time knows what you mean when you say “Black Cat, Black Cat” in a deep voice. The bartenders were as much of rock stars as the bands playing there.
Travis Morrison (Dismemberment Plan): I lived at 13th and Girard when I moved back to D.C. in the early ’90s, and proximity to the Black Cat was all I cared about. I lived there.
There was a generation of alt and punk rockers that felt slightly shut out of the 9:30, as much as they tried to get local acts on bills. Right before the move, the old 9:30 would have massive touring acts playing a tiny room night after night, and it seemed impossible to break in there. I see ads for the 9:30 from that era on social media and it’s mind boggling. It wasn’t the bohemian hole in the wall it had perhaps been in the early ’80s. Then the 9:30 moved and really became a legit big time venue, and was inaccessible for other reasons. So for many of us in the ’90s, as much as we grew up going to the 9:30, the Black Cat is where the scene evolved on a daily basis, it was the base camp.
Rob Runett (patron): PJ Harvey in December 2000 warming up for her opening gigs with U2. A 2002 tribute to A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory with Poem-Cees and other D.C. hip-hop bands. The summer tradition of the “Run for Cover” and guessing which local musicians would collaborate to honor their heroes. And lots and lots of Ted Leo shows!
Beyond the bands, the club represents the evolution of the city along 14th Street. It’s a rock, a foundation, among the gentrification and remaking of this corridor of the city. From its original spot a few steps away to the smaller footprint today, it’s a welcome reminder of a very different and more independent, adventurous time. And it represents a personal evolution, too. Not long after a wild night at the 2006 Memorial Day Weekend ’80s party, my wife and I got the news that she had been dancing for two … and our son was born in February 2007.
Nathan Strejcek (Teen Idles, Youth Brigade): My favorite show there was Art Brut, great music, great wit. The most memorable moment was during the Salad Days’ show [a 2012 fundraiser for the aforementioned documentary]: Youth Brigade’s final song was the early D.C. hardcore staple cover of “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone.” [Local hardcore bands frequently covered this popular Monkees’ songs]. I had Alec McKaye (Untouchables, Faith) and John Stabb (GI) singing different verses and some other friends singing the chorus.
Scott Crawford (filmmaker): I’ve had a lot of memorable nights at the Black Cat and it remains my favorite club in D.C. Dante opened it at a time when the city needed it—a number of other venues had closed down at that point and 9:30 Club was kind of the only game in town. It’s also where I was first introduced to my wife so it will always be special to me.
Black Cat has always been the kind of club I’m most comfortable in—no asshole bouncers, no-nonsense interior, affable bartenders, and consistently solid monthly calendars. Having the club remain a fixture in the city for 30 years has meant I always have a place I can call home for an evening. Much respect to Dante and staff.
More of Erica Bruce’s photos from all sets from the Black Cat’s 30th Anniversary weekend can be found here.