Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Favorite Venues: In Praise of the 9:30 Club

9:30 Club, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

It's rare that a gritty club in a gritty part of town could attract the likes of Bryan Ferry, The Hives, Neil Finn, Jurassic 5, Dolly Parton, Wilco, Liz Phair, Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, etc. It's also rare that a gritty club in a gritty part of town could induce folks from all over the surrounding countryside to brave the road rage-inducing tourist traffic of our nation's capitol.  But attract and induce it does.

In fact, I can think of no place I'd rather see live music. Truly.

Why? The room. When the crowd is light, the room never feels empty. When a show is sold out, it never feels claustrophobic. And in either case, the sound is phenomenal. I mean phenominal. The sound team seems equally at home with acoustic acts featuring hard-to-hear instruments like stand-up bass, as well as the heaviest riff-rocking guitars, and hip-hop's human beatboxes and turntables. You never strain to hear, nor do your ears ever bleed. But it doesn't end there, oh no! If you're not a fan of standing on the floor, or you're sick of being too short behind a wall of 6-footers, there are many options. Head on up to the balcony for a view down over the crowd and have a beer at one of the bars. Or pull up a bleacher seat along the side walls upstairs. You'll always be able to find a good view. And even up in the back balcony, you'll still feel as if you could reach out and touch the band. Optical illusion? Optical delusion? Who cares?! All I know is it's good.

Why? Musicians love playing there. Despite having a smallish stage (Bryan Ferry's band and back-up singers looked positively squished), every last band I've seen there seems to be having a fab time. Maybe the soundman is particularly adept at giving them a good monitor mix. Who knows? But every last one of 'em that I've seen has seemed to be kicking  proverbial butt and enjoying themselves more than usual. The interactions with the crowd are personal and the encores long. I think it must be the close proximity to the crowd. I imagine that for many artists used to playing huge venues to tens of thousands, playing at the 9:30 Club is like returning to your roots. Calling it "intimate" kind of falls short of the mark. Getting in touch with your fans can literally be achieved, as Neil Finn proved when he pulled a fan up on stage to lead the room in singing one of his songs, while he accompanied on guitar. It breeds such "special moments" like warm, fuzzy tribbles.

Why? Atmosphere. The 9:30 Club doesn't have to try. It just has that special something without all sorts of decor or theme-y posturings. It has just the right mix of tattoos and big, scary bouncers to make it feel like an equally great place to see hard core as hip-hop. And then there's the afore-mentioned proximity of the crowd to the stage. At about hip height, you can walk right up to it and determine if that's a Gretsch or a Gibson hollow-body the guitarist is playing, and read the set list taped to the stage floor. You can make eye contact with the band. You can hang out in the rafters and still feel as if they're singing just to you. That ever elusive quality of "intimacy" that so many venues strive for seems effortless here. It kind of feels like home to me now.

The numbers don't lie! The concert industry reports that the 9:30 Club is the single most popular club-size venue in the country, with the highest $$ earned and the greatest number of tickets sold. It's that magic combination -- musicians love to play there, and music-lovers hanker to head there.

Can you think of a better way of summing up the 9:30 Club? Post it here!  Or check out what the AOL CityGuide Editors had to say, and find out why they ranked it as the City's Best Place to See Live Music. Then find out who's playing next at 9:30!

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