U Hall: A club without pretense
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, May 7, 2010
The buzz: By just about any measure, U Street Music Hall is the best dance club in the region.
On the decks: Certified party-rockers who've moved crowds and pushed barriers in clubs from New York to Berlin. Underfoot: a 1,200-square-foot hardwood dance floor that "floats" on a cushion of cork so that feet don't get tired dancing until 3 a.m. Overhead: A top-flight 20,000-watt sound system similar to the ones used in such clubs as London's Fabric, capable of pumping out bass with the aural density of honey. It's so crisp and clear that you can hear the full spectrum of sound, but punchy enough that you feel every beat in your gut and joints.
Dubfire (of D.C.'s own Deep Dish), DJ Spun, Nadastrom and New York's Flashing Lights posse are among the selectors who've dropped electro, house, Baltimore club and drum 'n' bass since the subterranean nightspot opened in mid-March, drawing crowds that could look like they stepped out of a Benetton ad. You'll find women in strapless dresses and cowboy boots dancing next to guys in fluorescent T-shirts and jeans and preppy kids getting down alongside college students waving glow sticks.
And, most important, U Street Music Hall -- U Hall to its friends -- ditches most of the trappings associated with D.C. nightclubs. No dress code. No bottle service. No party photographers. No VIP areas, or seating more complex than bar stools. Just a huge room with a DJ booth at one end, a stage at the other and bars along the sides. It's a black box theater that lets DJs focus on the music.
"It's not pretentious like many other places -- people can come and rock out," said Matt Aruch, a 28-year-old Alexandria science teacher who was dancing to the Pacemaker DJs last week. "The music is different from what you normally hear. It's good, and not Top 40 or hip-hop."
But, it has to be said, if you don't want to dance for a couple of hours, or if you want to catch up with friends, this isn't the place. There's not much seating, and while the all-conquering sound system is mind-blowing when you're on the dance floor, it can be loud enough to preclude conversation. (Ear plugs are sold at the coat check.)
The scene: U Street Music Hall is the baby of Will Eastman and Jesse Tittsworth, two longtime D.C. DJs who decided to open their own space after years of being shoe-horned into clubs designed for rock bands or playing in much larger venues that didn't have the feel they wanted.
"The four years I spent touring had a big influence" on the club's design, says the globe-trotting Tittsworth, who has traveled around Australia with Kanye West and DJ A-Trak. "I played clubs in Sao Paulo that were relatively small, really stripped down, but had such great sound. I played places that were really dark. And here I get to do things I've always wanted to do, like being able to control the air flow and temperature from the DJ booth."
The other thing they set out to do, Eastman says, is to book DJs who are pushing the envelope and moving dance music forward, even if some (or most) of the names aren't familiar.
"If someone comes to the club and has a great time dancing, even though they say, 'Hey, I've never heard of this person,' then we're doing our jobs, introducing people to new sounds," Eastman says.
Adds Tittsworth: "I want to scratch beneath the surface and bring in things that people in D.C. haven't seen."
One exception: Michael Mayer, one of the men behind the groundbreaking German record label Kompakt, is paying a visit on May 25. (This year, the Resident Advisor music site dubbed his 2002 "Immer" album the top mix CD of the decade.) And he's spinning for free.
U Hall books more than just DJs, though. Concerts so far have featured the retro-soul band Kings Go Forth (broadcast live on NPR), local hip-hop star Tabi Bonney and melodic Iranian punk band Hypernova. This Sunday, the club sponsors its first all-ages Sunday matinee, with the high-energy Brooklyn punk group the Death Set, DJs Dave Nada and Stereofaith spinning punk and hardcore music, and former Government Issue singer John Stabb leading the crowd in a round of punk rock karaoke.
In your glass: Beer and whiskey. U Hall has 10 taps and more than a dozen canned and bottled beers, though the most popular choice is National Bohemian, which sells for $4 a can. There are a dozen highlighted bourbons and whiskeys for $6-$7.
On your plate: A menu of bar snacks will be available in the next few weeks.
Dates to watch: Saturday night features the hands-in-the-air Nouveau Riche electro DJs, who have brought the party over from DC9. Andy Butler, the mastermind of Hercules and Love Affair, spins classic house May 14. Tittsworth takes over May 15. Legendary Chicago house DJ Derrick Carter visits May 21. Eastman's Bliss Dance Party, a staple for seven years at the Black Cat, is on the fourth Saturday of every month.
Nice to know: Most shows are 18 and older.
Price points: Most weekend nights have a $10 cover; weeknights, free to $5.