Downtown, a Warehouse Full of Music

Friday, September 16, 2005

F or 120 years, Paul Ruppert's family has been in business at 1017 Seventh St. NW, where the Warehouse Theater and Warehouse Next Door sit. You can still see signage for Ruppert Real Estate on the building. For a decade after that office closed, the location housed Ruppert's Restaurant, but it, too, closed in 2002, as construction began on the massive Washington Convention Center across the street. Eventually, the Warehouse Cafe opened, followed by the 120-seat black box Warehouse Theater behind it. That gradually expanded into a complex that includes the Warehouse Next Door (literally), a second, smaller black box stage, a small screening room and a gallery for emerging artists. The Warehouse has become one of the city's most active alternative performing art spaces, with music shows most nights.

According to Ruppert, "we want to be a place where interesting art happens and to be a resource for Washington artists, a place where mostly local, but also touring artists, can perform in a variety of genres."

Bookings are done by several people: Scott Verrastro of Clavius Productions brings in experimental groups as well as metal and stoner rock bands. Matt Bitdwell, the venue's sound engineer, and bartender Denman do much of the punk and hardcore booking.

The majority of the schedule is put together by booker Nick Pimentel, who says: "We don't really have a booking philosophy. Bands seem to come to us; we rarely go out looking for bands. We're an intimate space that's comfortable for touring bands who can't really draw many people. . . . That's why when we do out-of-town bands, we try to get at least one or two local bands to play, so they can get their friends out. There's nothing worse than seeing a great band with just two other people."

Verrastro, who also promotes concerts elsewhere around town (visit http://www.claviusproductions.org ) says: "There's a huge untapped reservoir of extreme and experimental music that is ignored, and has been ignored in D.C., for a long time. That's the main purpose of what I'm doing, just to get them here, whether it's noise, experimental, outsider, avant-garde electronics, free-form jazz, avant folk or even scream metal stuff -- it could be anything. Music is music -- it's all about the presentation and the attitude and the feeling behind it."

Verrastro (who plays in improvised psychedelia duo Kohoutek with Scott Allison) points out that the Internet has made information about -- and sound samples of -- fringe music more widely available. Although one can find plenty of information online, including sound samples, "you can't reproduce live music, the visceral experience of seeing something you'll never see again in the same environment, which is why it's important to give people an avenue to see these acts and be challenged."

The Web site http://www.warehousennextdoor.com/bands lists hundreds of bands that have played at Warehouse Next Door, many with links. Some Pimentel recommendations for the next two weeks: Friday's show featuring 302 Acid ("a D.C.-based experimental drum'n'bass band that does dance music with all live orchestration") and the Sept. 20 show, headlined by Japanese no-wave band Nisennenmondai. ("Everyone's telling me that they're the band to see, and they're friends with a lot of local musicians they hosted when those bands went to Japan.")

Though Steve Feigenbaum notes that Warehouse Next Door is not wedded to experimental music -- "it's not their mission statement, and they obviously have a lot of other things," that's where the founder of Silver Spring-based Cuneiform Records first heard North Carolina speed rock trio Ahleuchatistas, "the most technically adept post-punk band you'll ever hear -- they've got chops growing on their chops," he says. The band will have a Cuneiform album out soon.

Feigenbaum has benefited from visits to other risk-taking venues as well. He signed the "jazz and beyond" Claudia Quintet after its second concert for Transparent Productions. "How good were they? It cost me 10 bucks to find out," Feigenbaum says. "Semi-Formal," the group's third Cuneiform album, will be released next week, bringing the label's output over 21 years to 215 albums.

Feigenbaum also caught Rhode Island's Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores at the Velvet Lounge last year and in January will release an album by the accordion-led nonet that features saxophone, violin, cello and French horn on music that melds avant-garde and primitive esthetics. "It's an acid-folk big band, the big band of Weird New America," Feigenbaum says, referring to a genre springing out of a 2004 Wire magazine cover story documenting the latest "movement" in weird/psychedelic folk music. Redfearn and the Eyesores play at DC9 on Oct. 22.

For 25 years, Feigenbaum has also run Wayside Music, a mail-order business that offers 5,500 titles ("and we're always adding to it") of what his Web site, http://www.waysidemusic.com , describes as "progressive rock, experimental rock, new jazz, off-beat, contemporary and other indefinable musics from across the globe." He remembers years ago seeing vanguard saxophonist Sam Rivers and Dave Holland at d.c. space with only 20 or so people; now, Feigenbaum suggests, a local venue would probably be packed for such a stellar pairing. "It's a DIY world, and if you really care about this music, you band together."

-- Richard Harrington

© 2005 The Washington Post Company