Comet Amps It Up Again

Nolen Strals of Baltimore's Double Dagger helps Comet Ping Pong celebrate its newly legal status as a music venue this month.
Nolen Strals of Baltimore's Double Dagger helps Comet Ping Pong celebrate its newly legal status as a music venue this month. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 22, 2008

Comet Ping Pong is a one-of-a-kind destination. It's the only restaurant I know in Washington that serves delicious pizza while offering Ping-Pong tables for the use of its customers. And it's probably the only place where you can enjoy a dinner recommended by Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema, then walk 30 feet from the dining area and watch as loud, brash punk bands called Double Dagger and the Apes persuade crowds of 20-somethings to form mild mosh pits.

The back room, where concerts are held, resembles the activities pavilion at summer camp rather than a rock club: Rows of colorful vinyl pennants hang from exposed planks overhead, and the low wooden stage looks as if it's built of boards salvaged from woodworking classes. Some attendees climb on wooden chairs to get a better view, and the bar sells cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon for two bucks each.

It's all very grass roots, as if the bands randomly decided to set up and play in their mom's rec room. The music is also eclectic; you might come across driving bluegrass-fed Americana or moody, muscular indie rock.

"I love the venue," says Valerie Raneri, 23, who drove in from Centreville to see the Apes this month. "It's comfortable and unique. It's the perfect space -- it's really wonderful."

The concert program is organized by Kalani Tifford and Nick Pimentel, who also run the buzzworthy local record label Gypsy Eyes. "Nick knew [Comet owner] James Alefantis, and James approached us earlier this year," Tifford explains. "The idea just came up: They wanted to do shows there, and we're always looking for places to do shows."

There are challenges with a venue that wasn't designed for live music, including that low stage and the lack of a decent sound system. (The house PA system is on loan from Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty.) But Tifford and Pimentel began reaching out to "bands we like -- bands that are unusual or unique that we think people should see," and Comet began rocking in May.

Among the first performances were shows by the Apes (see CD review, Page 8) and Child Ballads, whose lead singer, Stewart Lupton, fronted '90s critical darlings Jonathan Fire*Eater. Crowds arrived just as diners were leaving, the restaurant turned out pizzas until midnight and revelers lingered after the music finished. It was a great scene.

All this was in spite of the fact that, when Comet opened two years before, Alefantis signed a voluntary agreement with the neighborhood that prohibited live entertainment (except for background music) and promised that the restaurant would close by midnight. Whoops.

Neighborhood commissioner Frank Winstead (who'd previously forced Comet to get rid of its sidewalk Ping-Pong table because a patron might get hit by a car while chasing a ball onto Connecticut Avenue) forced the restaurant to stop the concerts immediately. At a specially convened hearing in June, however, the other commissioners voted to allow Comet to begin to have live music legally, and the celebration kicked off Aug. 8 with the Apes and Double Dagger. "It worked out a lot quicker than we thought it would," Tifford says.

Now that they're on the up and up, Tifford and Pimentel are planning to have weekly evening performances with local artists, including a regular gig with local R&B groove merchants Will Rast and Funk Ark, as well as more shows. One to watch: On Sept. 14, Comet hosts Tussle, a percussive punk-funk band from San Francisco that has toured with Hot Chip and Yacht, as well as DJ Will Eastman and other bands.

In the next few months, Tifford says, they hope to transform Comet into a more professional venue. "We want to build out the back room, maybe add another 25 percent more space, build a real stage, get a real PA. Right now, the sound system depends on what we can cobble together, and obviously if you go to a show, you want it to sound good."

Personally, I think the lo-fi sound fits the low-key vibe. Audiophiles might notice a difference, but right now, the crowd just seems happy that Upper Connecticut Avenue is rocking again.

Comet Ping Pong 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW Phone:202-364-0404

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