U Street Music Hall has the beats and spinners, but no paparazzi

New adventure: DJs Jesse Tittsworth, left, and Will Eastman, enjoy the opening night of their new club, U Street Music Hall.
New adventure: DJs Jesse Tittsworth, left, and Will Eastman, enjoy the opening night of their new club, U Street Music Hall. (Kyle Gustafson For The Washington Post)
By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010

It's Wednesday night in the green room of U Street Music Hall, and club owner Will Eastman is explaining his vision for a "no-frills dance club . . . no attitude, no bottle service, no velvet rope, no bull--" THUMP-THUMP-THUMP.

Deep frequencies come throbbing from the adjacent dance floor, as if his recently opened nightclub was divided like the chambers of a beating heart. "We put the focus on the music," Eastman says. "Every decision we made emanated out in concentric circles from the music."

So while the bass thumps in infinite shapes at U Street Music Hall, there's one sound patrons will never hear: the ker-click of a camera shutter. Eastman's vision doesn't include photography. Tired of the overzealous party photographers who swarm Washington's most popular dance nights, he and co-owner Jesse Tittsworth banned picture-taking.

Over the past few years, party photography has reached a saturation point, with flash-happy photogs fiercely attempting to record every shimmy that transpires on our city's dance floors. To go dancing in Washington now is to repeatedly say "cheese" for the Internet masses.

Not at U Hall. Tucked beneath the 7-Eleven on U street between 11th and 12th streets NW, the 300-capacity venue is owned by DJs: Eastman is still responsible for the wildly popular "Bliss" parties formerly held at the Black Cat (now held at U Hall), while Tittsworth continues to spin records for adoring crowds from Bethesda to Beijing.

Together, the duo decided to try opening a club that could deliver world-class DJ talent with minimal pretentiousness. The walls are a stately shade of charcoal, the dance floor is cushioned with cork, the drinks are cheap and the speakers are mighty. Bass drips like subsonic honey from U Hall's six-figure sound system, an incredible machine that trumps any nightclub's in the city.

Firm stance

U Hall's doors opened to the public only on March 17, but its buzz across town is already creating a mythology. Plenty of that has to do with the no-photo policy, and the response they've received from it. By and large, the DJs are relieved, the photographers are crestfallen and the patrons are conflicted.

But the owners are firm. "We really want to encourage people to not give a [expletive] about how they look and just enjoy the moment," Tittsworth says by phone from Miami, where he was DJing at the annual Winter Music Conference last week.

"I've been to countless cities, coast to coast, where photographers will create these false moments by antagonizing people, getting women maybe with low self-esteem to expose themselves, or antagonize guys to be more aggressive. . . . It creates a manufactured moment that looks crazier than it was."

Party photography can be seen as a direct symptom of the Facebook age. We're so busy trying to record ourselves having an amazing Friday night that we don't give ourselves the opportunity to actually have an amazing Friday night. Smile! Click. Upload. Repeat.

Photo exhaustion

Getting some fresh air outside of U Hall in the smallest hours of Saturday morning, patron J.J. Kelley says he has grown weary of the flash. "It's like that paparazzi feel," he says, a frown beneath his brown mustache. "This place feels more gritty . . . more authentic."

His exhaustion isn't unwarranted. Even the founder of the Web site that made its name in 2006 by being the first in town to publish oodles of party photos agrees. "There was a time when there were too many party photos being taken," says Svetlana Legetic, editor of Brightest Young Things. "I'm the first person to say that."

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