In one corner sit two middle-aged suburban couples sedately drinking beer; in another are two bushy-maned, mustachioed chaps in matching biker jackets, knocking back harder stuff. A blond fellow all in black moves aimlessly through the crush, meeting all stares with his false-lashed baby blues.
The 9:30 club, a bit of downtown Washington awash in the New Wave, boasts a crowd often as diverting as its music.
The music, to be sure, is the club's main attraction, what with bands playing everything from rockabilly to reggae to jazz, plus a healthy dose of what's variously labeled "art/pop" and "new wave": sounds, says 9:30's Susan Gearhart, that you can dance to, but also enjoy for portent. It's fairly cheap -- usually a $5 cover -- but it's also almost unrelievedly, crashingly loud.
This Sunday, following its eclectic habit -- "We're definitely not relegated to one particular form," Gearhart said -- 9:30 presents rhythm and blues journeyman Bo Diddley. One would be hard-pressed to lump him with Jah Malla, a reggae group set to play on Friday, or NNB, Saturday's headliner, described by Gearhart as "demented art/pop."
As for avante garde, the club once brought William Burroughs in to read some of his poems, and lately has started offering happy hours of experimental video (four TV screens hang from the ceiling). Hard-core punk, the stuff that screams are made of, is mostly a thing of the past. "It's just too tough," says owner Dody Bowers, who opened the club two years ago, when she and her husband, developer Jon Bowers, bought the 1880s-vintage Atlantic Building at 930 F Street NW. "But if the Dead Kennedys come to town, I'll book them."
The other night, The Waitresses gave their fourth and probably farewell performance: they're now too big a draw for a small club. A sellout crowd filed past a scowling ticket-taker who also checked IDs -- those under 18 are welcome, but not to drink -- and into the darkened room.
At the front bar, high-schoolers and college kids, some decked out in boutique punk, stood heel to toe with folks in three- piece suits. Toward the back, amid tables and chairs from the late, lamented Elks Club -- something out of Edward Hopper's vision of a diner -- a game of Pac-Man progressed, while at the back bar, a slide show, apparently of a 9:30 staff party, was getting some play. Occasionally, when the TV screens came alive with the performance of some rock group or another everyone would stare transfixed, except for a few couples making time along the walls.
Whatever New Wave might mean, it seems a fairly wholesome business. "COOKIE OF THE WEEK: Peanut Butter Chip," read the posted menu. First Marshall Crenshaw played, and The Waitresses came on shortly after 11. People near the stage tended to dance with abandon; those farther out looked to be caught between jumping and standing still.
Even if you don't much jump and strut, the place still holds some charms. A few of them arise from the same ironic sensibility that marks some of the musical fare.
One night, a young woman reports, she was waiting to get inside along with several teenagers affecting the manner of working- class punks, shooting mean glares and shouting anticapitalist slogans. She spied them later in a caravan led by a Mercedes Benz, a shiny-new station wagon following, and a late-model gas guzzler behind. All she could do was smile.
THE 9:30 CLUB, 930 F Street NW. Friday, Jah Malla; Saturday, NNB; Sunday, Bo Diddley. Call 393-0930 for further information.