LAST Friday, Nation was rocking to the sounds of techno music. A couple of thousand young folks were grooving to the break beats provided by, among others, Scott Henry, Lieven and John Tab until the wee hours of Saturday morning. Sounds like Buzz is back! But no. It's Sting, the new Friday night dance party at Nation, organized by Lieven and Scott Henry, the same duo responsible for Buzz. "Sting is not the return of Buzz," says Lieven adamantly.
Remember the story on Buzz? A hidden camera report that aired in May on WTTG-TV (Fox 5) showed off-duty police officers at Nation kissing young patrons and implied the rampant use of mind-altering drugs. The broadcast led to outraged statements from the city council and the police department, both of which promised investigations, and resulted in Nation canceling Buzz and all other "rave" events.
"Sting is not a rave," Lieven says with even more force. His partner Henry concurs: "Because we play techno and because some of our patrons dress the part -- with baggy pants or whatever -- people say we're a rave. We're not, we're a dance party. We're trying to provide a safe and secure atmosphere for young adults who want to go out and hear good music."
After many meetings with the owners of Nation, changes have been made that distinguish Sting from Buzz, foremost among them being the age of admittance, which has been raised from 18 to 19. "Even though it's just one year, we've found that people are a little bit more responsible, a little more mature overall," Henry says. Other changes include more stringent security and the lengthening of the list of objects forbidden at the club. "As before, there are no drugs allowed, no guns or other lethal instruments," says Henry, "but the list now includes no pacifiers, no Vick's inhalers, no [dust] masks." (Those items are associated with use of the drug Ecstasy.) "We're also now prohibiting the use of cameras and other photographic devices," says Henry with a chuckle, a reference to the television station's hidden cameras.
At last week's Sting debut, the crowd was definitely thinner than at Buzz events, but all involved deemed it a success. And while Fox 5 was out trying to interview folks at the club, no cameras were noticed inside. Spinning that night was the world renowned Washington DJ team Deep Dish, and their high-profile presence is a sign of things to come for Sting, Lieven says. "We want to focus on bringing in nationally and internationally known performers. We want to be known as one of the best dance parties in the country."
SPOTLIGHT ON COMEDY
"Washington's comedy crowds are amazing," asserts Basil White. "They're not jaded, like in New York or L.A., and they're very smart. They know what's going on. That's a nice convergence of factors in an audience." White should know. He's been a member of Washington's ComedySportz troupe, performing with them every Friday and Saturday for more than two years at the Fun Factory in Alexandria (3112 Mount Vernon Ave.; 703/684-5212), as well as hitting the road to compete with ComedySportz "teams" in other cities.
Wanting to try his hand at straight ahead stand-up, White approached the Fun Factory management about hosting an evening of non-ensemble humor. For nearly a year, the DC/Baltimore Comedy Showcase has taken place the first Friday of every month, at 10:30 p.m., right after the ComedySportz show. "It's for comedians who deserve more than five minutes of open mike time, but who might not be quite ready to do a 30-minute show as a headliner," White says. "There's a lot of excellent comedians around here who just need to work out their material in front of an audience. We provide that opportunity."
White invites five comedians from the area to perform at each showcase, comedians he's scouted himself by attending regional open mikes. "I put their names on cards, and we pick the cards at random to see who goes on first and who follows; that way it throws off the usual hierarchy of `headliner' and `support act.' It throws off audience expectations, and we do an end-around on the ego games you might find at other comedy clubs."
While the popcorn was too salty to eat the night I went, for the $6 cover charge there was much to enjoy in the comedians' routines: White's ruminations on the good coffee at AA meetings versus Starbucks's java; Mike Storck's idea for "Homeless Action Figures"; Andy Campbell's manic railing against Next Day Blinds and Blind to Go: "Can someone tell me when blinds became so [expletive] urgent in this country???"
On Friday, check out comedians Thomas Hancuff, John Miller, Greg Roberts, Marby Ingel, Mike Dorsey, and, of course, Basil White.
Another showcase that's not an open mike takes place every other Wednesday at Polly's (1324 U St., NW, 202/265-8385), the cozy downstairs bistro in the middle of "the New U." This one is musical rather than comic and is hosted by Mark Whiteis-Helm, who might be familiar to some for his work in the band Radio Blue.
That moody rock band played area stages (and covered area walls with striking posters) from 1987 to 1994 before calling it quits. Whiteis-Helm went on to front his own band, Super 8, as well as to collaborate with recording artist Jamie Blake, a major label encounter that left him with a sour taste in his mouth.
He went abroad to find his Danish roots, spending several years in Copenhagen and playing in bars to pay the bills. "I loved it but the only way to make a living was to play covers in pubs doing four sets a night, six nights a week," Whiteis-Helm says. "I did this circuit: Copenhagen; Stockholm; Oslo; Reykjavik [Iceland]. . . . I knew I had to come back when I realized that if I played `American Pie' one more time I was going to do myself bodily harm."
Whiteis-Helm returned to D.C. "to be among all the people I missed," he says. "Some of my best friends here are, I think, some of the best songwriters in the country: Kevin Johnson, Scott McKnight, Lou Bango. I can go out and see them play, and they'll come see me play. It's a really supportive scene."
In January, Whiteis-Helm took over two of the "Acoustic Wednesdays" a month at Polly's and began inviting some of his songwriter friends to come down and play. "I try to schedule two or three people each time, but even though it's not an open mike, everybody's welcome," Whiteis-Helm says. "If they're really eager to play, they can use my guitar and play a few songs."
Besides his acoustic showcase, Whiteis-Helm (who's director of media relations for Friends of the Earth) is finishing up a demo tape with old pal Dave Newton of the Mighty Lemon Drops, with songs that he'll shop around to record companies. "If nothing ever happens along those lines, I'll be okay with it," he says. "That whole record industry thing has become a lot less important to me than I ever imagined it would."
On Wednesday, Whiteis-Helm will be joined by Scott McKnight and his band Naughty Pine, along with visiting Californian (and McKnight's former bandmate in the great local band the Neighbors) John Moremen.
CAPTION: Comedian Basil White: A stand-up guy at the Fun Factory in Alexandria.
CAPTION: Mark Whiteis-Helm: Unplugged at Polly's in "the New U."