THE BRIGHTEST LIGHT of Washington's after-dark landscape this year, literally and figuratively, has been the lovely, illuminated scaffolding surrounding the Washington Monument. I'll be sad when it disappears in 2000. It's kept me much company as I've made my nighttime rounds through the capital city, always bringing a smile to my face whenever I glimpse it between buildings, or drive south on 13th Street NW or come into town on the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge. I say it's mighty nice of the National Park Service to let it be used as a fireworks launching pad on New Year's Eve.
But long after the smoke from the fireworks drifts away, and long after the monument's scaffolding comes down, there'll still be lots of bright and shiny reasons to head out on the town after the sun goes down. Washington's nightlife is evolving in leaps and bounds; and to those people who still call or e-mail me to complain about the state of things after dark, all I can say is: You're not paying much attention and you'll never be happy in this world. Which is too bad, because the world really is your oyster, and there are plenty of night life pearls to be found in Washington and its surroundings.
Here's some of the notable club happenings of 1999:
We rang in the year with the closing of the Bayou, the venerable Georgetown live music club that shut its doors for the last time early on Jan. 1. In April, the owner of the Bayou, John Boyle, opened Nation, the vast Southeast room that had been the Capital Ballroom before its renovation. The space (which can hold 2,000 people) promised to become a first-class concert hall, but live music-goers didn't take to the venue as hoped. There are now DJ dance parties Wednesdays through Saturdays, with concerts being the exception on Nation's calendar of bookings. One of those dance parties, the independently promoted Buzz, got stung by a WTTG-Channel 5 news report of suspected drug use and promptly shut down, only to resurface a few weeks later as Sting. The Sting folks have made a global name for themselves by bringing in some of the best DJs anywhere, and for anyone interested in the state of the art in techno and drum'n'bass music, Sting has become the place to be every Friday.
In September Boyle also opened up the Garage in the 18th Street and Connecticut Avenue NW location that held Ozone, Steel, Popstars, Roxy and Saba over the years. The Garage is, for the most part, a very good live music venue with lots of nice design touches. The only complaint I've got is that the place gets pretty cramped when there are more than 150 people in it (it can hold up to 300). It books a wide variety of music, picking up not only the slack from the Bayou, but also some more adventurous stuff. On top of that, it deserves some applause for the support it's given to local bands.
Garage's arrival completed the transformation of 18th and Connecticut into the night life intersection in Washington. Crowds lined up to get into the still new MCCXXIII and Dragonfly, the techno underground spot Red, the exclusive Eighteenth Street Lounge, Andalu and Sesto Senso, while Lucky Bar provided a place free of velvet ropes.
This club boom south of Dupont Circle led to the biggest problem connected to going out in Washington: parking. What is up with this city? If Bethesda can figure out how to provide lots of public parking, for crying out loud, why can't the nation's capital? What is wrong with our city planners that they can't see this need and address it? Think how much better a night on the town would be if there were public garages with meters in Adams-Morgan, Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle. Put that at the top of my wish list for 2000.
Over in Adams-Morgan, what was once the nicest club in town, Cafe Lautrec, shut down when the partners who owned it had a falling out. The good news is that construction work has been going on inside, and it looks like tap dancer Johne Forges will soon be once again tapping his way across Lautrec's bar on a regular basis. Down the block from Lautrec, the plush 1001 Nights lasted about two months before shutting down, but the space has become the Blue Room, a lovely loungy place, with three levels and just the right amount of attitude and the right number of couches.
Along the Southwest waterfront, Zanzibar opened and found its niche offering mix of Caribbean, African, Latin and African American cuisine and music on two elegant levels, as well as being one of the best spots in town to watch a sunset. Elegance was on the minds of the owners of Platinum when they opened that new dance club recently in the spot that was once the Bank and the Fifth Column. Beautifully designed, Platinum is a multi-culti club that's taken some of the thunder away from a couple of other new places, the Cage (on 14th Street NW) and 2:K:9, while providing some solace for those who were pained by the closing of the Spy Club. While the Cage is a fairly dull dance club, 2:K:9 (which holds down the east end of "the New U") is genuinely trying to be something special, with two floors and even some cages for hired dancers (women and men).
Perhaps the biggest nightclub news of 1999 was what didn't happen. Not only did nothing of note step into the void within MCI Center where Velocity Grill was (it closed in May), but not a single club opened along Sixth and Seventh streets near the sports arena, leaving unfulfilled the promise of some sort of "synergistic" night life development in the area.
While that corner of downtown was stagnant, the suburbs were evolving. In Falls Church, the renovations to the deco State Theatre were completed, and it opened its doors to live performances. After a shaky start, the State looks to have hit some kind of stride, booking a mix of locals and nationals that somehow don't get snagged by the folks booking the Birchmere, the ever-diversifying 9:30 club or the Barns of Wolf Trap.
In Arlington, Bardo Rodeo shut down, soon to become the Ningaloo Lounge (with sushi and an art gallery). The principals of Bardo took their recipe out to Herndon where they recently opened Chamdo, a 24-hour brewpub and pool hall. High-tech Herndon has long been waiting for some places to hang out, and they got two this year, including Chamdo. The other is the Revolution Coffee Lounge, the new bar/lounge of Steve Zarpas, former Crow Bar owner. In Arlington, Mister Days took over the spot that had been the Blue & Gold brewpub and Terra e Mare took over the shopping center space that had been the Courtyard Cafe. Bad Habits closed, soon after Eddie From Ohio ended its long-running Tuesday night stand there, and the Fun Factory comedy club in Alexandria shut its doors, leaving the area's comedians with one less stage.
In Bethesda, the Shark Club became a sleek presence; and Lewie's continued its remodeling, and became an excellent place to hear live music, picking up some of the slack from Uncle Jed's Roadhouse (which recently gave up on live music) and the vanished Twist & Shout. The man behind Twist & Shout, Marc Gretschel, resurfaced in Silver Spring booking roots music into the Irish bar Paddy Mac's. Another Irish bar, James Mackey's, took over the old Samantha's space on L Street NW. Elsewhere in Washington, Capital Blues closed, with nothing yet appearing to fill the live blues void its closing has created. Also in town, Food for Thought closed, soon to become the Bistrot du Coin. While FFT's open mike scene is now history, the cuisine of owner Bobby Ferrando can now be ordered from the kitchen of his son Dante's club, the Black Cat.
The live music scene was as vibrant in 1999 as I've ever seen it in Washington, and I've got a long list of great shows and strong bands I could share. But without a lot more space to elaborate on those, I'll just focus on the music that was released on CD by local musicians this year.
Going through all the records I received from local artists in 1999, I honestly got a small shiver of pride about the Washington music scene. Easily the strongest crop of recordings in the four years I've been tracking the local scene, these CDs defied the simple "top ten" listing I've done in the past. Instead, here's a couple dozen, in alphabetical order, that I would not hesitate to recommend. The CDs on this list are ones that I've put into my "keeper" shelf at home, and not into the "keep it 'cause it's local" box in my basement. They're all CDs that reward multiple listenings, and they give me great hope for the local music scene.
A La Carte Brass & Percussion: "Live on U" (funky brass band)
Burning Airlines: "Mission: Control!" (angular end-of-century-soundtrack rock)
Cecilia: "Kitchen Mix" (vocally rich folk/pop)
Cephas & Wiggins: "Homemade" (Piedmont blues)
Chaise Lounge: "The Early Years" (jazzy lounge pop)
Dismemberment Plan: "Emergency & I" (loud and catchy post-punk)
ebo: "Secret Weapon" (radio-ready modern rock)
Foo Fighters: "There Is Nothing Left to Lose" (hometown boy Dave Grohl's solid rock/guitar pop)
Fugazi: "Instrument" (atmospheric post-punk)
Nicki Gonzalez: "The Nicki Gonzalez Band" (soul/pop with a Latin beat)
The Grandsons: "Pan-American Shindig" (country/rockabilly/Tex-Mex)
The Graverobbers: "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" (Tin Pan Alley meets the Ramones)
Sir Roland Hanna & Davey Yarborough: "Royal Essence: An Evening of Ellington" (classic jazz)
The Hardway Connection: "It Must Be Love" (old-school soul/R&B/blues)
Jumpin' Jupiter: "Ground Zero Grand Prix" (rockabilly)
Bill Kirchen: "Raise a Ruckus" (rootsy hillbilly rock)
The Nighthawks: "Still Wild" (blues and barrelhouse rock)
Origem: "Ijexa" (Brazilian-flavored jazz)
Bill Parsons: "Special Delivery" (acoustic singer/songwriter)
Al Petteway & Amy White: "Racing Hearts" (acoustic neo-folk)
The Pietasters: "Awesome Mix Tape #6" (ska and beyond)
The Rondelles: "The Fox" (poppy punk)
Telegraph Melts: "Ilium" (envelope-pushing instrumental rock)
20/20: "Money Is the Root to All Evil" (instrumentally ambitious and socially conscious hip-hop)
The Will Smith Quartet: "Listen" (modern bop jazz)
Trans Am: "Future World" (techno/punk/metal stew)
Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet: "Half-Past Swing" (sophisticated songs)
Villa Rosie: "Everybody Rides" (smart guitar pop)
Wicked City: "Wicked City" (cinematic hip-hop)