LAST DECEMBER, Juste Lounge (1015 1/2 Seventh St. NW; 202-393-3909) began hosting a weekly Neo-Soul Showcase, adding live performances by local groups to the bar's martini happy hour, which was already popular with African American professionals. "Neo-soul is hot, but it's a little bit mellow," explains owner Juste Pehoua. "And it's only Tuesday, so you want to relax."
That's a good way to describe the vibe at Juste Lounge on a recent Tuesday night. A local neo-soul group called Waterseed is set up in a corner, laying down a sensuous R&B groove. The high-ceilinged room is lit by flickering candles and soft yellow lights. Folks in business attire and dressy leather jackets are grouped around the bar, martinis in hand, laughing and talking. In a back room, couples recline on oversize couches, as candelabra glow on coffee tables. The music isn't too loud to preclude most conversation.
Neo-soul is popular in local music circles, with groups like Fertile Ground and W. Ellington Felton crafting songs reminiscent of the classic R&B and soul created by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Juste Lounge is currently the only place in town to sample these sounds on a weekly basis. "They're all local bands that want to get some exposure, but they're also bands that we think have the skills," Pehoua says.
The evening flows nicely. People arrive before 7 for happy hour with discounted martinis and, occasionally, half-price appetizers. A neo-soul band grooves until 8:30. The atmosphere picks up a bit afterward, as a DJ spins Top 40 hip-hop and R&B and the crowd fills the small dance floor until it's time to close.
Pehoua opened the two-story club last summer, and Juste Lounge quickly gained a reputation for its martinis and Friday happy hour. "We've always had a huge martini list," he says with pride. "We started with 17, but after a while we put our bartenders together and came up with a lot more." The menu changes often -- the lounge added some with names like "Sexual Healing" and "Love Potion" for Valentine's Day -- but there are usually at least 30 martinis offered. Most are sweet, with flavored vodkas, liqueurs (Amaretto and Chambord seem to be favorites) and fruit juices.
"We want to create a name for ourselves," Pehoua says. "When you go to McDonald's, you get a burger. When you come to Juste Lounge, we want you to get a martini. . . . The Fuzzy Teddy Bear is my favorite."
His plan seems to be working, as the majority of people in the room are holding 10-ounce martini glasses.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Juste Lounge opens up its lower level, which features a medium-size dance floor, couches and a long bar. Friday, billed as "4Play Friday," is popular for its long happy hour and live music. "4Play is not a sexual name," Pehoua insists. "There are four aspects of Juste Lounge on Fridays. You can come here and socialize on a couch, you can have a drink, you can eat or you can go downstairs and party with a DJ."
The live music on Friday varies from week to week. A reggae band might follow a neo-soul group or a small jazz combo, and there are plans to bring a salsa band into the mix. "We want people to be open-minded," Pehoua says.
Saturday is international night, with Latin and African music, including Zaiko and Makosa on the lower level, and DJs playing hip-hop and R&B upstairs.
By early summer, Juste Lounge will have added an upstairs room with more lounging space and more couches, Pehoua says, and there are also plans to expand the kitchen. "Right now, it's small, and we don't have the capacity to be a real restaurant," he says. Juste's food is limited to a bar menu that is served mostly at happy hour, although you can get coconut shrimp and lemon barbecue chicken wings until midnight on Fridays.
(The lounge is clearly a work in progress -- in the back room, one wall is chipped and another has some peeling paint. However, that doesn't really disturb the warm atmosphere.)
A bigger worry is the club's location across from the new convention center. In late February, construction closed Seventh Street in front of the club, eliminating much of the foot traffic and removing a number of parking spaces. For now, the club has secured two parking lots for patrons: one on New York Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets and one on L Street, again between Sixth and Seventh.
Pehoua is taking it in stride. "Last week, the street was shut down, but we had a full house," he says. "Our number one source of business is word-of-mouth."
As long as the soul is deep and the martinis are well made, he'll have nothing to worry about.
A PRINCE OF A DJ
Dominic Redd got hooked on Prince when he was in elementary school. "My family would play all the old stuff, and my aunts and uncles would go to the shows," he says. "I first saw Prince in eighth grade on the 'Purple Rain' tour. So I started buying Prince vinyl, bootlegs, whatever I could get my hands on."
By his own count, Redd -- known around Washington as DJ Dredd -- has seen Prince between 20 and 30 times. And as Redd began to gig around town, spinning '70s funk, R&B and old-school hip-hop at bars like the Metro Cafe and Aroma, he kept thinking how cool it would be to host a Prince dance party.
Fate -- and Prince -- eventually gave him a shot. "In 2000, I was in line buying tickets for a Prince show at George Mason University when I met this woman who was a member of Lovesexy DC, the Prince fan club," Redd recalls. "I talked to Kathy Jentz, the president, about doing a Prince dance party, and that December, we started doing a monthly event at the Metro Cafe."
That event -- simply called Lovesexy DC -- ran until the Metro Cafe closed last summer. The people who showed up were a microcosm of Prince fans, folks of all ages and races dancing to deliriously funky music, and, while catching their breath, chatting about Prince's music and films. And, given the diehard nature of the fans, Lovesexy's parties are more than just a greatest hits collection. "People always want to hear the dance stuff," Redd laughs, "But they also come up and ask for the obscure songs and the B-sides you don't hear out.
"Over a night, about 60 percent of what I spin is Prince -- he's done so much stuff. But the rest is related artists -- the Time, Sheila E., Vanity, Madhouse -- it goes on and on."
Last month, Lovesexy reappeared at the Velvet Lounge (915 U St. NW; 202-462-3213). On the second Sunday of each month, you'll find Redd filling the dance floor upstairs while some members of the club occupy the ground-floor bar to talk shop. To keep the events lively, Redd will be creating themed mini-sets of music each month. For example, March will feature "The Revolution vs. New Power Generation: Who Was Prince's Best Band?" That's something that will certainly inspire debate at the bar. "I'll probably spin eight or 10 songs, going back and forth [between the two bands] and let the people decide," Redd says.
Other upcoming theme nights include "The Spiritual vs. the Profane," which will focus on ballads and sexually explicit songs, "Prince vs. the Time" and "1983-93 vs. 1993-2003: Battle of the Decades."
True to his roots, you'll also find Redd playing Prince tunes outside of Lovesexy. "When I'm spinning at Aroma [on Fridays] or Rouge [on the first Wednesday of the month], I usually bring five or 10 songs and do a mini Prince set," he says. "People always ask me for it. But I don't want to do too much -- I don't want to get sick of it."