In February, I went somewhere I hadn’t been in almost a year. Madam’s Organ is just a couple blocks from my house, and it’s one of my go-tos when I need to see familiar faces behind a bar or interesting strangers lining one. The walls are dense with taxidermy, burlesque paintings and the right kind of dust. Instruments and bicycles hang from the ceiling. Above the “suggestion box” stands a three-foot-tall plaster middle finger.
On a typical Wednesday before the pandemic you could find a country band onstage, foreign diplomats and White House staffers yelling requests, and owner Bill Duggan, wine glass in hand, holding court in the corner.
On this winter night, however, the Adams Morgan blues bar — my blues bar — was closed. But it looked different than just closed — the room looked like it had been interrupted, like everyone had been raptured mid-drink. Bottles sat on the bar, instruments lay on the stage and stools were arrayed for a better view — of nothing.
When D.C.’s music venues were shuttered last March because of coronavirus concerns, Madam’s Organ shut down completely instead of attempting to limp along as a takeout restaurant. More than a year later, Madam’s Organ, as well as many of the city’s larger music clubs, has yet to reopen, despite the District recently loosening restrictions on in-person entertainment. Duggan says his place is about live music, so until he can host that for a real crowd he’d rather stay closed.
I wondered: If this place was frozen in an unexpected look, what would I see in some of the other, still shuttered music spaces in the city? I’d spent many nights in these spots, both as a fan and a photographer, shooting nightlife and street scenes for music blogs or the venues themselves. Like survivors in a lifeboat before any rescue is sighted, would each familiar venue have a different reaction to the possibility of doom?
I set out to see.
The Dead Kennedys played the 9:30 Club on March 11, 2020. It would be the club’s last show before the city shut down.
I bought a single ticket as soon as I heard that the mayor had declared a state of emergency in the District. Looking back, knowing what I now know about the coronavirus, my decision doesn’t make much sense, but I just wanted to be at a sold-out 9:30 Club — it didn’t matter who was playing. I suspect many others felt that way.
When weeks turned into months of closure, I.M.P., the collective that books the 9:30 Club, the Anthem and several other local venues, went from a workforce of nearly 2,000 to a handful. To help their furloughed employees, they set up a food pantry on the club floor so that donated meals could be picked up. It’s been active for over a year now. During the protests that began after the murder of George Floyd, the 9:30 Club welcomed marchers inside to pick up water, charge phones or use the facilities. The room became a safe place during a turbulent time — closed, but not.
Owner Bill Spieler kept DC9’s outdoor spaces going for the first few months of the pandemic, then closed during the winter. The rooftop deck and street-level patio have reopened, per the city’s guidelines, and are back serving burgers, snacks and drinks.
But the club’s concert floor remains dormant. Wood, construction materials, paint and tools all occupy the space designed to hold a crowd of up to 230. The green room, where artists hang out pre- and post-show, now stores liquor for the rooftop bar. The bathrooms — also turned into storage — retain the posters for the 2020 concert season that never was. The only part of the club still being used, sort of, for music is a corner of the stage set up for streaming events.
“Our venue has become a multifunctional space for everything but concerts themselves,” Spieler told me. It was easy to hear the frustration that comes with trying to move the earth to survive in a time without live music, the club’s whole reason for being.
The Black Cat
The Black Cat is one of the last bits of visible grit left on the stretch of 14th between U and R streets NW. Bands playing there tend to the punk or hardcore end of the spectrum, and the size of the room ensures you’ll know them well by the end of the show.
But when I visited in March, I was taken aback: The club was clean. Cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. My expectation of chaos was undoubtedly colored by so many nights helping dirty it, but it turns out owner Dante Ferrando is a bit of a neat freak. He saw the shutdown as an opportunity to get the place truly cleaned up and some upgrades — like brand new bathrooms — completed. The shiny checkered floor and emptiness made the Black Cat look much bigger than it did in my memory. It looks like a roller rink, which the main room has actually become — if you’re lucky enough to be the kids of Ferrando and his wife, Catherine.
Lindsay Smyers, one of Ferrando’s partners, told me how the owners and staff have been having date nights in the club; about their new band, made up of longtime bartenders and Ferrando himself; and of getting married during the pandemic and seeing her boss and his wife’s goofy closeness as an aspiration. In all that I heard joy, and it made me smile.
The digital marquee outside the Anthem, the 6,000-capacity venue that anchors the Wharf, has remained frozen on “We will get through this” for much of the pandemic. Outdoors, the venue has set up a pop-up bar and restaurant along the water, but indoors, the main concert floor is still lined with seats in anticipation of a Nathaniel Rateliff show that never happened.
In mid-March, I walked the darkened balconies in the kind of silence you can hear. With only auxiliary lighting washing over skeletons of beam work and neat rows of chairs, and no musical act to draw my eye to the stage, the Anthem was a geometric feast. I found myself just gazing — star-struck by an empty space.
Three and a half weeks later, I headed back when the Anthem was being used as a coronavirus vaccination site for neighborhood workers. In stark contrast to the dramatically closed room I’d just visited, this Anthem felt downright homey. There were people. The lights were up.
I watched as a line of construction workers filed into the room. Still helmeted, they conferred with nurses, got their shot, then sat down in socially distanced seats for the 15-minute waiting period. I saw previously lonely chairs occupied, listened to the low murmur of conversation and watched a line of masked faces flashing eye-smiles on their way out the door.
The Anthem wasn’t full, by any means. But it was alive.
Note: All photographs for this project were shot in available light, in clubs as I found them, using a single Leica Monochrom black-and-white-only camera. The spaces were not cleaned or manipulated, and I asked that most house lights be left off, as they have been for the duration of the pandemic. You can see more of my work on Instagram @insomnigraphic.