When Dante Ferrando opened the Black Cat in 1993, 14th Street NW “wasn’t known for much,” he says, and its reputation was still dusty from the 1968 riots. That made it tough to get a turnout for the local bands and touring punk groups Ferrando intended the club to showcase. But after two decades (and a move down the street in 2001), the club is a D.C. landmark. This weekend, two sold-out nights of shows by staff bands and old favorites commemorate 20 years of rocking steady.
When you opened the Black Cat, did you have a mission statement?
Before then, d.c. space and the old 9:30 Club were the only stable rock venues in town. When d.c. space closed, it left a huge gap. I wanted to make a space for local bands and touring bands who represented their local scenes, not arena bands.
How did the club do in its first few years?
We really didn’t make money. We struggled for quite a few years to keep the doors open. It was a hard neighborhood to do business in, get people to come to, and hard to get the word out, pre-Internet.
You’ve booked bands that got huge.
It’s funny. I’ll go back and look at a lineup from 1995 or so, and we had bands like Radiohead, Elastica, Korn. And yet none of those shows sold out at the club.
Are there shows from over the years that stand out in your mind?
There were some people, some who are gone now, who stuck with us longer than they had to. They’d play two nights here instead of doing one at the 9:30. Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith — those are sentimental to me. It’s also pretty cool when bands like The Damned, who I loved as a kid, come play your club.
How have the neighborhood’s changes affected the club?
We get bar-hoppers now, which is not our usual clientele. But we don’t have to worry about people not wanting to come to the neighborhood for a show!