This week I saw two concerts, and the contrast between the two is marked.

On thursday night, sprite and I went to see Billy Joel at MCI Verizon Center. He was the only act on the bill, and he played 2-plus hours of great music. His band is top-notch, and Joel’s voice was in the best form I’ve heard it in years – a testament to his giving up drinking over the past couple of years.

Joel also showed that he still loves to perform in front of an audience. His between-song banter is loose, carefree and candid, and he’s not afraid of poking fun at himself or his personal history. He also mixed up the hits and rarities, making it a show that both casual fans and hardcore devotées could thoroughly enjoy.

And even better? The volume in the arena – usually used for NBA and NHL games – was perfect: not too high, not too low. It did increase as the night went on, but never got to a level where your ears felt like they were being assaulted. (I should admit that I wore earplugs throughout the show, as I’ve already lost a little range from too many gigs over the years.)

Last night, sprite and I went to see The Go! Team at the Black Cat, also in DC. There were two opening acts at this large, second-storey club on 14th Street, and we arrived toward the end of the first act’s performance. There were two immediate strikes against the Black Cat:

  1. The place was smoke-filled.
  2. The volume was ear-splittingly loud.

DC, unlike Boston or New York City, lacks a clear air act for restaurants, bars and clubs, and it’s truly to the detriment of all involved. When we went to see KT Tunstall at the Paradise Club two weeks ago, the smoke-free atmosphere was really great, and made for a really enjoyable show without a cloud of tobacco smoke obscuring both the view and our ease of respiration.

And the volume bit brings up a truism of live audio: there’s a huge difference between full sound and loud sound. Full sound takes both a decent sound system and a sound engineer with the talent to squeeze out maximum presence with minimum volume. Again, there’s a chance to contrast the Paradise and the Black Cat.

The Paradise’s sound system consists of around twenty-or-so 16″-20″ cabinets with horn speakers, mounted at different angles over the stage (on trellices and cables), enabling sound to be piped throughout the wide, high and shallow space of the club in a way that envelops the listener with sound. There are also a couple of larger, 4’x3′ cabinets for bass reproduction. Such small speakers easily handle and distribute mid-range and higher frequencies, allowing the bigger cabinets to handle only the bass range. Furthermore, the sound engineers at the Paradise know how to mix the sound in such a way that, while there’s presence and kick to the music, it’s not overly loud – i.e. the decibel level is never too high to be uncomfortable.

The Black Cat, however, is an exercise in minimalism – to its detriment. The sound system at the Cat consists of four 6’x3′ cabinets, likely containing two 30″ speaker cones inside each unit. These speakers do not handle mid and high-range sound well, especially if the cones need to also handle bass. As such, the overall soundscape is bass-heavy and muddy. To compensate for this, the Cat’s sound engineer is required to pump up the volume to very uncomfortable levels – dangerously high for the human ear. It also wrecks the sound – I only managed to tell what was going on due to the fact that I wore earplugs for the duration.

Back to last night’s headline performers:

The performance of The Go! Team was interesting. Their sound relies on samples and click tracks, and is largely a studio creation. However, this spunky English group gives it a good go, with six multi-instrumental players on stage, working guitars, bass, two drum kits, banjo, harmonium, synthesizers, glockenspiel, sleighbells and tambourine. The lead singer/rapper, Ninja, is very energetic and knows how to work a room. While she raps a lot, she also can sing with remarkable range and keep in tune.

The same can’t be said for the other two women in the group, Kaori Tsuchida (guitar/keyboards/vocals) and Chi “Ky” Fukami Taylor (drums/vocals), who don’t know how to listen to their own voices to stay in tune. In particular, the latter’s solo vocal was painfully elementary school recital in both delivery and intonation (stick to the drums, please).

But the band was okay, definitely a work-in-progress.

As for the other show at the Black Cat for which I have tickets (Hard-Fi, on the 30th), I’ll make sure to show up later and to bring a fresh set of earplugs. I also doubt I’ll take in another show there again anytime soon, as the greater DC area has other venues that get both the sound and the smoke-free situation right: the 9:30, the Birchmere, Jammin’ Java, the State, Iota and many others.