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a tale of two concerts

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.

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8 Comments

  1. PD

    Not quite sure what you’re referring to in the last graph there … I chain smoke at 9:30 club, Birchmere’s bandstand, and Iota … had you never been to Black Cat before? bad sound and smoke is pretty much par for the course

  2. Grand Poobah

    I’ve not noticed the smoke so much at Birchmere, though I tend not to partake of concerts in their bandstand area.

    And I must admit that I’m not a regular at Black Cat, either – this was only my second show there, the last one being two years ago. But the contrast with the clubs in NYC and Boston is marked: the clubs in those cities don’t suffer an ounce from being smoke-free, and the crowds are just as rowdy as any DC audience. But the lack of a patina of smoke makes for a better experience.

    (Of course, having two cigar smokers in my direct vicinity didn’t help things, either. And I grew up in a smoking household, so I have at least some tolerance.)

    But to hear that bad sound is par for the course is sad, really. It doesn’t cost much to upgrade the system to something that’ll treat the patrons’ ears better. sprite and I were pondering the siutation last night, and she suspects that the high opverall volume (even the interstitial music is far too loud) is done to keep conversation at a minimum and drink consumption at a maximum – a good strategy for emtying customers’ wallets, but not really the ticket for return business or business growth. I think that Dante needs to look at a few capital improvements that will make the overall experience better.

  3. Primergrey

    Judging from your ramblings about bad sound and smoke, it appears you primarily care about your personal preferences, and not so much about the music you go see.
    I tend to choose the shows I see by the bands and performers I like, and not by the ventilation or sound system of a particular venue.

    The Black Cat has a unique role in promoting and serving several musical genres as well as functioning as an incubator for the local scene. It might be hard for you to understand, but the place enjoys a great deal of loyalty, from people like myself who care about music, see 20+ shows there a year, and respect the staff and the top-notch work they do. This includes the sound engineers, who are not to be confused with the dimwit knob turners traveling with “flavor of the month” acts like the Go!Team.

    I saw my first gig at the Black Cat in 1997, and since then there were just a few instances where the sound was maybe not so adequate. I left shows a few times, but never because of the sound, rather because of annoying turds not shutting up and having lively discussions during a quiet set.

    Regarding your poor attempt to discredit a genuine DC band like the Medications over at DCist: Come on. Was a clumsy comparison with the Who really necessary? If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.

    The Black Cat will happily continue to operate without you going there. And as a non-smoker, I am delighted to know that people there will be able to smoke during shows, until 2007 anyway. Oh, and good luck dodging the smoke at Iota, a place you recommend as a smoke-free environment. Yawn.

  4. Grand Poobah

    Primergrey:

    Thanks for your reply. I don’t mean to short the acts that the Black Cat attracts. I’ve lived in and near cities where clubs similar to the Cat attracted new and up-and-coming acts that otherwise wouldn’t appear locally. Clubs of this nature fill a vital niche in the music world – all the power to them. That the Black Cat has been around for over 20 years speaks to its role in the DC music scene, and it should be commended.

    So it’s not hard for me to understand at all. I’ve been attending shows in clubs for many years, and I care about music – all kinds of music, from rock to jazz, folk to classical, and almost everything in between. Give me John Cage, give me The Clash, give my Ornette Coleman or give me Tom Rush – it’s all good in its own way.

    And was my assessment of the Go! Team show about my personal preferences? Of course. Music, like anything, is a subjective art, and not everybody likes everything, either about the artist, the performance environment, etc. That’s what’s wonderful about music: seeing an act at one venue may leave a much different impression than at another. Perhaps the acts from the other night’s show would’ve sounded better at The 9:30, or at an outdoor festival, or in a bowling alley – it’s hard to say. All I can go on is what I saw at the Black Cat, and I didn’t like it.

    And Medications are nothing original. Their sound is nothing that hasn’t been tried before by many other bands over the past 40 years. As such, I’ll stick to the originals and those who have contributed to the advancement of the power trio. Give me The Who, Police, Rush, Nirvana, or even The White Stripes (technically, a duo) or the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players over the seen-it-all-before Medications. Not my cup of tea, and I have every right to say so.

    And you have every right to defend the Black Cat. It’s a good club for what it is, but it could be so much more.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  5. Primergrey

    The Black Cat hasn’t been around for 20 years.
    Maybe you mean the 9:30 Club.
    Rush? I’m not surprised.

    Thanks anyway.

  6. Grand Poobah

    Ummm…. okay. Given that the Black Cat has a website and a full schedule, then I don’t really see where you’re coming from. If you’re referring to the Cat’s change of location, then you could argue the same thing about the Knitting Factory in NYC.

    Thanks, again, for visiting!

  7. Primergrey

    What I tried to point out in my previous response was that the Black Cat only started in the early 90’s, so you should check your facts better (“…Black Cat has been around for over 20 years…”).

    Who said anything about location changes…especially if it was just a matter of moving 3 doors down.

  8. Grand Poobah

    Thanks. Admittedly, I’ve not lived in DC for too, too long, so “institutional memory” is something that I need to acquire – thanks for the correction!

    And a move of “3 doors down” is significant to a club, as it can change the entire vibe. Room dimensions, acoustics, the patina of grit, grease and paint are things that don’t easily move with a venue.

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