D.C. Nein? DC9’s Nearly Smooth Return to Business as Usual
By its own count, DC9 hasn’t had any trouble attracting musicians since Ali Ahmed Mohammed died feet from the 9th Street NW venue one year ago. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of bands have played since that time,” says Steve Lambert, who books acts at DC9 and other venues in the District. “DC9’s been booking full storm since we were exonerated.”
Exonerated, he means, after the incident that saw one of DC9’s owners, Bill Spieler, and four of its employees charged with murdering a 27-year-old Ethiopian immigrant who had thrown at least one brick through the club’s window last October. And exonerated, perhaps, in the public’s eyes—even following Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier’s description of the alleged murder as a “savage beating” and “vigilante justice” not long after Mohammed’s death; following a liquor license suspension issued by the Alcoholic Beverage and Regulation Administration that left the club shuttered for three months; and following numerous protests and vigils.
Considering that the U.S. Attorney’s office dropped criminal charges against the DC9 employees in November and stopped pursuing the case in June, it’s no surprise that Lambert describes business as “normal booking as usual.”
That said, savvy concert-goers may notice that DC9 is booking fewer buzz acts in 2011 than in years past—a product, most likely, of another venue booked by Lambert, The Red and the Black, merging with the bar next door and doubling its capacity. (The newly minted Red Palace and DC9 each hold about 200 patrons.)
As far as Lambert will admit, there’s really been just one blip: In March, local bands The Cornel West Theory and Noon:30, facing pressure from fans and peers, pulled out of their DC9 show. The concert was with Trophy Wives, a four-piece punk outfit from Louisville, Ky., and Phonic Riot, a D.C.-based noise-pop group (who did not respond to interview requests). The concert was one of the first live acts scheduled at DC9 after Mohammad’s death; ABRA had lifted the venue’s remaining liquor-license restrictions only weeks earlier.
“Phonic Riot had contacted us and we were really excited,” Noon:30 guitarist Aissa Arroyo-Hill says. “We contacted The Cornel West Theory and honestly, we weren’t really tapped into the substance how everybody was feeling about DC9. We weren’t aware of it until we took the booking. It wasn’t anything that was thought about before.”
According to DC9 co-owner Joe Englert, bringing live music back to DC9 was tricky. The club officially reopened in December, but only on weekends and holidays, and at first without live acts. “We were basically screwed,” he says. “We couldn’t book high-caliber bands because they book so far in advance.” When ABRA lifted its restrictions, he explains, the venue relied on booking “faithful locals” to fill the first few months. The March 28 concert, like other shows in the spring, was an important step toward returning to DC9’s standard routine.
Arroyo-Hill says she caught the first inkling of trouble when she told a fan about the concert. That’s when she learned about ongoing tension between the club and some residents that live near 9th and U Streets—the neighborhood knows as Little Ethiopia. “It was around the time we were all like, ‘Oh wait a minute. There’s a protest,’” she says.
The Cornel West Theory, on the other hand, had kept tabs on the Mohammed case and was eager to play DC9. “I’ll listen to anyone say anything, but it always comes down to us,” vocalist Rashad Dobbins says. “My goal was to play at that place to smash it all and touch those people.”
Noon:30, which makes atmospheric art punk, and The Cornel West Theory, which makes politically conscious rap rock, are among a fairly small number of acts whose members are mostly black and have followings within D.C.’s largely white indie-rock scene. You could put rapper Head-Roc, who also leads the funk-rock band GODISHEUS, in the same category.
“Head-Roc left us a message on Facebook,” Noon:30 singer Blue S. Moon says. “He basically reiterated what we’d been hearing, that there’s this ongoing protest against DC9 regarding what happened and what it means to this community.”
Head-Roc, who contributes to Washington City Paper and has been a fixture in the D.C. music scene for more than a decade, is a prolific critic of Lambert, who in addition to scheduling DC9 and Red Palace also books Rock & Roll Hotel, where he’s a co-owner. Many shows at Lambert’s venues use a practice called “door polling,” in which fans are asked which act they’re there to see; bands are paid according to that data. Head-Roc and other indie rockers have criticized the practice in recent years.
Head-Roc proudly admits to “taking chunks” out of Lambert on his Facebook page; in conversation, he calls him a “menace” and a “predator” to the scene. “It’s such bad karma and such bad juju that these unfortunate things, like the death of the Ethiopian cat, have befallen that establishment,” he says.
Moon says that she knew about Head-Roc’s history with Lambert when she read his message, but nonetheless considered his advice. “Everybody knows about his issues with DC9,” she says. “I don’t really know what his intentions were, but all I can really go on is the face value of what he wrote.”
Dobbins, who has known Head-Roc since 1994, also heard from the rapper. “I understand how he felt, but personally I wanted to go right into the belly of the beast and talk about it,” he says. “I want to go right to the center of it all.”
In the end, though, it came down to respect. Noon:30 kept hearing from peers that playing DC9 would be disrespectful to Mohammad’s memory and his family. Dobbins didn’t hear from fans of The Cornel West Theory, he says, but friends within the Ethiopian community told him that playing “would be like stomping on their soul.” So with two weeks to go before the concert, the bands called Lambert and told him they wouldn’t play. “If what happened to that young man happened to my brother, I would hope people would handle it with respect,” Moon says. “Our choosing to pull out had less to do with Heady or any other person and more to do with wanting to respect his family and the people who were affected by this tragedy.”
After The Cornel West Theory released a statement announcing its decision, Head-Roc sent out a Facebook message lauding them. “The Cornel West Theory is family to me,” he says. “I would never put any type of family business out in the street, so I congratulated them.”
The news caused the smallest of ripples within the local music scene. Some black musicians, such as Steve McPherson, who has performed at DC9 as DJ Stereo Faith, never even heard of pressure to avoid the venue. And if he had, McPherson says, he wouldn’t have budged. “As far as I could tell, there hasn’t been a thing going around where you shouldn’t play that particular venue,” he says. “As a black man who has run up against false accusations with the law, I feel like that’s wrong—banding against people who were proven innocent. That’s something I cannot support.”
Englert says that opinions like McPherson’s—which he says are shared by “the people who know the club, the kids who come and dance and know what we’re all about”— are largely responsible for getting DC9 back on its feet. And now, the venue’s decidedly upright: Since Lambert started booking major acts again in June, Englert says sales have jumped 75 percent compared to past months. “We really had no business from Oct. 15 on because we couldn’t book bands and the miserable spring weather kept the outdoor deck closed,” Englert says, estimating the club lost $500,000 in income and attorney’s fees. “It’s been a hell of a comeback that proves this is a good place.”
And for what it’s worth, Lambert says he has no hard feelings about the dropped sets. “I booked The Cornel West Theory and Noon:30 numerous times before, and honestly, I would book them again,” he says. “It was annoying that they dropped off, but it was what it was and it was what they felt. There wasn’t any bad blood. I didn’t write them off or black list them or anything. We just moved on.”
With DC9 back to where it used to stand financially, Lambert says he’s no longer concerned. “These are two bands, relatively unknown D.C. local bands, out of the large pool of local bands that came back and played DC9,” he says. “This is a very, very small pool. Not downgrading either bands’ importance—but, for me, I don’t really need to dwell on this. There’s tons of other bands that want to play DC9. I’m not gonna put much thought into it.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery