Arts Desk

The Howard Theatre Looks Good, but How Does It Sound?

The Howard Theatre, Instagrammed

"We at the Howard mother-fuckin' Theatre," Wale announced last night, a few songs into the first headlining set in almost 30 years on the T Street NW venue's stage. "This my town. I can do what I want," he added, and charged onto the floor and through the audience, finally elevating himself atop of one of the plush booths at the back of the orchestra level. A clackety beat pulsed from the stage, courtesy go-go band UCB. At the back of the stage, two faces slowly emerged on "freestyle portraitist" Demont “Peekaso” Pinder's canvas: those of Wale and Chuck Brown.

History hung heavy in the air last night, as did hometown love: "There's probably 10 percent here that don't even like me," said Wale. "But that Top 10, it's for everybody." During "Dig Dug (Shake It)," his go-go-steeped regional hit from 2006, he launched a D.C. flag T-shirt into the crowd.

For the show, the Howard's stewards removed the orchestra level's chairs, which gave the room the feel of an upscale 9:30 Club, at least if you were standing on the floor. By the way: The venue may want to increase its official capacity. Although the show was sold out, I had plenty of breathing room. The sight lines are mostly solid; from the balcony, they're great.

As for the sonics: They were certainly loud and chest-rattling. By that measure, the sound system was a $2 million well spent. Clarity was another story. DJ-handled bangers like "Chain Music" were crisp and immaculate. UCB was tight, but when they let their go-go transmutations inch into nu-metal territory—see last night's strangely heavy rendition of "Nike Boots"—the mix verged on muddled and soupy.

The sweetest moment didn't involve any hip-hop/go-go fusion. An hour into the set, Tre, UCB's velvet-voiced vocalist, led his bandmates in the slick "Sexy Lady." That, too, had a lot to do with the Howard's history: Before it shuttered in the early 1980s, the theater had been a go-go spot for years.

The symbolism certainly didn't escape Wale. "How the fuck we gon' open this joint back up," he asked, "and not do the go-go a little bit?"

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