There have been a lot of strange headlines over the past half year, but a Pitchfork article in August about a Brooklyn press conference featuring Chuck Schumer and LCD Soundsystem leader James Murphy is still probably the story I had least expected to read. Schumer, the longtime booster of New York’s finance industry and a hood ornament for the cleaned-up era of the city, seemed like just the sort of Bloomberg-like politician whom Murphy had bemoaned in “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.” But the oddball combo had teamed up for a good cause, Save Our Stages, a call to devote funds to concert venues that had been shut down thanks to COVID.
For the past seven years I’ve lived in a sometimes too crowded old group house, suffering through molding plaster and a rotating cast of roommates (some dear friends, others morally decrepit Craigslist strangers). Beyond my landlord not recognizing that he could be charging far higher rent, one of its key selling points is that it’s less than a mile walk from five of the best music venues in the nation’s capital, ranging from the cramped, 250-person capacity second floor stage of DC9 to the storied 9:30 Club. But of the bunch, U Street Music Hall has always held a special place in the dark, sweaty basement of my heart, and in early October it announced that it was closing permanently, at a time when it was also supposed to be celebrating its tenth anniversary in the city. “The reality is there aren’t going to be any shows for six months to a year, especially in a basement dance club,” the owner told the Washington Post. “That’s just not conducive to today’s environment.”
Before the pandemic, I’d usually go to a few concerts a month. My friend group’s email chain titled “Winter/Spring Concerts” is up to 162 messages since it started on January 2, with a whole calendar of shows mapped out through the summer before the thread turned to lamenting cancellations, and then venue closures. U Street Music Hall was always a regular for me. It had shit but cheap beer; the bathroom lines were often too long thanks to a lack of stalls and too many people trying to find a discreet spot to take Molly or other substances; unless you were at the front of the stage during a sold-out show, you might’ve spent the night watching a support beam. But it had the best sound system in the city, an eclectic mix of genres booked, and was the best spot in the city to dance until late at night while DJs spun. It was the sort of place where I got to watch a short, intimate set from Robyn after she had opened for Coldplay at the NBA arena earlier in the night, or catch Charli XCX for one of her first stops in the US, and a home to local bands taking the step up from house shows.
Congress’ inability (mostly thanks to Mitch McConnell’s intransigence) to pass extra stimulus is galling for a whole host of reasons, as unemployment soared beyond anything faced during the Great Recession a decade ago. They passed widespread business support, but unless you’re a favorite like airlines, the businesses that are particularly harmed by the pandemic have been left to fend for themselves with no targeted relief. The stories of endless lines at food pantries and the coming wave of evictions are truly horrifying. And while restaurants and other businesses that closed during the early lockdown days slowly reopen, it’s hard to imagine a world where concert clubs reopen until there’s a vaccine. The bartenders, bouncers, sound and light engineers, and touring musicians who rely on that for their income are being left behind. And a core part of the fabric that makes cities vibrant and artistic will disappear along the way.
By happenstance, one of the last shows I went to before the pandemic shut everything down was a late January James Murphy DJ set at U St Music Hall. It was a crazy night, I was still jet-lagged from a west coast red-eye flight back that morning, but friends stayed out dancing until we were all exhausted messes at 3 a.m. I can’t wait until I can once again stay out all night in sweaty, close dancing quarters with all of my friends, and dear lord I hope at least a few of these concert venues are still alive when the pandemic is over. —Patrick Caldwell