The Black Cat versus the 9:30 Club hardly seems a fair fight. 9:30 is the bigger venue attracting bigger names thus drawing from bigger fan bases, i.e. more registered Golden Local voters. But that doesn't mean David can't beat Goliath in this knock-down, drag-out debate.
Much is made of sound quality. As the bigger venue with the bigger sound system, 9:30 should have the better sound, but really, it's relative. I've heard just as many performers and fans tout 9:30's sound over Black Cat's as I've heard tout Black Cat's over 9:30's. I really don't care. Sound quality's not my bag. I'm into composition and arrangement.
Bad sound can ruin a show for me, but really great sound never makes a show. Neither venue really has disappointed me in that regard, with the exception of a couple of scarcely attended shows at Black Cat's Backstage (when it seemed a couple dozen bodies more would have helped absorb the sound), and a couple of all-too-loud shows at 9:30 (when I had my eardrums throttled for me in the balcony). I just can't get used to wearing ear plugs -- even fancy ones -- for a whole set.
And sometimes, clean sound can ruin a band. I'd rather hear a heavy metal band or a hip-hop act at 9:30, but when it comes to punk or twee or slacker rock, the Black Cat's the place to listen because the muddier audio suits the music. When the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. reunited and toured again for the first time a few years back, 9:30 was their D.C. stop, and J. Mascis' guitar seared, his solos soared, while the rhythm section of Murph and Lou Barlow was wild and thunderous. Ditto next time at 9:30. But when the band last played D.C., they chose the Black Cat, and while the sound wasn't as good, it complemented the lo-fi approach of the first three LPs, and just being so close to the band made it a more exciting experience.
That first Dinosaur Jr. show at 9:30 and the last at Black Cat both sold out or at least approached capacity, and I hung out in the back each time. When the Black Cat sells out, there's still plenty of elbow room if you stay in the back of the room. When 9:30 sells out, it's hard to find a decent sightline and almost impossible to avoid pushing and shoving. Really, they need to cut capacity. But otherwise, their balcony is the most relaxing place to watch a good show. Whether I've got a stool or my back resting along the bar, I usually have a clear view of the stage below without much jockeying for position. Black Cat may not be as nice, but it's like the bands are playing your neighborhood dive, and there's a certain warmth to that.
Each venue holds a very important place on the D.C. scene. It's hard to say one venue is better than the other because they serve different purposes. So which purpose is yours?
To cast your vote and make your argument, enter the Golden Local debate.