The 9:30 Club isn’t just DC’s favorite concert venue. It’s the cornerstone of our local music scene. For 36 years, 9:30 has been incubating local and national talent, and bringing an eclectic range of world-famous and emerging acts to the club. And it’s not just local recognition that the club has been garnering for decades, with “Nightclub of the Year” and “#1 Big Room in America,” by Pollstar and Rolling Stone, respectively, among its national accolades. Now, the 9:30 Club is taking its success to the next level with a groundbreaking TV show.
Live at 9:30, airing on public television stations around the country in May, is a 12-episode “modern-day music variety show” highlighting the musical and comedic talent who perform at the 1200-person venue. Each episode features masterfully shot performances from several bands spanning genres, band interviews with everyone from NPR’s Bob Boilen to former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, and a three-minute, music-focused short film, 180 at 9:30, showcasing the camera work of local aspiring filmmakers and even some well-known bands.
The show’s executive producer, Michael Holstein, is hoping for 80 percent of the nation’s 350 public stations to pick up the show. Five of the nation’s top 20 stations have already approached his team about carrying the show, proving that its buzz is extending far beyond the District.
“There’s definitely excitement about [the show],” Holstein says. “It’s edgy for public television, for sure. It’s pushing the envelope of what people have seen [on public TV] before, especially visually.”
Holstein, who first sealed the deal with club co-owner Seth Hurwitz two years ago and received full funding for the project last summer, is referring to the cutting-edge visual technology used to film bands and comedic acts unobtrusively. Since last September, Holstein’s team has filmed around 60 performances at 9:30 using 15 cameras – that’s four to six hidden GoPros, an app-operated, aerial-view cable cam above the crowd, several mounted cameras for coverage of the entire venue and four to five handheld cameras. Some musicians like Shakey Graves and Yonder Mountain String Band even let the camera crew put GoPros on their instruments for insanely cool shots of finger-picking from each artist’s point of view.
9:30 Club Communications Director and Live at 9:30 Co-Creator Audrey Fix Schaefer says one of the most important things to the club was ensuring that bands and fans had the exact same experience as if they weren’t being filmed. The camera crew needed to be “just a fly on the wall.”
“Michael got that,” Schaefer says. “I think the best testament [to] this was the first night of filming.”
Halfway through the show, the musician’s publicist made a beeline for Schaefer and said, “Audrey, I thought you were filming.”
“And I said, ‘We are.’ [And] then proceeded to point out where each of the 12 cameras were.”
The only constant in each Live at 9:30 episode is variety, according to Holstein. The television producer and entertainment lawyer says he wants the show to be about discovery, crossing genres as much as possible throughout the season. From rock legacies like Garbage and The Jesus and Mary Chain to hip-hop, electronica, folk and country, and different flavors of indie, the first season’s lineup couldn’t be more diverse.
“The challenge is we’ve got 60 bands to fit in 12 interviews,” Holstein says. “How do we do this in a way that’s interesting but still coherent? It’s like putting together a puzzle. But I think we’ve come up with a really cool episode plan.”
Lianne La Havas, Pusha T, Youth Lagoon, Of Monsters and Men, Cold War Kids, Ibeyi, Leon Bridges, Grace Potter and The Nocturnals, The Arcs, and Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals are among the dozens of music acts featured in the first season. Holstein says he’s been blown away by some of the musicians he was less familiar with, like indie pop band MisterWives and English songstress Jess Glynne. And of course, he had his own fan boy moments, like geeking out when interviewing Garbage drummer Butch Vig (who also produced Nirvana’s Nevermind). Holstein channeled his inner Chris Farley with the question: “Remember that time you invented Nirvana?”
Universally known or up-and-coming, he says all of the musicians have been really sweet, kind and generous with their time. And they all seem pretty psyched to be involved.
“The 9:30 Club is one of the best venues in the country,” says EL VY’s Matt Berninger (also the frontman for The National). “It’s always great to play there, and Brent [Knopf] and I were more than happy to be a part of the show.”
This enthusiasm extends to the comedians, with a steady stream of talent supplied by DC Improv including Tony Rock and Top Gear’s Adam Ferrara, and the notable inclusion of larger-than-life stand-up comics like Ralphie May. All comedy bits tie back to music, and Holstein says the comedians have come prepared and really know their stuff. He describes the comedic elements of the show as an inverse SNL setup.
“Instead of breaking up our comedy with music, [we’re] breaking up our music with comedy.”
Holstein says if the comedians are funny and like music, he’s happy to have them on the show. Some comedians were among this season’s contributing interviewers, plus a range of other talented folks including other bands, authors, actors and music buffs. Jill Kargman (Bravo’s Odd Mom Out) interviewed 80s ska band The English Beat, and went into “VJ mode” with a handful of band introductions and histories in multiple episodes.
“There’s a hole in the marketplace for that kind of edgy, small-venue concert series,” Kargman says. “It’s what I loved about MTV Unplugged. I guess [ Live at 9:30 will] be the modern alternative: Plugged.”
Bob Boilen, who Holstein says “knows everything about everyone,” interviewed a half dozen or so artists over the course of the first season. The All Songs Considered
host’s history runs deep with 9:30 as a music journalist, musician and fan. His band, Tiny Desk Unit, was the very first and last band to ever play the original club at 930 F St. Since then, he’s hosted hundreds of live audio and video webcasts from 9:30’s newer location, and developed relationships with Hurwitz and other folks on staff.
“[ Live at 9:30] is going to be the sort of show that appeals to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily be in the crowd at the 9:30 Club, but a crowd that loves music,” he says. “I think that’s what they’re after, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Boilen notes a particularly special interview with folk rocker Frank Turner, who had been quite close to 9:30’s Josh Burdette (the venue’s former manager who passed away in 2013 and was known for taking excellent care of visiting bands). Turner wrote a song about Burdette that he performed at 9:30, bringing a lot of audience members to tears, and spoke with Boilen about it.
“It sort of sums up a lot about what the club is about,” Boilen says. “It could be like so many clubs you walk into – just get the band in [and] get the band out. But that’s not them at all. [9:30] connects us with people.”
Boilen and other interviewers spoke with bands around the club, on their tour buses and even at DC-based electronic music collective Thievery Corporation’s local studio (the group is also featured in the show’s first season). An impressive amount of detail went into the shooting and editing of each episode, with behind-the-scenes snippets, short takes between segments showcasing the club and more alternative parts of the District, and memorable episode intros – apparently there are some surprises in the queue involving “people with aspirations of elected office, on both sides.”
Holstein says he wants to take advantage of the opportunity to show that DC is hipper than people think it is: “Not just showing, ‘Oh, here’s the Lincoln [Memorial],’ but ‘Wow, I didn’t know there was this cool street art scene in DC.’”
The show also offers unique animation, with opening credits courtesy of Live at 9:30Art Director Wayne White (best known for his design work for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and art direction for The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” video), who joined forces with his son for the project.
As the show’s debut grows closer, the Live at 9:30 team is becoming increasingly more pumped. Schaefer says she can’t wait to see each episode, because it will be like reliving four or five nights at the club in a single hour.
“When I think about what each episode will look like, I get butterflies in my stomach – the kind you get on a roller-coaster ride. I think of the 9:30 Club as a kaleidoscope. It changes as each night turns. Sharing bands people know and love, while introducing them to acts they might not have ever discovered otherwise – that’s pretty thrilling.”
Though not yet confirmed, Holstein is hopeful for a second season that flows right out of the first, with 9:30 Roadtrip excursions to Merriweather Post Pavilion as early as this summer. The producer wants to show some love to Hurwitz’s other I.M.P. Productions venues in future seasons, Merriweather chief among them to give filmmakers the opportunity to shoot at a bigger, outdoor venue and feature acts in the summer 2016 lineup like The Cure, Tame Impala and Ellie Goulding.
“I’d like to not wait at all [between seasons],” Holstein says. “If our sponsors are happy and they want to keep doing it, we’ll just keep it going. Austin City Limits
has been on for 40 years. I’ll be dead in 40 years, but hopefully the show will still be going.”
Learn more about Live at 9:30 at www.liveat930.com. Check out web-only footage, behind-the-scenes content and full episodes of the show starting in May.
Photo: Courtesy of Live at 9:30