30 Years of Black Cat: Brotherhood in Music
Pictures by Nalinee Darmrong
Words by Mickey McCarter
The Black Cat is a DC institution that is more than merely a night club. It is a communal space where all who share it become brothers and sisters, at least for a night — or an entire weekend in the case of the music hall’s recent two-night 30th anniversary celebration.
In true Black Cat fashion, the weekend consisted of storied musicians and irrepressible personalities pulling double or triple duty as they served as essential parts of the glue that bonds together the Black Cat community. Case in point: The big draw performances of power poppers Ex Hex and post hardcore punks Gray Matter on the first night of the weekend celebration.
The evening opened with a literal evocation of family as Birthday Girl was the first band to perform for the Black Cat 30th anniversary celebration on Sept. 8. Birthday Girl is a trio that consists of singer Mabel Canty, bassist Isabella MacKaye, and drummer Tess Kontarinis. Mabel is daughter of DC indie rock royalty — Brendan Canty, currently dummer for The Messthetics and famed for the same in Fugazi. Isabella holds a similar distinction as daughter of Alec MacKaye, currently vocalist of punk quartet Hammered Hulls. MacKaye is a name you may readily associate also with Dischord Records, the famous indie rock label whose welcome and familiar presence could be felt around us throughout the weekend. Birthday Girl’s debut, a self-titled EP, was released in July.
Indie rockers Flasher, consisting of Emma Baker and Taylor Mulitz, also are a regular presence at Black Cat. After starting with hometown label Sister Polygon, Flasher have moved on to record two full-length albums for Domino, including 2022’s Love Is Yours. That album featured heavily in the band’s set on Friday as they opened with “Still Life” and played the title track in the middle of their performance.
Watch the official music video for “Love Is Yours” by Flasher on YouTube:
The third band of the evening were The Messthetics themselves — the progressive jazz instrumental trio formed by former Fugazi members Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally along with guitarist Anthony Pirog. It is wonderful the trio are such a departure from the members’ punk pedigree and yet still somehow in the same wheelhouse. They have remained Dischord mainstays and a big DC draw since their formation in 2016 and pretty much epitomize the brotherhood that characterized the weekend.
Post-hardcore punks Gray Matter featured one of the hardest working men of the weekend — Dante Fernando, who owns Black Cat with his wife Catherine. Dante would not only serve as host to the festivities over the weekend but he would play runs in Gray Matter on the first night and his newer band The Owners on the second night. Gray Matter performed about 10 songs, drawing from their full-length album Food for Thought (1985/1990) and EP Take It Back along with a few additional select cuts.
The headliner for this first evening was Ex Hex, the “girl group” trio of Mary Timony, Betsy Wright, and Laura Harris. The power pop band have roared back into view this year with marquee performances and a short east coast tour, and they alone were draw enough to fill the house. And make no mistake: The entire weekend was solidly sold out. Mary Timony, DC’s most famous and adept guitarist, was among those fulfilling multiple jobs as she too would perform the following night in Hammered Hulls with Alec MaKaye. Whipsmart Laura, a longtime Black Cat bartender, also performed the following night in The Owners with Dante, switching from drum to bass. The extraordinary Ms. Wright also is a familiar face to many who came to see her make the bass guitar sing.
They closed the night with roughly a dozen songs that include much of their debut album Rips and several from their sophomore record, It’s Real, including the incandescent and remarkable number “Rainbow Shiner.” We will have to wait and see if Ex Hex’s fresh appearances yield new music in the hopefully not too distant future.
Watch the official music video for “Rainbow Shiner” by Ex Hex on YouTube:
Brothers and sisters all, we were there to celebrate 30 years of great music and good times at Black Cat.
Stay tuned for our coverage of Black Cat 30th Anniversary Night 2, featuring the surprise return of ’90s DC indie rockers Velocity Girl.
Here are some photos of Ex Hex performing at Black Cat for its 30th anniversary celebration on Sept. 8, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Nalinee Darmrong.
Here are some photos of Gray Matter performing at Black Cat on Sept. 8, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Nalinee Darmrong.