More than any other venue in the DC area, I have a love-hate relationship with the Velvet Lounge. This place, just a block from the U Street metro, books some of the most interesting and off-the-wall stuff of any venue in the city, from avant-rock to free jazz to metal to completely out in left field stuff like the harp/tap-dance duo I saw there last December (below). If a vibrant, underground, forward-looking group is playing DC, chances are good they’re playing at the Velvet Lounge. And cheap! Door prices are often $8 or even less.
So what’s the downside? First and foremost, this is the worst place in DC when it comes to set times. Doors often open at 9, set times are often delayed, and there are often four or more bands on the bill. If I’m interested in a headlining band playing at Velvet Lounge, I never expect to leave before midnight and I’m braced to be there until 2am. I find this unnecessary and annoying and it has numerous times dissuaded me from seeing a show I’d otherwise have been very interested in.
The second problem is a photography-related one: the lighting sucks, horribly. It’s all static cans, which is normal for a tiny club like this, but invariably they are turned down to impossibly dim levels, and worse, the two front lights are mostly blocked by ceiling-mounted speakers. (There’s been talk about fixing this latter issue, but the last time I went nothing had changed.) So: static, incredibly dim, deeply colored backlighting is more or less what you get. Have a chat with the dude in the back and maybe you can get him to keep the lighting at a reasonable level, but it’s still bad quality light. This is the kind of place that you bust out the f/1.4 primes and even then expect to get shutter speeds around 1/50 at ISO 3200. Capturing fast action is basically impossible without flash.
That said, some positives: being such a small club (the upstairs part where the stage is holds probably 50-60 people at capacity – and that’s after they knocked out a back wall to create more space), the stage is at floor level, no one cares if you take photos regardless of whether or not you have a pass, and usually no one cares if you use flash. At most of the shows I’ve been to, crowds were modest, and even with the tiny size fo the venue there was plenty of room to move around. Of course, being such a small club with a floor level stage has a flip side – it’s easier to be distracting moving around taking photos, especially when using flash.
All things considered, Velvet Lounge is perhaps my least favorite place in DC to take photos, even if they do tend to book the most interesting stuff. Go there for the cutting-edge music, not for any great photo opportunities.