Metro Weekly

Velvet Memories

Velvet Nation's closing breaks up a different kind of family (plus the final DJ line up)

When Velvet Nation makes its last stand next month, D.C. will lose a nightlife institution, a place that helped seal the city’s reputation as a serious club-going town.

But to Velvet Nation regulars, the loss isn’t so much institutional as it is emotional. It’s not just that the Nation nightclub building in Southeast is being demolished to make way for development associated with the future Major League Baseball stadium, soon to be constructed a few blocks away. It’s as if the house they grew up in is being torn down.

Hundreds of pics at VelvetNation
Come see 100s of pics from the last 4 years of Velvet Nation

”We all go different places and do different things during the week, but Nation is our weekly meeting ground,” says David Van Lear, whose group of friends developed largely as a result of going to Nation. ”Nation is where the ‘family’ is.”

At first glance, it may seem odd to describe nightclub patrons as a family — it seems a bit touchy-feely in a Whole-Foods branding kind of way. But when you ask the people who comprised the crowds at Velvet to describe the vibe, that’s what you repeatedly hear.

”Most of the friends I have now I met at Nation,” says Lee Hylton, age 44, a six-year regular at Nation. ”It’s like a family.”

The club, a former warehouse, can hold a couple thousand club-goers at any one time, from around the region and across the country. People came from all over to experience one of the largest gay events in country.

Velvet’s Final Four

Saturday, July 1: Dance-pop hitmaker Chris Cox gained fame as one-half of the Thunderpuss remixing duo the same year Velvet Nation began. ”The sound system is great,” Cox has said about Nation, where he’s spun repeatedly, ”and I love the visual from the booth, where you just see a sea of heads and this amazing lightshow.” Special guest singer SK8 — known to some as Cox’s girlfriend — will also perform her single ”Night at Nation,” inspired by the club.

Monday, July 3: Velvet celebrates Independence Day with Junior Vasquez, dance music’s most famous DJ and remixer, who has a diverse and loyal horde of dancing groupies to prove it. Few other DJs watch the crowd react to his sets of sophisticated house music as intently as he does. And when he’s feeling a connection with the crowd, few other DJs can match his skills at on-the-fly musical manipulation and transition.

Saturday, July 8: A Junior Vasquez acolyte, DJ Yiannis likes to pack his sets with exclusive tracks never before heard. He’s one of only a few local DJs to become a long-standing Velvet resident. Meanwhile, in the Blue Room, New York DJ Seth Gold will spin new and classic remixes just released to the public through the iTunes RCA Dance Vault.

Saturday, July 15, Closing Night: Los Angeles-based Manny Lehman is one of the most popular tribal-house DJs on the national gay circuit. For years he served as Velvet’s resident DJ, helping establish Velvet’s identity and making it one of the better known weekly events on the circuit. Meanwhile, Wess will return to his old perch for one last spin through hip-hop and house-oriented ”Blue Room Classics.”

— Doug Rule

That’s how Van Lear first came through the doors four years ago, while he still lived hours away from D.C. in Virginia. While in a Charlottesville club, a friend suddenly suggested they drive to Washington that very night for Velvet.

”I didn’t want to go, because I thought the club would be closing by the time we’d get there, around midnight, and we’d have to drive right back,” he laughs. ”That’s how inexperienced I was!”

He and his traveling-companion, Brian Eubanks, stayed until closing that night, and started making the velvety trip once a month. Now, with both relocated to D.C., they visit every weekend.

While every gay bar and club has its loyal regulars, Velvet does seem to have a more pronounced effect, in part because of the club’s sheer size, and in part because of the significant effort Velvet’s promoters Ed Bailey and John Guggenmos have put into drawing crowds and keeping them coming back for more.

”The first couple times it’s overwhelming,” says Chris Wiggins of the club’s ”enormity.” Wiggins, 26, started going to Nation while still in college in Richmond. ”I just love the huge production of it all. I love the magic that only a big club can provide.”

For Wiggins, that magic included meeting and hanging out with Allison Janney from the former hit television show The West Wing, as well as the cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in the club’s VIP area behind the DJ booth.

From the start in March 1999, Velvet Nation was a big-deal destination club — a place you plan to go rather than one you just happen to end up in. With regular crowds of 3,000 packing the space, nearly every featured DJ at the time was nationally known, along with a kaleidoscope of other entertainment — from dance singers like Kristine W. to Universal Gear fashion shows to a parade of gay adult film stars. Then there was Aubrey, the performance artist whose unique, dramatic gender-bending shows were a regular highlight until he moved to New York in 2003. Aubrey will be back to perform on closing night, Saturday, July 15.

The passing of a nightlife era brings mixed emotions.

”It’s a sad time, but it is time [to move on],” says Al Baggett. ”The scene’s changing.” Baggett would know. The 33-year-old started going to Velvet about five years ago and became so enamored of dance culture that he began helping organize D.C.’s annual Cherry circuit party.

As sad as it may be that Velvet is closing, Baggett is looking forward to the final slate of events. And both Baggett and Wiggins are optimistic about the future of D.C. nightlife.”Nightlife in D.C. is revitalizing,” Wiggins says. Until then, Wiggins suggests the next few weeks will allow Washingtonians to send off the seven-year-old Velvet party with a bang. Or, possibly, a party like it’s 1999.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.