But walk into Jilly's on a Friday night (assuming you can get in the door), and the place shows its true colors. DJs Steve Thorell and Bill Pile pump throbbing drum 'n' bass and spiraling keys and percussion, resulting in constant motion. The young women dancing on top of the booths seem like a logical extension of the room's exuberance.
The crowds ebb and flow on other nights of the week, but even if a guest DJ is playing to a couple of dozen people on a Tuesday night, the room has an undeniable integrity. People come to Jilly's to have a good time, certainly. But that good time revolves around, for the most part, the quality of music the club offers.
Everyone that works there seems to recognize this. Señor Ozgood, who spins with DJ Fat Sal on Thursday nights, speculates, "It could be a little bar in most any town in the state. It's not a dive, and it's not a wanna-be New York club. It's a nice middle ground."
"You think of certain clubs that are meat markets, cheesy, but our nights aren't that way," Thorell adds. "People are there for the release and to let loose. When that place is on, the whole room is feeling it."
That focus on the music reflects the vision of club owners Bob and Devona Pierce. Not only did they name the club after Frank Sinatra's favorite after-hours haunt, but Bob also has a 25-year background as a performing musician that motivates him to run the club differently from venues he encountered in the past.
"We both really wanted to support local talent," Bob explains. "When I was performing, you could not get into a bar to build a name unless you had already built a name playing in bars. We set out to break the catch-22. We pursue the local talent. We go to the music stores, the places where they buy their strings, instruments and amplifiers, and we put the word out. And the word goes out into the music community that there is actually a place willing to take a chance on a totally inexperienced band. We want anyone with talent to know they have a place they can go."
The response has been overwhelming. Bob always has a stack of CDs to peruse. "I get up in the morning, and he's already listening," Devona says.
But though live bands get the spotlight on Monday and Saturday nights, Bob describes Thorell's show on Friday nights as his "anchor." Thorell, who started last spring, nearly a year before the Pierces took over, has nothing but praise for Jilly's management. When Thorell told him the place needed a new sound system, Bob bought a new sound system. "He's behind us 110 percent," Thorell raves.
Bob stands behind Thorell because he recognizes the high quality of what the DJ has to offer. "He'll walk up to me and say, 'I don't like the way the room feels,'" he says. "And I'll say, 'Yeah, it feels funny to me, too,' and he'll respond, 'Let's change it.' And then he gets back on the turntables, and the mood in the room changes and levels out."
Whatever magic is the source of the excitement at Jilly's, it's growing. "We've had lines the last three Fridays," Thorell says. "We've been doing it long enough that people trust us. We'll drop all this money on records that day, and I'll be able to drop ten or twelve things that they've never heard that night. Some places, DJing is tough, it's like work, but there it's not."
The excitement is infectious, spreading to other nights. Thorell pronounces the Tuesday-night sets, hosted by DJ Adam, "really cool." He adds, "They have different people every week who bring their crowds down there, and it's a good vibe. Bob has given them a chance to create something that is their own."
On Thursdays, Oz and Fat Sal want to take the club in an altogether different direction. "We're egoless DJs," Oz emphasizes. "We just have this massive collection of vinyl from Kingston, dancehall and dub reggae as well as a lot of Brazilian bossa nova music, Nuyorican boogaloo music, Afrobeat that uses a lot of guitar, stuff that you don't hear anywhere else, and we tie it all together percussively. It all goes back to the drum."
The Fat Salvador and Señor Ozgood Sound System has been up and running for only about a month, competing with large shows at the River Market and elsewhere, but Oz is dedicated to it. "It takes an open mind," he says, "but I hope we can make it hit."
Jilly's feels like the kind of place where a genre-bending act such as the Sound System could thrive.
"We believe the key to being successful is in maintaining the quality of everything we do, from the food to the presentation to the music," Bob says. "I don't care where you advertise; it's all word of mouth." Rarely has word of mouth been so reliable, genuine and inclusive.