The Washington, D.C., metro area is at the epicenter of a vibrant and diverse music community. From Marvin Gaye, the “Prince of Soul,” to Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, the area’s live music scene has spawned countless artists and inspired many others to follow their musical passions.
Live music in D.C. can be traced back to jazz. The city is home to legendary artists including pianist Duke Ellington, pianist Billy Taylor and saxophonist Frank Wess, as well as venues including Bohemian Caverns, which served as a haven for the segregated black community in the 20th century. The U Street Corridor became known as Black Broadway, following the advent of its lively club scene.
This illustrious strip came to ruin after the 1969 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In response, the city’s musical core shifted to Georgetown with the opening of Blues Alley and One Step Down. Although rarely considered alongside cites such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, D.C. is an exceptionally fertile ground for musicians of all genres. In 1964, The Beatles chose to play their first U.S. concert at the Washington Coliseum.
In the 1980s, one of the country’s first hardcore punk scenes sprung out of D.C., with bands such as Bad Brains, Fugazi and Minor Threat emerging from the era. Many of the band members grew up in wealthy neighborhoods, including in Georgetown.
Today, the city continues to have a range of influences: North and South, urban and rural, deep history and modern innovation. D.C. attracts a confluence of different musical styles and provides music lovers with an array of opportunities for seeing their favorite bands and enjoying live music of virtually any genre. The city also frequently plays host to some of the world’s biggest acts, while scores of obscure artists follow the precedent set by Marvin Gaye and folk giant John Denver, who launched international careers from the stages of the nation’s capital.
The diverse range of artists drawn to D.C. is matched only by the collection of distinct venues scattered across the city. While there are numerous venues with characters of their own, four establishments in particular are unsurpassed in their unique presentation of live music: the hip DC9 nightclub, the iconic U Street Music Hall, the ever-trendy 9:30 Club and the colossal Verizon Center.
The smallest venue of the four, DC9 is a nightclub that redefines the concertgoer’s conception of intimacy. Featuring bands of all genres, the club surely fits its motto “Music for the 21st Century.” While the club is typically 21 and over, there are many 18-plus events. In addition, the venue’s construction lends itself to crowd-surfing and hanging from the low ceiling. This Saturday, the club will host the Magnificent Intentions Music Festival, which features local bands including Middle Distance Runner, Title Tracks and Alex Vans and the Hide Away.
General Manager Bill Spieler said he takes pride in the club’s ability to “to showcase up-and-coming acts that are on the rise,” as well as the club’s full-service kitchen, run by chef Amber Bursik, a veteran of the city’s finest haut-cuisine restaurants such as Hook and Palena.
Widely known for its incredible sound quality, the U Street Music Hall is part of the U Street Music Foundation, a non-profit group supporting music education for youth in the DC area. U-Hall, as it is commonly referred to, has featured numerous internationally renowned disc jockeys and electronic artists in the past, such as Nicolas Jaar, A-Trak and Chromeo.
The 500-capacity venue features a dance floor flanked by two full bars. However, that is where its resemblance to other popular dance clubs ends. U-Hall focuses entirely on the music, with no VIP section, bottle service or dress code. This innovative approach earned it a spot on Rolling Stone’s top 10 dance clubs in the country in 2013. Upcoming performances at U-Hall include Tokimonsta, Eric Bellinger and Alex Metric.
Previously ranked as the best music venue in the country by Esquire, the 9:30 Club is popular among students who enjoy seeing the acts up close and personal. According to 9:30 Club Communications Director Audrey Fix Schaefer, the club offers a unique experience to concertgoers.
“[It] has the best sound and sightlines [and] a caring staff that is concerned about your safety while ensuring a fun evening,” Schaefer said.
Lottie Cook (COL ’19), a frequent concertgoer, said she enjoys the club because of its size.
“It’s a small venue, so you get to be really engaged by the act,” Cook said.
These factors have contributed to the 9:30 Club’s distinction as the most popular nightclub of its size in the world, in terms of attendance. Far from a diamond in the rough, the club’s popularity often makes securing tickets a little tricky. Be sure to act quickly on upcoming concerts including Grace Potter, Lupe Fiasco, Guster, The Academy Is … and The Arcs.
Located in Chinatown, the Verizon Center is D.C.’s largest indoor venue. With a capacity of over 20,000, the venue plays host to the NBA, NHL, Georgetown Hoyas and many of music’s biggest acts. Although the Verizon Center does not provide the same intimacy as the aforementioned venues, it often features larger names in pop music, including Elton John, Jay-Z and Taylor Swift.
Having hosted The Weeknd, Stevie Wonder and Ed Sheeran in just the past two months, the Verizon Center is unique in its ability to host productions on the largest scale, in which the lights, stage and effects can become a spectacle in their own right. Upcoming shows include the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Andrea Bocelli, Muse, Carrie Underwood and Rihanna.
Chelsea Fuchs (SFS ’19) said she appreciates the grand scale of concerts at the Verizon Center.
“Not many concert venues in D.C. have the capability to put on such large shows where stage design essentially becomes an art form,” Fuchs said.
While these venues possess unique attributes for those seeking live-music experiences, there remains plentiful competition in the D.C. area for the zealous concertgoer. Jazz fans will likely find a home away from home at Bohemian Caverns, while those looking for something both more formal and historic would be remiss to bypass the Lincoln Theater.
Washington, D.C. — the city that witnessed the formation of America’s first band, The U.S. Marine Band, in 1798, and was the site of the first demonstration of Thomas Edison’s recording machine — continues to be a hotbed of musical innovation.
For other artist profiles and features, click here.
Top Photo: U Street Music Hall