Music & Nightlife

Your guide to the best nightclubs, live music and concerts in Washington, DC

Music

The 7 best Washington, DC clubs

Where’s the party? Chances are at one of these reliably rocking DC clubs where top local and international DJs provide the beat.

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Music

The best jazz clubs in DC

Known as the home of Duke Ellington and Shirley Horn, among other illustrious jazzers, the capital has long had a thriving jazz scene. Historically clustered in the U Street Corridor, jazz clubs are now scattered throughout the city. Some of the city’s best bars, including the trendy Eighteenth Street Lounge, lend a stage to jazz musicians, and the Kennedy Center is a good bet for high-profile artists. For blues, R&B and related genres, consult our list of the best live music venues.

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Music

The best live music and concert venues in DC

If you want to catch a gig in Washington, DC, you needn't look far. The city has no shortage of dedicated venues, but some nightclubs and bars and lounges such as the Eighteenth Street Lounge, also offer live music. The perennially popular 9:30 Club on V Street hosts some of the biggest-name acts that come to town. But you’ll need to be quick—shows can sell out in minutes. Smaller music venues include Black Cat, which has two stages, varied bookings and a bar that occasionally hosts special events, such as vinyl sales.

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Where to see live music and concerts

9:30 Club

Once a tiny art-scene dive on F Street, renowned for its heat (and smell), the 9:30 relocated in 1996. It now boasts state-of-the-art sound and ventilation, as well as a healthy slate of microbrews. A few long-lived (or reunited) punk and post-punk bands have played both incarnations, among them Wire, the Feelies and Mission of Burma, but these days you’re as likely to see George Clinton, Jane’s Addiction, Andrew Bird, the Magnetic Fields, Snoop Dogg, Patti Smith or the Walkmen, and Adele has performed here too. The open floor and balcony layout is supposed to guarantee unrestricted viewing of the stage from anywhere in the club, and for the most part it succeeds. However, arriving early, scoping out the best vantage point and then standing your ground for the rest of the night is the best way to ensure a good view.

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The Birchmere

Originally a bluegrass, folk and country institution, the Birchmere is one of those venues artists can’t bear to outgrow. Patty Loveless might play a couple of nights here in the fall before heading to Wolf Trap in the spring, and Merle Haggard’s annual gigs always sell out. Now the Birchmere also serves up the kind of pop, smooth jazz and world music that appeals to an over-30s crowd. The Band Stand area has a dancefloor, but most of the shows are in the larger Music Hall. This is a listeners’ club, not some chicken-wire honky-tonk, and a few house rules apply in the table-service Music Hall: no standing, no smoking, no recording, no talking. Rowdier patrons can head for the bar and the pool tables. Coming up at the time of writing were Macy Gray, Rachel Yamagata and Dr John, and recent acts include Graham Parker, Aimee Mann, Dar Williams and Steve Earle.

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DC9

This club’s long, thin, vintage-looking first-floor bar leads to an oddly shaped upstairs performance space. It showcases the same sort of local and touring indie bands that play Galaxy Hut, Velvet Lounge and the Red & the Black, but has a larger capacity. Mostly alt-rock, although the Very Best made its DC debut to a packed house here. At the time of writing,  the Men and Tera Melos were due to perform. 

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Fillmore

After many delays, the 2,000-capacity club in the suburbs (the latest franchise from famed San Francisco promoter Bill Graham) opened with a sold-out Mary J Blige show in September 2011. So far it’s been hard to pin down exactly where the Fillmore fits into the region’s music scene; acts have been all over the map, including classic rock (Cheap Trick) and jam bands (Trey Anastasio). Acts on the 2013 schedule have included Olly Murs, Rancid and Flogging Molly.

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Howard Theatre

A place with a starred history (it was dubbed "the largest colored theater in the world" when it opened in 1910), the Howard hosted most of the jazz greats in its heyday, among them Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. Shuttered since the 1980s, it has now been creatively restored and features performances from R&B, gospel and soul bands and singers, among them Alexander O’Neill, Brian McKnight and Sheila E. There are regular Sunday gospel brunches too. 

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Music

IOTA Club & Café

IOTA has an intimate atmosphere that makes it an excellent place in which to hear singer-songwriters such as the child-friendly Dan Zanes or the all-grown-up Ron Sexsmith. Unfortunately, the surroundings can be a little too intimate and it’s not unknown for patrons to be asked to shut up or leave the premises—sometimes by the performers themselves—as even the slightest whisper can interfere with the music. The artist-comes-first policy has its benefits: Norah Jones and John Mayer played their first DC shows here. The layout of the tiny club doesn’t provide many optimum vantage points, so early arrival is advised. Recent performers include Holly Golightly, the Weathervanes and Lambchop

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The best clubs in DC

9:30 Club

Once a tiny art-scene dive on F Street, renowned for its heat (and smell), the 9:30 relocated in 1996. It now boasts state-of-the-art sound and ventilation, as well as a healthy slate of microbrews. A few long-lived (or reunited) punk and post-punk bands have played both incarnations, among them Wire, the Feelies and Mission of Burma, but these days you’re as likely to see George Clinton, Jane’s Addiction, Andrew Bird, the Magnetic Fields, Snoop Dogg, Patti Smith or the Walkmen, and Adele has performed here too. The open floor and balcony layout is supposed to guarantee unrestricted viewing of the stage from anywhere in the club, and for the most part it succeeds. However, arriving early, scoping out the best vantage point and then standing your ground for the rest of the night is the best way to ensure a good view.

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Bukom Café

The crowd is West African and African-American but everyone’s welcome to get lost in the sway. The Ghanaian menu is reason alone to visit, but arrive after 10pm and it’s standing room only: be prepared to dance with whoever’s next to you. Nightly bands play reggae, soca and funk.

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Eighteenth Street Lounge

Love it or hate it, ESL remains the city’s trendiest and most exclusive lounge, widely renowned (or notorious) for its strict door policy. Should your attire (or your connections) please the notoriously fickle doormen and you’re granted entrance through the unmarked wooden door, you’ll find hipsters mingling and dancing to live jazz or down-tempo electronic music spun by the city’s best DJs.

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Habana Village

Latin dance-lovers come here to drink mojitos and get sweaty to a live band. Three stories of music inspire dancers from all nationalities and all levels of proficiency to grab a stranger’s hand and get swinging. Expect live merengue, salsa, and bachata on the top floor, and crowded dance rooms with fans going at full blast.

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