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The best live music and concert venues in DC

Use our insider’s guide to the best live music and comedy venues to catch a major touring act or a homegrown hero within the nation’s capital

Photograph: Worn Creative

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.

Best live music and concert venues in DC

9:30 Club

Critics' pick

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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U Street Corridor

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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Alexandria

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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U Street Corridor

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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Silver Spring

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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Shaw

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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Arlington

State Theatre

Another converted movie theater, the State is a favorite haunt of jam bands, blues and reggae artists—and lots of tribute bands—from near and far. Recent acts include Buddy Guy, the Smithereens and Soul Asylum.The club has ample seating in the back and upstairs, plus a raked floor for good sightlines throughout the room. It may feel like a hike to get out there, but it’s only a 10-minute bus journey from the East Falls Church Metro station.

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Falls Church

Velvet Lounge

Comfy, funky and groovy, the Velvet Lounge is a popular, divey kind of place to stop off for a drink. Often the province of local bands and DJs—and their friends whooping them on from the audience—the Lounge also books indie-rockers from far outside the Beltway, including such cult acts as Damo Suzuki and the Homosexuals. The place still has the feel of a neighborhood bar that just happens to have a small stage upstairs. A good place to drop in after attending a show at the nearby 9:30 Club.

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U Street Corridor

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