Best live music in DC
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.
The John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—the national cultural center of the United States—hosts a great variety of music, particularly on its free Millennium Stage. However, its primary focuses are classical and jazz. A welcome addition is the slate of intimate KC Jazz Club shows scheduled in the Terrace Gallery. The Center has five auditoriums. The Concert Hall is where the National Symphony Orchestra and Washington Chamber Symphony (among others) perform; its acoustics are first class. The Opera House hosts dance and ballet, Broadway-style musical performances, and is the home of the Washington Opera. Productions in the Eisenhower Theater tend to have more of an edge, while the Theater Lab and Terrace Theater are the Center’s most intimate spaces.
As famous for having Foo Fighter Dave Grohl as a backer as it is for the bands it books, the Black Cat has picked up where the old 9:30 left off when it comes to hosting less mainstream acts. Opened in 1993, the Black Cat began with the Fall, Stereolab and Slant 6 and has been continuing pretty much along those lines ever since. The vibe is dark and homey. A downstairs area—Back Stage—hosts greener local and out-of-town bands, as well as DJ nights that range from ’80s retro to bhangra. Past acts have included Gold Panda, the Thermals and Wire.
Calling itself "America’s National Park for the Performing Arts," Wolf Trap consists of two essentially separate performance spaces—the Barns and the Filene Center. Don’t let the name "Barns" fool you. Yes, the space is rustic, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be sitting on a milking stool. The acoustics here are top-notch, as are the seating and facilities. The Filene Center is the sprawling outdoor concert facility with lawn and pavilion seating. The scope of the performances at both spaces is broader than that at many venues in the District that also use the name "national." Note that the shuttle bus runs only in summer.
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.
DC’s largest dedicated concert venue reopened in 2013 after major renovations. The 30,000-plus-square-foot space attracts everyone from deejays to emcees to big names in hip-hop and pop—previous acts have included Lorde, Cut Copy and DMX—and hits the sweet spot, size-wise, between 9:30 Club and the Verizon Center. Tickets can run pricier than at other DC music venues, and getting there is a bit tricky—if you don’t want to cab or drive, free shuttles run between the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station and Echostage until 3am. Also worth noting: Headlining acts often don’t take the stage until after 1am, so be prepared for a late night. For parties, or just a more private experience, tables with bottle service are available in the upstairs mezzanines—which also offer better views of the stage.
After many delays, the 2,000-capacity club in the suburbs (a member of the franchise from famed San Francisco promoter Bill Graham) opened with a sold-out Mary J Blige show in September 2011. Since then, 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). Olly Murs, Rancid and Flogging Molly have also graced its stage.
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. Expect mostly alt-rock acts, although the Very Best made its DC debut here to a packed house.
IOTA boasts 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.
This bare-bones basement club, which emphasizes music over luxury, arrived just in time for the economic downturn. The vibe is closer to a rock club than a "bottle service" lounge, and rock bands perform live. But the club’s founders, local DJs Will Eastman and Jesse Tittsworth, built the room for dancing: the 1,200-square-foot hardwood dancefloor floats on a cork foundation, and the 20,000-watt sound system is modeled on those in top London clubs. Recent guest DJs include Simian Mobile Disco, Tensnake, Richie Hawtin and Amon Tobin. Ages 18 and over.
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.
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.
A movie theater turned concert venue, the State is a favorite haunt of jam bands, blues and reggae artists—and lots of tribute bands—from near and far. Notable acts in the past 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.
Major players such as Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald have all graced the stage of this iconic 1965-founded jazz supper club. With world-class blues and jazz acts and top-notch acoustics, paying the listening club’s ticket prices and food and drink minimum is well worth the money.
This bohemian music venue opened in 2014 and aims to evoke the neighborhood’s famed music clubs of yore, such as the Cellar Door and Crazy Horse Saloon. The lineup focuses on Americana acts; the space also hosts occasional special events such as fundraisers and beer release parties, as well as a monthly Flashband concert showcasing local aspiring musicians. Husband-and-wife owners David and Karen Ensor emphasize a more comfortable concert experience: The venue offers plenty of seating, the music is never injuriously loud and the majority of shows are 21 and up. The menu will please vegetarians and locavores alike; dishes such as sunflower–hemp seed hummus and kale salad share space with Virginia ham sliders. The adjacent Vinyl Lounge is a haven for LP enthusiasts, who can relax in a booth while listening to albums played in their entirety and can even bring in their own to take for a spin.
Just two blocks from the White House is this massive 37,000-square-foot restaurant with a separate music venue, Hamilton Live, downstairs. The main eatery seats 500; the multilevel stage area holds 300 seated and 150 standing. Both offer a diverse menu of New American food, with everything from sushi to charcuterie to spaghetti (though the downstairs menu is more limited). With so many guests ordering food, shows at Hamilton Live feel a bit more like dinner theater than a typical concert—though the standing room directly in front of the stage does encourage dance parties as the night goes on. Acts run the gamut—including ‘80s rocker Eddie Money, Texas trio Los Lonely Boys and singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb—plus the main restaurant hosts an all-you-can-eat gospel brunch on Sunday.
As comfortable as it is historic, Constitution Hall—housed within the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters—tends to host more mellow acts. Think The Head and the Heart, Eric Benet and Keith Sweat. Arrive early if you can and take a quick tour of the building, whose cornerstone was laid with the same trowel George Washington used on the Capitol building. The hall has been graced by countless US presidents and formerly had a glass ceiling when it opened in 1929. Today, Constitution Hall hosts performances other than musical concerts, including discussions by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and comedians such as Louis C.K.