Washington DC Music Scene
Lauren Wells | March 7, 2014
John Philip Sousa, famous for his role as the U.S. Navy Band’s director throughout the 1860s, was a Washington D.C. native. Kicking off the iconic array of music to come from D.C., Sousa composed marching band songs such as “The Liberty Bell,” “The Thunderer,” “Semper Fidelis,” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” that have since become classic American mainstays. Jazz/swing icon and D.C. native Duke Ellington got his start during the 1910s, and had a career spanning over 50 years! Later, jazz musicians like Charlie Byrd, Charlie Rouse, Billy Hart, Ira Sullivan, and Leo Parker hit the D.C. music scene. During the 1940s, The Clovers began their career as a rhythm and blues vocal group with chart-topping hits. The late 1940s and 1950s saw the beginning of John Fahey’s career as a guitarist, and Ruth Brown’s reign as the “Queen of R&B.” D.C. in the 1960s meant hits from Peter Tork (of the Monkees), experimental rock guitarist Tim Buckley, R&B soul mastermind Billy Stewart, and blues guitarist Danny Gatton. The 60s also launched Van McCoy and Peaches & Herb onto the disco-funk scene. The legendary musician Marvin Gaye, also from D.C., left his mark on the U.S. music scene during the 60s until his unfortunate death in 1984. The 70s saw the hit “Afternoon Delight” from D.C.’s own Starland Vocal Band as well as successes like “I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett. D.C. got a little edgier during the 1980s as the scene transitioned into a punk sound. Ian MacKaye founded the indie punk label Dischord Records in 1980, putting out albums by Minor Threat, Government Issue, The Faith, and Void, among others. Most recently, artists like Ginuwine and Mya have won over the public with their R&B hits. For a taste of what’s happening in D.C. now, check out one of their impressive venues.
The Lincoln Theatre, built in 1922, has hosted Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughn. Located in the U Street neighborhood of D.C. and produced by I.M.P., the Lincoln Theatre is magnificently adorned with a giant neon sign on the building’s exterior and Victorian décor lining the actual performance space. The 1,250-seat theater hosts concerts, musicals, theater performances, and comedy shows. This historic venue underwent a massive renovation in 1994 and has since continued to bring in some of the most talented names in entertainment.
Also booked by I.M.P., 9:30 Club hosts acts like Broken Bells, Dr. Dog, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Drive-By Truckers, 2 Chainz, Grouplove, and We The Kings. Originally opened in 1980, the 9:30 Club is a 1,200 capacity nightclub and concert venue in downtown D.C. Having hosted the talented Cyndi Lauper, the Bangles, Husker Du, the Violent Femmes, the Police, the Replacements, Marshall Crenshaw, Bob Dylan, the Beastie Boys, O.A.R., the Go-Go’s, the Psychedelic Furs, the Ramones, and Steel Pulse, 9:30 Club has an impressive track record of performances. Full of character and charm, this venue allows you to take in the best of the best from its standing room floor, bar, or balcony areas.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1971 and has since produced more than 300 new works of theater, including Tony Award winning shows like Annie, the King and I, Titanic, and Les Miserables. The venue also hosts dance, ballet, orchestral performances, educational outreach programs, and concerts. Overlooking D.C.’s Potomac River, the Kennedy Center hosts more than 40 million people per year and is home to the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington National Opera, and the Washington Ballet. The Kennedy Center has three main theaters: the Concert Hall, the Opera House, and the Eisenhower Theater. The Concert Hall seats about 2,400 people and is adorned with crystal chandeliers and a 4,144-pipe organ, making it the largest theater in the Kennedy Center. The Opera House has about 2,300 seats, a beautiful red and gold silk curtain, and a crystal chandelier for you to admire while enjoying an opera, ballet, or concert. On the north side of the building, you’ll find the Eisenhower Theater with a capacity of about 1,163. The Eisenhower Theater hosts musicals, operas, ballets, and contemporary dance performances. Other venues in the Kennedy Center include the Family Theater, the Terrace Theater, the Theater Lab, the Millennium Stage, and the KC Jazz Club.
Founded in 1993, Black Hat provides concertgoers with a more underground scene. So if you find the crystal chandeliers and beautiful decor of the Kennedy Center to be a bit too much for your musical needs, Black Hat might be a better fit. Bands like the Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, the New Pornographers, Kelly Osbourne, Fall, Rancid, Morphine, Stereolab, Slant 6, and 9353, among other local and national acts, have played at Black Cat. For your edgy music fix, head over to Black Cat and soak up its history of consistently good music.
The Verizon Center is a sports and entertainment arena located in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood. Formerly known as the MCI Center, the Verizon Center is home to the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, and Georgetown University’s men’s basketball team. Opened in 1997, the arena’s first performance featured Barry Manilow, and the venue has since seen the Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Michael Buble, Elton John, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and P!nk.
The stunning Warner Theatre was opened in 1924 during the height of vaudeville and silent movies. The Warner was and still is impressive from basement to roof: its rooftop garden brought in large crowds of visitors during the evenings and its basement featured a famous restaurant and ballroom, having been known as the popular Neptune Room in the 30s. As the venue transformed itself due to the decline of vaudeville over the years, eventually the Warner became the music venue it is today after brief stints as a pornography movie theatre, cinema movie theatre, and small concert venue—even the Rolling Stones, Shirley MacLaine, and Frank Sinatra have graced the stage with their talent.
A non-traditional Jewish synagogue, the Sixth and I Synagogue hosts lectures, concerts, and art exhibitions for the public. Opened in 1908, the synagogue has hosted guest speakers like Elie Wiesel, Ruth Bader Gisburg, Nancy Pelosi, Annie Leibovitz, Lewis Black, Tom Brokaw, Amy Sedaris, and Rob Riggle, among others. Expect a lot of up and coming names in music to come through this historic venue.
DAR Constitution Hall was built by the Daughters of the American Revolution for its annual conventions, but eventually transitioned into a concert hall over the years. With neoclassical architecture, a U-shaped balcony seating area, and a limestone exterior, the concert hall is the largest auditorium in D.C. Seating 3,702 people, DAR Constitution Hall hosts concerts, graduations, corporate events, and has been used as a film location for numerous TV shows and movies.
Located on T Street, the Howard Theatre is one of D.C.’s historic venues, having opened in 1910. Performances by Duke Ellington and his band, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Abbott and Costello, Cesar Romero, Danny Kaye, Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes launched the Howard into the good graces of D.C. socialites. Unfortunately, race riots during the late 60s harmed attendance at the Howard, and after a period of closing during 1970-1973, it reopened. After major renovations during the millennium, the Howard has since hosted Anthony Hamilton, Drake, the Roots, Slick Rick, Chaka Khan, Aaron Neville, and Sheila E., among others.
The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center is the second largest government building in the Washington Metropolitan Area, and hosts over 1,200 events per year. With two large ballrooms, an exhibition space, a pre-event space, and other reception areas, the conference center is known for hosting lectures, concerts, and other entertainment programming.
Echostage is D.C.’s largest nightlife concert venue, measuring in at more than 30,000 square feet. Fit for large-scale performances, Echostage features excellent acoustics, impressive LED displays, and near-perfect sightlines to the stage. With two 60-foot bars flanking the dance floor, Echostage makes sure you’ll never go thirsty or bored. Acts like David Guetta, cut/copy, Lorde, Ellie Goulding, DMX, Rick Ross, Phoenix, Lindsey Stirling, and Daddy Yankee come through Echostage.
Bands like Houndmouth, Melvin Seals and JGB, and Del McCoury Band play at the Hamilton, a classy restaurant and live music venue that encourages eating, drinking, and listening. You can’t go wrong with those three ingredients!
Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University hosts talent like Ben Folds and Johnny Clegg as well as dance recitals and lectures. The 1,490 capacity historic auditorium opened in 1943 and is home to the Washington Concert Opera.
D.C. is also home to the Rock and Roll Hotel, a music venue and nightclub founded in 2006. With three floors, a concert hall, a lounge, and a roof deck, the Rock and Roll Hotel is an independent music venue that doesn’t use outside companies or promoters to book shows—this way you know you’re going to see some authentic indie talent. DJs and musicians are always coming through the venue—expect to see names like Small Black, Feed the Meter, You Monster, Emily King, Redline Graffiti, and the Deadmen.
The Music Center at Strathmore Nationals Park offers world-class entertainment from international artists. On any night at Strathmore, you can hear folk, rock, blues, pop, R&B, jazz, world music, or even show tunes and classical music. Acts like the Moody Blues, Sting, Paul Simon, and the Parker Quartet come through Strathmore in addition to musicals and theatrical performances.
The DC Jazz Festival brings in more than 100 jazz performances to more than 60 venues throughout the D.C. area during the course of 10 nights. Artists such as Roy Haynes, Fountain of Youth Band, Stefon Harris and Blackout, the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band, and the Brubeck Brothers Quartet keep you and your family entertained when you’re not participating in workshops and kid-friendly activities.
The Source Festival is a performing arts festival featuring theater, dance, music, visual art, film, spoken word and poetry. Only the best D.C. artists perform or exhibit work during this creative festival.
Rock the Bells Hip Hop Music Festival, held in September at RFK Stadium, features headlining acts like Kid Cudi, Wu-Tang Clan, J Cole, Wale, Big Sean, Common, Logic, Black Hippy, Girl Talk, A$AP Mob, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Eazy-E, and Tech N9ne, among others.
45 minutes outside of D.C., M3 Rock Festival is a two-day hard rock event that brings in performers like Quiet Riot, XYZ, Kix, Tesla, Night Ranger, and Queensryche. Get ready to rock at the Merriweather Post Pavilion! 98.7 WMZQ is a country day-festival held in Bristow, Virginia. Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Chris Young, and Jana Kramer are among the past performers WMZQ Fest has brought to the D.C. area.
Held in Dover, Delaware, Firefly Music Festivalhosts acts like Foo Fighters, Outkast, Jack Johnson, Imagine Dragons, Beck, the Lumineers, Pretty Lights, Arctic Monkeys, Weezer, Broken Bells, Band of Horses, Young the Giant, and Childish Gambino. This summer festival takes place on an 80-acre piece of land and allows you to sit back, relax and enjoy the biggest names in contemporary music.
Baltimore, Maryland hosts the Maryland Deathfest for those of you looking to rock harder. MDF showcases metal talent like Abigail, Ingrowing, Evoken, Full of Hell, Ascension, Convulse, and Hellshock, among many others. With over 11 years experience bringing rockers the edgy music they love, MDF doesn’t disappoint.