The Best Live Music Venues in and Around DC
While the greater Washington DC-Maryland-Virginia area has always been a wonderful place to live, it’s become increasingly clear that the people in the Capital and its surrounding towns are making the right moves to reclaim their place as a cultural mecca -- and the live music scene is playing a big part.
Though there are certainly some well-known names at the regional and national level, a handful of cutting-edge music venues have opened up in the last decade or so and are playing their part to help cement the DMV’s status as a definite tour stop for bands of all sizes and talent levels. And just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean you have to shut it down for the season -- these venues have plenty of hot acts coming through, with packed schedules and programming all of winter and through the spring. Grab some friends and check out some shows at the places below...
U Street Corridor
Any discussion about the DC music scene invariably includes mention of the 9:30 Club, and justifiably so: Now in its 35th year of existence (and 20th in its present location at 915 V Street NW), the 9:30 has been host to many of the most influential and important musical acts of the 20th and 21st centuries -- from Dolly Parton to 2 Chainz -- and it is as much a Washington, DC landmark as the monuments and the Smithsonian museums. This is a music venue that awes and inspires in equal measure and has served as the cornerstone of DC’s emergence as a must-play tour destination for acts from around the world -- with enough stories to fill up an entire book -- which they actually did.
14th St Corridor
Much like their historic rivals at the 9:30 Club, the Black Cat has been the backbone to the live music scene in Northwest Washington DC for a long time. Opening on 14th St when things were very, very different in that part of town, the Black Cat was both a cause and consequence of shifting demographics in the DMV region, and an indicator of changes that are still happening today. Opening in 1993, the club was the biggest of its kind at the time -- offering a real stage and platform for indie acts to play to larger audiences right as the genre was gaining traction nationally and internationally.
The Black Cat has seen many incredible acts come through over the years, and they were the site of a couple of “pop-up” shows by the Foo Fighters in the Fall of 2014 -- an incredible event that somehow made total sense. The Black Cat continues to book extraordinary talent in a no-frills environment on both their Mainstage as well as the Backstage Concert room -- a perfect space to catch some of the smaller, more “out there” acts performing in the District. PSA: The Black Cat is cash only.
We’ve already expressed our love and support for Comet Ping Pong, and for good reason -- who can resist a music venue that pairs some of the best thin-crust pizzas in the region with excellent, national indie-punk acts like Japanese Breakfast, Speedy Ortiz, or Ty Segall? Add ping-pong tables to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for success. The posters promoting Comet’s live shows have also received substantial acclaim over the years -- rightfully so -- and feature the design work of many local artists, including Bad Saint co-owner Nick Pimentel.
U Street Corridor
Tucked right behind the madness on the intersection of 9th and U Streets Northwest, it’s relatively easy to miss DC9 if you’re not looking out for it -- at great loss to you. A small venue with exceptional sound quality and a welcoming vibe, the live music stage is on the second floor, sandwiched between a low-key bar on the ground floor and one of DC’s best rooftops all the way on the third. Shows can get a little cramped at times due to tight quarters, but with generally knowledgeable and engaged audiences, you won’t mind rubbing elbows with other music lovers as you enjoy the post-punk shreds of Dilly Dally or Jessy Lanza’s new beat.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s for good reason: The Silver Spring venue shares a moniker with counterparts in six other cities around the country. Built in a former JC Penney, the 2000 person capacity venue is easily accessible via metro or a quick drive up Georgia Ave for city dwellers -- so no excuses for not making it there.
While our Fillmore might not have the same storied past as the original in San Francisco, the Live Nation-managed venue attracts some big names and has played host to an increasing number of legendary acts -- D’Angelo chose it as the sole location in the DMV-area on his Black Messiah Tour last year. How does that feel?
Flash has been slowly building up its reputation as one of the premier electronic music venues on the East Coast, adding further legitimacy to the DC Dance scene. Appealing mainly to dance music purists -- your one friend who went to Berlin and couldn’t stop talking about the 12 hours he spent at Berghain -- Flash is a multi-level immersive experience where each floor offers a different vibe: a more relaxed lounge when you walk in; the incredibly impressive club room on the second floor, with a perfectly equalized set of speakers and judiciously used set of LED lights; a rooftop deck evoking the tropics -- complete with a retractable roof -- up on the third.
Regularly open late on the weekends and attracting world class DJs and electronic producers -- including legends such as John Digweed, Carl Craig, and Derrick May -- for sets starting around 1am, we wouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself dancing at Flash until sunrise.
Galaxy Hut has been hosting live music since the early ’90s, when Arlington held a major place in the DC music scene and there were only a handful of venues hosting indie rock and experimental music around town. Its lack of a stage and small size presents bands in an environment more akin to a modern house show than a big rock club, and it continues to enjoy a fanatic following for it. Did we mention that they have 28 different kinds of craft beer on tap? Yeah, get yourself there stat.
“Cozy” is the perfect way to describe Gypsy Sally’s, with its 150-person capacity main room that’s split almost evenly between seats and tables and standing-room-only. With a focus on booking acts that primarily play bluegrass and jazz (and the occasional jam-bands), this hole in the wall venue is more tailored in its programming than most others, but still delivers an excellent experience, with prog-jazz acts like Marco Benevento and Rubblebucket bringing down the house. Worth checking out even if those genres aren’t really your thing -- it’s a nice change of pace from most things in the surrounding neighborhood.
A multi-story restaurant and bar in the heart of Downtown DC, The Hamilton is a quick walk from most offices, The White House, and the Department of Treasury, founded by -- you guessed it -- Alexander Hamilton. Formerly a Garfinckel’s department store, the restaurant tends to draw an interesting cross-section of tourists and businessmen, The Hamilton Live -- their dedicated music venue in the basement -- pulls people in from all over town with its eclectic, high-quality programming. We particularly appreciate the venues willingness to bring in artists who play world music -- we still get goose bumps when thinking about the wailing guitar stylings of Bombino, “the Saharan Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
The Howard Theatre has been a landmark of the Shaw neighborhood for over 100 years, originally opening in 1910, and enjoying its third and most recent renovation in 2012. The iconic Beaux-Arts building is on the US National Register of Historic Places, and not just for looks: The venue launched the careers of many artists -- most famously Ella Fitzgerald, winner of an open mic night contest at the Howard in the early 1930s. Since then, everyone from Stevie Wonder and James Brown to Big Boi and Thundercat have played there, and the Howard continues to pride itself on being “The People’s Theatre,” bringing a wide array of unique artists and performers from every genre and demographic possible.
As a locale for acoustic, singer-songwriter types, the IOTA Club’s intimate settings can’t be beat -- the Arlington venue is known for booking a lot of talented newcomers from the genre, including Norah Jones and John Mayer, both of whom played their first-ever DMV area shows to a handful of people at IOTA. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see a once in a generation talent at the club’s next open mic night -- are (generally) of a pretty high standard.
However, be sure you’re there to actually listen to the artists, as opposed to chat with your friends while someone plays in the background; there’s not much by way of space, and the noise can detract from what should be a magical experience. Actually -- keep that in mind no matter where you choose to go see a show, cool? K thx bai.
Owned and operated by the Brindley Brothers -- Luke, Daniel, and Jonathan -- Jammin’ Java has put on all-ages shows in Vienna for the last 15 years, and is regularly acknowledged as one of the best music venues of its size in the world by Pollstar Magazine. With serious ties to the local community, Jammin’ Java also offers lessons in many instruments as well as songwriting and music theory. You can check out (and register for) some of them here.
U Street Corridor
Built in 1922, The Lincoln Theatre was at the center of an African-American cultural renaissance on U Street in the early part of the 20th century. Serving the local community when many patrons and acts were kept out of venues due to segregation, Washington natives like Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey were joined by nationally acclaimed artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughan to regularly sold out shows.
The theatre fell into some disrepair in later years -- but still served as the stage for Dave Chappelle’s timeless comedy special Killing Them Softly. I.M.P. was selected to run and operate the Lincoln by the DC government, and since reopening in 2013, a broad range of acts -- musical and comic -- have graced the hallowed stage including Louis C.K., Lauryn Hill, and Kendrick Lamar.
H Street NE
Operating as a music venue since 2006, this former funeral home really captures the spirit of the H Street Northeast corridor -- a little less polished than its counterparts in Northwest DC, a bit more rough and tumble and rowdy, and a whole lot of fun. Many acts come through the RnR Hotel earlier in their careers, so they’ve has been host to a lot of amazing bands just prior to them blowing up in a major way -- Phantogram, Phoenix, and Wye Oak have all played intimate, electrifying shows there in years past, and both Mitski and Porches have brought down the house in 2016. Keep an eye out for bands coming through RnR... you never know when you’ll be seeing the next big thing.
Mt. Vernon Triangle
The only venue on this list that also happens to be a house of worship, Sixth & I maintains its identity as a multi-denominational synagogue while doubling as a community center and space for the arts. Standing on the eponymous corner in Northwest Washington DC since 1908, Sixth & I has served as a hub for spiritual life in the capital for over a century -- it was an African Methodist Episcopal church from 1945 until 2002 -- and continues to foster thoughtful discussions and cultural events through its programming. Matisyahu was the first contemporary artist to perform at the venue, and they have continued to book outstanding talent in their stunning historical space.
One of the newest additions to DC’s vibrant live music scene, this part record store, part coffee shop and bar, and part music venue is trying to position itself as Adams Morgan’s music hub. They’ve got some seriously good acts coming through, and their low-ceilinged live performance space in the basement gives each show an intimate, garage-show feel with high-quality sound.
Built in what used to be the Showboat Lounge, the venue was home base to jazz musician Charlie Byrd, and featured performances by many famous musicians over the years, including Dizzy Gillespie and Bob Dylan. Rumor has it that Jimi Hendrix popped by in 1967, although we can’t confirm that he performed there.
With shows several days a week, as well as listening parties for new releases and their “Classic Album Sundays” brunch series, there’s always something worth checking out at the Songbyrd Music House.
This former long-time movie theater was converted into a live music space in the early 1990s. Full of old-school charm, the theatrical stage and balcony seats are still the original ones -- restored and redone, of course. The front of the stage offers standing room only space, or table seating for a nominal charge -- but either way, The State offers an old-school concert-going experience with great sight-lines from pretty much any vantage point, and continues to book an eclectic mix of up and coming artists as well as a few big names from the past such as Blondie, Gregg Allman, and Buddy Guy.
U Street Corridor
Owned and operated by a group that includes local music legend Will Eastman, U Street Music Hall was the first of its kind and ushered in the wave of small, high-fidelity audio music venues popping up around the District. Thanks to its partnership with the 9:30 Club, U Hall (as it’s known to fans) regularly books artists that would otherwise be playing much bigger venues, meaning that most shows are packed with engaged, rapt audiences who are often rewarded with unexpected surprises -- such as the time that Drake showed up to rap alongside his protege PARTYNEXTDOOR during the encore.
U Hall is known for scheduling two shows a night most evenings: an earlier more “traditional” act (think indie bands, or at least acts involving guitars) and a later show geared towards dance music or hip-hop fans. Thanks to its incredible sound system, professional staff, and mid-size settings, U hall pulls off either kind of show without a hitch.
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