The Hamilton Live

Two blocks from the White House, musicians jam in The Hamilton’s cool subterranean space. (©Maddie Meyer)

The Best Places for Live Music in Washington, D.C.

By Brooke Sabin on 02/16/16, updated 03/07/16
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If you, like Duke Ellington, claim “an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats,” be sure to drink in D.C.’s storied and thriving live music scene.

Born in Washington in 1899, the jazz great played many a gig in the city’s so-called “Black Broadway,” a stretch of nightclubs along and near U Street NW, where several other big-name African American entertainers also got their starts. (Think hometown boy Marvin Gaye, plus Ella Fitzgerald and The Supremes.)

Some of these historic venues still book top talent, like the famed Howard Theatre, which reopened in 2012 after a $29 million renovation and is now graced by a statue of Ellington perched on a treble clef and playing a curved keyboard.

Another native son, John Philip Sousa led the U.S. Marine Band for 12 years in the late 1800s, writing salute-worthy compositions like “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Semper Fidelis.” Admirers can visit the grave of the “March King” at Congressional Cemetery and enjoy free concerts around the region by the Marine CorpsArmy, Navy and Air Force bands.

Foo Fighter frontman Dave Grohl grew up in suburban D.C., taking in hundreds of shows at the legendary 9:30 Club. Now he’s one of the acts drawing crowds there. He also helped found 14th Street’s indie club Black Cat, where his band has thrilled fans by popping in for a surprise show.

D.C.’s even got an indigenous sound: a funk genre called “go-go,” the syncopated, get-up-and-dance music played most famously by Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers on their hit “Bustin’ Loose.”

And just about every other genre can be found here, from classical masterpieces played by symphony orchestras to the latest pop singles belted out by headlining divas. Here are some of the top D.C. music venues. Take your pick, tune in and drink up! 

9:30 Club

D.C.-based Thievery Corporation, known for electronica with worldly grooves (©John Shore, www.johnshoremusicphoto.com)

Entertainment, Nightlife

9:30 Club

Don’t miss the “9:30 Hall of Records,” a permanent installation holding a vinyl or CD of every headliner since the club’s debut in 1980. Originally in a small space at 930 F Street NW, the legendary venue (now in swankier digs) has booked everyone from The Ramones to Dolly Parton, Nirvana and Justin Timberlake.

The Howard Theatre

The renovated interior (Tim Cooper, Courtesy The Howard Theatre)

Entertainment, Nightlife

The Howard Theatre

Check out D.C.’s native sound here, where go-go groups like the Chuck Brown Band (honoring its late, great namesake and leader), Rare Essence and the Junk Yard Band, regularly take the stage. Make sure you’re well hydrated and wearing comfy shoes, because you will be boogying all night long.

Kennedy Center

At the Kennedy Center, sunset reflected in the waters of the Potomac River (Courtesy Destination DC)

Attractions, Entertainment

Kennedy Center

This elegant, world-class performing arts hub offers one of the best deals in town: free entertainment every night at 6 pm on the Grand Foyer’s Millennium Stage. No tickets are required; simply show up and enjoy the talented acts, which range from Virginia bluegrass fiddlers to lndian Bollywood dancers.

Black Cat

Fugazi bassist Joe Lally (©Rik Goldman/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Entertainment, Nightlife

Black Cat

One of the pioneers to open on 14th Street NW, before the corridor became one of D.C.’s most happening zones, this club has stayed true to its authentic indie roots, maintaining a gritty yet welcoming vibe that earns the respect of musicians and fans alike.

Echostage

(Doug Van Sant, Courtesy Echostage)

Entertainment

Echostage

Trying to park in D.C. can send the blood pressure soaring. But this concert venue, one of the city’s newest and largest, makes it easy with the option to reserve parking online, starting at a reasonable $10. Another way to go? Take Metro to the NoMa-Gallaudet U station, exit on the M Street side and catch the free shuttle to Echostage.

Strathmore

(Ron Solomon, Courtesy Music Center at Strathmore)

Entertainment

Strathmore

The striking glass-walled music center is the main draw here, but in warmer months, visitors also come for free outdoor concerts and peaceful strolls through the 11-acre, sculpture-studded grounds. Year-round, an 1899 mansion hosts intimate shows and art exhibits, plus afternoon tea several days a week.

Wolf Trap

(Robert Llewellyn, Courtesy Wolf Trap)

Entertainment

Wolf Trap

Most music venues prohibit BYOBs, but at this picnic-friendly national park, concert goers arrive with baskets and coolers filled to the brim with snacks and their drink of choice. On a balmy summer evening, we’re thinking a well-chilled, softly sparkling Vinho Verde may just be the perfect sip.

Blues Alley

A legendary Georgetown institution (©Brooke Sabin)

Entertainment, Nightlife

Blues Alley

Among the musicians who made “Live at Blues Alley” albums are jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and local singer-guitarist Eva Cassidy. After Cassidy’s untimely death at age 33, the recordings made here helped propel the relatively unknown songbird to international fame.

Birchmere

A musical mural on the venue's facade (©Bennett2474/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Entertainment, Nightlife

The Birchmere

At this all-seated, general admission venue, there’s a strategy to scoring a prime perch. Arrive by 5 pm, when the box office opens, to claim a “line number” for entry. Then hang out at the bar for an hour (perhaps with a locally brewed Port City IPA), and you should be one of the first to walk through the music hall doors at 6 pm.

Verizon Center

(©Isaac Wedin/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Entertainment

Verizon Center

To catch the biggest names in pop music—we’re talking Bruce Springsteen, U2, Beyoncé—head to this 20,000-seat downtown arena. And be sure to savor a pre- or post-show meal at one of the many buzz-worthy restaurants nearby, such as José Andrés' Oyamel (Mexican) or Jaleo (Spanish).

The Hamilton Live

(©Ron Blunt)

Entertainment, Nightlife

The Hamilton Live

The sun’s rays don’t reach this (literally) underground live music space, but it’s still known for light. Make that lights, plural. The impressive system—see the photo at the top of this article—was installed by the techie folks behind Grateful Dead shows.

Madam's Organ
Entertainment, Nightlife

Madam's Organ

An Adams Morgan neighborhood mainstay, this boisterous bar has been jamming to live music every night for nearly 25 years, drawing a diverse crowd from tattooed hippies and college students to the Hungarian ambassador and the Bush twins.

Inside the Folger Theatre, constructed to resemble the Globe Theater in England

(Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library)

Entertainment

Folger Theatre

Unfamiliar with instruments like the vihuela, theorbo and viola da gamba? The Folger Consort, an early-music group based here, specializes in melodies from the medieval, Renaissance and baroque periods—and it’s a five-time winner of the Best Classical Chamber Ensemble award from the Washington Area Music Association.

Washington National Cathedral

(©Roger Mommaerts/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Attractions

Washington National Cathedral

For music that seems to seep into your very soul, there’s nothing quite like the resounding notes of an organ. Hear free demos of the cathedral’s 10,647-pipe powerhouse most Mondays and Wednesdays at 12:30 pm. During the concert season, organists from around the world play recitals most Sundays at 5:15 pm (suggested donation of $10).

Map of The Best Places for Live Music in Washington, D.C.