The historic Howard Theatre has showcased legends like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. (©Tim Cooper)
For jet-setting music lovers, finding that cool club or elegant concert hall in a new city often tops the list of must-dos. Lucky for D.C. visitors, the capital area has a storied and still-thriving live music scene.
Famous performers born here include jazz great Duke Ellington, “Prince of Soul” Marvin Gaye and “March King” John Philip Sousa. Sousa admirers can visit his lyre-adorned grave in historic Congressional Cemetery, near Capitol Hill.
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 chart-topping pop singles to well-loved symphonic masterpieces. Here are some of our favorite venues for live music. (Many spots book a variety of genres, so they’re categorized by one or two for which they’re especially well known.) Cue the music!
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Home to the National Symphony Orchestra, now in its 86th season, this elegant space in the riverside performing arts complex features crystal chandeliers given by Norway and a 5,000-pipe organ. Famed musicians like violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are among the regular guest stars.
Music Center at Strathmore
In suburban Maryland, this scenic venue hosts concerts by the National Philharmonic and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The latter, led by pioneering conductor Marin Alsop—the first female music director of a major American orchestra—offers innovative programs like “Off the Cuff,” exploring the backstories of masterworks.
Rock and Punk
In its original downtown dive, this beloved venue was at the forefront of the ’80s punk scene, booking edgy up-and-comers like Fugazi, the Ramones and the Violent Femmes. Now in larger, swankier digs near U Street NW, it continues to draw top talent and has even inspired a public television series, “Live at 9:30.” Watch episodes here.
A catalyst in the revitalization of the now-bustling 14th Street corridor, the dimly lit club books touring bands for its second-floor Mainstage and smaller (often local) acts for the first floor Backstage. Other draws? Pinball machines, a jukebox and tasty vegan fare.
Blues and Funk
There’s no mistaking this Adams Morgan spot for any other. Just look for the busty redhead. The facade’s mural sets the tone for what’s inside: boisterous crowds who come for the soul food and the nightly live music that includes a regular lineup of blues-funk bands.
The Howard Theatre
In the Shaw neighborhood, this historic 1910 venue showcased big-name African-American entertainers like Duke Ellington—whose statue sits outside—and The Supremes. It now buzzes with a range of genres and is one of the few places to catch D.C.’s native go-go music, with bands like Trouble Funk and Rare Essence stirring up the crowds. Sunday brunches marry soul food with gospel or go-go.
Folk and Country
Find a bit of country and western twang at this casual, 500-seat music hall in Alexandria, Virginia. Concertgoers sit at long checkered cloth-covered tables to order “Headliners” (fried catfish, smokehouse ribs) and then see them on stage. Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris are all alums.
Rock, Pop and More
The Hamilton Live
Within earshot of the Treasury Department and named for its first secretary, this classy basement space has tiers of tables that surround the stage. As photographed icons—Bruce, Jimi, Janis—gaze out from their frames, music buffs relish rock, blues, jazz, folk and R&B.
In Vienna, Virginia, America’s only national park for the performing arts has two 18th-century barns that in colder months make a cozy venue—with great acoustics—for folk rockers like Livingston Taylor, plus jazz, cabaret and chamber music. In the summer, music fans pack their coolers (wine allowed!) and sprawl on the lawn of the Filene Center, an open-air pavilion, which also offers covered seats. On stage? Everything from classical music and opera to country, pop and jazz.
Don’t let the name fool you—this 18th-century carriage house-turned-supper club in Georgetown has showcased jazz greats for 50-plus years. Just peek at the menu for a sampling of the celebs: Dizzy Gillespie’s jambalaya, Sarah Vaughan’s filet mignon and Roy Hargrove’s BBQ ribs.
When huge popularity calls for a massive space, this 20,000-seat Penn Quarter arena is the place. Since 1997, it’s drawn millions of ticket holders for headliners like Lady Gaga, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
The Theater at MGM National Harbor
Opened in December 2016, this high-tech, VIP-ready destination inside the luxury gaming resort already books some of the biggest names in the biz. Think Bruno Mars, Sting and Cher. With 3,000 seats, it’s a relatively intimate setting in which to see the stars.