But the historic theater that for decades sat largely dark on a prime stretch of U Street could become a symbol of a new gilded age for concertgoing, in which venues look to provide an all-the-bells-and-whistles experience that extends beyond music.
On Wednesday, Laura Marling, the angelic British folk singer with a lilting voice and fierce command of the acoustic guitar, will take the stage in the first performance at 1215 U Street NW since I.M.P., the company that operates the 9:30 Club and Merriweather Post Pavilion, won its bid in June to take over the theater’s day-to-day affairs.
“You look at these chandeliers, you look at these seats. This is an ‘oooh, ahh’ sort of place,” says Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of I.M.P. “You walk in and you think, ‘I’m at the theater. This is a night out. This is entertainment. This is glamorous.’ And that’s how you should feel.”
Luxury like this is no longer an anomaly for Washington concertgoers, as venues that opened in the past three years stray further from the grungy, rock-club model.
At the Hamilton downtown, concertgoers can snack on sushi while they wait for the headliners. At the Howard Theatre, the historic D.C. concert hall that reopened on T Street NW last year after a nearly $30 million renovation, jumbo screens give fans a better view of the action. And at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, you have your choice of standing under glitzy chandeliers or upgrading to seats.
Hurwitz likens the emphasis on experience to what has occurred with movie theaters, which have amped up the amenities, adding cushy recliners, alcohol and salads in an effort to lure moviegoers after a decade of declining ticket sales.
What sets the Lincoln apart from the other new and restored music venues is that it falls under the charge of I.M.P., which has for decades reliably filled venues with of-the-moment acts.
The Lincoln’s capacity is about the same as its sister venue, the 9:30 Club, but there will be key differences. Shows will be seated, most with reserved seats, so the typical ticket price is higher, upwards of $35, rather than the 9:30’s usual $25, in line with theater-style venues such as the nearly-2,000 capacity Strathmore. The nachos and sandwiches popular at the V Street club aren’t likely to ever be served at the Lincoln; the theater doesn’t have a kitchen to prepare such fare.
The Lincoln’s layout also will make it more suited to theater productions, movie screenings and comedy. “This American Life” radio personality Ira Glass will close the Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival on Oct. 13, and stoner- comedy duo Cheech and Chong will yuk it up on Oct. 24. But the first batch of bookings — pompadoured R&B princess Janelle Monae, Soundgarden rocker Chris Cornell and British star KT Tunstall — suggests concerts will largely drive the theater’s renewal.