The Interns' Guide: Music

By Fritz Hahn Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 12, 2007; 12:21 PM

Outdoor Concerts | Clubs Without Cover Charges | More Options

We've all complained about the spiraling cost of concert tickets ($75 to see New Edition or Alison Krauss?) and the random "convenience fees" that customers are charged to print tickets at home. But if you're resourceful, there are ways to hear all kinds of live music this summer without spending a cent on admission.

Outdoor Concerts

Let's start with outdoor shows, which are a staple of Washington summers. Local indie and alternative rock bands have been playing on a wooden stage at Fort Reno Park for almost three decades, with past headliners like Fugazi, Ted Leo and the Dismemberment Plan. There's no cover charge for the Monday and Thursday shows, which attract picnickers, dogs and hipsters of all ages. Across the city, Fort Dupont -- another Civil War-era fortification -- hosts Saturday night shows packed with soul, funk and vintage R&B.

The National Gallery of Art hosts free jazz concerts in its sculpture garden every Friday, which is a relaxing way to wind down the week. The music runs from 5 to 8:30 and picnics are encouraged, though you're supposed to purchase wine and other alcoholic beverages from the cafe.

Every summer, the Washington Post Weekend section puts on a series of Friday-night shows with local bands at the Carter Barron Amphitheater in Rock Creek Park. Admission to the Weekend's Weekends concerts is free, and this year's themed evenings include reggae (June 15), blues (June 22) and Latin (June 29).

Later this summer, the amphitheater will host the National Symphony Orchestra (July 13-14) and the D.C. Blues Festival (Sept. 1), among other free events.

Of course, all the free music isn't in Washington. Reston's Concerts on the Town offer swing, salsa, jazz, oldies and bluegrass at the Town Center every Saturday night. Herndon's Friday Night Live series, meanwhile, brings bands that are usually found in Northern Virginia bars to the city's historic town green. Burnt Sienna, Kristen and the Noise, Love Seed Mama Jump, Gonzo's Nose and JunkFood draw cover-paying crowds to Clarendon Ballroom and Dewey Beach's Rusty Rudder, but on Friday nights, you can see them for nothing. Bring a picnic or take advantage of the stands selling food and (overpriced) beer.

To make the most of the outdoor music scene, read Music Editor David Malitz's picks for the season's best free concerts.

Clubs Without Cover Charges

Sometimes, though, you'd rather hit a club than go watch a band in a park. There are bars and clubs with live music and without cover charges in the Washington area, though their numbers are dwindling. Remember that it's not an entirely free proposition: The social contract generally says that if you don't pay to get in, you're expected to buy a drink or two to support the venue (and the artists, who may get a share of the evening's take). U Street's jazz bars (as opposed to pricier jazz clubs) like U-Topia, Cafe Nema and JoJo offer live music several nights a week, and the quality is often as good as the pricier spots down the street. Wayne Wilentz, who's at U-Topia on Thursdays and Sundays, is one to catch, as are the Young Lions, a group that holds down Nema every Thursday.

JV's Restaurant has been in Falls Church for 60 years, and the one-room roadhouse is showing no signs of slowing down, offering classic rock, country, rockabilly and bluegrass music seven nights a week, almost never with a cover charge. Austin Grill is better known for its reliable Mexican cooking and strong margaritas than as a place to catch a band, but the Silver Spring branch books open mike nights, roots rock, country and singer-songwriters every night. In Adams Morgan, Pharaoh's is one of the few places where you won't pay to hear a band, and owner Walter Robinson and his group keep the classic rock covers coming on Friday and Saturday nights. The Wonderland Ballroom is usually a haven for DJs on weekends, but you'll find the occasional band at the Columbia Heights bar, too, without paying a cent to get in.

Cantina Marina could really fit in either category: The al fresco bar is located on a dock on the Southwest Waterfront, and musicians -- generally duos or groups with acoustic guitars -- perform Thursday through Sunday. If you're lucky, you'll get to hear singer Wil Gravitt performing classic country songs like "T for Texas."

Of course, there are other ways to beat the system. Clarendon Ballroom, for example, charges $5 to $8 to see popular cover bands on Thursday and Saturday nights, but only levies a fee after 8 p.m. Get there early for happy hour and you save a few bucks on admission as well as drinks.

Blues Alley books some of the top names in jazz and R&B -- summer shows include Mose Allison, Eddie Palmieri and Julie Dexter -- and anyone holding a student or congressional identification card is eligible for half-price admission to the 10 p.m. shows Sunday through Thursday. Twins Jazz, meanwhile, offers half-price admission on Friday nights with a student ID, though this can be suspended for some marquee names.

Even More Options

The Kennedy Center is Washington's top destination for classical music, dance and opera, and its Millennium Stage is one of the area's cultural treasures. Every day at 6, there's a free performance that could be members of the National Symphony, African musicians and storytellers, Irish dancers, an independent theater company, Persian jazz, local country musicians, a puppet show -- even well-known artists like Wyclef or Sufjan Stevens. No tickets are required, but chairs go quickly, so it's best to arrive early.

For a real "only in Washington" experience -- and a great way to impress visiting parents and/or relatives -- check out a concert by one of the military bands. Bands representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps play regularly around town, and each has a weekly performance on the west side of the U.S. Capitol. (That's the one facing the Mall.) The Navy is there on Monday, the Air Force takes Tuesday, the Marines are sent in on Wednesday and the Army holds down the fort on Friday. All performances are free, and there's no more inspiring place to hear "The Stars and Stripes Forever." You can also catch the service musicians at various locations around town, and their repertoire varies greatly. The Marine concerts at the Sylvan Theatre on Thursdays could include the full band or a jazz combo, while the Navy's Tuesday concert at the Navy Memorial could feature sea chanters, the Commodores jazz ensemble, the Country Current band (self-explanatory) or the full brass of the Navy Band. The Air Force's performances at the Air Force Memorial may include ensembles like the jazzy Airmen of Note or the Singing Sergeants chorus.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company