It becomes the biggest music venue in the District to permanently close during the coronavirus pandemic.
Disclosure, Diplo, Kaskade, Skrillex and Robyn are among the artists who’ve graced the stage or DJ booth at U Hall since it opened in 2010 — Eastman says at least 2,000 DJs have performed over the years — and the club was set to celebrate its 10th anniversary with a week of special concerts and dance parties in March, beginning the weekend that D.C. forced nightclubs to suspend operations.
For the last few months, the club has sold T-shirts to raise money to pay employees, and hosted live-streamed DJ sets that asked viewers to tip DJs or make donations to an employee relief fund. (“The live streams were great,” Eastman says. “They did not pay for themselves.”) The club received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but the scattershot approach couldn’t replace revenue from events, and rent went unpaid for several months. Meanwhile, Eastman has been involved in what he describes as a long-running legal battle over the terms of the club’s lease. In the end, the combination was fatal. “The senseless litigation with our landlord, along with [covid-19], were the cause of us vacating the space,” Eastman says. “We had four years left on our lease. If it wasn’t for covid, we would have been there for at least four more years.”
What made U Hall a landmark on D.C.'s nightlife map was its versatility: A weekend might find disco on Friday night and electro on Saturday, or an early-evening indie-rock concert might be followed by DJs spinning deep house until 3 a.m. This was possible because U Hall was a black box for music, with few seats and no velvet ropes or bottle service. Its focal points were the city’s most renowned sound system, clear and punchy and capable of delivering rich bass that oozed like warm honey, and a 1,200-square-foot hardwood dance floor, “floating” on a cushion of cork to keep feet from getting tired. It was a club designed for DJs, by DJs — Eastman is the creator of the long-running Bliss dance party; opening partners included party-rocking DJ Jesse Tittsworth — but the dancers were the winners.
U Hall also became known as a live music venue, forging a partnership with I.M.P., the parent club of the 9:30 Club and the Anthem. Odd Future, Liars and Sam Smith performed there; the stage became a proving ground for local hip-hop artists, and hosted regular go-go concerts. Some D.C. music venues are taking the first, tentative steps toward reopening, with concerts at which capacity is limited to 50, including venue staff and performers. That wouldn’t make financial sense for U Hall, which had a capacity of 500.
In a time when your Twitter feed looks like the “before” montage that opens a “World War Z” knockoff, maybe bad news, such as the closing of U Hall, is to be expected. After all, Eighteenth Street Lounge and Twins Jazz went dark this summer. And the truth is, there was probably no means for U Street Music Hall to exist in the foreseeable future.
My favorite memories of U Hall include a full house losing its collective mind at one of the Moombahton Massive parties, gyrating with hands in the air before launching into a joyous Moombahton Mosh Pit when Nadastrom finally dropped the bass on one of its tropical house tunes; a mass top-of-the-lungs singalong to Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat” when the Swedish pop star performed an intimate gig at U Hall in 2012 after performing earlier at what was then called Verizon Center; dance circles forming when DJ Sam “the Man” Burns spun life-affirming soulful house at Red Fridays, continuing the legacy of the Dupont nightspot; and dancing close to the “sweet spot,” where the speakers magically aligned and being pummeled by skittering, gut-rumbling bass as English drum’n’bass legend Goldie graced the booth.
You’d be warned against participating in every one of those activities, especially if they took place in a dark, sweaty basement. U Hall’s demise is yet another frustrating reminder of everything we had and loved and took for granted less than a year ago.
U Street Music Hall’s fate is the future that could follow for so many other nightspots, whether they cater to DJs or bands, until there’s a vaccine for coronavirus — and even then, until people are comfortable returning to loud, crowded spaces where it’s okay if you accidentally brush by a stranger on the way to the bar, or people from different households are joyously singing and dancing along to Trouble Funk’s “Drop the Bomb” in proximity. We just don’t know when that might be.
As for Eastman, he won’t say whether he’d reopen U Street Music Hall in a different location, or if he’d want to run a nightclub again. He says he’s spending this time serving as a teacher to his 4-year-old son. “There’s no need to decide right now. Where else are we going to go?”