Washington’s music scene experienced fits and starts over the past 18 months: the complete closure of entertainment venues in March 2020; an experimental “live entertainment pilot program” at a half-dozen venues last fall that required audiences to be seated 20 to 30 feet from the stage and limited capacity to 50 people, including staff; the cautious return of live music to patios and sidewalk cafes in May; and the unexpected full-throttle reopening of nightclubs and concert halls in June.

If you’re looking forward to hearing live music in person again after an extended hiatus, you’re going to notice some changes locally. Here are some things to look out for.

Outdoor concerts extend beyond summer

Scientists and public health experts say outdoor activities are safer than indoor gatherings, even for fully vaccinated individuals. In response, some concert venues, including D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong and Rhizome, and Vienna’s Jammin Java, began holding shows outside their venues. And while some music lovers may think of outdoor concerts as a summer activity, they’re sticking around for much longer.

Comet hosted two multiweek series in its parking lot between May and August, with patrons buying tickets for entire tables to keep guests within their pods. “A lot of people weren’t ready to return to indoor music venues,” says David Combs, who books shows at Comet. “Our series provided a transitional space for bands and concertgoers to have or enjoy their first performances in a year and a half.”

While every outdoor show sold out in advance, Comet planned to return to exclusively indoor shows in September for a variety of reasons. The potential for D.C. summer thunderstorms meant that outdoor shows weren’t conducive to booking touring bands who don’t have the flexibility to reschedule for rain delays. Because Comet is in a residential neighborhood, “being outside necessitated that I book lower-volume acts,” Combs says, “either folk,
singer-songwriter, bluegrass, and jazz artists … or rock bands who were able to strip their sound down a bit.” For the same reason, shows began and wrapped up earlier than usual.

Through the end of October, Comet is going to keep hosting concerts outdoors on Monday nights, while booking louder, later shows indoors. It’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario made possible, Combs says, by being able to use the parking lot for longer than Comet’s owners anticipated.

Jammin Java began hosting free outdoor concerts in the parking lot adjacent to its concert hall in summer 2020. Earlier this year, co-owner Daniel Brindley expressed a hope that the venue could wrap up the outdoor concerts and return to more “normal” indoor gigs by early September, but there are still a handful of shows on the calendar into October, including Born Cross Eyed on Oct. 29, as part of Jammin Java’s 20th anniversary celebrations. “A lot of it has been concerns with certain bands, due to the Delta variant, and so we give bands the option to be either inside or outside,” Brindley says. “It’s just another example of us going with the flow. But it’s very much on a
case-by-case basis, because there are shows on the calendar that just simply wouldn’t work outside.”

It’s not just clubs, either — National Landing’s Fridays at the Fountain series in Crystal City runs through the end of October, offering low-key picnics in a relaxed park setting. Even the biggest outdoor venues have extended their calendars. In previous years, concerts at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center wrapped up around Labor Day. This fall, bookings stretch toward the end of September, helped by shows such as the Avett Brothers (Sept. 23-24), which were originally scheduled for June.

Blues Alley is back in Georgetown

This spring, reports that Blues Alley could close or leave its historic Georgetown carriage house sent shock waves through the local music community. Since 1965, the club has played host to the biggest names in jazz and blues — Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Eva Cassidy — in an intimate, brick-walled listening room. But Harry Schnipper, the executive director of Blues Alley, says the fears were overblown. “Our landlord placed the building for sale, and it remains for sale,” Schnipper says. “But we do have a lease.” Schnipper declined to say how long remains on the club’s lease, but said, “We are going to be occupying it [the building] for the foreseeable future.”

Schnipper spent the summer booking weekly “Blues Alley Presents” concerts at the National Press Club, which were streamed online before in-person audiences returned in June. Schnipper says the concerts were held at the Press Club because the capacity is higher — he could fit 200 socially distanced concertgoers in a ballroom there, as opposed to a total occupancy of 140 in the smaller confines of Blues Alley. But next weekend, music returns to Georgetown.

The plan is to have artists perform Thursday through Sunday, with two shows per night, beginning with the world-jazz of Veronneau (Sept. 16-19) and the violin-driven jazz of the Dave Kline Band (Sept. 23-26) . Audiences will be limited to half capacity, and all concertgoers will be required to show proof of vaccination, a policy that Schnipper says audiences at the Press Club embraced. Plans are still evolving — Schnipper hopes to be back to having music five nights a week by mid-October, and audiences at full capacity in November. “I’m pretty confident” that can be done, he says.

A new venue opens: Capital Turnaround

The largest addition to the music scene — size-wise, at least — is the Capital Turnaround, an 850-seat theater located on M Street SE in a former streetcar barn across from the Navy Yard’s Latrobe Gate. The historic building, known in the neighborhood as the Blue Castle, because of its turrets and bright color, is owned by the National Community Church, which has held Sunday services there since 2019, and shows are booked by the team behind Jammin Java, which has hosted shows at the NCC-owned Miracle Theatre down the street since 2017.

Unlike most new venues in D.C., almost all the seats at Capital Turnaround are fixed in place, with a small standing area in front of the stage. This suits Capital Turnaround’s current calendar, which features comedy, podcast recordings and book talks more often than concerts, though more rock and pop bookings are on the horizon. Jammin Java’s Brindley describes the layout as “arena-style seating,” a slight bowl shape with spacious seats and wide aisles, where the crowd can sit, stand or even dance in the aisles if they want to. “Honestly, I’m in my 40s. I wouldn’t mind seeing a rock show this way going forward,” Brindley says.

What's next for U Street?

The U Street corridor has been an entertainment destination since the “Black Broadway” days of the early 20th century. But U Street has been hit harder by the pandemic than other parts of town, losing several popular destinations for live music.

Twins Jazz shuttered in August 2020 after more than three decades in the District, having made its name supporting younger artists who’ve gone on to much bigger stages. Marvin, which hosted jazz and R&B bands as well as DJs, closed “indefinitely” in the fall of 2020 and hasn’t reopened.

Velvet Lounge, which never reopened after the initial March 2020 shutdown, officially announced its closure over the summer. Its second floor was a divey, intimate space that offered chances to punks, noise bands, hip-hop artists, up-and-coming DJs, and anyone else willing to lug gear up those narrow stairs.

U Street Music Hall, which announced its closure last October, started as a refuge for world-class DJs who wanted to spin on the city’s most impressive sound system, but also became a second stage for the nearby 9:30 Club. At the regular “9:30 Club Presents” shows, artists like Lizzo and Sam Smith performed in front of crowds of hundreds before they became household names. (Asked if the 9:30 Club is interested in finding a new small venue to partner with, Audrey Fix Schaeffer, the communications director for 9:30 Club parent I.M.P., says, “There have been discussions, and they are still ongoing.”)

This is not to say that U Street is a musical desert: Jazz and blues remain a fixture at JoJo, and big-name acts draw crowds to the Lincoln and Howard theaters. DJs spin at Flash and El Techo. Some of the city’s most popular venues, including the 9:30 Club, the Black Cat and DC9, aren’t far off the strip. But the closures of these clubs took some of U Street’s heartbeat with them. The sooner it returns, the better.