“I’m not nervous per se about being in any public spaces, but I am nervous [that] after the whole year, it’s been a whole bunch of ups and downs for everybody. It’s been, dare I say, traumatic,” said Steve Lemmerman, who DJs under the name Lemz. “We’re all going into familiar spaces [but as] completely new people.”
In the nearly 15 months since the pandemic shut down the country and altered daily life, nightlife as it was before the coronavirus has not been possible. In the District, nightclubs were shuttered on March 15, 2020, and remained closed even as the rest of the city reopened. As of June 11, however, they can operate at full capacity again. But even with restrictions removed and vaccines rolling out, D.C.’s dance music scene will probably look different.
For major venues that host DJs, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s May 10 announcement was a pleasant surprise, albeit one that gave them about a month to staff up, book events and get the word out.
Echostage, a warehouse-meets-bottle-service club with a 3,000-person capacity in Northeast D.C., quickly announced shows for the first two weekends of the fully open era anchored by EDM stars Zedd, David Guetta and Tiësto. The two Friday shows (Zedd on June 11 and Tiësto on June 18) quickly sold out, and Saturday shows were added. They, too, sold out.
For Echostage, which was acquired by promoter and Live Nation partner Insomniac in February 2020, ramping up with DJs — even major ones — is easier than dealing with the tour routing that venues that primarily host bands have to deal with.
“We have in-house production, LED, sound, lights — everything there,” said Pete Kalamoutsos, president and CEO of Echostage. “A lot of artists are like, ‘Okay, I could just fly in with my tour manager and we could do a show.’ ”
Echostage will be following current D.C. and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for indoor events, with vaccinated people not required to wear masks and unvaccinated people encouraged to do so. But they will not be policing mask usage.
“Even with these guidelines today, I’m perfectly happy with it,” Kalamoutsos said. “Whatever people feel comfortable with, they should be able to do.”
The same can be expected at the Shaw nightclub Flash: Staff are welcome to wear masks, but they are not required to do so. The club has been running shows on its open-air rooftop since May and will reopen its indoor club level with a pair of “Reboot” events on June 11 and 12. Lemmerman DJed a full 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. set on Flash’s rooftop in late May. He described his first gig back in front of a crowd since before the pandemic as “incredible.”
“Everyone’s just so thrilled to be letting go of what we’ve all been through that it’s electric right now,” he said. “It’s really exciting. It’s a lot of excitement and nervousness.”
While Echostage and Flash will be reopening completely on June 11, many clubs and bars that were staples of D.C.’s DJed nightlife will not be. Dance music institution U Street Music Hall, H Street pioneer Rock and Roll Hotel and DJ favorites like Marvin closed in 2020. The iconic Eighteenth Street Lounge closed after a 25-year run, and — with a competing club planning to open in its original Dupont Circle location — will eventually reopen at a new location in Shaw.
These smaller spots were crucial to the health of D.C.’s DJ scene, often showcasing local talent and underground favorites. Although locals and smaller names that play a certain flavor of dance music can find gigs at Flash and Echostage’s sister nightclub Soundcheck, there is a void in the scene that won’t be filled this month — if ever.
For DJs in the community, the loss of many of the venues where they built their reputations and spent their time has been a blow, but not a fatal one. Veteran DJ Mathias Broohm has been cautious about returning to DJing, preferring open-air events at El Techo and the Sandlot, but he’ll soon be back at indoor gigs.
“People are dying to get back out — we’ve been stuck inside the house,” he said. “I’m sure they’re all collecting music they’re dying to play in front of the crowd.”
Even without mask requirements, Broohm — who DJs under his first name — is still looking for clubs to take proper precautions. At Capo, where he co-hosts a biweekly party, he spoke with ownership about repositioning and adding plexiglass to the DJ booth to give him some distance from the crowd (a post-pandemic change that will no doubt isolate him from overzealous patrons, as well). And while his schedule is filling up, he acknowledges that club closures will alter the nightlife scene: “Those people that went through U Hall for the underground stuff. Where are they going to go?”
That question is a major concern for Michael Khalifeh, who co-runs the DMV Deep event series, many of which were hosted at U Street Music Hall.
“I don’t know if there’s ever going to be another U Hall,” Khalifeh said, citing changes to the D.C. landscape and its high-priced real estate market. He named venues that could grow to fill that void, such as El Techo and the Eaton hotel, along with smaller but established venues such as DC9, Songbyrd and Union Stage.
But nightlife is more than the clubs that house it: It is a community of DJs and dancers, promoters and patrons. The renewed push for justice and equality, whether by race, gender or sexual identity, has also affected dance music culture and furthered discussions about how people of color, women and queer folks can feel welcome and safe on dance floors, and have greater access to the turntables.
Lemmerman has promoted queer-centered events at venues including Wonderland Ballroom and Dew Drop Inn. The Sleaze party that he co-hosts will take place at DC9 on June 17, and Bent, his quarterly extravaganza at 9:30 Club, is “absolutely” coming back, as well. He sees the newfound focus on inclusion and equity in nightlife as a step in the right direction.
“People seem to be paying attention to who’s doing outreach, properly booking lineups and respecting artistry — not just to check a box off a checklist and pat themselves on the back,” he said.
“It’d be a real shame, if after all this, we just go back to the same old, same old,” DMV Deep’s Khalifeh said. “There’s been too much time to think about what we could do to break through creatively and do things differently on a bunch of different levels — not just the party experience, but the actual value we have as a community and how we’re representing artists we’re booking.”
Martín Miguel Fernández, a DJ and former resident at Eighteenth Street Lounge, initially worried about how the closing of small and midsize venues would affect the future of noncommercial dance music in D.C., but upon further reflection, he saw how the pandemic could serve as an “opportunity to turn to a new page.” For Fernández, that means doing more DIY gigs: finding venues that have “blank canvas” spaces and using them to throw events that are safe from both covid-19 and bad actors.
Even with trust in vaccines, Fernández is taking a “wait and see” approach to indoor events, while noting that it was already difficult to throw outdoor, DIY events in the District, even before the pandemic.
Whatever form D.C. functions take, the pandemic has caused the dance community to reset and reassess its priorities. But it remains to be seen if the changes will be permanent.
“Could this be like working out right after New Year’s and then we give up by February?” Lemmerman wondered. “Or do we actually stick to it?”