by Jane Roser
“I would stand in that hallway and watch my heroes walk by.” -Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters)
When I was a broke twenty-something year old, I had the chance to buy tickets to see Johnny Cash at the 9:30 Club and (being broke) I didn’t. To this day I have always regretted missing that show, so any time one of my heroes plays at the “best music venue in the world”, I go. During my goth period, I saw KMFDM, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult and Lords of Acid. During my waxing nostalgic period I saw Garbage, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Now, in my alt-country/Americana phase I’ve enjoyed Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and the Drive-By Truckers. The 9:30 Club is an iconic part of DC music history; it has endured 35 years and has hosted national acts like The Smashing Pumpkins and The Dead Weather, as well as being a huge supporter of local acts such as Godhead and The Morrison Brothers Band. Their reputation is so highly regarded that bands clamor to play here, in fact, Rolling Stone Magazine online named the 9:30 Club the #1 Big Room in America.
Founded by Dody DiSanto and Jon Bowers, the original 9:30 Club opened in 1980 at 930 F Street SW (hence the name) and held 199 people. The building itself was built in 1888 and at one time was used as President Benjamin Harrison’s inaugural committee headquarters. The first 9:30 Club show was headlined by The Lounge Lizards (Joy Division was supposed to perform, but lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide two weeks prior to the venue’s opening). Twenty years later, new co-owners Seth Hurwitz and Rich Heinecke moved the 9:30 Club to its current location at 9th and V streets NW into the former WUST Radio Music Hall (which was Duke Ellington’s music club in the late 1940s) where the capacity topped 1200.
To celebrate its double anniversary, the 9:30 Club is hosting a free five-day long multimedia “World’s Fair” exhibit filled with interactive, hypnotic imagery and 35 years worth of memorabilia. Tickets went fast (but a few more were recently added), which just reiterates how important this venue is to fans. Tickets are timed and when I attended last night, the line snaked around the building, slowly inching its way to the side doors. Once you enter the building, you are given a group pass (mine was Group B) and wait until your group is called. The process is efficient and easy to navigate, plus if you have a hankering, the bar is only a few feet away. Your group enters the cavernous basement bar where vintage concert flyers frame the walls and TVs playing old concert and interview footage hang above a mannequin in an R.E.M. t-shirt.
As you make your way up the dark stairs, signs for free 9:30 Club logo tattoos and cupcakes (which the club is famous for providing to its artists and who, in turn, constantly tweet photos of) dot the walls. Old booking calendars, VIP badges, set lists and signed concert posters are everywhere; its a virtual museum of music memorabilia and the work that went into collecting, archiving and displaying these pieces is astounding and breathtaking. In the main entryway there’s a screen set up with concert footage of bands like Shriekback, Virgin Prunes and The Smashing Pumpkins from the old venue. Smoke emits from underneath (for those who never get physically sick by the smell of dry ice) and there’s a tongue-in-cheek recreation of the annoying column that blocked your view of the stage. The balcony and main floor have gigantic screens which project old and current concert footage (including the Garbage concert I saw there two months ago), interviews and press footage. Another wall displays photos of club employees, including a large gold-framed one of beloved long-time manager and crew chief Josh Burdette who passed away in 2013.
Making your way along the balcony, attendees are offered a rare look into the green room backstage where local musicians were hanging out playing music (singer-songwriter Margot MacDonald was playing the night I went). The room is a nice size and seating areas wrap around offering enough space for bands and their entourage to hang out. I once interviewed Camper Van Beethoven in that room and they offered me a slice of their pizza, and Lily Allen adorably threw her leg up into my face so she could show me her shoes which were given to her “by the Mormons”; I have a lot of fond memories of that room.
Downstairs is an impressive Hall of Records which houses a collection of vinyl and CDs chronicling every band that has ever headlined a show at the club. The plan is to leave this room intact (and hopefully continue to add to the collection). I was really excited to venture onto the stage, the one area of the 9:30 Club I have never been. A screen is set up from the performer’s perspective which projects a screaming audience at a sold out show. Several instruments are displayed on stage, including Fugazi’s drum set and Thievery Corporation’s keyboard. Everything about this event is immensely impressive, but sadly, temporary (a closing party this Saturday with DC rock royalty Bob Mould hosting was just announced– the cost? $9.30).
If you can’t make it to the celebration, you can still buy the limited, first-edition, 264-page commemorative book featuring photos, stories and urban legends of the club’s tenure at both locations. The book includes quotes from musicians, employees and press. Devo’s Jerry Casale recalled playing the club in 2005 and the crowd wouldn’t leave after the show was over. The band had already changed, but came back out to play a few unrehearsed songs: “We played in our street clothes and we hadn’t done that since the beginning of the band.”
There’s also a chapter on the club’s famous surprise shows, including Radiohead’s 2am appearance after their scheduled performance at the Tibetan Freedom Festival at RFK Stadium was cancelled due to lightening. I’ve never seen a surprise show there, but I do remember hanging out with Foo Fighters keyboardist Rami Jaffee at Jammin’ Java the night before their unannounced 9:30 Club show. Jaffee was playing keys for local musician Owen Danoff’s album release show and I had no clue who he was at the time, but he was gracious and super chill.
The merch table was selling commemorative event t-shirts and I wondered why there was a giant rat on the back of them. When I got on the metro, I opened my book and was staring right at a photo of this giant, mummified rat and a chapter entitled “Rats! Urban Legends vs. Backstage Reality”. Co-owner Rich Heinecke remembers one time, hours after the club had been fumigated, the band performing that evening had just sat down to eat pizza when a rat stumbled along a pipe above their heads. “It stopped and breathed its last breath, then fell on its back in the middle of the pizza. Splat. The guys were looking down at the pizza at this rat that had just died.”
The 9:30 Club is such a cool venue that they can turn rats into part of their alluring character, Barbie dolls into bathroom door icons and an old brick building with a radio tower into a living legend.
For our complete photo album of the event, visit our Facebook page.
Fans and local musicians reminisce about the 9:30 Club
“When I was 17 I went to the Fifth Column (using my sister’s ID), then camped out in front of the old 9:30 club across the street to get tickets for The Cure’s Wish tour. I remember that this sweet homeless man named PeeWee would stand outside selling flowers and made everyone smile with his gracious personality. Sadly I found out he was killed in a knife fight sometime later. A bittersweet memory.” – Anne Roser (and btw this is the first I’m hearing of my sister “borrowing my ID”)
“Loading out into the rat infested back alley. Otherwise it’s a premier American gig.” – Jameson Elliott, sound engineer for Canadian band Whitehorse
“Overall memory is of a time gone by. My first club concert was Gwar’s debut in March of 1985, headlined by Suicidal Tendencies. 16 year old me was immediately hooked. That same year, I went to WUST – the site of the present 9:30 Club. Who knew that move would one day take place? The backstage was typically unguarded at the old club, you’d dip down into the dressing room and unless the manager of the band was stopping you at the door…you were in. And on a good night, you (well I) was able to gank rider items. Nowadays, you aren’t getting backstage; you might meet the artist if you’re lucky or score a pass. I miss the old club. Don’t get me wrong, the new space is mighty fine, but things won’t be the same as that old F Street club. Anyhow, in a city where five years is a feat, 35 years is the stuff of legends. All the way up to the closing of the original club, you could literally drive up and park right in front of the club. Not get a ticket, and enjoy things like three bands for three bucks, including happy hour drink prices beginning around 5:30. Fact, I was able to drive, park, be in the club at 6pm for a band no one knew…Catherine Wheel. And it was the same for other names like Stairs, Barkmarket and many more on just the three-bucks series. You cannot park on the streets in 2016 – not without getting a ticket, feeding a meter…oh how I miss that.” –Sean Epstein
“I remember playing a headlining show there in 2011 right before our first major label album came out. It was SUCH a highlight of my entire career because I grew up watching bands at the old and new locations and dreaming of playing on that stage.” – Jason Charles Miller (Godhead)
“I went to see Love and Rockets in the late ’90s at the 9:30 Club. It was a fluke that I ended up backstage that night; my friend had an extra pass. Daniel Ash told me I looked like an angel and would I like to go to NYC over the weekend with them on their tour bus. At 22, I looked like a petite Darryl Hannah, whom Daniel Ash was reportedly in love with, but she would have nothing to do with him. I guess I was a momentary replacement. I wasn’t that star struck, I would have been happier with Johnny Depp, but at 22 I was definitely up for an adventure and was happy to get out of work the following day, plus I was a sucker for British accents. Thank you 9:30 Club for a great weekend and a “new tale to tell.” – Anonymous concert goer
“Growing up in DC, the 9:30 Club was looked at as a milestone of success. It was where you always hoped you would one day play. Our first time playing there, we had just come off a string of bar gigs and smaller venues and we were not used to the kind of treatment 9:30 provides its artists. Five minutes after entering the club for sound check load in, I looked out the window and saw two guys taking our gear out of our van and going into the alley with it. I immediately ran out to stop them, fearing they were robbing us, only to find that they were 9:30 Club employees loading in our gear for us and setting it up on stage. I was pretty embarrassed, to say the least. This story remains, to me, representative of the type of first class treatment the venue and its employees give the artists that perform there. We have played there four or five times now and we continue to only have positive things to say.” Willie Morrison (The Morrison Brothers Band)
“It was summer of 2005 and the original lineup of Dinosaur, Jr. had recently reunited. I was waiting on a few friends and decided to go inside and catch the opening act, Majik Markers. They were beautifully loud, aggressive and sweaty. The gig had started on the early side and just a handful of people were there when the doors swung open. Majik Markers was about 15 minutes into their set when I felt an unknown presence standing next to me. In my periphery, I notice that it’s freaking J Mascis! He shot me one of those looks with a nod, a casual acknowledgement to a total stranger- effortlessly rad. I looked over in his direction a few seconds later and he had disappeared into the night…until he hopped on stage two hours later with his Marshall Stacks turned up to 12!” – DC musician Matt Tarka
“The first time I played at the 9:30 Club, I was a few songs into my set when suddenly all of my memories of standing in the audience as a kid and wishing I was up on the stage, instead came flooding back. I may have gotten a little choked up. Getting to play on the same stage as so many of my favorite musicians and songwriters was electrifying and beyond inspiring. It will always be one of the coolest moments for me.” – DC musician Owen Danoff