Historic Music Venues: 9:30 Club
By Mike Duffy
With humble beginnings, D.C.’s 9:30 Club has built itself into a worldwide tour-de-force.
How does a space that fits only about 1,200 people continually rank among the highest-grossing clubs in the world?
If you’re D.C.’s 9:30 Club, it takes a commitment to booking hungry up-and-coming acts while playing home to many of the world’s biggest artists when they’re looking for an intimate environment.
Throughout the years, the stalwart 9:30 Club has been a vanguard among live music venues, and 2011 was no different.
According to Pollstar, a concert industry trade publication, the 9:30 Club sold over 250,000 tickets last year, placing them just behind New York City’s Terminal 5, which boasts a capacity of 3,000.
(The magazine rates “clubs” as venues without fixed seating and/or are open when there aren’t concerts.)
|Bob Mould’s Circle of Friends album was recorded live at the 9:30.|
During that impressive run, the Baltimore Sun reported that The Cars, Paul Simon, The Pogues, Smashing Pumpkins and Jeff Beck were all tied for the top-selling shows last year.
But the 9:30′s history runs deep.
Opened in the late 1970s by Dody DiSanto and Jon Bowers, the 9:30 club began with Tiny Desk Unit, a local new wave band that eventually became a regular.
The name? It hails from the space’s original address – 930 F St. NW – and the time of the first show.
Since that fateful day, the club became a D.C. haven for alternative music, hosting such hardcore punk units like Minor Threat and Fugazi and building a young fan base by allowing those as young as 16 years old past its threshold.
“I went to the 9:30 Club hundreds of times,” Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl told the Washington Post. “I was always so excited to get there and always bummed when it closed. I spent my teenage years at the club and saw some shows that changed my life.
“The first time I played there was with my band Dain Bramage, when I was 15 or 16. I scored my first record deal that night, with Fartblossom Records. It was the greatest night of my life – as a kid growing up in the D.C. punk-rock scene, your first show at the 9:30 Club might as well have been Royal Albert Hall or Madison Square Garden.”
Even though it was sweaty, dirty and historically rat-filled, the first iteration of the 9:30 in the old Atlantic Building was still filled with D.I.Y. charm.
But making money at such a tiny venue wasn’t easy. That 9:30 was sold to Seth Hurwitz of concert promoter It’s My Party (I.M.P.) in 1986, and the club’s lineup consistently grew over the years, eventually outsizing its space.
Fast-forward to Dec. 31, 1995, when Hurwitz and Rich Heinecke – co-owner of I.M.P. – closed the doors of the F St. location and found a new spot at WUST Radio Music Hall at 815 V St. NW.
With a bigger venue – and a stage that was on wheels to ensure that even small crowds would seem to fill up the room – the 9:30 triumphantly re-opened on Jan. 5, 1996 with Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins heralding in the new era.
Since then, the key moments are too numerable to be named.
Bob Dylan played two dates there in 1997 when he was in town for the Kennedy Center Honors, and then returned for an unannounced show in 2004.
O.A.R., Bob Mould and Jimmy Eat World are just a few of the artists who have recorded live albums – Any Time Now, Circle Of Friends and Believe In What You Want, respectively – at the 9:30.
And for years now, Bob Boilan, who was a synthesizer player for Tiny Desk Unit, has hosted NPR’s “All Songs Considered” has broadcast live concerts from the space to the masses.
“If you come from the D.C. area, the 9:30 is it. It’s the white whale,” O.A.R. singer Mark Roberge told the Washington Post. ”The first time we went in there to play, I felt like a rock star. We were just kids, but they treated us right. We never got that treatment from anyone else until we started making them money.
“It’s not your typical club.”
To celebrate the 9:30 Club’s 30th anniversary in 2010, Henry Rollins, The Fleshtones, Ted Leo, Mould, Grohl and even Tiny Desk Unit were among those who took the stage for an epic night of music and storytelling.
The broad spectrum of genres represented in that show certainly represented the wide-ranging impact the 9:30 has had on the Mid-Atlantic music scene.