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28 June 2011
Two venerable DC institutions you won't see from the Tourmobile

If you have limited time in DC, and haven't visited since your 8th grade Social Studies trip, by all means check out the museums and monuments and the National Mall. They are mostly free, after all. But if you're able to plan ahead a bit, and have a hankering to hang with locals, I invite you to check out two DC musical venues that are nowhere near the tourist trail.

Filene Center
WolfTrap Filene Center, photo by Scott Suchman

If you have a car...
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts

Seeing a show at WolfTrap is one of my all-time favorite summer activities. They have concerts in The Barn over the winter, but there's something magical about wining & dining & spectating alfresco at the magnificent Filene Center. It doesn't matter whether your tastes run to opera, Elvis Costello, or Bugs Bunny cartoons with live orchestral accompaniment, I dare you to have a bad time at WolfTrap. You just haven't lived until you've heard the 1812 Overture with live canon fire.

We typically grab a bottle of wine (or ten) and some picnic snacks (the prepared foods bar at Whole Paycheck is right on the way), and try to arrive early to stake out a good spot on the lawn. Actual seats in the pavillion are also available, but then you can't self-cater, and that's at least half the fun.

Filene Center, aerial shot
Filene Center, photo by Robert Llewellyn

Besides a full cadre of kickass shows, WolfTrap offers summer programs for kids, places professional artists in classrooms, and administers performing arts scholarships through its Foundation. But my favorite WolfTrap factoid is that it's part of the National Park System, and the National Park Service maintains the grounds and helps with theater tech. If you look carefully you just might spot Ranger Smith in his green khakis running lights behind the scenes.

Summer would just not be summer without at least one trip out to WolfTrap. Yes, it's a bit of a hike outside the city, but completely worth it. Hey, if you buy me an extra lawn seat, I'll happily give you a ride out there!

9:30 club
9:30 Club, photo by PatrickDB

If you're public-transport-bound...
The 9:30 Club

Originally housed in a sketchy location downtown where rats were commonly seen running along the ceiling beams, and now in a slightly-more-upscale neighborhood off the hipster U Street corridor, Nightclub 9:30 has been *the* go-to spot for live music in DC since 1980. With capacity for about 1200, this midsized venue is a great place to get up close and personal with the band, provided you get there well before the opening act starts and are willing to stand around. We tend to prefer to perch on the third floor, which has a separate bar and offers a great view of the performers as well as the crowd.

According to the Washington Post, the old club on F street was known as "a station of the cross for ascending bands working outside of music's mainstream." While the "new" 9:30 Club pulls in a more conventional roster, owner Seth Hurwitz prides himself on a  diverse lineup. We always get tickets to see hometown favorite Thievery Corporation when they're in town. Also Ozomatli, who take advantage of the lack of seating to perform a conga line through the crowd at the end of their set. Other recent excellent shows have included The Shpongletron Experience, GWAR, and Richard Cheese.

Josh Burdette
photo courtesy Consequence of Sound

Watch for 9:30 mainstay Josh Burdette, aka the scary-looking bouncer with the wicked piercings, and don't get on his bad side!


How to do it right

Both venues regularly sell out, so it does pay to plan a bit and get your tickets ahead of time. To plan the perfect musical interlude, figure out your transportation situation, cross reference your genre preferences, and pick a venue.

If heading to the 9:30 Club, hop on Metro's Green Line to U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo and pick one of the many excellent Ethiopian restaurants along 9th Street. Or stop at Dickson Wine Bar for wines by the glass and a huge front window for peoplewatching. Head over to the club when doors open (or before, if it's a popular show) and stake out a spot on whichever of the three levels suits your fancy. Earplugs are available for a buck a pair at the tshirt stand on the ground floor. Don't forget to tip your bartender well and prepare to have your world rocked.

If you're going to WolfTrap, pick up a few bottles of wine or six packs of beer, and score some picnic snacks at your supplier of choice. Whole Foods? Gas station convenience store? Whatever floats your boat. Food & drink is available for purchase onsite but of course it's much more expensive. You can get to WolfTrap via the Dulles Toll Road or Route 7, both of which can get jammed during rush hour, so plan accordingly. The parking situation can be a bit bewildering, but just go where you're directed; there's no such thing as a good space and you'll be walking uphill to get to the Filene Center no matter what. (Consider it pre-justifying the calories you're about to intake!) Bring a blanket or two, and try to get there well before the doors open so you can participate in the mad rush for the perfect spot on the lawn. Secure your location, crack open your beverages, spread out your treats, and prepare to make friends with your neighbors, especially if they've brought something even yummier! By the time the sun goes down and the show starts, all will be right with the world.

This post is part of Cambria Suites' Backyard Gems blog carnival. What are some gems in your own backyard?

The Filene Center at
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts
1551 Trap Road
Vienna, VA 22182
tickets: 877.WOLFTRAP

Nightclub 9:30
815 V Street, NW
Washington, DC
tickets: 877.435.9849

Dickson Wine Bar
903 U Street, NW
Washington, DC

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