How The Wharf Could Transform D.C.'s Live Music Scene
When The Wharf celebrates its grand opening on Thursday, it will mark a dramatic transformation of the Southwest Waterfront. The development has changed D.C.'s office market, helping usher a wave of companies moving to the water. It has also added a variety of new offerings to D.C.'s restaurant menu, multifamily supply and hotel selection. But the space that could ultimately see the most fundamental shift from The Wharf's opening is D.C.'s live music scene.
Although D.C. has several places to see live performances, the venues are spread throughout the city, leaving it without an iconic music destination.
"D.C. doesn’t really have a Sixth Street in Austin or a Bourbon Street in New Orleans. We have a bunch of smaller communities," local musician Justin Trawick said. "We really don’t have an epicenter, you can’t walk from one venue to another like you could in one of those cities."
The Wharf has the potential to be just that, with four separate music venues within steps of each other, set to feature live performances nearly every night. Musicians and venue owners agree the waterfront development could transform the way music is performed and consumed in the District.
The action will kick off Thursday night with the Foo Fighters headlining The Anthem. Created by I.M.P Chairman Seth Hurwitz, The Anthem will be by far the largest venue, with a 6,000-person capacity. By comparison, 1,200 people fit in the 9:30 Club, Hurwitz's legendary D.C. venue.
The $60M facility sits at the base of The Wharf's 501-unit apartment building, The Channel. Hurwitz sees The Anthem filling a key void in the D.C. music scene between the smaller nightclubs and the larger stadiums and outdoor venues.
"There has been such a long cry for this sized venue from the music industry," Hurwitz said. "I can't think of anything else like it anywhere in the world. There are smaller versions or bigger versions, but nothing of this size. This is really where the demand is for people to see and for acts to play."
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl agreed, saying upon the announcement of his show that The Anthem "has the illusion of a stadium, but the intimacy of a nightclub," and that it is "set to become the No. 1 venue in America."
The rest of The Wharf's live music offerings are concentrated two blocks east of The Anthem on the nightlife-oriented Pearl Street.
Grammy-winning soul artist Booker T. Jones is headlining the opening night Thursday at Pearl Street Warehouse, the 300-person restaurant and music venue created by Cantina Marina owner Bruce Gates.
Pearl Street Warehouse will serve breakfast and lunch and have happy hour before the 7 p.m. shows. Gates said he is starting with music acts Wednesday through Sunday, but may transition to seven nights a week. Most of the shows will require buying tickets — the first month's acts range from $10 to $75 — but Gates said he plans to offer free walk-in admission for some smaller acts on weekend afternoons.
A third music venue across from Pearl Street Warehouse, Union Stage, will open later this month. Created by the brothers behind Vienna's Jammin' Java, the 7,500 SF venue will have a 450-person capacity. On the corner of Pearl and Wharf streets, Kirwan's Irish Pub will host live musicians on the weekends, starting with the grand opening Thursday.
Gates said Pearl Street Warehouse will draw some well-known national artists looking to mix it up by playing smaller shows, and he designed it with accommodations that veteran musicians are used to. He also wants to focus on developing local talent, and thinks Pearl Street could be a launching pad for D.C.'s next big star.
"I was in Athens, Georgia, when B-52 left and R.E.M. was still a town band, I know how fun a hotbed can be," Gates said. "D.C. already has a good music scene, but I think The Wharf can make it better."
Trawick will play with his band, Justin Trawick and the Common Good, at one of the outdoor music areas The Wharf has created for the grand opening weekend. The Nine, a collection of Trawick and eight other musicians, will play at Pearl Street Warehouse Nov. 2.
Trawick said he usually rotates between a handful of small venues in the area, such as Rock & Roll Hotel, DC9, The Hamilton and Gypsy Sally's, but having multiple new options available at The Wharf will be a big addition to D.C.'s local music scene.
"These new venues, especially Pearl Street and Union Stage, will absolutely add to the overall soundscape with not only more music to be heard for fans of music, but also more options of places to play," Trawick said.
The D.C. music scene took a big hit last month, Trawick said, when Clarendon's IOTA Club & Cafe shut down. The club had been welcoming local artists for over 23 years, and Trawick had played there since 2005. He said The Wharf's new venues will help fill that void because of their accessibility from Northern Virginia, sitting just off I-395 on the other side of the bridge.
PN Hoffman CEO Monty Hoffman said creating a live music scene was a critical component to making The Wharf a vibrant place. He described music as one of the three ingredients of the development's "secret sauce," along with being on the water and offering a variety of food and beverage options.
Initially, Hoffman said the District had wanted to see an art museum at The Wharf. But he insisted live music would create a more exciting destination.
"The city is full of great art galleries and museums, and that frankly is an individual experience, you internalize that," Hoffman said. "Music is the opposite. It’s social. It’s expressive."
Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner said the presence of music, and art in general, makes neighborhoods like The Wharf more attractive for residents and visitors.
"We have world-class music venues, we have an internationally known artist kicking off Thursday night, and we’re going to continue to have great artists that perform here," Kenner said. "It’s really for the enjoyment and the benefit of the immediate community as well as the people who come and want to experience the waterfront."
As Hurwitz prepares for opening night at The Anthem, he said the venue looks even better than he first imagined. He said the presence of the smaller live music spots at The Wharf will complement The Anthem and create a vibrant live music atmosphere on the water.
"Most of the smaller venues in town are all bars or some place that someone convinced them to try live music," Hurwitz said. "Not a lot of venues are built from scratch for music. There seem to be several here in this complex and I'm all for it. Anything people can do to develop new artists and get people out to see new bands is good for everybody."
Hoffman and I.M.P/9:30 Club Chief Operating Officer Donna Westmoreland will speak at Bisnow's The Future of Southwest D.C. & The Wharf event on Nov. 30.