All photos: Katherine Gaines, Marie Formica, Joshua Feldman, Kevin Hulse, + Cale
Everyone take a break sometime this week and sing Happy Birthday to U Street Music Hall. It’s anniversary week for the blackbox basement dance club, and it throbs into its third year this Sunday, March 17 when the decks are primed for drum’n’bass legend Goldie to take stage.
Has it really been three years? Time flies when you’re dancing up a sweat, dunnit? It seems like yesterday co-owner Will Eastman was on the site for an interview just as the venue was opening. Two of our patron saints of dance music Optimo gave us their time in advance of their set at USMH. We’ve seen countless great shows — dance music of course, but also indie rock, hip hop, singer-songwriter troubadour types, and many others.
But make no mistake, the club’s wheelhouse is producing good dance shows. Skream, SBTRKT, and Annie Mac have all vouched for its soundsystem, a claim peer-reviewed, confirmed, and accredited by Beatport as the second best soundsystem in the country.
Their first show was a good one, booking Aeroplane back when they were still a duo. One of our first excursions to the club was for a Bluebrain show, and we effectively ducked the no photo policy by represented the night via sketches.
It serves as a sort of greenhouse for Moombathon Massive, growing the monthly event into a tastemaking party experience as Nadastrom and their special guests report on the frontier of moomba sounds while Mama Nada serves up her delicious empanadas. Just two months ago Dillon Francis dropped in unannounced, and back in October, following Virgin Free Fest, Skrillex slipped into the club under the guise of an Alvin Risk set. Any time Matthew Dear or A-Trak come into town it’s a guaranteed good time. Legends like Carl Craig, Moby, Green Velvet have spent time on the 1s and 2s. Buzzy producers like John Talabot, Baauer, and AraabMuzik cut their teeth on tours that whisked them into U Hall. Funky nu-disco masters like The Twelves, Flight Facilities, Fred Falke, Alex Metric, Tresure Fingers, and Bit Funk have all got us going. Not to mention it’s shown love to the local dance music scene, establishing local roots as much as it is bringing the entire world of EDM to DC’s doorsteps.
AND I’M NOT DONE NAME DROPPING.
Of course some of our indie favorites have also graced the graffiti-stamped stage. Robyn sold the venue out twice and Grimes played her first headlining set in DC there (previously in the city supporting Lykke Li and Austra). Liars and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, The Holy Steady, Zola Jesus, and HAIM have all carouseled through the U Street Music Hall, among many others in recent memory. We could go on forever listing our favorite shows in the club. Instead let’s look to the future and see what classic memories are waiting to be born.
Here’s the schedule for anniversary week, with a show happening each night save for Tuesday:
Meanwhile let’s trail off down memory lane with some thoughts and photos to close out the post…
I’m thankful that I share a birthday with U St Music Hall, and of the many fine DJs and bands I’ve had the privilege of witnessing there, the most memorable was Robyn‘s guest appearance last July. The evening was billed as DJ-only set by the Swedish synthpop sprite, but I vividly remember freaking out that afternoon after a rumor about that night’s show was confirmed: in addition to her DJ set, Robyn decided to perform on USMH’s cramped stage. Lucky? You bet.
Translating her live set from the grandeur of the Verizon Center to the U St’.s subterranean, teeth-rattling rectangle meant her fans waited in the sweltering summer heat—the line for the club wrapped down 11th street—as she soundchecking below. However, the 500 who eventually made it inside were treated to a rare, intimate performance. Robyn eschewed many of her hits–nobody was dancing on their own, zero girlfriends were called–for six esoteric selections, including “Show Me Love”, “Dancehall Queen”, and a cover of tourmates’ “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall.” The set was brief, but kinetic.
I was also surprised that Robyn was no “celebrity DJ,” who waved their hand and blasted shitty Top 40. Nay, Robyn, accompanied with fellow DJ Rokk, amplified the club with crowd-friendly songs like Missy Elliot’s “Work It”, The Knife’s “Silent Shout” (FYI, this sounded amazing on the USMH speakers and The Knife are releasing a new album in a few weeks… hint hint, USMH bookers), and, most memorable of all, Whitney Houston’s “I Want To Dance With Somebody.” I left the club before she finished, not because I was exhausted, but because I was soaked with sweat and couldn’t move. A truly awesome show I will remember for the rest of my life.
– Andy Johnson
Will’s first Blisspop at U Hall (3/27/10) was amazing. He dropped Rusko’s “Cali Anthem” and I almost passed out from the waves of sound emanating from the monitor in the booth. The system hadn’t really been tested each and every single night by dubstep at that point, so, yeah. It was intense.
Scottie B‘s birthday five days earlier featured sets from Cullen Stalin, Nadastrom, Tittsworth and Scottie himself. Baltimore club is RARELY heard at U Hall, but, yeah. I stood in the middle of the dance floor and when the bassline dropped in when Tittsworth played Scottie’s club edit of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Find a Way,” that was something that changed my life. That bassline hit me so hard it literally made my heart skip and forced my hands in the air. It was amazing.
Moombahton Massive VI on August 18, 2011 featured 18 (listed) moombahtonistas all playing small sets. It was a total mess of an evening in the best way, a moombahton summer camp vibe at an early period when the genre needed those types of galvanizing moments. It was the second time that Munchi had played U Hall, and for pretty much everyone else, the first time they ever encountered what the genre could sound like. Between seeing grown men wearing “Hi my name is” tags to the vibe of everyone in that room having entirely too much fun, it was an awesome and inspiring experience.
I promoted a Wale x Board Administration concert with go-go band UCB, Fat Trel, Black Cobain and Tiara Thomas at U Hall on October 12, 2010 that I believe was the first time that rap or go-go had been in the venue. Putting those sounds into U Hall just felt like the right idea, as I just wanted to ensure that the venue’s unique charm and ideal conceptual construct was accessible for the whole city. I’ve also heard Trouble Funk on two separate occasions at U Hall as well, and those have all been moments that have stood out to me in an incredible way, uniting the past, present and future energies of the city.
The first Michael Jackson is Still Alive Happy Hour on June 25, 2010 was terrific fun, too. What started as me wanting to find a great way to honor the King of Pop by showcasing his music in an ideal venue became this incredible and cathartic moment for the city. It was the one-year anniversary of MJ’s death, and our collective wounds were still fresh. Oddly enough, it was the sound cutting out during “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and everyone singing along and dancing that stuck out the most. So much fun.
DJs I’ve grown to appreciate from visiting U Hall include Treasure Fingers (his deeper house vibe these days crushes on that system), Soul Clap (I once stayed for a six-hour set), Baltimore’s Deep Sugar Crew (break out the baby powder!), DJ Sabo (his just past peak-hour sets at Massive are EVERYTHING).
– Marcus Dowling