Throughout 2020, a strange feeling permeated my being as I was displaced in the city I love most: D.C. A place once teeming with crowded bars and sold-out concert venues turned dormant, dark. Sure, if you knew where to look you’d find an occasional virtual show, not to mention the year brought some interesting to-go drink and reservation-only experiences. Despite the enthusiasm for these brief moments of entertainment, they still felt foreign and strange. Personally, it was devastating to quarantine at home when there were things to be discovered, memories to be made and eardrums to torment.
For nearly an entire year, there were no Friday night plans to see my favorite band(s) play sold-out shows at the iconic 9:30 Club or any chances to linger, well into the night, on DC9’s rooftop bar. There certainly wasn’t enough material to fill out a year-in-review playlist of budding artists, unless you lived on SoundCloud. Despite this struggle the city persevered, holding out for the return of bobbing heads and encores to again beckon the band to exhilarate us with one more song. Mercifully, concerts returned to the District — sort of. While venues are operating at 100 percent capacity, audiences are still wearing masks and carrying vaccine cards — constant reminders of these bizarre times.
I’ve found gratitude in the fleeting moments when emotions and nostalgia for what was normal come rushing back. In July 2021, when I stepped into the photo pit for the first time to snap pictures of Japanese Breakfast at The Fillmore Silver Spring, I saw strangers smiling, dancing and singing. Existing in those moments is all that matters, and for many of us, concerts are a powerful escape. They’re where we flee drudgery to get lost in a raucous guitar solo or gripping vocals. Music is essential to who we are and the city’s ecosystem, and we should savor any opportunity to say with pride: “Thank you.”
10 Artists to Know
April + VISTA
This dynamic duo (April George and Matthew Thompson) based in D.C. has an impressive resume, including opening for numerous artists such as Cautious Clay and Little Dragon. When I first saw them at DC9, it was as if I was lost in a dream world conjured by George’s beautiful voice and Thompson’s insane melodies. April + VISTA recently released their second album, “Pit of My Dreams,” and you can also watch live sets from them on YouTube. aprilandvista.com // @aprilandvista
Arguably this year’s standout local artist, Bartees Strange’s recent album release party featured throngs of fans at a sold-out who are wildly supportive of his success at a sold-out Union Stage show. His critically acclaimed album “Live Forever” expertly blends elements from emo, punk and indie rock genres. barteesstrange.com // @bartees_strange
This “glamorous” art pop rock band was started by brothers Niko and Rohit Rao along with bandmates Colin Kelly and Mikey Mastrangelo. Originating from Oakland’s punk scene, Niko came to D.C. with hopes of blending the NoCal sound with his quirky keyboard, raw vocals and love affair with the sounds of the ‘80s. With the recent additions of Jeremy Ray (formerly of Dove Lady) and Chloe Menderson, the band has begun to unlock bigger sounds with epic jam sessions and guitar solos. The group recently signed with Misra Records and is poised for a big 2022. bottledup.bandcamp.com // @bottled_up.exe
Super explosive yet beautiful, Del Florida (fronted by Leela Dawson) is one of the best jam bands in D.C. with a vibrant mix of R&B, jazz and beautiful melodies. fb.com/delfloridababy // @delfloridababy
Frass Green is a surf pop rock band that offers echoes of the Beach Boys and The Strokes. Every time I see these guys perform, there is nothing but joy onstage and in the audience because all of the members (Joe Antoshak, Matt Lachance, Antonio Peluso and Tyler Rippel) really shred. Check out their 2020 EP titled “Death of Pop.” frassgreen.com // @frassgreen
Oh He Dead
Staples of D.C.’s music scene, Oh He Dead delivers funky rock sounds with the beautiful soulful voice of C.J. Johnson. The five-piece group (including Adam Ashforth, John Daise, Johnson, Alex Salser and Andy Valenti) recently headlined shows at 9:30 Club and sold-out shows in other local spaces. ohhedead.com // @ohhedead
Saad Ashraf is an experienced DJ who spins the unique sounds of underground house music artists like Flying Lotus and Nosaj Thing. In 2018, he founded DMV Deep, an underground music initiative dedicated to “celebrating local community, art and talent.” He also recently created the dance collective Sous La Terre and has hosted DJ sets at DC9 and Flash. fb.com/saadashrafmusic // @_saadashraf
I first met Eman El Saied as a photographer and had no idea she was such a talented musician. Her immense talent is exemplified on her latest EP, “In Your Apartment,” which beautifully blends bedroom pop with R&B. fb.com/sunstoney // @sunstoney
When I first met the group (Victor Arce, Ryan Plummer, Zeeshan Shad and Eric Zidar) behind Tosser at their album release party show at Pie Shop, there was nothing but chaos and it remains one of the wildest shows I’ve ever seen at the venue. Tosser is a quartet band that blends indie rock and prog rock. Check out their latest album, “Total Restraint.” tossertheband.bandcamp.com // @tosserband420
You and Me and You
Formed by the trio of Emily Mann, Reed Appleseed and Dani Zessoules, this group of accomplished musicians undertakes a variety of projects in D.C. The band recently played a sold-out show at DC9 with Scorpio — marinating the dancing crowd with Appleseed’s tasty, folky guitar sound and the beautiful harmonies of Mann and Zessoules. fb.com/youplusmeplusyou // @youxmexyou
10 Venues to Visit
You can’t talk about D.C.’s music scene without mentioning 9:30 Club. The iconic space represents a tremendous cornerstone for the local music community and has hosted the Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Public Enemy, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and countless other chart-toppers and on-the-cusp acts. With concerts coming back, 9:30 Club is a can’t-miss destination. My first show at 9:30 Club was the Youth Lagoon show and I remember how mesmerizing it was to see the venue. 851 V St. NW, DC; 930.com // @930club
The Anthem, the District’s largest concert venue, acts as one of the city’s crown jewels, featuring a grand stage and superb bookings ranging from Billie Eilish, LCD Soundsystem, Leon Bridges, Lizzo to Tame Impala. I still remember the massive crowd jumping up and down with Billie Eilish and seeing confetti fly during the Tame Impala show. 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; theanthemdc.com // @theanthemdc
Co-founded by D.C. native Dave Grohl, the Black Cat is a stronghold for local punk bands and a popular stop-off for international, independent and alternative artists. With its dark halls, red and blue lighted stage, vegan food options and rich history, there’s never been a more D.C. (or punk) spot — so says my black eye from that accidental punch during the PUP show. 1811 14th St. NW, DC; blackcatdc.com // @blackcatdc
Comet Ping Pong
Hidden behind the warm pizza oven, Comet Ping Pong provides a small, cozy venue for local artists. During my undergraduate years at GWU, it was my favorite venue to see performances from my friends in the aforementioned Bottled Up and Dove Lady. Welcoming artists representing a variety of genres — from indie pop to R&B — the venue reflects the diversity of D.C.’s music community. Plus, their pizza is amazing. 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; cometpingpong.com // @cometpingpong
Tucked away near the corner of 9th and U Street, DC9 has always showcased up-and-coming bands from across the local music scene and beyond. Its intimate performance venue and popular rooftop bar offers a unique experience for concertgoers, whether locals or visitors. I remember dancing to a sold-out Vundabar show and singing along with members from my favorite local bands. Shows are booked by Alli Vega, who also has standout music project Scorpio, which adds some notable cache to her artist curation. 1940 9th St. NW, DC; dc9.club // @dc9club
For many artists starting in D.C., Pie Shop is a must-play place. Their bookings place a heavy emphasis on punk and heavy metal talents but complement their schedules with memorable indie favorites such as Video Age and Mamalarky. This is the perfect destination for pie and music lovers. 1339 H St. NE, DC; pieshopdc.com // @pieshopdc
Once regarded as the rehearsal studio in D.C., 7DrumCity has expanded and opened their own venue: The Pocket. This small intimate venue showcases local bands and talents, and provides a home for small shows for touring musicians. You’re guaranteed to find some hidden gems here, as The Pocket’s Angelie Bean and Elly Mendelson are eager to see the venue become a staple of D.C.’s indie music scene. 1508 North Capitol St. NW, DC; thepocketdc.com // @thepocket_dc
Located in Bloomingdale, this is one of my favorite dive bars and performance locations in D.C. With a unique community atmosphere, intimate bar area and endless lineup of talented DJs spinning ‘50s music, being here on a cold night is like sonically traveling back in time. Pro tip: Visit on Saturday night when local standout DJ Baby Alcatraz spins. 113 Rhode Island Ave. NW, DC; twitter.com/Showtime_DC // @showtimebar
Songbyrd Music House
I still remember the basement shows at Songbyrd’s original Adams Morgan location. Whether it’s Big Thief rocking out or Nick Hakim pole dancing, owners Joe Lapan and Alisha Edmonson consistently display a knack for curating great performers. Now relocated to the flourishing Union Market area, with a gorgeous warehouse-style venue and a renewed commitment to bringing fresh new artists to D.C., Songbyrd’s reputation as one of the city’s go-to places for music is more than secure. 540 Penn St. NE, DC; songbyrddc.com // @songbyrddc
One of the newest venues in D.C., Union Stage has hosted sold-out shows for popular indie artists Giveon, Arlo Parks, Men I Trust and more. It’s been my favorite venue since concerts returned, with a dream team including marketing director Jake Diamond killing it behind the scenes. I recently went to a sold-out Wolf Alice performance, which featured my first return to moshing since the local music scene awoke from its slumber. 740 Water St. SW, DC; unionstage.com // @unionstage
Keep On Living, Mate
Sometimes there’s an inexplicable feeling in the air that you are in for an evening of the unexpected. I was walking to the 9:30 Club to photograph one of my favorite bands, IDLES. Not only was I planning to see a great band, but this particular show was my first time back at the 9:30 Club since the start of the pandemic. True to form, IDLES’ show was pure madness: moshing, guitar shredding and Joe Talbot, the lead singer, screaming his heart (and lungs) out.
At one point, I saw a woman crowd surfing to the front before landing safely on the floor, after which she proceeded to hug me. It was one of my good friends, Alli Vega, who’s also an amazing musician.
We danced and screamed with IDLES, and when the show was over, we strolled around the corner to another local favorite: DC9. Hanging out at their rooftop bar, we saw a crowd coming in led by none other than the members of IDLES. I never felt so shocked and excited at once. IDLES was there, but one of my favorite photographers ever — Pooneh Ghana — showed up, too. She is famously known for shooting music festivals (ACL, Lollapalooza, Coachella) and famous artists (Cage the Elephant, Glass Animals, Khruangbin) and is my main inspiration for photographing concerts.
I spent the whole night with them, talking about music, photography and life in general. I’ll forever hold onto what Talbot said to me that night: “Keep on photographing and keep on living, mate.”
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