It used to be that as you got older as a musician, your options for getting gigs shrank. Nowadays, unfortunately, that’s true for all musicians. The hangout/live music/stuff-on-the-TV bar that I took for granted for decades is fading, and with that is going lots of places for live music.
But there are a few still around, where you’ll see bands with decades upon decades of experience still throwing it down, often with a level of talent that will make your jaw go slack. We lost one recently — the Lahinch Tavern in Potomac — but we also gained one a while back when Hank Dietle’s Tavern in Rockville returned to action. Still, the trends for this sort of place are not favorable, so you should seek them out while you still can.
All of the places below are in the DC metro area. There are a bunch of others that aren’t far away — places like the Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill, Va. or Apehangers in Bel Alton, Md. — and lots of wineries and microbrewers in the distant-ish ‘burbs will book music for grownups during the summer in particular. But I’m going to focus on the locals here. Here are the ones I know:
JV’s: This absolute Falls Church institution got an overhaul a few years back, doubling in size and just becoming a much better music venue overall. The food is still good-diner quality, the beers are still cold, they don’t serve hard liquor and you’re still likely to meet Lorraine. And there is live rootsy music every night, from open mics to all-pro acts. On weekend afternoons/nights there are often two shows.
Hershey’s Restaurant & Bar: It looks like a roadhouse, it’s next to some railroad tracks in Gaithersburg, you probably aren’t going to find it accidentally and it has the best damn fried chicken I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. It’s another joint that’s been around for more than 50 years, and they have music on weekends. They also serve breakfast on Saturday and Sunday.
Hank Dietle’s Tavern: One of the dangers of being an old dive-ish bar is that it might suddenly burn down. That’s what happened to Hank’s a few years back, and given its unlikely location on Rockville Pike, surrounded by strip-mall suburbia, that should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t.
219 Restaurant: Speaking of burning, this Old Town Alexandria complex-in-a-townhouse puts its live music in a cigar bar. That requires all sorts of restrictions in this no-smoking era for clubs, but the all-the-way-upstairs space (it’s a memorable hike if you’re a musician with gear) features live music most nights. The place has a strong New Orleans flavor and brings in some of the best local blues and jazz musicians, and my harmonicas have tasted like cigars for weeks after doing a show here.
The Hamilton Loft: On the second floor of the big D.C. restaurant that bears most of its name — which itself is atop a large live music club that hosts national touring acts — sits this sometimes-open performance space. It’s another roots-jazz-blues kind of place that’s often ideal for hanging out after the show in the basement.
Hell’s Bottom VFW: The fact that there’s a VFW hall in the People’s Republic of Takoma Park at all seems odd, but there is, and this one has live music on a regular basis. Shows are early, in part as a nod to the neighbors, drinks and cheap and the vibe is excellent.
Old Bowie Town Grille: This place is a longtime supporter of live music with one of the better-known open mics in the area. Musicians generally work for tips and/or the door here, so you should act accordingly with your tip money.
New Deal Cafe: If you’ve played rootsy music in bars for any time in this area, you’ve probably done a show or two here. The place is run as a cooperative and calls itself “Greenbelt’s living room” (an accurate claim). It has live music almost every night.