Why the Foo Fighters Had To Christen Washington D.C.'s Big New Concert Venue

Ed Stack
Grohl (left) and Hurwitz toured the Anthem construction site.

After nearly 40 years in music, Seth Hurwitz, chairman of independent promoter I.M.P. and co-owner of the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., had seen and done it all -- almost. Come Oct. 12, he’ll experience something new: opening The Anthem, the first venue he has built from the ground up.

“We thought, ‘What if we could build the best venue not just in D.C., but in the world?’ ” he says. The Anthem, a triple-decker, $60 million, 24-acre waterfront property in The Wharf district (a mile south of the White House) marks Hurwitz’s fifth indie venue, and it’s starting strong. Dave Grohl, a Virginia native and longtime friend of Hurwitz who frequented D.C. venues as a teen, will lead Foo Fighters on opening night. With a 6,000-person capacity (the next-largest option in the District is Constitution Hall, which holds up to 3,700), The Anthem has “the illusion of a stadium, but the intimacy of a club,” Grohl told Billboard in June. “[It] doesn’t matter where you are -- you’ll feel close to the band. [It’s] the No. 1 venue in America. I shit you not.”

Hurwitz worked closely with The Wharf’s developer, Monty Hoffman, who drew inspiration from some of America’s most enviable destination neighborhoods -- the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Pike’s Place in Seattle, the Meatpacking District in New York City -- as well as its most storied music halls. “We assessed all the best venues from New York down to The Roxy in Atlanta -- what works for them, what doesn’t -- and then set out to make this venue superior to all the others.”

The venue boasts some cleverly designed jaw-droppers: a three-story lobby with a ceiling the provides a provocative glimpse into a glass-bottomed pool above; a rooftop patio above the marquee with a panoramic view of the Potomac and The Wharf district below; and strategically angled, scalper-proof “Super Excellent” seats that offer unobstructed views of the stage below. These features (in addition to seven bars, a full kitchen and artfully designed dressing rooms) are largely why both fans and artists are eager for opening day.

Eric Hilton -- one half of the electronica duo Thievery Corporation (which is slated to play The Anthem’s New Year’s Eve show) and a local restaurateur credited with revitalizing some of D.C.’s most vibrant neighborhoods -- is confident that Hurwitz will be able to keep a good thing going: “The 9:30 is the best venue we’ve played in America,” Hilton attests. “The independent nature of 9:30 and I.M.P. in general is why it’s so good: The staff loves it, everyone who works there goes out of their way to do a good job for both the musicians and the audience in a way that you don’t get at corporate venues. I’m sure that culture will translate to the Anthem. Bands are clamoring to play there. It’s this special-sized venue that D.C. has been lacking for a long time.”

The Anthem’s calendar is already packed with big-name acts such as Phoenix, The National, Bob Dylan, The Killers and LCD Soundsystem. Hurwitz even reconfigured the venue’s architecture in order to convince Lorde to deviate from her arena tour and play his space instead. “We thought we were all set to have her play The Anthem, but then her production guy called me the night before the show was to be announced night and said, ‘We have to bring our own stage.’ So I called Hoffman at 11 p.m. and asked, ‘Have we put the stage in yet?’ And he said, ‘No, not yet.’ So I said, ‘Okay, don’t.’” The two then decided on a convertible stage that not only slides forward to adjust for a crowd as small as 2,500 but also comes apart “like a Lego set,” as Hurwitz says, to make room for arena-sized acts who want to BYO stage.

When it came to the coveted first gig, though, “there was no Plan B,” says Hurwitz. “I texted Dave photos of the venue after we started building it and asked, ‘Who else should open it?’ He said, ‘Nobody [but us].’”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of Billboard.