“I don’t really know how to explain it — the bands who play here understand it, the fans who come here understand it, but it’s not really something you can put into words,” says 9:30 Club’s colorful co-owner, Seth Hurwitz, on what makes his famed Washington, D.C. music venue special. “It’s like an old BBQ pit in Texas — it’s seasoned and it tastes like something you can’t manufacture.”
The one-of-a-kind venue, which was a 2015 finalist for Billboard’s Touring Award for Top Club, is celebrating its 35th anniversary with the release of an exhaustive 264-page coffee table book, 9:30: 35 Years of the Best Music Venue in the World. It’s also hosting an exhibition at the bi-level, 1,200 capacity club entitled “World’s Fair” that will transform the space into a veritable fun house. In addition walking through a re-creation of the club’s original 930 F Street location (complete with the annoying pillar in the middle of the room that once blocked the view of the stage), attendees can hang out in dressing rooms, walk the stage to a video of a screaming crowd (filmed at the last Thievery Corporation show), and get inked with a permanent tattoo of the club’s iconic logo.
While Washingtonians agree on 9:30’s importance to the capital city’s storied music scene, there’s far less consensus on what the venue’s finest shows (among thousands) were. From the club’s first show in 1980 — headlined by NYC’s foot-stomping jazz band The Lounge Lizards (who filled in for Joy Division weeks after lead singer Ian Curtis took his life) with NPR Music’s Bob Boilen’s Tiny Desk Unit opening — to legends like Bob Dylan, James Brown, Nirvana and Willie Nelson to local favorites like Trouble Funk, Fugazi and the Slickee Boys, the choices are dizzying.
Billboard presented this question to Hurwitz, who gave us 9.5 of his all-time favorite 9:30 shows, listed below in no particular order, all in his own words.
Iggy Pop — he wrote the book on all time great stage performers. I hate to sound old but kids these days just have no idea. It was a late show like 12:00 or 1:00 a.m. and he came out and completely destroyed the place and it was total school of rock star — he’s just so incredibly great. In a way he was like a lot like Lux Interior of the Cramps who was an absolute madman on stage. I went to say hi afterwards and of course this maniac insane person on stage is shy, meek, reserved and soft-spoken up close. I had him at Virgin Fest, and people who had never seen him before were like, “Oh my god, this is unbelievable!” He’s just great, one of the best ever.
Kraftwerk has this 3D show, this is a truly unique art form that I don’t think anyone else has done. The music is beautiful and the visuals are beautiful and it all goes together and you are absolutely transported into a totally different audio-visual galaxy. It’s truly an amazing, unique piece of work. I don’t know what to call it, it’s a sort of a concert, but I don’t really know how much of that is live, but it doesn’t matter, it’s just such a great experience. If you have a chance to see that 3D show you should go, it’s just fantastic.
I don’t know how they found me, but I was actually asked this year to vote for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’m proud to say I voted for Deep Purple and helped put them there. Deep Purple was a band that when I was a kid were God-like to me and I still think is one of the most amazing bands ever — especially the version with Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord, who invented the whole idea of rock organ. A lot of Deep Purple stuff you don’t even realize it’s organ, you think it’s Richie Blackmore but it’s Jon Lord. He used the organ as a lead guitar and did things nobody ever did in rock music that you don’t even know that unless you see them. And the drummer Ian Paice — and I’m a drummer — is absolutely in my top five favorite drummers, he’s just unbelievable and one of my idols. I stood on my little balcony watching with John-Paul [Gaster], the drummer for Clutch. To see him play those rolls on “Highway Star” was like, “does this get any better?” I think we high-fived — they hadn’t invented fist bumps yet.
I hadn’t really seen Willie until pretty late in life. He has this incredible God-like talent and can just come out with an acoustic guitar and you forget that it’s a big act playing a small place. The pure talent, feeling and everything that’s there with him as soon as he starts playing is just unbelievable. When Willie Nelson just plays guitar and sings, it’s light years beyond anyone else and everyone should just experience that and see what real talent is — he is just great. The other thing about Willie is that he’s such an incredible guitar player and you don’t necessarily know that until you see him. I mean he’s right up there with Django Reinhardt — he’s amazing. I don’t know how many God-given talents we have like that these days but he’s the kind of artist that I stand there and think, “How lucky am I to be doing this?”
They’ve played several times and every time Dave [Grohl] comes out to play there’s nothing left on the table. He is a lesson for all to see what it’s like to not leave anything in the locker room. He just comes out and is such a happy person and enjoys what he does so much and has that connection with the audience. We have a great shot of him standing on the bar, playing on the bar so he can be right up with the people. It’s not a gimmick or a photo op, he just wants to be playing — he loves to play, he loves to please people. The energy from Dave and the rest of the band — they kinda get put in the background, but what a collection of nice people and happy people — it’s just makes the connection electric. It’s unbelievable And all those great songs — I wish every night could be a Foo Fighters show because it’s such a treat.
Al Green was a dream come true. We booked him early on in the new club [opened in 1995]. We were restricted by the old club because of the capacity  and what we could pay people and I couldn’t get a lot of my idols to play. Back then Al Green had just really just started playing again — if you remember for a long time he was in hibernation and you could just go see him in his church in Memphis, which I did, and that was one of my all-time great experiences. But when he first came back and started playing again it was so magical. I mean he is one of the all-time great performers and again the love in the room between him and the audience was fantastic. I haven’t seen him in a while but that was again like magic, a I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening sorta thing. When i saw him at his church, the first thing he says to the congregation, the first thing he says is “God loves happy people!” and it just went up from there. And when he came to the 9:30 it was like Al Green conducting a service. Not a lot of religious talk, but it was the same feeling as a gospel service — it was amazing.
The long story’s in the book, but they had to cancel their big Tibetan Theatre Concert at RFK after someone got struck by lightning, and the show was canceled so Radiohead didn’t get to play. They knew me and their tour manager called me up as I was going to go to the stadium. And he starts asking me questions about the 9:30 like they just wanted to come hang out. Then he starts asking me technical questions, like what kind of board do we have there and I was like, “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute, are you thinking of playing?” And he was like, “Well, yeah because we didn’t get to play today.” Long story short they wanted to play and they played at two in the morning and it was a free show and Michael Stipe sang and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were photographed on the balcony together and that was in all the tabloids as that was just rumored before then — it was a crazy experience.
Robbie Williams is really, really great and a really sweet guy and I got to play drums with him and that was really exciting. He had already played once before and I hung out with him and he remembered me. He was playing backgammon before the show and I said, “I’ll play you but if I beat you I get to play drums.” And then I said, “Well you know what, you don’t really have time for a game so let’s assume I won and I’ll play.” And he was like, “Let’s do it. How should we do this?” I don’t know who came up with the idea but it was like, “I’ll just pretend that the drummer gets sick and has to leave the stage and I’ll have to ask for a volunteer.” So his drummer did this fake thing like he was throwing up and Robbie did this whole acting thing like, “Oh my God, jeez, what are we gonna do? Does anyone out there know how to play drums?” There I was and I got to pick what song to play, which was “Old Before I Die,” which is still one of my favorite songs. When you get up there behind the drums it’s like your stepping into a movie, like you’re in the Godfather or something, it’s like, “Are you kidding me? I not only get to be on stage but I’m actually in the song? This is unbelievable!” We didn’t rehearse but I knew the song back and forth. I can’t think of that without smiling and disappearing for a minute.
I thought I knew a lot about music but I am always learning and to me she was always some kind of cornball “Hee Haw” act. My friend Kevin Morrow who used to work for Live Nation was booking Dolly Parton and I thought, “Oh, god, how do I get out of this one” because I thought it was too cheesy. But I started asking people about her and they were like, “Are you kidding me? She’s not cheesy, she’s one of the most incredible talents ever, she’s amazing!” So I booked her and she was so great. And such a sweet person. And that makes all the difference when you work with people who are nice and that’s also part of your memory of doing a show.
A Mighty Wind (cast of the 2003 Christopher Guest mockumentary, counts as the aforementioned .5 choice)
Whenever there’s a film tour like O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the Buena Vista Social Club, you know they’re so temporary and precious that it’s just a moment you’re lucky to be a part of. So when my friend Brian Swanson called and told me how many of [A Mighty Wind cast members] were doing it and he was naming these big stars I couldn’t believe they were all going to play my club, this is too crazy, this is like out of control. You know like Eugene Levy’s there and Parker Posey and Catherine O’Hara’s hanging out with us. And Sissy Spacek, who lives in Charlottesville, came up to see the show and she’s hanging out in the office with us. It was my wife’s birthday and her favorite movie ever is Coal Miner’s Daughter. And we’re talking to Catherine O’Hara — it was magical, it was just nuts, it was crazy total pinch-me night. And then Bob Balaban was walking down the hallway to the dressing room and I introduce myself and he’s looks around and goes, “This place is famous isn’t it? I’ve heard a lot about this,” like he was in awe. And Jane Lynch was there. When Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, did that Mitch and Mickey — what a rare treat. All these talented people performing — there’s nothing like it. So that was something that came and went and will never be again and that’s why it was so special.