Last week at the Anthem, the new music venue located on Washington's Southwest waterfront, it kept happening: the jaws of eager fans dropping before the headliner, LCD Soundsystem, ever played a note.
Rounding the corner from the lobby and into the heart of the 6,000-capacity venue revealed a deceptively large theater that feels both industrial and sophisticatedly chic. Taking it all in, impressed fans pointed out design elements such as stage curtains made of perforated metal and balconies angled toward the stage for optimal upper-level views.
It's a scene that still brings a huge grin to Anthem co-owner Seth Hurwitz, the independent promoter who is also behind D.C.'s 9:30 Club and Merriweather Post Pavilion.
"I love standing in the lobby and watching people's expressions," said Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P. Productions. "It's supposed to be a special night out, and it looks like that's what it's going to be for people."
After kicking off its inaugural season earlier this month with a sold-out show by the Foo Fighters, the Anthem has boldly announced its arrival with a thoughtfully designed theater and an A-list lineup that includes Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Bon Iver, Lil Uzi Vert and Lorde. With multiple sold-out shows already, it's a formula that's attracting music fans from all over the region, including Baltimore, Hurwitz said.
The Anthem was a project unlike any other for Hurwitz and his team. The venue anchors the Wharf, the recently opened $2.5 billion development lined with restaurants, boutique shops, hotels, office buildings and more. When real estate developer Monty Hoffman offered Hurwitz the opportunity to operate the venue, Hurwitz was immediately on board.
"It's an unbelievable location," Hurwitz said. "I didn't really know what else he was going to do there, and I didn't care. Being right on the [National] Mall and the water and the 14th Street Bridge, that was like, 'Are you kidding?' "
While there will be plenty to do around the massive mixed-use development once everything is open — last week, many restaurants were still closed to the public — the Anthem is solely focused on music, Hurwitz said.
That explains the spare-nothing attitude to the design, and the initial $60 million budget Hurwitz said he's already exceeded. Not only does the space look like its price tag, it sounds like it, too. Connecticut-based design firm Akustiks, I.M.P. veteran Chris Robb and acoustician John Storyk, who helped configure the 9:30 Club's layout, led the design to create a crisp, resonant sound that was on full display for LCD Soundsystem's boisterous, layered arrangements.
"Every single inch of the place was built from scratch," Hurwitz said. "If you go this far, $60 million, you don't want to stop short there. You want to make sure it's the best you possibly can."
Deliberately missing from the budget? Big, fancy video screens displaying the concerts. Hurwitz feels strongly that they are a distraction, doing a disservice to the artist. Seeing the 160 foot-wide Jumbotron at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium recently only re-enforced his conviction.
"I had really great seats, but I spent the whole time looking at the video screen. You can't blame people, but it takes away" from the experience, he said. "I'm not going to put it up because I know better."
With the design finished and the venue up and running, Hurwitz and I.M.P. can focus on the music, he said. More shows are still to be announced, and Hurwitz plans to continue to book a wide array of genres. His approach isn't complicated, but one based largely on gut feel. The acts need to have clearly outgrown the 1,200-person 9:30 Club, he said.
"The criteria is not simply that they sold out [9:30 Club] last time," Hurwitz said. "It has to really have a trajectory."
With a lineup touting popular acts like Erkyah Badu, the Lumineers and Little Big Town, it seems natural for Baltimore music fans to once again feel that nagging envy, the feeling that artists overlook us for D.C. Hurwitz said it's the reality of an industry's bottom line.
"Baltimore, unfortunately, does half the business that D.C. does. It's just a fact as far as live music," he said. "I love Baltimore, but just in terms of sheer demographics, it's not the same size city as D.C., and bands want to play where they're going to draw the most people. There's just not enough business to go around."
Hurwitz is confident Baltimore fans will continue to make the trek to D.C., just as they have for the 9:30 Club. The key will be to establish the palpable, yet hard-to-define connection between the performer and the audience that the 9:30 Club is famous for. That means creating an environment that not only sounds and looks great, but feels conducive to letting loose, as a concert should, he said.
He believes the Anthem is off to a strong start.
"We know the vibe that we're looking for. We know what the mood is," he said. "People say it feels like a big club. What does that mean? It means people are comfortable."