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Just a few weeks ago, multi-platinum country music star Taylor Swift showed up at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria and treated the student body to a full concert, free of charge. It’s just the sort of freak occurrence that has thrown Washingtonians’ expectations out of whack when it comes to free music.
There are indeed some big names who perform for free during the summer months—typically associated with a large-scale event, such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival or the annual Stone Soul Picnic. Still, spending the summer on the couch, waiting for your favorite marquee act to roll into town and put on a cost-free show is a waste. It’s fine to hold out hope, but while you’re waiting, you should submit to the call of the clarion bell-ringers, military bands, and top-quality indie and/or local acts prepared to entertain you without asking for money.
One of the summer’s best freebies is the Capital Hip Hop Soul Fest, which takes place on July 25 at Northeast’s Marvin Gaye Park. The bill features funk/soul outfit Godisheus, fronted by D.C. hip-hop legend Head-Roc, as well as indie rockers Noon:30, and Baltimore spoken-word outfit the 5th L. It’s a frugal alternative to big-budget hip-hop tour Rock the Bells, with its high ticket prices and overpriced merch, food, and beer. Another good substitution is the D.C. Hip-Hop Theater Festival, organized by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The 2009 lineup hasn’t been announced yet, but the event has provided free hip-hop-inspired art, music, theater, dance, poetry, and film every summer for the last 10 years.
If you’re a fan of military bands and chamber music, the summer is your chance to ditch the tie or pantyhose and enjoy in a pair of shorts. On Saturday, July 18, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gives a rare free performance as part of Baltimore’s annual Artscape event. In town, visit Southwest’s Fort McNair every Wednesday night, from May 6 through July 1, for Twilight Tattoo. There will be fife and drum music, ensembles of the U.S. Army Band, and some of the best views of the Potomac in the city—something most civilians never get to experience.
Those in search of less stodgy summertime fun should ride out to Alexandria’s Del Ray Music Festival at the Mount Vernon Recreation Center on June 27 for the rockabilly of Dagmar and the Seductones and the swing/big band of Swing Command. If you’d rather head north, check out Baltimore’s Patterson Park: There are shows on the lawn all summer long, but bluesman and “Mayor of B-Town” Big Daddy Stallings on June 21 is not to be missed.
Town squares are another good source of free music. In Baltimore, try Belvedere Square, which hosts the soca and samba of Mambo Combo on Aug. 21 and the Latin jazz of Swingin’ Swamis on July 3, among others. The District’s Farragut Square Park has one of the best summer concert series in the city—Sounds in the Square. Shows are every Thursday evening and the offerings include reggae band Jah Works on June 11 and salsa band Orquestra La Romana on June 18.
The mother of all free concert programs is, of course, Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, which typically starts its season with lesser-known acts, and brings out the big guns during the hottest months. KenCen hasn’t announced its acts for June, July, and August yet, but the series is definitely your best bet for getting close to the stars without spending a dime.
Capital Hip-Hop Soul Fest at Marvin Gaye Park, Sat., 7/25, at time TBA. FREE
D.C. Hip-Hop Theater Festival, Various locations, TBA
Twilight Tattoo at Ft. McNair, Wednesdays, 5/6-7/1, at 7 p.m. FREE.
Del Ray Music Festival at the Mount Vernon Recreation Center, Alexandria, Sat., 6/27, at 10 a.m. FREE
Big Daddy Stallings at Patterson Park, Wed., 6/21, at 6:30 p.m. FREE
Mambo Combo at Belvedere Square, Baltimore, Fri., 8/21, at 6 p.m. FREE.
Swingin’ Swamis at Belvedere Square, Baltimore, on Thurs., 7/3, at 6 p.m. FREE.
Jah Works at Farragut Square Park, Thus., 6/11, at 5:30 p.m. FREE.
Orquestra La Romana at Farragut Square Park, Thurs., 6/18, at 5:30 p.m. FREE