Live Music 2012: An industry-eye view of Charlottesville’s music scene

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Bruce Springsteen at a free Obama for America performance at the Pavilion. Photo: Jack Looney Bruce Springsteen at a free Obama for America performance at the Pavilion. Photo: Jack Looney

To many, Charlottesville is still best-known as the birthplace of the Dave Matthews Band, and with good reason: It would be a very different town without the group’s legacy. But our city has always hosted a wide range of musicians, from could-be stars to hometown oddities to local living legends and an impressive roster of touring musicians.

“If you can go a week without wanting to see something coming through, then you need to reevaluate your standards. Or go to Brooklyn and see how far $20 gets you. Here, that gets you Borrowed Beams of Light and two beers. There, it just gets you a cab,” said local musician Tyler Magill.

The biggest movers-and-shakers in town are the John Paul Jones Arena, overseen by UVA, and the nTelos Wireless Pavilion, operated by Starr Hill Presents. “The Pavilion had a great year,” said its General Manager Kirby Hutto, “with more sold-out shows than ever, a great line-up of unexpected events, and the President, the Dalai Lama, and the Boss all gracing our stage.”

Headliners like Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Bruce Springsteen, and Kool and the Gang made for a good year for the John Paul Jones Arena, too. General Manager Jason Pedone said, “Charlottesville remains a prominent tour stop thanks to the support of our community.”

Meanwhile, our Downtown theaters, like the Jefferson and the Paramount, bring in well-established artists with cross-generational appeal, from Lyle Lovett and Kris Kristofferson to Mogwai and Dan Deacon. “I think that the Arts & Economic Prosperity study showed us that even with a weaker economy, the arts still have a strong showing,” said Paramount Box Office Manager Matt Simon.

In addition to the popular alt-country and jam-band shows, which often draw sold-out crowds, the Jefferson Theater frequently books hip acts like tUnE-yArDs and Beach House, as well as tried and true indie favorites like Built to Spill and Dinosaur Jr,, due to the efforts of Starr Hill Presents’ Danny Shea. “Charlottesville and music get along nicely,” said Shea.

For many, a chance to see an iconic musical legend like “The Boss” is an epic experience. But for me and other music-obsessed locals, the high quality music coming through Charlottesville’s smaller and medium-sized venues provide some of the most rewarding concert experiences. Sweaty spaces like the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar and the Southern Café & Music Hall produced personal highlights from recent months, including swooning to the dreamy pop-rock of the Dum Dum Girls, having my conscious expanded by the restlessly experimental percussion of noise/jazz drummer Chris Corsano, and getting the punk itch scratched by art-rockers Magik Markers.

“For some dang reason, C’ville is the top stop for touring bands that come through Virginia,” said Erik DeLuca of the University’s graduate music composition department. “My buds in Richmond are always complaining about that. I never understood if this was a matter of convenience, or something to do with the community. Our venue palette is wonderful and unique.”

Sometimes it’s even possible to have a transcendent experience when you least expect it. I had never heard of Baltimore’s experimental groovers Horse Lords or Houston-based aggro-punks Female Demand before I saw each of them sonically destroy nearly-empty rooms on slow weeknights. Not even the opening acts stuck around for Female Demand—I was literally the sole audience member—but they’ve both rocketed to the top of my list of groups to watch in the future.

Corrigan Blanchfield, UVA undergrad and volunteer DJ at WTJU, said, “I’m wrapping up my third semester here, and the music scene has been a high point so far. I’m from Williamsburg, but being right in Charlottesville itself has made the impulsive show a weekly, rather than monthly, occurrence.”

Within striking distance
Charlottesville is also legendary for its local talent, with long-established institutions and newly formed groups constantly popping up in unlikely spots: art galleries like The Bridge, bars like Miller’s, and everything from house concerts to the aptly-named Garage. It seems like you can’t take two steps in Charlottesville without tripping over a musician.

Laura Galgano, co-owner of the Blue Moon Diner, books local and regional country, folk, bluegrass, and old-time acts five nights a week in the diner’s tiny bar area. “I love that the momentum and buzz is big enough to bring wonderful national acts to town, that you get to see (them) in a much more intimate setting than you would in a larger city,” she said. “But I also love that on any given night, you can see truly talented local and regional acts lighting up the stage at local restaurants and venues.”

One such example is Tyler Magill, who has played in dozens of bands over the past two decades, in addition to hosting a radio show, selling used records via the vintage store Low, and starring in The Parking Lot Movie. “We have two radio stations, WTJU and WNRN, that a city 50 times our size would kill for,” said Magill. “We have four [record stores] with substantial and deep music stock that is really well-curated. For a small, mid-Atlantic college town, we have an astonishing amount of culture.”

It’s also a town where talented people tend to stick around. Countless UVA students have made Charlottesville their home, earning Charlottesville the nicknames “the Hook” and “the Velvet Rut.” Sam Bush (class of ’09) now organizes gallery installations and live music acts at The Garage—a one-car garage on First Street, owned by Christ Episcopal Church. The Garage’s aesthetic caters to the young and the tastefully trendy, but one of the joys of the tiny, well-situated venue is that dozens of gawkers and passers-by end up joining the audience. “The Charlottesville music scene is a revolving door of sorts,” said Bush, “with a small, fixed cast of rotating characters and several new ones added each year. It’s the combination of the two—the new and the old—that keeps the music scene interesting.”

If you’ve spent enough time attending shows in Charlottesville, Cathy Monnes is hard to miss. She can be found front-and-center, in the audience at almost any heavy or experimental show in town. Over the years, Monnes has herself played in ensembles covering metal to jazz to gypsy music to new wave. And she’s taken the good with the bad. Monnes articulates some of the pain that comes with being a secondary market with transient talent.

“However sad you can get about people leaving town—like Dzian! or Corsair—or venues going down—like Tokyo Rose and the Pudhaus—there’s always more coming in, and even stuff that’s been here, but for whatever reason, you finally start really hearing it. There’s always someone doing something, like what Danny Shea did at the Satellite, like Matt at the Twisted Branch, Tyler [Magill’s] Broadcasting System on WTJU, Ryan DeRamus at Random Row, and Gary Funston [Charlottesville Jazz Society]. And there’s stuff over in that other world, UVA…classes you can audit and ensembles you can join.”

Matt Northrup, a recent transplant from Greensboro, North Carolina, who moved to Charlottesville early this year and took over booking duties at the Tea Bazaar, is a notable newcomer who offers a fresh perspective. “There’s a pretty crazy local support structure in place here,” said Northrup. “That’s probably my favorite thing. I was really surprised that Charlottesville has its own local music blog (Nailgun), and that people actually use it as a source to figure out what’s going on in town. The C-VILLE also has a great eye for highlighting cool events that might slip by without much notice in other towns. It’s always surprising to check those places and see a giant, well-written article about some weirdo show I’ve set up.” Northrop has already made his own fans.

“Matt Northrup is booking fantastic shows,” said Magill. “I mean, really high-level stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in a big city. The Bridge, also. The Southern has the sound system that God would have, if God didn’t just listen to Windham Hill records all day.”

You don’t even need a prime location or a fancy sound system to put on a show; sometimes a living room, a tip jar, and a borrowed P.A. is enough. UVA undergrad Maurine Crouch has booked dozens of punk bands in her own living room, and has recently organized concerts in more “legitimate” venues like the Balkan Bistro. “Charlottesville’s fairly small, which means that it’s literally impossible to have a scene here that compares to a large city like D.C.,” said Crouch. “But folks just take that and roll with it. We have a fairly diverse scene, and mixed-genre shows are common, which gives everyone access to music that maybe isn’t ‘their music,’ but is still good. People are willing to come out to shows even if they haven’t heard of the band.”

Charlottesville is also a city that looks after its locals—to an extent. Bands that have stuck around for a few years can usually draw a reliably hard-partying crowd of friends and fans, provided they don’t play too often. “This place has a propensity to get loose,” said Adam Smith, who, in addition to being the versatile frontman for Invisible Hand and Great Dads, also juggles a handful of monthly DJ gigs at the C&O, Mono Loco, and Lynchburg’s Rivermont Pizza. “C’ville likes to get down. Although eventually, I guess your friends do get tired of hearing you play the same songs at every show, for four years in a row.”

But the party crowd is a two-edged sword. What works for Love Canon may not work for John D’earth.

“For us, it can be a bit difficult playing for a non-listening crowd,” Rick Olivarez (The Rick Oliverz Trio) said. “Performing for a crowd that’s drinking—they’re not always there to listen. But I’m not foolish enough to expect it to be a listening room. I mean, it’s a bar.”

Maurine Crouch added, “As someone who is straight-edge, I think it’s a bummer that people rely so much on alcohol at shows. I understand that some people like to have a drink or whatever, but I also think that the music should always come first.”

Belmont not Brooklyn
In recent years, localized neighborhood arguments over concert volume have led to a series of referendums and public debates about live music permits, at venues like Bel Rio, the Black Market Moto Saloon, and numerous establishments on the Corner. Musicians like Nicholas Liivak of Horsefang have expressed regret for a lack of available space for “beautiful and weird” shows, especially after the closing of DUST, a warehouse venue of questionable legality which hosted a variety of experimental, noise, metal, and techno concerts from 2004-2011.

That space is now occupied by the Moto Saloon, which has engaged in a widely publicized struggle to get the city to approve a special use permit for live music, a petition that was eventually denied in October. Critics have pointed out that Saloon owner Matteus Frankovich failed to file the proper paperwork before opening, but some local music fans are bemoaning the loss of another potential venue. “Things were looking up around here, for avant, hard, loud, and experimental music,” Liivak said. “The [permit] issue popped up, and artists—all over the country, not just in our hamlet—held their breath, and hoped to be playing shows there.”

“The most disappointing thing to me is how conservative this ‘nice’ place is,” Cathy Monnes said. “For a community that claims pride in culture and the arts, it shuts down the most out-there, interesting music places. I even recently witnessed a mellow band from Holland at The Garage get the quietus at maybe 10:30. You can’t use electronics outside on the Mall.”

The most obvious hole in Charlottesville’s musical tapestry is the lack of local hip-hop concerts. WNRN’s nightly show “The Boom Box” is a stellar contemporary example of successful rap programming, mixing mainstream hits with regional and underground singles, and serving as a pillar of the community to its listeners, with dozens of nightly call-ins and shout-outs.

Clearly, hip-hop is popular in Charlottesville, and pulls a crowd as proven by the sold out A$AP Rocky and last year’s Snoop Dogg show. But apart from Top 40 tracks dropped by DJs on club nights at a bar, you’re not likely to hear rapping very often at any venue in Charlottesville.

“We need more hip-hop shows,” said Erik DeLuca. “During Audio September [at The Bridge], I put on a local hip-hop show, and that was amazing. The energy in the space during the concert is something this town would really enjoy, I think. The most important thing about this, is that the performers for this show were pretty much all high school students from [CHS]. We need to support these young artists.”

And for those who hunger for edgier acts that cling to big city’s ripped out hearts, there’s a notable absence. Where is Pussy Riot when you need them?

“For all the wonderful things we have come through town, we also seem to miss a lot,” Laura Galgano said. “The styles and types of shows that come through are limited to ‘safer,’ over ‘diverse’.” Still, every person I spoke to remained optimistic about Charlottesville’s musical future.

Crouch’s prescription: “More house shows, more punk, more women getting to the front if they wanna, more UVA students getting out of the UVA-bubble, more DIY spaces, more politics in music, more music in politics, more sense of ‘community,’ whatever that is. More young kids, and more adults too.”

Planning ahead for the second Tom Tom Founders Festival, organizer Paul Beyer said, “As I see it, the challenge is striving to build critical mass around more up-and-coming and diverse music. But it’s happening, especially as more UVA students are seeing the trek Downtown as doable.”

And then there’s the struggle to make this town a home base. The Stringdusters moved from Nashville, but can The Invisible Hand make it big from our seasonal college town?

Magill hopes that the coming year will see “some of those aforementioned local bands getting some national recognition, being able to be musicians full time. Eight people at a show ain’t enough, and how long local musicians will wanna play to eight people is anyone’s guess. We got some major-league talent in this town. Sometimes. Who’d have thought?”

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