Diamond Black Hearted Boy, a one-man noise act, hunches over his laptop, wheezing and shrieking into a bullhorn along with a recording of T.S. Eliot reading “The Wasteland” while droning loops of crackle and static tie it all together, or pull it all apart. Now he's up, microphone in hand, careening toward the audience pasted against the wall in front of him. They reach out and grab his shirt, helping him withstand the power of his own cacophony.
Diamond Black Hearted Boy's recent show couldn't fill the National. Then again, Nara Sushi, where he holds court for the night, probably couldn't get a few dozen people to hang out at 10 p.m. on a Thursday without him.
By day, Nara Sushi is a traditional rolls 'n' teriyaki joint on West Main Street near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. For the last two years, though, it's taken on a different identity, by night hosting noise shows mostly populated by students and out-of-town bands that have networked themselves in, using MySpace or other contacts. “It's helping,” the restaurant's manager Khin Lat says, because the after-dinner bar crowd can be a little thin. “Only when we have [a] show do people come show up.”
Nara is the de facto founding member of a growing consortium of addresses with secret identities. Rumors, on Harrison Street, started out two years ago as a designer clothing store, but added shows to its standard offerings almost immediately as a result of the constant demand by bands (both touring and local) for places to play. The building that houses the sandwich shop Bagel Czar, at 929 W. Grace St., once was home to a string of venues: Nanci Raygun, Twisters, and on and on. Its daylight hours were taken up with cream cheese, its nights with small touring bands. Skateland on Hull Street occasionally holds a night of music and couples skating.
But the brightest star on the secret-identity scene is Plaza Bowl in Southside Plaza, which replaced four lanes with a stage in October. On busy Saturday nights, like the one a few weeks ago in which Bio Ritmo and Brooklyn's Dengue Fever played, the music was overlaid by the crashing of little bowling balls into duckpins. The lanes were full, along with the floor in front of the stage. Amidst the corn dogs and PBR, Plaza Bowl has managed to combine its dual functions, luring more people, perhaps, than either a straight music venue or bowling alley could alone.
Plaza Bowl's success of late has a lot to do with Tiffany Cale and Danny Ingram, the partnership behind Community Chest, which books shows at Plaza Bowl and Broad Street pool hall the Triple. They booked the Dengue Fever show, one of more than a half-dozen that weekend between both venues. They say it's not uncommon to have shows running at their adopted venues Thursday through Sunday.
Ingram and Cale are looking into starting up their own venue, which, like their other projects, wouldn't just be a music spot. So they'll be running a three-ring circus when the smoke clears: big shows at the bowling alley, offbeat touring bands at their proposed new place and what they call “weekend warrior” bands at the pool hall. Community Chest proves that Richmond's venues, like its musicians, must have day jobs.
Especially with the troubles Toad's Place has seen, this constellation of hardy shape-shifters suggests that one of the best ways to be a venue is not to be a venue.
The adaptive reuse of these spaces for nighttime isn't just a stepping stone, says Mark Osborne, who's been booking shows at Nara for the last two years. He says it's more in line with some bands' do-it-yourself aesthetic. The energy of a packed house, even if it's a small one, can be a greater reward to the people on stage, or, in this case, packed between the hostess stand and the patio.
At this point, Nara's reputation as a venue may even eclipse its reputation for food. Osborne estimates that the restaurant has hosted shows five of seven nights a week for the past two years.
The lower bar for a successful night makes it easier for out-of-town acts that may not have a following in town to play shows that can make a little money. Osborne guesses that 90 percent of the shows he books have a nonlocal band on the bill.
“World/Inferno Friendship Society played there,” Osborne says. “They're playing 300- to 500-capacity places elsewhere and they played an under-capacity sushi bar. They just enjoy the intimate thing instead of playing a huge place.”
While the size and feel may be just what some bands look for, having any venue at all to play a show can be a big plus for smaller acts just getting started.
“We were filling a void,” says Casey Longyear, Rumors co-owner. “When we first opened we didn't think we were going to have any shows at all. I think we had three the first week.” The demand hasn't let up. Longyear says Rumors has been hosting as many as five shows at week, though she's trying to chill that out a bit.
“I'm still trying to do only one a week,” she says. “That hasn't happened yet.”
The venues with secret lives refuse labeling. They're not entirely one thing or the other, and so avoid the pitfalls of being called merely a honky-tonk place, or a hip-hop club. This of course expands possibilities for both the music brought in and the audience. “Some shows here are half-filled with parents, and then at another show someone brought a piAñata in the shape of a dick,” Longyear says. “So it's a pretty wide range.”