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Music in the Streets

Local clubs come and go, but alternative music venues keep busy.


Terry and Steve Douglas, who have played in many bands over the years including Log, the Shiners and Engine 143, were hosts for a series of house concerts in the kitchen of their 1888 Oregon Hill home in the spring and summer of 2004. The series, advertised only by e-mail and word of mouth, featured, among others, an act from Holland called The Watchmen and the Very Girls.

"There's no way they could have gotten a gig in town," Terry Douglas says. "And we ended up filling up our place for them. The best part about it was when I came downstairs the next morning. They had cleaned my entire house — every glass, every dish, every surface." The Oregon Hill House Concert Series, which may continue in 2005, averaged 20 to 80 people per show.

Promoter Wally Thulin has brought bluegrass acts to town for more than 10 years, and to try to make the numbers work, has searched for alternative venues throughout that time. For the fifth year in a row, he's bringing Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver to the West End Assembly of God on Parham Road. Assistant Pastor Fred Spivey, a musician himself, has a lot to do with the church playing host. It's a win-win proposition, he says.

"We offer a low overhead for the promoter," Spivey says. "And it's opened the door for us to expose the community to what we have to offer, with our music academy and other programs. It says we're about more than just Sunday morning." Spivey notes that attendance for each of the Lawson concerts has been about 1,000.

Other churches and pastors are active as well. The Shady Grove Coffeehouse puts on live music about once a month at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Glen Allen, and the church is committed to the music and the outreach that it provides. Drexel Rayford, a local minister and musician who joined the Bob Amos Band, lined up two shows to introduce the band to the Richmond area, one in a private home and one in the dining hall of First Baptist Church.

Gregg Kimball is director of publications and educational services at the Library of Virginia and a guitarist for the acoustic blues band Sheryl Warner and the Southside Homewreckers. He's had some success getting educational gigs. "Another outlet is doing educational things related to touring exhibits, playing at historical societies and local libraries," he says.

Ron Curry, a jazz and roots-music musician and promoter, has tried the whole gamut of alternative venues. He's put together events at art galleries, museums, churches and coffeehouses. Together with production manager Steve Clark of WCVE, he brought a banjo and fiddle act to the second floor of the Science Museum of Virginia, which was "a smashing success," he says, with about 125 people in attendance. Curry hopes to try that venue again.

"Art galleries have been hit and miss," Curry says. "Most of what I did at Polka Dot were misses, but Plant Zero was really good." Hotel X, his avant-jazz group, did a New Year's Eve show at Art 6 that attracted "a few hundred" people, he says. "A lot of it has to do with the demographics of the gallery," Curry explains. He also did a combination acoustic blues, magic and sideshow act with John Bradshaw at Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream, a coffeehouse on the South Side. "We had tons of kids, lots of families," he says. "We're willing to try anything to see if it will work."

Another up-and-coming alternative venue is the Pine Camp Arts and Community Center on the North Side, which is serving as host for a jazz academy and concerts programmed by the Richmond Jazz Society. Annual fund-raising concerts with national acts at alternative venues are a trend as well. The Drive By Truckers performed in the backyard of a West End home in the late summer, and Jerry Jeff Walker drew a sizable audience at the Tredegar Iron Works.

Robbin Thompson, a nationally heralded singer/songwriter who's been part of the Richmond music scene since the early 1970s, appreciates alternative venues for their attentive and enthusiastic audiences. "The people in attendance caring for what you do means everything," he says. "I've limited myself to just about only playing alternative venues. I seek out those places, those house concerts and listening clubs, and I try to invent them. I've had people pull me out of state for a house concert. Shoot, I may be going to London for one!"

Promoter, booking agent and former club owner Chuck Wrenn has also been part of the music scene since the early '70s. He started High on the Hog with a few friends in his backyard, and still helps preside over the event, which now draws thousands. Having owned The Moondance Saloon and booked shows for Poe's Pub for the last few years, he's seen the scene from the clubs' perspective as well. "Richmond has always had a vibrant music scene," Wrenn says. "Alternative venues have always been an important part of it. There's always been any number of things that don't involve a club — especially on a warm summer night, whether it be at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens or the Museum of Fine Arts or Innsbrook After Hours. It all helps. Every time you open the door to one thing, three or four doors open to something else." S

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