And while the steamy mix of perspiration and cigarette smoke is a basic necessity for the kind of music the club has supported punk, indie rock, the occasional hip-hop and metal show having people pass out from heat exhaustion, as co-owner Sara Borey points out, is bad for business.
After the final show Aug. 30, the Raygun closes yet another chapter in the shuffle of independent businesses along Grace Street.
Borey and fellow owner, Ayndria Green, the soft-spoken duo responsible for keeping the musical pot astir since June 2003, have reached a kind of stalemate with building owner Frank Chan (who also owns China Panda) about maintenance issues that Borey and Green say haven't been addressed. From water leaking onto the stage during shows to an ongoing struggle with A/C, they say, such problems have cost them attendance and prompted them to let their lease expire.
Chan, reached by phone at China Panda, declined to comment.
"We make all our money in fall and spring and lose it during the summer," Borey says not uncommon for businesses that thrive on Virginia Commonwealth University students, but certainly not helped by the sweatbox conditions.
Borey says she and Green have offered $350,000 to Chan to buy the property at 929 W. Grace St., which has been a music venue for most of its 50 years, including Twisters and (briefly) 929 before the Raygun came along. They say Chan is asking $450,000 for the property, which he has yet to officially put on the market.
As it stands, Borey says, the only way the Raygun will stay open after August is if either Chan decides to sell for $350,000 or agrees to make the outstanding repairs. If not, the venue may stay dark, empty and hot for some time.
Borey and Green may seem unlikely business owners: Borey graduated from VCU with degrees in political science and French; Green says with a grin that she took some classes here and there. So the two friends took up the torch of sweaty live music three years ago. They've managed to bring in shows The Gaskets, Lucero, The Aquabats that left lines wrapping around the corner. Now they're faced with finding another venue and figuring out what sort of beast will grow up there.
The value of the Raygun is that it's a mid-size venue, a sort of steppingstone for musicians just starting out to refine and experiment, build up a name and fan base, gain the necessary experience (even if the roof is leaking on their heads), and then try to move to larger venues, greater successes, groupies, cash, rehab, etc.
Without the Raygun, there are bigger places like Alley Katz and the Canal Club and smaller places like Bogart's, Cary Street Café, Poe's Pub and so on. But the venue on West Grace Street is a musical middleman.
It may be difficult for the duo to find that balance in another place, especially because they want to stay in the VCU area. Either way, the Raygun's absence may have a negative effect on the little knot of businesses, including Ipanema Café and Nonesuch Art and Apparel, along West Grace.
Melissa Roberts, owner of Nonesuch, worries that VCU's influence will make the area a "homogenized college scene" and the closure of the Raygun will push that along. "I guess I'm a bit nostalgic because it's always been a venue spot," she says. "It's like a landmark." S
Nanci Raygun's last scheduled show is a free dance party starting at 10 p.m. Aug. 30 with The Gaskets, Cobra Kai and others.
The Evolution of a Club:Years of Sweat at 929 W. Grace
Before 1970, 929 W. Grace Street was still R.L. Christian, a local grocery chain that, appropriately, had bottled and labeled its own whiskey long before The Back Door moved in. The Back Door was the first night club at the address and the owners bought a cluster of exotic art deco chairs from a big band ballroom to furnish the place, according to local artist and historian Richard Bland. Bland should know: He got the chairs when The Back Door closed.
Mark Brown, a long-time Plan 9 employee and local musician in his own right, still has a bootleg from those early days when Bruce Springsteen played with what would eventually become the E Street Band. The mood changed drastically in the late seventies when the punk explosion in England reverberated all the way to Richmond.
"Bottles were flying through the air," recalls Bland whose memories of the time also include a few pairs of abandoned souvenir panties.
By then, The Back Door had shrunk. A record store moved in the front half of the building and people entered through the alley to hear the crashing sounds of Richmond's fledgling punk scene.
The club eventually stretched back out to take over the whole building and by the early '80s changed hands again and became the Wooden Plate. Grace Street was a little tougher and the music moved towards heavy metal, catering to the bikers from Hababa's down the block.
The Wooden Plate became Twisters in the mid-'80s. Even though the neighborhood and venue had changed it was still a great spot for up-and-coming bands. Jay Levitt, the store manager for Plan 9 in Carytown, remembers seeing the Smashing Pumpkins in 1991.
Twisters became 929 for a few months in late 2002 and then became the Nanci Raygun in 2003.
Paige Harbert has worked for the Raygun in some capacity since it opened four years ago, most recently booking bands. She says putting on shows for bands on the edge of becoming professional is tricky business. The bands are well-known enough to ask for more money but can't guarantee they'll draw a large enough crowd to be worth it.
"The reason they did survive [as long as they did] was they were there for everybody: a 20s swing party, Goth night, street punk shows, and that they were willing to be part of the community," Harbert says. "It's gonna be a considerable loss but a great opportunity for some of the younger generation to go ahead and re-invent it."