Arts & Events » Music

Since You've Gone

A tireless champion of local bands, Brooke Saunders has left the building.

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Brooke Saunders loved the art of promotion. "He was a sucker for an infomercial," says his wife, Ann Sykes. "We agreed that it was a good thing we didn't have that much spare cash, as he would've bought almost every new gadget."

Saunders, who died on Nov. 28 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident, took hometown hype to new places - clubs, venues, festivals, county fairs. A constant presence for decades at live music events in and around Richmond, usually with camcorder in hand, the outgoing 65-year-old, eternal optimist was a tireless promoter whose reach and influence on the area's music and media can't be overstated.

"He was corny, especially punny, and loved wordplay," recalls Sykes. "We lived very, very frugally, so that we could indulge our shared passion for travel from time to time." In 1999, the year they married, the couple took trips to Egypt, Mexico (where they honeymooned), and Cuba, "where we celebrated the millennium at the Tropicana in Havana."

Their only daughter Grace attends the University of Virginia. It was on the way back home from driving her back to Charlottesville after Thanksgiving break that Saunders' still-unexplained crash occurred.

"It almost doesn't seem real to me that he's gone," says Craig Evans of the Americana pop band, the Taters, and a collaborator in one of Saunders' more prominent projects, the Floating Folk Festival. "He was so ubiquitous in town. If you thought about the Richmond music scene, Brooke's name would always come up. It's hard to imagine it without him being involved in it."

From the Moose Lodges of Lynchburg

Evans first met Saunders in Lynchburg, where Brooke was born and spent his formative years. "He had a band called Rivermont, the name of one of the big streets in Lynchburg," Evans remembers. "He may have been 20 or 21. Lynchburg only had a handful of places to play, so you'd hear them at Moose Club dances."

It began with a guitar that he'd asked for as a Christmas gift when he was 13, says sister Sara Hollberg. "I don't know where his love of music came from. We didn't come from a musical home." Father Fleming and Mother Sara, the latter still surviving, were conservative but hardly strict. "I think they understood that Brooke was a little different," Hollberg says, adding that Brooke and his father shared a stubborn work ethic. "Dad was a brilliant engineer who got a job at Dupont and then left after six months to come home and work for the family sawmill, which he did for the rest of his life. He did things his way."

Saunders came to Richmond in 1981 to study at Virginia Commonwealth University, quickly becoming active as a musician in a succession of bands: Non-Dairy Screamers, The Prevaricators, Death Piggy, Mr.Wiggly and the Fabulous Sump Pumps and -- notoriously -- Apocowlypso, a unit he formed with avant-garde composer Dika Newlin. There was also the Neatles, a Beatles cover band that Saunders started in Lynchburg (with Craig Evans) and kept going until the present day with different line-ups.

An old shot of the Non-Dairy Screamers, one of Saunders' many bands. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JAY TUBBS
  • Photo courtesy of Jay Tubbs
  • An old shot of the Non-Dairy Screamers, one of Saunders' many bands.

"He spent a year in England in 1977, working [without a permit], but was able to record a set of his songs in London with these great studio musicians," recalls Jay Tubb, who ran the stage sound for the Non-Dairy Screamers. "He also got to meet and become friends with Badfinger's drummer, Mike Gibbins. He was such a fan of Badfinger."

Tubb helped Saunders write and publish Soundzine, a local music magazine that put a spotlight on Richmond's then-thriving club scene. The free tabloid would go on to publish notorious interviews with GWAR's Dave Brockie and drag queen Dirtwoman, among others. They became roommates in the ‘80s with David Hudert, who, with Bill Kitchen and Randall Plaxa, founded the legendary Rockitz music venue at Laurel and Broad. "Brooke always wanted to promote people playing out," says Hudert, a music industry consultant now based in Sweden. "It was like an OCD thing for him. He didn't care about money, he only cared about getting gigs for more people. What drove him to be like [that], I don't know, but he always had it. He had it in 1981 when I met him and he never lost it."

His ex-roommates fondly remember Brooke's collaborations with aging composer Dika Newlin, one of the last living students of the expressionist Arnold Schoenberg. "He met her while taking classes at VCU," says Hudert. "He thought she was so interesting and he wanted to bring her out into our scene. And, yeah, she was cool as shit, a frickin' genius. He and I were like, 'Who wouldn't work with Dika Newlin?' We didn't care what she did. It was like working with Warhol or frickin' Mozart or something."

Brooke Saunders on guitar. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JAY TUBBS
  • Photo courtesy of Jay Tubbs
  • Brooke Saunders on guitar.

A tireless champion of Richmond bands

It started with Soundzine, but at some point, Brooke began to transition into being more of a promoter and a chronicler than a stage performer.

"I knew him because of his bands, but I really became aware of him when I was working at ThroTTle,' around 1989," recalls DJ and promoter Todd Ranson. "He was always writing to us to check out this band, check out that band. He was so persistent in his promotion that sometimes it was too much, but the people he was promoting would, of course, never say that." Ranson says that Brooke "was kind of always there with his camcorder, omnipresent, tireless."

"The promoting and documenting really began with the Floating Folk Festival," says Tubb. The FFF was a ragtag group of local musicians, mostly in the singer-songwriter vein. "It was Brooke's idea to put the thing together," recalls Evans. "He had clearly moved from being just a musician to more of an organizer, more of a change agent. He would just constantly see potential, in people, in situations and venues."

The original Floating Folk Festival started in 1997 and consisted of Saunders, the Taters (then known as Burnt Taters), Steve Fisher, Eileen Edmonds, Pam McCarthy, Harry Gore and Gerry Laverty, among others. "The floating part was that it would show up in different venues," Evans says. "And at first, it was like an open mic, anybody could join. But that got unwieldy, so we started doing auditions."

One of those who auditioned and joined for a time was singer-songwriter Susan Greenbaum. "Brooke was what I'd called a goer. He made stuff happen," she says. "He was so rare, a person that you took for granted would always be there."

But she couldn't figure him out at first. "I remember one of the first things he asked me was 'How many songs have you written?' And I thought that was an interesting question no one else had ever asked me before."

They also butted heads. "I didn't understand what he intended for the FFF, and was like, "who gets the money?' and I was in a place when I really needed to be making a living. I didn't understand what his vision was."

At one time, there were as many as 22 different acts affiliated with Floating Folk, and Saunders would compile three CD collections of the festival’s music that featured performers including Circuit Breakers, Stephen Christoff, Texas Ed, Regan and Matthew Costello. He also successfully lobbied for the local collective to be given a regular Family stage slot at the Richmond Folk Festival. Saunders and Greenbaum collaborated again in 2018 for a 12-song charity compilation that Brooke co-produced, Hope Fienz, which benefited the non-profit Friends of Recovery [Style covered the project]. "He made all of these things happen," she says. “He was the real deal. Even when we weren't seeing eye-to-eye, I knew he was genuine."

Singer-songwriter May-Lily Lee, former host of VPM's "Virginia Currents" and executive producer of the nonprofit, American Spark Project, says her stint in the Floating Folk Festival was one of the best times of her life. "I've always felt that the purpose of music was to bring us together, and no one understood that better than Brooke," she says.

Saunders also worked behind the scenes to help bring community radio to town. According to Christopher Maxwell, he was instrumental in the birth of the two local low-power radio stations Maxwell has founded, WRIR and WRWK (the WORK). "Brooke helped with political connections when we were trying to get low power legislation through, and he spearheaded fundraising for the WORK. He was that rare person who was able to sublimate his own ego for the greater good."

DJ Jay Smack first launched his local music show, Studio B, on 103.7 the BUZZ in 1995 -- it eventually moved to XL-102 and is now a podcast. Among the first to reach out to him was Brooke. "He played, promoted, recorded, got into web design... Brooke did it all. And he was so selfless and giving that I looked at him sideways initially. What was his angle? But he became an inspiration. When things got tough, I could always say, 'well, Brooke's still doing it.'"

Saunders hooked up with former roommate Hudert and resurrected the Rockitz name for promotion and for booking local musicians at, among other places, the annual Watermelon Festival, the Powhatan County Fair and the Easter Parade. They also began videotaping everything. "Without his videos, much of Richmond's music history would just be riding around in a few people's heads, sure to be forgotten," says friend Susan Stewart, a fellow Lynchburg native.

"The filming started maybe 25 years ago," recalls Hudert, "And it was Brooke's idea all the way. We started filming the shows that Brooke put together and then posting them on our Rockitz YouTube channel. Before we knew it, we had fifty or something and we just bought more videotape and batteries and kept going."

There are now as many as 5,000 recordings from Richmond live concerts -- mostly local performers and many from Brooke's own promotions, like the Rockitz Battle of the Bands. Some are accessible on the net, or through Broadcast Richmond, an online marketing and promotion company co-founded by Maggie Tubb, Jay's sister.

"It's insane," Hudert says. "I was the business guy and he was the go-getter. I would buy hard drives and have them sent to his house, and he'd fill them up. We didn't do it for the money. Brooke never had any money. Anything that we made was put right back in."

BrookeFest planned for April

In 2015, Brooke helped to complete and master “Redemption,” a compilation of lost tracks from the legendary Richmond pop-rock band, The Dads, which had featured the late Bryan Harvey.

"My brother Mike, the drummer for the Dads, was mastering those tapes with Victor Benshoff, the Dads' sound man," remembers Jay Tubb. "Then Victor passed away and, eerily, my brother passed on the morning of the album release and tribute concert. Brooke was instrumental in getting that project completed, and documenting the concert."

In early April, a two-day concert called BrookeFest will be held in Troy, Va. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KAREN SAUNDERS
  • Photo courtesy of Karen Saunders
  • In early April, a two-day concert called BrookeFest will be held in Troy, Va.

Brooke earned his liberal arts degree from the University of Richmond, but he largely eschewed the 9 to 5 working world, supporting himself by driving taxis and limos, or for Uber, and designing web sites. In recent years, he worked with locally based music photographer, James Fortune, to help protect Fortune's copyrighted images online.

As his official obituary points out, Saunders was "a cat lover, a voracious reader, a sketch artist and a very intrepid traveler." He also liked to hang on the telephone, adds Hudert. "I've never met a man who liked to talk on the telephone more than he did."

A large group of friends paid homage to Saunders at a special gathering at O'Toole's Restaurant on Dec. 8, giving toasts and sharing memories.

"It was really nice," Ann Sykes says. "Jonathan Austin juggled, and there were so many caring people who knew Brooke and told their stories and played songs. I cried when Pam McCarthy sang 'Long Time Since You've Gone," one of my favorites. It was such a lovely tribute."

In early April, a larger event is planned, a two-day concert called BrookeFest to be held at Luna Azul Farms in Troy, Virginia.

"This year's Powhatan County Fair in May is also being dedicated to him," says Hudert. "We've been doing the music there for the past ten years. And if there's an Easter parade and an Earth Day, we're going to have a Brooke stage there. Same with the Watermelon Festival. Anything that Brooke was already doing, I'm going to try and carry on in 2022."

Asked how they will remember Brooke Saunders, most of those interviewed say: "smiling."

"He always had so many ideas and projects going on in his head," says Susan Stewart. "So many plans for shows and festivals and tributes. I know that if I could talk to him right now, he would say something like, 'Oh, don't worry. I've just gone on to my next adventure.'"

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