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Wes Freed illustration
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Greta Brinkman. Isaac Harrell photo.
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J. Plunky Branch. Isaac Harrell photo.
This is just a sample from our current cover story — 20 major players from the full list of 50, plus some bonus video. For the complete playlist, pick up our September issue, on newsstands now.
When we listen to the sounds and songs of Richmond from the 1980s and 1990s, a compelling portrait emerges: Brutally fast punk chords, art-rock experimentation, sleek reggae beats and pop with tight melodies. Some of these elements remain today, while also allowing room for country-tinged folk singers, brassy jazz groups and garage rockers with intelligent lyrics. With input from local-music intelligentsia, we present 50 musicians, bands, producers, DJs and others who have mattered to the Richmond scene over the past 30 years.
Scene's 1980s Heyday
Chris Bopst It took Chris Bopst just one gig at the age of 13 to know he had things to say about rock and roll: "I told the people to go f--- themselves." That was during his stint with his first band, the Ruins. Ever since, he's been playing (and mouthing off) with such important bands as GWAR and the Alter Natives. Bopst is perhaps best known for talking. His various radio shows (including a podcast posted weekly at rvanews.com ) and promotional efforts have gotten the word out about Richmond's music scene. He also books musicians and spins records at Balliceaux.
NO BS Brass Band
As part of Richmond's new jazz scene, the NO BS Brass Band has been blowing up big since 2006. Formed by trombonist Reggie Pace (also in Fight the Big Bull) and drummer Lance Koehler, NO BS added a few more buddies from VCU's school of music and beyond. Expect them to play the Richmond Folk Festival this year, as well as release three albums. "The coolest gig we ever played was last year's folk festival," Pace says. "We led a parade from one part of Brown's Island to the next."
Richmond's premier punk band circa 1980-1985 was White Cross, and its classic lineup was Richard "Crispy" Cranmer, Mike Rodriguez, Dewey Rowell and Rob Mosby. The band released a few records, opened for big-name U.S. and U.K. punk bands, and toured cross-country before its members moved on, joining Unseen Force, Mudd Helmut and GWAR. Reunited in fall 2009 for the Benny-fit show, White Cross continues performing, with Tommy Rodriguez replacing his brother Mike on guitar, and Greta Brinkman instead of Rowell on bass. ( Below is some footage we shot of the band onstage at The Playing Field on July 31, 2010. )
When asked to pin down the sound of the Ululating Mummies, accordion/percussion player Barry Bless calls it a mix of free jazz and world music. But really, he notes, "We played with this idea of creating local culture, thinking globally and acting locally." Like so many Richmond groups formed in the early 1980s, the Mummies were an outgrowth of the VCU arts scene, influenced by a progressive atmosphere in Oregon Hill and at Main Street Grill, which was owned by Bless' father. But their reach went beyond the small arts community, thanks to a raucous annual New Year's Eve party at the Flood Zone. The Mummies had a constantly changing lineup, with some fans even making their way onto the stage. "People would come in and out of the band," says Bless. Many of the Mummies' core members would turn up in other groups, but the band still performs — including a gig at the VCU School of Arts graduation ceremony last May.
The Trouble with Larry
One of the best bands you never went to see. Considering how long the group was together (1986-2001), and the amount of material it released, Larry never received the recognition it deserved. But members Richard Sarvay and Mark Abba didn't let the relative obscurity bother them. They continue to play their quirky art punk to anyone who will listen.
Her shock of white-blond hair is recognizable to legions of Richmond music lovers, but Greta Brinkman is originally from Pennsylvania. When she moved here in 1985, she became a founding member of the well-known punk bands Unseen Force and Four Walls Falling, and she played bass with Kal Kan, The Hurly Gurlies, and Dead Blind Gone. After moving to New York City in 1994, she toured for several years with the Debbie Harry Band and Moby. (She also either recorded or toured with numerous other artists.) Back in Richmond now, Greta plays bass with the re-formed White Cross and the new doom-metal band, Druglord.
House of Freaks
Richmond musician Jeanne Bishop recalls that guitarist/singer Bryan Harvey and drummer Johnny Hott formed "a two-man band," which was "considered odd." Their early shows as House of Freaks were poorly attended, she says, but the duo produced "a gorgeous riot of sound." They moved to Los Angeles, meeting with some success in the early 1990s. But in the end, Harvey and Hott came back to Richmond. They started families but stayed active in the local music scene. Hott's most recent project is Piedmont Souprize. Tragically, Harvey was murdered with his wife and two daughters on New Year's Day 2006, and the shock still reverberates in Richmond. Bishop suggests that a trio of songs about "the beautiful life he lived" — "40 Years," "I Got Happy" and "Rocking Chair" — serve as a fine reminder of Harvey's musical legacy.
Plan 9 Records
Jim Bland started Plan 9 Records in 1981 with buddy Dave "Pedie" Kurzman. Thus was created a browsing locale for music freaks and a venue for countless local and national musicians, including Smashing Pumpkins. Over the years, the store expanded into several Virginia locations and settled into its Richmond home on Cary Street, selling new and used records, CDs, DVDs and literature. More recently, stores in Roanoke, Charlottesville and Williamsburg have closed, but Bland says Plan 9 still has a solid following. "Although their numbers have diminished, there are still a lot of music fans who want to own a real copy of a recording rather than a virtual one, and they love to browse and discover."
A member of Richmond's avant-jazz scene, the Orthotonics started in 1979 with Danny Finney on saxophone and vocals, Paul Watson on trumpet and Pippin Barnett on drums. Vocalist Rebby Sharp and bassist Phil Trumbo joined later, with a few more personnel changes before the band's breakup in 1989. Sharp and Finney later played together in Rattlemouth. Their improvisational style was strange yet thrilling; audiences got a taste of the magic last year at the Orthotonics' reunion for the Benny-fit for Hospice.
Plunky and Oneness
J. Plunky Branch's brand of soul music is undistilled Richmond. "Pre-DJ years, whenever you went out in Richmond, you heard an R&B band," says Plunky, who's been playing for decades. "When I went to college in New York, there weren't any bands like the ones in Richmond. I'm still doing the same thing today, and by that I mean I'm sort of representing Richmond music all over the world." You can see him locally on Fridays and Saturdays at The Martini Kitchen & Bubble Bar.
If there were an award for hardest-working musician in town, Jonathan Vassar could take the title. He is a singer-songwriter, an accompanist for other artists, a band member (The Speckled Bird), a show-promoter/host, and the owner of the label Triple Stamp. You'll forget all that busywork, though, when you hear his gorgeous, country-tinged folk songs. The next chance is Oct. 9 at the Camel, with a full bill of Triple Stamp artists.
Jazz Poets Society
Richmond's Jazz Poets Society, which grew out of a slam-poetry group, took hip-hop in a literary, socially conscious direction in the 1990s. Led by three spoken-word artists — Patrick Mamou, Martin Reamy and Nyaze — the Poets were backed by a jazz band. Mamou, who now owns a branding company in Richmond, says that the casual poetry gatherings in a Broad Street loft apartment grew huge, with 80 or more people attending, so they moved the meetings to the Underground Railroad Jazz Café. They took their name from Mamou's T-shirt company, which had already caught on with musicians such as Digable Planets. "Guys were doing it for fun, for meeting girls and stuff," Mamou says of the poetry gatherings. "I thought it could be much more viable than that." Jazz Poets Society recorded two albums and performed with The Roots and Biz Markie before breaking up in 2002.
"There's a whole cult around that guy," DJ/musician Chris Bopst says of guitarist Pen Rollings, who was the genius behind Math Rock pioneer Breadwinner. Although math was Rollings' best subject, the cult began earlier, while he ground his axe in the punk hardcore band Honor Role. Rollings says the late 1980s' climate was right for "short attention span music." He works at Uptown Color and is taking a break from music. But when he returns to playing, Rollings says, "I'm sure I'll create something that doesn't suck."
Single Bullet Theory
Single Bullet Theory's destiny might have been a bit different if the Richmond pop band had been assigned another representative at CBS Records. Unfortunately, notes former bassist Mick Muller, the band's rep also had Michael Jackson on his roster. In 1982, when Thriller came out, "We were kind of lost," Muller says. Fronted by Mike Garrett, the band grew out of the VCU art-rock scene, playing memorable shows at Shafer Court and Hard Times. "We had a lot of Brit-pop influence, but at the same time it had an edge to it," Garrett says. "We played loud. It wasn't subtle." Although later dropped by CBS, Single Bullet Theory achieved a measure of success. Its video, "Keep It Tight," aired on MTV, and the band toured with the Pretenders and played on the same bill as The Ramones.
The music world lost an important talent when Mark Linkous, who often recorded under the name of Sparklehorse, committed suicide earlier this year. But it's clear that he won't be forgotten. He discovered his indelible voice in a Louisa County farmhouse on the distant outskirts of Richmond. "When you listen to his music," says friend Jeanne Bishop, "you can hear insects buzzing in the August sunlight." She guesses that over the next century, "young songwriters will keep discovering his music." Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey and other luminaries count themselves among the fans of Linkous' haunted and haunting songs. "It's pretty amazing that somebody developed that sound on our backdoor," Bishop says.
Before MySpace and Facebook ruled the web, alternative magazines served as the go-to music resources in many U.S. cities. ThroTTle was Richmond's: The "Rumblings" section gave readers the skinny on local bands; its columns put you right in the thick of it, and the magazine published swell reviews. Founded in 1981 by VCU students Peter Blake, Dale Brumfield and Bill Panelas, ThroTTle launched many local writers (including Richmond magazine's own Anne Thomas Soffee). It survived until 1999, when the Internet's rise to power accelerated. You can't get that satisfying ink smudge on your fingers from a computer, though.
Founded by Tim Harding and Ron T. Curry in 1992, Hotel X has won accolades from the jazz world for its early electric-bass duets and its contemporary Afro-beat world-music ensemble. Hotel X has shared the stage with jazz luminaries Bern Nix (from Ornette Coleman's ensemble), Greg Ginn, Marc Ribot and The Roots. Curry has gone on to perform with the Oregon Hill Funk All Stars, GWAR, bluesman John Bradshaw and the Hi-Tone String Ticklers. He also compiled a meticulously remastered double album Virginia Roots: The 1929 Richmond Sessions .
Richmonder Janet Martin's blues-rock prowess (on guitar and vocals) has taken her a long way in Europe, where she finished her seventh tour over the summer. Her most recent album, Passage , has been aired in 10 different European countries. "We're broadening horizons with this airplay," Martin says. "Our promoter in Sweden is just terrific."
If the Math Rock movement defined Richmond's underground sound for a brief spell in the early 1990s, the punk-folk fusion of bands like Avail — defined by the thoughtfully tormented singing/songwriting of singer Tim Barry — has provided a lingering legacy. Avail sounds like messy adolescence crashing headlong into the foggy haze that comes at the end of a weeklong bender, and over its lifespan, it produced 14 albums and EPs. Sadly, Avail is "a thing of the past," according to a recent Barry radio interview, but he continues to release solo, folk-flavored songs.
A Richmond radio mainstay since the 1980s, Fontaine is a champion of local music without making a big deal about it. She weaves songs by Richmond bands (both past and present) into her playlists and occasionally invites musicians into the studio at WRIR 97.3 FM. She got her start at WDCE 90.1 FM, the freeform station at the University of Richmond, and she still has a Monday-afternoon show there. Her long-running Friday-night rock program migrated to WRIR a couple of years ago. Fontaine's enthusiasm is evident in the number of concerts she sees around town, from Devo at The National to the Girtles, an all-girl Beatles tribute band, at Balliceaux.
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.