Guide by James Wilson. Intro by Philip Runco.
When you talk about Sons of Bill, you almost always end up talking about Charlottesville.
It’s the city that birthed the outstanding Americana rock five-piece, and the one that has unceasingly supported it ever since. In 2006, with only a few shows under their belts, Sons of Bill won a battle of the bands at the University of Virginia’s and netted three days of recording in Charlottesville’s Crystalphonic Studios. In the years that followed, it would play all across town, earning a considerable reputation and consecutive “Best Local Band” designations. Now it may tour the world and record its music out of town -most recently with Ken Coomer in Nashville – but Charlottesville is still home, and the site of its legendary “Sons of Bill and Friends” Christmas parties.
A few years back, James Wilson – one of the band’s three vocalists, along with brothers Sam and Abe – discussed his family’s roots in Charlottesville and the idea of being a “hometown band.” “We all grew up there. My dad teaches theology at UVA. He went to UVA. My granddad is from there,” he explained. “We’ve been part of the music scene since we were kids. We’re proud to be the hometown band. It’s a great city. I’m really proud to call it home, and I don’t think that’s going to change for a while.”
But Charlottesville is also a city that has experienced a good deal of turnover in the past fifteen years. It’s a not uncommon story for a lot of places: more condos, swankier bars, less underground venues. James calls its the “bourg-ification” of Charlottesville. “It has really, really changed,” he joked last fall. “I’ve been out-priced by my own town.”
Still, it’s a town that remains a great place for live music, perhaps more so than ever before. With the addition of a few massive venues (nTelos pavilion, John Paul Jones Arena), the renovation of the historic Jefferson Theater, and the opening of new concert halls like the Southern, Charlottesville has suddenly become a regular tour stop for bands traveling the East Coast.
In advance of a headlining show at the 9:30 Club this Friday, we asked James to assemble his guide to music in Charlottesville: the best places to hear music, the old haunts, and the necessary evils.
Charlottesville Music was my music store, and it was a really sad day to see it go. Billy Brockman and Rob Walker created a music store for professional musicians and they were really involved in Charlottesville’s rock community. We all miss these guys.
When the Satellite Ballroom closed down in 2007, it left a gap in the live music scene on UVA’s side of town. But since Mike and Colleen opened up the new Crozet Pizza in town, they’ve shown a real commitment to bringing live music back to the UVA corner. They’re true music lovers and so good to bands.
The Garage is a series started by Sam Bush and Christ Episcopal Church as a way to bring traveling bands to Charlottesville. Bands perform in the open air of a single-car garage while the audience enjoys the music from Lee park. This is a venue which thrives off the love of its visionary. Sam puts such thought and care into each show. He’s such a wonderful human being and music lover.
Built in 1912, the Jefferson Theater is the venue with the most historical ties in the town, and one that I know everyone in the band feels a deep connection with.
It’s right in the center of town, on what used to be Main Street before it was bricked in and became a walking mall in the 70’s. It began as a Vaudeville house and hosted silent movies in the early days, and was really one of the only entertainment options before WWI, when most people in town were riding around in horse drawn carriages.
The venue changed hands several times over the years, but I’m pretty sure it mostly remained a movie theater of some sort, while still hosting occasional performances. In the 60’s, when my dad was growing up, the theater mostly hosted late night “dirty movies” and got somewhat of a reputation in town.
By the time I was a kid, it was always just known as the “Dollar Theater,” which always had one or two cheap old movies playing, and provided a cheap date option (for my friends) and an excuse to walk around downtown and smoke cigarettes (for me). It also had basement apartments which were rented out as studio art space. The Jefferson was a bit seedy and crumbling and sufficiently creepy and deteriorating, but I never took much notice of its history in town; I guess most of downtown felt that way when I was a kid. It’s cheaply bought nostalgia at this point, but I do sort of miss the way downtown used to be now that I’m writing about it.
By the early 2000’s, the Jefferson Theater was entertaining offers and was eventually bought in 2006 by Coran Capshaw and Red Light Management, who shut it down for several years to undergo major renovations. Most bands in town – Sons of Bill included – grumble somewhat over the fact that Red Light Management owns most of the venues in town, but from what I understand, Capshaw was the only buyer that was interested in keeping the space a theater, and at the end of the day, I know that’s a good thing for the town.
There was a dark period when Charlottesville didn’t have a mid-size rock room. For a few years, we would have to rent out the Fry Spring’s Beach Club to put on shows. It was an old wood paneled room with a stage on the east end of town, and it had more than a casual spiritual resemblance to The Overlook Motel. The last show that we played there ended in a three-way brawl between a local, a frat boy, and a Navy Seal. I had to jump off stage mid-song to try to break up the fight, and the off-duty cops, who were hired as security, unloaded pepper spray in the middle of the packed room, sent the crowd fleeing, and forced us off the stage. We didn’t play a show in town for a whole year after that.
Anyway, that dark period ended when the Jefferson Theater opened back up in 2009. We had the privilege of playing the first show on the new stage with Jason Isbell and the 400 unit, who was a personal hero of mine at the time. Just a special night in the hometown.
UVA’s arena is named after the third coolest John Paul Jones in history. (He didn’t play bass or command a revolutionary naval fleet). A gimongous space with 12 dollar pretzels.
A few doors down from the Jefferson Theater is Miller’s. It’s known around town as a dive bar, but it’s really quite nice – quickly keeping up pace with the rest of downtown’s bourg-ification. It has a small stage at the store-front, a pool hall upstairs, and is probably the only bar downtown where you somehow feel ok (perhaps even more comfortable) drinking by yourself.
Miller’s was really the only bar downtown when I was growing up, and it’s probably most famous as the bar where the Dave Matthews Band was born. I’m not exactly sure how all of the lore goes, but I know that Dave was a bartender there when met Carter and Leroi, who were playing with John D’earth’s Thursday night Jazz band at the time.
Thursday nights at Miller’s are institutional in Charlottesville. John D’earth is certainly known around town as one of the best horn players, but what many people may not know is that in some circles, John is considered one of the best horn players worldwide. Sam briefly played guitar with the Thursday night band (and still fills in on occasion when he’s home), and he still considers John as one of his biggest musical mentors. Seeing the Miller’s band was a right of passage.
Smoking indoors is now illegal. They’ve redone the interior. The band has changed over the years. But every time you walk into Miller’s. you still walk into the “Miller’s Vibe” – an artistic world that John created.
The Southern is the 300-capacity rock room that has survived in Charlottesville. It’s mostly the vision of Andy Gems, who is a dear friend of mine and has been a confidant over the years. I’m glad the Southern has survived. It’s a great rock club.
This was Charlottesville’s mid-size rock room in between the time of Trax and the Jefferson Theater. We had our first show at Starr Hill Music Hall. We all drank too much in those days and don’t really remember those shows very well.
While Tokyo Rose still serves sushi, it sadly hasn’t had any music in the last decade or so. But perhaps the fact that it no longer hosts shows in the basement of the small restaurant only adds to its legendary status as the main indie-underground night spot throughout the 90’s.
As badly as I may want to claim cool you-weren’t-even-there-man status when it comes to Tokyo Rose, its hey-day was really before my time – a time when I was recovering from a childhood of banjo music by listening exclusively to Iron Maiden. I went to a couple goth-rave nights there when I was interested in a girl who was more interested in the black arts than she was in me, but I quickly realized I was out of place. (Who is Joy Division? You want me to go home? Why are you dancing like that?)
So, sadly, I never got to see Neutral Milk Hotel, Ween, Elliot Smith, or the famous Pavement shows in the sushi basement off Ivy Road. But even the few times that I went had a big impact on my young psyche. Seeing the sort of high-contrast, black-lit, Xerox feel that rock clubs had in the 90’s – with a stage five feet off the ground in a room that couldn’t hold more than 150 people – I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t quite fit in, but I sure did fake it.
Maybe everyone was faking it.
The former owner of the restaurant, Atsushi Miurati – who left town in 2004 – also penned the song “I Hate Charlottesville (So Boring)”. A vital part of the legend.
My first rock show was at Trax: A long, black-lit, 1000-cap rock room that hosted local heroes, radio one-hit-wonders, and the occasional rock legends. The year was ’96, and Sam took me to see Charlottesville’s metal band, Nerve No Pain. Singer Andy Dean (who would later form Bella Morte) had a striking resemblance to Brandon Lee from “The Crow.” He was an amazing front man. On bass was Amos Heller, who now plays bass with Taylor Swift – strange world. And on guitar was Tony Pugh, who would later form one of my favorite local bands, Unit F. I don’t remember anything about the show except that there were fog machines, they sounded bigger than anything I’d ever heard before, and they encored with The Misfits “Last Caress.” It was a defining moment for me.
I also saw Gov’t Mule at Trax in 97 on the Dose Tour. Allen Woody was still on bass and they were monstrously good. I got the chance to meet Warren Haynes after the show, and he gave me a Gov’t Mule jean jacket, which finally fits me now. I get to play Warren Haynes’ Mountain Jam in upstate New York in a few weeks and I may wear it.
Trax was sold in 2001 and demolished by the UVA hospital. So runs the world away.
The Tea Bazaar has taken up Tokyo Rose’s torch as Charlottesville’s counter culture indie hub. The sound is a little lo-fi, but that’s half the charm. The tea is fantastic, too.