The lights go out on Moondance Saloon, ending seven years as Richmond's most eclectic and reliable musical venue.
Last Call at Moondance Saloon April 9 Terry Garland and friends April 10 Car Bomb Inc. and friends $5 each night 788-6666
Things have always been a little different down at the Moondance Saloon and next week things will change for good. On April 12, co-owners Chuck Wrenn and Ben Bundens will hand over the keys of the spirited Shockoe Bottom honky-tonk to a new owner, taking a big chunk out of the musical soul of a whole lot of folks.
"This is obviously more than a job to us," Wrenn says late one afternoon as he and Bundens hang at Moondance's bar. "We like to think of it as something more [it's the] attitude and atmosphere we create here."
Wrenn says he and Bundens decided to sell because, despite their success in attracting national musical acts, the business was no longer lucrative. While people would come out on weekends, it was often difficult to keep the place filled during the rest of the week.
New owner Jae Hong hopes to reopen Moondance's doors April 15, changing its name to The Gold Box. The new restaurant will serve Asian and American food and feature a DJ in the evenings.
With typical partying aplomb, the Moondance folks plan a "Last Call" blowout this weekend, April 9 and 10. Terry Garland and Car Bomb Inc. headline Friday and Saturday nights respectively, but shorter sets by longtime friends of the bar are also planned, including performances by The Janet Martin Band, Page Wilson, and Jim Dudley and Chez Roue, in addition to many others. Cover on both nights is $5, and Wrenn says he expects activities to get under way late in the afternoon, depending on the number of bands that want to play.
During its time, Moondance earned a reputation as a top-notch venue among musicians and music lovers alike. A devoted music fan himself, Wrenn always balanced business with fun. The range of players who performed on the Moondance stage and the bar's friendly feel reflected this. Wrenn booked rock, country and folk acts both unknown and popular, local and national in an effort to bring quality entertainment to a town that too often suffers from a lack of up-close-and-personal musical variety. He's given a shot to many a group, sometimes taking a financial hit and sometimes making it rewarding for artist and management alike.
"I don't say we are the music scene," Wrenn says, "but we've certainly done our share."
Bundens remembers that when they opened Moondance on May 1, 1992, the owners really didn't anticipate more than the occasional music event. Moondance was primarily planned as a restaurant, and the owners made it a point to keep the quality of the food high. But the focus soon took a shift.
"We thought we'd have music occasionally, like every full moon," Bundens recalls. "It just started to snowball."
Snowball, indeed. By January 1993, the bar began to feature music on weekends. Bluegrass Thursdays were soon scheduled; regular Wednesday night shows by Janet Martin followed. Mic and the Moondogs became house regulars. Eventually, Eric E. Stanley brought in his weekly Bebop, Boogie and Blues Revue, and Buffy Davis helped save typically slow nights by scheduling alternative music weekly on "Blue Moon Mondays." Tom "Z" Zimmerman was often on hand to run sound and keep the equipment right.
Early on, the bar became a frequent stomping ground for a host of Richmond and Washington bands. Big Posse, the Frantic Flattops, Dirtball, the Bopcats, Li'l Ronnie and the Blue Beats, Big City, Bio Ritmo, the Wall-o-matics, the Ululating Mummies and the Useless Playboys were among early regulars. Bill Blue ventured up from Key West. The Good Humor Band came over from Nashville and held court for several Christmas shows. Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun started making regular appearances, and the band's dieselbilly twang became a Moondance favorite. Duck Baker brought his world-class guitar playing to the bar. Ruthie and the Wranglers, Deanna Bogart and the Dixie Power Trio were hits. The Derailers, Ronnie Dawson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Wayne "The Train" Hancock and Dale Watson came up from Texas to play the Moondance during the past couple of years because word had spread about the venue's artist-friendly attitude. Banjo-guitar great John McEuen made a rare area appearance.
"And let's not forget the night Cracker played here," Wrenn notes of the band's intimate 1998 show that had fans lined up around the block.
Through the years, the whole Moondance crew gave Richmonders more than their fair share of memorable times, and the bar's passing is regretted by many who remember good cheer and great music in the Bottom. Though Saturday night's closing is unfortunate, partners Wrenn and Bundens know the business had its run and many music lovers are so much the better for it.
"It's just been two steps forward and three steps back," says Wrenn reflecting on the bar's struggles. "We like to say around here, 'If good times were money, we'd be millionaires.'" He places his hands on the bar and looks directly at a listener. Wrenn is clearly disappointed yet determined to remain typically good-natured and upbeat about the past and the future. "It's kind of a bittersweet pill ," he says and pauses. "We hate to go, but it's time to
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