The debate over Richmond's live music scene has raged on for years. On one side, you have those who complain that nobody good ever plays in Richmond, and that there's nowhere to see live music. On the other side, you have the hardworking club owners who devote countless hours and dollars to booking high-quality acts, bands who put their hearts and souls into every note they play, and music lovers who show up no matter what the act.
Although Richmond's club scene admittedly has seen better days, things are starting to look up. Way up. Three new venues The Canal Club, Chopstix and Shenanigan's are opening up a whole new dimension in Richmond nightlife. Whether you fall into the first group, or the second, there should be something here for you to like. But don't take our word for it. Get out there and see for yourself.The Canal Club: The Next Great Hope
The new Canal Club, at 17th and Dock streets in Shockoe Bottom, was created with one priority in mind, says entertainment director Chris Douthit.
"My priority is to absolutely make people love playing here," he says, as he and general manager Robert Dubner give a visitor a tour of the new 16,400-square-foot club and restaurant. "It was built to accommodate the bands."
Those who come to see those bands should be pleased, too, as The Canal Club was also clearly built to accommodate discerning music lovers. The upstairs, music venue part of the club (downstairs is a restaurant and sports bar complete with billiards tables, dart boards and handsome wooden booths) is fully carpeted, with sophisticated red walls, handsome wooden support beams and an intimate stage placed less than a foot above floor level.
The Canal Club officially opened March 3 with a show by Solid Gold Fishbowl, and is booked with local acts such as Car Bomb and Dirtball every weekend through April. While the Canal Club will provide a much-needed venue for local bands, Douthit says the club's goal is to eventually book nationally known acts. "We are trying to staff up to accommodate big shows," he says. "We will absolutely be doing them. ... Really, that is what is going to make the mark for the club; we understand that's what's going to make this place special."
Douthit, formerly of the band Joe America and owner of Bump Your Head Ltd., a Richmond-based mastering studio, and Dubner, formerly of the Sunset Grill, both have extensive contacts in the local and national music scenes.
The two describe The Canal Club as an "upscale venue," a place where "a woman can wear high-heeled shoes" and where nonsmokers will be able to breathe clearly thanks to a half-a-million dollar state-of-the-art ventilation system. Both say the Canal Club is "the next step up" from venues such as the former Flood Zone.
While the downstairs Canal Club restaurant welcomes patrons of all ages, upstairs it is strictly 21 and over, Dubner says. In addition to booking rock acts, Douthit says the club hopes to feature jazz acts early in the week and may even host an occasional dance night. "But we're more about live acts, intimacy and people," he says.
The upstairs club currently holds 260 people, and there are plans to eventually expand the space to include an 80-foot verandah overlooking the canal.
"I really feel a unique vibe going on down here," Douthit says, explaining his hopes that bands will be drawn to play at the Canal Club because of its unique historical setting. "We only want the best for the town and this venue." Jessica Ronky HaddadPuddleduck and Mudcat Jones play the Canal Club on March 10 and Groovespot is the headliner March 11. The music starts at 9:30 p.m. and cover is $5. To view The Canal Club's current schedule, go to www.thecanalclub.comChopstix: Vietnamese Rock Den
It's brownish orange and uninviting, but pull open the side door to Carytown's Chopstix, walk up steep, red-carpeted stairs, and you'll find out why this place is a bright spot in Richmond's nightlife.
Believe it or not, Chopstix is one of Richmond's most energetic new clubs, where you can hear everything from big band and slow jazz to loud and aggressive experimental rock. It's a thriving space over a Vietnamese restaurant on a strip known for crowded shopping by day and barren streets at night.
Chopstix's upstairs lounge is small put 100 people in there and it's crowded. Bands play on a black-and-white tile stage surrounded by mirror-covered walls. A disco ball spins overhead amid colored lights that bathe the whole place in red and blue glows. Back in the dimly lit couch-and-table lounge area, smoke drifts up from ashtrays locked in track-light spotlights on the bar.
You'll usually find Marty Violence or Jim Thomson sitting on a stool at the top of the stairs. They book the bands for Chopstix, handle the cash flow from the door and check the IDs.
This is their club. The space was collecting cobwebs before they found it. Violence says that Chopstix's owners loved the idea of opening the club. He and Thomson walked in last May and said "Hey, we want to see that space up there and book bands." "They were like, 'sure,'" Violence says. "There was absolutely no convincing."
Violence and Thomson had modest plans for the venue. They started with DJ nights with everyday friends and acquaintances spinning their own music. "We would get anyone off the street to come and play records," Violence says, "which turned out not to be such a good idea."
Attendance was sparse. The guest DJ nights flopped. "Jim and I were like 'God, we failed,'" Violence says, "'we've ruined these people's lives.'"
That's when they started bringing in live bands, and that's when the place started getting crowded. "We kind of deleted the DJ nights," Violence says.
Violence says he and Thomson enjoy booking bands because they are tired of having to drive out of town to see them. Their combined income from booking Chopstix's shows is currently zero. "I try to stay as disinvolved as I possibly can up there," Violence says. "I'm basically doing it for free. I get free beer and free food, but that's about it."
The upstairs lounge at Chopstix isn't open every night. Sometimes the club sees as little as one show a week. Sometimes none. But nights when it's open almost always mean music that's interesting and different.
"Chopstix is cool because people who come there want to see the band," Violence says. "They're not just there. It kind of feels like you're not in Richmond anymore." Wayne MeltonBux Deluxe, and The One Percenters play Chopstix on Sunday, March 12 at 9 p.m. Cover is $3-$5.Shenanigans: North Side's Tucked-Away Treasure
A longtime North Side neighborhood restaurant has a facelift and an owner with a new attitude. Allen Davis, proprietor of Shenanigans Eatery and Pub at 4017 MacArthur Ave., says customers should expect something different from the nightspot's past incarnations as MacArthur's and the Cock and Bull.
"We're going to have a nice little music venue," Davis says. "It's an old building but it's a brand new deal."
Davis, a fan of live music, says he plans to open the venue to acts of all kinds. For now, Friday nights are devoted to bluegrass. He says he has plans to bring in bands from across the state to go with some of the local established bluegrass groups such as the Slack Family. Saturday nights are presently a "mixed bag" with "a little bit of everything" taking the stage. Davis says the club was known primarily in the past as a bluegrass venue, but he wants to change that.
"We want to offer something for locals that don't have a taste for bluegrass," he says.
Davis has already featured a number of local rock, blues and Motown bands, including MoDeBree and Keep Your Day Job. Davis says he plans eventually to broaden the Saturday night musical mix to regular weeknight slots as well. Cover charges will stay low, ranging from free admission to $5, and shows start at 8:30 p.m.
Davis is well aware that there's a wealth of potential in North Side and the challenge is to get the word out about the changes he plans for "Richmond's finest tucked-away tavern."
"The neighbors just have to get out and realize we're here," he says. Ames Arnold