CULTURE- MUSIC- RIP: Satellite heads to venue heaven
Calling the demise of the Satellite Ballroom– scheduled for later this week– "the end of an era" or anything remotely comparable would be a little delusional given that it has been open only since April 2004. But it is, in a way, a reality check.
Two years ago, Charlottesville was awash in music venues, and we were repeatedly running articles about the potent local music scene– and more importantly, believing our hype with all our little hearts.
But we can be excused: for a while, it was true. Justin Timberlake came to town at the absolute pinnacle of his career, the Washington Post named us one of the college town music meccas of the Southeast, and there were weekends where there was just no way to do it all– remember that Saturday when it was Wilco v. Mute Math v. the Crozet Music Festival?
Somewhere along the way, the Smashing Pumpkins did a nine-day residency in Asheville, and at the time that almost seemed like a confidence-boost-by-proxy. If you were paying attention, it felt like we were onto something big.
Beetnix rapper Damani Harrison effectively leads the local hip-hop scene, and he says his nervous excitement peaked with one of the recent music milestones that went down at Satellite: the first in a string of several local performances by thoughtful hip-hop duo Blackalicious that sold out– spectacularly.
"I just remember seeing the line down the block for that and thinking, 'Something really cool could happen here,'" Harrison says.
And it did, briefly. Mainstream hip-hop enjoyed an (unfortunately terminal) resurgence before the local clubs started to sour on it again, with everyone from Def Jux artists like Mr. Lif coming to Satellite and what seemed like half the Wu-Tang Clan dropping into the late Starr Hill.
It was a reflection of the growth that was also happening all over town, but in the end, it just wasn't sustainable, and soon Satellite will be joining Starr Hill as a stop on the great tour circuit in the sky. Starting now it might be hard to stay excited when there's simply no place in town suitable for a mid-sized rock show; all the adrenaline will probably just evaporate on the drive back from Richmond.
Local folk singer Paul Curreri is one of the performers on the bill for Satellite's final show, the C-Fest music showcase run by local musician Lance Brenner. That blowout– paired with the string of local rock shows May 21-23– makes for a fitting exit sequence, especially given that so many local musicians are distressed by the loss of yet another venue.
Curreri has typically been more at home at Gravity Lounge than at Satellite, but he respects the role the Ballroom has played. "I didn't actually go to Tokyo Rose all that much either," he says, "but it was an enormous comfort that they were there."
Bassist Jerel Jacobs of Acoustic Groove Trio, another band slated to perform May 24, thinks it was due largely to the venue's flexibility. "Satellite could have well-known or less well-known bands of all different types, and it could adapt. I definitely think there's a lack of that now," he says. "There are other venues in town that can change a little bit, but they can't accommodate RZA one night and Joanna Newsom the next."
Ballroom manager Danny Shea says that while he's hoping to continue the work he has recently started with booking shows at venues like the Outback Lodge and the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, it's Pavilion chief Kirby Hutto who's leading the charge toward nailing down a new space.
Unfortunately, Hutto doesn't have much encouraging news at the moment: "We're beginning work on the Jefferson [Theater] and are hoping to have it in September '09. Ultimately that will be the home for those shows," he says. "If we can find something in the interim, that would be a bonus, but Charlottesville's economy is good, and there aren't a lot of empty buildings."
Shea is also frustrated with the clandestine dealings between property owner Terry Vassalos and CVS that ultimately ousted the Ballroom, in particular because years of renovation work by the current tenants have effectively gone down the drain.
"We helped make the property more attractive to a big corporate chain," says Shea. "I feel like Terry's making a huge profit at our expense." Ultimately, Shea says, even the full support of local music mogul Coran Capshaw, who bought part of Satellite about a year ago, when he was closing Starr Hill Music Hall, wasn't enough to derail the CVS deal.
But local guitarist Jay Pun is keeping it all in perspective. He points out that this isn't the first time leases have soured in the Charlottesville music world.
"People should have done the same thing for the Prism," he says.
No keeping it in perspective for Nice Jenkins drummer Adam Brock– he's extremely upset.
"From the perspective of a music listener, this is a tragedy," says Brock, "because that entire market is gone until a new space is built."
Brock says that it will be exponentially more difficult for his band to grow its audience now that they can't latch onto opening slots with larger national touring acts. Brock doesn't even understand the financial appeal to CVS. "I don't think they're going to do well," he says. "Students are going to go to Student Health. The biggest pharmaceutical business in this area is probably sorority girls' birth control, and you know they're not going to CVS for that. They might stop in to get a scrunchie every now and again, but beyond that, it doesn't really make sense."
But there are still bands around here like recent Red Light Management signees Sons of Bill and Sparky's Flaw, either of whom might be close enough to making it big to re-ignite things– or at least to keep the kindling lit for the next year and a half. The musical energy here may not yet be spent, nor has it necessarily migrated to Richmond.
But at the very least we're about to see whether Charlottesville really cares about its music. Judging from the public outcry– which included a petition drive– over Satellite's predicament, it does. But now that the cards are on the table and corporate America has successfully called rock and roll's bluff, it's time to ante up again.
As Jacobs says, "We have a lot farther to go than a lot of people think."
In other words, at some point, "Oh, no" needs to turn into "Now what?" For the next 18 months, that may mean getting yourself down to Miller's or Outback twice a week. Get on it, people.
The farewell concerts, take place May 22-24 at the Satellite Ballroom. Times and prices vary; see the Hook music blog for details.