Harrisonburg’s underground music scene gives bands a platform to play for supportive crowds.
STORY | EMMY FREEDMAN
PHOTO | DANIEL STEIN
Ben Birchfield picks up a wooden instrument that resembles a long, wooden flute. It has blue carvings on the sides and it makes a low, hollow sound when the senior sociology major blows into it. “I’ve recently added a didgeridoo to my repertoire,” he says.
Birchfield is a solo artist who’s been performing at house parties in the area for several years and, like many other musicians in and around the JMU community, he finds Harrisonburg the perfect place to hone his skills and meet other musicians and music lovers.
“Harrisonburg is a good place to suck,” he says. “You can get out there, find shows to do and gauge if you’re on to something based on the reaction that you get. It’s basically a low-pressure, no-strings-attached way of getting involved and seeing if it’s something you want to pursue.”
A good place to play is exactly what the five-piece band Caulfield is counting on. Guitarist Troy Gamboa says the indie rock band is just starting out and ready to see if it has a sound people will respond to.
“We want to record a few EPs and play some shows,” the junior integrated science and technology major says. “If it takes us somewhere, it does; if it doesn’t, then we have some cool songs to listen to.”
The first test for the band, which gets its musical ideas from a diverse lot that includes The Beatles and the Canadian indie rocker Mac Demarco, was on Friday, Sept. 25 at a house party on South Main Street.
“We’re excited,” says Cole Roberts, the band’s other guitarist and a junior biology major. “We’ve all played live before, but this is the first one ever for us as this band.”
Other members include junior math and computer science major and bassist Nathan Johnson, and junior psychology major and drummer Jonny Weiss.
What makes the area such a good incubator of bands, says local musicians, is the opportunity to work with all the other musicians at the university and to get lots of practice playing live at the many venues in and around Harrisonburg, particularly with all the house parties going on.
“We’ve played [a lot of] house shows,” says Eric Sites, a senior management major who plays guitar for a band called Madly Backwards. The band plays rock with the grit of blues, the energy of funk and the sonic experimentation of psychedelia.
Sites points to JMU as a great meeting place for musicians to find others who share musical interests.
“We all met in music industry classes,” he says, and now that they’re a band, they can leverage each other’s strengths. “I’ll bring a song on acoustic guitar with just chords and lyrics to the group to turn into a full band arrangement. Nick and Jamie have much more music theory knowledge than I do so they help me out on getting it to make sense to the rest of the world.”
Among other venues, the band has played at The Artful Dodger, where it’s been the venue’s Whiskey Wednesday artist.
Sites says he likes the way the big variety of bands in the area helps shape everyone’s sound.
“In the past, we’ve played with members of Too Indecent, Illiterate Light, Out on the Weekend, Strong Water and the Dawn Drapes,” he says.
Victoria Earther, a cellist with the folk band Strong Water, credits the local venues for giving bands like hers a place to build their skill.
“Clementine is probably where we play the most,” the senior writing, rhetoric and technical communication major says.
“We played Little Gems Music Festival, and we’ve done Madipalooza,” says her bandmate Greg Brennan, the singer and guitarist. Brennan graduated in the spring with a degree in geology but he’s stayed in town to take advantage of all the places there are for them to play.
The next show for the band, which sounds a little like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, is at the Golden Pony on North Main Street, but Brennan says they also have ambitions to grow beyond Harrisonburg once they have some recorded music to showcase. That could be pretty soon, because they’ve started a crowd funding initiative on Indiegogo to get money for a recording session.
“We want to record this album and start playing in Richmond, Northern Virginia, you know, all over Virginia,” he says.
Harrisonburg’s college-town atmosphere is also a big help on the rehearsal side of being a musician, because students are less likely to be up in arms if they hear a band practicing nearby — although for the indie-rock band Caulfield, it doesn’t hurt that their practice space at Foxhill Townhomes on Devon Lane is at the end of the complex.
“We live right next to the model home,” says Gamboa. “And there’s no one in the apartment next to that one, either.”
Birchfield, the solo artist, says a lot of the people who come out to see him are his friends, but it’s also through them that he’s been able to grow his audience.
“If I have a show and send out invites, I know I’ll get a full room,” he says. “Through word-of-mouth, I know people are familiar with me.”
Sites of Madly Backwards says the most fun part about playing around Harrisonburg is all the students who come out.
“Everyone is there for a good time, so it’s always an awesome energy,” he says.
And it was by being out in the community that the six members of Strong Water found each other and formed a band.
“We’d meet on Friday nights and just have some drinks and hang out and play music together,” Brennan says. “We had to get used to each other for a while because everything was so new.”
“Jenny grew up Mennonite and was in the hymn tradition,” junior marketing major Evan Hunsberger, the band’s percussionist, says. “I was this small city urban kid who grew up listening to mainstream Christian music. Victoria’s been all over the place. And Greg wanted to do rock originally.”
Yet they were able to find a sound that blends together the unique contribution of each, a good metaphor for Harrisonburg and its rich musical tradition.
“It’s funny that with all of our different backgrounds we all can come together and play this music,” Carrier says.