They say history repeats itself.
That must mean the same things just keep happening over and over again. Welcome to 929 W. Grace St. in Richmond, Virginia USA ladies and gentleman. I don’t care if it was Hubaba’s, Twisters, Chrono’s Café, 929 Café, Nancy Raygun, or Bagel Czar. It is the center of the universe. This address has been the epicenter of Richmond’s music scene for so long that the first patrons only had to be 18 to drink. Music has come out of this address since I believe the late ‘70s. If you want more history before then, go get an encyclopedia. Put it this way, Austin, Portland and Brooklyn would kill its mother for a venue like this one. The salad days of W. Grace St. were not punk, hardcore, or metal. It was more collegiate, and blue collar bar band-like. Bands like Steel Mill, Single Bullet Theory, The Good Humor Band, The Dads, The Good Guys, The Deal, Steve Basset, Robbin Thompson were the local music scene in the ‘70s. Now these bands were not what were to come later, not even close, but they helped Richmond bloom into a music juggernaut.
The underground sound, new wave, no wave, math rock, punk, and hardcore was sprouting and it needed a home. Punk and new wave proved to be the early landlords of these rock genres as 1980 came around. 929 provided this sound for RVA. New wave band Ten Ten, and the punk band White Cross were laying down the very early seeds of new wave and punk in RVA. The term ‘RVA’ itself may have been born at 929. In the ‘80’s the skinhead group RVA Skins ran supreme on Grace St. I am not saying 929 was their base, but it might as well have been. Many people including myself had never heard Richmond, Virginia referred to as ‘RVA’ until these lads rumbled around. They didn’t do too much damage on Grace because the Pagans biker gang was really running the show. They controlled the titty bars and more or less the Lee Art X rated Theater. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of stabbings, fights, and cop cars. Now what started to build in the mid 80’s at 929 out of this mess was the beginning of a true metal scene in Richmond. Metal sort of took over the punk of the mid 80’s, but never count out punk in Richmond. 929 never did. Punk and Metal will always have a stranglehold there.
Let’s review: skinheads, strippers, art/music school kids, black people, bikers, drag queens and frat boys were all in one bowl. 929 turned this gumbo into what is now one of the greatest music scenes in America. The venue at 929 was known as Hubaba’s from the late 70’s to circa 1988. A lot of folks consider the mid to late eighties the seminal days of 929. I have to agree, although I never knew Hubaba’s, I was underage, and in high school. Just take a gander of who was coming up, GWAR, Honor Roll, Burma Jam, Alter Natives, semi Richmond band Holy Rollers, and many more. 929 was where these great bands began their journey to receive national acclaim and a pat on the back from other bands that mattered back then. 929 became Richmond’s CBGB’s and was such a force many musicians flocked here to study art, music, and start up a band just to play at the venue.
As the 80’s were fading, GWAR was beginning to take over the World, and 929 W. Grace St. became Twisters. The Whitt family was now the owners. There were many other owners prior, but let’s just start here. For the Whitts, instead of reaping the benefits of a great business, they had to deal most of the time with new VCU President Dr. Eugene Trani. He wanted VCU to become a great ‘research’ university. In order to have this come to fruition he needed to put the brakes on Grace St. especially Twisters. I guess there was too much creativity and DIY music going on, and not enough corporate greed. How did he do this? I give you the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, folks. Trani would later give away free diplomas and hire pedophile police chiefs in his tenure as President of VCU.
Now the early 90’s were great because 929 was breeding the follow ups to GWAR, Honor Role, Burma Jam, and Alter Natives. The list included: Breadwinner, Avail, Bio Ritmo, Young Pioneers, Four Walls Falling, Hell Mach 4, HRM, Mudd Helmet, Mao Tse Helen, Ugly Head, Inquisition, and Labradford. The famous Goth/Industrial Night, Revelations, began its tenure at 929 around the early 90’s as well. That was superstar DJ Rick Danger’s pet project. It would go on to be the longest ‘night’ of its kind at the time. Danger would later become a mainstay at 929. How about grunge at 929 you ask? Well put it this way, grunge, as big as it was, never really took off at the venue. I guess that was a good thing. Loads of great local bands had cornered the market at 929. Many of those bands would fall under the genre of math rock. Many consider Richmond the birthplace of math rock, and it needed a forum, and this would be none other than Twisters. I started going to a lot of shows at Twisters at this point, I was now of age, and of course wanted to see great bands.
Twisters was getting noticed nationally at this point, so with that, national touring acts would pay more visits. Twisters had a good booking agent and manager back then in Richmond music scene staple, Steve Douglas. Dinosaur Jr. played in front of a few dozen people; however, there were many, and I do mean many, other great, on rotation at MTV and CMJ, top 20 quality bands to pack Twisters to the gill. The Smashing Pumpkins made a visit. I wish I was at that show. Hip hop began to introduce itself to 929 around this time, too. There were great rap bands back then in the genre’s glory days, and a stop at 929 was not uncommon. In 1994, Twisters would actually become known as Chrono’s Café, but then changed back to Twisters. Why? I have no idea.
Here we are at the mid 90’s, and just like that, Twisters is still around. The great Jerry Burd, manager at the time, was really making a horse race out of 929 West Grace St. The ABC shut down Twisters a few times in this period, but Jerry and the Whitts always kept it afloat. It was at this time The Fan District Association started to prove it could win a pissing contest.
You know how sometimes when someone or something is down or disintegrating, they come back stronger? 929 did just that. In terms of success, the greatest band to ever come out of Richmond was packing them in, and helped keep Twisters afloat. That band was Burn the Priest; you know them now as Lamb of God. Sparklehorse, Sliang Laos, King Sour, Nudibranch, Hose Got Cable, Kepone, Action Patrol, Dirtball, The Lucky Stiffs, semi RVA band Buzzoven, along with rap/rock variation bands were also ruling 929 W. Grace St. House/techno/dj-driven music was popping its head in around this time, and guess what, it never left. 929 was now dancing.
The hardest pill to stomach around this period was the fact GWAR was banned from playing in Richmond until the 2000’s. GWAR not being able to play 929, or anywhere else for that matter, was blasphemy. Richmond city officials were as stupid back then as they are now. This was a time where The Bottom was rolling, many smaller venues got shut down, but Twisters kept plugging away. Now are you starting to see why 929 W. Grace St. means so much to me, and more importantly the Richmond music scene? It never quit, it never compromised.
The late nineties came in to close the century, and 929 was still hanging around. PCP Roadblock, Strike Anywhere, RPG, ATP, Suzukiton, and a lot of underground thrash punk and of course metal is the new blood. The venue started to show its age, as the roof, bathrooms, stage, bar, and sound needed help. The beer and liquor were still there, and that’s what kept 929 afloat.
Welcome to 2000 A.D. and guess what? The Y2K bug never prevailed. The early century started out as a sad one for the venue. It was the end of Twisters. Twister’s longtime owners, the Whitts were done with The ABC, and the liabilities were too much. They sell 929 W. Grace St. circa 2002 to the owner of China Panda, Frank Chan. He, like many landlords, didn’t want to pay for a thing. Despite building issues, enter The 929 Cafe. The 929 Café concentrated on vegan food, and indie rock. It was at this time 929 yet again helped spawn a great local band into national recognition. This time it was indie rock giants Denali. Along with Denali, The Soft Complex, Bats and Mice and Engine Down were now carrying the torch at 929. Jessica, the 929 Café owner, figured it would be easier to leave and run a more serious restaurant/bar. 929 Café closed after a very short, but meaningful stint.
The future of the venue was in doubt. Ayndria Green and Sara Borey came in and barely got the club going again in ’03. They called it The Nancy Raygun. Great name if you ask me. But great names don’t always bring in great musical acts, as The Raygun learned. The money wasn’t there for booking big money making acts. However, great new bands and themed dance nights rallied around this new version of 929. A potpourri of bands with the likes of Suppression, Stop It!, Cut The Architect’s Hand, Are You Fucking Serious, Now Sleepyhead, Landmines, The Gaskets, Apocalypse Pow, VCR, Amoeba Men, the hip hop stylings of Concise Records, along with others were pumping oxygen into 929 W. Grace St. The Richmond noise movement spearheaded by 804noise and narwalz (of sound) began to grow even larger in the later stages of The Raygun. Current show promoter/booker, Danny Ingram, helped bring in as many decent bands as he could with what little he had at the time. The best story in this era was a little ole crusty punk/metal band called Municipal Waste. The Waste went from playing burnt-out warehouses and illegal house shows to 929 in the mid 2000s. As we enter 2010, these fabulous bastards are touring worldwide and making money. They can thank 929 like all the others. In the end, as expected, these lovely girls just could not keep Nancy Raygun going. They needed serious help getting the building/venue up to code. Chan didn’t help. He was too busy making chow mein. 929 would sit empty for a little over a year.
Couple of years ago, a lady thought it be a great idea to put thousands of dollars into restoring 929 W. Grace St. and making it a bagel joint. She would call it Bagel Czar. Goodbye music? No, not quite. This lady from Charlottesville thought Grace St. was like The Corner in her home town. She did not do her homework. There are no wealthy UVA students around. This is VCU, and high end bagels ain’t working. The new owner should have known this was a music venue and only that. Plus, C’Ville lady fucked up the interior. Anyway, in the ‘35 minutes’ this place was open she realized that music should be hosted at The Czar. She even got an ABC license. Dance parties, floor playing bands like anything on CNP Records, Hot Lava, Cough, Color Kittens, Mouthbreather, Snack Truck, Ultra Dolphins, The Catalyst, and Brainworms, kept some life in this failed hipster dufus bagel joint.
By this history lesson, I want the new owners to know 929 can work. It has been done before and can be done again. Concentrate on the great history at this venue. Realize how important it is to Richmond’s illustrious music scene. The venue is important enough to deal with every curve the city of Richmond, and ABC throw at you. I beg you; do not let the cynicism of Richmond detract you. This dog will hunt. If you can, hire a pro-active staff of local musicians. They know how to treat bands.
929 W. Grace St. you are not a puncher, you are a fighter. I love you, and what you have done for the greatest city in the world. I have been driving by 929 a lot recently just hoping I hear music. It will be nice to finally hear some for a change. That old building is absolutely worthless without music. It is ripe for the taking to be a thriving venue again. You will just have to work harder than any other venue in Richmond, and that will make it all the more rewarding. I cannot wait until your, what is it now, 8th, 9th, 10th, opening night? It will be me that raises the first glass.
ed. note – From F.T. Rea “Hababa’s, which was owned by Howard Awad, was one door to the west. In the ’70s 929 W. Grace housed the Back Door, which was owned by John Richardson, who now owns Big Daddy’s — a BBQ place in Dogtown. Both men are longtime friends of mine, as in the ’70s I ran a movie theater in that neighborhood.”
editor’s note: Strange Matter is the newest incarnation of this space at 929 West Grace and is set to open any day now.
Written by John Lewis Morgan of onewayrichmond.com