The closing of Richmond’s popular venue leaves a hole in the heart of its music scene.
*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #35, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
Beloved Richmond music venue Strange Matter closed this December, after nearly a decade in business. The venue hosted countless touring and local musicians over the years, and was a hub for underground music in the city. The space may soon be taken over by another venue, but for many, it marks the end of an era.
The soon-to-be vacant building at 929 West Grace Street has been home to a string of concert halls stretching all the way back to the 1970’s, but the area has changed dramatically in the years since Strange Matter opened its doors.
For years, the area around West Grace Street was considered to be a dangerous and decayed area of the city, but it was also where Richmond’s illustrious hardcore, punk, noise, and metal scenes flourished.
In the 70’s and 80’s, the block was home to biker bars, porno theatres, and even a go-go bar. By the 2000’s, there was a plethora of venues, bars, and independent businesses in the area that catered to alternative cultures and lifestyles.
However, shops and restaurants like Exile, Nonesuch, Bunny Hop, Empire, The Nile, and Rumors have all moved or gone out of business since Virginia Commonwealth University began expanding into the area. Strange Matter was one of the last holdouts.
VCU has spent much of the last decade buying up properties on the block, and has replaced many of the old storefronts with campus amenities, such as a mini Walmart, a dormitory, and a student computer store.
The university’s hegemonic expansion into the area has had an outsized impact on the cultural landscape of the city: Earlier this year, the university purchased Mansion nightclub, located a block from Strange Matter, for $3.5 million, four times its estimated value, in an effort to “clean up” the area.
“Until VCU started growing, it wasn’t crazy expensive to live in this neighborhood and be in walking distance to all these places,” Strange Matter’s bar manager, Kelsey Hulvey, said. “But now the only reason to live around here is to walk to class, because all these businesses have been pushed out by VCU. It’s not the same.”
Hulvey worked behind the bar at Strange Matter since it opened in 2009, and has seen the changes take place in real time. Yet she’s optimistic that another venue will be able to take its place.
“I think one of the discussions that people have been having is not knowing where else you would put a small to mid-size venue like this,” she said.
Mark Osborne, who has been the booking agent at Strange Matter for the last eight years, said that the city is in desperate need of smaller venues where up-and-coming musicians can cut their teeth.
“Bands don’t just immediately get big and go play The National; they need these smaller rooms to build them in and familiarize people with them,” Osbourne said. “I feel like, without the building blocks, the stepping stones, we’re not going to get as much major talent because they’re just going go to the bigger cities.”
929 West Grace Street has been the home of one venue or another since the early 70’s, starting with The Back Door. It was a regular spot for local bands like Single Bullet Theory, The Good Guys and Steel Mill, and it famously hosted Bruce Springsteen for three nights in a row just before he skyrocketed to mainstream success.
In the late 70’s, The Back Door became one of the first venues in the city to have punk and metal shows. Tom Applegate, guitarist of first-wave Richmond punk bands L’amour and Beex, remembers it well. It was his idea.
“We went to The Back Door dude and said, ‘Can we have Sunday night for a punk show?’ And he sold every fuckin’ beer in the beer cooler,” Applegate said. “He was like, ‘You want to do this again next week?’”
Sunday night officially became punk night at The Back Door, and early Richmond punk bands like White Cross, Prevaricators, The Barriers, and Death Piggy (which eventually evolved into GWAR) began playing there on a regular basis.
“Once they found out you could sell beer having punk shows, a bunch of people started letting that happen,” Applegate said.
In the 1990’s, The Back Door was replaced by Twisters, and became a full-blown alternative punk and metal bar. Twisters helped put Richmond on the map as one of the best cities for alternative and underground music in the 90’s, and helped Richmond legends like GWAR, Honor Role, Avail, Lamb of God, and Four Walls Falling get off the ground.
Twisters also hosted plenty of big-name touring acts like Dinosaur Jr., Green Day, and Smashing Pumpkins, during that period.
In the early 2000’s, the space was taken over by The Nanci Raygun, which folded in 2007, followed by the short-lived Bagel Czar. Both venues had a difficult time meeting the high bar set by Twisters. Strange Matter was a return to form, however, and the building once again became ground zero for the Richmond music scene.
John Graham, guitarist and vocalist of local band Fat Spirit, has been playing shows at Strange Matter since it began, and like many local musicians, the news of it’s closing came as a shock to him.
“It’s going to leave a big void when it’s done,” Graham said. “In high school, we’d drive around asking any crappy bar restaurant where I grew up if they’d let us play shows, and every single one was like ‘Not a fucking chance.’ So I think we owe a great deal to places like Strange Matter here in Richmond.”
When Strange Matter opened in 2009, RVA Mag founder R. Anthony Harris wrote a lengthy diatribe about the historical importance of 929 W. Grace Street for the city.
“I want the new owners to know 929 can work,” Harris wrote. “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… It is ripe for the taking to be a thriving venue again.”
Strange Matter didn’t disappoint, but the quick changes that have taken place in Richmond in the last decade have made the future of the concert hall much less certain.
According to Osborne, the owner of the building is currently looking at several offers from businesses that would like to rent the space, but the details aren’t public yet.
“It’s been a venue now for 30 or 40 years,” Osborne said. “Ideally, we’re hoping to find someone with a similar vision.”
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