From Springsteen to Smashing Pumpkins and Beyond: Richmond Underground Music Spot is Closing

Dec 12, 2018

Local sludge metal band Windhand performs at one of Strange Matter's final shows.
Credit Brad Kutner

For nearly 50 years alternative touring and local musicians have found an audience at Richmond’s 929 West Grace Street, just a stone’s throw from VCU’s Monroe Park Campus.

Now, the latest iteration of the space, Strange Matter, is closing its doors after nearly a decade.

When you push open the door of 929 West Grace Street, you can't help but feel like you’ve traveled back in time-- jet black walls marked with colorful, video game-inspired murals, the muted roars of a band sound checking reverberating off the cinder blocks beneath, low hanging lamps creating the perfect amount of mysterious light and tattooed bartenders offering you your first shot and a beer of the night. The space, known as Strange Matter for the last nine years, is what many might consider a classic underground music club.

If you find the right old head, they’ll tell you about Bruce Springsteen gigging here when it was called The Back Door in the early 70s. Bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Hole, along with local heroes Avail and GWAR, graced the stage in the 80s and 90s when it was called Twisters. And as hardcore music grew, and Twisters closed its doors, it reopened as the Nancy Raygun in the early aughts and helped local acts like Down to Nothing find a stage.

“Back then, in the 80s, 90s, you had smaller venues, but Strange Matter, or Twisters, or 929, really catered to bands that were just starting out,” said local music historian John Morgan.

Morgan ran a very alternative, sometimes risqué, local music blog called One Way Richmond for some time and he’s been a regular at 929 West Grace Street for about 30 years. He's watched, first hand, as the Grace Street corridor around VCU turn from a red light district known for biker bars and strip clubs into a modern safe-zone for college students.  But Strange Matter helped keep that gritty spirit alive.

“There’s also something about it. It was kind of like our CBGBs. It was kind of a ----hole but people like that. I like that,” he said.

Strange Matter came into existence about nine years ago when a number of local live music fans decided to reopen the space and return it to its music venue roots.

John Downing is a co-owner of Strange Matter, one of the foolish heroes, he says. “Whenever you do something new it's important to do your own thing but respect the history of the space at the same time.”

Downing said things were tough for the first few years, but they eventually hit a stride and while the last 5 years have been great, the tax bills have started to pile up and, like many other spaces in Virginia, the food-to-booze ratio required for an ABC license didn’t help.

Add to that medical bills-- he has Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 3, a degenerative motor neuron disease-- and Downing and company are ready to call it quits.

Loyal Strange Matter fans may move on but they'll always have the memories, like this story from local rising star, Lucy Dacus. She started going to shows there as a teenager before she started playing them herself. “I went to a Ceremony show and within 20 seconds 5 people were crowd surfing and a 6th person wanted to crowd surf and looked around the room for somewhere to dive on and jumped on me,” she remembered.

“Both sides of my nose were bleeding. I went to the bathroom and tried to clean up but I was 17 or something and thought it would be cool to write my name in blood on the door and I’m pretty sure that was there for many months to come”

It’s stories like that, as gross as they may seem, which will keep Strange Matter alive in many hearts, but it was those behind the scenes like head talent buyer Mark Osborne, who kept things running.

And Osborne has a message for any prospective owners: “I hope that it's a venue and I hope they remember what we did here and honor the tradition of 929 West Grace street, being a home for underground and up and coming acts locally and internationally as its been for most of the last 50 years.”

Strange Matter closes its doors for good Saturday, December 15th after a few more stacked shows in the coming days.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.