It may even be called a “den of ill repute,” a “watering hole,” or that popular Southern term “beer joint.” But you don’t need online dictionaries or Yahoo! Answers to understand what it is or what it isn’t. Especially if you frequent any said alcohol-serving establishment that serves up cheap brew and greasy spoon cuisine that’s not going to cater to the caviar and wine crowd. Dive bars have elevated themselves to a cultural plateau thanks to urban hipsters who like to feel that they’re living on the edge, sipping their IPAs while rubbing elbows with blue collar average Joes that prefer to drink their tall boys of Pabst in rustic surroundings. Every city and town has a few, and if you’re of the lowbrow type (like me), you’re going to find one that you’ll gather at after work, on weekends, or on any given night in which some stellar live music can be seen for cheap on a consistent basis. And one in particular that I’ve found to dig the vibes from is the Front Row, located here in my home turf of Roanoke, VA.
It wasn’t until recently that the Front Row was born, so to speak. For years it was the Backstreet Cafe, a well known LGBT bar that offered comfort from a prejudiced, uptight society that hadn’t accepted people with alternative lifestyles. Sadly, that comfort was shattered in 2000 when a delusional homophobe named Ronald Edward Gay stopped in for a beer then proceeded to open fire, wounding six people, and killing one, Danny Lee Overstreet, who was only 43. Gay was supposedly on orders from a “higher power”, and his hate-filled rampage sent a wave of fear throughout the gay community, which stigmatized the Backstreet Cafe to a point that it would never recover. Regular customers, for fear of their life, stayed away, afraid that such a tragedy would happen again. Fortunately, it didn’t, but the usual crowd had thinned out, forcing the owners to brainstorm ideas that would keep them out of the red. Coming to the conclusion that the Cafe would never turn a profit trying to strictly cater to a gay clientele, the decision was made to book bands on a weekly basis.
After having some growing success primarily showcasing hardcore punk and thrash metal bands, some much needed renovations and a name change was in order. Since there was now an entirely different crowd spending their hard earned beer fund money, the owners felt that it was time to propel forward as the Front Row. Now, with a wholly different attitude, the Row has become one of the hottest nightspots to feature exciting, underground rock ‘n’ roll in Roanoke and its surrounding areas. I had yet to catch a show there, but once I found out that the infamous Nobunny was scheduled, I made a mental note to rectify this, knowing full well that I would never forgive myself if I let an opportunity such as this pass me by. The Spells (Norfolk, VA) and Cretin Mouth (locals) rounded out this triple bill.
The Spells took the stage first, and even though they said it was only their second gig, you wouldn’t have guessed it. Their brand of high-energy garage rock ‘n’ roll was a brass knuckled blast across the mandible, successfully shattering any notions that they were amateurs. In fact, this three-piece is a supergroup, of sorts. Frontman Jeff Lomanno had played in two previous bands that I was well aware of from my podcast days, the Hydeouts and the Great Dismal Swamis. Guitarist Mark Haislip had also been a member of the Hydeouts, while drummer Hoyt March was in the Larchmont Trash. This powerful combination of skilled musicians took their previous projects and blended them up with some New Bomb Turks style ferocity, then released it on an unsuspecting audience. Respect was earned within the first song, and the trio ripped through a set that included such titles as “Kill My Baby”, “Quit My Kult”, and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suxx”. Well, their style of rock ‘n’ roll definitely didn’t suck, and I’m convinced that they earned some new fans that’ll be eager to see them again soon. Let’s hope that they stick around for a while. Here’s a clip of the first gig the Spells played at Charlie’s American Cafe in Norfolk:
Cretin Mouth went on next with their wonderfully demented Violent Femmes style minimalist punk. With dashes of Beat Happening and the Dead Milkmen shining through on such crowd favorites as “Bad Wet Dream”, “Hollywood Zombies”, “Thunderpussy”, and “The Dildo Song”, fans were singing along, while new converts were already scanning the room for merch to buy. Hailing from here in Roanoke, the band includes lead vocalist/guitarist James “Bubba” Baltz, bassist/vocalist Tony “Killer Cadaver” Southers, and drummer Terri “The Terror” Baltz. With an all-around fun vibe and catchy tunes, it’s no wonder why they have such a devout following. I picked up two of their releases, “The Lost Demo” EP, and their full length “Tabula Rasa”, which you can order from Bandcamp.
By this point of the night, the excitement of the crowd was building up to a fever. Having already witnessed two eye-opening sets of Grade-A trash ‘n’ roll, the contagious euphoria was spreading around the audience as more alcohol was getting swilled and spilled. The moment that I, the Spells, Cretin Mouth, the bartenders, everyone was waiting for finally came. As soon as Nobunny’s gang of rabbit-disguised musicians finished getting their instruments in check, the man, the legend, the bunny himself, came running out onto the stage, clad in his trademark biker jacket, black briefs, and rabbit head gear. Accented with a bolo tie and barefoot, Nobunny grabbed his guitar and unleashed a face melting garage punk attack on the senses while his merry band (Sammy, Kramer, and Pookie) backed him up in a no-holds barred racket that sent a sonic blast that would rival Spinal Tap’s “11”. Contorting with epileptic abandon, Nobunny proved to the uninitiated that he was a performance artist, a powerhouse mix of Iggy Pop and Chuck Berry.
As the guitars got crunchier, the crowd got louder. The speed of the tunes was fully amped as if this was the last show Nobunny would ever play. Stepping off the stage and into the crowd, he sang into his mic, inches from his spectators, his tribe. At one point, a large group began slamming, nonviolent, yet an energetic display while the fans were singing along. And the song that got everyone nearly screaming the lyrics to was his most popular, “Blow Dumb”, albeit a sped up version that caused the crowd to bunny hop, which was reminiscent of the Pogo. You couldn’t help but move to this musical caffeine, and there was more than enough asses shaking along to the beat. A couple of times, Nobunny teased that it was the “last song”, with the first instance being when he unleashed his cover of “In the Midnight Hour”. When he did finish the set, there was a sense of “don’t let it end”, and I know I wouldn’t have been alone in that bar if he decided to play all night.
When the lights came up, I had to ask myself if this all really happened. To say I was blown away is truly an understatement, especially after experiencing the absolute intensity of a true rock ‘n’ roll show like this. I hadn’t felt so connected to music of this caliber in quite some time. The fact that all three acts on this bill were ego-free, felt a kinship with each other, and gave their all for a gig that only had a $5 cover charge will definitely leave a lasting impression on me and all who attended. And there was Nobunny, happily posing for pictures with fans, old and new, and eagerly engaging in conversation with each and every one. That, my friends, is a true rock ‘n’ roll star.
Special thanks to Debra Persons for her invaluable assistance. For all the past and present rock ‘n’ roll happenings in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area, check out Hardcore Norfolk. All band photos were taken by Brian Muncy.