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Roanoke’s Music Scene: From Down By Downtown… to Down By The River

“Sinking Creek” performs on Kirk Avenue.

Members of the Creative Connectors STAR group, with help of local promoter Gary Jackson, musician Cyrus Pace, and others, held what they hope is just the first “Down By Downtown” music festival last weekend. Several dozen local and regional bands, more established acts at the Jefferson Center and even an Opera Roanoke performance were included as part of the event.

Organizers are looking to Austin’s “South By Southwest” music festival as a model. An outdoor stage set up on Kirk Avenue featured bands from as far away as Charlotte, NC (The New Familiars) as well as local groups from Roanoke and Blacksburg.

Lance Smith is the lead singer and principal songwriter for Sinking Creek, a Roanoke band that gives a nod to Pink Floyd as an influence. “It’s the first year for this…baby steps,” said Smith, noting perhaps the sparse crowds that stood at one end of Kirk Avenue, listening to the music. He added, “I’d like to see this be even bigger in the next two years.” Several local clubs also featured Down By Downtown fare last Saturday, including Martin’s and Blue 5.

Smith would like to see bands from the Charlottesville music scene make the trip to Roanoke for Down By Downtown in the future. “It’s real cool there …something we should be doing here,” said Smith. Sinking Creek is working on a second CD, being recorded at The Music Lab inside Jefferson Center.

As a matter of fact, proceeds from this Friday’s “Down by the River”  Concert, featuring songwriter/guitarist/pianist/performer John Hiatt, will go to the student-oriented lab and recording space, which began as the Downtown Music Lab, with the support of developer Ed Walker.

Walker now operates Kirk Avenue Music Hall – where Gary Jackson books musicians and bands. Jackson first booked shows at 202 Market Street, but says “It wasn’t the right place” for music acts; there were too many distractions. “Kirk Avenue is the right place.”

Jackson is promoting “Down by the River” (May 7, doors open 6:45 p.m.), which will take place under a huge tent set up where Victory Stadium used to be. Not familiar with John Hiatt, who recently performed on “Late Night with David Letterman?” “His songs,” notes Jackson, “have also been recorded by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Keith Urban, Jimmy Buffett – even Paula Abdul.

Hiatt, an 11-time Grammy nominee, writes “incredible songs that people have heard,” said Jackson. “His take on his [own] music is one powerful show. If you enjoy really solid, well-crafted rock and roll songs there’s nobody that does it better.”

Tickets for the John Hiatt concert on Friday are $45 each. Paul Thorn and Franklin County native Corey Hunley will open for Hiatt and The Combo. Chairs will be provided; patrons should park near River’s Edge or at the new Carilion garage across from the old Victory Stadium site. (Visit for more information and tickets.)

“The people that come to Kirk Avenue Music Hall on a regular basis (five straight shows were sold out within the past week) will also like John Hiatt,” said Jackson. “They’re gonna leave saying [wow] that was so good. Kirk Avenue gets that a lot.” Jackson likes bringing “really special, talented singer/ songwriters,” to the cozy music hall, especially those who may not be that well known to the casual music fan.

Jackson has also announced an open-air event for July 11 on the same site—but without the tent. The all day long (11 hours) “Down by the River Festival” will feature Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Southern Culture on the Skids, Mountain Heart, the venerable New Riders of the Purple Sage and others. In early July, Jackson will “build a little city,” where the Down by the River Festival will take place. As with Kirk Avenue, he is looking for “the Wow Factor.”

Jackson, a long time promoter who used to work in Washington DC and still does shows elsewhere, could have booked Hiatt for the Jefferson Center at less expense perhaps. “[But] there’s something really special about being outdoors [for concerts],” said Jackson, who spent several days putting up the performance tent for John Hiatt. He sums up his efforts when he says, “I’m just trying to create an incredible atmosphere.”

By Gene Marrano
[email protected]

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