One band’s mortal quest for cult renown

by Amy Kingsley

photos by Amy Kingsley

Before Thomas Harrison and family moved to a humble settlement at the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in 1739 and claimed it as their own, the burg was known as Rocktown. This obscure bit of local history merits just one line on the slightly pitched historical marker outside the austere granite courthouse.

I notice the sign as I’m pacing the courthouse square on a drizzly Saturday morning. It’s 11 a.m., the quiet break between the two days of independent music that is MACRoCk, formally known as the Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference, which is celebrating its 10th year in business on April 7 and 8.

Friday afternoon teased with sunshine and 80-degree weather that had students from the host campus, James Madison University, outside in droves. But wind and rain stormed in hours later and left the small city looking empty, vivid and old.

Like better-known conferences South by Southwest and CMJ in New York, the weekend promises bands from across the nation ‘— some signed but most unknown outside the circle of towns orbiting their own. None of the acts boasts major label support and half were selected through a blind listening committee. Unlike bigger music conferences, MACRoCk has remained grassroots, accepting no corporate or university support.

The decade marker might appear insignificant in a region known for both its ancient topography and reputation as a hotbed of American history, but the organizers from college station WXJM-FM have managed to sustain something entirely unique. This little town, with its conservative politics and preponderance of frat boys, plays host to a relatively obscure music festival that is nonetheless expected to draw 7,000 participants.

This is not Washington, DC, or even Richmond or Charlottesville. Harrisonburg is an altogether unlikely venue for this event, with an economy based on Civil War tourism and agriculture. Perhaps the best way to understand is to scrap the dull name that’s hung onto this place for almost three centuries and return to the original. This weekend, Harrisonburg is Rocktown once again.

The route between Greensboro and Harrisonburg is surprisingly straight: north on Battleground Avenue until the road becomes US 220 and merges with scenic I-81. From my house, it’s 10 minutes to the northbound artery.

When I get to Battleground and Cornwallis, I see members of local rock band Tiger Bear Wolf loading their van. We’re all a little quiet sitting around the dining room table a few minutes later. It might be the early hour (ten-thirtyish) or the awkward transition from friends to reporter and sources. Robo, singer-guitarist Jonathan Moore’s dog, puts his narrow paws in my lap and vigorously wags his tail.

‘“We don’t expect you to censor anything, just don’t make us look like assholes,’” Noah Howard, my roommate, says later.

It’s a condition I can live with. These guys aren’t assholes. Even the folks from MACRoCk know it, penning this description of the band:

Snarl scratch bite ‘… no, no really, these guys are teddy bears ‘… but good lord do they shred. Ask them for a hug.

‘“How do they know we’re nice guys?’” Howard asks.

Simple. Everybody knows.

Moore has to drop his dog off at a friend’s house, and then they will chart a path adventurers have traveled for centuries. Not long after the English washed up on American shores, pioneers drove horses into the fertile Shenandoah to plant crops and settle families. Later, Stonewall Jackson’s soldiers took refuge from battle in the wide plains. The place that became a rallying point for dividing the union has become a center for unification ‘— bands have come from as far as California. Today, those looking for a future still come to the Shenandoah, but now they sing a different kind of folk song and ride into the valley in beat-up vans.

‘“Does anyone else feel like they’re watching a high school battle of the bands?’” Moore asks.

We’re inside Guzman’s, the venue hosting both nights’ rock showcases. A sign says it’s a restaurant, night club and sports bar. The parking lot serves an abandoned Food Lion grocery store, a bakery and Guzman’s Restaurant. The night club/sports bar adjunct was carved out of a large portion of the vacant grocer.

Early in the evening, as Tiger Bear Wolf played to a couple hundred onlookers, families crowded obliviously in booths in the teal-trimmed room two steps removed from the club.

The hall is decked with moving lights that flutter colorful stars across audience faces. Disco balls rotate full speed, strobing the streamers and tinsel palm trees hanging from the ceiling.

I see Mr. Guzman himself holding court in a particleboard bar constructed at the edge of the vast dance floor scarred by the heels of countless pairs of cowboy boots. He’s got a blue Hawaiian shirt draped over a squat bowling ball figure.

‘“Last night we had a party,’” he says. ‘“Tonight we have ‘… how many ‘… 10 bands? Tomorrow nine?’”

The restaurant came first, about five years ago, and he added the club just seven months ago. Things are going well, Guzman says. A reggae band is scheduled for the venue after MACRoCk has closed.

Several members of Tiger Bear Wolf worked out an agreement with local band Body Electric to share equipment to maximize the short time slot ‘— 20 minutes ‘— allotted to each of the first four bands.

They’ve got to make the most of their time in the spotlight. A label expo features some big name indies like Dischord and Merge. Impressing the right people might make the difference between toiling in obscurity and earning a respectable cult following.

Both Moore and Howard bark aggressively over the music ‘— loud and aggressive with detours into swampy blues. The two singers flay their guitars while Matt Bostick threads rumbly bass lines around the chords and Lawrence Holdsworth savages the beat.

Bostick undergoes perhaps the most profound personality change when he walks onstage, from band comedian to serious practicioner. Behind him, Holdsworth transforms his low-key daytime persona into a drum-smashing alter ego dressed ‘— always ‘— in athletic shorts. Similarly, Howard on guitar and vocals trades an even baritone speaking voice for a guttural growl.

The band doesn’t have a leader, but Moore does most of the singing. He struts a bit onstage, coming at his microphone from the side, chewing the words and glowering at his fret board.

The guitarists all use vintage gear. Obtaining the right tube sound is as important as song craft, and they’ve been known to hang on to old amps with classic tone despite unreliability.

Tonight, the boys have the audience’s rapt attention. Most of the previously scattered attendees have gathered near the lip of the stage. Then, without a word, coordinator Chad Yarbrough appears at the side of the stage and draws his hand across his throat. The show, what these guys drove four hours to do, is over. It’s on to the next band.

‘“Did we sound out of tune?’” asks Moore.

‘“I think the bass was definitely out of tune,’” Bostick says.

If it was, I couldn’t hear it. People are gathering near the merchandise table buying records and T-shirts. They’re selling a lot.

I met up with Tiger Bear Wolf in Harrisonburg on the second floor of Warren Hall. Along a long, industrially pale counter, people bought wristbands, bands checked in and volunteers tried to sort out confusion with comp tickets and passes.

I was haggling across the counter when the band walked in calmly, dressed in classic slacker style with hands in pockets. They waited on a patio outside as I borrowed cell phones, begged, pleaded and finally weaseled my way into a press pass.

I left my car in the university parking lot and we all squeezed into the van. We were to rendezvous at Body Electric’s house before the start of the night’s show.

‘“The house is at the corner of Gay and High Street,’” Moore said.

‘“That’s awesome,’” Howard said.

At the house, a few partygoers took shelter from the broad daylight on a porch, sipping keg beer from plastic cups. In the kitchen an assembly line prepared vegan barbecue and coleslaw.

Bostick washed out a glass to fill at the keg around back. The rest of us followed suit. I filled my plastic cup with a cloud of foam floating on a bit of pale beer. One partygoer sprawled passed out in the rough grass.

Members of Tiger Bear Wolf hugged their hosts, the Body Electric guys scheduled to play before them. Each has played house shows in the others’ respective hometowns.

During this barbecue, the band members talked about their previous conference experience last fall at CMJ in New York.

‘“We couldn’t find a place to sleep so we just kept walking around the city until sunrise,’” Howard said. ‘“It was crazy.’”

Sometime after their showcase, they all found themselves at Coyote Ugly, or someplace like it, although they all get kind of embarrassed by the admission.

‘“That’s off the record,’” Howard said. ‘“But on the record, John took a body shot.’”

‘“Somebody bought me a body shot,’” Moore retorted.

The night started when they hooked up with the Swedish bass player from Greensboro’s legendary 1990s band the Raymond Brake and he dragged them around the city. When you’re on the road depending on casual acquaintances for a place to crash, sometimes you end up places you don’t want to be.

Their host was so drunk that he couldn’t remember how to get from Manhattan to the Brooklyn apartment where they could grab a few hours’ sleep before leaving. Such are the vagaries of road life.

‘“When you’re on the road you don’t have a large amount of control over what’s going on,’” Holdsworth said. ‘“You’re constantly around other people and you don’t have a lot of time for yourself, which can be hard if you’re lacking in social skills such as I am.’”

We were only at the house for about an hour and the bands have to go to Guzman’s for soundcheck. Their vehicle, a Chevy Gladiator, is a rolling monument to both the bands and the tours that have shaped Tiger Bear Wolf.

Adhesive labels from the Neil Young CDs On the Beach and Everybody knows this is Nowhere decorate the dashboard. The passenger-side mirror is gone. That happened on a narrow street in Philadelphia. When they brushed a parked car, the mirror shattered and sprayed shards of glass through the open window.

The vehicle bears the signs of Tiger Bear Wolf’s personal war, a campaign laid out in the first track of their self-titled album. The ‘“Something Worth Saving’” in that tune is rock ‘n’ roll. And Harrisonburg is today’s battlefield.

The hip city center peters out on roads that extend spokelike from Courthouse Square. Outside this artsy core, the town sprawls into enormous apartment complexes placed with all the artfulness of a teenage Monopoly whiz. Around the corner from Body Electric’s house, frat types gather shirtless on a tin roof, like a Tennessee Williams spoof.

On any other day, their kind might outnumber the aesthetes. But this weekend the music nerds have waged a successful insurgency, taking over the campus and the bars for their music festival.

After their set the members of Tiger Bear Wolf hang out a bit before heading back to the campus for free dinner.

‘“This is where Howard gets all diva, ‘do you have free-range chicken?”” Bostick says.

Pizza, hummus, Chinese and Ethiopian food cover perpendicular folding tables. Over loaded plates, I ask about the band’s history.

‘“Me and Jonathan and Larry used to play in a band back at Guilford called Hooray for Everything,’” Bostick says. ‘“Then Jon went to Mexico and Larry went to Japan and when Jon got back he started playing with Noah. So we decided we would all play together. Larry and I have been playing in crappy punk bands since we were in high school.’”

Bostick and Holdsworth grew up together in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a fact that might explain their preternatural musical connection. After seconds all around, we shamble out the door a little more slowly than we walked in, back to Guzman’s and the headlining acts.

The showcase is running a little behind, so we’re watching some forgettable band when Moore almost swipes a beer from a table set up as a satellite to the main bar.

‘“Hey man, is this for the band?’” he asks an employee sitting nearby.

When the guy answers with what looks like a nod, Moore says ‘“cool’” and grabs a bottle. Then the employee jumps up, and the misunderstanding becomes obvious. Moore puts the beer down. He had already nabbed a couple of Red Bulls.

Then the eighth band, the Medications, take the stage. Although they are not the headliners tonight, they will be the band whose name is dropped most this weekend. Their DC sound is a refined version of the bands the have been playing all night.

Virginia, specifically the Shenandoah Valley, might have been a Confederate stronghold during the Civil War, but the allegiance in Harrisonburg today is to our nation’s capital. Or, more appropriately, the punk rock that city produced. That Fugazi once headlined the event is a major bragging right for festival organizers.

By the time the carnivalesque Philly rockers Man Man take the stage, the Tiger Bear Wolf guys and I are tiring. Moore sips on an ill-gotten Red Bull at a bench across from me. We’re both resting our feet after hours of standing.

They make it through almost all of headlining band the Walkmen (of ‘“The OC’” fame) before bailing back to the Body Electric house. The next morning they say about 300 people turned out for a party. There wasn’t anywhere to stand and enjoy beer or conversation, so they left for a bare floor where they could sleep.

They do these conferences for exposure to other college radio stations in parts of the country they may never tour, meet new people and see new places, Moore says. They’ve toured four times; the last was three weeks long and started in late February, a few days after Moore suffered a collapsed lung. A friend, Bart Trotman, sang for four shows until Moore recovered enough to resume.

‘“Some of the best parts are just being able to travel and see new parts of the country with your friends,’” Moore says.

I ask him about the downside.

‘“It’s really hard not to get sick because a lot of times the only thing people will give you for free is beer,’” he says.

‘“You drink too much booze and smoke too many cigarettes,’” Holdworth says.

Moore plays music almost every night of the week, either with Tiger Bear Wolf, Health, Adam Thorn and the Top Buttons or his Spinal Tap cover band.

‘“I kind of have a suspicion that [music] is the one thing I could do exclusively,’” Moore says. ‘“It’s kind of like a boundless frontier. I’d like to make it even more a part of my life than it is now.’”

Howard, like Moore, has considered music a serious ambition for a long time, since he started playing guitar in the seventh grade. His high school band, Strunk and White, earned a following in Durham and Chapel Hill, but they rarely played out of town.

‘“[To tour] everybody has to be at the right place in their life,’” Howard says. ‘“I’ve specifically chosen to not pursue full-time work that would help me out a lot more paying the bills so I can follow whatever might come along with music.’”

They work the usual disposable jobs in retail and food service. Most of them are content to split their early twenties between music and wage slavery.

‘“Another of the best parts about touring is getting to take part in another person’s life for a day,’” Howard says. ‘“You get to see where they live, what they do after they get home from the show and how they get up in the morning.’”

Howard, who describes himself as ‘“anal,’” has also found that some of the hardships of the road have helped him control that side of his personality.

‘“It took me a while to get used to sleeping on floors that you don’t know what’s been on them, you don’t want to know what’s been on them. All the nasty, nasty bathrooms we’ve had to use. There’s just certain things that you come to realize you don’t need to worry about.’”

Unlike Moore and Howard, Holdsworth doesn’t think of himself as a serious musician. Tiger Bear Wolf is great, but it’s a bit of a time filler until his future falls into place. At Guilford College, he studied anthropology and East Asian culture, focusing on Japan.

‘“For a long time I thought I was going to become some sort of Japanophile,’” Holdsworth says. ‘“Then I spent a year out there and it was a little too intense. Having a goal, or a dream like that that I was super sure I wanted, then taking some solid steps to make it happen and having it not turn out to be what I wanted it to be was disorienting.’”

‘“Music is not something I want to get super attached to,’” he says. ‘“To make it, you have to be either really good or really lucky. But you also have to be really dedicated, which I guess contradicts what I just said. You don’t randomly stumble over it and I don’t know if I’ve ever come to a solid conclusion on how to do it.’”

And at this point, none of them are certain where the road will take them. Bostick, who earned a biology degree, misses teaching and talks about returning to that profession. Such a move would make long tours harder.

Howard’s also worried about Moore’s health. When his lung collapsed, the doctors told him unequivocally to stop smoking. For a while he did, but the habit returned.

‘“You know Jon, he’s stubborn and reckless.’”

Instead of focusing on stardom, they concentrate on their relationship, which helps their songwriting. Their process is collaborative, and a couple tunes have been stewing for as long as two years. The next step is either touring or recording, they haven’t decided yet. Even the immediate future is, at times, uncertain.

‘“We’re mortal,’” Howard says. ‘“And that’s something I didn’t always understand growing up listening to bands. I didn’t get the mortality of a relationship like that.’”

Such mortality haunts MACRoCk too. I’m waiting for Tiger Bear Wolf at the daytime rock showcase on Saturday when I talk briefly with festival coordinator Chad Yarbrough. He’s a senior at James Madison University who’s been involved with MACRoCk for several years.

‘“It’s getting harder and harder every year to put this on,’” he says. ‘“It’s such a liability to the university, you know, if someone at the hardcore showcase in Godwin gets their skull cracked.’”

(Godwin is the James Madison University gym. I’ll go there later for a bit of the metal showcase. The fans gathered in the cavern smelling of sweat and athletic tape barely nod their heads in fear of the campus police and sheriff’s deputies ringing the venue.)

‘“It’s also getting harder to run an independent conference,’” he says. ‘“The money’s just not there.’”

The venues aren’t stable either. This show is at the Pub, a stock sports bar across from vacant batting cages and generic student ghettoes. When MACRoCk isn’t in session, this town is all Polo shirts and Croakies, he says.

I’m staring out the window, at the nets now sagging with rain around ‘“The Bull Pen’” when Tiger Bear Wolf walks in, just in time to see label mates We vs. the Shark play. After that, they hang around a bit for the next band, a brother-sister act from Gainesville, Fla. dressed in white. I ask when Tiger Bear Wolf will get some costumes.

‘“I’m still working on my stuffed animal pants,’” Bostick says. ‘“Right now they make my butt look huge and I can’t bend my right knee ’cause there’s some weird anaconda thing.’”

He shuffles around, miming playing bass with his right knee immobilized. It’s almost impossible to know when he’s bullshitting.

They have to leave early. Bostick is flying out to San Francisco to meet his girlfriend early the next morning and Moore’s got a show at Solaris with Health. I decide to stick around, catching as much of the music as I can.

The sun is setting as I pull around the courthouse and follow the signs back to 81. By the time I hit the mountains bottlenecking the Shenandoah, they are all inky black against deep navy.

In the valleys beneath the hulking shadows, the lights glitter like fool’s gold. As I’m driving, I understand the temptation to keep digging, against all odds, for the big strike. Maybe, there’s gold in them hills after all. Or perhaps the treasure is in the hunt.

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