By Jenna Lazenby
It’s a rainy Saturday night in late April. One of those nights you’d expect many to opt to stay dry, tucked away inside. One of those nights where you, yourself go back and forth on should I stay or should I go?
On the weekend, you know if you opt to go out, you can always count on Martin’s Downtown for something good. However, on this drab Saturday evening, I was not prepared for something this good, or rather something this BIG. I knew downtown was the right decision when I opened the Martin’s doors and was knocked over by the scope of the crowd and the blasting tunes. On stage was alt rock band, Big Something, out of Burlington, NC, delivering powerful sounds that fuse rock, funk, and jam band elements into something wholly new.
That night, they were wizards conjuring spirits from the assembled audience members. While some patrons stood stoically grooving to the sounds, many were crushed up near the stage pulsing hard to the sounds of this enigmatic group. It was a mix of dance, light, and sound, that brought the crowd to a frenzy usually seen in the confines of festival gatherings, occurring inside a club on a rainy Saturday night.
The Martin’s Scene
Martin’s Downtown owner, Jason Martin, has spent the past decade building a business and a brand around three key ingredients: good food, cold drinks, and strong live music acts without a hefty price tag.
Prior to opening Martins, Jason worked for a couple of local restaurants, Awful Arthur’s and the (now closed) 309 Restaurant. In his manager role, he got his first taste for booking live music and caught the bug.
“Music has always been a passion of mine, inspired by my own experiences seeing live shows,” Jason said in a recent interview. “I’m not a musician myself, but I’m a lover of music. Ultimately I lose money on most of my shows, but I love it. Plus, it’s a great vehicle for selling more beers.”
Martin’s, a family business, started out first by only offering music on Friday nights, but quickly increased to Saturdays, and then Thursdays. Now, this local favorite spot offers live music entertainment five nights a week, Tuesday – Saturday and has held somewhere close to 3,000 live shows.
It wasn’t until about five years ago that Martin’s started charging a cover. It was a move that Jason said caused him many hours of lost sleep. But he wanted to bring some bigger touring acts into the area and knew that charging a modest cover was the only way to do it.
“I did a lot of gut searching and knew that bringing in bigger acts was the way to go. If not, we were going to have the same 10 – 15 local bands always playing. I love those bands, and they are important to our lineup, but we also needed variety.”
So Jason set out to track down new bands and establish relationships with some bigger agents across the country.
“It started off slow, with me sending lots of emails and working to establish connections, Jason acknowledged. Now, we’re on the circuit and I’ve built strong relationships with about a dozen agents across the country. The longer you’re around, the more you’re solidified, the better your reputation gets. They know what we are all about now. They trust me to take care of their bands, and I trust them to send me bands that our patrons will love.”
To help bring in some of the more high-profile bands to the area, Jason also scopes out what’s being routed. If bands are passing through the area on their way to play a show in DC, Atlanta or Charlotte, he will see if he can book them as they pass through on a weekday night. While it’s an effective way to bring great bands to the Roanoke area, there are still challenges with getting the crowd out on a weeknight. Jason admits that it’s frustrating when you have a band come through that’s one of the best things going, and there’s nobody there to see it. But he holds strong to the belief that consistency is key, and that ultimately it’s about building a brand and cultivating the right vibe.
The vibe can certainly be found at any of Martin’s annual block parties, most notably St. Patrick’s Day. With the side street closed off, the block parties feature a full day of music on both outdoor and indoor stages while beer gardens, food trucks, and a few craft vendors complete the party. These events bring in big crowds of young people hungry for live music. Something Jason says Roanoke could use more of. Unfortunately, Virginia ABC laws only allow four of those block parties a year, or you’d see a lot more of them. That would ultimately be a good thing as Roanoke works to build a musical buzz that draws in more acts.
When asked what the future holds for Martin’s, Jason quickly answered that he hoped for a lot more of the same. “We want to hone our craft. We want to continue to book top-notch entertainment, and keep it affordable for Roanoke to see. I just want to keep getting better and I want more people to come out and enjoy it.”
You can always find Martin’s events on the Blue Ridge Rocks music calendar or on the Martin’s website. Plus, the Night Rider’s Ball, one of the four annual block parties, is just around the corner with headliners DJ Logic and Yo Momma’s Big Fat Booty Band. Complete details are here: http://blueridgerocks.com/event/night-riders-ball/