Downtown In the News / Lifestyle

MACRoCK Returns!

From the Daily News-Record

MACRoCk Descends On Harrisonburg Posted 2009-03-27
Music Junkies Line Up For Next Wave Of Rock Stars
By Kate Elizabeth Queram

An audience gathers at JMU's Memorial Hall during last year's MACRoCk.
An audience gathers at JMU’s Memorial Hall during last year’s MACRoCk.

Courtesy Photos

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Harrisonburg might feel a bit different next weekend. Crowded. Excited. Pulsating. And maybe just a little bit …. rockin’.

Which can only mean one thing: it’s MACRoCk time again.

MACRoCk (the Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference), started in 1996 and perpetuated largely by student volunteers from WXJM, James Madison University’s radio station, brings together dozens of independent musical groups to play in showcases at local venues, such as The Little Grill or Clementine Café. The groups span the spectrum of musical genres, from metal to bluegrass. Some have fans, some are virtually unknown, but all attract music lovers from around the country to Harrisonburg.

“You can always tell it’s MACRoCk because there’s a whole bunch of funky-looking vans and a bunch of cars pulling trailers full of music equipment, and it’s just fun to see all those kind of folks rolling in,” said Chris Howdyshell, part-owner of The Little Grill whose band Red River Rollercoaster has played MACRoCk in the past. “It’s absolutely a fun time for those who are attending.”

That sense of community, and the recognition it brings to Harrisonburg, are part of what MACRoCk is about, according to head coordinator John Reiss.

“It’s promoting interaction between music fans and also local businesses,” Reiss said. “For a city that’s grown to raise us as MACRoCk, it’s our chance to give back.”

That’s a shift from how MACRoCk was run initially. In the very beginning, Reiss said, shows took place mostly in students’ basements. When the conference was adopted by JMU, the venues were moved to campus locations. Now a non-profit organization run by a volunteer committee, MACRoCk is run independently – a change most noticeable in the use of downtown hotspots as stages for the bands.

The shift, said Clementine general manager Jeremiah Jenkins, makes the festival a Harrisonburg signature event, and encourages locals beyond just college students to get involved.

“Now that the venues are mostly downtown, there’s kids walking around all over the place with guide books,” Jenkins said. “It’s certainly a noticeable presence in town.”

During MACRoCk, each of the downtown venues has its own presence as well. Each place is booked with bands playing similar types of music, giving each spot a specific atmosphere. Court Square Theater, for example, will host the “mellow rock” showcase, according to Reiss, whereas the bands at Clementine will have more of a traditional rock n’ roll vibe. Each showcase features a mixture of headliners, booked bands – groups sought out by the organizing committee – and bands that applied to be included. The majority of the bands, Reiss said, are the latter.

“[Last year], out of 110 bands, three-fourths were applied bands and one-fourth were booked,” Reiss said, adding that the MACRoCk committee tries to solicit bands largely from the eastern half of the United States. “We draw from the Northeast and the East Coast, New York down to Florida.”

Because the bands are unsigned, most are largely unknown outside of their hometowns – ever heard of Power Pill Fist, Eternal Summers or Red Clay River? – but some hit it big after playing at MACRoCk, meaning festival-goers may have a chance to see the next rock-star group before they’re famous, Howdyshell said.

This year’s on-the-cusp band is Obits, a Brooklyn group led by Rick Froberg, former member of bands Pitchfork and Hot Snakes.

“They’re big-time,” Jenkins said of the group, which headlines the Saturday rock showcase at Clementine. “They just released a new album, it’s really exciting that we were able to get them. I think it’s going to be definitely a highlight of MACRoCk.”

Other MACRoCk highlights include a label expo where bands and record companies can rent tables to sell merchandise and share information and a handful of panel discussions on music industry topics, ranging from self-publishing to a panel where band frontmen share stories from the road. Both the expo and the panels are free, and help make MACRoCk more than just a two-day concert, Jenkins said.

“It’s really become one of the most recognized and attended music festivals on the East Coast …  it puts Harrisonburg on the map, in many ways,” he said. “I just think that MACRoCk is really great for Harrisonburg, it’s great for downtown …  and it’s awesome that Harrisonburg plays such a vital role in supporting independent music.”

Rock out: MACRoCk hits Harrisonburg Friday, April 3, and Saturday, April 4. Showtimes and bands vary by location; for a complete schedule, check www.macrock.org. Tickets for the entire weekend are $15 in advance, $18 the day of; tickets for Friday only are $10 the day of, tickets for Saturday only are $12 the day of. Tickets can be purchased online at www.macrock.org/registration or through the Court Square Theater box office at 433-9189.

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