The first time I heard about Rock Lotto in Harrisonburg was in 1996. The idea was simple: local musicians who wanted to be in a band — people who might be intimidated by the idea of starting a “real” band — put their names in a hat. Bands formed randomly, based on the names that were drawn.
Tim Gordon, organizer of the original Rock Lotto, told me that there were so many talented musicians and artists in town, he wanted to bring all that creativity together and have a happening that was fun, entertaining, and different from the usual rock and art shows in Harrisonburg.
Rock Lotto bands didn’t last past their performance date, but longevity wasn’t the point. The experience provided that crucial first step into the world of artistic collaboration. Several local bands began as a result of meeting other musicians in Rock Lotto (Engine Down is rumored to have connected at the original lotto).
Harrisonburg’s first version of Rock Lotto fizzled out after Gordon graduated JMU and left town, but the idea spread to other cities, like Philadelphia. More than a decade later, Harrisonburg Rock Lotto was resurrected by local audio engineer Jesse Stover.
2009 marked the first Rock Lotto event at The Blue Nile in downtown Harrisonburg. In this new rendition of the lottery, bands have two months to write songs and practice before their performance date in March. If you don’t like your band, you have two options: drop out, or just get over yourself and have fun with it. It’s not unusual to start with a band of five and end up with a band of three on the night of the performance. Or two. Or in a few unfortunate cases, no band at all. It’s all about the luck of the draw and the dedication of the band members.
I’ve attended Rock Lotto shows for the last three years. I’ve enjoyed watching my friends play music they might never have played if not for this unique event. The sets are a fun way to showcase creative energy and local talent. Sometimes the combinations work, sometimes they don’t, but it’s always interesting to see what these various groups come up with.
This year I decided to throw my name in the hat as well. It’s been more than ten years since I’ve performed with a band, but I recently dusted off my acoustic guitar and started playing again.
2012 is the first time Rock Lotto organizers added an acoustic night, in order to allow participation of musicians who might be intimidated by the prospect of playing with heavy metal drummers or punk rock guitarists.
We were fortunate: our band started with five members, and we only lost one along the way. It’s been challenging to find a way to blend rock and bluegrass styles in such a short period of time, but we made it work. I’m looking forward to our performance at the Blue Nile tonight.
This is likely the last year Rock Lotto will continue in its current form. Stover said he’s not doing it again next year, but he would love to see someone else pick up where he’s leaving off. He hopes that it will be resurrected yet again in some other fashion in the future.
Over the last four years, the event has helped cultivate a spirit of collaboration among Harrisonburg musicians. And, like other Rock Lotto participants before me, it’s likely that I will continue playing music long after my band’s first and last show this weekend.
Rock Lotto performances will be held at the Blue Nile tonight, Friday, March 16 (acoustic night) and Saturday, March 17 (rock night) after 9:00 p.m. There’s a $5 cover, which goes to support local school music programs.
Brent Finnegan is a filmmaker living in downtown Harrisonburg. He has participated in other local arts events, such as the Super Gr8 Film Festival.