Last Friday, WRIR 97.3 hosted the 7th annual Commonwealth of Notions festival at Strange Matter, spearheaded by Commonwealth of Notions host and Richmond music aficionado Shannon Cleary. The two-day festival routinely plays hosts to an eclectic mix of Richmond artists, and this year’s two-day celebration was certainly no exception.
The first night felt like a generally upbeat playlist peppered with focused bursts of euphoric excitement. Acts frequently seen around RVA’s indie-pop circuit united under one roof for a common cause – WRIR. Bands played to an absolutely packed house from all walks of local life – friends, fans, family, Richmonders new and lifelong, fellow musicians, and out-of-town visitors alike.
Broken strings made for a continual pay-it-forward of borrowed guitars throughout the evening, lending to the notion that, unlike other cities, Richmond’s music scene thrives as a community that wants to see everyone succeed. Cleary’s unique curation further proved that notion, which was heartwarming to both witness and partake in.
Kicking off the evening was Buddy List, a dreamy surf pop outfit with a hint of southern twang. Their songs were reminiscent of a lazy Sunday afternoon biking through the Fan – ethereal and pleasant.
Just as I was really getting into Buddy List’s soaring 90s alt rock guitar leads, Magnus Lush took the stage. Their crafty blend of haunting indie rock left me enchanted. Powerful vocals atop pulse-pounding rhythm section complimented by lilting synths quickly made them one of my favorite bands from the night.
Wasting no time kicking things up a notch was Saw Black, whose brief tease of Alan Jackson’s “She’s Gone Country” during soundcheck received quite a bit of applause. The crowd bopped along to their southern-fried melodies and bluesy licks from the Crystal Pistol Records co-founder. The inclusion of some fiery harmonica leads made their set really stand out, while simultaneously making the case for more mixed genre bills. No matter who or what you came for, there was some new for you discover.
My hands-down favorite set of the night (and honestly the entire weekend) occurred when Piranha Rama hit the stage, lighting up the venue as a nine-piece with bombastic flair and some dynamite additions to their usual lineup.
Earlier in the evening, Cleary mentioned wanting Commonwealth of Notions to be a festival where bands are encouraged to shake things up and try new things. Pirahna Rama did exactly that in one of the most dynamic displays of musicianship I’ve ever laid eyes on. Between the excellent vocals, horn section, maraca riffs, backup vocalists (and their dance moves), the blistering solos and the toe-tapping dance party that ensued, those precious 30 minutes went by in a flash. This may very well be the closest I come to feeling a hint of the prolific spark so often recounted by those who caught Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band in their early days. The comparison feels apt.
I left feeling challenged to be a better musician, with a renewed faith in the power of music. Where feelings are concerned, it felt most of all like a rare treat to see a band and crowd have that much fun together. It’s a fleeting and precious gift. If you catch Piranha Rama in the future, I hope you find it too.
As for the rest of the evening? The raucous energy proved a nice segway into a triple-threat of RVA indie-pop outfits. Camp Howard took a fiercely technical approach to laid back anthems off their recently released EP Juice. Their post-punk meets pop sound reminds me of early Vampire Weekend with the musicality of Turnover‘s latest record Peripheral Vision.
Hot on their heels, Young Scum‘s timeless blend of upbeat riffs and cascading cymbal waves was a surefire crowd pleaser. As a 5-piece, their lineup has never sounded better as Caleb Knight joined them for his first set.
The night capped with flying beers and satisfying sing-alongs of garage-rockers Sports Bar, quickly giving way to what can only be described as a light happy mosh before sending off the crowd in style.
In summary, the first night of Commonwealth of Notions set quite the bar. With several packed shows that night, a frequently occurring problem (and a good one at that) any night of the week in Richmond these days, it was refreshing to catch so many notable locals on a single bill for a packed, supportive crowd. Shannon Cleary clearly knows his stuff.
Stay tuned for our upcoming coverage of Night Two!
Check out photos of the show by Joey Wharton below: