Speaking means believing when you’re speaking with Stephen Lecky, festival manager for the local non-profit organization, Venture Richmond. Lecky’s enthusiasm is so contagious, and his love for live music is so apparent. It’s as if those qualities dance in the air when you chat with him. And if you’re a music fan living in Richmond, whether you’ve met him or not, you probably already believe in Stephen Lecky, too.
That’s because Lecky masterminds the wildly successful Friday Cheers concert series, which takes place each May and June on Brown’s Island in downtown Richmond. With the river flowing steadily to the south, and trains chugging by every so often, this weekend ritual – celebrating its 32nd season in 2016 – has grown from a casual gathering to one of the best live music showcases you’ll find anywhere.
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“It’s definitely a thing now,” Lecky acknowledges humbly after being prodded. “I love nothing more than working on that series. It’s just so much fun to me.”
It’s fun for everyone involved, given that past seasons have included high-profile groups like Zac Brown Band, Snarky Puppy, Jason Isbell, Alabama Shakes and Lake Street Dive. But this impressive growth didn’t happen overnight, and it required some tough decisions.
“Eleven years ago,” Lecky remembers, “Friday Cheers was May, June, July and August. It was 16 shows, it was free, and it was a lot of regional acts and local acts. We said ‘Let’s scrap that. Nobody’s coming in July and August because it’s 110 degrees and people are traveling.’”
Diverting funds away from hotter summer Fridays that saw lower attendance allowed Venture Richmond to book stronger acts. Combine those extra funds with Lecky’s natural gift for judging talent, and you have a change that’s nothing short of transformational.
“It’s trial and error,” Lecky says. “I listen to a lot of music. I literally sit at my desk and have music on all day long… If you sound good, if you’re a good band, you can hear it immediately.”
The key is booking bands early. Throughout the spring and summer, Lecky generates a list with the names of hundreds of bands, consulting friends, coworkers, blogs and his partners at the East Coast Entertainment booking agency. “It gets earlier and earlier every year,” he says. “I’ll come back to that in August, September, October and cross out names that have become irrelevant and add more names. By September we’re reaching out to people and putting offers in.”
But it’s not just about the time of year. Lecky has a preternatural talent for snagging bands on the upswing – groups he’d have trouble scheduling at the same rate were he to learn about them just a year or so later. The Suffers, scheduled to play on June 17, are a great example.
“You’ve got to pick and choose,” Lecky shares, “and you’ve got to be early. Booking early is key for a band like the Suffers, who we have this year. I had them booked back in September, and [in March] they were on Jimmy Kimmel [Live!].”
“In a series of eight or seven shows a summer,” Lecky says, “if I can get four or five [groups] that go on to do bigger things, then it’s great.”
One of this season’s fastest rising acts is Richmond’s own Lucy Dacus, slated to open for Kurt Vile on June 10. Dacus started making waves in the city’s music community last year, yet halfway through 2016, she can already lay claim to a critically acclaimed debut album, a successful run at the South by Southwest festival and a whole community rooting for her continued ascent.
“For people in Richmond to be saying ‘You’re representing Richmond now – go out and do that,’ it’s really awesome,” Dacus adds.
The strides she’s taken so far offer a fascinating study in speed and momentum, starting with the recording of her debut album in Nashville.
“We wrote parts for everything in four days,” Dacus recalls, “and then went into Starstruck [Studios] a day that it wasn’t booked and did the whole thing in that one day. Woke up at 6 a.m., got back at 11 p.m., and tried to do everything without feeling rushed. Every song was tracked that day. It was a lot of ordering food in and people needing coffee…”
Her writing process even happens quickly.
“‘I Don’t Want To Be Funny Anymore’ was written in about three minutes because it was already something that had crystallized,’’ Dacus says. “I just started singing it walking to work one day, and I had to hurry up and find a pen and write it down at work and hope that I remembered the melody when I got home to figure out the guitar part.”
Yet the tracking of No Burden was followed by a prolonged waiting period. Mixing and mastering took longer than expected, and when the album was done, Dacus was faced with a decision that pitted expediency against her desire for her music to be heard more widely.
She asked herself, “‘Am I going to release this on Bandcamp to my friends and family? How does this work? How do you make an album heard? Why make it if no one’s going to hear it?’ Because hopefully you’re making it because you think it’s worthwhile.”
Dacus ultimately decided to partner with EggHunt Records, which allowed her to press No Burden to vinyl, and some 15 months after that frenzied day of recording, the album was released to glowing reviews. While her pace has picked back up, with her music reaching new ears every day, this Friday Cheers date sets the stage for a triumphant return to the community she holds dear.
“I have tried to make the conscious decision now to always remain a local band,” Dacus tells me. “I’m really glad to be a part of EggHunt because [founder] Adam [Henceroth] and all of them over there have an eye on what’s happening in Richmond. For it to be a Richmond-centric baseboard of good content – I’m really excited to be a part of that.”
Friday Cheers is bursting with good content this year, Dacus included, and while Brown’s Island is also home to Dominion Riverrock in May and the Richmond Folk Festival in early October, there are a number of other venues around town where you can enjoy live music outside as the nice weather continues.
Innsbrook Snag-A-Job Pavilion
Innsbrook After Hours – another 30-plus-year tradition – runs from May to October. This year’s schedule brings such prestigious acts as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (a Friday Cheers graduate) and Alabama to the Innsbrook Snag-A-Job Pavilion.
Richmond’s grandest estate doubles as a stunning event space, and world-renowned banjo player Béla Fleck and his Flecktones are currently scheduled to bring their signature jazzy Appalachian strumming to Maymont on June 2.
17th Street Farmer’s Market
From Shockoe on the Half-Shell to the Brunswick Stew Festival, the historic 17th Street Farmer’s Market makes for an excellent gathering place, with stages often popping up so festival attendees can be serenaded by standout local talent.
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery has turned into one of the city’s top indoor venues. But when the heat rises, the front lot morphs into a festival space, and it’s played host to day-long affairs like 2015’s A Good Day in RVA, which featured two stages and 14 bands.