See Rock City
In 1986, two concerts showcased Nashville's local rock scene
By Randy Fox
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In the early months of 1986, the local Nashville rock scene celebrated its successes with two showcase concerts.
The Rock Extravaganza
The first came on January 16-17, 1986, with the first Rock Extravaganza sponsored by the Nashville Entertainment Association. Designed as an industry showcase that was also open to the public, Steve West, the manager of Cat’s Records and Tapes on West End, was instrumental in putting the event together.
“I approached [Steven Greil of the NEA] about the idea of doing these showcases for several bands at the same time,” West recalls. “He liked the idea, and he helped me get it organized by putting together a committee with people from the NEA and people on the scene.”
As the Cat’s West End manager, West had long supported the local scene by stocking indie releases by local artists and booking local acts to play at concerts in the record store’s parking lot.
“We had a committee of eight people and then other people from the local scene whose opinions we respected.” West says. “We’d go see bands, and generally, most of the bands that ended up being on [the Rock Extravaganza] had big followings.”
Held on two stages at the Cannery — the downstairs Ballroom along with the recently opened upstairs club, Rooster’s — the bill featured 11 bands: Rococo, The Questionnaires, Raging Fire, Webb Wilder, The White Animals, Bill Lloyd & the December Boys, Shadow 15, Will Rambeaux, Seven Keys, The Movement, and In Pursuit. The event was wildly successful, drawing over 1,600 paid attendees, out-of-town executives from major labels, and reporters from the national music press.
It almost made me feel like, ‘Wow, we’ve actually kind of made it.’
The local rock scene arrives at TPAC
While the Rock Extravaganza was most definitely a music industry success, the City Without a Subway album release party and concert held less than four months later, on April 4, 1986, in Jackson Hall at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC), was a true DIY celebration of the local rock scene. As with the album, the event was organized by student DJs from Vanderbilt’s radio station WRVU, working with musicians, promoters, and fans from the local scene.
“From the beginning, we thought we’d do a launch concert or benefit concert,” former WRVU DJ Clark Parson recalls. “But then we thought, how are we going to put 10 bands on the stage at Cantrell’s or the Exit/In?”
Another concern was the WRVU DJs’ desire to make the show an all-ages event, unlike the Rock Extravaganza, so younger fans from the local scene could attend. Those two requirements eventually led them to TPAC, as former WRVU DJ Marlene McClure recalls.
“We were looking at a couple of TPAC’s smaller theaters, and I think it was at [WRVU Programming Director] Brian Bomstein who said, ‘Why don’t we go to the big one!’ which was Jackson Hall with 2,400 seats. We all said, ‘Okay!’”
Choosing the “big one” turned out to be a classic case of college-age chutzpah. Without the Rock Extravaganza industry push or access to the budgets of professional concert promoters, the WRVU staff found selling enough tickets to fill the hall an uphill struggle. Despite being only half full, it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the WRVU staff, the bands, or the audience.
“The whole thing almost had a Night at the Museum quality to it,” former WRVU DJ Regina Gee recalls. “Like taking over a building that’s half empty and running around waving your arms, but I thought it was exhilarating. It felt a little like a hijacking like we captured a very serious space that we were not supposed to be in.”
Nine of the 10 City Without a Subway bands played the show, with only In Pursuit missing due to a scheduling conflict. Just like the WRVU DJs, the artists likewise had a great time.
“I remember really enjoying getting to play at TPAC,” Bill Lloyd says. “A lot of my friends were there, and it was great fun. There was a real connection with the WRVU DJs and most of them were friends. We had a real symbiotic, supportive relationship with all the WRVU staff.”
Richie Owens, who led The Movement, also fondly remembers the show. “The TPAC show was a whole other feeling,” Owens says. “It almost made me feel like, ‘Wow, we’ve actually kind of made it.’ We felt like we had achieved something when we got TPAC.”
As Marlene McClure recalls, the only downside of the show was the aftermath. Billed as a benefit for Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, the slow ticket sales meant the concert barely broke even. “We ended up not raising much of anything for the Hospital,” McClure says. “We were all a bit embarrassed to go to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital with the small amount we raised, but someone finally said, ‘If you ran the Hospital and there were some college kids who put on a concert to raise money, and they didn’t raise much, would you be mad?’ We all had to agree we wouldn’t.”
Check out our exclusive footage of the 1986 NEA Rock Extravaganza and the City Without a Subway concert, along with how Steve Boyle, a reporter for the country music cable channel, The Nashville Network, convinced his bosses to cover the events...
...and don't miss Rock Solid: City Without a Subway the full story of the compilation album that helped define Nashville's local rock scene during the late ’80s.