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Group works to make Rives a local hub for live music
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Space Capone (above) is one of several bands that played concerts at the Rives Theatre recently. Arts at the Rives Theatre (ART) is working to provide live music at the former movie house, including its Live at the Rives series and Lions Club-sponsored bluegrass shows. (Contributed photo)
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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

A group of dedicated volunteers is making sure that the Rives Theatre still fills seats, and it plans to continue making the venue a home for live music in uptown Martinsville.

Established in 2010, Arts at the Rives Theatre (ART) is a 14-person working volunteer board dedicated to bringing a diverse range of music to the theater, according to Johnny Buck, the board’s secretary and band contact.

Under ART, the theater offers a variety of programming, including the Live at the Rives concert series, occasional Piedmont Arts programs, additional off-schedule music shows during the year and the continuation of the Lions Club-sponsored bluegrass shows every third Saturday, Buck said.

In many ways, the Live at the Rives series is the historic former movie theater’s feature presentation. The program has evolved since the group’s inception, according to Buck.

“Like any other small business, whether a nonprofit or not, we’re kind of learning as we go,” he said. “There was a year early on when we did monthly shows in the summer. For whatever reason, the attendance was not as good, so we moved away from that and instead started doing one outdoor show in the summer.”

Now, Buck said, the yearly offerings include one show per month in January through May, and then one show a month in September through December.

“As we’re growing,” he said, “we also occasionally add shows that are not part of the series if there’s a band that’s passing through and they have an opening in their schedule on a weekend night.”

The shows offered at the Rives vary wildly in style and genre. The headlining act at the theater’s Dec. 13 show was Stephane Wrembel & His Band. According to Buck, Wrembel is a Grammy-winning jazz guitarist who scored several songs for Woody Allen’s Academy Award-winning film “Midnight in Paris.”

The next show, which falls on Dec. 26, will feature Yo Mamma’s Big Fat Booty Band, a horn-centric funk act from Boone, N.C.

“We’re just getting a little more dialed in to what folks around here want to see,” Buck said. “We really strive to have a lot of different genres over the course of the year so it’s not the same exact crowd for every show. If we have a blues band, there are maybe 30 or 40 new faces. Then when we turn around and have a rock band, a lot of those blues people aren’t there, but we’ve got 30 or 40 new faces who are rock fans.”

With only 10 shows per year in the series, Buck said, a diverse lineup is important to keep the program from growing stale. However, there are a handful of acts that have proven so popular that they are brought back year after year, including former Martinsville residents Doug and Telisha Williams, whose band now is called Wild Ponies; Asheville, N.C., bluegrass group Sanctum Sully, which has two members from this area; and Chapel Hill, N.C.’s Lizzie Ross Band.

The Live at the Rives series consistently draws solid crowds to the theater, Buck said. Dance band Space Capone, which played the theater Nov. 29, drew about 160 people, and Wrembel drew a little more than 180, he said.

Buck credits a large part of the success of the series to the theater’s season pass program.

The $125 pass entitles the bearer to all 10 shows in the series, including the January kickoff show, which includes a catered dinner.

“Those season tickets allow us to effectively have the expenses of the concert series covered up front,” Buck said. “The money we make from (people buying individual tickets for) the actual shows is what helps us pay rent and utilities.”

The season passes, Buck believes, are part of the reason that average show attendance has been steadily increasing.

“Folks feel invested,” he said. “They know they paid up front for this show, so even if they aren’t necessarily familiar with the band, since they have free entry to the show,” they may attend anyway.

“We don’t get every season pass holder to every show,” he said. “Some of the people who buy the season pass really like blues and rock, so they’ll come to those types of acts while they might not show up to a bluegrass band. But the flip-side is true for a different season ticket holder, who may come to every band we have that has a fiddle or a banjo, but not come to the loud hard rock show.”

For the current season ending this month, about 175 season passes were sold. What money is not spent on the concert series is reinvested in the theater, covering such expenses as an extension to the stage, new stage lights and an upgraded sound system.

Although ART received a grant when the organization formed, Buck said, “we’ve never really done a formal fundraising campaign. It’s really been the season ticket sales that are keeping the train on the tracks. I’m not saying that day won’t come, but we’ve kind of been able to grow within our means.”

Ultimately, whether in the form of season passes or individual ticket sales, community support is what has aided ART the most.

“It’s grown because of the support and response of the community,” Buck said. “We couldn’t have told you three years ago whether it was going to succeed or fail, be a smash hit or break even. But the reason we’re still around today is because folks are supporting what we’re doing.”

The final show of the 2013 Live at the Rives series, Yo Mamma’s Big Fat Booty Band and Hoof Hearted, will be at 8 p.m. Dec. 26. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. The theater is at 215 E. Church St. in Martinsville.

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