I love the smells of a new city. The thick scent of healthy river water from the James sets the baseline for the other notes. The clay fire of bricks, the roasting barley of the microbreweries, the budding magnolia trees all come together to play gracious host the moment I step from my cab. Like new smells always do, they invite bold decision-making that leads me on a journey to discover what this place is all about.
This place is Richmond, Virginia and has long been a city I've wished to visit. A quite dark history has certainly left its mark, but more than anything, though like all places, still marred by problems in modern times, it simply feels strong. The history of the buildings and factories turned lofts at Tobacco Row set the stage for a unique, homogeneous architectural style that sometimes feels more like Europe than it does the Southern United States. Brick is everything here. So is craftsmanship.
After I settle into my hotel room, I quickly leave it. It serves its purpose, but it is neither why I am here, nor why I am ever anywhere. The destination instead lies outside its constraints.
It's interesting that historic hotels are such accurate representations of a place, while modern ones carry a similar feel anywhere. Perhaps as technology and communication have made the world smaller, the feel of a place has been replaced by the feel of all places and that's what's to blame for the lack of geographical identity in modern design.
I suddenly wish I had paid extra to stay in the old brick JW instead of the standard Marriot, but then again, I’m broke, I've already left my hotel behind, and the city still bares its history free and for all to see.
I walk down a path at the riverfront. Being a person who has generally lived far from such grand bodies of water, I find myself romanticized by its presence and walk uncharacteristically slow, taking in the views.
Richmond is eternally connected to the river. They give each other life. A constant traffic of ships ports and unports just south of downtown and from any view along the river, it would seem that the James is the busiest street in town. The feelings of history, movement, strength, and continuance make Richmond what it is.
It's evening and as the sun dies, it's getting rather brisk. I grab the long, light waterproof coat from its position bent over my left forearm, stretch it out in front of me to see it's full form, locate the armholes, then sling it around me with a gesture I've never quite mastered. I clumsily roll the hood over my neck and am forced to bounce it into position with a few quick hops.
I pass south from downtown through neighborhoods with colorful names. Shockoe Slip, Church Hill, Shockoe Bottom, Tobacco Row, Chimborazo. Each has a unique feel, but red brick buildings and a proximity to the James remain constant throughout. My walk along Dock Street has led me to my destination – a renovated, waterfront shipping warehouse located on the property of Stone Brewing Company’s soon to be East Coast headquarters. The exterior is beautifully reflective of the city and its history. Concrete, industrial, old, bizarre, all the while striving and succeeding to be something new and modern. While their massive project is under construction just down the road, Stone has taken advantage of the existing structure and is using at as a smalltime introduction to Richmond. Tonight, they’re hosting a concert, and although the artists are not native of Richmond nor Virginia for that matter, they are very much representative of the South and will no doubt feel at home in a city which portrays the South so well.
Craft beer, good company, and innovative music is what this night is all about, and by taking a look around the room, it would seem that everything is set up to perfection. The act tonight would only draw those who know them while the performance’s location have also invited a sum of guests more interested in craft beer than music. But soon enough, as the hip-hop fans swallow their beers and as the beer drinkers take in the music, the fans of both sides will come to share a tremendous amount of common ground and united interests. Alcohol and music are romantic in that way.
I head to the bar backed by an absurd amount of taps and take my time studying the menu. I consider myself accepting of all booze and liquor, but in a place such as this, it only makes sense to be choosy. I skip past pours that seem too safe, too far-fetched, or too expensive, and try to find some middle ground. I settle on an IPA with a funky name and a high percentage, and weave my way back into the crowd.
Beer in hand, alone at a concert, I inadvertently partake in the long-standing loner tradition of people watching. A distinct separation between fans of Stone and fans of hip-hop creates a welcome diversity in the crowd’s appearance. No one type of style dominates another. Suits, dresses, sport coats, cardigans, hoodies, raincoats, t-shirts, high-tops, dress shoes, boots, heels, and sandals all mingle together to create a miniature reflection of Richmond, equally diverse albeit in much higher numbers. No one is outcast. Even I, who am alone, am really not. We are all here to separate the power of coming together that two of our favorite pastimes have done for millennia.
EARTHGANG, the hip-hop duo that all of my new friends and I have come to see tonight, are from Atlanta. And although the city has a stranglehold on the modern hip-hop scene, they find themselves separated from the expected vibes currently flooding the market. They’re more authentic, more grass-roots, and arguably, more Southern while many Atlantans are more attached to the universal stylings of hip-hop made popular by artists like Migos and Future. Their authenticity and uniqueness are what draws their audience, and I can only hope that their live performance lives up to my expectations and unites the crowd.
The lights dim and members of the crowd clutch their glasses with both hands, bracing for a bubbling of excitement and energy. The stage dominating the Northern wall of the terraced, retrofitted warehouse comes alive with lights of its own. Two figures hop on stage; music from a drummer and a DJ overtakes the sound of the audience. A night filled with blending elements of culture that have long brought people together is about to begin, and there are no artists who I would prefer to headline such an event than the two about to perform. Beer, music, and strength in our diversity. EARTHGANG, lead the way.