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Hot Trax

Alumni remember Charlottesville venue that launched Dave Matthews Band, others

Clockwise from top left: Agents of Good Roots played every Tuesday night in the late ’90s; DMB’s LeRoi Moore, a fixture at Trax over the years, with club owner Dana Murphy; Dave Matthews, right, with Trax bartender Pam Gurley (Col ’97, Law ’00), and local drummer Kevin Murphy, at the Crash CD release party; George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic in 1995; Ben Harper’s first appearance at Trax in 1996

Courtesy Dana Murphy

It was nothing more than a dark, hot, sticky, beer-soaked, cavernous roadhouse in an out-of-the-way college town—or so it might have seemed. For two decades, Trax drew big names and packed houses.

UVA alumni from the early 1990s remember it as the 11th Street place where Dave Matthews Band began its rise to superstardom with $5 Tuesday night gigs. But Trax was more than the launchpad for Matthews’ band and its independent and now-global management company, Red Light Management. With a large stage and enough room, officially, for about 780 people and sometimes hundreds more, Trax was the biggest club in Charlottesville, luring national acts from the Ramones to George Clinton & the P-Funk All Stars.

Trax is long gone now, razed in 2002 for UVA’s hospital expansion. But, for many, the venue is unforgettable. “The dressing room was totally funky, the stage was funky, the club was funky, but it was so casual and open and easy access,” says UVA music lecturer Robert Jospé, who performed at Trax as part of the trio TR3. “There’s nothing quite like it.” 

Max, then Trax 

Charlottesville boasted a vibrant live music scene in the early 1980s with venues such as C&O, The Mine Shaft, Mousetrap, Miller’s and Newcomb Hall’s Pavilion XI. A club named Max was among them. The country music joint attracted mostly locals and was in another part of the building that would eventually house Trax, too.

Aerial view of Trax
Chris Farina

Trax started appearing in the Cavalier Daily’s weekly live music listings in October 1982 with a rock ’n’ roll focus; UVA favorite The Skip Castro Band was an early regular. During its first show there, band member Charlie Pastorfield (Col ’75) remembers looking out across a mass of people and seeing 7-foot-4 basketball star Ralph Sampson (Col ’83) popping up above everyone else. “That is my enduring memory of that place,” Pastorfield says.

By the mid-’80s, Trax had a few things on its side. Charlottesville was a convenient midweek stop for bands traveling between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., says Rich Tarbell (Arch ’89), author of Regarding Charlottesville Music. WTJU DJs introduced students to up-and-coming artists and helped promote the shows, says Maynard Sipe (Arch ’90), who served as WTJU’s station manager and program director. And the town had two thriving music stores: Back Alley Disc and Plan 9 Music.

Joining a word-of-mouth, landline network of independent promoters, Sipe started booking national acts at Trax in the mid-’80s when the club was featuring mostly local and regional bands. 

His first full house at Trax was punk band Dead Kennedys in 1985. The success prompted the club’s owner to give Sipe, now an adjunct professor at UVA’s law school, more freedom to bring in bands like The Replacements and Soul Asylum, building Trax’s reputation on the national independent music circuit.

Clockwise, from top:  Jewel leads the birthday song for Edwin McCain’s birthday in 1996; 311 sells out Trax in 1999; Bruce Hornsby and Shawn Colvin, June 1996 Courtesy Dana Murphy

‘Zero to 60’

For UVA students, Trax’s location was off the beaten path, a mile from first-year dorms and near train tracks and run-down commercial buildings. The area’s grittiness was captured when Trax appeared briefly in the 1991 movie True Colors, starring John Cusack and James Spader as UVA law students. “How bad could it be?” Spader’s character asked. The red neon Trax sign that hung at the club was a prop from the movie.

“It was like the line between UVA and Charlottesville was drawn right there at that street where Trax used to be,” says Rusty Speidel (Col ’82), who played there with his band Speidel, Goodrich, Goggin & Lille.

But for many students, it was worth the hike. The draw was an informal spot with a big dance floor where fans could get right up to the stage for cutting-edge national acts or regional favorites. It was much more intimate than University Hall or Mem Gym and much less formal than Old Cabell Hall, the usual on-Grounds concert venues.

As national acts streamed in, local artists were honing their craft there, too, including a nearby Fluvanna County teenager named Chris Daughtry, now front man of rock band Daughtry. By then, Dave Matthews Band was filling arenas with help from Coran Capshaw (Col ’83), Trax’s former owner and Red Light founder.

Capshaw took over Trax in 1989, says Chris Bowman (Col ’88), who worked for Capshaw and was eventually part of partnerships that managed the club after Capshaw moved on in 1992. Even after he stopped managing Trax daily, Capshaw kept a small office in the building to run Red Light, now the world’s largest independent music management company representing artists as varied as Lionel Richie and Phish. 

Matthews himself had performed at Trax long before his band’s first performance there in March 1991. He occasionally sang with TR3, which included Matthews’ future bandmate Tim Reynolds. The Tuesday gigs started in fall 1991, and “he went from zero to 60,” says Sara Habibian (Nurs ’95), a regular at the early shows. Habibian remembers a reserved Matthews driving her and some friends back to the first-year dorms after some shows.

Soon, even the trek to Trax became a party as groups walked there from Grounds, stopping first for drinks on Rugby Road or the Corner. Dave Matthews Band fans lined up and down the street to get in, filling the venue beyond capacity. Bowman says they would confiscate 15 to 20 fake IDs Tuesday nights.

“It was definitely a bit of an event,” says Brad Willett (Col ’95). “They were really coming together as a band. We were all into it, and we were all really rooting for them.”

Left: Ryan Adams performs with Whiskeytown in 1998; right: Line outside of Trax for Dave Matthews Band’s Crash release party, 1996 Courtesy Dana Murphy

After Matthews’ ascent

In December 1993, the weekly show ended as the band started touring the country. Trax went through several ownership changes and, in 1994, was briefly named Crossroads after the owner of the music store chain of the same name took over. 

In 1995, Dana Murphy purchased the business and, with Bowman’s help, celebrated the reopening as Trax in October with jam band Leftover Salmon. Through the 1990s, it became a popular spot for Greek organization charity events, and it was still luring big-name acts like Ben Harper, Hootie & the Blowfish and Edwin McCain, as well as regional groups that packed the house. Bowman bowed out in 1997.

Lydia Ooghe (Col ’01) recalls crowd-surfing. “I was hoisted up into the waiting hands of the other audience members, and no one did anything creepy,” says Ooghe, who also performed at Trax with the band Buzby. “I just got to sail over the crowd to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and it was splendid.” 

Partly because of Matthews’ recent ascent, it was an exciting time in Charlottesville’s music scene, says Murphy, who sold Trax in 2000. “Charlottesville could have exploded and morphed into something bigger, but it never did. I don’t know why. Maybe because Trax closed.” 

All along, a big force was tugging at Trax: UVA. For years, Jim Morris, the building’s owner and Max’s manager, fielded offers to buy the property, Bowman recalls. Eventually, Morris agreed. UVA paid $1.2 million for the property in 2002. 

“It wasn’t a shock,” Pastorfield says. Other East Coast clubs were closing, too. “But it was sad beyond belief to know that that spot that was our home was gone.” 

Today, the property is a staging area and office for the contractor working on hospital projects. Though it’s been gone 20 years, the name lives on. When Dave Matthews Band releases live recordings, they still call them “Trax.”