BLACKSBURG – From themed house shows to eccentric venue performances, Virginia Tech students have built a thriving underground music scene in their small college town.
“When I first came to Virginia Tech, I didn’t even know there was a Blacksburg music scene,” said Adrian Shirazi, the guitarist for Crack In The Sidewalk. “You start talking to people who have the same music interests as you and realize there’s a whole community of people that love coming out to see live music. It’s a tight knit group of people.”
The Blacksburg alternative music scene connects a variety of people with musical interests spanning from rock to punk to metal. For a school that uses Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” as their football entrance and created a minor earthquake on a seismograph scale, it’s no wonder the students are so passionate about heavy music.
Despite Blacksburg being a small town with not much to do outside of Virginia Tech’s directly affiliated activities, the music scene has taken off and brought many students together, both fans and musicians alike. Nearly every week there is an event happening, whether it be an intimate house show, a hole-in-the-wall concert at the Milk Parlor, a lawn jamming session led by the WUVT student radio, a vodka-fueled gig at the Top of The Stairs nightclub or enjoying a cup of coffee to an acoustic set at the renowned Southpaw Café.
“Nirvana was a pipeline for me discovering music,” said Emma Marshal, the vocalist for Dripping Candles. “I believe that’s how it is for many other people in the scene. They hear an older band and they fall in love.”
Marshal lays back in her chair and rests her bulky Doc Martens on the stool in front of her. Her eyes pan the room, taking in the ambiance of the music studio. She takes a moment to pause and reminisce on her teenage years. “I grew up watching MTV Unplugged and a majority of the shows they will have candles lit around the stage that are just dripping everywhere,” Marshal said with a big grin on her face. “The aesthetic of the messy candle wax seemed so fitting because we all grew up inspired by those grunge bands that played on MTV. From that, we became ‘Dripping Candles’.”
Dripping Candles can be classified as one of Blacksburg’s heavier bands and has a sludgy, distorted sound. Marshal’s raspy layered vocals, Remington Swisher-Davis’s thick echoing drums, Dylan “Bubbles” Shoemaker’s lowered guitar buzzing and Tanner Close’s dirty guitar complete the group to make the ultimate modern day grunge-influenced Southwestern Virginia band. The band attributes their rough-edged style to their Appalachian roots. Dripping Candles is to Blacksburg what Alice In Chains was to Seattle.
One of the greatest features of the Blacksburg music scene is how kind and supportive the people are. Like many underground music scenes, you may have to ask around to find out about shows initially but unlike other scenes, the people are accepting of newcomers. If you’re willing to put yourself out there in terms of discovery, there is a place for you in Blacksburg as both a musician and a fan.
“After graduating high school, one of the things I said to myself was ‘I want to join a band when I go to college’,” said Caroline Holomon, the bassist for Crack In The Sidewalk. “That was one of my hopes and dreams because it was just something I wanted to do since I was a kid. Everyone in the Blacksburg music scene was welcoming of me.”
With a fluffier rock sound, Crack In The Sidewalk has rapidly gained recognition within the Blacksburg community as alternative music continues to stay on top with 45% of adults listening to it in 2023.
“Each member in the band is extremely different,” said Holomon. “We do a good job of representing the people in our community because anyone who comes to our shows can see themselves in one of us. We like to think of ourselves as for the people, which I believe is why we have the fans that we do.”
The band’s versatile style coupled with their notorious character themed performances ensure each house show is packed full and nearly busting out the roof. Their recent themes include Wizard of Oz, Romans from the Roman Empire, and the Men In Black. “Our band is for people who just want to leave their dorm or house on a Monday night and forget about their responsibilities,” Holomon noted regarding their silly costume parties and upbeat rock music.
With the nearest major music venue over 200 miles away in North Carolina, students tend to get creative in their improvisation of concert venues. A more personal and affordable experience to college students at just five dollars is Blacksburg house shows. Birdhouse, Treehouse and Dawg house are a few of the common houses used for these shows.
On Friday, Dec. 1, hundreds of students poured into the Birdhouse to jam with their favorite local bands before finals week. Fueled by Redbull and Miller Lite, students seemingly were able to relax as they sang along to the lyrics of “Graduation” by Spilt Milkshakes. Sweaty mosh pits took place in the center of someone’s townhouse with music blasting so loudly that you couldn’t even hear the creaking floorboards. Front and center of the imaginary stage is Dripping Candles to cheer on their buddies in Spilt Milkshakes. The Blacksburg alternative music scene is such a close community that seeing your classmates crowd surf over your head will become a regular occurrence. Everybody knows each other.
“We try to keep our shows very fun and casual,” said George Salcedo, the vocalist for Spilt Milkshakes. “At our last show, we took a shot with the crowd before the beginning of one of our songs.”
Salcedo takes pride in making sure his band’s presence is lighthearted. His playful tattoo of a duck with a guitar confirms this. “One of our most fun shows we ever played was a cat’s birthday party,” Salcedo recalled, which sent the rest of the band into loud laughter. “These girls messaged us on Instagram about playing a gig for their cat’s birthday and we agreed to do it because it was funny in an unusual way. Next thing you know, we were playing for a whole crowd of college students to celebrate someone’s pet’s birthday.”
Spilt Milkshakes, a self-proclaimed “emo pop-punk” band, consists of guitarist Umar Tariq, bassist Levi Keilholtz, drummer John Kizer and singer Salcedo. Spilt Milkshakes can be best described as vibrant and quirky in their performances. Each member of the band plays in a way that exuberates energy on different level playing fields yet piecing together their own styles to create one large collective masterpiece.
Tariq’s introspective vibe mixed with his outward personality make the crowd gasp in aw as they try to figure out what’s going on in his head. With each count, he bends his knees, kicks up his feet and headbangs to the tune of the shredding of his own guitar with pure determination. He displays himself with such confidence while seemingly looking off into the distance of the crowd, as if caught in his own thoughts.
Keilholtz vividly portrays her playful personality within the first moment of taking the stage. Ironically, she carries the rhythm for the cover of Joyce Manor’s “Constant Headache,” giving herself a constant smile rather than a headache. She looks down at the four strings on her bass guitar, gently plucking while giggling with the crowd. She seems happy to just be there, not knowing that she is making history within the Blacksburg music scene.
Kizer is perhaps the most expressive of the bunch. When he first sits down at his drum kit and he seems to be the typical angry drummer. However, once his drumsticks smash into those cymbals, a series of facial expressions make wave across his face. In mere seconds, he goes from smiling to frowning to surprised. These faces closely resemble Melpomene and Thalia’s comedy and tragedy theatrical masks. Watching him play is quite intriguing, almost like attending a Broadway show. In between songs, Kizer breaks character to present his dark humor through his very own “John’s fun facts” while his bandmates tune their guitars.
Salcedo’s singing is very personable. No matter if you’re separated by a platform stage or just a simple cord plugged into the kitchen counter, his purposeful eye contact makes the audience feel exposed. The way he exerts himself in your face enough to make sure you pay attention to his emotional lyrics, which resembles a best friend explaining to you their juicy gossip. His voice will take you on a journey through the story of life.
“Even when we’re not playing shows, we’re still active participants and we’ll go cheer on the other bands any chance we get,” said Holomon when remarking on her own band’s relevance to the scene.
Each person in this community is so supportive of the music around them. When a person is crowd surfing, it is general knowledge to hold them up. Figuratively speaking, that’s what the people within the Blacksburg music scene do for each other. The students at Virginia Tech acknowledge how they can help others and choose to share their love for heavy music, rather than gatekeeping it from outsiders. The community continues to rapidly grow as more students discover their first dingy bar show through a classmate or overhearing loud bass and whiny vocals while walking downtown. Calling Blacksburg’s alternative music scene a hidden gem would be an understatement but there is no other word to capture the charm this small college town holds.