The first time I played an instrument on stage, I pretended to be another person. This girl was not Nicki—I think I christened her with a tough yet ethereal-sounding pseudonym like Evangeline or Lux—this woman had swagger. She owned steel-toed boots. Her most important character trait, however, was that she did not give a fuck what you thought about her guitar playing or how she looked dripping sweat onto the concrete basement floor. I, Nicki, was of course terrified of what the audience would think of my amateur guitar playing, and horrified at the thought that I might trip over a cable, or make weird faces as I warbled into the microphone. So, I created a tougher version of myself to embody during my on-stage debut.
This all goes to say, it takes a lot of courage to stare into a sea of bobbing heads, pick up an instrument, and strut for a crowd. This is especially true if you happen to be a woman, a person of color, or an LGBTQ-identifying person—individuals who, by virtue of their very existence, are hyper-aware of how they comport themselves in public spaces. First Time’s the Charm RVA, a showcase that exclusively features bands playing their first show, aims to encourage folks from marginalized groups who are interested in playing music but might be nervous to perform their work in front of an audience, to get on stage and make magic happen.
The show, now in its third year, will be held at Strange Matter and is organized by Elbow Room, a collective that champions diversity in Richmond’s DIY music and art scenes. RM Livingston, one of the primary organizers, explained that the event fits directly into the collective’s mission, one of “promoting inclusivity while attempting to break down the barriers that may inhibit some folks from accessing our local music scene.” First Time’s the Charm provides space for those who are passionate about participating in local music culture, but may face obstacles in doing so. “It’s all about trying to make our scene—and DIY music in general—more accessible to folks,” they said.
Beyond merely organizing the show, Elbow Room goes a step further in encouraging people to take part who might not otherwise have the means to. “If people don't have access to instruments or a place to practice,” RM said, “we try to hook them up with people who can help.” This focus on material support fosters a sense of community unique to the event. To illustrate, RM confided that they can’t help but get a little bit nervous for the performers as they step on stage. “Everyone always does a great job,” they assured me, noting that people consistently bring their A-game, “because everyone, even seasoned musicians, are playing their material to people for the first time.”
Elbow Room has made a tradition of donating proceeds from the show to local charitable organizations. Last year, they went to Girls Rock! RVA, a charity perfectly suited to First Time’s the Charm. Their mission is to teach young girls how to play instruments, form bands, and perform at concert venues. This year, proceeds from the show will go to Richmond Conexiones, a non-profit promoting social justice for the Latino community in Southside.
First Time’s the Charm is the only event of its kind in Richmond, in that it puts first-time performers and veteran musicians on a level playing field. By fostering those kinds of unlikely connections, it brings new voices to the creative process that can have lasting effects on the richness of the local arts community. “Richmond's music scene, like most others, is easier to access and navigate if you are a straight, able-bodied white guy with money,” RM said plainly. “I believe that a lot of the best art is made by all kinds of different folks with varying perspectives and experiences.” Case in point, some of the bands that originally formed for the event, including Hoarsees and Atta Girl, are still active, and one previous participant, Sarmistha Talukdar, went on to start their own solo project, Tavishi. The event elicits an air of experimentation, excitement, and possibility, all held together by a strong sense of community.
That collective feeling that anything could happen contributes to the success of the event. Last year’s show was an all-out triumph, despite the fact that the power went out in the middle of it due to a colossal thunderstorm. “We still had a packed show,” RM recounted. “At the end of the night, we were loading out and saw the big tree outside of Strange Matter just slowly fall on top of someone's car. It felt like a weirdly special moment to end a successful night.”
First Time’s the Charm RVA will be held at Strange Matter on Saturday, June 24 at 7 PM. Admission is $5. If you want to participate, signups are open until June 10. Get in touch at facebook.com/elbowroomrva.