When I asked Grant Penrod, also known by his stage name of Gnat King Cruel, which is the longest running band that has formed from Harrisonburg Rock Lotto, he thought it was a trick question. He scoffed in my face. He laughed. It was a silly question. Penrod is this year’s organizer of Rock Lotto and the frontman of Crab Action, the founders of Rock Lotto back in 2012. I’ve seen Crab Action countless times, yelled their lyrics back into Penrod’s face, and had totally forgotten that their existence is total happenstance.
Other bands had managed to avoid making their first show their last, but with two albums and countless shows under their belt, Penrod’s Crab Action reigns supreme in the pantheon of Rock Lotto groups, at least for longevity. “They gave us free beer, so we just kept playing shows,” said Penrod.
Nobody really knows when Rock Lotto started in Harrisonburg, but Mike Keane, a local music and art aficionado, recalled his early experiences as freshman at JMU. “I think I went to the first Rock Lotto show in ‘96 or ‘97, then signed up for the one next year. There was a house that had shows called Funk House on Mason Street. A bunch of artists and musicians lived there, older kids than me. John Stump and Tim Gordon from the punk/ska band Swank put it on at the house. I remember Alison Rodden, the GM of WXJM, was involved, too.” Before social media, the event served as a useful way to figure out who could play what.
Rock Lotto has started and stopped several times since then, most recently in 2009 when Mark Finks and Jesse Stover brought it to The Blue Nile. There’s also an urban legend that the mighty Engine Down started at a Rock Lotto (they didn’t, but they did meet and form the band after seeing each other play at one).
Though the history of the event is hard to pin down, the concept is relatively simple. “The idea is to put a bunch of musicians together at random and see what happens,” said Penrod. “Forty to fifty musicians put their names into a hat, then names are drawn out at random into bands of five musicians each. The bands then have two months to get together, name the band, and write and learn a set of original music.”
One of the musicians who put their name into the hat this year—a hat really is used—was Nick Gekoskie, guitar player in Harrisonburg’s rock group Psychonaut. It was his first year participating, and his six-piece band, Roadkill Magazine, has settled on a folk grunge sound. “Meeting up with random people puts you in a different setting and challenges you artistically,” he said. “You don’t know what kind of music these people like, let alone play, and you have to compromise and work together to make something totally unique. The experience pulls you from your comfort zone and spits you into a whole new world.”
Part of the fun of Rock Lotto is the randomness of it all, the regular chaos of organizing band practices and playing in front of a crowd, with the addition of working with strangers and having two months to figure out a ten or twenty minute set to play. Rock Lotto is more of a social experiment than anything else, but it also takes art and creativity to another level and forces musicians to react.
“There have been a lot of really good and really fun bands that performed at Rock Lotto over the years—and a lot of weird ones and fabulous disasters,” said Penrod. “There was a band with four drummers and a flutist one year, but they fell apart before the show, so we never got to see that. In the 2011 Rock Lotto, I shattered my leg skateboarding on the Sunday before the show, had major surgery on Tuesday, and I still played the show on Friday. I was medicated out of my mind so I don’t remember it. I tell people that story when they say their band isn’t going the way they want and they want to quit.”
Roadkill Magazine took the stage on the second night of Rock Lotto this past March at The Golden Pony. The proceeds from this year’s event were donated to this year’s MACROCK of which Penrod is also an organizer (another long-standing Harrisonburg indie music tradition happening April 6–7). Roadkill Magazine had the look of a band that had been cobbled together only two months beforehand. They ran the gamut of age, with looks ranging from young tattooed punk rockers grizzled from regional tours and a diet of gas station food, to older members who looked like they would have fit in as introductory film professors at the local community college. The band wielded a drummer, two electric guitarists, a bass player, and owing to the spirit of Rock Lotto, a banjo and an acoustic guitar player. There were a motley crew and that was the point.
The band played a five-song set, starting with a slow folk ballad and upping the tempo with each new song, all of which felt tailored to the skillset of one of their members. In Roadkill Magazine, everyone had a chance to shine, even if at times the songs were disjointed and notes and chords were missed. For their final song, everything felt off-kilter. It ended after a crescendo, the entire band on the same cue for the first time over the course of the song. “ROADKILL MAGAZINE,” they yelled, punk kids and older veterans together, on stage through nothing but serendipity. If the spirit of Rock Lotto could be summed up in a singular moment, you’d be hard pressed to do better than Roadkill Magazine’s first, and likely their last, swan song.
Gekoskie will return to Psychonaut, with at least two of the other members already playing full time in other bands as well. “We have to go back to our home bands at some point,” he said. As for the experience of playing in a band with a lifespan of two months, though? “If you have an opportunity to sign up for Rock Lotto, do it,” he said. “Playing with other musicians, especially more experienced ones, will improve your overall skills. Don’t worry about your skill level at all though, just sign up!”
Photography by Brandy Somers