Over the past decade I've had the great luck and privilege to get to know the town of Charlottesville, Virginia. My brother Dan and his family were whisked there in the aughts of the 21st Century to help make sense of the University of Virginia's Tibetan Digital Library Project. That topic could easily be the genesis for a more interesting read, but I'll let Dan do that at his leisure.
This is about the fickle, famous and fabulous music scene in Charlottesville. Dan is as fine a rock and roll bass player as you're going to find so it wasn't long before he ventured into this scene landing a gig in a surf unit with one of the best band names ever: Surfzilla. Surfzilla was put together by Will Rourk, an IT guru with the UVA Tibetan project and a staunch Dick Dale disciple. He also had a hankerin' for Irish music and played a weekly Irish jam session at an Italian bar just off the Charlottesville mall.
In 2010, I was hanging out in Charlottesville waiting for marching orders to head to Dharamsala, India to work at a Tibetan radio station, when I was invited to join in Will's newest project, Tied to the Mast - a combination of surf AND Irish music. It was my first introduction to the Charlottesville music scene and its rotating cast of loons. Tied to the Mast never played a gig, but the idea of such a concoction, and the fact that there were some damn fine musicians involved in it, gave me a taste of the eclectic nature of the beast.
A few years later, I was summoned to Charlottesville as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama would be speaking to a massive throng at the Charlottesville Mall. Dan and his new band, Jam Thicket, were hosting a concert on the eve of the talk. Headlining the event was Jhola Techung and Rinzing Wangyal, two of the finest practitioners of Tibetan folk music in the world.
The rehearsal was staged at the home of Victor and Susan Benshoff, not far from my brother Dan's house out in Charlottesville's horse country. Victor was the keyboard player for Jam Thicket. Along with Dan on bass, guitarist Dave Hersman and drummer Warren Jobe, they formed a kick-ass, super-tight rock and roll unit that easily could have broken out of Charlottesville if they'd struck it up in their 20s as opposed to their 40s.
Victor had worked sound for big acts all around the Charlottesville and Richmond area and had the ear of a seasoned studio producer. Whenever I was allowed to sit in with Jam Thicket, I made sure not to wail around on the guitar like a jack ass. Victor had no patience for unwarranted noise and it made their unit sound like they were on a record even when they were just dicking around in his basement.
Mixing the Tibetan sound with the rock music didn't work all that well, so we decided to split into two acts (actually three as my friend Michael Bathke and his amazing daughter Mia opened the show) and pulled off the show actually sounding quite good.
The next day there were 4000 spectators at the Charlottesville Pavilion, where Techung and Rinzing played before the Dalai Lama spoke. Oddly enough, this was the spot of my favorite Victor Benshoff moment. Victor came up to me before the talk and told me he'd worked with the sound company and they didn't know what the hell they were doing. As I settled into my seat on the grass towards the back, I could see Victor about 50 yards away with his arms folded looking furious because, as he had predicted, the sound for Techung and Rinzing was awful - nearly inaudible.
After their performance, the Dalai Lama began his talk and Victor was incensed. Victor was far from a southern red neck, but he was by all means, a salty southerner who did not bother to hold back his opinions. I caught his attention and Victor, reacting to the horrendous sound, looked at me from under his derby and angrily flipped off the giant speakers in front of him.
I knew exactly what he meant, but to the couple hundred people surrounding him, they saw a redneck flipping off the Dalai Lama. I motioned for him to put his finger down; he immediately removed the offensive gesture, and the two of us shared the kind of uncontrollable laughter that gets one in trouble in the middle of church sermons. And that's how I remember Victor
In 2015 Victor Benshoff succumbed to cancer. Even though I'd only played with him a handful of times and we only shared a few conversations, I felt a tight kinship with him. There's something that happens when you fall into a group of tight, competent musicians. You don't have to say much to each other. If you're grooving, you've spent the time with your instrument to get to the same level as the cats your playing with. Sometimes it all disappears when you put the instruments down, but for that time when it's all working, the relationship is thicker than blood.
And that's what brought me out to Charlottesville on a 100 degree September day. It was the second annual Victorfest. The first was Victor's wake a year earlier. The entire band of Charlottesville musician lunatics were out in force - 6 bands and 10 hours worth of some of the best Virginia had to offer. I was able to hop on stage with the members of Jam Thicket at the end of the night where we played a pretty nasty set that Victor would have scoffed at.
But that was the thing - we were all still thinking of what Victor thought. And I'm sure that outfit always will.
Oh yeah - two days later I swam at the Atlantic Coast Athletic Club Fitness Center in Charlottesville. It was the most expensive ($14!) and by far, the shittiest pool on the list.