The first Down by Downtown Festival, in late April and early May 2010, was a fairly modest event. A handful of venues featured music ranging from national level jazz duo Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau to Roanoke-based pop rock band My Radio. That year’s Saturday centerpiece outdoor concert, on a stage setup at First Street and Kirk Avenue, was outdrawn by the Strawberry Festival.
The 10th version is set for Thursday through Sunday, and the lineup shows years of growth for the event. This year, 13 venues are presenting shows. On Friday and Saturday, Elmwood Park’s amphitheater will be the center of outdoor music, including sets from rising jamband scene stars Spafford and NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner Tank and the Bangas.
The festival’s Saturday will coincide with another major Roanoke event, the Blue Ridge Marathon. Roanoke Outside Foundation, which organizes the marathon, took over DxDT with its 2016 run.
Bruce Bryan, one of a small team of Roanokers that dreamed up Down by Downtown, said he is glad to see it beginning to reach its potential. Bryan spearheaded the event from its first year until he handed it over to Roanoke Outside. He said that presenting the high-profile headliners at a newly renovated Elmwood — G. Love & Special Sauce christened the new stage in April 2014 — was key to expanding Down by Downtown’s recognition factor.
“I’ll be honest, I did think it was going to be a big deal,” Bryan said. “But around year three ... I thought, is anybody going to figure out that we’re doing this music festival? Then when Elmwood reopened, we were the first show, and people were saying, there’s this new music festival called Down by Downtown.
“Ten years later, I think most of the community is realizing there is a music festival.”
The synergy between the festival and the marathon has pushed that recognition. DxDT’s second year featured outdoor shows on the plaza behind the Roanoke City Market Building, where the marathon ended. Rainy weather chased the performers indoors, though. The following two years featured clearer skies but smallish crowds. Then came the move to Elmwood.
After two years of organizing big lineups at the amphitheater, Bryan was ready to make a change. As the chief volunteer offloaded his DxDT responsibilities to the marathon organizer, he was cooking up the idea of resurrecting the listening room at 22 Kirk Ave. that had been home to many of the festival’s shows. Kirk Avenue Music Hall would become The Spot On Kirk by the time Down by Downtown 2016 kicked off. Bryan has been able to stay involved with the event from a different perspective.
“It worked out great because we get to do live music 60, 70, 80 nights a year, and of course we’re a big part of Down by Downtown,” he said. “We’re always programming the best we can for it. It’s fun to be on the other side of it and see the kind of work they’re doing.”
Roanoke Outside has for the past two years worked with Across the Way Productions, which puts on FloydFest, to book the Elmwood Park portion of the festival. For Roanoke Outside, whose marathon is running for the 10th time, too, getting involved in the music aspect ensures a party atmosphere at the finish line of what the organizers call “America’s Toughest Road Race.”
“Runners go home and say, ‘that was an awesome race and music ... I’m going to go back next year, and I’m going to bring my friends,’” Pete Eshelman, Roanoke Outside’s director, said.
Simultaneously, it delivers something for regional music fans, including people who haven’t taken advantage of what downtown Roanoke has to offer.
Sponsorship has aided the cause, Eshelman said. Wells Fargo signed on as the key sponsor last year, and continues in 2019.
“We came to [Wells Fargo] from an economic development and a talent attraction angle,” Eshelman said. “How we can use this festival to grow the music scene within Roanoke, celebrate it, show it off, then use that to try and help with talent attraction, make it this better place where people wanna be?
“They understand that and they see how that works.”
Roanoke Outside also presents the Go Outside Festival, annually at River’s Edge Sports Complex.
Eshelman said he and Julia Boas, Roanoke Outside’s events manager, want to add more venues, more street stages and buskers to Down by Downtown. As Roanoke’s craft beer scene has grown, tasting rooms have been added to the venue list.
“I would tell people, our three legged stool is outdoors, beer and music,” Eshelman said. “So when possible, we’re trying to do more for the music scene, as well. I think it’s a critical part of the vitality of our community, which is something we really need to do if we want to keep attracting young professionals.”
That, it turns out, is an extension of the brainstorming sessions that gave birth to Down by Downtown in the first place. The year before the festival began, a group of about 30 Roanokers taking part in civic engagement training sessions developed ideas they hoped would draw more young professionals to Roanoke and help build its economy. A smaller group that included Bryan, Betsy Whitney and KC Bratton emerged with Down by Downtown.
Reflecting on the event’s trajectory, Bryan said that both the original group and Roanoke Outside, with Wells Fargo’s sponsorship, are “doing the same things ... just with a little different focus.”
Bryan said he can envision a time when Down by Downtown and the marathon draw 30,000 people to Roanoke.
“Pete and his team can do that,” Bryan said. “They’re really gifted marketers. They have a great track record, and people believe they’re doing stuff.
“We’ve been doing this 10 years. And now people are figuring it out. I’m hoping the music festival becomes an overnight success any day now.”