What has Johnny Depp’s most famous character wrought? That would be Captain Jack Sparrow, the fabulously costumed main protagonist in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Now there seem to be pirates and pirate-themed things everywhere.
That includes pirate rock, or to describe it more specifically, heavy metal with a pirate theme. The band Alestorm from eastern Scotland fits the genre, so does the San Diego-based Dread Crew of Oddwood (who actually call themselves a “heavy mahogany” band), and New Jersey’s own Swashbuckle — the trio Admiral Nobeard (lead vocalist/bassist Patrick Henry), Commodore Redrum (guitarist Justin Greczyn), and drummer/percussionist Legendary Pirate King Eric “The” Brown (Eric W. Brown). Based in Plainsboro, that band sub-categorizes itself as thrash metal.
Confused? Then go see for yourself, when all three bands converge on Trenton for “Piratefest.” A legion of guitar-toting mateys will be performing at Backstage at the Championship Bar in the Chambersburg neighborhood of Trenton on Friday, January 30.
These three bands are just a few of the live metal, rock, punk, hard rock, and pop punk acts performing original music at Backstage at the Championship Bar, which has become not just a music venue, but a scene — even a destination.
“We created tourism in Trenton again, having up to 30 bands per week,” says Heather Ransome, a Lambertville resident, partner at the Championship Bar, and former booking agent for the Backstage. “We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary (hosting live music), and we are viewed as one of the top metal/punk venues on the East Coast.”
If you are looking for a different way to spark up the long winter nights, there are bands performing every weekend at Backstage at the Championship Bar. Saturdays might see four or five bands in an evening of music starting at 5 p.m.
Some of the bigger names coming to the venue include the Slackers, Saturday, January 31; the Bunny the Bear, Sunday, February 15; Mephiskapheles and Hub City Stompers on Friday, March 27; and One-Eyed Doll, Sunday, April 5.
It was Ransome who, a little more than 10 years ago, conceived of presenting original music at the Championship Bar. She was working in Manhattan running a restaurant on Fifth Avenue, when her father, Hank Ransome, inherited some money and was focused on opening a bar or liquor store.
She left her well-paying job to help her father look for properties and was savvy enough to know that their budget wouldn’t be enough to buy in the big cities.
“So we looked elsewhere and came across a very good deal on an existing sports bar, restaurant, and liquor store combination located in the Chambersburg section of Trenton,” she says. “The area was known as a restaurant destination, frequently drawing people from all over the tri-state area to dine there. Based on that and information we got from the economic development office, we felt that putting our money in Trenton was a good bet.”
“Unfortunately, as soon as we bought the sports bar, both the city and the business model started to suffer from changes,” Ransome says. “Sports bars became an outmoded model, the restaurant owners in the area started selling their restaurants. I was having a hard time keeping staff, often working the bar myself, while trying to run the business. I had to do something; I had to reinvent myself.”
The unused restaurant area of the building soon became a rehearsal space for a local, original metal band, who — frustrated with playing in firehouses and the like — eventually asked if they could put on a show.
“Come to find out that in Trenton there was a budding metal scene that was putting on shows in firehouses with their own money,” Ransome says. “The bands couldn’t afford to keep doing that — and there were other issues — so more metal bands started to ask to play at the Championship Bar, and eventually we became a music venue. I decided to expand to having shows on Fridays, then Sundays.”
“It turns out that the metal scene in particular was waning in the big cities like New York and Philly,” she says. “We started to get the attention of national artists who were looking for dates traveling between New York and Philly on tour as well and began getting even bigger metal and punk acts to play.”
Ransome moved on from booking live music at the bar, and by the summer of 2007 the band booking side of the business went to the capable hands of Michelle Messina, an Ocean County resident who had just lost another booking position, at the former Club Deep.
“They decided to sell their business and I was told the day before they closed — after the owners told me to book the whole summer,” Messina says. “I was frantically trying to find some place to move all the shows I had booked, and I found Championship Bar. I started taking on other dates to book there and met with Heather, the owner, who also set me up as a bartender. I started using Nice Guy Booking as my booking name in 2007 as well.”
Messina did not come to the booking and promotion business through a musical family (truck-driving dad and stay-at-home mom) or a background in music and entertainment marketing, but had a steady career working in title insurance, until May, 2006.
“I was released from my job and was not sure what I was going to do,” she says. “I saw a club post an ad on Myspace.com for people who wanted to celebrate their birthdays there so I decided to go check it out since mine was coming up in June. From there I started working at the venue, doing mostly door or security. I helped book my first show in August, 2006, a three-day fest with over 50 bands. Then I started booking Thursday night ‘metal night’ every week. The club closed in January, 2007, and I moved around from venue to venue after that.”
Before she came to the Championship Bar, Messina booked bands in such Asbury Park venues as Asbury Lanes, the Fast Lane, and even the Stone Pony. Now Backstage at the Championship Bar is on a competitive level with such clubs, and Messina says that the Trenton spot has become one of the most popular small metal venues in New Jersey.
“We’ve come a long way since 2007,” she says. “We book bands from all over — local, regional, national, and even international acts. We host more than eight shows a month and have shows every weekend and sometimes during the week to cater to the touring bands.”
“Shows used to be small, with no national acts,” Messina says. “Now we have national acts that return every time they are on tour. The local crowd has become more musicians who live in the area, as well as artists and other people who do great things in the Trenton area.”
So many famous touring bands in the genres of metal, rock, punk, hard rock, pop punk — and don’t forget pirate metal — have appeared at the Championship Bar, Messina finds it hard to list them all.
“Just in the past few months we had Dog Fashion Disco, Tantric, As Blood Runs Black, Rings Of Saturn, Upon This Dawning, Psychostick, Affiance, Onslaught, Artillery, Thy Will Be Done, IKILLYA, Origin, The Bunny The Bear, It Dies Today, For All I Am, Monuments, Arsis, etc.,” she says.
“We also host Sumerian Record’s Headbang for the Highway (contest), which gives local bands the chance to open for the All Stars Tour, Summer Slaughter Tour and Mayhem Fest,” Messina says. “The past two times the contests for All Stars/Summer Slaughter had a bigger prize at the end, and both times our locals moved on to the finals in Los Angeles. The last time, our winner won in Los Angeles and landed a spot on the whole All Stars Tour that had them touring all over the country.”
In 2015 the Championship Bar hosts the Headbang for the Highway contests for spots within the Summer Slaughter and All Stars tours on Friday and Saturday, April 3 and 4.
The Championship Bar’s manager Nikki Nailbomb is also putting on events, and, according to Ransome, is becoming “the face of scene” representing the next generation of the bar’s creative crowd, which includes visual artists as well as musicians.
Heather Ransome comes to her interest in supporting local bands and original music naturally, as her father Hank Ransome, a drummer, was a bit of a celebrity in the Philadelphia music scene, having been a founding member of the psychedelic/progressive rock band Elizabeth; the group released an eponymous album on the Vanguard label in 1969. In addition to its distinctive late-1960s sound, the album was noted for its psychedelic-styled collage sleeve, which featured the band’s profiles interspersed with images of women in Renaissance coifs and garb. Elizabeth performed at numerous Philadelphia-area venues, including the Main Point, the Electric Factory, and at the “Be-Ins” in Fairmount Park.
After Elizabeth, Ransome played drums/percussion and sang with Philadelphia-based jazz-rock/progressive band Good God. Their self-titled album came out in 1972 on the Atlantic label and included covers of works by Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin. With influences such as Captain Beefheart and King Crimson, Good God was not your typical Philly rock band; the group was a platform for the guys to display their musicianship with tracks that included many extended solos. Ransome also played with power-pop band Cheap Trick for awhile in the late 1970s.
Heather Ransome enjoys watching the creative scene blossom at the Championship Bar. “I am awestruck when I sit there and see the melting pot of faces that frequent the Championship Bar now,” Ransome says. “It is like the Town Hall of the city, where everyone meets to talk about big ideas, to meet new people, and see old friends. It is a big part of the Trenton community now, and we are expanding to work on helping the entire city recover from years of hardship.”
“Growing up on South Street in Philadelphia in the 1970s, I have seen firsthand how a driven community of artists and musicians can change a neighborhood,” she adds. “It starts with people who can see potential in things that other people can so easily look past, or even look away from. There is a certain level of bravery that artists’ communities have that can spur change. I am so looking forward to watching Trenton grow with all of the amazing energy that is happening in the city right now.”
Backstage at the Championship Bar, 931 Chambers Street, Trenton. 609-396-5502. Ticket prices vary. Must be 21 or older for Friday and Saturday nights; Saturday and Sunday afternoon shows are open to all ages. www.facebook.com/backstageatchamps. Michelle Messina can be reached at email@example.com.
For a complete listing of bands and ticket information, go to www.reverbnation.com/venue/613755.