By Michael Curry
Chris Jacobson, the owner of the venerable Victorian Station in Hampton and a fiddler in the band Mason Brown and the Shiners, always dreamed of a venue that was home for local musicians, a spot like The Bluebird in Nashville or The Continental in Austin.
Then he met a rocket scientist, Kelly Murphy, the driving force behind the annual Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival, and they put their dreams together.
Out of that dream was born Big Pink Music at Victorian Station, a nonprofit with nearly 100 members supporting artists and music lovers with the tag, “We are listening.”
Now, to punctuate its second year, Big Pink Music is hosting “Da Blues” on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 19 at Victorian Station, featuring Bobby “Blackhat” Walters, Larry Berwald (formerly of Roosterfoot), Logan Layman, Cole Prior Stevens, and Tom Euler.
The in-the-round format puts the musicians in the center, literally surrounded by the audience and, as Kelly points out the format (based on the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville) “offers a unique exchange of energy and emotion between the performers and the listeners. It takes the experience up a notch and the audience becomes a part of the show.
“It’s the second in-the-round for Big Pink Music. Murphy plans to have Big Pink host in-the-round performances featuring local musicians quarterly. As well as more concerts in the round, plans are being finalized for Sunday brunch local music showcases, Saturday morning workshops/courses and master classes and possibly a Music from the Big Pink Radio Hour to be broadcast on WHRV’s altradio digital station.
Those are in addition to the regular events – notably open mic nights on Thursdays – one of the most popular in the region and winner of Best Open Mic Award for three consecutive years from VEER Magazine and Friday nights twice a month with The Wampler Brothers, local bluegrass favorites.
Big Pink Music is modeled on the public radio concept. Memberships directly support local musicians. “The support of our loyal members means that music is the focus of everything we do,” says Kelly. “Victorian Station is the perfect home for our community. It has developed into a very special venue.” There are no distractions in Victorian Station. No TV screens. No karaoke. Big Pink Music is the first member-supported listening room in the region.
Murphy is a real-life rocket scientist, head of the Aerothermodynamics branch at NASA Langley, where she oversees a team of about 20 engineers who conduct hypersonic research and support civilian, military and commercial space programs.
She earned her graduate degree and discovered her passion for live acoustic music in Austin, Texas. Not surprisingly, it was there that she developed a passion for music in intimate settings. Friends introduced her to the concept of house concerts – a movement that thrives to this day and a concept that she eagerly embraced and spearheaded in Hampton Roads.
Jacobson’s wife, Karen Benson, a longtime broadcaster and TV Show host says: “Because of Kelly’s vision, our venue has come alive and is establishing itself as a real and lasting force in the regional music scene.” Benson and Murphy first met years ago when they served together on the Board of Big Brothers, Big Sisters during which time they coproduced several benefit concerts at the American Theatre.
The artists may make the music, but Victorian Station helps create the ambiance for The Big Pink that is special for players as well as listeners. “I often use the Big Pink stage to test-drive new music,” Walters says.
Big Pink Music’s home is one of those gloriously rambling and spacious Victorian mansions. Built in 1896 with the assistance of students from nearby Hampton Institute, it was one of many such homes built in Phoebus and Hampton. Each had a signature stained glass windows, according to Karen Benson. It was built as a private residence and, as was common in those days, has high ceilings, large reception rooms and cozy little nooks and crannies.
Over the years, the building fell into neglect. It was brought back by two sisters, Patty Starcher and Bea Pierce, granddaughters of the man who oversaw the original construction in 1992, They made it a popular tea room, giving it the name Victorian Station. They both had to give up the business for family reasons and that is when Benson and Jacobson stepped onto the scene, purchasing the building in 2005. For a few years, Karen continued to run the tea room and they added a gift shop as well. “While I had a long-term dream of running a restaurant which then came true, Chris always had a dream of creating and running a conservatory type of facility as a much needed outlet for talented musicians,” Benson says.
“So, you see, dreams can come true and we are loving being a big part of Kelly’s dream — which is also coming true,” Benson adds.
The name, The Big Pink, refers to the building’s paint job and was coined by open mic host Vaughn Deel after The Band’s “Music from Big Pink.” Deel has been hosting open mics at the building since 2011. “Vaughn and I went to Bethel High School — he was a couple of years older — and I used to play his hand-me-down LPs which got me into that style of music as a 16-year-old,” Jacobson says. “we decided to start an open mic, Vaughn and Suzy (Doyer) were the ones we called.”
“I always dreamed of having a venue that felt like a real home for musicians, like they have in Austin or Nashville,” Jacobson adds, “and here we have it.”
More information at www.bigpinkmusic.org.
Michael Curry founded and directed Hampton Arts for 25 years. Now a freelance writer, he published his first book, Dining Among the Stars, last year. www.mpcarts.com