It was the best of venues, it was the worst of venues. Empire, Jaxx, Zaxx, whatever you called the movie theater turned concert venue located at 6355 Rolling Road in Springfield, Virginia, it was certainly one thing: the most important venue in Northern Virginia to heavy metal fans. It had been a club that transitioned through a few names and hosted many bands of various musical genres but it wasn’t until Jay Nedry took it over in 1994 that the venue became Jaxx. Jaxx became a place to see rock and heavy metal bands come through on tours and they would regularly book performances by underground and European metal bands that you just couldn’t see anywhere else in the area. In January 2012 new ownership took over Jaxx and rebranded the nightclub Empire. I personally attended literally hundreds of concerts at Jaxx/Empire over the past 20 years or so, far more than I’ve seen at any other concert venue.
It was pretty surreal going to Empire/Jaxx’s last concert on Sunday, May 3rd of 2015. I wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t the venue’s final show ever and I think a lot of people there would have said the same thing. I said hi to lots of friends, most of whom I’d been to concerts with at the venue in the past, and I talked to a lot of the staff throughout the night. I had a lot of great concert memories at this place. I remember seeing Arch Enemy on their first US tour with Angela Gossow on vocals there and people were blown away by her stage presence. I remember seeing David Vincent’s sweaty return to Morbid Angel there, a sold out show where the AC didn’t work. I got drunk and saw Napalm Death play there on Easter one year. I saw Electric Wizard open for Macabre and Enslaved there (the only metal show I ever convinced my mom to attend with me). I saw plenty of other shows with eclectic line ups like when King Diamond played with Entombed and when Cannibal Corpse, Dimmu Borgir, The Haunted and Lamb Of God all shared the stage for a night. I remember taking a piss in that awful men’s room troth while talking to Lord Worm of Cryptopsy as he cleaned live worms in the sink to feed to fans from the stage. It was at Jaxx that Rob Dukes, at the time the vocalist for Exodus, stage dived right on top of me while he was wearing a cheerleader costume during Kreator’s encore, all while I was shooting video. These memories and more floated through my head at the final show.
But it was a show, not some flashback montage, and while my mind often wandered throughout the night there was plenty to remind me that hindsight isn’t always 20-20, it has a way of looking at things through those rosy lenses of nostalgia. The same old problems the venue had were still very apparent at the final show. The farewell show itself had way too many bands on the bill, a total of eight, only two of which were on the tour package. I had brought my nice camera hoping to take some shots of the final show but the lighting was so bad for most of the bands I didn’t even feel like bothering. And of course the same old issues of bands not being allotted enough time, or being put in the right order, were glaring. Locals Iris Divine and Oberris had been on the bill for several weeks before the announcement on April 23rd (here) that Empire would be closing on May 5th, though once word of that got out bands started jumping on to the line up. I can understand that, but the bands that were already busting their asses to promote the show shouldn’t have been bumped to play earlier and had their amount of stage time reduced. The sound guy cut off Iris Divine’s set mid song, which I thought was a technical issue at first. Then Yesterday’s Saints played, and their set wasn’t bad but I’ve seen grindcore bands put on longer sets than they were allowed to play, something like 15 minutes. A shame since they had driven home from Louisville, Kentucky the night before to be able to play this show. The final local to play, A Sound Of Thunder, was also cut off while on stage. It was all just handled poorly and left most of the locals feeling slighted to differing degrees.
After a longer break than Yesterday’s Saints was even allowed to play the first touring band came on. Next To None is a lesson on what nepotism can get you. The Pennsylvania based prog band is made up of teenagers aged 15 to 17, the most notable being Max Portnoy, son of the famous ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. Mike was even on hand to introduce his son’s band at the start of their set. I guess they were technically proficient but like most bands made up of kids, they don’t really do much besides mimic other bands. There wasn’t anything new or innovative about what they were doing, it was well rehearsed and safe, but they’re just teenagers so I guess you have to cut them some slack. I could totally see them touring with Unlocking The Truth and playing shows for younger kids.
After Next To None finished it was time for Haken to perform. I had heard they were planning a two and a half hour set this evening, which I suppose is fairly normal for prog bands, though it actually ended up being a little under 2 hours. The band is based in London and I believe this was the final date of their first US tour. I wish they had gotten a band that had played Jaxx many times over the years to close the place out, or even one that had played it once before, but that wasn’t really a practical request. The Haken vocalist, Ross Jennings, made some comments between songs about the closing a few times, wondering why the place was closing because it was so awesome and commenting that it was a strange privilege to be the last band to play there. The crowd had thinned out quite a bit by the time Haken got to their scripted encore, though the final two songs were definitely the highlight of their set. To close out the venue they played a cover of Metallica’s “Fade To Black” then Mike Portnoy got behind the drum kit and Haken covered “The Mirror” by Dream Theater to end the set, their tour, and the venue’s history of concerts.
At the end of the show I hung out and talked to a few friends while the bands tore down their gear. Eventually I said goodbye to the staff as well, who have always been good to me (going back to the Jaxx days) but that probably has something to do with the blog I run, local bands seem to have mixed reviews. The show was over but I didn’t want to say goodbye to the venue, I think I was the last person to leave that wasn’t an employee or part of the tour. I’ve spent a lot of time in that place, complained about plenty of its problems over the years, but I still kept coming back. When I first started going to see concerts that weren’t at giant amphitheaters or arenas Jaxx was there to let me see the bands I was into perform live, and to discover more bands as well. Jaxx was there showcasing locals from around the region before I even knew of any of our local bands. When I first started attempting concert photography, several years before I started this blog, the first shows I shot were Behemoth and Watain at Jaxx. I lived about a mile down the road from Jaxx for a few years as well, sometimes if I was bored on a particular night I’d check their calendar for what was playing that night and head over if it sounded interesting, or at least not terrible. Empire/Jaxx had a lot of problems though. The room wasn’t a great shape and the speakers were set up in a way that the sound was really bad in several areas of the room, and there were the days the AC would be turned off in the summer to increase drink sales at the bar. On some nights Empire would actually charge for water at the bar, a practice that isn’t illegal but is pretty underhanded and potentially dangerous. However the most polarizing aspect of the venue was always its pay to play policy, which had the local bands pre-selling tickets to the shows they were added to. It was great that they allowed locals to play on a stage that size but it was awful that they had to shake down their friends time and again to do so. Many bands boycotted playing the venue because of this policy, and many people refused to even see shows there because of the policy. The fact that after the closing announcement was made so many people took to social media to comment about it, even people that hated the venue and were glad to see it go, is a testament to the impact it had on our area’s metal scene.
Empire/Jaxx definitely wasn’t perfect, no concert venue is, but it is the one we had for so many years, a constant in our metal scene. This is officially the first day that there is no Empire, no Jaxx, in Springfield. It has been bought by the kabob restaurant next door, they want to expand to add a banquet hall for weddings and other special occasions. There is a part of me that is sad to see the end of Empire/Jaxx. I made a lot of friends and memories there, I saw many bands close up, and I probably wouldn’t be the metal concert addict that started a local metal blog if it didn’t exist for all those years. But like the overdue end to a long term relationship, I’m also glad that I don’t have to put up with its bullshit any more either.
Behemoth at Jaxx in 2007
The first concert I ever shot, I’d like to think I’m a little better by now
Rob Dukes stage dives on me while Kreator plays at Empire