A glowing, green Venus flytrap twisted its hips in a corner while Frida Kahlo swayed back and forth, her red-flower crown accentuating her face. A few feet away, a handmaid dressed in a bright red dress with obligatory white hat gazed towards the stage while a giant inflatable dinosaur awkwardly bumbled around the corner. Despite the rapidly dropping temperature and close-to-freezing rain outside, they had all dressed up to come see Jukebot, the annual Winston-Salem Halloween group at the Ramkat on a recent Friday evening. Moms and dads and teachers and salesmen shed their customary garb and had instead, shown up as the Queen of Hearts or the Mad Hatter. It’s the one night a year, around Halloween, that Winston-Salem gets a little weird. Well, weirder. And they like it.
Jukebot, which is more of a collective than a band, transcends genres, playing everything from rock to punk to metal and even a little pop. The group has been playing the Halloween show for five years and this year’s show at the Ramkat would be its sixth.
James Tuttle, the former guitarist for Winston-Salem’s claim-to-fame punk band Codeseven and Echo Crush, says that Jukebot is more than just a concert and can better be described as “one big party.” In fact, he claims that it was the best party the city has seen in years.
Inspired by the Halloween party that the Wherehouse (now Krankies Coffee) put on every year, a group of musicians from Winston-Salem bands like Codeseven, Echo Crush, Uzzard and Mortimer decided to start their own party a week before the legendary Wherehouse event and host it at the now-defunct Garage.
“We didn’t want to try to compete,” says promoter Tucker Thorpe, the former owner of the Garage. “But some friends came up to me and said that they wanted to do a Halloween party too but one that was more heavy, more rock and roll. We’re children of the ’80s, and we’re influenced by the ’90’s and 2000s you know? We’re all a little bit emo.”
Tuttle admits that after the Garage closed at the end of 2017, he wasn’t sure Jukebot would survive.
“We originally thought we weren’t going to continue,” he says. “But then the Ramkat opened up and we got one night to get together again.”
Many of the members of Jukebot no longer play music regularly. They have other jobs, families, different lives.
Dan Marshall, a Jukebot founder who played in Uzzard and Mortimer, was dressed as Leatherface and was excited that the project had found a new home.
He now works in IT testing software and plays music when he has the time. For him, the Jukebot Halloween show is the one night of the year that he gets to really let loose.
“It always draws us back in,” Marshall says. “The ambiance, the overall feeling.”
“It’s a Winston-Salem tradition,” adds Chris Chafin, the vocalist for Echo Crush. “We get to dress up as adults and get goofy.”
As the group took the stage, the crowd began to cheer, excited to see some of their favorite band members taking the stage again after a year.
Jamie Leighthal and Chris Livengood jumped up and down at the very front of the room, pressed up against the stage.
Chafin, who sing-shouted lyrics from Led Zeppelin and the Cars, pointed the couple out during a break between songs.
“Hey! Shout out to Chris and Jamie. They got married last year!” Chafin exclaims, his skull face paint slowly melting from his sweat. “We missed you guys last year.”
The newlywed couple who recently moved back to Winston-Salem after living in San Francisco, said they wouldn’t have missed the Jukebot show for anything.
“Jukebot is life for us,” says Leighthal, who was dressed as a warm-looking panda. “We cried when we missed it last year.”
Both Leighthal and Livengood say they grew up in the city and watched the punk community contribute to the city’s growth.
“Winston-Salem’s growth can be attributed to the ’80s and ’90s punk-rock spaces,” Livengood says.
“Trade Street had nothing back then,” continues Leighthal. “The growth has come from those punk curb kids hanging out.”
The two, who own Ember Audio and Design, a specialized audio shop, say that Jukebot allows them to fully be those punk kids again.
“They give everyone permission to enjoy themselves,” Leighthal says. “You can be a dork over metal. It’s like communion.”
“It’s the closest thing we have to church,” Livengood concludes. “It’s really loud musical therapy.”