As a teenager, Tim Barry would hack a pay phone outside the ABC store on West Main Street and call strangers across the country, hoping for help booking tours for his then-unknown punk band, Avail.
In good times, they’d land in underground venues or people’s living rooms, playing for — maybe — a dozen people and enough money for gas to get to the next city or middle-of-nowhere town.
Now, 12 years since its last performance and 32 years after it formed, Avail is preparing to play again, in front of thousands of people at two sold-out reunion shows at The National later this week, followed by a string of festival performances and shows in Philadelphia, New York City and Boston before the summer ends.
The band never met conventional commercial success, but it nonetheless built a cult fan base and toured extensively throughout the United States many times over and internationally in places such as Germany, Brazil and Japan.
The upcoming reunion has numerous fans who saw Avail at raucous shows in clubs and basements in Richmond throughout the ’90s recalling their younger days as part of a vibrant music scene that continues to define the city in the minds of punk-rockers and metal-heads around the world.
While Richmond may have shaken its reputation as an impoverished and violent city over the last two decades, bands like Avail that came up in that time helped create a legacy for the city as a hotbed for self-starting, do-it-yourself artists and musicians.
Barry, the lead singer, has infamously said Avail would never play again, but friends and fans last year started talking about how it would be fitting for the band to reunite for the 20th anniversary of its seminal album, “Over the James.”
Barry, who has been writing folk music and touring as a solo artist since the band’s hiatus, hadn’t listened to the album in over a decade, so he needed to hear it again.
After his accountant bought the record for him on vinyl, Barry put it on while he and his two young daughters — Coralee and Lela Jane, whom he often sings about now — were cleaning up the Blackwell apartment they were living in last year.
“I listened to the first side and was like, ‘Wow! That’s really good.’ I turned it over and still couldn’t believe how good it was,” he said. “I was really taken aback.”
Barry’s interest in a reunion grew after performing “Simple Song,” a track from Avail’s 1996 record, “4am Friday,” with the band Hot Water Music on four nights of a short European tour last year.
The performances led to even more speculation about an inevitable reunion.
Despite his distaste for band reunions that linger too long and disappoint, Barry said he changed his mind after thinking of people who have said Avail inspired them to start their own band or find purpose and meaning in punk rock.
“I was really starting to think about that, and how it would stoke some people and how happy it would make some of the guys in the band,” he said. “I had no idea the response it would get.”
Originally founded in Reston in 1987, Avail was made up of five teenagers who moved to Richmond not long after high school and forming the band.
A.C. Thompson, a friend of Avail who also moved to Richmond then, said the band and other friends from Fairfax County came here thinking it would be more friendly and affordable for artists and musicians than in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs.
“For those of us interested in creative fields, there was no real place for us,” Thompson said. “So Richmond felt like a place that could be home.”
“At that time, you could rent a house for very little, live with a whole bunch of people, work part time and get by with your bills and rent,” Barry said. “The rest of your time you could spend doing whatever drove you — whether it was music, art or writing.”
Thompson, who is now an award-winning investigative journalist with ProPublica, traveled with the band as a roadie on several tours in the U.S. and Europe.
With sleeping on people’s floors and playing in sketchy venues, the experience was far from glamorous, he said. And because the internet didn’t exist then, the band had to use maps and pay phones to figure out where it was and where it needed to be each day.
But spending time with friends, traveling around the world and meeting new people couldn’t be beat.
Back then, Thompson said, it was also different developing and maintaining relationships with other bands, artists and fans, as they had to send letters or call landlines to stay in touch with people they met.
“The entire world we lived in was different,” he said. “If you wanted to find like-minded people, ... a lot of times you had to be in a physical place with people to meet them. That was what I think made things very special about those moments.”
Today, the band is reuniting with the lineup that recorded “Over the James.” Through the years, four other band members have rotated through the group, including Ed Trask, a well-known Richmond artist and musician, who performed with the band in the 2000s.
When Barry moved into a well-hidden bungalow near the 22nd Street entrance to the James River Park System about a year ago, his neighbor mistook the graying, tattooed man going on 50 for an ex-convict.
It took a few weeks before the neighbor looked up Barry and learned about his prolific music career. It’s made Barry a sort of local celebrity whom fans sometimes greet in public like an old friend — which some of them are.
“It’s worse,” Barry’s neighbor told him. “You’re famous.”
While touring helped Avail create fans elsewhere, the band’s shows in Richmond venues such as Twisters and the Metro were often huge events, drawing a broad swath of people from the motley punk community that’s often divided by cliques and subgenres.
“They never fit neatly into any one scene,” Thompson said. “I think that was a really cool thing about them.”
Jessica Gordon, a self-professed Avail fan who has run the concert booking agency The Trigger System since 2002, said she used to see the band while working behind the bar at Twisters, the concert venue at 929 W. Grace St. that closed last year as Strange Matter.
“I worked in a club that had lots of big punk and hardcore shows,” she said, describing how many of them would often involve tons of people diving into the crowd from the stage or recklessly throwing themselves against one another. “Avail shows were always the wildest and the most fun of all.”
With the frenetic energy and pace of a hardcore punk band, many Avail songs are equally melodic and introspective. They serve as anthems for many fans who share intimate ties to events, feelings and places captured in songs often named after locations in the city.
And those fans have been ready for an Avail reunion. When tickets went on sale in March for the July 19 show at The National, they sold out within 10 seconds, frustrating locals and other people across the country and abroad who have been eager to see Avail again — or perhaps for the first time.
Fans who weren’t able to get a ticket online had to show up in person if they wanted a ticket for the July 20 show. Barry said the band’s reunion essentially began when hundreds of people gathered to buy tickets at The National box office for the second-day show.
“There really is just no other band like Avail,” Gordon said. “I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. I think that’s part of the reason why people are so excited about these shows.”
Iron Reagan frontman Tony Foresta, who is also a member of the band Municipal Waste, said he had been trying to persuade members of Avail to play again for almost a decade, and was thrilled to let them use his band’s practice space in secret to prepare for the reunion.
With Iron Reagan on the bill for the July 19 show, Foresta said being part of the band’s reunion is an honor. Seeing Avail and becoming part of the Richmond punk scene more than 20 years ago changed his life and inspired him to pursue a music career, he said.
“They just made it look so easy, and so fun, and really from the heart,” Foresta said of Avail. “It made me understand it isn’t about being a rich rock star. It’s about the energy and having the love of playing music and getting out there traveling the world and playing music to people all over.”
Foresta said Avail inspired other local punk and metal bands, such as Down to Nothing, Strike Anywhere and Lamb of God, to also adopt a hardworking, do-it-yourself attitude.
“I don’t think they realize the impact they have on this city. It’s a different city now than it was when they were active. But to the people they left behind, it made a big impact,” he said.
Barry tries not to worry about the city changing and venues like Strange Matter closing. He said he’s more concerned about people displaced by new development and rising property values, but he knows that arts and culture will continue to flourish in Richmond no matter what.
“I know that counterculture is dependent on it, but we’ve always had houses to do shows in; we’ve always found new venues to play,” he said. “It’s the memories that we can’t let go of.”