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Before Avalon ... and after?


Signal Electronic Music Festival brought electronica revelers back into Avalon, a space that had been a local haven named Gotham. But a string of violent incidents at Avalon has Chapel Hill officials ready to shut it down. - PHOTO BY BEN BEARDEN
  • Photo by Ben Bearden
  • Signal Electronic Music Festival brought electronica revelers back into Avalon, a space that had been a local haven named Gotham. But a string of violent incidents at Avalon has Chapel Hill officials ready to shut it down.

In June of 2002, the Independent glowingly reported on Avalon, a new dance club opening in the Rosemary Street space formerly occupied by Gotham. Avalon owner/operator Dan Markscheid had run Gotham but had taken on a new partnership with several co-owners with ambitious goals.

"Gotham had a nice long run for nine years, but it's time to head in a new direction," Markscheid said. "It did some things that were unique for this town ... but I wanted to create something a little more mainstream."

The initial Avalon schedule looked promising enough, a diverse array of live funk, electronica and hip hop from artists like DJ Skribble and Bruther Munk. Avalon even hosted a bluegrass festival in the summer of 2002. Recently, though, Avalon's reputation has not been related to its selection of music. The club's management began to be criticized for lack of security. In an Aug. 4 police report, Chapel Hill Police Chief Gregg Jarvies reported that the club had been associated with 24 violent incidents in 15 months. Avalon partner Greg Boone did not respond to multiple attempts for comment over the past month and a half.

One of those incidents was a highly publicized fatal shooting in July. That incident seems to indicate the end of Avalon: The town appears poised to shut Avalon down permanently based on the recommendations of both Jarvies and Town Manager Cal Horton. For those in the electronic music scene, it marks the second end of a vital chance.

After all, Avalon's predecessor, Gotham, was a haven for local DJs and their supporters, providing the perfect mix that keeps a dance scene--that is, one devoted to the music itself--alive. A stable framework for the scene emerged from a strong selection of DJs, and consistently successful events--including Radiance, a weekly Wednesday party that lasted two years--connected those excited by a new local music community on the rise. Veteran ravers that had DJed and danced through the last decade shepherded aspiring spinners into a new era.

This aggregated subculture was unconcerned with race or background, and a strong gay and lesbian following met at Gotham's Friday night Insomnia when they weren't at one of the many similar spots in Raleigh or at Durham's The Power Station, arguably the biggest gay dance party in the region.

"Dance music was still on the outside looking in," veteran promoter and DJ Mark Kane says from his home in Las Vegas, where he still produces music while working as a software programmer. Kane partnered with Hotwax Harley Walker, a prolific DJ and producer in the Triangle, during the '90s for Radiance, gathering a strong mid-week following, something next to impossible for most any club. Suddenly, the Triangle was a desirable stop for national artists traveling along the East Coast, a beneficial exit between bigger metropolises like D.C. and Atlanta. "It was all coinciding with the rave scene nationally and two or three local collectives working together. We were bringing in people that no one had seen in this area before."

DJ Aron Wayne was a disciple of the tight-knit family that pioneers like Harley and Kane helped build. "Gotham was my first gig. Harley and other DJ friends of mine were so encouraging," he says. Wayne still DJs frequently in the Triangle. "That's was what was great about Gotham. There was really a sense of community and support."

DJ Robbie Hardkiss gets ready to hit the tables. - PHOTO BY DJ SILVABACK
  • Photo by DJ Silvaback
  • DJ Robbie Hardkiss gets ready to hit the tables.

But, when Avalon's management changed the format to more pop music, financial concerns seemed to have overruled that sense of a scene based on music and community and not profit. Many in the dance scene were dismayed, including Wayne: "They ended the Radiance and Insomnia parties. The owners perhaps felt like they were making good business decisions in order to get more people through the door, but it was a major slap in the face to the electronic dance music and gay communities."

"The electronic community is never an economic priority," Uzoma "Uzi" Nwosu says. Nwosu still DJs at the longest-running weekly gig in the area, Family, at West End Wine Bar on Sundays. "A dance club has a higher equipment maintenance cost, at least here, over a hip-hop club. [The club owners] know that they can run hip-hop nights with less than adequate lighting and sound and get an audience."

The dance music scene here in the '90s maintained a tradition of looking beyond the basics of club life and finding a support network, a welcoming matrix to which people could flee from the usual meat-market character of dance clubs. The tone of dance parties appeared to offer a unique benefit to club owners that would seem to be worth its weight in longevity, says Nwosu. "I have to add that there was never a stabbing or shooting or any acts of violence related to Radiance. Ever."

Last year, organizers of Signal Electronic Festival--including Nwosu and Mark Lever, aka DJ Markus Maerk--decided they needed a larger venue for several events. They had mixed feelings about returning to the space they once called home. After the festival fared well at Avalon, they had hopes for an electronic-inclusive future at the club. That now seems impossible.

Still, Wayne understands it's all business, but he thinks an important disconnect is being overlooked--one of comfort zone versus curiosity. "The majority of club-goers have a certain expectation of familiarity, so most clubs here play what is on commercial radio and MTV. You can't really fault them for that--they have to make money," says Wayne. "But there is this whole other subculture that's been going on for years where clubbers want to go out and hear something they've never heard before. They wouldn't dare ask the DJ to play a request. They want to be enlightened. And it's a matter of reaching out to that community, and building a venue that says 'This is for you. This is for us.'"

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