Booking five mostly unknown and underage bands for a Thursday night gig appears, on paper, to be a recipe for disappointment. But Laura Lee Greenwood has done this before. She knows how to turn the risk into reward—and, to an extent, a scene.
As the ringleader of a loose confederation of heavy metal enthusiasts and boosters known as Primitive Ways, Greenwood has been booking shows or otherwise supporting the loudest parts of the local music scene for more than two decades. She's not only a concert promoter; she's a visual artist, record label head and former influential college radio DJ, too. You might be tempted to call Greenwood a local impresario, but she, self-deprecating and modest, would likely reject the title.
Tonight, Greenwood mills about The Maywood, a small bar and rock room just outside of downtown Raleigh, before the show she's booked begins. She blends into the crowd of musicians loading in their gear. Fellow concert promoter Hank Williams, a friend of Greenwood for more than 12 years and doorman at The Maywood, points her out: "She's wearing a denim jacket with a Deceased backpatch and a black beanie."
Greenwood's low profile fits Primitive Ways' ethos—a punk rock approach to heavy metal. "I love this music, and this is the only way I get to see bands I like," she says. "No one else is going to book them, and I can't always get out of town because of my job. If I want to see a band play, I gotta book 'em. Sometimes I lose money just because I want to see a band."
This pairing of pragmatism and romanticism has made Primitive Ways a small but impactful multi-media operation, capable of releasing albums and organizing concerts. Greenwood's shows are steady draws within an increasingly active metal scene. "Just building things bit by bit seems to be working," Greenwood acknowledges. "It used to be that if my smaller shows got more than 10 people out, it was pulling teeth. Now I'm getting 30, 40 people on a Tuesday night at Slim's."
Sure enough, when The Maywood's doors open, a solid crowd of about 40 filters in. The room is small enough to feel full. Escher, a young band from Raleigh, opens with an instrumental set, as their singer continues to recover from a car accident that happened more than a year ago. Led by bassist and Primitive Ways associate Cody Rogers, Escher manages an engaging set, drawing together elements of progressive rock, math-rock and death metal.
Raleigh's Dysplasia stands out against the night's prog-metal counterparts with more streamlined thrash. Introducing his band's final song, singer Greg Starkes goads the crowd to applaud themselves, not just the band. "It's all about supporting the fucking metal," he says, offering a succinct summary of the night and Primitive Ways itself. "Wherever you're coming from."
Greenwood's own history in heavy music originates with her Texas childhood. "I remember singing along to 'Don't Fear The Reaper,' as a little kid in my dad's Riviera," she says. "Because I listened to that music, I ended up hanging out with people who were like, 'Oh, you're not a typical little girl into garbage music; you like good shit. Well, here, check out Robin Trower.'"
From there, she got into punk—a reaction to the softening of heavy metal she heard in hair bands—and soon dug back into classic rock. Through her early 20s, Greenwood moved frequently, briefly working at a company in Baltimore that recycled petroleum-contaminated soil.
"I would drive around the Mid-Atlantic region picking up soil samples," she says. "I was the person who always volunteered to go up to New Jersey because I really liked this radio station."
That college radio station played White Zombie and re-introduced Greenwood to hard rock in the early '90s. When she enrolled at North Carolina State University at 25 to study forestry, she joined the staff at WKNC and helmed the metal show "Chainsaw Rock," a role she held for more than 20 years. She left the station a year ago, suspecting that online streaming had dampened the show's impact.
"I'd go out and people would be like, 'Hey dude, are you still doing the show?' And I'd tell them, 'Well, if you listened, you'd know,'" she laments. "For a while it seemed like it mattered. I felt like I was performing an important function, introducing people in the area and on the Internet to metal."
That's certainly how Williams, working the door at The Maywood tonight, remembers Greenwood's radio days. For him, they offered a conduit to a broader community.
"There wasn't a whole lot of ways to get into that stuff around here unless you knew the people," he says, "and she definitely had a gateway."A decade ago, Williams began hosting punk shows in the living room of his Five Points house, dubbed the Thrashitorium. Greenwood started showing up, and they became friends. "With her Texas upbringing and my North Carolina upbringing, we were pretty similar rednecks," Williams says, laughing. "And she's a pretty obvious tomboy."
They began promoting shows together. Williams also encouraged Greenwood to resurrect her love of visual art. Her detailed pen and ink drawings of hooded figures and skeletal beasts have since formed a visual aesthetic for Raleigh metal fliers; her animal bone sculptures became mic stands for friends' bands.
"I fell out of drawing when I was 19 or 20. I was with the wrong guy—I hate to admit it, but it's the truth—and I just stopped doing it," she says. "When I met Hank, he saw some of the stuff I had done in high school and was like, 'Why don't you do this anymore?' I started drawing again."
Greenwood looks to work with other booking agents like Williams to land larger shows, and she's recruited help to expand Primitive Ways' stylistic reach beyond her own black metal enthusiasm. Primitive Ways functions less on her ego than the volume of metal it brings to the area. Escher bassist Cody Rogers became part of Primitive Ways, for instance, after he started asking Greenwood for advice about bringing the brand of prog-metal he favors to Raleigh. She saw it as an opportunity to get and give help; as Greenwood puts it, he's now the collective's "Promotions Right Hand Man."
"I don't have any illusions of supremacy or grandeur," Greenwood admits. "It's like, let's do this as a team and make shit happen, so we can have good shows and we can all do better."
Primitive Ways includes a motley cast of other contributors, including recording engineer Nathan Stokes, graphics designer (or "digital bastardization technician," in label parlance) Vincent Jackson Jones and two chefs—Galo Balbueno and Matt Couchon, who cook to order for the bands they book.
"Vader said we had the best food on the tour," Greenwood says of the Polish metal legends. "Being a smaller market, we really can't pay a lot, but we show the bands a good time."
Promoting shows, especially to a niche audience, is risky business with little, if any, financial reward.
"Most people don't really dig the music I dig, so I have to think of 50 people as a good night and not plan on getting 100," Greenwood says. Her longevity and success as a promoter owe as much to her passion as to her commitment to accountability. "I won't promise you a guarantee unless every penny is sitting in my bank account. If nobody shows up, it'll suck, but you'll still get paid."
A stagehand by trade, she takes pride in that dedication. "I don't have the kind of job where you call in sick," she says. "You don't call in sick to a show-call. You're running spotlight, you show up because people are counting on you. The show must go on. No matter how shitty you feel, you get jacked up on some Sudafed and you go do your job."
The job of Primitive Ways continues to be scene-building. It's evident in that risky Thursday night gig at The Maywood, where, judging by the enthusiasm in the front rows, a young crowd's gamble on a bill heavy with locals is rewarded. It's evident in the commitment Greenwood maintains with her label, despite the time and expense involved. Primitive Ways Records' catalog includes LPs from Virginia's Occultist and Greenville's Aether Realm. Later this year, new music from Escher and Noctomb will carry the imprint. She even drew Escher's logo and booked their last eight gigs.
"Right now, I'm just taking on people if I can drive to where they live, easily," Greenwood says of the label's present and future. She wants to build slowly, starting at or near home. "Aether Realm is out of Greenville; I can go to Greenville on a daytrip real easy. Russia, not so much."
Likewise, in Raleigh, her impact is felt most in the small rooms where eager fans gather to hear what Primitive Ways has to offer.
"There are enough people who are appreciative of what I'm doing to maintain a small scene," Greenwood says. "And keep our reputation as a city that is open to innovative and creative outlets for live music and performing and visual arts—not necessarily doing the same shit that everyone else is doing."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Living after midnight"