To the couple idly chatting at a table for two at The Rockford, a downtown Raleigh restaurant, the young fellow who pulls out their chairs may not mean a lot. Sure, he's friendly, polite and handsome--clean-shaven with spiked blond locks, dressed casually in dark jeans and a yellow, long-sleeved shirt with the top three buttons indifferently undone. A silver chain hangs from a belt loop, disappearing into his pocket as he slips into the kitchen.
But for a certain group of people in Raleigh that seems to get bigger by the weekend, this anonymous waiter, and many others like him, is as important as any other person in the entire city. He is Eddie Pellino, a recent Michigan transplant and the vocalist and guitarist for his band of five years, Utah!. Most nights, Pellino works late at a local watering hole, taking orders and washing dishes alongside his pal and bandmate, Mickey D'Loughy. On other nights, he's rocking until 2 a.m. at local haunts, or rehearsing with the band.
Pellino was onstage fronting Utah! last August at Bickett Gallery for the opening night of 23 Hours, an unprecedented, month-long celebration of the vibrant arts and music scene in Raleigh, when the party came crashing down around him.
theblackgirls, an all-female Raleigh punk band from the '80s, had reunited for the first time in a decade as the night's opening act, followed by a fantastic hour with local math-rock outfit Proof. Utah! took the stage around 10 p.m., heading straight into "Orange Pop," a cut from their recent album, Plays Well With Others. Then--only halfway into their third song--the plug was pulled. A noise complaint from one of Bickett's residential neighbors led to a visit from the Raleigh Police Department, decibel meter in hand. The cops found the owner of Bickett, Molly Miller, in the crowd and took a noise measurement from the gallery's front property line.
According to Miller, they were two decibels below the legal limit, but she had the wrong permit for outdoor entertainment. It only took one complaint to end the night, and the show was over. 23 Hours--perhaps the most ambitious and far-reaching conceptual art piece in Raleigh history--seemed to be a total failure.
"It was really kind of funny because it's the first night we've ever been shut down playing in all five years. It was just a really big disappointment to be playing for such an excited and completely respectful crowd and to have that happen," Pellino says, months after the event. "But at least we got to invite the cops to our CD release party."
Just days before the opening of the 23 Hours exhibit, event organizers Miller and Lee Moore knew they had a problem. Moore had been coordinating the massive Raleigh music and art celebration since March; by early summer, she was spending nearly every day sending e-mails, cataloguing pieces and making phone calls.
But as the property owner and as an organizer, Miller was responsible for applying for an outdoor, amplified noise permit. She maintains that she did just that, telling a city employee exactly what she needed before being promised that she had completed all of the necessary paperwork. But just before the show began, she was told that she had been misinformed.
Miller and company had no choice. As she puts it, the entire permit process--driven by city politics and neighborhood agendas--is doubtful at best. The show simply had to go on. After all, both the people and the press had latched onto the unprecedented idea almost immediately, and they were excited for good reason. For the first time, literally hundreds of the town's best artists and musicians would come together in an intimate and central location for a cohesive celebration. But--thanks to a handful of organizational miscues at the hands of a few misguided and over-inflated ambitions--Raleigh's grandiose proclamation of life would go largely unheard.
And in a limited sense, it did. Despite the best efforts of both event organizers and city government advocates who attempted to relocate the event, or let it commence as planned, the bands and fans forced themselves into the cramped Bickett interior with the artwork.
That wasn't all that went wrong. Organizers had left gaping holes in their organization, alienating and insulting musicians who didn't fit the bill, or, more precisely, didn't make the scene.
A celebration put on by the creative class in a city historically ignorant of its own inherent artistic wealth was effectively transformed into just another esoteric happening, for a scene, by a scene and of a scene. History, competition and unbridled ambitions killed 23 Hours long before the Raleigh Police Department knew where Bickett Gallery was.
But now, at least, it is clear that an artistic drive pulses throughout this city. At times, its seems to lack direction or cohesion, but it certainly has a force of its own. And when the moment--and ultimately the direction--unite the various music and artistic communities here, that deep-seated force will be capable of much more than a self-proclamation. When the right crew takes the time to organize, research and attempt the next 23 Hours, it will be an artistic explosion.
Pellino reclines against a wooden cabinet, joking with D' Loughy and Dustin Dorsey, one-half of the newly formed experimental rock duo, The Gaze. Brad Farran--another Rockford waiter and one of three partners in Pidgeon English, a small but growing upstart record label making waves in Raleigh and beyond--stands with them, glancing at tables and occasionally disappearing into the restaurant's side dining room to take an order or check refills.
Across the small, second-story restaurant, The Greatest Hits' bassist Kerry Spring leans against the bar and laughs with a customer before making a drink. The Hits and Utah! have both released material on Farran's Pidgeon English label within the past year. Utah!'s 7-inch vinyl recording with pop favorites The Rosebuds is completely out of stock, and The Greatest Hits' split disc with local rock acts The Loners, The Cherry Valence and The Weather is some of the most convincing evidence of the city's burgeoning rock n' roll circuit.
This picture isn't unique to The Rockford. These days, musicians and artists can be found behind the cash register in nearly every restaurant, coffee shop, movie theater, record store and bar in town--making just enough money a few hours at a time so that they can spend the rest of their day rehearsing, writing and creating.
In the Triangle, the music and arts scene--or rather, the community--has been sustaining and setting itself for years. Grammy nominations, album-of-the-year nods, critical notoriety. Record stores, record labels, record deals. Bluegrass, rock, rap. Literally hundreds of bands are thriving within this relatively small enclave of the New South that author Richard Florida named as the region with the sixth largest "creative class" in the country in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Scores of art galleries from one end of the city's slowly reemerging downtown area to the other can hardly keep up with the demand for shows from the city's bustling crop of visual artists, and a number of film series scattered across the city are not only showing great works to locals, but are also showing great works by locals, to others.
"The art and music communities here have been ... maybe not more aggressive, but they've certainly made a bigger effort to draw attention to themselves and to these great exhibits and shows," says Jack Cornell, production manager for Lather Weekly, a defunct Raleigh-based rag that was devoted to the city's arts, entertainment and politics. "It's really exciting."
Spencer Brantley, a Raleigh native who returned in 1995 after six years in Miami, wanted to capture that positive, progressive feeling that he felt. After joining BLAM! art studio, Brantley befriended long-time Raleigh artist and curator, Lee Moore.
"Spencer told me that he wanted to do a show with me and there were some other people that he'd like to collaborate with ... like Dave Justus, Johnray Fuller, Kristina Mammel and Julia Martin," says Moore. "Then he told me, "Here's the deal. I want Pidgeon English bands at the show. We'll photograph them, and then some of us will paint the photos."
Brantley met with Moore in March at Enotica Vin, an upscale bar and restaurant on Glenwood Avenue where he worked. Farran, Josh Bryant and Tyler Kendall from Pidgeon English were also on hand, and the preparations for a joint venture of music and art entered full swing.
From the beginning, unforeseen problems haunted the event's organizers. Bickett Gallery needed massive renovations in order to make Miller's space conducive to the celebration. Farran, named music curator and assigned the rather formidable task of booking bands for the five-week celebration, had hoped to limit himself to two bands each night, but with so many acts eager to contribute, he was forced to book three and sometimes four bands for each Friday and Saturday evening. Things began to get too big. And on opening night, they unraveled.
"I had to work that night, so I missed just about everything," remembers Farran. But I got there right as Proof was finishing, and I could hear the music driving up the street, so I was really pumped and ready to go. Lee and Molly were both really nervous about the noise level ... so I asked the soundman to turn it down. He said he couldn't because it would sound too bad."
The police were at the gallery within minutes, and Miller presented the permit she had. It was dismissed, and the police demanded that she stop the music until she obtained valid paperwork.
"I don't care if it's Aerosmith, Elton John or Bill Clinton blowing the saxophone at Alltel Pavilion," Captain Dennis Poteat of the Raleigh Police Department says. "The noise has to drop significantly after 11 p.m., if they have a permit. But, if they don't have an outdoor permit, the music is stopped anytime after the first complaint."
The bands packed up their gear, and the crowd slowly left--stunned, confused, and disappointed. With no back-up plan, event organizers scrambled to find a venue for the remaining month of shows. They contemplated relocating as much of the music as possible to Kings Barcade, a downtown club where 23 Hours acts often played anyway.
But as word began to spread throughout the city, some prominent Raleigh musicians and club owners were vexed by the event. Those of the alt.country variety--that staple of the city's musical landscape that has spawned such bands as Whiskeytown, 6 String Drag and The Backsliders, were absent almost entirely from Bickett's lineup, an egregious oversight for anything billed as a "celebration of independent art and alternative music in Raleigh." The city's premiere Dixieland jazz and party-breeding band, The Countdown Quartet, was nowhere to be found. The area's emerging roster of jam bands was largely ignored, as was an overwhelming portion of the thriving Capital City hip-hop culture. Metal, too, was missing.
"The way I understand it, a group of people were trying to put together an extended festival to pull the Raleigh arts and music scenes together," says Nic Slaton, bassist for the instrumental jazz and hip-hop outfit The Mighty Burners, who declined to play after the opening-night confusion left the six-piece wondering where exactly they were supposed to perform. "It was supposedly representative of Raleigh, but that didn't really happen."
"It just seemed like it was Pidgeon English bands and people in that scene, which is all right," echoes bandmate Chris Boerner. "But they shouldn't have called it this celebration of all music in Raleigh because I know a lot of really great people that were completely left out."
As Miller says, the idea originated on a tiny scale and quickly grew into a spectacle of such scope and size that even the organizers became overwhelmed. And even longtime residents admit it's simply impossible to keep all of the bands in this town --past or present--straight.
"There seems to be this really intense competition here in town, and that competition can be destructive and it can be exclusionary," Caitlin Cary says, sitting across from her husband, Patty Hurst Shifter drummer Skillet Gilmore. "People from this club or that club won't go see this band or that band because of where it is even though that band may be really good."
Club owners and promoters across the city felt left out of the 23 Hours process entirely. Months in advance, they had booked shows for their venues that conflicted with some of the biggest 23 Hours happenings. Steve Popson, co-owner of Kings Barcade, knew nothing about the event until he read about it in local newspapers. And when he discovered that many of the local acts booked at Kings were playing for free at 23 Hours, he was concerned about sustaining his business during the five-week affair.
"The music community here exists as is anyway, and the bands have a pretty close relationship with places like The Pour House, The Brewery, Lincoln Theatre and Kings," Popson says. "So when there are five straight weeks of shows anywhere taking our traffic, we're definitely concerned. And it was like they didn't really even consider that."
"When I got to the show on that opening night, one of the organizers pulled me aside and said that they may need to move part of 23 Hours to our place," says Kings co-owner and The Cherry Valence bassist Paul Siler. "I knew they had gotten complaints within the first hour. They should have known it was going to happen."
At the suggestion of Popson, the 23 Hours triumvirate decided to move the remainder of the music indoors at the Bickett space instead, apologizing to the bands and ultimately admitting that separating the art and music facets of the celebration would undermine the event's intent. They asked the bands to do anything they could do to make their sound work in the smaller, closed space. Some agreed, but others--like Siler's The Cherry Valence and Gilmore's Patty Hurst Shifter--declined because of their physical size and concerns with the show's lack of organization and communication following first-night setbacks. The crowds were smaller, but people did come.
Ultimately, the event managed to save face, overcoming its immediately apparent foibles to bring a number of bands to its audience. The art and archives remained a hit, as did the standing-room-only movie nights hosted each Wednesday by Devin and Marsha Orgeron, both recent additions to the English Department at N.C. State University.
"People responded really positively to what was going on," remembers Marsha. "It was a chance for people to see what was happening in the community, and--for us--it worked."
23 Hours also worked for a community organization, The Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), which became the non-profit recipient of funds raised through the sale of programs and stage-side donation buckets. According to the museum's director of education, Nicole Welch, her longtime friend and collaborator Moore approached her with the desire to have some organization benefit from the free event. When 23 Hours came to a close in mid-September, the fledgling museum received $600.
So what does 23 Hours mean for the Raleigh arts scene at large? First and foremost, it indicates an ambition and a spirit alive and well in the city. Artists and musicians are as busy here as they've ever been. But, as 23 Hours demonstrated, this is not a collective waiting to explode.
It's essential to realize that events as sprawling as 23 Hours in a city the size of Raleigh have to be meticulously planned so as not to destroy or overlook those who are meant to be celebrated. Resources are limited, even though the breadth and the depth of the artwork and music available in this city seem, at times, nearly unlimited.
Spencer Brantley, the original "brainchild," (now a resident of Maryland) is gone. And though he owns the 23 Hours trademark, he insists that he will not hold another event in Raleigh for a number of years. But the scene in Raleigh is bigger than a brand name. And as indicated by the numerous artists, musicians and creators that inhabit its boundaries, the city, and its future, are certainly bigger than the one person who owns that name.