We know who we are, and we can spot the likes of us on the sidewalk in any town. We are the rock club goers, passionate about anything stemming from the force of live music. We smell like smoke, our shoes are filthy and our winter jackets are thin enough to wear inside so we don't get too hot in the crowd, where we're strategically camped far enough back from the stage to encounter the right mix of bass and vocals. We're not particular about club settings, although we tend to avoid large venues that involve parking attendants. We undergo bruises, distorted sound and fights. We do it because we love rock and roll: live. Some of us create it, some of us present it, and some of us live on it. But we're all split from the same enthusiastic cell.
And one of the most defining elements of our character is how precious we are about our hometown scenes. When things change, we freak. It doesn't matter whether the transition looks for the better or worse--we notice, we get all itchy and then we complain about it.
Right now, here in the Triangle, we may have reason to worry. Change is brewing. And if the club carcasses littered around us are any proof, it may not be the good kind of change. What's more, the fresh crop of would-be rockers seems more interested in downloading MP3s at midnight and hitting the all-night, booty-call, ecstasy-jacked dance clubs rather than nurturing the next Uncle Tupelo. In any case, the People vs. Five Points Pub, the recent demise of Boo's Hideaway, and the now-dried banks of the Lakeside Lounge are enough to make us fear what's next.
"I don't see how a city with a college the size of N.C. State can't support one bar dedicated to quality roots music," says Boo, whose Hideaway brought such music, sans cover, to Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, "and I am pretty bummed about the scene at this point." He has every reason to be. Boo's Hideaway, crannied in a hollow across the street from State's campus, closed down a few weeks back.
"I think the fact that Raleigh has a college radio station formatted to heavy metal really says something about it," he says of the closing. He also cites the filling of dance clubs instead of rock venues these days. "It's a shame that Hillsborough Street is such a washed-up place. Nobody in Raleigh would want to be compared to Chapel Hill, but come on. Look at Franklin Street. There are people out there doing things. I think people tend to think of the Triangle as one big town, and that we can draw people to shows from all three places, but it's a long drive back to Durham if you were out drinking at a Carbines show at the Hideaway, and it's a long way back to Raleigh from the Local 506."
Owners of the Lakeside Lounge find themselves in the same boat. The alt-country stop-in, nestled in Raleigh's modest skyline district, catered to anyone who ever loved beer and rock 'n' roll. Co-owner Van Alston always booked laid-back, hometown bands, no matter their hometown, and he rarely charged people to see them. "My goal was to get bands in here that never played anywhere except for their garages, and give them a place to play," explains Alston. In fact, if you ask the next local band you run into, chances are they've hung out with Alston, crashed on his floor, or played his club. And chances are they'll tell you, "He's the nicest guy around; it's a shame about the Lakeside."
The shame being that Lakeside Lounge is about to close down. According to Alston, they probably should have closed six months ago, but they stayed open hoping to turn a corner and come out ahead. And now that the word has spread, Alston says people are coming out and complaining that their favorite bar is closing. "And we're all like, where have you been then?" he laughs.
Where have they been? It's an interesting question given the apparent support of the alternative country thang in these parts. "Everybody in the United States loves our music scene except for the people who actually live in Raleigh," says Alston, with a Budweiser in his hand and a frustrated look in his eyes. "We book Whiskeytown around here and over half the people who show up are from Pennsylvania!"
Raleigh singer and songwriter Tift Merritt, who played a solo show at one of the Lounge's last open nights in February, shares Alston's frustration. "I am very sad to see these places go," she says ruefully. "I love the clubs around here, especially the ones that cater to roots music. I also love how laid back they are, and the people have always been very good to me." Though Merritt doesn't frequent one place in particular, she feels strongly that sustaining local venues is necessary. "All of the different places have their own flavor and scene, so when you find a place you like, support it," she says.
Alston and his partners hope to find that support when they reopen the Lakeside Lounge under another name, but they're not sure what kind of joint it will be. In fact, he can't say right now whether it will even have live music. But he's keeping the sound equipment "just in case."
Although it seems the Raleigh circuit is on a downward spiral, there may be some hope for the City of Oaks, thanks to the new Lincoln Theater located on Cabarrus Street one block from City Place. Former Five Points Pub owner Jim Shires, who was shut down by the Five Points neighborhood, owns the club. Shires and partner Mark Thompson plan to compete with the Cat's Cradle for the caliber of acts they'll book.
Which brings us to Chapel Hill, which has a music scene that could use a separate zip code. Many credit that to Frank Heath, who heads up Cat's Cradle. Heath's club is arguably the cornerstone of the tri-city music circuit and may, ironically, be the reason we are seeing so much changeover. It's such a constant that no one else even weighs in to compete.
"Frank is an excellent promoter," says Greg Humphreys of Hobex. An eyewitness to the changes and constants in Chapel Hill for more than 15 years, Humphreys attributes much of Chapel Hill's musical health and wealth to Heath. "He's got a great ear, and he always brings music that ensures the club is happening. So it's no surprise to me that the Cradle does so well."
Recently, Humphreys has also noticed more businesses, on and off Franklin Street, supporting live music. "Chapel Hill is thriving because of places like Henry's, Linda's and the Carolina Coffee Shop," he says. And while the presence of major labels and mainstream music commerce in the area jolted the locals for a while, Humphreys also sees things coming back around, because people are getting involved in different kinds of music.
"I love the resurgence of roots music, and jazz--like with Squirrel Nut Zippers. And I think there is as much interest in local music as there was 10 years ago. There's more awareness in other things now, and with that, more genres have evolved."
But with the evolution of genres comes the evolution--and demise, as well--of venues. Having to pay rent for a decent location seems to be at the root of the problem with the intimate clubs, where cover charges and bar tabs must top overhead. The problem has caused some local promoters to explore nontraditional venue platforms to escape pauperizing overheads.
At least two such promoters--Lora Brooker, who books bands at Fowler's Market in Durham, and Steve Gardner, who organizes house concerts in Chapel Hill--have beat the system. Brooker organized the Back Porch Music Series at the hipster grocery store on Duke Street, and she's covered all the bases. It's affordable, $5 to $10 a show; it's early enough, bands start at 8:00 and 9:00 p.m.; and it's rare enough to look forward to, with bookings down to every other Friday.
Shattering the myth that this area lacks an audience for roots and Americana acts, Brooker experienced great responses with bands like Lou Ford, Greg Hawks and the Tremblers and Tift Merritt and the Carbines. But she's also had great success with Hobex. "I wanted to create something that was community-based, where bands knew they'd be treated well and where people could come and hang out and just have a good time." And if Brooker ever has a lull in her pursuit, Fowler's is raking in the dough at its day-job of being a deli, bakery, coffee shop and international grocer, making live music the icing on an already flavorful cake.
Steve Gardner is having similar neo-venue success. He started doing house concerts in the area about four years ago and has a goal to network these living room shows all over North Carolina. Gardner also developed a monthly newsletter called Fresh Dirt (www.pairlist.net/mailman/listinfo/topsoil-events), which provides an enormous mailing list to anyone who wants to put on a house concert. "I want the North Carolina Piedmont to be an area where roots musicians know they are welcome and have the support of all the fans in this area," he says. "Hopefully this is a step in the right direction."
By taking those steps down the road less traveled, Gardner and Brooker seem to be embracing change rather than fearing and mourning it. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "We must become the change we want to see," and yet while that philosophy should work for the cultivation of live roots music like it has worked for social justice, it is likewise easier said than done.
"That's ultimately why clubs come and go," says Humphreys. "They have a good run and then they have a bad run. And most of the folks who are doing it are doing it because they love music and they'd rather be doing something they love than something where they'd make a lot more money."
As long as that doesn't change, we should all be fine.