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Bull City Venue Blues

Jason Jordan and John Koelle are working to create and maintain a live, local music scene in Durham


When I was 16, my family moved into a bigger house, providing me with an entire floor to myself. There were five entrances/exits, two of which were on my floor. The possibilities suggested by such a scenario were quite liberating to my nocturnal habits, so when Beck played at the Duke Coffeehouse in April of 1993 during a week in which I was grounded, I exploited my options without much question. "Loser" had just become an MTV staple, and when would I ever have a chance to see Beck somewhere as small as the Coffeehouse? Needless to say, the show was great, but upon my return home that dewy spring night I found the door I had exited the house from locked, with parental units waiting for me. I was busted. But it was worth it.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that since then, there hasn't been a whole lot going on in Durham worth sneaking out for. Waaaay back in the "'90s" (before half of Durham became a suburb with some faux-poetic name like "Whisperwood" or "Exogenous Creek"), there was a strong presence of touring rock bands in Durham, and even local acts would bring people from all over the Triangle to the Coffeehouse. None of this is to discredit the work that students in the past few years have done with the place, but my understanding is that the guy who was running it back then was spending so much time bringing bands there that he didn't do things like go to class. (If I'm wrong then I prostrate myself at the feet of the offended.)

Countless people have tried and failed to start a regular rock club in Durham over the past few years, and the current torch-bearers, Jason Jordan and John Koelle, have met the same walls that those countless others ran into, but they haven't abandoned the idea. On the contrary, they've set goals they intend to meet come hell or high water.

"We want to record, produce, put out some vinyl, do live sound, the whole nine yards," says Koelle. "It would be a cool group of people that enjoy working together and want to put on good shows."

In addition to hunting for a space to house the massive sound system sitting in Koelle's unfurnished living room, the pair are hoping to provide a means for the Durham music community to put out singles that Koelle would record, a place for local and touring bands to play on a regular basis, and, in general, start a spark on a town full of figurative dry wood. All of this is easier said than done, though. And when you consider that Jordan is also trying to run his own business, a video rental store called Avid Video, the difficulty involved becomes more palpable.

Close to a year and a half ago, Jordan started booking local shows at The Basement, a voluminous venue on Broad Street (the same location where another former thriving Durham club, Under the Street, was located years ago). He was friends with one of the guys who decided to renovate the space to hold live music, so Jordan started doing shows on Thursdays and Sundays.

"I started getting bigger crowds doing local bands on Thursday and Sunday shows than [the other person who was booking shows] was bringing in with the touring bands they were paying lots of money to ... so I just started doing it full-time," Jordan says.

Jordan started booking several shows a week for local bands, occasionally bringing in bands and performance troupes from out of town. The club slowly became genuine competition for shows in other towns, as a smorgasbord of Durham bands started filling up the schedule every weekend and throngs of drunk Durhamites started filling up The Basement.

Koelle moved here from Charlotte six months ago, looking for work as a soundman. Having done sound at a club in Charlotte called Fat City, he had experience but more importantly had the drive to get involved. Soon he was beefing up the sound system and attempting to make a difference there.

At this point I should explain that there are a lot of bands in the city of Durham, some who have been around for years, but finding somewhere to play was a struggle, and as a result they were unknown in their own town. It's difficult for a club in Raleigh or Chapel Hill to accommodate bands from their own towns as well as touring bands who can bring large crowds, so adding one more town's worth of bands to the pile of people wanting a show isn't possible. When Jordan and DADA, an artist collective that helped prop up Durham's ailing arts and music community, started booking shows at The Basement and Ringside, respectively, it seemed like Durham bands were popping up out of nowhere, and people finally didn't have to drive to another town to see shows.

"Before Ringside starting doing their shows last year, and then The Basement [started having shows], I mean, bands didn't even have the option to play out," says Jordan. "And look at DADA ... they didn't have a space, and they were taking guerilla tactics, just putting on a show anywhere they could."

One of the obstacles Jordan and Koelle face is that The Basement isn't their club; there are lots of other events that take place there, so working with only a few days a week is just a Band-Aid on the larger problem. And an even greater hurdle they have yet to jump (if they find a place) is that a lot of the bands that would bring large crowds require larger guarantees than even established clubs can meet sometimes. But the only way to get people to sustain a club is to have bands they want to see, so someone in this food chain has to make a sacrifice, and 1) it ain't gonna be any bands who can go somewhere that will meet their guarantees and 2) it's really hard to convince the omniscient, fickle public to go somewhere just so a place can get on its feet.

"I think a bigger problem is the fact that bands you're going to have to pay a guarantee to, touring bands, are going to choose Chapel Hill or Raleigh to play instead," says Jordan. "As opposed to a local band, who has no problem playing the Triangle area, doing it in just a few weeks and separating and staggering [the shows], a touring band is on the road, so they're going to be playing one of those towns as a destination. And the next night, they're not going to play the very next venue down the street 20 minutes away. And right now, Chapel Hill has a more established music scene, so they're more likely to play a club over there."

"I think what it all comes down to ... touring bands, especially established touring bands, are going to have to recognize that as they travel through different areas they're going to reach into different markets with different funds," Koelle says. "If they're used to getting a guarantee in New York City, they're not going to be able to get that guarantee in Chapel Hill or Durham, and I think there needs to be recognition of the difference in markets for us to be able to draw in some decent bands."

Koelle also sees the changing nature of current rock music and current public tastes being part of the problem facing clubs, especially clubs in college towns.

"A lot of the [past] sounds aren't drawing people like they used to," he says. "There's not an automatic draw to [rock shows] from the local college crowds, because the college crowds now are different. When The Basement sponsors a Duke event, there's usually a cover band, which is so unlike the stuff that we're trying to promote. And the cover band shows at The Basement are packed."

It also takes a ton of literal legwork to promote shows at a club. Lora Brooker, who has been responsible for some of last summer/fall's outdoor shows at Fowler's, made sure that local weeklies and newspapers had The Basement's shows on their schedule. Jordan has walked around town putting up fliers for shows himself and has taken out schedule ads in the same weeklies, sometimes even taking out ads to promote specific shows. It sometimes seems, though, that the most nocturnal section of Durham's population, the over 7,000 Duke students, don't acknowledge the local music community, either because of the stigma of Durham or the different social structures involved.

"I feel like the [Duke] kids maybe feel isolated to a certain extent," Koelle interjects. "They have to branch out, and local people, our scene, would have to branch out, too. Right now it's like two completely different demographics. I think it's hard to brand Duke students ... but I do know that the consensus is that when most of these kids come to this school, they're told that Durham is basically like, 'There's nothing to do here.' They come in with that feeling that there's nothing in Durham for them to do or support or be a part of, and they probably live with that feeling to a certain extent."

Ironically, some of the most successful shows Jordan has booked at the club have been performance troupes. A few months ago the Sex Workers Art Show, a traveling group of activists spreading awareness about the sex industry with visual art and oral (ha!) commentary, ended up at the Basement at the last minute. On a book tour supporting a novel published by Dave Eggers' (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) company, McSweeney Press, novelist Sheila Heti had several locals give lectures on "facetious" topics they knew little about, resulting in some humorous exchanges. And even a politically charged touring mask-and-puppet show paired with a local band managed to bring a decent crowd out. Jordan attributes this to the power of electronic word of mouth.

"The Sex Workers show was set up two days before, and the number of people we had there was simply because of e-mails," he says. "And that show was very, very crowded."

"God, I would say that 75 percent of the shows we have down in The Basement, the attendance is based on e-mail more than anything," Koelle interjects.

What's just as frustrating as the lack of built-in crowds is the lack of available and affordable space in Durham. There are plenty of old warehouses in the downtown area, but the recent development of several of these buildings into upscale "lofts" has raised property values, making it difficult for Jordan and Koelle to find a space in all the empty buildings in town.

"There are really good artists, really good musicians--a lot of really motivated people around here, and if there were some property owners around here that are sitting on these properties, waiting for something to happen ... somebody should make that available to local artists and musicians, people like myself and Jason who have the equipment and the know-how to operate this stuff," Koelle opines.

These guys are sacrificing much of their everyday lives working toward a solution to this issue. There are no grants, there are no trust-fund benefactors, and there isn't an army of hands helping put up fliers or looking for a new space. At the same time, don't expect to see either of these two dragging a giant wooden cross around town.

"I'm spending a lot less time now than I was about a year ago," Jordan says. "When I first started, those first months, I would spend hours just walking around everywhere putting up fliers. And you know, it was time well spent, because it got people into the club."

"I work two jobs, and I'm spending basically all my free time to make sure that my initial investment doesn't fail," says Koelle. "For a while I spent hours and hours driving around Durham and talking to people to find out who owned this building or who owned that building."

For now, in addition to looking for a place to install Koelle's sound system and putting out local 7-inch records, the duo is working toward booking a big show at the Starlite Drive-In sometime this spring. They hope to have between six and eight bands, with a DJ between sets and films running behind the bands on the drive-in screen as they play.

What strikes me most about these two is that they don't give a fuck about making a lot of money for themselves off booking shows, and they aren't looking to replicate some sort of template "scene" based on the social pseudo-trends of surrounding infrastructures. They're genuinely concerned with their community. No one invests this much of themselves, especially when they already have one business to attend to, unless they really want to. Jordan and Koelle are working for untold numbers of Durham residents and musicians who lived in the shadow of other towns for years.

I've pontificated with plenty of other Durham residents for years on "why people don't come to Durham" and other self-pitying bullshit, but Koelle and Jordan are actually hitting the pavement and doing something about it. It's up to the rest of the Triangle to help it happen, because the youth of this area need something worth sneaking out of their houses for, shows that will possibly change the way they see music or the world or themselves. Those kind of events are real and important, but they require a huge amount of sacrifice on somebody's part, somebody who will probably go unappreciated by the people they're doing it for. But that's just the price one pays.

"There's space available, there's buildings available ... there's a lot that can happen here," Koelle states. "The question is, will people continue to complain about Durham as a city or will they get up and do something?" EndBlock

If you want to help these two, and help Durham as a result, contact them at 286-1104.

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