In early February, I was sitting at the bar of the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, the second-largest rock club in the Triangle, waiting on the California metal band High on Fire to take the stage. The place was mostly empty, but, through the Cradle's main room, I saw Paul Siler and Craig Tilley of Birds of Avalon headed my way.
I don't see Paul and Craig as much as I once did for several reasons, but most important, I left Five Points in Raleigh for a little, blue house in Old North Durham last May.
Paul and Craig were there to see Saviours, whose guitarist also plays in Drunk Horse, Birds of Avalon's longtime tourmates. As Paul and Craig talked to their old friend, they admitted they'd forgotten about the show until only a few hours before. "I just don't pay attention to shows in Chapel Hill anymore," Siler said. Tilley agreed. After Saviours played, the pair immediately drove 25 miles back into Raleigh, worried they'd get caught in highway traffic or packed streets after a Duke-Carolina basketball game.
This is an extreme example. Paul and Craig have seen more than their share of shows, and driving to Chapel Hill should be low on their list when they're home from touring. But the lesson stands: The geographical disconnect between the points of the Triangle (of which there are more than three) and the lack of easy transportation help define how music works here.
We interact musically when we have to, mostly when a big touring band comes through one town or the other. More often, bands pull from their own corner for their members, and local bands with a draw in Chapel Hill likely fare poorly in Raleigh, and vice versa. In Durham, we go to shows most of the time simply because we're happy to have them.
The Triangle and its hinterlands claim more than 1 million people, and the number continues to climb. But traveling from one end of the region—say, Pittsboro—to hear or play music in another distant region—say, Volume 11 Tavern, which sits on the edge of Garner and Raleigh—takes at least 40 minutes.
Take Ross Grady, the compendium of local rock music who DJs at WXDU, wrote about music for the Independent Weekly and News & Observer in the '90s, and maintains Triangle Rock (www.trianglerock.com). Ross now lives north of Pittsboro, a straight shot east on U.S. Highway 64 to Raleigh. If he wants to see a show at Volume 11, he would leave home just after 8 p.m. and return sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. Round trip: 110 minutes, 80 miles. Grady has never been to Volume 11 Tavern. If he could get to the club in 20 minutes, he says he would have been to it several times.
The solution—reliable mass transit operating across the Triangle around the clock—is as obvious as it proves impossible. And the small subsets of music in the Triangle work fine on their own, thank you very much. But the implications of more people in that million-plus moving across an area finally united as a region could be huge: From the imaginary (Would a Chapel Hill musician hop on a rail after a late practice in Raleigh instead of having to worry about driving back with beers under the belt?) to the idealistic (Could the Triangle support a 1,500-capacity rock club, like the one in Asheville that keeps swiping shows from the area, and would someone finally be willing to build it?), could we act as a city, building better scenes and clubs with increased audiences and interactions? Affirmatives to any of those inquiries would be welcome. But until the "from there to here" gets a little bit easier, don't count on any of it.