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In its second year, Raleigh Downtown Live catches up with the '90s


Excitement is free at Raleigh Downtown Live. In fact, you just have to bring the slap bracelets. - PHOTO BY MARK PARIS
  • Photo by Mark Paris
  • Excitement is free at Raleigh Downtown Live. In fact, you just have to bring the slap bracelets.

Giggles and guffaws: After roaming the streets and asking people if they recognize the hit singles from the bands playing the second annual Raleigh Downtown Live series, that--giggles and guffaws--is what one comes to expect.

Responses come with smiles and laughs, all answers simple variations on a concept: "I remember them from middle school"; "Wow, that brings back memories"; "Are they still around?"

Indeed, a horde of '90s B-list acts comprise the lineup of this year's Raleigh Downtown Live, which begins Saturday, May 27 in Moore Square Park. The list reads largely like the tracklist for an elliptical last-decade mixtape. The bands are familiar enough, though naming their tunes or their members is a challenge to all but the most fastidious pop culture fanatic. Acts like Candlebox--a Seattle band that mimicked its geographical grunge predecessors years later to top the charts, now touring for the first time in eight years with original members--headline one show, while '90s funk-strut curios Spin Doctors split the bill with Raleigh's almost-famous The Connells.

Speaking of fame, only one of the bands headlining this year's eight gigs has charted a song this decade--Lit, a California tattooed glam band that managed to peak at No. 10 on Billboard Magazine's Modern Rock Track tally in 2001. Gin Blossoms and Arrested Development haven't released an album in a decade, but others--Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Spin Doctors, Marcy Playground, Jimmie's Chicken Shack--have faded into mere radioland-ephemera status, though they've been releasing albums consistently since their peak.

The potpourri roster of '90s memories in 2006 can be attributed largely to funding, says Raleigh Convention Center assistant director Doug Grissom.

"At the price range we're at, you get people that are new in the industry and going up or you get people that are seasoned and have been around a while," says Grissom. "$1,000,000 for James Taylor? Not gonna happen."

The free series is financed in half by corporate sponsorships (including the Independent), and that budget is used to hire around $30,000 of talent for each show. The cost of security, vendors and promotion is a joint-risk venture between Raleigh management company Deep South Entertainment and the Raleigh Convention Center. If it rains, they lose money.

But Dave Rose and Andy Martin, co-owners of Deep South, a Raleigh artist management company, feel this slate of bands is appropriate for a series so new and in a location like Moore Square, offering a little something for everyone.

"With the mix of artists on the bill--like Arrested Development, Cowboy Mouth, the guy from Rusted Root, Jimmie's Chicken Shack--you may like one of those bands or two of those bands," Martin says. "You may not like any of those bands, but it sounds like a fun day, and it's free, and you know there are going to be people there."

Rose agrees, adding that the biweekly series has become more of a destination for music fans at large than a concert date for fans of a specific band.

"A lot of people this year are saying, 'I'm coming out on May 27. By the way, who's playing?'" says Rose. "Last year, it was definitively, 'Oh, I'm coming to see Naughty by Nature or The Violent Femmes or Better Than Ezra.' It's become a place where people are just going to be accustomed to seeing good music."

Rose also expects the regularity of the series, which now stretches from Memorial Day to Labor Day with a show every two weeks, will attract more people downtown. The series has grown from five to eight dates, though each show still offers nine hours of entertainment from seven bands.

With increased attendance in mind, organizers have been receptive to complaints and limitations from last year, including ironic issues of slow beer access at a Budweiser-sponsored event. Last year's Violent Femmes crowd of 10,000 people even taxed the capacity of the park. As a result, this year's vendors have been pushed toward the street even more, allowing for the increased attendance Rose and Martin hope will make year two a success.

Not that they don't think year one was a success: "You can't expect something as large as this to instantly come out of the box and, boom, be perfect. It was a gradual build from the first show to the last show, and people were starting to figure it out throughout the summer," Martin says.

Grissom adds that any series of this magnitude that makes any money in its first year is a success. Not only did the series make money last year, but--by proving itself--the organizers were able to lure increased sponsorship and present more shows at the same talent level.

"The other success is the downtown story. You bring in thousands of people who otherwise wouldn't be here, and then they dump out into the community and you introduce downtown to a completely different clientele," he says, and adds that success this year will be making more money to roll into more Convention Center programs slated for downtown.

Grissom also says that Raleigh Downtown Live is but the current centerpiece of a package of downtown programs--including the long-running Alive After Five and a new film series--that he hopes will be in place when the new convention center opens.

"By the time the center opens in 2008, we want to have shown people how neat of a place downtown is ... and what any city wants to do is to bring people downtown," says Grissom. "And I think the way to do that is through music."

The series begins Saturday, May 27 at 2 p.m. in Moore Square Park. For more, see www.raleighdowntownlive.com.

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