It's approaching midnight on a Thursday evening, and Raleigh's largest rock club teems with neon-clad 20-somethings. Huge balloons bounce from outstretched hands. Clouds of multicolored confetti blast from side-stage cannons. Hip kids with modified leaf blowers shoot streams of toilet paper into the air.
The scene's soundtrack is a manic collage of popular music samples, with iconic rock riffs finding new life as the fuel for filthy-fun rap verses. Shirtless and drenched, a wiry white dude jumps to the top of the DJ booth and pleads for the crowd to become even more energetic. Somehow, they manage it, dancing and shouting like it's all they know how to do.
But overhead, a faded sign glows resiliently: "The Longbranch is QDR country," it proclaims, marking the scene with the emblem of the Triangle's longstanding country radio station. For anyone looking at the near-capacity crowd from the back of the house, it's an ironic, anachronistic image, with the cool kids freaking out to monster beats in an environment once meant for suburban cowboys. Indeed, for 26 years, the Longbranch served as Raleigh's country music headquarters. But a slumping economy and fierce competition drove the venue into bankruptcy. Reopened for almost three years, the Longbranch is now a very different place.
Justin Helms, one of the Longbranch's four owners, sits in front of the desk that belongs to Dan Wood, another co-owner and the club's general manager. A painting of country legends centered around Garth Brooks hangs on the wall behind Helms, a reminder of the history the partners have inherited.
"We wanted to keep it traditional, but at the same time, we didn't want it to be so stereotyped," explains Helms. "I hope we're keeping the tradition alive of the Longbranch that she's always been, but at the same time making that new twist, hopefully putting her in the direction she should be going for the new era."
The performer at that recent Thursday melee was Girl Talk, the pop culture-condensing artist who has become popular for the knee-jerk enthusiasm of his reanimated reconstructions. He joined a growing list of celebrated electronic acts who have stopped at the Longbranch in the last three years. Mainstream dubstep ambassador Skrillex, world-renowned EDM (electronic dance music) DJ Paul van Dyk and Dutch house icon Tiësto have all hit the space since its reopening, earning the Longbranch a reputation for big-name electronica far removed from the club's country roots. For the venue's owners, it's a welcome consequence of the open environment they have been working to create.
With a capacity of 3,500, the Longbranch sits just inside the I-440 beltline off Wake Forest Road, around the bend from Raleigh's other sizable rock club, The Ritz. The one-story building has multiple entrances along the front, creating a camouflage that makes it blend in with the strip malls and car dealerships surrounding it. The space is divided into multiple rooms, long utilized to satisfy disparate crowds. The two largest divisions—the cavernous main concert hall and a smaller dance club—have customarily housed country and Top 40 nights, allowing the Longbranch to simultaneously satisfy its two biggest markets. But the boon of the venue's early days was the country programming, which attracted fans from Raleigh and its hinterlands to drink, dance and socialize.
"The way the Longbranch really got started was the Urban Cowboy movie," Wood recalls. The club opened in 1982, two years after the premiere of the John Travolta movie about a handsome and dispossessed cowboy. Wood has worked at the Longbranch on and off since 1985. "Back then, everybody started jumping in. We used to call them 'drugstore cowboys.' You had doctors and lawyers and people you wouldn't even think would wear cowboy boots and cowboy outfits, but all the sudden country music got bigtime. And I feel like that's one of the reasons that the Longbranch got going so good, because we were the only place around here that had country music. We started booking bigger bands. For a few years there, we did real good."
Indeed, in its prime, the Longbranch served as a key venue on the national country scene, an early stop for more than a few future superstars. Keith Urban, the Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw all played there. Garth Brooks has appeared at the venue three times; Wood proudly says that his first appearance only cost the club $2,500. This history is commemorated with a daunting display of signed headshots, one of the first things you'll see after wandering through the front door.
That hard-won success started to dissipate in the new millennium. Other country bars that had caught on to the Longbranch's game opened up in the areas surrounding Raleigh. Confronted with a faltering economy and a shrinking customer base, the venue declared bankruptcy in 2008 and closed a few months later.
"A lot of our people came from out of town," Wood says. "We were the only big country club that played national acts. We played bands every weekend. We just got well-known for it, and it was where everybody wanted to go. I think everybody jumped on the bandwagon, and they decided to open up their own country club. Next thing you know, they're all over the place."
Helms formed a coalition of partners, hoping to keep the Longbranch open. They spent about $150,000 updating the aging space. After re-opening near the end of 2009, they've avoided any singular focus, the trap that eventually ensnared their predecessors. Their mission is to keep the Longbranch accepting of any and all events that can get people through the door. So far, they've lived up to that creed quite well: In addition to the country bands and electronic music, the venue hosts big-name hip-hop acts, mixed martial arts and boxing. They match the facility's multiple rooms with a truly multipurpose approach.
"There's not enough market for three or four nights of the same Longbranch any longer," explains Christian Elmore, another of the four partners, by phone. These days, the Longbranch reserves Saturday night for its double-headed country and mainstream approach. The rest of the week goes to promoters with any event that is likely to fill the space.
"If we were to do our Saturday night set-up [on Thursday night], we just wouldn't draw the crowds that we do with a concert," Elmore says. "It kind of pushes our country crowd and our dance club crowd to Saturday, so we have a bigger Saturday. Instead of spreading them out over a few mediocre nights, we have a good Saturday, and then we have the rest of the week available to do concerts that draw from different pools. We wouldn't be able to do EDM every night because people wouldn't come out to see EDM Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. They'll come out one night a week. We'll give them one night a week."
Keying on a national trend ushered in by mainstream crossovers like Skrillex and Girl Talk, the new Longbranch has embraced the resurgence of electronic music in America from the start. By giving it an unlikely and spacious new home, the club expanded the options and opportunities for local electronic promoters looking to bring the genre's headliners to town.
"They're really open-minded about bringing [electronic music] to their venue," says Lawrence Anthony. His iGroov organization has been pushing EDM in North Carolina since 2001. He's booked a few shows at the Longbranch, including Friday's Bounce Music Festival, an internationally touring electronic showcase entering its second year. "Hopefully, Raleigh can start seeing more EDM shows and more talent. You listen to Pulse 102 FM. It's classified as Top 40, but their sound is pretty much electro-house. And that's been around for years. I think Raleigh's growing when it comes to electronic music."
Headlined by the popular Swedish DJ Alesso, Bounce will add another big-deal electronic show to the Longbranch's growing résumé. This consistent influx of artists with reliably large draws is key to the venue's success. With its large capacity, the room sits in the uneasy but potentially fertile middle ground between smaller rooms like The Ritz and Carrboro's Cat's Cradle and bigger venues like the Red Hat Amphitheater or even PNC Arena. Filling the space means leaning on nationally prominent acts, making events like Bounce and the Cat's Cradle-presented Girl Talk a vital part of the Longbranch business plan.
"We had a fairly successful day at the Longbranch in our one visit there so far with the Girl Talk show," Cat's Cradle owner Frank Heath offers. "Longbranch, with its multiple rooms, allows flexibility to sell more tickets for dance-type events than we would be able to at Disco Rodeo or any of the seated venues in the area."
As is, the Longbranch depends on prominent promoters like the Cradle to help fill its schedule. Wood has a wealth of experience when it comes to operating the space, but his expertise with booking doesn't really extend beyond country and rock 'n' roll. Helms and Elmore make their livings as a mason and a mechanical engineer, respectively; they are learning as they go.
"It was a learning curve," Helms says. "We were taking the initiative to step out of the country box, but we also wanted to keep a good crowd and a safe environment. In order to do that, we had to learn good promoters, bad promoters. And then we had to find promoters. A lot of promoters didn't know we would allow that, and we didn't know where to go get 'em. That has been a work in progress."
The Longbranch's owners are constantly looking to expand their reach: Wood talks of reinvigorating their rock 'n' roll bookings. Helms jokes about recruiting Evel Knievel for a stunt. They're excited about the possibilities and proud to be pushing the venue's legacy into new areas. In Helms' case, he gets an added benefit: insight into the obsessions of his teenage son.
"I'm 46 years old, and when my 19-year-old son comes up to me talking about these shows, I already know about it," he says, laughing. "I'm like, 'Yeah, I've got Girl Talk coming. Yeah, I know about Girl Talk. I know about Tiësto.' Take me three years ago, if he'd said that, I'd have made him stay at home because I wouldn't have known what the hell he was talking about. It's kind of cool. Dad's still cool."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fresh branches."