At some point, Kings Barcade became its own punchline.
For almost a decade, the strangely shaped rock club in downtown Raleigh struggled to make the monthly balance sheets go black. From live-action game shows to body-on-body dance parties, from crowded weekend concerts to slimly attended weekday gigs, from Sunday matinee rock shows to midweek film screenings, the staff of the little room on South McDowell Street kept their calendar busy, serving as much as a community space as a concert hall. Sometimes, Raleigh's inchoate "creative class" seemed to exist mostly at Kings; at other times, the co-owners—musicians Ben Barwick, Steve Popson and Paul Siler—wondered if anyone cared at all.
"We used to joke that we should go away for a while," remembers Siler, surrounded by Barwick, Popson and Cheetie Kumar, his cross-stage guitar foil in Birds of Avalon and his wife. They all laugh and spontaneously say the next sentence with him in unison, as if they've had their practice. "People are going to appreciate us when we're gone. Back to The Brewery, folks!"
And then in 2007, Kings disappeared: The landlord sold the space to provide a staging area for a Wake County parking deck a block away from the $221 million Raleigh Convention Center, then a year from opening. Kings announced an ambitious final month of shows that celebrated the music scene they suckled in Raleigh; on the last night, long after last call and Birds of Avalon had wrapped their set, revelers painted on the cinderblocks and pushed their way through the sheetrock walls, starting a job that a demolition crew summarily finished.
But the experience was a galvanizing one for the owners, convincing them anew that at least some of Raleigh cared about what they'd done very much and didn't want it to stop. Barwick had assumed Kings was finished, really, until the crowds in those final weeks proclaimed otherwise.
"I had moved on," he says. "But to see the way people reacted to those last shows, it obviously meant a lot more to people than I thought I did. I knew we had to do this again."
And for three years, they tried. The quartet had big plans for a new space—a restaurant and a separate bar, for instance, that meant they wouldn't depend only on labor-intensive concerts and fickle music audiences to pay (or not pay) the bills. But Kings existed only as a recent memory and an intoxicating idea for the future, because no matter how close they got to signing several leases, they couldn't find a space that matched those visions. After two years, they started to doubt that Kings II was meant to be at all; steadily, that suspicion spread through the bar's former denizens.
Jedidiah Gant, the downtown editor of the website New Raleigh during Kings' absence, remembers torturous teases of a new location: "Almost daily, someone spoke about when Kings would reopen and where, but the owners took their bands on the road. Nothing concrete came except a massive parking deck where the venue once stood."
But on this particular July afternoon, the phone rings at least 15 minutes before it's supposed to: Eugene Chadbourne—the iconoclastic North Carolina composer and improviser—is on the line, and he's outside, waiting for someone to open the door. Tonight will mark Chadbourne's second performance in a five-week Monday residency at Neptune's, the underground bar that Barwick, Kumar, Popson and Siler opened exactly three years ago on West Martin Street.
It was the first phase of a three-business cultural complex that the quartet has painstakingly built since 2010, turning the once-troubled stretch of West Martin Street across from the United States Post Office into one of the city's busiest blocks. In essence, Kings has turned an incredible urban trick: After being shoved out of the way by a city's seemingly manifest destiny, they not only managed to return in any form at all but to be a central part of that city's renewed downtown.
On weekdays, Neptune's doubles as a casual bar for regulars and visitors, while on the weekend, its cramped floor writhes with legions of sweaty dancers as a DJ switches between songs in a corner booth. Two stories up, Kings has again become one of the region's most sought-after rock clubs, hosting concerts four or so nights a week and harboring even more diversity than in the club's previous locations. They recently sold out two nights of a traveling cat circus; during any given week, marquee DJs might play the day before a metal band or a hip-hop group. The sound system and room's acoustics are strong enough that the Raleigh band Whatever Brains, whose guitarist William Evans is a sound engineer at Kings, recorded their most recent album in the space.
And during the last two months, Kumar has slowly unveiled The Garland, a street-level restaurant that serves thoughtful renditions of street food from around the world. Formerly a pizza restaurant, the middle section has required the most renovations. For now, The Garland serves only from a food window (one of the only ones not attached to a fast food chain in downtown Raleigh) for limited hours a few times a week; soon, The Garland will be a full-service, sit-down restaurant with a full staff and menu.
Popson says these new ventures allow Kings to be what it always wanted to be—a community bar combined with a great music venue, where their friends could play—while being more, too.
"We all collectively want our businesses to be part of the community and to reflect the voices of the community, but we had to have other revenue streams to stay open in order to be that space," he says. "We just got offered the chance to do a Moral Monday fundraiser for people with legal fees. Yes, absolutely: We want to be part of the community in that regard, but to do that, we need to sell stuff."
Of the four, Kumar is the only full-time employee of the three-business complex. She agrees with Popson's financial assessment, but in a city that's growing so quickly, she wants Kings to embrace the same upstart aesthetic that attracted her to Raleigh when she arrived in 1991.
"What I really loved about Raleigh when I moved here was this D.I.Y. approach. If the man won't let you do it, fuck it and find a way," she says. "I really hope there's some element of that here."
Meanwhile, in the same corner that was a lascivious dance floor less than 48 hours ago, Chadbourne, a 59-year-old who has been known to play an amplified yard rake, tunes his guitar.
Yes, everyone reckons, there probably is.