A line of freezing but anxious concertgoers snakes down the sidewalk of Cabarrus Street on an exceptionally cold Saturday night. They are all waiting to enter the Lincoln Theatre to see The Derek Trucks Band, a well-known nationally touring jam band. Unfortunately for some, the venue will reach its capacity and turn away those who came late. Owners Pat Dickensen and Mark Thompson are working behind the bar on this evening, and correctly anticipate a sold-out show. This kind of night is progressively becoming more of an occurrence for one of downtown Raleigh's best places to see live music.
For its size, which is relatively smaller and more intimate than the Ritz, holding approximately 500 to 600 people, it can't be beat in Raleigh. The Lincoln Theatre's sound system alone is attracting musicians from all over. Dickensen says they have focused most of their financial efforts on creating a superior sounding venue for that exact purpose. Unlike many live music venues, the Lincoln Theatre does not need a full room to get good sound. "Acoustically, the room is close to perfect," he says. "We want bands to love playing here."
The Lincoln, formerly a banquet hall for several decades, opened its doors to the public on Feb. 1, 2001. Dickensen and Thompson, who have owned the booking agency Ultimate Entertainment for 10 years, felt there was a void in Raleigh for venues this size. Although they had built relationships with bands and other agents over the years, both owners agree that it took two years to fully integrate and make a name in the industry. The Lincoln Theatre started with local bands. Bolweevil was the first band to ever grace the stage. Now, with music being offered at least three nights a week, the acts vary from local bands to big national acts like Queens of the Stone Age. Popular tribute bands, like The Wall and Appetite for Destruction are also frequent fixtures on their lineup. Dickensen feels these work well because fans don't get to see the real thing like that anymore, and tribute bands come as close as possible.
Choosing bands to play at the venue is done on a case-by-case basis, according to Thompson. "We try to be diverse, but it is a business," he says. "Lots of bands play here that I don't particularly like at all, but people want to see them." When local bands/agents approach Thompson and Dickensen to perform at the Lincoln, the main things taken into consideration are the size of following the band has, and obviously how talented they are.
Sometimes, though, a band or performer will have potential for development. These bands will start in the opening slot of a more established act. Depending on how the crowd reacts, these performers can go on to be local headliners. Recent examples would be blues guitarist Justin Fox and the Catfish Lane, who opened for The Wall, and Squeezetoy, who opened for 2 Skinnee J's. "It's fun to watch their crowd grow," Thompson says, "and also the band. The more they get to play the better they get."
The Lincoln Theatre pays local openers $100 per show, while local headliners get a percentage of the door. Dickensen and Thompson feel that this policy keeps bands motivated to promote and put on a good show. National acts, on the other hand, get a guaranteed flat rate usually of several thousand dollars. The Derek Trucks Band, for example, made $4,000. For this sold-out show, it was a win-win situation, though many nights it is a gamble.
"You don't make big money at a club like this, it is more about the love of music," Dickensen says.
To help attract national bands, they book shows back to back at Mars in Wilmington, where they also do concert promotion. This way, a band can cover ground more easily.
Now, one might wonder how a large act like Queens of the Stone Age would play at the Lincoln Theatre rather than The Ritz, where it could hold more people. In this case, Thompson says, a band coming into an uncertain area such as Raleigh would rather sell out a smaller venue than have a larger venue unfilled. Also, The Ritz is merely a shell of a building, and would require a PA system and security. For promoters, it is much cheaper to go to the Lincoln, where that is already taken care of.
The venue is currently undergoing some revamping, and a balcony is in the process of being built. This will not only increase capacities, but also add more of a hangout atmosphere, Dickensen says. For the two owners, who just bought out from their lease last year, the addition will be a good investment. The balcony will also open the Lincoln up to bigger shows that might have gone to The Ritz, Thompson says, or might not have come to Raleigh at all.
Although the Lincoln is in close vicinity to other music venues, the owners do not consider them significant competition. The legendary Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill and Ziggy's in Winston-Salem, which are both of similar size and draw the same caliber acts, are the places Dickensen and Thompson feel they are up against.
Thompson says often the three venues will get into bidding wars for certain bands, but try to avoid it as much as possible. He tries to keep friendly with the other owners and talk to them on a regular basis to find out what's going on and who they are booking. The Cradle caters to a different market and Chapel Hill, which is known as the hotbed for music in North Carolina, isn't really comparable. Thompson does believe that the Raleigh scene is getting better, but it comes and goes in waves. Raleigh has a bigger population than Chapel Hill, but again, the music scene is more embraced there.
Just two blocks away from the Lincoln Theatre stands the Pour House. While The Derek Trucks Band jams away at the Lincoln, Atlanta-based Mandorico takes the stage at the Pour House and gives the packed bar an energetic taste of Latin, ska, reggae and hard rock.
The crowd has almost reached its capacity of 300. The first time this band played at the Pour House they brought in only 25 people, but gradually built a following. All bands that contact owner Eric Mullen to play his venue typically start on off-nights, which are Monday through Wednesday. If they keep up strong efforts with promoting themselves in the area and get people in the door, Mullen will give them a Thursday night and all of the money made at the door. "If they bust their ass and stick with it, it pays off," he says. Door profit and bar profit are two separate entities, according to Mullen; the latter is the only one that really concerns him.
The Pour House has been around since July 1998, but started out as a bar only. One of his customers, a member of the local band Drifting Through, suggested that they play there. After seeing the potential, Mullen made the Pour House a place to see music on a regular basis. Currently, there are 150 bands on his roster that have already proved they can draw a crowd. Mullen can guarantee a live show every night until graduation.
Mullen prides himself on the way he treats the bands that walk into the Pour House. "Every band that leaves here is happy, and that word gets around," he says.
Mullen receives 50 to 100 e-mails a day from hopeful performers, but through the years, he has been able to become more exclusive. He keeps within the genre of jam bands, which includes bluegrass, some rock, reggae, and electronic/jazz fusion. Mullen himself proudly calls the Pour House a "hippie jam band bar." "I've just found my niche and have stuck with it," he says. "I have no complaints." He tries to avoid unprofitable nights by staying on top of his research, seeking out the up and coming bands. The owners of both the Lincoln Theatre and Pour House agree that jam bands have the most potential right now. These days most bands that outgrow the Pour House move up to the Lincoln as a general rule, but Mullen says that the Lincoln did not respect that at first. For a while they were booking Pour House regulars that would bring in 100 people, he says. That is decent business for Mullen, but not much of anything for the Lincoln. "We are the jam band bar--you cannot just take my bands." Communication between them has gotten better, and they try not to have conflicting shows. Dickensen and Thompson also currently rent out the PA system in the Pour House.
Mullen has a lot of confidence in his venue, and would now gladly compete with the Lincoln. "I have a lot of loyal customers and lower door prices," he says. "It's good to have competition, it makes me work harder." As for similar sized venues like The Brewery, Kings and the Berkeley Café, Mullen feels like each has found their own place in the Raleigh music scene, causing little conflict. "I am lucky to have found my place early on," he says.
Jim Shire, the current night owner of Berkeley Café has been in the Raleigh music scene for quite some time, and has a different take on the current state of the industry. "I think it is going backwards," he says. Shire began at the Lake Boone Country Club, and for eight years booked local and national acts similarly to the Lincoln. After they shut down, he did similar work with Five Points, which is also no longer in existence. Now at Berkeley, Shire is taking a more laidback stance in the music world. "I'm just taking whatever comes to me," he says.