From the smell of the cool air seeping between the two mammoth glass doors that mark the city-chic entrance of Martin Street Music Hall, one would suppose that the spot was already legendary. It's that day-old smoked cigarette and spilt beer smell, the one that lingers in a rock club even when it's empty and all the patrons have gone home.
But Martin Street isn't the stuff of Raleigh legend yet. In fact, the smell that reigns in the club on a Saturday afternoon is left over from the club's second only show since a massive overhaul led by a handful of local music veterans looking to boost the Raleigh rock circuit by making Martin Street the area's first comprehensive venue.
"There's no place here where a band comes in, loads in, lounges here, eats here, showers here and stays here until the show starts. That's what this will be," says Rob Farris, the longtime Raleigh keyboard player and producer who handled the club's redesign and will stay on as its booking agent and production manager. "It's modeled a bit after The 9:30 Club paradigm, where you can't really afford to just have a band walking down the streets or getting stuck in traffic before the gig."
In mid-May, turning the concept into reality led to a sleepless week for Farris, club owner Chris Binder and a handful of others. Binder, the owner of the downtown Five Star Restaurant, had talked with Farris for weeks about redesigning the three-story space, a former McCrory Department Store decades ago. More recently it was the multi-level Retail Bar. Binder finally decided to go forward with the plans, and that Monday he and Farris headed to D.C. to buy a top-of-the-line, brand-new Midas 32-channel mixing board.
"Chris told me, basically, to just think about all the places I had played and gone and what made them cool when I was playing there," says Farris, who spent years touring the country in The Backsliders and Kenny Roby's New Electric Combo. "He told me to use that experience to make his place a cool place."
A day later, Farris, Five Star employee Alec Barrows and Patty Hurst Shifter members Marc Smith and Skillet Gilmore were busy ripping the temporary, head-on stage out of the club and rebuilding it so that it juts into the room some 25 feet at an angle. The existing speaker assembly was taken down, and Farris--an engineering autodidact--designed hangers out of simple hardware from a nearby Lowe's to accommodate the massive speakers strung above the stage.
Farris dialed in the speakers on the spot using a real-time analysis system, tweaking their positions from a ladder in order to cover the entire room, a long rectangle painted red with a bar awkwardly running the length of one wall.
The crew worked 15 hours without pause on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, returning on Friday to put the finishing touches on the room before Gilmore and Smith played their final show with bassist Johny Williams in Patty Hurst Shifter that night. The work stopped at showtime. Farris ran the new sound system for the first time, and Barrows--who still bounces across the room as he demonstrates the club's attention to detail--ran the light system he designed himself.
"I finally got out of here at 3:30 that morning. I was exhausted," says Farris, smiling as he scans the room and considers what it was less than two weeks before. "We all slept pretty much the entire weekend...or at least I did."
Martin Street, whose logo of a giant New York subway "M" emblazoned in a yellow circle is any marketer's dream, seems set to become a fixture on the regional circuit. Already, Farris is calling friends he met in his years on the road, asking them to come play his club. He suggests that the club will fill the hole left behind by the changed Brewery and the musically defunct Humble Pie: namely, the rock bands and alt.country standbys through which Farris made a career will have a new home. His hope, he says, is to make the club a stop for marquee national touring bands making the trip from Washington to Atlanta. And he feels that it will quickly become a favorite date for any band that plays there--from the top flight sound system right down to the mellow basement bar with its exposed joists and private booths.
Farris rejects the notion that the new club will overcrowd the market.
"Raleigh's been underdeveloped for years with this kind of club. I believe that the more the downtown area is opened up...it is directly proportional to the number of people that will actually come out for the first time," Farris says. "To suggest that there are too many rooms here is silly. If anything, maybe there will be some booking competition around here, and we can get some decent touring bands into this city."