As far as unsung heroes in the local music scene go, the Carrboro ArtsCenter stands tall. From its humble beginning 25 years ago (the upstairs of what's now the Armadillo Grill), the ArtsCenter has consistently provided a stage for everything from avant-garde jazz to touring international groups. They've survived the gentrification (some would say yuppification) of Carrboro-Chapel Hill without changing their original vision: to bring a diverse and eclectic menu of musical acts to the area.
"I try to find the best possible fit for the room," says Ron Royster, the ArtsCenter's music director. "I ask myself, 'Could these guys be playing anywhere else in town?' And if the answer is no, then I'm like, 'All right.' I want to be an outlet for unusual things."
Of course, it's no cakewalk booking quality acts on a nonprofit's budget. "We have to be distinctive," says Royster. "I mean, we don't get the funding that we used to back in the heyday. We're kind of going into hard times now with the economy and all this weird war stuff."
So the ArtsCenter staff make up for the money crunch by providing extras, such as a homey atmosphere and a new program where volunteers sign up to provide "home-cooked vittles" for touring musicians (no MacFood served here).
Royster, who started his job in July, came up with the homecooking idea. "Hey, if I ever got a chance to feed Bjork, I'd be all over it," Royster says, laughing. "She'd be eating veggie lasagna and getting a foot rub at the same time."
"There's nothing sadder than pulling in for a gig and you're a stranger in town," he continues. "You don't know anybody. But when people come in here, part of the whole ambience is, 'This is your home, and this is your living room for the night.' And man, it really has made a great big difference in the way that they've responded and performed."
Royster mentions that when Steve Forbert recently played the ArtsCenter, one of the singer-songwriter's longtime fans had signed up for the "vittles" duties. "This woman went crazy. She cooked him an eight-course meal, and then had fine china and wine glasses and candlelight. She fed 12 people--the crew and everybody."
Besides bringing in everything from 12-piece Russian folk/dance group Krystall Balalaika to klezmer music, the ArtsCenter has brought in its share of artists who, now living in relative obscurity, have nevertheless played a defining role in our musical history. Case in point: Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitarist for 20-odd years, a dapper 72-year-old who, besides playing with Howlin' Wolf--the bluesman credited for inspiring everyone from Hendrix to The Beatles and The Stones--also backed Muddy Waters.
Backstage pre-show, Sumlin's been testifying about Southern barbecue (he's been a Milwaukee residence for years, so he's ready for some down-home food). Blues supporter Jim Groot, the owner of Red, Hot and Blue, lines up some chicken, ribs, slaw, bread and all the fixin's in the comfortable backstage area. He helps Hubert fix a plate. Sumlin grabs a comfortable chair and digs in.
Sumlin, who's wearing a bomber jacket emblazoned "Levon," shyly explains it was a present from The Band's Levon Helm, who handed it to him during a ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying, "I don't deserve this; you take it." He's wearing the jacket over a double-breasted suit, reminiscing about showing an underage Stevie Ray Vaughan some blues licks backstage at a Texas club. The man is living, walking history, and, at 72, he's not the kind of artist you're probably going to find jumping in a van to do the club circuit. But it's just business as usual for the ArtsCenter, whose shows often combine history--even education--in a way you won't find anywhere else.
On the evening of The Bobs concert, I meet a very excited Melanie See, who, along with her friend and co-Bobs fan Jane Halstrom, has been preparing "Caesar salad, rosemary garlic chicken, chocolate sour cream cake, sweet potato casserole, rice pilaf and green beans" to feed her favorite band. See's even made caramel apples.
Royster says the cooking program is a chance for locals to get involved with musicians, even inviting them into their homes. "I wanted to do two things: I wanted to get more people in the community involved. And I wanted everybody to feel like they have access to the ArtsCenter."
On top of booking shows, Royster's also the guy who gets to plunge the toilets.
"Y'know, for the music program, it's me and the sound guy, Dave Schmidt: Everybody else you see out there is a volunteer." In fact, the Center had to consolidate duties in order to offer him a full-time position: He's music director, operations manager and directs the community-service worker program, which means he assigns work projects to people who've been busted for minor drug violations or DUIs.
"They're human beings that have made a mistake," Royster says. "Before I came, nobody came here as a community-service worker and then came back to volunteer--and now I have seven of them. We're a group here; we treat everybody with respect."
More and more, the ArtsCenter is dependent on "the generosity of people," says Executive Director Colin Bissett. The London native, who took over the position a year ago, explains that ticket sales still have to account for 75 percent of the Center's operating costs, along with monies from the towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, Orange County and various grants and private donations. Bissett says plans are in the works for a new roof ("It leaks," he notes dryly), as well as for new bathrooms and a new AC unit.
And they recently acquired "new" seats when a woman from the North Chatham Arts Council gave them a tip that a Fayetteville theatre was in the process of being torn down. Bissett made the call and was told that they could get the seats--for free--but they had to come get them the next day. So, on a hot October day, he, Royster and a volunteer rented a truck and rescued the seats (dirty from the demolition process) and hauled them back, where they'll be refurbished. Now, Center patrons will enjoy greater comfort and drink holders.
"The emphasis is on satisfying community needs," Bissett says. "We want to become established as the place to go for across-the-board, diverse music."
Soundman Dave Schmidt has added a few touches as well. Schmidt has been behind the ArtsCenter's mixing board for a year, making sure the artists (and audience) enjoy concert-quality sound by rearranging the PA stacks, and adding some dampening (some local women made quilt baffles for the wall), and getting to know the room: "I like a live room," he admits.
The Center has proved to be the perfect venue for shows that require a more intimate, non-club setting, often housing events for outside promoters like the Cradle's Frank Heath (Evan Dando and Neko Case are on the current schedule). They were one of a handful of locations picked to host The Magnetic Fields' special two-night performance where they performed 69 Love Songs in its entirety. Royster is hoping these events will attract younger music fans.
Meanwhile, the ArtsCenter will continue to be much more than just a music venue. "I like the whole cross-pollination thing where people might come in here to see the Steep Canyon Rangers but--wow--while they're in here, they look up on the wall and say, 'I can take a pottery class right here.'"
As for attracting top-shelf talent, Royster hopes that, by making artists feel at home, they'll continue to play the Center. We're hoping they'll go, 'Well, they don't have much money, but man, have they got heart, and when we come here, they know how to love us up real good and they know how to treat us. So I'm gonna go there and play because it's a wonderful place to play.'"