It was 2005 and Andy Bothwell, better known as Astronautalis was playing to a crowd of about 10 people at the Milestone — the staff, the opening bands and me and my husband. We were there because Andy and I share a hometown and I'd seen him open a show there the year before when he straight murdered a freestyle.
For most musicians, this would be a soul-sucking event — with the exception of two people, the audience was comprised of people obligated to be there. I've seen it happen on other occasions and normally the act either doesn't bother to perform, or their performance is devoid of energy and motivation. Alone onstage with only his iPod to back him up, he unabashedly threw himself into a raw, rip-your-own-heart-out-and-show-it-to-everyone performance. The emotion he left in the air was thicker than the cigarette smoke the venue was infamous for back then. He cracked self-deprecating jokes in between for relief. He not only won 10 dedicated fans that night, he won 10 influential advocates who played his music for all who would listen.
Astronautalis returned to the Milestone a year later; his audience had tripled. By 2006, when he returned in support of his album, Pomegranate, the venue was packed and the crowd knew every word to his newly-released songs. He was visibly moved. Bothwell later said it was the first time he'd ever looked into a crowd and seen everyone singing along to his songs. His fan base here in Charlotte became so dedicated that when he toured as the opening act for Flobots, they demanded an encore with no regard whatsoever for the headliners. (He very graciously declined.)
I've seen him perform in other venues. For me, he's the kind of performer that, no matter how many times you see him, you travel to his show if he comes anywhere in your region. But nowhere else I've seen him quite measured up to seeing him at the Milestone. Bothwell agrees.
"You know, it's universally agreed upon fact that coming back to the Milestone is one of the highlights of the tour," he says. "I like to say it's my favorite dive bar in the world, and I say it often. There's many other venues I love for different reasons, but ultimately the Milestone is the Milestone. It's the ghetto fortress, there's nothing like it in the world and I mean that sincerely."
Bothwell can speak with confidence about the rest of the world. He has toured much of it over the last decade. So much, in fact, that he has a sponsorship from a travel guide publisher.
Despite his exposure to many cultures, his Southern roots can be heard loud and clear in his music. It has the unmistakable soul and that detailed storytelling that pairs just as well with whiskey and backyard bonfires as it does with the live band he now tours with. He says moving away made him appreciate the South more.
"I think people have a very binary view of the South," Bothwell says. "They just think it's backwards and disgusting to them or they have an idealized, romantic notion about it. In fact, the South is a very complex, magic and beautiful place."
He describes his forthcoming new record as his ode to the South. "It's a love letter," he says. "A dark and weird love letter, but I feel it's an appropriate one. The way you love the South is the way you love that drunken lover that you're constantly fighting with, but then making up and having the most passionate sex."
Another relationship Bothwell had that was once troubled was with music, surprisingly. "I was in a rut and really close to burning out," he says. "I was touring too much and too obsessive with my career and music. I was starting to hate it. I could feel in five years if I kept going like that, I was going to walk away."
But that all changed the day he got a motorcycle delivered to him by Harley-Davidson after he was chosen to participate in their Taste of Freedom campaign because, as he says they put it, "'You're really interesting on the Internet and you're a nice guy.'" He named it Trina after the female rap star who calls herself "the baddest bitch" and he credits it with saving his career.
"The motorcycle gave me a hobby," Bothwell says. "When I'm on the bike, I can't do anything but ride. Before, everything I read was research about my music. All the music I listened to made me think about my music. My personal life was all about my music. The motorcycle broke things up and those breaks have become a really amazing therapy for me. I really can't explain how much happier I am since I got it."
Some of his favorite spots to ride are in North Carolina, such as the famed Tail of the Dragon and Cherohala Skyway, but he says, "Discovering a new road is always the best road."
Despite the many new roads that have come into his life since that first show in 2005, he's always found his way back to Charlotte. He performs Saturday night at the Milestone.