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One More For The Road

Charlotte music fans are driven to see their favorite acts

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The other day, suffering from a severe lack of sleep and a bad attitude, I drove up to Asheville to visit that town's newest nightspot, the Orange Peel. The Peel -- continuing an impressive hot streak that has seen recent shows from The Flaming Lips, Gomez and Wilco -- was hosting Stephen Malkmus, formerly of Pavement, and his band the Jicks. As I entered, I noticed a person I recognized from Charlotte, and then another. In fact, it seemed like about a quarter of the audience was from our little burg. The Charlotte contingent was easily noticeable, too, as they were the ones hooting and hollering and basically paying attention like hardcore music fans do when presented with a person whose music they really respect. Some of the same folks were driving to see Malkmus the next night in Chapel Hill at the Cat's Cradle, and then spending yet another night to catch the Cramps there on Sunday. All of them have jobs. All of them would have preferred to just stay at home.

Provided, of course, there was a club with the guts to book the bands they like. We're not talking about really obscure acts here, either. Consider Malkmus and the Lips. Consider also The Supersuckers, and Tomahawk. You say The Fall is touring again, and the Buzzcocks? Really?

Yes indeed, and you can see them coming through your hometown any day now. Provided, of course, that you live in Chapel Hill, Asheville, or even Winston-Salem.

The classic reasoning behind why these shows are passing us by is a familiar one, and true enough -- Chapel Hill's a college town, and Asheville...well, it's Asheville. Of course it is. And Charlotte is Charlotte. To boot, we have several universities in a thirty-mile radius of our city. Did I mention we have a good half-million more people than they do in Chapel Hill and Asheville? Think a few hundred of them might go see one of the above bands if they came through? Lots -- and I do mean lots -- of entertainment dollars leave this city every week, as local folks say they have no option but to look to other cities to fill the musical void.

I asked one prominent local music veteran what he thought of the popular thinking that Charlotte can't draw an audience for Cradle-like booking. His answer -- like the answers of some other would-be patrons we spoke to -- seems to suggest that they aren't buying it.

"I'd say fuck that," says the man, who wanted to remain anonymous. "Like Asheville (pop. 66,700) or Chapel Hill (pop. 48,715) is a better market than Charlotte (pop. 540,828 or 1,544,944 if metro is included). It's chicken-shit booking. They blame the radio. It would be nice to have a decent station here, but I blame the lame-assed promoters. If our promoters had a little backbone, we could develop more support for these shows that pass Charlotte by, and get people in this town familiar with the concept of live music. This would of course help our little candy-assed local "scene.' Live music patrons need to be groomed/created/trained. You can't throw us a "good' show every six months and expect us to show up. It needs to be routine."

"I probably go to about 3-5 shows out of town a year," says Henry Pharr of the band Major Nelson. "Most memorable are the ones who won't come to Charlotte as a major stop, like Wilco two weeks ago at the Orange Peel. I'd say, think small and you will be small," Pharr continues. "I know we don't have the college town atmosphere. However, I find it interesting that our club owners are so willing to shell out the bucks to acts they know will pull the frat/post-frat-not-ready-to-settle-down-group and not take a chance on Stephen Malkmus, the Lips or the Fall, who I saw with 400 people in Raleigh with no publicity -- go figure!"

Others, including some club owners, point the finger at the city itself (as of press time, some club owners had yet to respond).

"The problem is that the majority of the "music public' here is label conscious and content ignorant," says local promoter Richard Mays (The Flyweb, David J), who estimates he goes to see about 20 out-of-town shows a year. "I would say that one of the crippling problems with Charlotte is a lack of a real "alternative' music/college radio station to educate the less than curious masses. There's also the general lack of exploration that typifies a town that is very conservative...This all puts pressure on the booking agents in Charlotte to stick with recognizable names or no name acts (which means low pay) that will return or minimize their financial outlay. So it is difficult to ask a business to sacrifice itself on "fringe' or "specialty' acts for the altruistic reason of educating the ignorant."

Penny Craver of Tremont Music Hall says a college radio station would help matters tremendously, both in educating the public and the band agents who might be looking for an additional North Carolina date.

"One thing that does apply to college radio is that college stations report to CMJ (College Music Journal), and that's an important point to agents when routing. They want to up their band's status on the CMJ charts, and that's not going to happen from a play in Charlotte. It takes an experienced and knowledgeable agent to see that Charlotte is still a viable place to play even though we don't have a college station. I think the heavier-type indie bands draw better in Charlotte than in the Triangle, but the softer indie bands draw better in the Triangle.

"In my opinion, the most important aspect is the difference in attitudes of the people who live in the towns and the general personality of the city," Craver says. "Charlotte is big business, and people go-go-go all the time, not setting aside time for relaxation and fun. It's like some unwritten rule that when you "grow up' -- get a serious job, get married and have kids -- you can't have fun anymore...Asheville and Chapel Hill are more laid back, and, consequently, attract laid back people who enjoy having a life. A lot of them are artisans, and continue to place a value on art even into adulthood. I cannot depend on "adults' to come to shows. I can depend on younger audiences."

"A lot of those bands have agents who want big money on a weekday whether they have played the market before or not," says Bernie Brown of the Visulite Theatre. "I've seen plenty of "big' artists play at various places around town, and not draw half of what they thought they would. I think the indie rock scene the Cradle supports is reflective of the college scene there. I'm not sure if there's half the interest here compared to Carrboro/Chapel Hill. UNCC students don't seem to be as interested in live music as some other colleges."

So there you have it, Charlotte music fans. Depending on whom you ask, the blame lies with promoters, club owners, agents, college kids, and/or old married people. No wonder we keep getting passed over. We live in a town that has made its very reputation on the art of the deal, but musically speaking we can't even agree to disagree. Honk if you like good music.

So what's your take? Is Charlotte still -- as one respondent phrased it -- a cultural desert with no rain on the horizon? Or does the blame lie with local clubs and uninspired booking? To boot, which club-level shows would you most like to see dock here in Charlotte? Send responses to timothy.davis@cln.com, and we may use your responses in a future issue.

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