Saturday, August 16, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - Quick Break

Rhythm Alley Redux is taking a quick break - but if you clap real loud, hold your lighters in the air and stomp on the risers, I'm sure you'll enjoy the encore.

Feel free to grab another beer, talk to your friends and listen to whatever weird shit the soundguy is playing in the main room.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - 12 - April 1986

"I can't get no sleep at night, but don't you worry - I'm alright" - Hege V, "House of Tears"

03 - Tuin
04 - New Grass Revival
05 - The Bad Checks
11 - The Right Profile
12 - Gumbo Ya-Ya
17 - The Connells
18 - Fetchin' Bones
19 - Shakin' Sherman and the Blazers
25 - Rohrwaggon with A Number of Things
26 - Party for Gil T
I've talked about the folks that worked directly with us and made the whole thing possible. But there was also an extensive West End community that was part of a wonderful support system, made up of bartenders, dish dogs, chefs, cooks, waits, restaurant owners/managers and other assorted folks, many of whom were also musicians. Tijuana Fats was our home away from club and the bar often functioned as Jeannette's office. I pretty much lived on chile and green cheese enchiladas and huevos revueltos, which we're pretty sure means “revolting eggs” in Spanish (but man they were good!). Jeff (the manager for part of that time) occasionally bartood for us and our friend Pete Rogers and all of the bartenders would send folks over to the club when out-of-towners asked where to go. Meg at the Cave kept us supplied with quarters from the pool tables in the back as we almost always ran out. Pyewacket was just a couple of blocks away and many of the local band folks worked there – it was a great place to send out-of-town bands for some excellent vegetarian fare. And if there was a hot band that played until late, you could usually find Bill Smith (one of the original owners of Cat's Cradle) dancing up a storm in the back.

Tijuana Fats tshirt.jpg
Photo of my last remaining Tijuana Fats t-shirt.  I think I cried a little when the last one (in Blowing Rock) closed a few years ago.

Our relationship with Mama Dip and her family was a little more strained for two reasons.  The back wall of our place was the back wall of Dip’s Country Kitchen in its old location, which wasn’t so bad since most of that back part was actually the kitchen.  But she had an alcove with a large booth in it that was hard by the wall closest to the drum kit.  We tried to work soundchecks around her dinner rush but occasionally a band would be late and that incessant thump-thump-thump of a drummer who insisted on getting his or her kick juuuuuuust right would drive them and their customers crazy.  We also crossed them occasionally when someone unknowingly filled up her dumpster.  There were two dumpsters in back - she had one and we shared one with Tijuana Fats and woe be unto the bartender who tossed a couple of garbage cans full of empties into the wrong one (recycle?  that wasn’t really a thing then). But for the most part we got along fine - I was damn sure going to stay on the good side of a woman that could make chicken and dumplings and ‘nanner puddin’ like she does.

Up until now I've been either lying my ass off or making shit up or relying on an extremely faulty memory, but I finally put on my hat, grabbed my bullwhip, and fought my way through the maze into the back of the storage unit and found our closing sheets. This is good since I lost the pages for June and July out of my booking calendar. It also points out how prejudiced memories can be, as the bands I liked often didn't bring in nearly the audience that I have said they did and some that I didn't care for actually did pretty well (I hereby offer a formal apology to Jack and the Cadillacs, wherever you are)..

That was not the case for Tuin, our first act of April. I do not remember them and I'm guessing no one else does either as the audience was all of half a dozen folks. It is entirely possible that they were completely brilliant but I just don't recall. What I do know though is that no matter how small the audience, every damn band that came into the club played for whoever showed up, even if it was only us. It's pretty incredible if you think about it and a credit to the professionalism that almost every single performer that came into that room exhibited.

Friday night was the complete opposite of the night before, with a return engagement of New Grass Revival. It was a packed house at $7 a head and people were not afraid to drink some beer. My friend Kevin worked the bar with Bryan and Diane and we agreed after the show that NGR was the best rock and roll band we'd ever seen.  And the best gospel band and bluegrass band and country band and you name it.

New Grass Revival publicity photo - with a 12 year old Bela Fleck on the right

Saturday night's show with the Bad Checks was not one of their better-attended shows but I'll guarantee it was a fun night and everybody danced.

No Thursday show the next night, which I'm sure was a nice break. Friday night was the return of Right Profile, who I recall was one of Lex's favorites. And, can it be? Yes, another Dayroom Monitors appearance! I'm starting to think Kenny and co. played the Alley more than anybody else.  They did manage to play every single month from January to June.

I was convinced looking at the calendar that the Gumbo Ya-Ya show Saturday night was really the first time Hege V and the Bijous played, but the closing sheet says I'm wrong. So I'll get to them in a bit. GY-Y always pulled in 80-100 people (not a great crowd, but a pretty good one) and every single person in the audience would have a damn good time.

The next Thursday was another massive Connells show – believe me, I never took those for granted (but I'd forgotten how many times they played on Thursdays). If I say that we had massive beer sales (on a Thursday!) and a huge door, it sounds mercenary, but nights like Tuin meant we HAD to have nights like the Connells. But I wouldn't have booked them if I hadn't liked them and man, did I like those guys! And still do.

Speaking of bands I liked, the Friday night show with Fetchin' Bones and Johnny Quest stands out as the show I remember as being the best single best night of our time at Rhythm Alley. JQ opened up with their incredibly high energy set which Hope and gang tried their best to top (and somehow succeeded). I remember standing in the back by the sound board during the encore when Rob Ladd jumped on stage with a guitar and started shredding along with Aaron and Gary (“All Clocks”, maybe?) and thinking that it was totally impossible for anything to ever be better than that. Or maybe I just made that shit up because it SHOULD have happened. Zingo and Diane worked the bar that night, so if you guys remember, tell me. Or don't.

Saturday night was the return of the Blazers - great music, great fans, great people, great tips!

The last weekend of the month included some unique events.  There is a complicated web of Triangle musicians and the many different bands they’ve played in and who they’ve played with, but I don’t recall any other entity approaching a “supergroup” more than Rohrwaggon.  Take some of the Pressure Boys, throw in some Terminal Mouse, some Veldt, some Johnny Quest and assorted other friends and family and you get the best, most high-energy ska cover band ever.  Dan Sipp make a great video of the Brewery show in Raleigh (the night after ours), much of which is available on Youtube and well worth checking out - the cover of “Free Nelson Mandela” is particularly awesome, as is Ms. Taz Halloween’s lead on “Celebrate the Bullet”.  Some serious skanking was done by all.

Rohrwaggon poster - designed by Stacy Guess (note the Air Jordans)

Saturday night was a farewell party for Gil Templeton, drummer for The Socks and friend of many, before he headed off to Nashville to seek his fortune.  He found it, as an advertising writer as well as a writer for television.  One of the sadder aspects of this project is realizing the number of folks who haven’t made it this far - Gil passed away a few years ago and the world became a smidge less fun.  But on that night, there was much drinking and dancing and a very loud rendition of Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” as we saw Gil off on his way.

It was a short month (partly naturally, with only four weekends) but we also only did a couple of weeknight shows.  That gave us a bit of a rest but wasn’t good for paying the bills.  Most of the bills (rent, sound system rental, insurance, etc) were monthly, regardless of the length of the month or number of shows, so April (and the losses from the Riders shows which hurt a lot more than I initially remembered) put us in a bit of a hole. May’s schedule was a lot busier but we had some serious ground to make up.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - 11 - Open Mic Night

Up until now I've been doing most of the talking - now it's your turn.  I need to take a break for my writing to catch up with my posting (I may be going to every other day) so here's a request to you guys - use the comments to tell your own stories.  What bands did you love?  What bands did you hate?  What was your favorite place to eat before a show?  Where was the best after-party?  And why didn't you tell us then?  The stage is yours...

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - 10 - March 1986

"Talk about fishin', you can't give the fish away, and everybody's lucky" - The Coastal Cohorts, "King Mackerel and the Blues are Running"

01-06 - "King Mackerel and the Blues are Running"
14 - The Phantoms
15 - Bluegrass Experience
17 - Midnight Court
20 - Bullets of Blue
21 - The Woods
22 - Foreign Bodies with the Flat Duo-Jets
23 - Rad-Aid Benefit (with The Connells, Snatches of Pink, Flat Duo-Jets, 1+2, Land of Giants)
25-26 - Riders in the Sky
28 - The Othermothers
29 - The Dayroom Monitors with Leopard Society

It was sometime around here that someone walked in and asked if we knew that the Cradle was closed (or was closing - I don’t remember which).  Many people seemed to think that that was going to be good for us, since it meant we’d somewhat cornered the market for live music in the western part of the Triangle.  First of all, that wasn’t quite true - the ArtsCenter was alive and well, although I thought they ought to be doing more experimental music than they were.  A handful of restaurants in Chapel Hill were doing live music on occasion.  But it was true that with the Cradle gone, there was a big hole.  And contrary to popular belief, we thought that was really bad for Rhythm Alley.  With two clubs only a few hundred yards away from each other and with cover charges usually fairly low, it was not unusual at all for people to go to both clubs in a night, switching back and forth at breaks.  People would also go to one show then duck into the other club for the last couple of tunes and maybe another beer before last call.  It made the whole going out on the West End much more attractive and we did not see DR closing the Cradle as a good thing at all.

For the time being, we were mostly concerned about surviving an 8 night run of King Mackerel.  I don’t mean that to sound negative about the show or the guys in it or the audience - it was just a very, very long run for us and a LOT of nights open that we would normally have been able to get some rest and take care of other things, like life and such.  We’d at least had the sense to not book anything for the weekend following the run, which left us with an odd hole in the schedule but there was no way we were going to do 11 nights without a break.  

I really liked “King Mackerel” - I thought the music was good, I thought the performances were excellent, I thought it did what it tried to do and captured the spirit of the coast of the Carolinas, which is different than any other place on the East Coast.  But by the time the run was over, we were so tired of hearing those songs that years later I’d pull the cassette out just to annoy Jeannette.  Which all makes me wonder how crews for touring bands deal with hearing the same show every night for months.  Gotta respect that.  Now, of course, I’d love to see it again!
I didn’t mind being closed that particular Friday and Saturday as it was the weekend of the ACC Tournament, which was (much more then than now) a state holiday in North Carolina.  With UNC going out in the first round, I’m guessing I spent the rest of the weekend sleeping.

After we rested up, we had the Phantoms back on Friday night.  If anyone knows whatever happened to the guys in that band, please let me know - both of us liked them a lot but I’ve not been able to track them down.

Poster for the Phantoms - I think Jeannette did this one.

That Saturday we were pleased to host the 15th birthday party for Bluegrass Experience.  It seemed like they’d been around forever - now I guess they really have and I understand they still put on a wonderful show.

Poster for Bluegrass Experience - I know this one was one of Jeannette’s

Sometimes I can be a little dense, like when I was looking back at the calendar and trying to figure out why in the hell we did a Monday show with Midnight Court.  It took Jeannette reminding me that that particular Monday was March 17 and that Midnight Court was an Irish band for things to click.  Like I said, dense.

The end of the month was another period when we were open more nights than not.  For any other club that would be great news, but it was tough on me given the Greensboro-based day job.  I pretty much refused to take a night off since that was the only time I was able to be at the club, but I was wearing thin by the end of the month.

Thursday night we brought Bullets of Blue back, an easy show to do from our perspective but it still meant I only got 4-5 hours of sleep before driving to work the next morning.  Friday night was the Woods (no longer Woodpeckers) - our first date with them as a trio.  I have no doubt that once again the guys tried to buy beer from us after hours and once again they were thwarted.

Saturday night we had two of my favorite bands - Foreign Bodies and Flat Duo-Jets.  I’m thinking this was the first show Dex and Crow played for us that wasn’t an all-ages show, which led to some confrontations at the door.  Given a drinking age of 19, we had to be pretty careful about carding and we weren’t well equipped to have unescorted underage patrons.  If you wanted to bring your kids, that was fine, but you had to stay with them (I do remember a couple of parents trying to drop their kids off for that show).

I don’t remember when we were approached about doing a benefit for a grassroots group trying to stop the nearby Shearon Harris nuclear plant from going online.  It was before NC-WARN existed and I no longer remember the name of the organization.  We hadn’t tried to do more than a couple of bands at a time but Matt Matthews, who we knew from working sound for Three Hits, volunteered to come over and stage-manage the changeovers.  I’ve been to a number of shows like that where there is way more time spent changing the stage between sets than there is music being played, but Matt did an incredible job working with the bands beforehand to share equipment and managed the changeovers so well that there was never more than half an hour or so between bands.  There was no lack of volunteers - I don’t remember if Kenny Hobby from the Brewery and I worked out who was going to play which club or if the bands did that themselves, but it worked out well.  With a showcase show like that, it didn’t matter so much where else on the calendar that bands showed up, so Dex ended up playing two nights in a row.  This was our only appearance of Holden Richards’ 1+2 for us - they were one of the bands that really wanted to play and that I should have booked but they just never clicked for me.  Snatches of Pink and the Connells finished out the night.  At some point during the festivities one of the local TV stations sent over a camera crew to interview us (WPTF, probably) - Jeannette made herself scarce so I ended up spouting inanities for the camera that turned into what was probably 6 seconds of airtime.  It was a long, long day/night but it went very smoothly thanks to Matt and the bands.

We only got one night off before doing a rare 2-night stand, with Riders in the Sky.  Jeannette had been a big fan for a long time and had met the guys, while I had only heard a couple of things from them.  By the time they performed for us, they’d developed their show into a more “family friendly” variety show (I can’t tell you how much I hate that phrase), which didn’t help our beer sales at all.  But I enjoyed meeting the guys and talking Nashville with them and the audiences seemed to really enjoy both shows.

Publicity photo for Riders in the Sky

Friday was a complete change of pace, with the Othermothers arriving from Greensboro.  Their “No Place Like Home” EP had come out a few months before and quickly become a favorite of mine, highlighted by “Rodeo (88 Seconds)”, a wonderfully snarky take on the Greensboro Klan/Nazi killings and the subsequent joke of a trial from a few years before.  They were loud, fast and really good.

The last Saturday of the month was the first time Dayroom Monitors headlined, with Leopard Society opening.  I need to pull out the Leopard Society demo tape as they were a favorite of Jeannette’s but I’m having trouble remembering them.  I certainly remember Dayroom Monitors’ jangly power-pop but if you need a refresher, there’s some grainy video on Youtube (not from the Alley unfortunately).

That also might have been the only night that neither Jeannette nor I closed.  Jeannette reminded me that we took our first trip out to the Outer Banks together that Saturday, staying in Manteo for a couple of days at a little place her friend Bill had recommended.  It was the first little break we’d gotten since Christmas and was badly needed.  I imagine it was sort of like the first time you leave your baby with a sitter and we were probably on the phone to Diane and Bryan that night making sure things were going okay, but of course they were and we got a little bit of the real King Mackerel spirit into us.

So February was packed and the March calendar was a bit odd, but crowded.  April’s schedule was looking a bit… sparse.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - 09 - February 1986

"A dozen armed cows runnin' amok in our town" - Terminal Mouse, "Cows From Hell"

01 - Treva Spontaine and the Graphic
07 - The Right Profile w/ the Dayroom Monitors
08 - Jack and the Cadillacs
13 - Terminal Mouse
14 - The Pressure Boys with Flat Stanley
15 - The Accelerators with Leopard Society
20 - Snatches of Pink and Johnny Quest
21 - Shakin' Sherman and the Blazers
22 - Gumbo Ya-Ya
26 - The Connells with Lifeboat
27-28 - "King Mackerel and the Blue are Running"

Going into our fifth month with the Alley, I was still holding down a full-time IT job in Greensboro with no prospects of doing anything different, so Jeannette continued to do most of the hard stuff.  She’d been preparing for this for years, working in clubs, living in the Cat’s Cradle bandhouse for awhile, doing graphics and really studying what it took to run a club.  So while I got to swoop in at night and play the host, she did most of the work.

But while it might seem from the story so far like Jeannette and I did all of this by ourselves, nothing could be further from the truth.  There may have been no employees of Rhythm Alley, but it took a lot of folks to make it work.  One of my biggest regrets is that I never learned to run sound.  Many performers provided their own soundguys but for those that didn’t we had a number of really good folks to call on.  Arch Altman was one, of course, as he owned the sound system.  Mark and Tim Harper, Matt Matthews and others were also really good and we could usually find someone to be available.  But the guy who was most consistent in getting the best sound out of the system, regardless of the style of music, was the Pressure Boys soundmaster, Mike Beard.  Mike bailed us out more times than I can count.

The most important role though was our bartenders, all of whom were volunteers, working for tips and the chance to hear some good music.  There were some folks that had worked for Judy that stuck around, at least for awhile.  There were friends of mine from before the club like Kevin and Lex and there were friends of Jeannette’s.  There were folks that hung around the bar so often we put them to work, like the immaculately dressed Kenneth Bond.  But the stalwarts were Barney Pilgrim, Bryan and Diane.  We simply could not have done it without them.  On a typical night, I’d work the door, we’d have one bartender and Jeannette would float (she’d usually have been there since early afternoon cleaning up, stocking the coolers, checking on load-in and soundcheck, etc).  During the show she would tend bar during the breaks and other times it got busy or while one of the bartenders gave me a break at the door, keep an eye on the room, restock the beer chests, change kegs, make sure the band got paid and generally ensure things went smoothly.  On a really busy night, like a Connells or Pressure Boys show, we might have two bartenders plus the two of us.  We trusted the folks behind the bar to cut patrons off that needed cutting off, whether they were obviously drunk or just being obnoxious assholes.  And they knew they could trust us to have their backs.  If an unruly customer tried to appeal to a higher power (i.e. “the manager”) we never failed to back the bartender that they were unhappy with.   It made for a much more pleasant bar!

February started at the end of the weekend with an appearance by Treva Spontaine and the Graphic.  They were yet another band that had a cut on the More Mondo compilation (I’ll have to actually talk about the comps at some point) and had at least one album out on local Dolphin Records.  Treva’s excellent voice and Brad Newell’s guitar playing made for some really good power pop.

The first full weekend of February we featured The Right Profile with the Dayroom Monitors.  I only now realized how often the Dayroom Monitors played the Alley that year (they’d opened for Three Hits just a couple of weeks before).  The Right Profile was led by future Freakonomics co-author Steve Dubner, who doubled at the time as the rock reviewer for the Triad Spectator.

The Right Proflie single_a.jpg
The Right Profile single sleeve

Before the Interwebs, weeklies like the Triad and Triangle Spectator were the main source of advertising for clubs (other than flyers) and the music critics that wrote for them were relatively influential (but never nearly as influential as they wanted to think, I’m fairly sure).  In addition to Dubner writing for the Triad paper, Rick Miller (the PHux one, not the SCOTS one - always have to be clear) and Jonathan Mudd were the main writers for the Triangle Spectator.  Before we were done, Fred Mills and Parke Puterbaugh were writing about the local scene before both went on to national prominence.  The “Chapel Hill scene” had been getting some national attention for awhile, although some of the bands were more properly from the Triad or Charlotte and you really had to stretch Chapel Hill to include Raleighwood.  Godfrey Cheshire’s door-to-European-door sales job with “Greetings to Comboland” had brought some well-deserved international attention and a number of record deals with European labels for NC bands.  It was damn cool time and place to be doing what we were doing and I was trying to create our schedule in a way that would help us and the bands take advantage of the hype.

All of that being said, somehow Jack and the Cadillacs ended up on the calendar again.  Couldn’t tell you why.

Valentine’s weekend started out with Terminal Mouse on Thursday (have I mentioned that we really liked those guys?) and the Pressure Boys on Friday for Valentine’s Day (can’t you feel the love?).  Saturday we did our first date with The Accelerators.  Gerald Duncan’s band had been around for a couple of years by then, recording at least one Don Dixon-produced album and a really nice cover of “Blue Christmas” that I still play during the holidays.  Good, solid rock and roll.

You know, I’m looking at this schedule again and thinking that this might have been my favorite month!

Thursday the 20th was a double-bill with Snatches of Pink and Johnny Quest, which worked well since they both had catalogs of short, very fast songs - tough to put together a whole night with just one of them.  Johnny Quest was one of the bands that I’d made it out to see a number of times before we bought the club and were one of the only bands I’d bother to drive over to Raleigh to see (including a memorable show with the Pressure Boys at the old Culture Club on Morgan Street).  They hadn’t quite built up the following then that they were to get within a few years but I think we got a pretty good turnout for both of them together.

The Blazers and a second round of Gumbo Ya-Ya rounded out the weekend.  Sherman Tate and Hege were both born to be front men - different styles but both had a great command of the audience.  That’s what I call one big fun party weekend!

While we were doing these terrific shows, we were also preparing to host another run of “King Mackerel”, this one to be an 8 night run, from Thursday through Thursday.  Before then we had one more big show to do, which I recall ticked off Bland as he really, really wanted to be able to set up the stage for the show before opening day.  But, hey... the Connells!

I’ve said before that the Connells could sell out the Alley on a weeknight in a snowstorm with a home Carolina game going on.  That’s because they sold out the Alley on a weeknight in a snowstorm on the night of a home Carolina game.  It was a Wednesday night, UNC was playing on campus, it was cold and spitting snow and the house was packed.  Unfortunately, the opening band (Lifeboat) was trying to get to town after a gig in Maryland or somewhere the night before and of course the snow was worse north of us.  Mike insisted that they wanted to wait for Lifeboat so we had a full house on a school night and it was 10:00, 10:30, 11:00 and finally Lifeboat made it to the club and went straight to the stage.  I don’t remember whether last call during the week back then was 1am or 2 but I’m pretty sure the show went well past last call and was one of those nights where we were pulling beers out of people’s hands and shoving them out the door by the time it was over.

I did try to vary the types of music a little more after that but when I look back on why I wanted to be a rock club owner, February 1986 was it.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - 08 - January 1986

"All he wanted to do was fill the empty spaces" - The Pressure Boys, "Around the World"

04 - Bluegrass Experience
09 - Gumbo Ya-Ya
10 - Fetchin' Bones with Snatches of Pink
11 - Blast Crisis
15 - Marti Jones and Don Dixon
16 - Glenn Phillips
17 - Killer Whales
18 - The Bad Checks with Foreign Bodies
23 - Bullets of Blue
24 - The Phantoms
25 - Three Hits with the Dayroom Monitors
31 - Rod Dash

Calendar I did for the bulletin board just inside the door at the Alley

When we started the business together, Jeannette and I naturally figured we would play to our perceived strengths.  She had the experience in the club business and and had the contacts and knew what she was doing, so she was going to handle the booking in addition to doing the stuff people don’t think about (dealing with beer deliveries, the linen service, the band check-ins, etc) while I, in addition to holding down a day job, would use my math major skills to keep the books.  That lasted about two months before we realized (roughly simultaneously) that there was a better division of labor.  Being a math major helped not a whit with bookkeeping and my disorganization (I’m quite the slob, both externally and internally) was going to cause problems with our suppliers.  On the other hand, I had a pretty definite idea of the sound I wanted and had inherited some of my dad’s sales skills and was on my way to developing a decent relationship with a number of the bands as well as some of the booking agents.  In retrospect, there was probably a bit of sexism at play with some of the bands that hadn’t played for us before - I think they just assumed that I was the one running the show - or maybe it was just my propensity to step in and take over.  Whatever the reason, Jeannette’s much more structured and knowledgeable approach was perfect for making sure everyone got paid on time and I started 
focusing on trying to maintain a varied calendar.

"Division of labor" sounds balanced but it certainly was not in regards to the club. While I was able to take care of running flyers to Universal in Greensboro for printing during lunch and making phone calls during the day, I was really only available to be at the club at night and on the weekends. Jeannette was the one dealing with almost all the behind-the-scenes stuff. And she was a professional graphic artist so she did the calendars and most of the flyers, with a few exceptions where I had an idea I wanted to try. On the other hand, my day job kept us fed and housed which certainly wasn't going to happen from just running the club.

One of the things I hadn’t really anticipated but should have was booking “against” Dave Robert at the Cradle.  Being a newbie, working all day in another town and spending the rest of my time at the Alley, I never really developed a relationship with DR, so we hadn’t talked to each other about this at all.  But I was running into bands that considered themselves “Cradle” bands, others that gravitated towards the Alley and some that wanted to play both.  We always believed that more clubs meant more music fans so we didn’t see the Cradle as competition (more on that later).  Our only rule (and we made it clear) was that we didn’t think it was a good idea for bands to get over-exposed (not good for them and not good for us) so if you scheduled the Cradle, we’d want to wait at least a month before you played the Alley.  I know there were a couple of times that bands played us and then played the Cradle a couple of weeks later - I didn’t like that but there wasn’t much I could do about it.  However, I do remember one band getting on our calendar and then popping up on the Cradle’s calendar a couple of weeks earlier and I canceled their date.  I’m pretty sure that only happened once.

The first weekend in January can be pretty dead as it’s before a lot of people get back into town, so Bluegrass Experience was a good choice to bring in the long-time townies on Saturday night.  We didn’t even try to open on Friday.

The next weekend was one that I hoped would set the tone for the year.  Thursday night was our first date with Gumbo Ya Ya, fronted by George Hamilton V.  Hege and I had both gone to high school in Charlotte at the same time (Myers Park for him, Independence for me) and we’d both hit UNC’s campus the same year, but other than walking past each other on Franklin Street (you couldn’t miss George’s long scarf or his jeans tucked into his cowboy boots), I don’t think we ever met until our senior year when my friend Handsome Dave was played in one of George’s bands.  I’d never seen Gumbo Ya Ya but they had developed a sizable following and they did indeed put on a terrific show.

Gumbo Ya Ya photoa.jpg
Photo from the Gumbo Ya-Ya demo tape - a real photo.  Hadn’t seen that before.

Fetchin’ Bones on Friday night was one of those booking successes that I’d hoped for.  At the time they were being handled by Venture Booking, who I’d been talking to about some other bands before I realized they had FB.  I’d become a big fan of Fetchin’ Bones when they were opening for other people’s opening bands a year before and by this time they were starting to get some national attention.  We finally came to terms and were able to pair up Snatches of Pink with them as an opener.  I thought it turned out to be a great bill - SOP (Michael Rank, Andy McMillan and Sara Romweber in that original lineup) were great and Fetchin’ Bones put one of those shows that I still remember 30 years on.  While some bands even on the club circuit had silly contract riders, Hope and company just wanted some good vegetarian fare and were more than happy when we handed them some money and sent them down the street to Pyewacket.  A reliable Saturday night with Blast Crisis and the year was underway in decent shape.

The middle of January started with another showcase show - this one was a rare Wednesday show but I wasn’t too worried about drawing a crowd.  Marti Jones had just released her first solo album, produced by Don Dixon and covering material from the dB’s, Bland Simpson and Mr. Dixon himself.  Don, of course, was the godfather of the local music scene and would have drawn a crowd to hear him read his grocery list.  I believe Rick Miller (the former Spectator reviewer, not the frontman from SCOTS) opened, but whether he billed himself as Rick Miller, Parthenon Huxley, PHux, or Rick Rock I do not recall. The show was terrific and it did indeed sell out.

I joke about Glenn Phillips sometimes which isn’t fair as he is a terrific guitar player and had a small but avid following in Chapel Hill.  His style was a bit too mathematical for my taste but I was happy to continue to book him from time to time, although we did do this show on a Thursday rather than give up a weekend night.

Friday night was our first show with the Killer Whales out of Charleston, SC - they were a fairly polished synth pop band (they reminded me of The Producers, which is probably why I associated them with Atlanta) and had had a minor hit a couple of years earlier with “Who Controls the Video Screen?”.  They also did an excellent cover of Joe Jackson’s “Pretty Boys”.  I think I’ve still got an unused Killer Whales bumper sticker in my small trove of club junk.  They were never a huge draw but they did okay and we liked them.

Saturday turned out to be the last big show of the month and was one of the few times I put a double-bill together, with Foreign Bodies and the Bad Checks.  At least I think that was my doing, although it's possible the bands put this one together themselves. Regardless, I thought it worked and it became our third sold-out show in 8 days.  Somewhere buried under a bunch of boxes in a storage unit, we probably still have the closing sheets from the Alley so I could tell you what the door was like for all the shows, but it would take Indiana Jones to excavate them.  But I happened to denote sell outs on my booking calendar for January but for no other month.  I’m very consistent in my inconsistency.

The rest of the month consisted of smaller shows but folks that I wanted to see.  While that wasn’t a booking philosophy that would work long-term, it was the height of basketball season, the weather sucked and I couldn’t book the Bad Checks every weekend.  Thursday the 23rd was a show with a band from the Triad called Bullets of Blue.  They’re one of those oddities where I remember liking them but I can’t really remember what they sounded like.  Blues, one would assume.

We did the Phantoms again on Friday night (I definitely remember their sound - they were probably just a few years too early to ride the rockabilly resurgence) followed by Three Hits again, this time with Kenny Shore’s jangle-pop Dayroom Monitors on Saturday.

Three Hits cassettea.jpgThree Hits cassette tape insert  

We closed the month out with short weekend featuring Rod Abernethy in his Rod Dash guise.  Rod had been a member of Arrogance and had played with Glassmoon on their most recent album.  He’s since gone on to be a very successful composer of music for video games and other media.  It was a good show and brought in a lot of folks from the earlier days of the Comboland era.  I think this was around the time that Rod had been on Star Search, as I remember a number of Ed McMahon jokes that night.

All in all, it was not bad for what we knew would be a slow month and the calendar was shaping up pretty well to get us through the rest of winter (and ACC basketball season).

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rhythm Alley Redux - 07 - December 1985

"When the kids wake up Christmas morning, what will they find under the tree?  This year surprise them... with rollercoasters!" - the Pressure Boys, intro to "Is This Normal?"

05 - After Hours
06 - The Connells with Antic Hay
07 - Terminal Mouse
08-12 - "King Mackerel and the Blues are Running"
13 - John Fahey
14 - Shakin' Sherman and the Blazers
19 - The Socks
20 - New Grass Revival
21 - The Woodpeckers
22 - Flat Duo-Jets (All-ages)
23 - Mike Cross
31 - The Pressure Boys

So, about that phone call from Bland.  Bland, Don Dixon and Jim Wann were working on a new revue, this one focused on the North Carolina coast.  Jim was well-known for “Pump Boys and Dinettes” and “Diamond Studs”, which Bland co-wrote with him and of course Don Dixon was already well-known locally as the leader of the band Arrogance and internationally as a producer of bands like R.E.M.  Putting on “King Mackerel and the Blues are Running” would mean a lot more nights open for business and would likely bring in a lot of people that otherwise probably wouldn’t have ventured into the Alley.  So the first week of December the guys started rehearsing and working on the set.

Before then we had a couple of shows to do, and we had some heating problems to get fixed.  After the heavy rains of November, it got really, really cold for early December and there was something wrong with the heat.  Our first show was a Thursday night show with a band from Raleigh called After Hours - a show that rivaled Uncle Bonsai for attendance.  In fact, I don’t think there was anyone in the audience that wasn’t related to the band.  The previous year I’d bought a 50’s era Swedish Army overcoat from Poor Richard’s army/navy surplus store that reached below my knees and weighed about 50 pounds and I never took it off that night.  I just remember the band’s parents and girlfriends huddled together in their coats while the band played.  They weren’t bad, but I don’t think they lasted very long.

Friday night was our first date featuring The Connells.  “Darker Days” was their cut on “More Mondo”, which had been released that spring and was getting them some attention.  Their first album had also come out a month or two before the show.  Even then they drew a large crowd, many of them apparently co-eds from Meredith College.  They were another band that we caught at exactly the right time, when you could see (and hear) them get better by orders of magnitude every time you saw them.  They put on a terrific show and, along with the PBoys and the Checks, they could always be counted on to fill the place. The room might have been cold before the show started but coats were quickly shed by the time the room filled up.

Saturday night was the last night before King Mackerel and was our second date with Terminal Mouse.  This might have been the night that the guy from one of the performing rights associations showed up (I won't mention the acronym for fear that a rep would appear in a flash of smoke demanding money).  I should probably talk about that a bit.  I’m not sure what Judy did but we did not pay performing rights association fees as almost all of the performers we booked were playing their own original compositions.  However, the way the licensing worked then (I think it has now been amended), there was a question about whether we were required to pay fees to cover the fact that we played recorded music in the bar before and between sets.  I absolutely, positively believe that artists should be fairly compensated for their work.  However, to pay the ridiculously high fees that you know who were demanding for having tunes on between sets would have shut us down, meaning a lot of people would have one less space to perform (and be paid).  We were not alone as The Cave had a sign posted on one of the speakers for years saying simply “No Covers!”.  My apologies to my musician friends if you disagree.  I bring this up here as I believe this was the night that the asskap guy came in and Terminal Mouse was one of the few bands we booked that played more than one or two covers.  Jeannette recognized the guy and sent me up to the stage to get PC’s attention and ask him not to play any covers, which may well have resulted in them playing “Cows from Hell” 5 or 6 times.

Sunday was the world premier of “King Mackerel”, which really was a big deal.  There was a tradition of musical theater in Chapel Hill which spawned the aforementioned “Diamond Studs” and “Pump Boys” among others, but it had died down for a few years and there were a LOT of folks that were hugely excited about the revival.  The set was reassembled Sunday afternoon and the show was quite well attended.  In fact, all five nights were near sell-outs (and I know there were some folks that were there for all five nights).  Beer sales weren’t terrific but we were also open nights we normally wouldn’t have been, so it was still a win for us.  And it was a win for the audience - it was quite a good show, although I’ll admit we got tired of it after a week.  The guys still perform the show for benefits from time to time (as recently as this year) and I do feel pretty good about hosting the premiere and first run. I was right about it bringing in people who normally would not have been at the Alley, though, as many of them were somehow not aware that bringing in a picnic basket with wine was just not allowed by our alcohol license (thanks to Jeannette for reminding me of that). I doubt many of them came back for any other show.

Sleeve from the cassette for “King Mackerel”

After being open for eight straight nights, we were pretty burned out but we still had a couple more nights to go.  John Fahey was a nice change of pace Saturday night - I’ve always enjoyed his style and I do remember it as a good night.

Saturday was a good night for us to end the long run with - Shakin’ Sherman and the Blazers was just a comfortable show to do.  Old friends on stage, a lot of old friends in the audience, no fuss, no muss.  I mean that only in the best way - those were fun nights to do, sort of like a house party.

We needed a break but we were surprisingly busy going into the holidays.  Any break was not going to happen until Christmas itself.  We did The Socks Thursday night - The Socks were a side project of Lee Gildersleeve from the Blazers, with Brian Barnes (also from the Blazers) on bass and Gil Templeton behind the drumkit instead of Ronnie Taylor (I can’t remember if there was anyone else).  It was a good holiday get-together for Chapel Hill music scene regulars.

Friday night was one of those nights that everything just clicked.  This incarnation of New Grass Revival included some of the best musicians I’d ever heard.  Pat Flynn, Sam Bush and Bela Fleck were all past Frets Magazine award winners and John Cowan added some nice white gospel and soul vocals along with electric bass.  I was used to seeing musicians at the top of their game but having four of them on stage at the same time was an amazing experience.  It remains one of the best nights of music I can remember.

We had our first date with the Woodpeckers on Saturday - and our only one with them carrying the full name.  The Fabulous Knobs had stopped performing a year or so before and Dave, Jack and Terry had teamed up with Dan Baird, the once and future member of the Georgia Satellites.  That was probably the first time I heard Terry’s “Battleship Chains” before the Satellites had a minor hit with it a few months later.  That date started a tradition of us pissing off Jack, Dave and Terry by not selling them beer after hours.  We’d have been happy to sell them a couple of six packs between sets and hold them for them (there was no issue with us selling for off-premise consumption) but every show they played for us they’d wait until after last call and then try to buy their beer for the rest of the night. I guess they thought they'd eventually wear us down but it never worked.

Sunday afternoon/evening was one of the few all-ages shows we did, all I think with the Flat Duo-Jets.  I think Dex had gotten screwed by the drinking age rise to 19, just barely missing out on being grandfathered in, so for a long time the all-ages shows were a way to get him in the club.  So we sold Soho sodas by the caseload along with Cokes and Sprites and I tried to pick out the kids that were getting buzzed elsewhere before they got in the door.  But hell, I’d have paid Dex and Crow out of my own pocket and thrown the doors open for free if that’s what it took.  I had seen them while working the door for Judy a few months before and it had taken me about 2 minutes to realize that Dex was a one-of-a-kind talent (and was quite possibly possessed by the ghost of Gene Vincent).

We still had one more show to do before Christmas and it was another one I’d been looking forward to while at the same time dreading.  I don’t think we can blame Judy for this one - I think we can only blame ourselves for being long-time Mike Cross fans and not wanting to miss an opportunity to do a show with him.  On paper it sounded great - a few days before Christmas with folks back in town for the holidays and long-time local favorite Mike Cross for two shows on a Monday night.  But the reality was that while he sold out two shows, he also got 95% of the door and we did squat for beer sales.  If we sold 300 beers I’d be surprised.  Of course none of that was Mike’s fault and he did two great shows and everyone had a great start to their holiday but while we didn’t lose money, it was another night that we didn’t make any and that was clearly happening way too often.

There was one more date before the end of the year and it was a much bigger deal to me than anyone else, as it turns out.  New Years Eve had always been huge for me and I was really looking forward to throwing the biggest party of my life for this one.  What I didn’t anticipate is that people that have worked every New Years Eve of their adult life might not be as interested.  Jeannette wanted to be closed and stay home and the one band that I really wanted (The Pressure Boys, of course) were making noises about doing the same.  They’d played NYE for Judy the year before and John at least was pretty adamant that he’d like to take the night off too.  It took a lot of cajoling with both of them to get the show set.  In the end it was probably not as bad for Jeannette and Zippy as they’d anticipated and not as wonderful for me as I’d hoped, since I spent most of the night trying to make sure everything went okay (it was my party!).  It was a huge crowd, the Boys were terrific of course and we did manage to have some fun and end the year on a high note - which we desperately needed after a fairly tough start.

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