BIG CITY: More music, more life
By Kirk Ross
The other day in a different publication, someone referred to the band I’ve played in for 20 years as part of the Chapel Hill music scene. It was a nice piece and I don’t want to sound picky; but really, there ain’t no such beast as a Chapel Hill music scene.
These days, it’s just as much a Carrboro, Durham, Saxapahaw, Chatham and Hillsborough scene as Chapel Hill. Also, for the record, I hate calling it a scene, although I do remember a few nights when it qualified as one. Mostly, it’s just a loose collection of bands and radio stations and record stores and labels and clubs. If they have anything in common it’s that policymakers have generally ignored what’s needed to help them thrive while pointing to them with pride as part of our vaunted creative class.
When I think about what’s missing in downtown Chapel Hill, one of the things whose absence is most glaring is the sound of music.
There are still a lot of fine clubs, mostly in the West End and most enduring legacies of an era when Chapel Hill cranked it up and made national press as fertile land for bands and labels. But starting with the Cat’s Cradle’s move to Carrboro almost 20 years ago, the music business in the heart of downtown has been hit and miss, and primarily the latter.
One indicator to me of the spirit and life of a community is how much music you see on the streets, and it’s in this area where the flight of music from downtown has been most noticeable.
It wasn’t long ago that a walk through downtown was nearly impossible without taking in some kind of performance. You might see Dexter Romweber singing the blues out in front of The Hardback Cafe or The Chicken Wire Gang harmonizing near the entrance to Pepper’s Pizza. There’d be a guy playing sax in the alley and a couple of avant-garde fellow travelers making notes ring in the Rosemary Street Parking Deck. A lot more places had music outdoors as well, or would at least open up the windows and let the sound pour out into the street.
I bring this up not out of sentimentality, but because the sound of a human playing an instrument adds life to a place the way a bright new awning cannot. You didn’t need a brochure or special signage or an ad campaign to tell you downtown was a happening spot. You could hear it every time you stepped out on the street.
This is not lost on every policymaker, and fortunately there’s been some support over the years for outdoor events, particularly the successful Locally Grown concert series on the Wallace Deck, which features local groups. To make that series really work the town is going to have to make the deck a more people-friendly place. Before it was built, the Wallace Deck plaza was pitched as a place for buskers and street vendors. That hasn’t really panned out, in part because the plaza is kind of isolated and its rough edges and concrete don’t exactly make you want to gather around for a hootenanny.
You may be one of those old-timers who scoffs at Southern Village’s manufactured downtown, but its outdoor venue is a lot more inviting, has more and better-attended shows and is a welcome boost to the businesses around it.
There are some bright spots in the downtown nightlife. My favorite is the new monthly outdoor music put on by Chapel Hill Underground and WXYC’s local music show Backyard Barbecue. The Sunday evening shows feature local bands and free food and have a nice party feel.
I was at one of these shows the other evening. When the band kicked in and suddenly you could hear the sound bouncing around the streets downtown splashing an otherwise drab Sunday night with the color of music, I thought to myself, “I remember this place.”