Posts Tagged With: Jac Cain

Places That Are Gone: The Brewery

On this date in 2011, a piece of local-music history died when the Brewery came down — leveled to make way for a fancy student-housing complex. And even though it’s been gone for seven years and plenty of other fine venues have sprouted up since then, I still think of the Brewery as Raleigh’s definitive live-music club. That’s probably a function of age, but it’s an icon in my personal pantheon.

What follows is a rumination inspired by the Brewery and other joints around town that have vanished in the 27-plus years I’ve lived in Raleigh. I read this onstage at Kings nightclub in Raleigh on April 29, as part of the spoken-word series “7 Stories.”

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PLACES THAT ARE GONE
(with apologies to Tommy Keene)

7storiesmeMy name is David Menconi and I have been writing for the News & Observer for 27 years, three months and 14 days — all in that dingy old building around the corner from here. Tonight finds me in a weird moment of limbo, between work addresses.

This past Thursday, April 26, was our last day at 215 S. McDowell St. Pictures were taken, graffiti scribbled, maybe an object or two broken or lifted on our way out the door. Tomorrow morning, the N&O takes up residence in the Bank of America building on Fayetteville Street. We’re all expecting the old building to be bulldozed soon for a skyscraper.

This very club Kings has a transient history, too. For its first eight years, 1999 to 2007, Kings was right down the block from the N&O, across McDowell Street. The old Kings was the first place I ever saw the Avett Brothers, Little Brother and even Bon Iver and Megafaun — although those last two were the same band back then, DeYarmond Edison.

7storiesposterThe old Kings didn’t have the best layout, with the bar in the middle dividing the room in half. But it did have a lot of funky thrift-store charm. This new Kings we’re in now has been here since 2010 and it’s better in every way. Yet I still think of the old Kings as Raleigh’s definitive indie-rock joint. And contemplating the grassy spot next to Poole’s Diner where it once stood, I got to thinking about other music places that have come and gone in Raleigh’s rush into whatever it’s becoming.

When I moved to Raleigh in January 1991, I lived on Clark Street, just across from Cameron Village. I got here too late to experience the Cameron Village Underground and nightclubs like The Pier, which closed in the mid-’80s. But there was a Record Bar over there — remember record stores? — even though the Cameron Village Record Bar was not my go-to store.

No, my go-to back then was The Record Hole, on Hillsborough Street near campus right across from the Brewery. Run by John Swain, an irascible character straight out of “High Fidelity,” it was one of those joints that was closed til it was open, open til it was closed. John could be pretty gruff, until you proved to him you were alright. I passed his test one day when another customer asked the name of Robert Gordon’s first band, and I knew the answer: Tuff Darts. After that, John would save me records he thought I’d like, which was wonderful while it lasted. He was only 42 years old when he died in the summer of 1991, and the Record Hole died with him. That spot has been Curious Goods ever since.

7storieslineupDowntown on West Street, across from Roast Grill, stood the Fallout Shelter — a subterranean spot that had anything and everything. I remember the insane 1993 bidding war over the local band Motorola, who played a showcase at the Fallout Shelter for seemingly every record-label A&R scout in the free world. There were more industry people than paying customers, which was sadly indicative of how the renamed Motocaster’s career went after that, too. The Fallout Shelter closed a few years later, around the time Motocaster was breaking up.

In the mid-1990s, what is now the Lincoln Theatre on Cabarrus Street was called Gillie’s. All I remember about the place was its seating around the bar — swings that hung down from the ceiling, which was pretty precarious late at night after a few drinks. The Pour House over on Blount Street was different back then, too, called The Grove.

Raleigh’s main R&B club downtown was The Vibe, upstairs at 119 E. Hargett St. — where you’ll find Alter Ego hair salon now. In the late ’90s, when Public Enemy was on hiatus, their deejay Terminator X moved to the area and bought an ostrich farm in Dunn. And he’d come down to The Vibe to spin records and hang out with the owner, Greg Dent. A few years earlier, Greg ran another Raleigh club called The Zoo and one of his regulars there was a young man named Christopher Wallace. You might know him as Notorious B.I.G.

Just down Martin Street, the Berkeley Cafe is still there, although its old music hall is now Capitol Smokes next door. But the Berkeley still has bands play on the back patio, which is kind of a shrine to the old Sadlack’s Heroes — the funky beer joint that anchored the Hillsborough Street strip for three decades. That block of Hillsborough is a fancy Aloft Hotel nowadays, but countless musicians worked and played at Sadlack’s over the years. It is, of course, where Ryan Adams formed Whiskeytown in 1994. But that’s another story.

Hillsborough Street is pretty much unrecognizable now from the early ’90s, with the Rathskeller, Western Lanes, Velvet Cloak and IHOP all gone, or going. Even Logan Court, “Faithless Street” to those in the know, was recently torn down. I miss them all.

Still, the long-gone place that lingers strongest in my memory was down at the west end of Hillsborough Street, the Brewery. It’s been gone since 2011, torn down to make way for the student housing complex Stanhope. But in December of 1990, when I came to Raleigh for my job interview at the N&O, the Brewery was the first place here I ever saw a show. Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, who was a lot of fun. While the Brewery wasn’t too long on creature comforts, I quickly became a regular, especially during the eight years when I lived a block away.

In 1992, the band Blind Melon needed to get out of L.A., so their label moved them to Durham. The story I heard was that they needed to go someplace “less druggy,” which is both funny and sad. But that summer of 1992, before their album came out, Blind Melon played every Sunday night for a month at the Brewery, and I was shocked at how terrible they were. At least they remembered to send the Brewery a platinum album to remember them by after they hit it big. I remember seeing it on the wall behind the bar, and I’ve often wondered where it is now.

I also saw the Cranberries at the Brewery, playing for about 40 people a few months before they blew up on MTV. Paul Westerberg, Stereolab, Don Dixon, COC, Flat Duo Jets — too many to count. The Brewery was also one of the sets for the movie “Bandwagon,” which you should see if you haven’t because Jac Cain is in it.

The most fun of all was in the second half of the ’90s, when the Brewery was the CBGBs of alternative country. It was home turf for the Backsliders, who recorded a live album there and called it From Raleigh, North Carolina. Whiskeytown, 6 String Drag, Pine State, $2 Pistols and more all seemed to play the Brewery at least once a month. And at least one band I know of formed there: Tres Chicas, in the women’s bathroom. The acoustics in there were solid, I hear.

A breezeway connected the Brewery with the Comet Lounge next door, and that was the best between-band hangout spot. I especially remember SPITTLEFEST, the “Southern Plunge Into Trailer Trash & Leisure Entertainment,” which brought together a bunch of twangy bands every year. They’d set up a potluck in the breezeway, and I can still picture it. Even smell the barbecue if I try really hard.

Because yeah, I was there. And I’ve even got the T-shirt to prove it.

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Ryan’s Raleigh

More than one reader has remarked on how Raleigh is almost like another character in “Losering,” which I’m always happy to hear. I’m proud of the book as a document not just of Ryan, but of the scene and era he emerged from. To that end, I thought I’d show you around a bit with a tour of some of the places in Ryan’s old hometown where various events in the story happened. So come with me on a whirlwind journey through the past, as we wander through Raleigh down Faithless Street toward…Whiskeytown.

BerkeleyCafeBerkeley Cafe (317. W. Martin St.) — This was where my story with Ryan literally began. As recounted in the preface, it’s the first place I ever sat down to interview him way back in 1995. The Berkeley has been around since the early ’80s, and it’s a lot longer on funky charms than creature comforts. But those charms are more than enough. I still see music at the Berkeley on a regular basis, including a show by Caitlin Cary’s Tres Chicas in early November and my 17-year-old son Aaron’s new punk band’s public debut earlier this month; and I have lunch there almost every week with my pal Scott Huler. It’s still one of my favorite Raleigh dives, conveniently located just down the street from the News & Observer’s office.

DaisyStreetDaisy Street house (6 Daisy St.) — This bungalow where Ryan lived with Tom Cushman in the early ’90s served as the setting for much of Chapter three’s events, including the numerous bands they formed and the near-conflagration that yielded up the song “Burning Bed.” Daisy is just one block long, and the house in question is the first one on the right after you turn onto the street from Hillsborough and pass Cup A Joe. It’s a stone’s throw from the Brewery and walking distance from Ryan’s then-place of employment, the Rathskeller at 2412 Hillsborough (which closed years ago and is now the site of a much-plusher eatery called Porter’s Tavern).

BreweryDemolitionThe Brewery (3009 Hillsborough St.) — When I think “mid-’90s Whiskeytown show,” the Brewery is the place that comes to mind because I saw more Whiskeytown shows there than anywhere else. I’ve got plenty of personal Brewery history myself. When I interviewed for the N&O’s rock-writer job in December 1990, the Brewery was the first club in Raleigh where I saw a show; Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, and it was lots of fun. Yes, the joint was a dive, but also the best-sounding room in town (thank you Jac Cain, soundman to the stars). The Brewery was kind of the CBGB of mid-’90s alternative country, which was handy because I lived just a block away back then. Brewery lore includes a fantastic live EP that the Backsliders recorded there; some scenes in the underrated 1996 movie “Bandwagon”; and Tres Chicas citing the women’s bathroom as the place they formed.

Alas, the Brewery’s been gone since August 2011, when it was torn down to make way for a retail/residential development that will probably never be built — going on a year and a half later, it’s still a dirt parking lot. Two of the N&O’s photographers did a really cool video of the building being demolished, set to a recording of Ryan and Caitlin singing “Heart Is Broken” onstage at the Brewery in October 1999 (a show described in Chapter 11).

Comet

Photo courtesy of John Morris, goodnightraleigh.com

Comet Lounge (3003 Hillsborough St.) — One of Ryan’s favorite watering holes back in the day, a dark-walled joint that was made for consumption more than socializing. The Comet is enshrined in the lyrics of the Strangers Almanac song “Yesterday’s News”: “See you at the Comet.” The Brewery stood right next door to the Comet and they were connected by an adjoining breezeway, which was a big hangout during marathon events like the annual roots-rock blowout  S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest. The two buildings’ proximity made possible hilarious incidents like Ryan wandering over to the Comet for a mid-set drink while Caitlin was singing “Matrimony” onstage at the Brewery (see Chapter five). And the Comet was also the site of a memorably alcohol-fueled interview I conducted with Ryan on the eve of Strangers’ release in 1997 (see Chapter seven). Back in the day, both the Comet and Brewery were partly owned by Van Alston, co-writer of two songs on Heartbreaker including “Come Pick Me Up.” But Van sold his interest in the Comet long ago, and in recent years it’s been a bar called Katmandu.

CircusBurgerCircus Family Restaurant (1600 Wake Forest Road) — As recounted in Chapters two and three, Ryan had a long series of restaurant jobs around Raleigh in the years before he was able to make a fulltime living as a musician. One of them was at this burger joint north of downtown, where he worked long enough to quit with the flamboyant declaration, “This place is like a three-ring circus and I’m tired of working for peanuts.”

Sadlacks

Photo courtesy of John Morris, goodnightraleigh.com

Sadlack’s (2116 Hillsborough St.) — Another of Ryan’s old workplaces and one of Raleigh’s most beloved institutions, with a colorful barfly vibe. Sadlack’s was also the birthplace of Whiskeytown, which came together in the fall of 1994 as an assemblage of Sadlack’s employees and regulars — see Chapter four. Sadlack’s is still open in the shadow of NC State’s belltower, with a vintage Whiskeytown flyer hanging in a frame on a wall across from the bar. But there’s no telling how much longer it will be around. The entire block (which is also the current site of Schoolkids, one of the last independent record stores in the area) has been condemned for a huge 250-room hotel, although it’s not clear when construction will begin; probably sometime in 2013. Sadlack’s owner Rose Schwetz was trying to relocate a few blocks up Hillsborough Street — in the vicinity of the old Rathskeller space, ironically enough — but negotiations fell through. “I’m planning on just staying here for as long as I can, until the bulldozers come and make me leave,” she told me in November 2012. I hope that won’t be for a long time.

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Kenny Roby rides again

The story that “Losering” tells goes back about 20 years, which is an eternity in terms of the half-lives of most bands and clubs. And yet I feel strange calling it “history” because the threads extend into the present day, and so many participants are still at it; and I’m not just talking about Ryan. Indeed, it’s still possible to see Kenny Roby, one of Ryan’s best ’90s-era peers, in clubs around the Triangle with some regularity.

Kenny gets mentioned in a couple of places in “Losering” and he’s always been one of my favorite singer-songwriters in this town, starting with his time in an early-’90s band called the Lubricators — a name I still think is stupid (and they never let me forget it after I said so in print way back when). But they did have a saying that made me giggle: Live to lube, lube to live. The Lubricators played amped-up rock with room for hooks, the guitars turned up to “roar,” and they’d moved up to Raleigh from Clemson, S.C. They set up shop in a house on Daisy Street, where Ryan would reside with their roadie/pal Tom Cushman after the band moved out.

Kenny’s next band after the Lubricators broke up was a killer, 6 String Drag. To this day, it disappoints me that 6 String Drag’s rocket-fueled country soul didn’t break big. Kenny’s vocal harmonies with bassist Rob Keller were exquisite; and after they added a horn section for live shows, pretty much no band on earth could touch them. Steve Earle signed 6 String Drag to his label and produced a spectacular album with them, 1997’s High Hat, which I asked Earle about when I interviewed him last year.

“This girl drug me to Atlanta to see Whiskeytown,” Earle said, “and 6 String Drag was opening. I signed them instead. Not that I thought Whiskeytown was bad, 6 String Drag was just more interesting to me and I wish to [expletive] they could’ve lasted. Their record was my favorite we made on that label. They were really special. Had this thing like The Band, where it’s so loose it’s tight, and I liked the way Kenny and Rob sang together. But they were doomed to come apart.”

Alas, High Hat didn’t hit and 6 String Drag dissolved before making another record. But Kenny kept at it with 1999’s Black River Sides (which he recorded with Ryan’s future Cardinals main man Neal Casal) and 2000’s Mercury’s Blues, both reviewed here. In 2000, when I published a novel called “Off The Record,” the aforementioned Holden Richards and I put together a fake fansite for the fictional band in the book. Kenny was kind enough to play along and record some tracks posing as said band, bashed out in a single well-oiled evening. All these years later, I still get a giggle out of  “Band Town” and “Dumb and Number.”

A couple of years after that, Kenny made a stunning album called Rather Not Know that, were there an ounce of justice in this world, would have set him up with a nice Randy Newman-sized career. I’ve written a fair amount about Kenny over the years, and the best story of the bunch is probably this 2003 No Depression feature that came out around the time Rather Not Know was released. Ryan was singing his praises back then, too, telling Rolling Stone that Kenny was “the best songwriter that not enough people have heard yet.” He also gave Roby’s record label a quote:

I knew Kenny in Raleigh, NC, where we both had bands, his was better than mine. We shared a few jobs, the most notably a plumbing job. I have been made to understand this record is partially inspired as the result of his father’s death. Kenny has great internal dialogue concerning his relationship to God and to the more tangible ways of man. I think it’s woven into the fabric of this record in more subtle ways than previous albums. The entire record really does more for any argument to this record’s impact as a great piece of art, but this track is the first track on the album and the one that touches me even when I think I’m not listening. Also he is quite a good dancer apparently.

Unfortunately, the acclaim didn’t turn Kenny’s commercial career into something sustainable and fulltime, leading to a few long-ish stretches of musical inactivity (in public, at least) over the past decade. But he’s back on track with an excellent new album that should be coming out before too long. Kenny has grown tremendously as a singer, and on this new album he pulls off some quiet nuances that were once beyond him; great to hear him recording with horns again, too.

Friday night, he’ll play his first full-band show in Raleigh in more than three years, at the Pour House. Funny thing, the guy running sound for that show will be Jac Cain — who played bass with Kenny in the Lubricators all those years ago.

Like I keep saying, it all connects up, past to present and beyond.

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