A 2024 Primer: live, local music venues

ARTS & CULTURE

By Gary A. Miller
Columnist

CHAPEL HILL – Live local music and Chapel Hill-Carrboro go hand in hand. For many decades our area has produced countless interesting musical acts that have risen beyond their local roots to gain national and international fame – Southern Culture on the Skids, Ben Folds, Mipso, Superchunk, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Steep Canyon Rangers, Archers of Loaf, Watchhouse/Mandolin Orange, and the recently departed Dexter Romweber, are just a few examples.

A major part of what has allowed this area to produce such notable acts is the community of music venues providing a place for groups to develop material and build their audiences. Long-time resident and musician D.B. Edmunds says, “I’ve been living in or near Chapel Hill for the last 35 years, playing in various bands for most of them. I’ve always loved how vibrant & diverse the local music scene is and how many great venues we have to support it.”

While specific clubs and their locations may have changed over the years, there has been a remarkable level of consistency available to local acts, even if securing gigs has become more difficult over those same years. Edmunds continues, “As a local band, it seems harder than ever to land shows at the venues that we’ve all come to know and love. Post-COVID, it just seems like a whole different ball game.” Edmunds hypothesizes that financial pressures on club owners make it harder for them to take risks with lesser-known bands.

Those same financial pressures have taken their toll on plenty of venues, and the area has seen some important (and plenty of lesser) venues come and go. For example, The Station on Main Street in Carrboro, which shuttered its doors quite recently, held the historic note of being the first club outside of the state of Georgia to host an REM concert, and for decades it was a regular spot for local acts.

But in this article I do not want to lament those venues that are gone as much as provide a spotlight on those that are still with us. Certainly live music can be experienced in many locations outside of what is addressed here, such as the many summer concert series which can be found in neighborhoods around town, along with porch/house concerts, and one-off performances in atypical venues. However, this article’s primary focus is to outline the most active current local music venues in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

We can begin with the granddaddy of them all: The Cat’s Cradle. Having been in its current location on Main Street in Carrboro for decades, with a history that goes back more than 50 years, The Cat’s Cradle’s Front Room primarily plays host to touring acts and local groups with large followings, with smaller local bands sometimes serving as opening acts (the front room can accommodate 750 people). The more recent addition of the Back Room (capacity: 200 people) provides a more intimate space for traveling acts and established locals. Stylistically both rooms provide a stage for a diverse array of musical genres, from indie rock staples to Americana to the occasional hip hop act or world music group.

Just down the road, owner Frank Heath is developing a new club on Brewer Lane in Carrboro in addition to the offerings of the Cat’s Cradle. The slightly larger new venue may also be a back-up plan for the future of The Cradle, since there have been reports of possible redevelopment of the space that currently hosts that venerable venue.

When you think of long-running Chapel Hill music venues, you should first think of The Cave (aka The Cavern Tavern). Established in 1968 and tucked away down a set of narrow stairs on West Franklin Street, this underground haven of cool is a tiny slice of Chapel Hill music history and a true dive in the best sense of the term. As a business venture, The Cave (capacity of only 74) has had a number of near-deaths over the years, the most recent being in 2018, but it soldiers on with music, both local and traveling acts. As you walk in the front door on any random night, you might be greeted with rock, jazz, folk, rock, country, or nearly any other genre.

Local 506 is another scene stalwart, having been in the same West Franklin Street location since 1992. In recent years the venue has trended toward heavier music, while still providing an outlet for genres ranging from indie rock to ska to garage rock and more. Local music is featured regularly as both headliners and opening acts for groups traveling along the circuit of similar medium-sized venues. Local 506 with a capacity of around 250 fills an important niche in the community.

If you grow weary of the West Franklin and Main Street scenes, you can head west on Highway 54 to find our area’s true road house, The Kraken. The venue ambles around both indoor and outdoor stages which typically feature local rock, blues, and Americana groups. Here, where capacity varies greatly based on inside or outside performances, you’ll blend easily with regulars and those just dropping in to catch the music. It’s a little bit out of the way, and that’s part of what makes it worth the short trek to take it in, kick back, and enjoy the music.

There are several other venues in town that provide occasional live music that can certainly be worth visiting. The inconsistent nature of their bookings means you will want to check the calendars before popping by. These include: Speakeasy in Carrboro and both Lapin Bleu and the Dead Mule Club in Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro have long been known for their thriving local music scene. Mike Nicholson, guitarist/songwriter for local band The Blusterfields and engineer/producer at Hondo Creek Recording says, “When I started venturing out on the road to play shows many years ago, I got some real perspective on just how lucky we local musicians have it in terms of our scene. There’s always been four or five top-flight venues here over my 34 years living in this area. But, what is most special is the nurturing vibe of the musicians in this area and a general lack of pretentiousness and pettiness.”

Part of keeping a scene healthy is making sure these venues have support. In an age of on-demand entertainment, these venues both need and deserve your support. So, consider surprising yourself by going to see an unknown local band in a local venue. Doing so will both enrich your life and support the local music community. 


Gary A. Miller is a local musician who has lived in the area off and on since 1994. Gary is a Realtor, an avid traveler, and a still-active musician in several local bands. This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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