What is Greenville missing? Just listen.

Rapid Eye Reality with Brad Willis

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Brad Willis’ music column is right — but it’s also wrong

If you’re a fan of almost any sort of music, run to your nearest internet-connected device and Google the calendar for Asheville’s Orange Peel.

Between now and mid-spring, some of the nation’s best-known and up-and-coming artists are on the bill. There is barely time to breathe between one good act and another. That’s not even to mention the show by Richard Thompson, a man widely regarded as one of the best songwriters in the world.

Normally the Orange Peel would have to pay good money for an advertisement like that, but in this case the club gets it for free. Why?

Because I live in Greenville County, and for maybe the only time ever, I’m sad about that fact.

I can hop in my car and make it to the Orange Peel in less than an hour and half. I’ve done it many times. It’s a beautiful room, and I love to see shows there. I don’t, however, love driving up the mountain on a weeknight. Moreover, I loathe the idea of driving back down the mountain after a show on any night. That usually means I see the Orange Peel calendar, sigh aloud, and lament the fact the Greenville area hasn’t found a way to recover from the loss of The Handlebar, the longtime listening room that was the place to see music for my best years in this community.

Full disclosure: I loved The Handlebar when it was on Mills Avenue. I loved The Handlebar when it was on Stone Avenue. Over the years, owner John Jeter became a friend of mine, and no matter how many feathers he ruffled during his years in the business, he managed to make Greenville cooler than it ever would’ve been otherwise. He continues to do so for Converse College and others, but The Handlebar’s absence remains a wound that itches every day. Things didn’t work out for The Handlebar, and Greenville has been worse for it ever since.

That’s not to say Greenville is dead for music. Festivals like Fall for Greenville have impressed me in recent years. The Rock the River series at the Peace Center was a welcome addition to the outdoor shows. I’ve attended the two ZooTunes fundraisers at the Greenville Zoo with Jason Isbell and Bruce Hornsby, and both were amazing experiences. What’s more, there are smaller venues here that have stood the test of time. Smiley’s Acoustic Café has a wonderful small stage, and the stalwarts at Gottrocks deserve a medal for their continued efforts to bring shows to Greenville. In recent years, others clubs like The Radio Room and Independent Public Alehouse have joined the effort. We’re better off for all of them and all the local artists who play the small stages around town. We owe them big time for keeping us in music.

But when it comes time to bring in the artists that can fill a midsized room and blow its doors off, Greenville isn’t really on the map anymore. Take another look at that Orange Peel schedule. Shovels & Rope is basking in nationwide fame and has booked two consecutive nights in Asheville. Why is that distressing? Because Shovels & Rope is a South Carolina band that absolutely packed Washington Street when it performed at Fall for Greenville a few years back. Now, it and Jump Little Children (another Carolina band of much renown) are skipping Greenville entirely. They aren’t the only ones.

Several others popular bands we used to watch at The Handlebar are booked at the Orange Peel over the next few months and probably didn’t even give Greenville a second thought.

There is enough blame to go around for this. Depending on who you talk to, the fault could lie with a city government that doesn’t support the music efforts (hello, noise ordinance supporters!), citizens who would rather spend $60 on a reboot of “Point Break” at the movies than listen to a good band, or bands that have just decided Greenville isn’t cool enough to make it worth the stop.

All of that should be disconcerting for anyone invested in the idea that we can continue to rest on the mountain of Top 10 lists the community has accumulated over the years. People drive here for our restaurants. They drive here to see our downtown. Imagine if music from national artists brought in even more people every night of the week. It would check just about every box for the Top 10 writers. More importantly, we’d get more great music in Greenville.

The alternative is the reality we have now: People who live here driving to other cities to see music. In short, if Greenville doesn’t finally find a way to fill the black hole left when The Handlebar closed down, those Top 10 lists might eventually read a little differently:

“Greenville, S.C., is a wonderful destination for shopping, food, and outdoor life, but if you’re looking for a community that supports music, keep driving until you see the signs for Asheville.”

At least, that’s how I’d write it.

Brad Willis is a writer who lives in Greenville County. You can find more of his work at BradWillis.net.


What Do You Think?

15 thoughts on “What is Greenville missing? Just listen.”

  1. Amen! We recently moved here from Nashville, TN and of course there is nothing like the Music City, but have been disappointed that there is no big or medium size venue that will bring national scene musicians to Greenville. Hmmm…maybe the city and county need to hire a contractual promoter to work with them? The revenue might be worth the moola:)

  2. This writer really has no idea what he’s talking about, and instead of adding IPA and Radio Room as afterthoughts, they should be the focus of the story.

    If you want to see Shovels and Rope or They Might Be Giants, go up to The Orange Peel. Both bands have worked hard and deserve to plays Orange Peel-sized venues.

    But “a community that supports music” definitely describes Greenville more than you think if you dig a little deeper. And by dig a little deeper, I literally mean “spend two weekends at the Radio Room, and see what kind of local, regional and national bands come through, talk to them and see how well all three are supported.”

    If you don’t really Know what Radio Room (or IPA or Velo Fellow or The Nijaplex or The Wheel) has to offer (which you don’t) you are just like the people who spend 60 bucks to see the remake of Point Break, and hardly have an informed view of the music scene in Greenville.

    -T.C. Costello

    PS: I’m in South Korea, so drunk I can’t remember the name of the last venue I played in Greenville, and I still know more about the Greenville music scene than you.

    PPS: Try interviewing Greenivlle musicians and venue owners next time you write an article.

    PPPS: Greenville venues pay better than Columbia venues.

    PPPPS: Asheville is REALLY hard for touring bands to get gigs in.

  3. It’s my understanding that most of the Asheville venues have a line in their contract that states a band can’t play another venue within X number of miles. Venue issue aside, that keeps bands from booking a Greenville – Asheville schedule. It’s a bum deal for those of us in Greenville, but Asheville doesn’t want us to have a successful mid-size music venue. It means better crowds for them.

    1. If the X number of miles includes Greenville then Asheville is completely snubbing Greenville. I want to see a contract that says this.

  4. I couldn’t agree more! Greenville needs more to talk about than the opening of the 100th gourmet taco restaurant. Granted, before I moved here I lived in larger cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh, but a live music fan in both cities had something we don’t have here: choice. On almost every given night, there were multiple options and a sometimes painful decision to make on where to go and who to see. Here, it’s all too frequently a matter of “is anyone worth seeing?” Granted, I grew up listening to punk but my tastes have expanded. I too am frequently looking to Asheville or Atlanta longingly as the local venues here host yet another irrelevant cover band or heavy metal act and there are no midsized venues like the Orange Peel. Even smaller venues can get in the act with a little Imagination. While the Grey Eagle in Asheville doesn’t bring in the bands the Orange Peel can, they do exceedingly well with the space they have. I think there’s a sense of complacency here. People who have lived in the area think everything is fine the way it is because they haven’t been exposed to better alternatives. A Widespread Panic tribute band playing twice a month or more is an indicator of a dead or dying music Scene, pure and simple.

  5. Brad is dead on. It comes down to a function of debits and credits. It’s not profitable for venues to book the kind of acts many of us consider outstanding because the majority of Greenville would rather, as Brad said, spent $60 on a reboot of Point Break. As someone who has dabbled in this business, it was always frustrating for me to watch Jeter book cutting-edge artists, and have no one show up. Two years later, he had hundreds of people calling him asking him to book that same artist because, now, “they’ve heard of them”.
    Which brings me to my beef: you have to go support new artists. Just because you haven’t heard of them on the latest country music playlist, doesn’t mean they are not phenomenal. Example: I watched Grace Potter and the Nocturnal’s in the Handlebar with 75 people That’s right, 75 people… The room holds 500. Six months later she was playing the Grammys. Asheville, Athens, and to some extent, Charlotte, get these acts because their population supports it; they will go to a show of a person they have not heard of to explore and expand their horizons. I cannot tell you how many times I would book a quality at at MoeJoes in downtown Greenville, stand at the door, and listen to people balk at a five dollar cover charge.

    Quite bitching, Greenville. You own this one. You don’t get what you don’t support

  6. Dr. Mac Arnold’s Blues Restaurant could be one of those medium sized venues. He’s booking national blues and jazz acts. However, trying to get people out to hear the music is another task. Absolutely amazing artists are showing up with only a handful of people showing up. I was there last night to hear Jonn Del Toro Richardson, a Blues Foundation award nominee for Best Emerging Artist. There were no more than 25 people there. This is discouraging since the place could hold a couple hundred people easily. Blues and jazz, however, does not interest that many young people. They like to mix with people their own age. Blues and jazz typically draws an older crowd. His place needs to book a couple of bands that resonate with the younger crowd like Dan Auerbach, Eric Gales, Gary Clark Junior, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Susan Tedeschi, Devin Allman, Ben Harper, North Mississippi Allstars, Anne McCue, Dave & Phil Alvin, Luther Dickinson, Nathaniel Rateliff, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, G. Love and Special Sauce.

  7. Umm, there’s a wonderful record store—one of the best in the entire Southeast—called Cabin Floor Records. it’s on Rutherford St. along with having the best selection in the state of rare, new and used vinyl, they often host wonderful, adventurous shows that you can’t find anywhere else in Greenville, must less Columbia or Charleston. if anybody is looking for something off the beaten path in a comfortable, welcoming setting with a DIY aesthetic, check out Cabin Floor Records and see when they’re hosting their next show.

    seriously, it blows my mind that more people don’t show up.

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