What is Greenville missing? Just listen.

Rapid Eye Reality with Brad Willis

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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.

 

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