There was plenty of chatter over whether Tim was spot on in his assessment of Luke Cunningham's performance in particular... Some claimed it was off the reservation (we're paraphrasing...), another claimed it was generous. Either way, it sure is a good reason to catch these shows and decide for yourself, isn't it?
The Holy City Pop Show took over the Charleston Music Hall, Saturday, Feb 2. The night was billed as a chance to see some great local artists taking over the big stage and featured Luke Cunningham, Slow Runner, and The Explorers Club.
Like the Grand Ole Opry, the Apollo, or other stages across the country, the Charleston Music Hall is set up to be a place where bands are tested: to see if they can make the jump from performers of songs to entertainers of audiences. Unlike a typical bar gig, the audience is seated in theatre-style rows. The band is up on a real live stage with curtains and all. There are even side entrances where guitar techs can slip an artist a new instrument, or surprise guests can hide until the right moment. The drinks are served at a small counter in the lobby, and not in the performance room. There are pretty girls with flashlights to help you find your seats, intermissions between acts, during which no jukebox plays, and the audience is signaled to take a seat by the dimming of lights. Prior to each act, the director of the Music Hall politely introduced each artist.
This ain’t a gig. It’s showtime. The sound system is so good, each instrument can be heard perfectly, and at comfortable volumes. Everyone is seated and looking to the artist to entertain. There is no place to hide, visually or sonically. Nobody will be looking at a flat screen TV or chatting with the bartender. People don't show up to hook up or get drunk. They are here for you. A band has to be ready for this kind of show. Here's how they did:
The night opened with a U2-esque delay guitar loop filling the room while the members of Luke Cunningham's four-piece band found their places on stage. From there, though, the band did very little to elevate its performance beyond their typical bar gig. They were crowded into the center third of the stage, pressed there by the stacks of instruments which were arranged earlier for the other bands. A grand piano to their right. A Marimba to their left. Two drum sets behind. It sort of looked like four guys cleared out some space in the back of a Guitar Center warehouse.
Luke is a very solid songwriter and the band did a true recreation of some of his best songs. But overall, the group failed to make a connection with the audience other than soliciting a laugh when Luke described how he wrote the song "Crazy," with the line “you’re not hot enough / to be this crazy.”
Don’t get me wrong. Luke is as good as anyone at mining the musical ground between country and rock. His songs could be on many top artists' releases. In the few years I've been in town, I've seen Luke graduate from standard by-the-numbers rock songwriting and begin to find his unique voice. However, as an entertainer on a big stage, his skills are not at the level of his songwriting. His band remained stationary, for the most part, and at times looked uncomfortable and awkward, as if they weren't sure how to move around when the audience was rooted to their seats. The between-song banter was friendly and full of appreciation for anyone paying $15 to see him. He just fell into the rhythm of: song - chat about self - song - chat about band while tuning - song - thank the radio station - song..... My gut tells me he is creative enough to do more.
Toward the end, the band was joined by Tyler Meacham from soon-to-be-defunct Crowfield, Sarah Cole from Sarah Cole and the Hawkes, and cellist Lonnie Root. The presence of these other local celebrities filled out the stage, but added to the sense that Luke needed help to entertain the audience. The final song, a rousing version of Bruce Springsteen’s "Atlantic City," only served to demonstrate the wide gap between an incredible entertainer like Springsteen and Luke Cunningham. If Luke doesn’t pursue a career as a songwriter for others, I can only hope shows like this propel him to be a more skilled entertainer. He doesn’t lack for hard work.
Next up was Slow Runner. Wow, what a shift in styles. Whereas Cunningham added country flavors to MOR rock songs, Slow Runner mingled electronic music with a little soul, a little orchestra, and a lot of indie pop.
Singer Michael Flynn, looking like the grandson of Freddy Mercury, took center stage behind a sparse keyboard setup. Sitting sidesaddle, he struck a decidedly geeky presence, then launched into a very R&B groove with the band. When he sang, his melodies and words were clear. It’s so rare for a local artist to give space to their words in order that the audience can actually understand what is being sung. Not only the words, but every single note the band played had purpose. Jonathon Gray (formerly of Jump Little Children) handled the bass. Then he switched to upright bass for a song, and a Moog sounding keyboard for another. Co-founder Josh Kaler switched from guitar to lap steel and then made an appearance on drums for one song. The drummer—whose name I didn’t catch—treated his playing as part of the orchestration. Not a single cliché drum fill to be heard. A marimba player was on hand, as was a trumpet player borrowed from the Explorer’s Club's massive line-up. This was extremely well-orchestrated indie-pop. Whatever the song needed, the players played it, no matter how simple.
Michel Flynn’s geek-rock personality shone through in his self-deprecating humor and expressions. "This next song is another one about loneliness!" he cheerfully intoned early on, soliciting laughs from the crowd. The group looked comfortable on stage and the audience seemed hooked, judging by the lack of spooky cell phone glow. (I like to use that ghostly glow as an indicator of whether a band is holding people's attention.)
Just before their set, I was told that the band sounded like nobody I’ve heard. I’d disagree. But I’m a geek. I’d say they remind me of Prefab Sprout, Bell X1, Gomez, Luna, or Radiohead somewhere between the Pablo Honey and The Bends releases. The closest similarity I’d say is Bell X1. However, that band is almost unheard of in the U.S. even though it is an immensely popular group in Ireland and the UK. You might not know Bell X1, but the comparison is meant as a compliment.
Slow Runner belonged on that stage, and I look forward to seeing more from them.
THE EXPLORERS CLUB
The night closed out with the very retro sounds of The Explorers Club. You might say the band was built for this stage. A 10-piece act, no, wait, 15 players. No, that’s not right. Two percussionists, three guitarists, pianist on the grand piano and a different electronic keyboard player, bass, how many in the horn section? How many backup vocalists? This was not just The Explorers Club. It was The Explorers Club Love and Harmony Orchestra: a gathering of all the musicians the core six-piece band needed to make its record. Only on a stage such as this could the band bring the full sound of their recording to life.
The huge ensemble began with two songs, including the radio friendly "Run, Run, Run" deftly sung by a sheepish man in a leather jacket, who then inexplicably departed from the stage following his performance. So, he wasn’t the lead singer. There were others who took lead vocalist roles. The left side guitarist, then the electronic keyboard player. Then the multi-instrumentalist guitar/bongo player. I needed a program to name the players.
Their songs are all tributes to West Coast 70s-era AM radio pop songs. If you told me the band had unearthed a cache of the best songs that didn’t make it onto hit records 40 years ago, and were presenting them as their own, I would believe you. Or that a group in 1976, slated as the next big thing in pop music, discovered a time machine and was sent to 2013 South Carolina, I’d believe it.
Whether you like their time-stamped music or not, these guys have a clear vision and are pursuing it with focus and fire. They used the entire stage—front to back and side to side—and challenged the sound engineers to do their best. Early on, a couple started shagging at the front of the stage. This was the first time a group got anyone out of their seats for a reason beyond going to the bathroom.
THE MUSIC HALL
The real star of the night was the Charleston Music Hall. It’s a venue made for artists whose entertainment value and vision are bigger than the dive bars and barn jams you can visit any day of the week. It’s a venue that will challenge artists. The bands who can make it on that stage will be well on the way to making it anywhere.
If you are in a band that hopes to play the Music Hall, bring your "A" game. Then make it better.
If I could suggest anything to the Music Hall, it would be to make this a full and complete show. Pull the curtains between bands and give the band and the audience that feeling of anticipation as you raise that curtain. Seeing the bands set up and wander out to position is fine in most places. But you have a curtain. Use it. Also, if possible, book a local comedian or a great MC to take the stage in front of the curtain and fill the time between sets. A night of local entertainment at the Music Hall could become a must-see event no matter who is playing.
PHOTOS: Devin Grant.