In Praise of Small Rooms

As Bobby Houck, Hank Futch, and David Stewart of the Blue Dogs were getting settled onstage to begin their set last night in the White Mule, Houck leaned into the microphone and thanked everyone for coming out. Then he mentioned that it was the third time they’d played the cozy basement bar on Main Street and how much they enjoyed the room. “So let’s give a hand to the White Mule for hanging in there,” Houck said. “It’s not easy to do these days.” The crowd cheered, the Dogs kicked into their first song, and I basked in the intimacy of seeing some live music in the company of about 40 or 50 other people.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially after catching a couple shows at the new Conundrum Music Hall in West Columbia. Live music in a small room with just a few folks can be a wonderful thing. Being up-close-and-personal with the action is a big plus, and meeting the performers at the break and chatting with fellow concert-goers can make the whole thing feel like a family affair.

I’ve come to cherish these intimate musical encounters, and I’m beginning to think that these smaller rooms with smaller crowds is all Columbia needs to keep its music scene alive and well.

This way of thinking goes totally against the grain of what I’ve preached for years: That the big black eye on the Columbia arts community is the lack of a mid-sized music venue that can comfortably accommodate 500 to 1,000 people. For years I’ve whined about Greenville having The Handlebar and Charleston having The Music Farm, and Columbia having, well, nothing of comparable size and quality. Valiant efforts have been made (Senate Park, Headliners, etc.), but for whatever reason, these clubs failed.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not location, quality of the sound, or the space that eventually does these clubs in, it’s the local-music audience, or lack thereof. At a Neko Case show a few years ago at the Orange Peel in Asheville, I ran into at least a dozen folks from Columbia who had trekked north for the gig.

“Why can’t we get a show like this in Columbia?” one of them grumbled.

“Because if Neko played Columbia, there’d only be the 12 of us in the audience,” replied another.

An overstatement, surely, but not by much. Although there’s a solid core of knowledgeable and dedicated music fans in Columbia, on the whole, the audience is neither large nor curious.

And that’s what got me thinking that these smaller rooms are a perfect fit for now. White Mule, Conundrum, New Brookland Tavern, Utopia, Whig, Five Points Pub, and others are doing their best to bring good music to town and provide a stage for aspiring local artists. So we as music fans should attend as many shows as we can and PAY ATTENTION to what’s being played.

Who knows? We might develop a valid live-music culture here, and our lackadaisical audience might turn into one that’s larger and more loyal. Only then will the talent bookers who route tours for people like Neko Case start casting approving eyes towards Columbia, and only then might we need that 1,000-seat room.

- Mike Miller


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