It took 18 years or so, but the promise of the Charleston Music Hall is now starting to be realized. The venue on John Street opened in 1995, hosted a regular opry-style production called "The Serenade Show," then went mostly dark for more than a decade, used only occasionally by local artists or touring bands.
In July 2012, the upstart Charles Carmody took charge of the place with the famous sound system and began to shake things up.
By doing more, in different ways, with a wider range of acts, Carmody could negotiate the rental price (about $3,500 for a night's use); he could host nonmusical events; he could launch new series, introduce film screenings and work with local organizations.
"We're in that experimental stage," he said.
And it's keeping him extraordinarily busy. Carmody and his colleague, Bennett Jones, are a two-man show, managing everything from bookings to presenting to logistics to ticket sales and facilities maintenance.
The Music Hall has its limitations: no loading dock, no backstage area to speak of, no dressing rooms or amenities for the performers, noisy air conditioning units and a propensity to collect water at the foot of the stage during rain storms. So Carmody and Jones, with lots of help from their freelance technical director Danny Kapp and sound man Andrew Higdon, do the best with what they've got.
What they've got is a well-loved space with more than 900 seats (and not really a bad one in the house) and an excellent sound system that makes the hall ideal for most any kind of amplified music.
What they've got is a new digital movie projector.
What they've got is a growing number of patrons who can enjoy drinks, dinner, hotel accommodations and a show without crossing the street.
Holy City Hospitality, which owns the Music Hall and is part of Bennett Hospitality, operates the restaurants Coast, 39 Rue de Jean, Virginia's on King, Michael's on the Alley (a new steakhouse), Vincent Chicco's (a new Italian-American place) and a small cocktail lounge nestled between the two new restaurants, as well as properties elsewhere. Bennett Hospitality runs the nearby Hampton Inn and Embassy Suites, and six other hotels in the Charleston area.
One of the anchor productions at the Music Hall is the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, which typically presents six big band concerts a year.
"It's been a good home for us," said Leah Suarez, executive director of the band's presenting organization, Jazz Artists of Charleston. "It's been a place for us to build a foundation. It fits in very well with what we do."
Now in its sixth season, the jazz orchestra has found its niche, drawing more and more patrons and donors who like to hear a new twist on the classic big band sound.
"It's nice to feel supported in there now," Suarez said. "They recognize it as our home, too."
That's just what Carmody wants to hear.
"It's got to feel like a home," he said, citing Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium as a model. It's got to support not only big touring acts but local artists, he said.
On Mondays, Seacoast Church rents the space. Benefitfocus held a recent seminar there. YALLFest, the young adult literary festival, offered its main event in the hall.
"That was my favorite," Jones said. All those enthusiastic young people lining up around the block to meet their favorite authors.
"They were using words like 'heteronormative,' " Carmody mused admiringly.
"It was awesome," Jones said.
Carmody plays guitar and writes songs, or at least he used to, before the hall consumed all his time. He was in a comedy band called Introducing Fish Taco, once wrote a musical and found himself most impressed by something called Bean Night, an event he encountered in Isla Vista, Calif., just up the road from Santa Barbara, back in 2008.
Bean Night was a semi-regular, communal songfest, a quasi-organized but informal open-mike session lacking all commercialism and competitiveness.
Its purpose was fellowship and fun, Carmody said, with a note of self-aware softheartedness.
"Why is music so powerful? It reminds us of our past, it's sentimental, but it brings people together," he said.
So shouldn't the Music Hall serve that purpose?
On Jan. 29, the hall will screen "A Night of Independent Silent Film," animated shorts by Myles Walsh with innovative soundscapes by Nick Jenkins and Designer Audio School.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops will use the space Jan. 30. The Stand-Up Comedy Series continues on Jan. 31. The hall is providing the stage for the Feb. 1 Halsey Institute Groundhog Day Benefit Concert, featuring The Opposite of a Train and a variety of special music guests.
Ukulele phenomenon Jake Shimabukuro will play there Feb. 4 (presented by NS2). Elise Testone will introduce her new CD at a special show Feb. 13. And Dave Mason's Traffic Jam plays the hall Feb. 15.
And that's how it goes: The ever-energetic 24-year-old Carmody is putting something on stage every week, sometimes producing the show, sometimes working with third-party presenters like NS2 or Ear for Music.
'Living and breathing'
Rob Lamble, owner of Ear for Music, said he's promoted more than 30 concerts at the hall, including, most recently, "Newgrass" up-and-comer Sarah Jarosz, Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen and bluesman Keb' Mo.'
"It's a very unique venue, there's a very special vibe to it," Lamble said. "I really enjoy doing shows there, and artists really enjoy doing shows there as well."
The hall is on the site of a former train depot, and it helped Ricky Skaggs win a Grammy. Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder released the CD "Live at the Charleston Music Hall" in 2003.
The following year, he snagged an award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group for the track "A Simple Life."
Lamble said Carmody "has shined a new light" on the hall. "It's nice to be seeing that venue living and breathing."
Danny Kapp was there when it opened in 1995, installing the sound system, and he's been there ever since. Though not designed as a road house (a venue that easily accommodates touring bands), it's served that purpose, thanks to its location and appeal.
"We've done more in the past year than in the past 8-10 years," Kapp said.
Recently, he's installed new lighting, amplifiers and cabling. The new digital projector came with a video mixer. The only thing that's not brand-new is the hall's mascot, Margaret, a tiny Maltese poodle that sits quietly next to the sound board for every rehearsal, sound check and show. Kapp rescued the pup from the SPCA 3½ years ago.
Not long ago, the hall lit up perhaps 40 times a year, Carmody said. In 2013, there were 113 shows and the operation ended the year in the black, the first time ever. This year, already 120 shows have been booked (nothing yet for the fall).
Carmody, who's developed a logo and marketing package, said he's hoping to create subscription series, film series, local music showcases and more.
He tried a bluegrass festival, but that didn't go too well. He tried presenting comedy last summer, and that showed some promise, so more is to come.
He's working with the Charleston International Film Festival on some presentations.
He's also pitching to TV stations a pilot episode of "Live at the Charleston Music Hall," filmed last March when mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush and Greenville native Edwin McCain performed on a double bill. Should that take off, Carmody said, 12 episodes would be produced a year.
At some point, the experimental stage will give way to something more routine. But for now, Carmody is willing to try anything that promises a good turnout.
"I want to create an audience engaged with us," he said.
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