On any given night in Charleston, there’s no shortage of live music. Nationally touring acts are all the more common, selling out the Music Hall or the Music Farm or the Pour House. Cover bands abound on Upper King, playing everything from classic rock anthems to modern-day ditties. World-class jazzmen set the mood at upscale restaurants and bars.
But if none of those options are compelling to you, either based on content or finances, a few spots around town offer affordable, or even free, live performances featuring some of Charleston’s finest musicians. And they're in settings that encourage experimentation, letting these top-notch players play, in the most childlike sense of the word.
A mash-up on East Bay
Bar Mash, in the old cigar factory at Columbus and East Bay streets, has become a hot spot for happenings like these. Saxophonist and producer Mike Quinn is in charge of Monday nights over there. “Basically, I put the crews together,” says Quinn.
The most recurrent Monday night group is Shimmy Ghoster, featuring Quinn on saxophone, Ron Wiltrout on drums, and Gerald Gregory on keys. “It is front-to-back completely improvised music,” says Quinn.
Such freedom is often associated with monotonous vamping on a single chord and band members taking turns soloing. That is not the case at all with Shimmy Ghoster.
Says Quinn, “We’re simultaneously trying to make it cerebral and kind of pushing the boundaries of both ourselves and possibly the listener while still making it very palatable and fun to listen to. We’re not trying to scare anybody away but we are not trying to make it a one-chord funk jam kind of thing, which can be fun in its own right, but that’s not what we’re trying to do there.”
Quinn, Wiltrout and Gregory have all been prominent members of the local music community for years and have played together in a slew of different capacities. But this particular concept began at The Palace Hotel, where a welcoming crowd encouraged their experimentation, and the results were too good to not re-create.
“The reason this group works so well is because there’s an element of trust that’s pretty impermeable,” Quinn says. “There seems to be some sort of an organic nature to it and relative ease to which it happens even though it’s still to this day one of the hardest gigs I play, because of the level of focus that goes into it.”
Being that all three members of Shimmy Ghoster are high-in-demand musicians, they can’t always take part in the Monday night sessions. But Quinn doesn’t see this as a hindrance. It’s an opportunity for diversity. “I like treating (Bar Mash) like a venue,” says Quinn. “It’s not necessarily the same band every Monday. So every time you go there it’s a slightly new experience.”
Other groups that may take the Monday night stage are guitarist Thomas Kenney’s group Terraphonics, Wiltrout’s original project Rad Western, or any amalgam of Charleston’s top jazz and funk talent including Lavonta Green, Stephen Washington, Greg Loney, and many more.
“I like to keep these lineups rotating because I’m trying to include as many like-minded musicians as I can so that it becomes more of a family as opposed to these exclusive entities,” Quinn says.
Being funky and free
One member of that family is guitarist and singer Jeff Wilson. His group, Get With It, plays Bar Mash on Friday nights and The Commodore on Saturday nights. Though the music is the same, they are starkly different gigs, with the Friday night show still gaining traction and Saturday at The Commodore being a rowdy, party atmosphere.
“The Commodore is the first place we’ve played consistently that has been a good environment for the kind of funk stuff that we get into,” says Wilson. “We get up on stage and we just play everything that we’ve got. We just really try to dig in and express and be free and have a lot of energy and people have responded to it really well.”
Get With It is more of a standard funk group, playing covers arranged to their liking and peppering in originals, including the recently released single, “Off the Wall.” It’s the first taste of what Get With It can do in the studio.
Produced by Wilson and mixed and mastered by Calvin Baxter, it’s a funky, riff-filled odyssey. Wilson hopes to have the full album ready to be released this summer.
But music is about much more than just entertaining for Wilson, it’s about conveying a vision of unity. “Usually I’m one of the only white persons in the band,” Wilson says. “And I think that’s a really important image to disperse to society. With all the divisiveness, especially here in the South, multiculturalism and unity is the only way society will continue to blossom and flourish and spread ideas.”
Wilson’s band lineup, like those at Mash, is a bit amoebic. Sometimes he’ll have 17-year-old phenom Caleb Harper on drums. Other times it will be J.T. Rollerson on the kit. “I try to surround myself with the best musicians that I can find,” says Wilson. “Just having these wonderful musicians around me, from every shade and background, is a beautiful thing.”
'How a scene gets famous'
Bar Mash and The Commodore are just two of the many establishments embracing this surge of musical freedom.
Eclectic Café & Vinyl on Spring Street offers live original music on a weekly basis. Over at Proof on Mondays you can see live music booked by Charleston jazz royalty Kevin Hamilton, occasionally featuring the likes of Quentin Baxter and Charlton Singleton.
And there are still more spots following a similar model. “It’s good to see establishments supporting this stuff,” says Wilson. “Supporting multiculturalism, supporting art, supporting musicians playing the way that they feel like playing in the spirit of old jazz clubs. It’s a really important business model to spread around to people in the city. It’s how a scene gets famous.”
And Wilson knows how impactful Quinn has been in contributing to the local scene. Besides his work at Mash, Quinn produces the Poho Family Funk Revue on the Pour House Deck, fronts The Funktastics at The Commodore, and employs a plethora of musicians to play wedding gigs.
“He has helped my career out tremendously and he’s helped so many people,” says Wilson. “He lets me, and everybody else, be a musician.”
For Quinn, it’s simply his desire to make Charleston the best music city it can be. “I think it is important that good music is very, very accessible so that we can establish a music culture,” says Quinn. “Ten years ago, people may have come to Charleston and been like, ‘Oh yeah, Charleston’s just a bunch of cover bands on King Street.’ It’s so much more than that now.”