When the doors of the Charleston Music Hall swing open at 7 p.m. Saturday, Mark Bryan hopes that history will be made.
The night marks the culmination of years of ideas and planning for the first installment of “Live at the Charleston Music Hall,” a double-header concert that will be filmed and edited into two 30-minute television program pilots.
Bryan, a member of Hootie & the Blowfish and a longtime Charleston resident, has worked steadily on the project for more than four years, coordinating with the College of Charleston’s video marketing programs and co-promoter Rob Lamble of Ear for Music.
The inaugural event features two national headliners: Grammy-winning bluegrass giant Sam Bush and pop star and S.C. native Edwin McCain. Each act will perform a 75-minute set, from which four or five songs (along with an interview portion conducted with students from the Intro to the Music Industry class that Bryan teaches at the C of C) will be whittled into the half-hour programs.
“This building lends itself to creating really special moments between an artist and an audience,” said Lamble, who in 1997 booked blues artist Keb’Mo’ for the first show at the newly opened Music Hall. “We’re inspired by this killer venue that’s sitting in our backyard and has been underutilized for so long, but also by this really rich and thriving musical landscape in the Southeast that deserves some attention. We think we can really plant a flag in the ground on a national level for the music scene in our region.”
Although the Charleston Music Hall at 37 John St. first opened as a theater just 16 years ago, its history predates the Civil War.
Built in 1850 and originally named The Tower Depot, the Gothic Revival-style building served as the entrance to the South Carolina Railroad’s passenger depot. Its three-story tower collapsed during the earthquake of 1886, after which the building became a manufacturing plant that made bags to transport and store cotton.
That business went bankrupt during the Great Depression, and the building settled into a half-century of neglect before being transformed into a theater in the mid-’90s, when Myrtle Beach country music mogul Calvin Gilmore hosted a nightly Grand Ole Opry-style theatrical production. The doors closed again after that short-lived program before the building’s owners, the locally based Bennett Hofford Construction Co., rebranded it the Charleston Music Hall in 1995.
“I think the Music Hall stands out in America, and not just in Charleston, for how beautiful and majestic it is,” said Sam Bush, who last played the Hall in 2008. “I think the time is good for what Mark (Bryan) and Rob (Lamble) are trying to do. TV has gotten away from having shows where people really play music, so I’m excited about it.”
Bryan doesn’t hesitate when he compares the Music Hall to legendary theaters like The Orpheum in Memphis, Tenn., Fox Theatre in Detroit and The Apollo in Harlem, N.Y.
“Having toured with Hootie in classic theaters like this all over the country, I can say that what we have here is special, and the building is older than any of the others,” Bryan said, recalling his first experiences in the space: a concert by bluegrass musician David Grisman and a Frank Sinatra tribute by Hootie singer Darius Rocker. “Those shows showed me how brilliant the room is. It can manage a rock band or a very intimate acoustic act.”
Saturday’s performance is not the first time a concert has been recorded at the Hall. In 2002, country legend Ricky Skaggs taped and released a live album from the venue that garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album and won one for its track “A Simple Life.”
But that’s just one of countless shows that stand out in the music hall’s collective history, from David Byrne to Ryan Adams, Taj Mahal, Andrew Bird and Herbie Hancock.
It’s impossible to discuss filming a concert for TV without bringing up “Austin City Limits,” the public television program out of Texas that helped earn Austin its reputation as “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
Aired on Saturday nights since 1976, the show has grown to include its own large-scale annual music festival while still maintaining the same weekly, intimate live format that it’s used for decades.
“I remember my dad cuing it with the VCR,” said Lamble. “ ‘Austin City Limits’ was an inspiration to me throughout my teen years, watching all the blues greats from Albert Collins to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Buddy Guy to Leo Kottke. It’s such a diverse show.”
Bryan actually played the show with Hootie, recalling the “high school gymnasium” feel of the set and the “low-key” atmosphere that calmed the band’s nerves despite performing for a national TV audience.
“(‘Austin City Limits’) is the holy grail of music TV shows, so of course, it’s an inspiration,” said Bryan, who plans to differentiate “Live at the Charleston Music Hall” from its predecessors through several elements, including the setting in a historic theater and the interview segment, conducted earlier in the day at the C of C. “That brings a unique touch to it and incorporates the college and the Charleston scene as a whole.”
When Bryan first imagined the idea for the show, he formulated a plan with the late Johnny Diamond, a celebrated local band manager who helped him envision how the pilot and TV aspects would work out.
Lamble soon came on board to help with the booking and promoter duties of putting on the show, but Bryan’s ongoing music career and the red tape of working out arrangements with the C of C and S.C. Educational Television pushed the project to the backburner month after month.
In mid-2012, the Music Hall emerged from several years of being underused when they hired Charles Carmody, a fresh-faced recent graduate who has taken over as administrator of the venue and kept shows and events booked on an almost weekly basis since October.
Carmody grew up in Mount Pleasant across the street from Bryan and remembers his musical idol talking about the idea of a live concert program filmed at the hall.
“I used to run over to Mark’s house and borrow his rock DVDs. He’d hand me a Hendrix film, and I’d go home and flip it in,” recalls Carmody. “When I started at this job, I called him up and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ ”
With a helping hand, a green light from within the venue, Bryan went back to the college and recruited the school’s director of television and video production, Tim Fennell, as the head of a film crew, along with nearly 50 students involved in the production and advertising of the event, from creating promotional videos to serving as runners for the artists on the day of the show.
Once the pilots are ready to air, Bryan said they plan to shop the show to SCETV and to channels like cable’s Palladia. The hope is to get picked up for a series of eight to 10 programs, establishing “Live at the Charleston Music Hall” as a recognizable high-quality product.
For Carmody and fans of the Music Hall, that would help create profits and guarantee that the building, located on prime downtown real estate, remains a performance space rather than being adapted to residential or other commercial use.
“If we can get this place recognized, then the sky is the limit,” said Carmody. “When bands play in this room, they realize how viable our city is. We’d like to get to the point where artists are saying, ‘Hey, the Charleston Music Hall is hot stuff. We want to play there!’ ”
To that end, Bryan emphasizes that his purpose at this moment is not to think about the TV potential or future DVD sales, but to “host a killer show, right now.”
“My head is not about what’s going to happen with it, but with making it happen,” he said. “At the end of the day, if we make a quality piece that we feel really good about, we’ll be able to get it out there.”
Looking ahead, Bryan and Lamble mention acts like Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and the local duo Shovels & Rope among their short list for upcoming episodes. With each live taping, they’ll put an emphasis on a pairing that compliments each other, often on a “local meets national” level.
“I think this will be interesting for the audience because you’ve got two totally different kinds of bands playing. It makes it a fun night to have that diversity,” said Bush, adding that he takes “great pride” in the possibility of the concert airing on public television. “Public TV and radio don’t revolve around trends, so the people watching are generally just searching for good honest music.”
That’s exactly what the team behind “Live at the Charleston Music Hall” hopes to offer the audience on Saturday, presented in a room that’s already among the Southeast’s most renowned in sound quality and historic background.
“We all know how cool and legendary the music hall is,” Bryan said. “Now it’s time to let everybody else know.”