Back in their teens, Jessica Oliver and Alex Strickland both traveled from other towns to attend concerts at West Columbia’s New Brookland Tavern.
Oliver recalls riding about 60 miles from Lancaster to visit the eternally dilapidated dive bar and rock club. She was only 17 when she found herself playing keyboard at the club with Falling Off a Building, led by Adam Cullum, her future bandmate in the chaotic and beautiful Can’t Kids. The performance came in support of headliner Neva Dinova, labelmate of famed folk outfit Bright Eyes on the big-time independent imprint Saddle Creek.
“That was bonkers to me that I got to do that at that age,” Oliver reflects, looking back on how attending and playing shows at New Brookland Tavern helped her find the community and the confidence that pushed her to pursue music. “I wouldn’t have been allowed to play that show if it wasn’t an all-ages venue.”
Can’t Kids would go on to deliver a locally beloved spree of cello-stoked indie rock before Cullum’s death earlier this year. But Oliver does more for the local music scene than play in it — she’s the executive director for Girls Rock Columbia, the annual summer camp that aims to empower girls and trans youth by teaching them to play in a rock band.
Growing up on Hilton Head Island, Strickland would often trek to Savannah for shows, but he also found himself driving three hours to New Brookland in the early 2000s to see Georgia metalcore stalwart Norma Jean and Columbia punk favorite Stretch Armstrong.
“That was all-ages and it was an incredible show,” he remembers. “It was one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was the first time I ever went to New Brookland. And I just remember how lucky I was that there was a place like this in my state. I didn’t care about driving three hours for bands that I really, really liked.”
Now Strickland embraces creative symmetry, combining his dual passions for fine cuisine and adventurous metal at Main Street’s Hunter-Gatherer brewpub, where he took over as head chef in February, serving ingenuitive American fare from the kitchen and using the dining room to host the bulk of the impressive heavy music bills he books under the handle #ColumbiaRules. He also shreds his vocal cords as the frontman for Bathe and Abacus, manic and mercurial outfits that stand among the state’s finest metal bands.
Today, Oliver and Strickland are multi-talented pillars of the Columbia arts and music community. Both were spurred on by attending rock concerts in a bar before they could vote or drink. And they’re far from alone.
Open since the early-’90s, State Street’s New Brookland Tavern has stood apart — beyond its position as the area’s longest continuously running rock club — by largely keeping its doors open to underage attendees. It’s part of what makes the room a reliable mecca for punk and metal and indie rock, keeping those sounds close to their youthful essence.
“New Brookland and venues that accept people underage have more value than I think people like to believe they do,” offers Columbia’s Tyler Hart, the 22-year-old guitarist for the feisty, young post-punk outfit Danger Boy. “They [allow] younger folks to actually explore music in person. Not just on some streaming service or from word of mouth. You get to go see something that you probably wouldn’t see. You see music videos and all that stuff — you kind of get that whole vibe in real life. And you can meet peers.”
But last month, New Brookland’s all-ages tradition hit a snag. Due to a state law that went into effect last year requiring bars and restaurants that sell alcohol after 5 p.m. to maintain at least $1 million in liquor liability insurance to renew their licenses, the bar upped its age requirement to 21-and-up for all shows on Nov. 30. New Brookland was subsequently able to reach a compromise with its insurance provider, allowing for roughly 20 percent of shows to be open to all ages, promising a mix of local groups and more popular touring bands to be featured on the unrestricted lineups.
“National and touring shows get booked a little farther out,” club owner Mike Lyons offers in an email to Free Times explaining the new admissions policy. “The ones with an all-ages crowd will be booked and then we’ll work with the local bands on being involved with those shows or setting up their own all-ages shows.”
Social media outcry from many in the local music scene quickly followed New Brookland’s initial announcement, but through it all, Lyons remained adamant that all-ages shows would return in some capacity.
“I’m constantly hearing people talk about the shows they came to when they were under 21 and how much those shows meant to them and formed who they are now,” Lyons says. “It would be a shame to stunt the future of Columbia’s music scene by not allowing these kids to discover their love of music and be involved with it the same way so many people over 21 now received at one point. Being able to do all-ages shows has been a big part of the club’s identity but it’s not solely who we are. Live music and being a part of the local music community will continue to be our identity and we’ll always strive to do this as best we can.”
To Lyons’ credit, all-ages bills aren’t easy to justify from a pure business perspective. New Brookland’s cover charges largely go toward paying bands and sound people, meaning bar sales are where the venue makes money to sustain itself.
“It gets announced and kids obviously wig out — ‘This isn’t fair! I don’t understand! Just stop selling liquor!’” offers Strickland, who has booked many a show at New Brookland. “It’s a f#!king bar. They don’t make money that keeps the doors open off $6 to get in and pay a band and pay a sound guy. Their booze is what keeps the lights on.”
New Brookland Tavern isn’t the only spot offering access to underage attendees. Many of the shows at The Senate, the 1,200-capacity rock club in the Vista, are open to all ages. Cottontown’s Curiosity Coffee Bar recently added a stage and has begun hosting local and regional acts at happy hour. And The White Mule, recently reopened in the intimate Five Points room that used to belong to Speakeasy, largely allows all ages, with those 16 and under needing an adult to accompany them at ticketed shows. Owner Trae Judy does note that a 21-and-up restriction may be imposed for beer or liquor sponsor nights, and that those under 18 might not be allowed “if the content or lyrics are not appropriate.”
But presently, the area’s most consistent all-ages champions are on Columbia’s Main Street: Hunter-Gatherer — where Strickland’s late, post-dinner shows are open to any who pay the modest cover charge — and Tapp’s Arts Center — which hosts frequent concerts in its basement alcoves known as The Space Hall and The Soda Live. The former Tapp’s space leans toward indie rock that can be fuzzy or sheeny along with electronic-leaning dance nights, with most events enhanced by custom projections. The latter, spurred on by local emcee Fat Rat da Czar and his Love, Peace & Hip-Hop organization, looks to carve out a rap-friendly environment that’s equally hospitable to other styles.
Operating respectively as a restaurant and an arts space, Hunter-Gatherer and Tapp’s aren’t beholden to the law that New Brookland is forced to work around.
For his part, Space Hall Director Sean Shoppell views playing his room as a step up from house shows — concerts held as parties at local residences.
“We kind of always saw ourselves as being this halfway point between house shows — which is no parents, no rules — and New Brookland — which is actually like an established venue and does have some layers to get involved with,” he reasons. “Giving younger kids an opportunity to be able to play is pretty tight, coming from the background of playing in bands and stuff and having a hard time getting out there. Just having that platform is important for new, up-and-coming bands.”
Though house show venues offer a free and unrestrained space for those in the residents’ friend group, attending such concerts can prove daunting for young people. The addresses aren’t common knowledge, meaning anyone wanting to go will have to first obtain the info from someone in the know, limiting accessibility and upping the awkwardness for first-time visitors.
“I did definitely feel intimidated going to house shows for the first time, just because I didn’t know anybody, and I felt like I had to know people there since it was a house,” offers Ony Ratsimbaharison, who started going to shows in her early teens and started her first band in high school. She turns 27 this week.
A few years ago, fk mt., the grungy indie rock band in which she plays bass, hosted frequent concerts at its house, dubbed Queen Punk Palace. She extols the value of young people being afforded access to both house shows and proper club bills.
“I would say house shows are always more intimate in a way,” she says. “They tend to be more obviously centered around music. Shows are always about music first, but it’s viewed differently at bar shows, which I think is sometimes another reason why there are age restrictions. So yeah, I guess there’s more of a just intimate, community-oriented feel at house shows and DIY spots.
“There is a better chance of spreading the word when it’s at a proper venue,” she adds. “The more intimate atmosphere can feel less inviting to some people, depending on where that DIY venue is and who’s running it.”
Girls Rock’s Jessica Oliver, who previously helped run the popular Shredquarters house show space with her Can’t Kids cohorts, speculates that many parents might feel uncomfortable about sending their children to such places.
“I do feel like parents of high school-aged kids probably aren’t going to be OK sending their kids to a house show in most cases,” she says. “So that’s why somewhere that’s an established business with a decent reputation is going to serve that age group a lot better. Parents, I think, are just going to feel a lot safer letting their kids hang out there.”
Hunter-Gathererer’s Strickland feels similarly about the importance of proper clubs like New Brookland offering access to all ages.
“When you have a show at a club, everyone is welcome as long as you have six bucks, or however much the door is,” he says. “A ton of artists don’t play house shows, especially breakout artists. I mean, s#!t, Abacus has been around for a long time. We’ll still play your house. But we’re always going to enjoy being able to hear ourselves onstage and having the perks of playing in a club — free booze or safe parking; you know that your van’s not going to get broken into because you’re not playing in a shady neighborhood. Things like that, now that I’m older I respect that a little more.”
Whether it comes at a house or a club, 21-year-old Martin Hacker-Mullen sees all-ages venues as key to Columbia fostering new bands. Attending early shows at New Brookland Tavern and booking shows at Wired Goat Vista, a former coffee shop that allowed unrestricted shows, have both been key to the development of his viscerally emotional pop-punk group Stress Fractures.
“I think a lot of younger people aren’t really knowledgeable of the world of music that exists around them,” he says. “I think a lot of people see what’s put in front of them and that’s what they know. When I started going to New Brookland I had no idea who any of the bands I was seeing were. But I heard from a friend, ‘Oh, you like this gigantic band, you might like this really small band.’ So with that knowledge I just started going to every show that looked interesting [that] I could and really just opening up a world of possibilities as to what I like and what I can do with my art.”
Apart from their impact to the music scene, Space Hall’s Shoppell sees all-ages shows as important to local talent retention in general, showing local high schoolers and college students who enjoy such entertainment that Columbia can provide.
“It kind of gives young people a sense of what this town can be,” he concludes. “Especially when you have kids that are in high school here, they probably just see Columbia as another s#!t South Carolina town. And it’s like, ‘Well, I’m going to get out of here the second I can.’
“New Brookland Tavern’s already established. It’s always been a focal point of the music scene. And just knowing that that’s been there for so long and hopefully will continue to be there, it just makes it stronger for younger kids. ... It’s Columbia’s CBGB of sorts. It’s a place that so many people have been, so many different artists have played there. “
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