A long time coming
Last year, on a steamy July day, the Charleston Music Hall operations team finally signed the lease to take over the Music Farm. Charleston’s iconic concert venue had been sitting vacant and undisturbed since the 2020 COVID-19-induced shutdown. Music Hall director Charles Carmody made his way over to locked doors at 32 Ann St. downtown.
“I remember coming in here that day and it was like they shut the doors and left and never returned,” Carmody said. “It was bizarre — there was still confetti everywhere, liquor bottles in all the wells, coolers full of beer running. It looked like they just disappeared.”
Considering Carmody had been jamming at the Music Farm since he was 13, finding the place abandoned like a classroom at Chernobyl was an epic, if unsettling moment. He just didn’t realize what Music Hall and its partners were getting into.
“It turns out, it’s the worst time to renovate a building in, like, the history of renovations because of supply chain issues,” Carmody said.
The top items on the to-do list were new HVAC and sound systems, which presented major hurdles as prices rose and delivery times lengthened. But the sorry state of the plumbing and electrical came as a shock.
“The plumbing was actually tilted back into the building because it was built on a transformer,” he said. “It was wild to see how much of a mess it was. We just kept peeling back the literal walls and finding more and more issues.”
At first, a triumphant New Year’s Eve opening date shined in the team’s eyes … then it was Feb. 1 … then, for sanity’s sake, they decided to not put any date on a reopening.
Thankfully though, Music Farm will finally reopen this Friday in all its refurbished glory. And what better way to christen a new Music Farm era than two nights of Susto and special guests, with food served up by The Royal American’s new Music Farm outpost.
A gritty shrine to moshing and Mingo
When Music Farm was founded in 1991, the Holy City was far less gentrified and far more spooky and rough around the edges. An underground skate and arts scene was represented by folks like Shepherd Fairey and Blaize Blouin. The local commercial radio station, WAVF, aka 96 Wave, was recognized as one of the top alternative stations in the country.
In this budding Gen-X heaven, local rock band Uncle Mingo played a role in the Farm’s history. Back in 1991, one of the original founders, Kevin Wadley, who was also in a local rock band, The Archetypes, rented out a building off East Bay Street that was available for private parties. At the time, Charleston had concert venues, including the venerable Windjammer on the Isle of Palms, but it didn’t really have a gritty, mosh-happy equivalent to Athens’ 40 Watt, Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle or Wilmington’s Mad Monk.
“Kevin had wanted to get into the promoting the side of things so he rented it out and had two parties that he hired us to play,” said Uncle Mingo singer and bassist, Bryon Moore. “They were packed, and that was when he was like, ‘This works.’ That’s kind of when he took on Carter McMillan, who was his partner when they opened up originally.”
When Wadley and McMillan’s endeavor formally opened as Music Farm, Uncle Mingo played the grand opening celebration on East Bay Street in April 1991. For the next year or so, Uncle Mingo was the unofficial Music Farm house band, opening up for bigger acts that included the “Frank Zappa of the South,” Colonel Bruce Hampton.
“I don’t know what capacity it was, but I’m sure they went over it,” Moore said. “I just remember it was standing room only.”
When the Farm moved in 1993 to the current location, Uncle Mingo brought its bell-bottomed garage funk over to Ann Street. “Off the top of my head, we played there regularly on Halloween and New Year’s for probably the first five years,” Moore said. “That band room, the original one up to the left of the stage when graffiti was all over the walls — it seemed like whenever I played there, there’d be 50 people back there, and it was a party.”
The Music Farm would become one of the South’s hallowed alternative venues. On any given night, you might find They Might be Giants, Eek-A-Mouse, Mike Watt, GWAR, Meat Puppets, Phish, Widespread Panic, L7, Melvins, Luscious Jackson, The Specials, Weezer, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Bow Wow Wow, The Jesus Lizard, Fishbone or even Smashing Pumpkins. Other local faves like Band of Horses and Shovels & Rope would also grace the sweat-stained stage.
Pawleys Island chef and veteran skate punk Raiford King was among tens of thousands of Farm disciples. “I saw Dick Dale there in 1996,” King said. “He literally melted his guitar picks. Motörhead played there with Nashville Pussy, the Supersuckers and REO Speedealer. We begged Corey Parks of Nashville Pussy to spit beer on us. When Lemmy (Motörhead) came on we were right up front. They started playing and were so loud, I ended up stuffing toilet paper in my ears. No help. We kept moving further and further back. I actually went outside a couple of times to ease the pain. I later told Corey Parks about the beer incident on her Instagram. She said, ‘That was your rock ‘n’ roll baptism.’ ”
The New Old Farm
As an homage to its past, the 2022 iteration of Music Farm remains dedicated to making sure the new room stays a place for local bands, Carmody said. The Farm plans to hold a monthly locals showcase and secure support slots for local bands to be added to national tours. Charleston bands including Stoplight Observations, Girl Pluto, Psycodelics and Little Bird are lined up with show dates so far.
“Our goal with this room is to create a developing room with the ability to grow artists in the market,” Carmody said. “Once they can sell out this room, we can move them up. And I do think this room very much can work alongside and in harmony with the Pour House and the Windjammer and The Royal American in the ways that we’re all developing artists.”
Musicians can also expect a new level of amenities, and backstage will be a far cry from the graffiti-slathered hive of yore. Plus, the club’s maximum audience capacity has been lowered so shows can’t get too packed out.
“We’re doing it right,” Carmody said. “It’s going to sound amazing. There’s not going to be too many people in here. We have two green rooms, a shower backstage, a washer and a dryer. The artists are going to be a lot happier.”
Music Hall and partners Frank Productions and National Shows 2 (NS2) recently welcomed Live Nation to the booking team for Music Farm, which means a wider array of artists are now accessible.
The current April and May schedule is a testament to musical diversity. It goes from the psych-folk of SUSTO to the hard rock of Badflower, from the blues of Samantha Fish to the trip hop of Tay Money, from the country pop of Kidd G to the eclectic indie of Two Feet.
“It’s all over the place in the best way,” said NS2 talent buyer Emma Germano, who’s been working with Charleston Music Hall for the past year. “We have four people buying for this room. You’ve got everybody who’s got their hands on something and there’s really no blind spots at that point when you have four different people covering four very different goals.”
What makes all this good stuff even better is Music Farm is officially the unofficial Friday pre-party for High Water 2022, featuring festival acts Shovels & Rope, Delta Spirit and Palm Palm on April 22.
“I am very thrilled to be the pre-party,” Carmody said. “And the programming is cool: 7 pm Shovels & Rope will play their new album in its entirety, and at 10 pm are Delta Spirit and Palm Palm, who will rip the face off the building.”
Which would, of course, be fitting.
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