Last Wednesday night, as I leaned against the empty DJ booth of Chapel Hill's packed Local 506, an old friend quizzed me about upcoming concerts. Bill Callahan, the Austin, Texas, songwriter perhaps still better known as Smog, hadn't taken the stage yet, so we had ample time to talk about my friend's priorities and mine. I mentioned a few touring bands headed our way early next year, and he wondered which half of a two-night Pour House stand featuring The Rosebuds and Megafaun he should see come January. As far as he knew, the only difference between the nights was the openers, bands that he'd heard, and heard about, but never actually seen: Raleigh's Lonnie Walker and Durham's Hammer No More the Fingers.
As soon as he mentioned the contrast, a stranger one row ahead spun around in place and smiled politely. "I'm sorry, guys, but did you mention Hammer?" he asked. "Do you know if they have a show coming up? I love those guys."
We explained the double bills in January, adding that both were on the verge of selling out. I noted, too, that Hammer—as fans of the trio are wont to abbreviate—were playing a free show the next night in Raleigh, at Tir Na Nog, an Irish pub that's taken an unlikely but very successful interest in local music. The guy smiled again, said thanks and returned his gaze to the stage.
The next day, I picked up my roommate, Brad Cook of the band Megafaun, at the airport just before midnight. He was returning from a five-week European tour, Megafaun's first overseas trip, and he'd been awake for nearly an entire day. He didn't want to sleep, though, or relax with a nightcap. Rather, he wanted to head directly downtown to Tir Na Nog to hear Hammer. Looking for Bruce, the band's excellent debut LP for Durham label Churchkey Records, often serves as Megafaun's score for late-night touring drives. Ending the trip by watching them at home seemed apropos.
If the curious listener from Wednesday night's show was there, I didn't see him. But more important, there were dozens just like him—people I didn't recognize, despite having been to a dozen Hammer shows over the last four years, singing every word, laughing at every bit of the band's shirtless, beyond-buzzed banter and high-fiving during each of Joe Hall's perfectly odd guitar solos. They were treating this hometown band like touring favorites, behaving as if they'd prepared for this show by listening to the records, calling up friends and heading out for the night.
Local arts and music scenes often reduce to musicians watching their music-making friends make music, and vice versa. If it's not always mutual appreciation, it's at least mutual support or validation. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that model. A self-sustaining local culture is better than none at all. After growing up in a small town several dozen miles outside of Raleigh, unaware of the existence of local or indie anything, I resolved as much as a college freshman, when I saw The Countdown Quartet play the proud Humble Pie in Raleigh. I was hooked.
But this year, more than any other year this decade, the Triangle's local band scene seemed to engender broader support. In 2009, that support came not only from people interested in the music their neighbors made but also from national and international press outlets and promoters. It was a good year to be, as one excellent local compilation put it, "hearing here," at home.
Sure, such a statement—local music got at least part of its due this year—feels a little like self-reflexive cheerleading, but, given the evidence, the real crime would come in not pointing it out. See, it's not just one band or an isolated niche that's earning recognition and building ranks. From Hammer and Megafaun to The Old Ceremony and Red Collar, from Chapel Hill's burgeoning Drughorse Cartel that includes The Love Language and Max Indian to the Durham circle rooted under the aegis of 307 Knox Records, multiple area bands are packing clubs here and elsewhere.
In only its second year, for instance, TRKFest—a dozen-band, all-day party organized by Trekky Records—became a must-see event. And in its mostly carefully curated edition yet, Troika Music Festival nearly doubled previous attendance records. They did the unlikely, too, succeeding with shows both in the grand Durham Performing Arts Center and on the concrete pad of Durham Central Park. During the spring edition of the biannual Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival, often stocked with out-of-town Americana polyglots, one of the most attentive crowds rose early for a Sunday set by Durham's Midtown Dickens. In fact, a stranger who saw that set helped the band pay for its gorgeous, ambitious second record, Lanterns.
While Concord, N.C.'s The Avett Brothers rose to substantive mainstream fame this year with a major-label debut and the No. 9 spot in Time magazine's year-end album list, this season's most telling piece of North Carolina-related music press might've come from Ear Farm, a popular New York music blog founded by former Raleigh resident Matt Tyson. In September, Tyson posted a scene guide titled "Ten North Carolina Bands You Should Hear Right Now." The list, capped by the young Lonnie Walker, was strong, but the discussion that followed was stronger. Both in the Ear Farm comments section and on local blogs, people argued passionately about what other bands deserved to be on the list. Debaters were called names. Barbs were exchanged. Bands were dismissed and defended. It felt a little like watching a Blue Devil and a Tar Heel square off in March.
And many of those bands became proud cultural emissaries: Bowerbirds toured the U.S. twice and Europe once, recording intimate performances for NPR, Pitchfork Media and The Village Voice along the way. The Old Ceremony received laurels from one of the country's premier Internet music programs, Daytrotter, as did The Love Language, who signed to Merge Records—a local label, sure, but as important an indie label as any in America. I Was Totally Destroying It released its second record of potent pop through the proven Portland label Greyday Records, while Spider Bags unleashed the first salvos in a planned series of 7" records, as well as a roaring sophomore LP.
Whatever Brains, a snarly but magnetic Raleigh quartet, landed distribution for its 7"s with Matador Records, as well as a steady swell of national interest. While on tour with The Avett Brothers in Seattle in May, I flipped past a copy of the Brains' brilliant first single, Mt. Whatever, in Sonic Boom Records, sandwiched between wax from Jay Reatard and Crocodiles.
In its first year, Odessa Records—the brainchild of The Kingsbury Manx keyboardist Paul Finn, who served his time in the indie label trenches of Drag City, Touch & Go and Merge before staking out on his own much later—released five LPs, one 7" and an online EP. Almost all of it was excellent. And Chapel Hill label Holidays for Quince Records found national distribution, while Horseback, the band led by label cofounder Jenks Miller, raked in critical kudos for its second LP, The Invisible Mountain. Christopher Weingarten, a frequent scribe for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, awarded the album an 8.5 out of 10, calling it a "logical, glorious step" on his Twitter-based record review blog, 1000TimesYes. "Records like this are why I write about music," wrote Cosmo Lee, a heavy metal critic for Decibel and Pitchfork.
Of course, every deserving record released in these parts this year didn't find the acclaim it probably should have. One such album belongs to Ryan Gustafson, a Chapel Hill songwriter who spent some time leading the less-than-remarkable modern rock outfit Boxbomb. But his Donkey LP is full of fractured country-rock gems, conveying an interest in The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Grateful Dead, as blurred through lo-fi impulses. Few people paid attention this year, but I have a feeling Gustafson's time will come, that this is the right environment for people to hear these songs.
In fact, three days after that Hammer No More the Fingers show, I was grabbing a cup of coffee on a rainy Triangle Sunday. Cameron Lee—who plays guitar for Thad Cockrell and in his own band, Bright Young Things—was handing the barista a copy of Gustafson's record as I walked in. He encouraged her to check it out. "It's awesome," he said. We'd talked about it before, so he glanced at me for confirmation.
"Yeah, he's right. It's great," I said, nodding. "You should totally listen."