After a decade of losses, the state fair gambled on Tar Heel talent. They won. | Music Feature | Indy Week
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After a decade of losses, the state fair gambled on Tar Heel talent. They won. 

New tricks for old rooms: The Love Language at Dorton Arena

Photo by Gabriel Nelson

New tricks for old rooms: The Love Language at Dorton Arena

Eddie Sanchez had just played an arena, but he had not prepared to give any autographs.

On Friday night, just 15 minutes after he stood stage right with The Love Language, working the strings of his electric bass for an hour-long set, Sanchez did not appear ready to stick around. Clutching a few small cases of gear, his eyes fixed on the loading dock door and his jaw clenched tight, Sanchez breezed beyond the modest passel of people assembled around his band's merchandise table, like an employee sneaking out of work a few minutes before the day is done. But a man wearing a tie-dye shirt and gym shorts and tearing at the edge of the plastic wrap lining a Love Language album cover interrupted Sanchez's beeline.

"Are you going to be signing anything?" he asked, standing still in his spot as if worried the space would soon be rushed by others with the same question.

Surprised by the ask, Sanchez, the band's newest member, broke his stride for a moment, spinning right and pausing briefly as he pondered the answer; it was clear this was not part of his Love Language routine.

"Sure," he said, "I'll find the rest of the band and send them over."

Sanchez headed for the door.

The unexpected encounter came at the close of The Love Language's headlining performance on the ninth night of the North Carolina State Fair, 20 minutes before a fusillade of fireworks boomed overhead outside. In the spaceship-suggestive Dorton Arena, arranged for the fair's run to hold 3,300 people, the Chapel Hill band and their Merge Records label mates Spider Bags had played for a crowd of several hundred, not so different from an area gig at the Cat's Cradle or the Lincoln Theatre.

But as band leader Stu McLamb said before the show, marveling at the time-capsule construction of the 1951 building as the sunset cast an amber glow through an array of columnar windows, this show felt different, like a point of pride. From nearby Cary, McLamb had been coming to the fair almost annually for his entire life; every member of the quintet, save Sanchez, is a North Carolina native with similar memories.

"I've had daydreams of it being packed out and of shooting a turkey-leg cannon into the crowd. But I'll feel good about anything, even if it's 50 people. I'm just into the view," said McLamb, turning to his left to glance at an old room where Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and the Raleigh IceCaps have all played. "I doubt a majority of the people here have any clue who we are, but at least a few of them will see us. And that feels like tapping into the main vein of the state."

Indeed, The Love Language was one of 86 North Carolina acts to play one of three state fair stages this year, following a system-wide overhaul of the event's approach to entertainment. Rather than allocate a budget of more than $350,000 to recruit acts from across the country inside Dorton Arena alone, the state fair opted to hire the local company Deep South Entertainment to spread about $200,000 of talent and production costs across the fairgrounds.

In Dorton itself, aging Southern outlaw Charlie Daniels filled all the seats, as did the small-town-raised North Carolina country singer Jason Michael Carroll. Meanwhile, a strange, proudly diverse panoply of bands—from heavy metal trio MAKE and soul singer Laura Reed to former news anchor Pam Saulsby and reunited alt-country crew The Backsliders—played a side stage just outside of Dorton. The fair gave its traditional bluegrass fare a local face-lift, too.

"The feedback was positive all the way to the point where people just said, 'I'm surprised you didn't think of this sooner,'" explains Dave Rose, Deep South's owner and a key force in the fair's push for geographically focused genre diversity. "If you can go the state fair and discover everything else about North Carolina, you should be able to discover local music, too."

Early institutional worries that people flocked to Raleigh every year for those former marquee concerts—and that dismissing them would diminish crowd size—proved unfounded during the 11-day run. Breaking the million-attendee mark for the third time ever, the state fair put up the second-highest numbers in its 160-plus years while warranting notice from The Wall Street Journal for its risky programming choices, like booking a Bollywood night in the middle of a Southern staple. In fact, the jump in numbers may be attributed, at least in part, to the fair's ability to turn the cash it didn't spend on bands into other programs.

"We did not pack Dorton Arena every night, but we were not expecting to pack Dorton Arena every night. And this year, we weren't under pressure to pack Dorton Arena every night," says Brian Long, the public affairs director at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, which runs the event. "When you make a change, there's going to be an unknown. Is there going to be some adverse impact of making this change? But the change was shown to be worth doing, and there doesn't appear to be any adverse effect."

The adverse effects had mounted already: For more than a decade, the fair sold as many as 5,100 tickets every night for headlining shows in Dorton Arena, taking an additional $5 or $15 from attendees who had already paid gate admission, much like a ticket broker or a carny barker on the midway. But over the years, the interest in aging country stars or relative upstarts, contemporary singers and the occasional celebrity chef or rock star oscillated wildly, so only one or two shows each year would sell out. Attendance at many others didn't break the 1,000 mark. Between 2011 and 2014, the model cost the state fair—otherwise, an incredibly profitable product of the Department of Agriculture—nearly $900,000.

This year, though, fair organizers knew they wouldn't be taking that financial risk; if no one saw any of the 86 bands that played, or if every stage was crowded every day, the fair would still spend close to or much less than it lost in each of the last four years. As Sarah Ray, a public information officer with the fair, said in July, the organization parlayed those savings into new attendee lures.

In the past, for instance, early buyers could purchase a cheap wristband that allowed for unlimited rides on the fair's opening day; this year, the deal extended into the second day, on which attendance bested its 10-year average by about 30,000. Long is quick to mention that the weather was mild, Wake County schools had a half-day off and that the fair was running a student special. But not having Brandy Clark play Dorton Arena—she drew just 563 people when she headlined the room on that Friday a year ago—didn't seem to hamper sales. It did save cash.

"If you want to consider this a pilot year, it was a worthwhile pilot year," says Long. "For a first year of trying a new approach, there's something there to build on."

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