The bar business is often thought to be recession-proof, but perhaps it's not as ironclad as assumed. For Chapel Hill's oldest tavern, The Cave, last year brought a three-pronged blow to business: the recession, the North Carolina smoking ban and new competition for bands and audiences from new Triangle venues. In short, fewer people were spending their money at The Cave.
But those troubles haven't stopped the venue from hosting two shows most nights of the week, a mission that makes The Cave essential to the Triangle's music scene by midwifing the area's up-and-coming talent. It's often a bit like a practice space in front of a small, casual audience.
"Our PA gets abused by so many people because it's a do-it-yourself venue," says Mouse Mock, the bar's longtime owner. The existing PA, Mock says, is a ragtag array of components assembled as needed. "Over the past few years, we have just bastardized everything we had to have one working system. We want to get back to the point where we don't have to worry about it."
That's the impetus behind the three-day CaveAid II, a benefit to bolster the room's sound system. This is the only time the bar has tried to raise money for upgrades in the 11 years Mock has run the place, the second in the more than 40 years the bar has been in business. But tough times call for unconventional measures.
Indeed, the steady stream of bands eager to pack their gear into the downstairs watering hole gives no indication of economic uncertainty. Over the course of CaveAid's three nights, 11 bands—from the crackling classic rock of the Pneurotics and the handsome folk of Birds & Arrows to the primitive garage rock of Pinche Gringo—will set up in the Cave's stageless nook. Jess Donnell, who booked the weekend's docket of performers, found that there were more bands interested than hours to accommodate them. "We could do this every weekend for six months," Mock says. "There are so many people that have played The Cave, that still play The Cave, that still want to play The Cave."
The Cave is often the first visit to Chapel Hill for an ascendant touring band—like Arcade Fire, for one. R.E.M. even played a secret late-night show there several years ago. For local bands, booking The Cave is something of a rite of passage. Andrea Connolly, now one-third of Chapel Hill's Birds & Arrows, played her first show after moving to Chapel Hill from Richmond at The Cave. "That was the first place I heard about, people saying, 'They have early and late shows. Just talk to Mouse.' It gave me a goal to write enough songs to play my own show," she says. "This isn't an open mic. It gives people an opportunity to be heard."
For Connolly, as for many of the bands starting out at the bar beneath West Franklin Street, The Cave's confines are a blessing, even if the sound—which bands run themselves—isn't always. "It's got a built-in crowd," Connolly says. "There's never that pressure of bringing people out, because there's always a crowd there to listen."
The Cave's booking practices operate on a bit of a first-come, first-served basis, a markedly different philosophy than that of most clubs hosting local music. Instead of depending on a popular act to put bodies in the building, at The Cave, the bar is the draw, the band a bonus.
"We have all these great musicians that have debuted down there, that have grown up down there," says Mock. He had his second legal drink there, and later met his wife under the room's low ceiling. "It's a home for so many different people. And even though they're playing that month, they still want to come back and play The Cave again. Everybody's supposed to have a good time. That's what it's always been about."
But good times don't always equal profits, of course. "We don't have the money to spend on new equipment," Mock says. "The money we do have we have to use to keep the place open." In other words, a new PA is a secondary concern—except, perhaps, to the bands.
Still, The Cave remains something of a haven. Its limited capacity—100 in the audience would feel cramped—ensures its ability to offer opportunities for unknown bands to play, and for more established locals to eschew the pressure of promotion. As Connolly says, the region is rife with clubs and bands, and the competition for spots at the bigger venues and for fans can feel fierce. But The Cave always seems to be there, welcoming new acts.
"I don't think you can ever really outgrow something that's so true to a scene," she says, "that runs so deep."