There was a time when West Franklin Street was the Triangle music community's stronghold: From extant standbys like The Cave and Cat's Cradle to Nightlight and, years ago, Go! Room 4, it was the area's little outlet for a lot of live music.
But the scene has spread, and rooms in Durham and Raleigh are now consistently bringing bands to the Triangle's other zones, finally drawing Orange County residents east. The new venue Chapel Hill Underground wants to do the same by once again bringing bands and their fans to the college side of town.
"It's kind of weird when you're driving down Rosemary Street," says Michelle Temple, who plays bass in Black Skies and owns the metal-friendly booking and promotions company Lechuza. "Right after you pass the Nightlight, there's drunk people running across the street, wearing nothing in December. You get past that, and then there's the Chapel Hill Underground. Then you're back home again."
Chapel Hill Underground, previously the bar Hell, lives up to its name. It's an unassuming, cement-floored and dimly lit room down a narrow flight of stairs. Tonight, the native Tar Heel men play basketball on the single projector screen, and the handful of fans scattered on the secondhand couches fill the room with noise for every made or missed shot. Its distinct dive vibe is more common on West Franklin or in Carrboro.
Eddie Sanchez, one of three co-owners, says the local music scene and the college that often fuels it are largely separate. He hopes the bar can help bridge that divide.
"We've been getting grad students and other college students in here and there are shows here as well," says Sanchez, sitting beside co-owner David Chong as the other part of the triumvirate, Stan Pickens, tends bar nearby. "So sometimes they're able to check out shows they wouldn't normally go see on their own."
Chong previously owned Fuse, a now-closed world-fusion restaurant next door to the Nightlight. Sanchez, who plays bass in five area acts, booked local bands there on Tuesday nights. When they opened Chapel Hill Underground in March 2010, this arrangement continued, albeit on different nights. "In some ways, we would love nothing more than for someone to open up a venue here that had more live music," Chong says. "So we're taking it upon ourselves to bring stuff to this end of town that's not the typical stuff."
Murat Dirlik says Caltrop's November gig at Chapel Hill Underground—or CHUD, as he calls it—was one of his band's favorite sets in some time. It had the atmosphere of a house show, which is rare for Chapel Hill venues. This celebrated vibe was the hallmark of the Reservoir, which closed in April. Dirlik feels the Underground may be able to fill the same low-stress, metal-friendly niche. Any similarities, insists Chong, are coincidental. The Underground likely won't host shows as often as the Reservoir did. Sanchez simply books the bands of friends or rare touring acts in need of a show.
That approach extends to visual art. Rather than buy generic bar decorations, Chong scours local art markets to meet artists and buy works. He hangs art in his bar just as he would hang it at home. The Underground is currently hosting a show by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, who appeared at the opening by Skype teleconference.
"He did the whole interview with his pants off, apparently," says Chong of the new wave pioneer. "And I guess he thought the camera was off, because we just saw him get up and he has this Atari shirt on and no underwear. And I was like 'Mark! Mark! Turn off your camera!'"
With Chong's art sense and Sanchez's long history in local music, it seems the real draw of this basement room is its folks. And perceived divisions within small towns like Chapel Hill can change over time. Temple and Sanchez mention several established Chapel Hill and Carrboro people, including ex-bartenders from the Reservoir, now working on East Franklin.
"People know and love the guys that run that space. Eddie has been around for a long time, so a lot of local musicians are supportive of what he's doing down there," says Temple. "Folks who used to hang out on west end are coming down to east end. I can see it working out."