Durham's Motorco Music Hall looks to compete with the Triangle's bigger rooms | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Durham's Motorco Music Hall looks to compete with the Triangle's bigger rooms 

click to enlarge Little boat in a large space: Schooner on opening night at Motorco, Durham's big new rock room

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Little boat in a large space: Schooner on opening night at Motorco, Durham's big new rock room

Less than 24 hours before Durham's new rock club, Motorco Music Hall, opened last Friday night, the owners, the staff and friends of the club were still building one of any venue's most crucial components—the stage.

"Just a couple days ago, we had stuff all over the bar. It was covered in dirt," co-owner Chris Tamplin said two days later, sitting bleary-eyed on a couch in the club's corner after opening night. "Wednesday, the stage wasn't even in the room. We painted it at 2 in the morning Friday morning, the day of the show, just people pouring buckets of paint on it and just rolling."

That night, when the Chapel Hill band North Elementary released its new CD at Motorco's first show, seams and blemishes in the black coat showcased the haphazard, rushed nature of the crew's work. Parts of the stage were still wet. But it held, and nobody seemed to care that the paint wasn't perfect: The club was open for business, and that was good enough.

As its four co-owners will readily admit, or as the bags under their eyes when they gathered Saturday morning to prepare for night two testified, preparing Motorco for its debut wasn't easy. While you could blame their struggles on the group's greenness—only Tamplin has previous club or bar experience—it probably has just as much to do with what they've been trying to accomplish. In Durham, they're hoping an old car dealership's showroom can compete with Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre and Carrboro's Cat's Cradle for major touring bills. That kind of ambition is only served by energy and endurance.

"Once I saw the size of the space, I was definitely like, 'This is a whole new ball game,'" Tamplin said. "We've gone from hunting rabbits and squirrels to going after big game."

Conceived by Tamplin and his partners Jeremy Roth and Mike and Candy Webster, Motorco is Durham's largest rock club by a good margin. While it looked like the opening night crowd peaked somewhere around 200, it was clear the room could hold many more fans. Located downtown at the corner of Geer and Rigsbee streets, the venue expects its legal capacity to cap out just above 500. The number still needs approval from the city's fire marshal—a detail that, like many for the venue on opening night, lingered unresolved. Regardless, the venue will clock in well ahead of its closest competitor, Main Street's new Casbah. That venue holds about 300 people.

Goals for Motorco didn't start out so lofty. A hybrid of Jeremy and Mike's aim to start a business and their love for local rock 'n' roll, the original hope was to open a smaller space, akin to Chapel Hill's Local 506 or Durham's The Pinhook. With no real music experience and only an indirect connection to the surrounding scene itself—Mike and Candy's son, Duncan, fronts Durham band Hammer No More the Fingers—a large venture didn't make much sense.

"It seems logical," Roth said after the Saturday opening. "We've never done this before. Why start out learning to fly in an F-16? That's kind of dumb."

Necessity didn't allow for such practicality. They recruited Tamplin, at the time a bartender and booking agent at Raleigh's Tir na nOg and the key force behind that bar's free, popular Local Beer Local Band series. The quartet began prowling spaces. Each room had its problems. The only one they could deal with was the large building left behind by the Weeks-Allen Motor Company, which closed more than two decades ago.

It's a risky move. While the rent on the space is affordable enough, they've had to do a large amount of costly renovations. A stage, bar and sound system were obvious steps, and the roof needed to be replaced. Reconfiguring the electrical and plumbing systems were hazards of taking on the abandoned locale.

The high wood ceilings, adorned with metal, garage-style lamps, make the room feel even larger. Weeks-Allen's old showroom window provided a wonderful sense of openness on Friday; it will bask any day shows in natural light. It's a great environment for music.

More important to Durham, though, is what the venue could mean for its music scene. Motorco's large capacity indeed puts it in the company of Cat's Cradle and Lincoln Theatre, nationally respected venues that routinely pull indie stars and mainstream up-and-comers. The venue could be a home for these acts in Durham, allowing residents the luxury of not always having to leave town to see them.

"We have these core founding principles," Roth said. "One of them is that we hate driving to Raleigh and Carrboro to see shows."

Beyond convenience, having such shows in Durham would allow members of its thriving music scene to open up for national heavyweights. That, combined with Tamplin's awareness of what's going on locally, could make Motorco another outlet for the area's rich pool of talent to gain such experience and exposure.

"Hopefully, once the venue gets more well-known, there will be more people who come out to a local show," says Chaz Martenstein, owner of Durham's Bull City Records, referring to the clout that playing on a revered stage like Cat's Cradle can afford a local band. "It'll be promoted a little bit better. It'll be a little bit more legitimate in the wider indie span."

All of this, of course, rides on Motorco staying open, and in volatile times for the music industry and the economy at large, the success of such a venture is by no means certain.

The venue's opening last weekend was a soft one. With key elements like the stage and electrical connection not coming through until the last minute, the owners didn't want to promote the show too hard. Without an ABC permit, they depended on Durham's Triangle Brewing Company to sell pints.

But having someone else serve the drinks won't work in the long run. As with most clubs, Motorco takes care of the band and its expenses from money raised by entry fees. Alcohol sales are where the owners can make a dent in their costs, so the show's strong turnout didn't really help them monetarily.

"We need to sell beer—lots of beer," Roth said. "We see costs in beers, so the [credit card] system cost 3,000 beers. We need to sell those 3,000 beers."

Motorco's owners aren't the only ones who want beers to be sold. Before its opening and the debut of the Casbah, The Pinhook stood as the town's only dedicated rock club. The presence of these two new venues—alongside multiuse spaces like Broad Street Café, James Joyce Pub and Marvell Event Center—strengthen a network of spaces that span various sizes and styles, something that could benefit any area music fan.

"Each venue has to find their niche," said Steve Gardner, who books Casbah. "Together with everybody doing their own thing, we hopefully will have a complete picture. No matter what fan out there wants to go see a live band, we'll have a place for them to go."

Such lofty ideas didn't have much impact Friday night. Despite all that's riding on its success, Motorco's opening didn't really feel any different than just another good show with neighborhood bands. The faces were familiar. Handshakes and hugs were frequent. As always, everyone in attendance was jazzed on the music the Triangle can produce.

Outside, just before The Tomahawks christened the stage, the venue's sign—a gorgeous, glowing pink and purple piece of '50s nostalgia—flashed on. It wasn't too bright, simply burning with a warm, hazy glow.

The sign felt a lot like Motorco on opening night: Eschewing a flashy grand opening for a community-focused CD release, the venue didn't crowd out the rest of Durham. It merely added its shine and hoped for a long future.

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