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If you prefer a low-key, blues-jam, have-a-beer-and-conversation music scene, then Durham is your town.

One man's quest to find good live music in Durham 

It exists, if you know where to look

A blanket and a cooler are all you need to enjoy music on the lawn of American Tobacco Campus.

Photo by Derek Anderson

A blanket and a cooler are all you need to enjoy music on the lawn of American Tobacco Campus.

So, you live in Durham and you love live music. You probably do a lot of driving.

Raleigh and Chapel Hill seem to have created a monopoly on consistently good venues. Durham gets lucky sometimes, with well-known bands occasionally playing at the American Tobacco Campus, but for the most part, if you want to see a band, you're probably going to Cat's Cradle or Lincoln Theatre.

However, if you prefer a low-key, blues-jam, have-a-beer-and-conversation music scene, then Durham is your town. I arrived in the Bull City in early June with three dollars in my wallet and five in the bank. I didn't know what was up and what was down, what was 15-501 and what was 147, or what RTP stood for. In addition to figuring out how to navigate the Downtown Loop, I've spent most of my down time this summer searching for (and finding) Durham's live music scene.

I can't say it was easy. I searched the Internet; I asked people on the street wearing T-shirts with obscure band names silk-screened on the front; I asked people with guitar cases in coffee shops: "I'm new in town. Where do I go?"

The answers I received were typically discouraging.

"I guess the American Tobacco Campus has some good stuff every once in a while."

"I don't know about Durham, but have you heard of The Cave or Cat's Cradle?"

Then, one night while driving home, I heard some great blues floating my way from The Broad Street Café I pulled in to check it out and stumbled upon the venue I'd been looking for all summer.

From talking to people there, I learned about a few other gems in the area, all with a little something special to offer. And the best part is: Not only do these venues consistently host great live music, but they're all within a few miles of each other. So, Durhamites, save your trips to Chapel Hill for the weekends. And for everyone in the rest of the Triangle, you really ought to come see what you've been missing.

The Broad Street Café
1116 Broad St., 416-9707, www.broadstreetcafe.org

Located only a few blocks from Duke's East Campus, The Broad Street Café was my best find of the summer. The café is a large, open space, complete with a beautiful bar, tables, couches and everything you need to settle in and get comfortable. It's closed Mondays, but puts an exciting variety of musicians on its stage almost every other night of the week.

On Tuesdays, the café holds the Old Time Jam at 7 p.m., an event encompassing everything from traditional jug-band and fiddle music to newer, pop-infused bluegrass. Every other Wednesday is reserved for the Continuum Open Blues Jam, (my favorite night) a lively yet soulful set starting at 8 p.m.

After the opening band finishes, members of the crowd are invited on stage to try their hand at any instruments abandoned by the band, or to bring their own and just join in. You might see a 15-year-old boy on the keys while an 80-year-old man plays bass and a 35-year-old woman takes the mic.

The café usually books a local acoustic group on Thursday nights. These groups are often surprisingly good, and without amps and speakers, Thursdays are easily the café's most laid-back nights.

Friday and Saturday nights are usually reserved for relatively well-known local acts. There may be a cover charge, but it's very rarely more than $5.

Brightleaf Square
West Main and Gregson streets, 682-9229, www.historicbrightleaf.com

Brightleaf Square on Friday nights is a great spot for all ages and musical tastes. A stage is set up in the middle of the square at 7 p.m., and the music can be heard from any restaurant, bar or store on the block. Brightleaf hosts several cover bands, making it prime for sing-alongs and dancing.

You'll also occasionally find a local band with a great sound playing there, such as The Black Swamp Bootleggers or Will McFarlane. This is a great place to get dinner or drinks outside—your table will double as a front-row concert seat—or you can just stop by after work and listen.

The Blue Corn Café
716 Ninth St., 286-9600, www.bluecorn-tosca.com/bc_home.asp

In addition to being one of Durham's best restaurants, the Blue Corn Café also hosts a spectacular jazz jam every Tuesday night. The stage is open from 7:30 p.m. until close, and key members of the jam band provide some of the best jazz music in the Triangle. Sit at the bar with a mojito, get a table with friends and enjoy the Latin-American fare, or just sit up front and enjoy the music. Oh, and the margaritas are really, really good too.

The MarVell Events Center
119 W. Main St., 688-0975, www.myspace.com/marvelleventcenter

The MarVell is a conveniently located downtown venue with quality bookings on Thursdays and $1 PBRs every night of the week. A club on the weekends, the MarVell is transformed on Thursdays to host some of the Triangle's most prestigious bands; it occasionally brings in groups from across the country as well. Here, we move away from the have-a-drink-and-relax-with-friends vibe and toward a genuine amp-blasting concert experience. The music starts at 9 p.m. and lasts until around midnight, and the cover is usually $5.

Bull City Headquarters
723 N. Mangum St., www.bullcityhq.org

Even if you're an old hand at navigating Durham, if you've never been to Bull City HQ before, you're gonna have a hard time finding it. But the dark stretch of street where the HQ is located only adds to its ambiance.

This is not a place to come and socialize with friends; it's a place to head bang and rock out. Bookings are frequent and always loud—like, bring-earplugs-loud. The bands are often hard or indie-rock, but sometimes a bluegrass or electronica group is thrown in for good measure.

Bull City HQ also serves the community in various ways; for example, the building is also home to Durham's bike co-op.

All shows request donations in lieu of a cover, and the venue is alcohol-free.

  • If you prefer a low-key, blues-jam, have-a-beer-and-conversation music scene, then Durham is your town.

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