Beyond the local traditions—First Night Raleigh is back for its 20th year, while the North Carolina Symphony again rings in the New Year—there's the typical slew of acts playing in bars, restaurants and clubs across the Triangle. While it'd be tougher to find a spot without live music—whether from a DJ or band—this guide breaks down your best bets.
Though there will undoubtedly be less discussion about the correct way to say 2011 than last year's absurd "twenty ten or two thousand ten" debate, those attending FIRST NIGHT RALEIGH this New Year's Eve should not expect decisions to come easily. More than two dozen bands, vocalists, art installations, dance troupes, improv comedians and other performers will be spread across venues along Fayetteville Street and around the downtown grid, providing more than six hours of entertainment options.
Though Mandolin Orange hardly conjures images of New Year's celebrations, the serene Carrboro duo is among the year's finest First Night choices. Andrew Marlin's plaintive folk tunes are marked by authentic, heartfelt lyricism and graced by the gorgeous harmonies and fiddle of Emily Frantz, all of which will be perfectly set in the hallowed serenity of the Church of the Good Shepherd Sanctuary. Revelers shouldn't miss raging Greensboro sextet Holy Ghost Tent Revival, which wildly splashes bluegrass, Dixieland jazz and early pop sounds across a canvas of undeniable sing-along tunes that will have feet moving in no time. They just might upstage fellow genre-mashers Donna The Buffalo, which headlines with an infectious Cajun-based jam band blend. Urban Latino orchestra Tropic Culture starts a crosscultural fiesta just before the early countdown, while the upbeat jazz of the Lenny Marcus Trio bears the unmistakably swampy influence of the vocalist, pianist and flautist's time in New Orleans.
Traditionalists can find The North Carolina Opera rendering classic selections at Edenton Street United Methodist Church between Dr. William Weisser pipe organ performances, recent IBMA winners Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass storming through toe-tapping traditional bluegrass at First Presbyterian Church, or the ragtime sounds of The Blue Notes Dixieland Jazz Band at Raleigh City Museum. Elsewhere, attendees can choose from multiple performances by a pair of improv comedy crews that are among the South's oldest—the nationally touring Transactors Improv Company and long-running locals Comedy Worx.
Admission buttons—which allow access to all performances—are $9. See www.firstnightraleigh.com for schedules and more information.
Beginning with a sumptuous preshow reception and followed by a three-course dinner and dance featuring the swinging sounds of local big band THE ATOMIC RHYTHM ALL-STARS, the most extravagant offering fittingly belongs to THE NORTH CAROLINA SYMPHONY. The symphony will enlist the help of the four vocalists who won its Triangle Talent Search competition earlier this year to perform a program that incorporates classical pieces, Broadway tunes and rock anthems in the cushy confines of MEYMANDI CONCERT HALL. Arrive early to catch BILLY SUGARFIX'S CAROUSEL play a brief set in the Meymandi lobby.
If you can't spring for the all-night symphony package, PAPA MOJO'S ROADHOUSE will do you right with down-home Cajun fare for both dinner and dance. Head chef and harmonica player MEL MELTON cooks up spicy gumbo both offstage and on with THE WICKED MOJOS. The Triangle zydeco mainstay will be joined by blues guitar slinger WILL MCFARLANE and soul diva JASME KELLEY plus opening blues trio THE FAIRLANES.
Indie rock devotees will find surprisingly few options around the Triangle this year, with NIGHTLIGHT's strong triple bill the obvious pick. THE MOANERS headlines with moody, no-nonsense garage-blues roar that pits Melissa Swingle's coolly detached vocals against her slashing slide guitar and Laura King's potent drum bashing. Carrboro duo VEELEE is fast becoming one of the best indie pop acts around, thanks to inventive two-piece arrangements that shift from danceable synth-pop to guitar shredding freak-outs as Matt Park and Ginger Wagg shout out their huge refrains. Fresh-faced trio LOS NATURALES opens with boundless enthusiasm on abrasive yet hooky garage punk; DJ CRAIG POWELL spins all night.
Tiny Canvas Records presents a showcase at THE CAVE that features flagship act SALT TO BITTERS wailing through late-night, liquored-up acoustic catharsis, while ROBOBILLY's shambling anti-folk is just as emotional, though infinitely more joyous. Labelmates TWILIGHTER find similar territory on punk-charged tunes. KINGS and NEPTUNES host a Denmark Records house party featuring the punk- and electro-spiked indie rock of MOTOR SKILLS and friends DJ GONZO, THE BITERS, JON YU and POOLSIDE.
Nostalgia reigns at CAT'S CRADLE, where Don Dixon and Robert Kirkland lead Chapel Hill legends ARROGANCE into Year 42 of its career. While Arrogance now favors its signature flavor of easygoing jangle-pop touched by breezy folk harmonies, a special appearance of DOGBREATH—the pre-Arrogance unit that leaned on metal and hard rock—balances the equation. Young Boone quartet NO EYES opens, its soft-edged psych rock owing a bit of a debt to the headliners' latter years. Rivaling Arrogance's longevity, NANTUCKET brings its Southern-fried classic rock boogie to the stage of SOUTHLAND BALLROOM to relive its glory years spent touring alongside Kiss, AC/ DC and Cheap Trick. Two cover bands also play: With vocalist Jan Fields—leader of '80s hard rock band Sidewinder—REPLICA covers a variety of classic rock tunes, while AlL MY ROWDY FRIENDS—featuring Nantucket frontman Tommy Redd on guitar—sticks to its Hank Williams Jr. tribute act.
If you're jonesing for bluegrass, you'll have to head down to the Sandhills, where TOMMY EDWARDS AND THE BLUEGRASS EXPERIENCE play Carthage's TEMPLE THEATRE. The award-winning quintet is closing in on its fourth decade as a Chatham County institution. Its members played alongside the likes of Bill Monroe, Chubby Wise and Bobby Hicks. Despite those roots in traditional bluegrass and a hefty repertoire of Edwards' originals, the Experience is just as likely to surprise with tunes from outside the bluegrass canon.
Fans of Americana needn't worry though; there's plenty of modern takes on roots music spread around the Triangle. New York's YARN brings its cool brand of cosmic Americana—influenced by American Beauty and songwriter Blake Christiana's jam band past—down south to BERKELEY CAFE. While Christiana's tunes feel at home in the lavishly ornamented, acoustic-based arrangements, the big-city polish of the Brooklyn sextet won't fool listeners as to its urban origins. Boone unit POSSUM JENKINS opens, putting an emphasis on the country in country rock—but that's not to say the muscular five-piece won't do its best Drive-By Truckers impression when it ultimately roars. Rockabilly outlaws HANK SINATRA commands attention at DEEP SOUTH with its boot-stompin' honky-tonk tales of boozin' and breakin' the law. Raleigh openers THE BALSA GLIDERS and THE DEBONZO BROTHERS add varying degrees of twang to their commercial-friendly pop rock.
Asheville newgrass quintet BIG DADDY LOVE takes its fiery, infectious energy to BROAD STREET CAFE, where Winston-Salem's Foothills Brewing will also be on hand with special taps and tastings. Former Lafcadio co-leader LIZZY ROSS sets the stage with her shrewd new backing band, which stirs jazz, folk and blues into sharp arrangements.
If jam bands are your cup of tea, MANTRAS bring a punchy blend of rock and fusion to The Pour House as part of a two-night stand. Opener THE NATIVE SWAY is cut from a similar mold, though it tends toward the funkier side. Meanwhile, SHAKEDOWN STREET offers up reggae-spiked Greensboro groovers DIRTY FEAT along with UNCLE JOHN'S HOUSE BAND. Your best bet, however, may be eight-piece party pack THE BRAND NEW LIFE, whose intoxicating, horn-led exultations take a kaleidoscopic view of jazz dosed with Afrobeat and other world influences. Look for them at THE STATION AT SOUTHERN RAIL.
LINCOLN THEATRE carries over its Monday night REVOLUTION RALEIGH circus-dance party hybrid for a special New Year's edition, with circus performers, DJs, carnival games and cotton candy all part of the zany, high-speed mix. Speaking of zany, MOTORCO's Motorboat event claims the title for most adventurous, with the entirety of the new Durham club decked out in yacht-themed decor for performances by the polyester-coated '70s soft rock tribute group THE WUSSES. They'll follow poignant indie pop quartet WEMBLEY. SLEAZY MCQUEEN, B.A. BARAWKUS and CHOCOLATE THUNDER will spin.
VOLUME 11 TAVERN hosts the heaviest bill of the night, of course, with a full slate of six locals: GROSS REALITY's buzzsaw thrash, ATTRACTING THE FALL's potent metalcore, KIFF's rowdy hard rock, H.O.W.'s stoner sludge, PARASITE DRAG's sun-baked riffage and CC MULLINS AND RUDE MOOD's electric guitar blues lend variety-show appeal for headbangers of all stripes. Though DIVE BAR is known for its heavy shows as well, the Raleigh club presents the best choice for original electronic music tonight. Emerald Isle's TARADACTYL may easily be confused for a group of partiers playing dress-up as a band of wrestlers, but the masked and spandex-covered quintet—voiced, as it were, by a robotic vocoder—finds engaging, dance floor-friendly tunes from the light-and-dark marriage of synth-pop and industrial. Appropriately dubbed Wilmington duo D&D SLUGGERS opens, using synthesizers and guitar along with two portable video game players—the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Game Boy—to craft high-energy eight-bit dance music.