Two weeks ago, downtown Raleigh was swarming, responding to the sticky late summer night as a bustling city full of weekend offerings: Bud Light Presents Raleigh Downtown Live—a series that's presented a mix of nostalgia acts and rock upstarts for free every other week for the last four summers—broke its own attendance record, drawing more than 16,000 people into Moore Square Park for an eight-hour rock show. Meanwhile, 1,600 people wandered through an English luminarium in front of Progress Energy Center, as several hundred sat inside the performing arts complex as local theater companies presented new work.
"Downtown Raleigh can be many things. It's a palette, a blank canvas, a blank slate for a lot of different events," said Terri Dollar, who organized most of Art on the Edge, the inaugural festival at the Progress Energy Center. "That's what a city should be."
If Raleigh Wide Open III, the two-day celebration scheduled for downtown Raleigh this weekend, can boast a major victory before it even begins, it's that its organizers embraced that blank-canvas idea. Three stages spread between the convention center's sizeable plaza and the intersection of Fayetteville and Hargett streets will host 34 acts, ranging from local bellydancers and cloggers to the hip-hop of Atlanta's Arrested Development and the eclectic indie rock of Montreal's Islands.
A dozen of the best bands in the Triangle—the Springsteen-ian spirit of punks Red Collar; the sepia harmonies of Tres Chicas; the guitar adulation of The T's—will open. The Bleeding Hearts and Dexter Romweber Duo—two beefy patrons of local rock—will play just hours before Chuck Berry, the octogenarian who helped invent the stuff, headlines. It's a nexus of the touring bands and townie acts that should actually work.
"I feel like, no matter who you are, there's going to be music here you can enjoy," says Dave Rose, co-owner of Deep South Entertainment, the company that's worked with the convention center for the past four years to produce Raleigh Downtown Live. Soul Asylum and Arrested Development return to Raleigh after appearances in that series, and former Foreigner frontman Lou Gramm, who will headline Saturday night, is consistent with its popular-favorites approach.
To the credit of Rose's Deep South and Raleigh Convention Center's management, they opened their event to outside influence. Greg Behr and Billy Warden, two employees at award-winning public relations firm Capstrat, which freelances for the Raleigh Convention Center, approached both organizations about expanding the event to include a third stage. They met nothing but encouragement. Headlined on Friday by Raleigh's own Annuals and on Saturday by Montreal's Islands, their portion of the festival, dubbed Cherry Bounce by its organizers, adds a sharp edge to the city event.
"The credit has to go to the Raleigh Convention Center, because they're the ones who said, 'Let's make this the biggest Raleigh Wide Open yet, the most diverse, a party for everyone,'" says Warden. He played in bands in Raleigh in the '80s and wanted to put a hero of that generation, Dexter Romweber, on the same bill as the best new Raleigh rock bands. "When the convention center said that, I immediately went to, 'Let's finally bring to the forefront and put at center stage this alternative culture that's always been here.'"
Raleigh Wide Open III, then, is Raleigh's coming-out party, its cotillion. In spite of the swell of city pride that's led to outlawed T-shirts (see page 31) and expectations of record-snapping attendance, let's not mistake it for a coronation. Fayetteville Street's opening, which was the cause célèbre for the first Raleigh Wide Open two years ago, was an inner-city affair. New businesses have followed. But this shiny new convention center is the city's welcome mat to the world, meaning that constantly painting and renewing that blank canvas goes from being a good idea to being a crucial concern: Rose points to new amenities downtown and an amphitheater opening beside the convention center next spring. Warden points to turning Cherry Bounce into an annual festival, somewhere between Coachella and South by Southwest. Perhaps this weekend will make a strong case for all of the above.