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The great venue shuffle brings blues to downtown Durham, folk to downtown Cary 

From left to right, Will McFarlane, John Dee Holeman and Tommy Hartley play at the Blue Note Grill.

Photo by Stan Lewis/Courtesy of Blue Note Grill

From left to right, Will McFarlane, John Dee Holeman and Tommy Hartley play at the Blue Note Grill.

Every few months, it seems that another wave of area music venue reorganization passes through the Triangle. The most recent cycle concerns many of the area's long-running roots-music clubs, including the revitalization of an old favorite and the sudden shuttering of a standby.

PAPA MOJO'S CLOSES

Fans of zydeco, blues and jazz got a shock last week. Papa Mojo's Roadhouse, a Cajun restaurant between Durham and Apex, announced that it had closed over the weekend. The news seemed to come out of nowhere, but for owner Mel Melton, the decision had been stewing for quite some time, due to money and logistics.

Papa Mojo's originally opened in 2007. Melton and an investor shared a vision for the restaurant's Durham location to anchor what would one day become a larger franchise.

"The goal was to pick out a modest location in Durham and develop the concept with the food, energy, the interior design and the music, then be prepared to expand it through licensing and other ventures," Melton says.

Those plans were shelved when Melton's partner developed a heart condition, and Melton had to buy his portion of the business. Running Papa Mojo's became a fight, a ball and chain that Melton hadn't expected to inherit.

"I'm a real hard-headed guy, and I always have been. I like to stay in the trenches," he admits.

But the market for Cajun music in the Triangle seemed low, and state taxes—including a controversial recent tariff on ticket sales—made running Papa Mojo's a big hassle for very little money.

Melton realized that upkeep wasn't feasible, and his lease had expired. With the help of his lawyer and CPA, he decided to close.

So what's next for Melton, now 65? He says he wants to spend more time on his small Caswell County farm with his wife, Mary, and to rest for a bit. He wants to refocus on his band Mel Melton & The Wicked Mojos, too, by playing more shows and putting together a new record, their first since 2005's aptly named Papa Mojo's Roadhouse.

BLUE NOTE GRILL GETS BIGGER

The Blue Note Grill celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. Known for its barbecue, blues and bluegrass, the restaurant and venue is poised to graduate into a bigger space. The venue will move from its current location off U.S. 15-501 toward Washington Street in downtown Durham, joining the cluster of businesses that includes Fullsteam Brewery, Motorco and Cocoa Cinnamon.

"There's a lot going on down there. We just wanted to participate in the revitalization of downtown," co-owner Bill Whittington says. "The building is right for what we want to do."

They're not packing up too soon: Bill and his partner, Andrea Whittington, just signed a lease for the new location and have plans to renovate the space before moving. The new spot will hold more people, and it will also include separate spaces for music and dancing, dining and takeout. Folks who just want to come for dinner can do that without having to pay the cover charge to see the music.

Whittington hopes the space can attract larger outfits, but he's not at all concerned about stepping on the toes of the Beyù Caffè, the jazz club on Main Street. The Blue Note only has one jazz night a week, he offers, compared to Beyu's more jazz-centrics offerings.

SIX STRING CAFÉ COMES BACK TO LIFE, ALMOST

The Blue Note Grill isn't the only local venue trying to have a hand in downtown revitalization: David Sardinha, founder of the Cary's former Six String Café, hopes to do the same to his own hometown. Sardinha has resurrected Six String—but as Six String Presents, not a proper brick-and-mortar space. Rather than host shows in his own room, Sardinha is outsourcing his booking skills and lining up shows at other venues. This week, Six String Presents begins a new series in Cary with a show featuring Chuck Brodsky and Pierce Pettis.

"The Town of Cary came up with the agreement to do a series of shows at the end of the year, with the hope of making it a more permanent thing once we go through a few and make it make sense for each other," he explains.

These concerts will primarily occur at the new Cary Theatre on Chatham Street, with one at the Cary Arts Center just a few blocks away. Sardinha's relationship with town officials dates back to the days of Six String Café, when he helped book smaller side-stage shows at Koka Booth Amphitheatre.

As with the café in its early days, bookings by Six String Presents will focus heavily on acoustic acts that fall under the wide Americana umbrella—folk, bluegrass, country and so on. He's allowing room for these shows to grow and change depending on the reception from audiences, bands and Cary. What matters most to Sardinha, he says, is having a platform to share music again.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Open jams, closed joints."

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