The Cave Is Closed After Fifty Years, Marking the End of an Era for Music in Chapel Hill | Music Feature | Indy Week
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The Cave Is Closed After Fifty Years, Marking the End of an Era for Music in Chapel Hill 

click to enlarge The Cave

Photo by Caitlin Penna

The Cave

There are nine pizza spots in less than a mile of Franklin Street near the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. Over the past decade or so, Franklin Street has undergone a renaissance of sorts, with redevelopment plopping new restaurants, upscale condos, and even a Target on the college town's main artery. But for all of the gleaming new additions, Franklin Street is down one scrappy but essential music club and watering hole. As of this week, after fifty years of business, The Cave is closed.

On the afternoon of April 19, Mark Connor, who's run the club since October 2012, posted a statement on The Cave's Facebook page announcing that Monday, April 30, would be the venue's last night of business. News of The Cave's demise caused a flood of local artists, music fans, and barflies to chime in with their favorite Cave memories (or alcohol-fueled lack thereof).

To some, The Cave was just another dive, and a pretty dingy one at that. But to a subsection of Triangle-dwellers, it was a hallowed getaway. It's where countless local bands cut their teeth playing their first shows, where they could perform to twenty people and it still felt like they'd packed the room. It was a spot where one-off pick-up bands could make magic for an hour or two and then call it a night. But the end of The Cave is more than a loss of a cultural artifact or a room. Its closure furthers the drawn-out denouement of Chapel Hill counterculture—the weird, the rowdy, and the ugly being edged out and suffocated by the moneyed, the pristine, and the bland.

click to enlarge A couple leaves The Cave on one of the club's final days. - PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA
  • Photo by Caitlin Penna
  • A couple leaves The Cave on one of the club's final days.

Tucked at 452 ½ W. Franklin St., The Cave was a modest bar down a steep concrete set of steps. Its unusual décor set it apart from any other Triangle dive, with chicken wire and plaster coated with sandy colored paint throughout the interior. Its walls were covered in all manner of adornments, from spray-painted Lasceaux-style bugs and livestock to a panoply of profanity covering the bathroom walls. Its stage was a plot on the floor at the front of the narrow bar, demarcated by rugs so stomped-upon that they seemed to be one with the concrete beneath them. With an "official" capacity of just seventy-four people, Monday night's last hurrah was thoroughly oversold, but as several people joked, what was anybody gonna do, call the fire marshal and get the place shut down?

For the past six years, The Cave's captain has been Connor, who bought the club from Mouse Mock with assistance from Slim's owner Van Alston and another investor. Throughout his tenure, Connor saw fit to keep The Cave a no-frills spot for small shows. If a show sold poorly, touring bands could almost always leave with a little something, even if it was twenty bucks from the register to help cover gas money.

Despite all the goodwill, business wasn't consistently booming enough for the club to thrive. They'd have good spells—December and January among them, according to Connor—but it wasn't enough to sustain The Cave long-term. Connor and Alston were ready to put their energy into other projects, and so they started looking for a buyer. Nothing came through after several months. The Cave had to close.

After the news broke, a string of "funeral week" shows followed in quick succession. Business-as-usual bills became double-header nights, with later shows turning into marathon affairs as local bands piled on to bid a final farewell to The Cave. Some of these shows felt like mostly normal nights—maybe a little busier than usual, with a light air of bittersweet reminiscence. Crowds varied starkly in age and style; there were plenty of people who came just to soak up a few more hours of time in The Cave, regardless of who was performing.

But Monday night felt the most surreal. The palpable tension of a countdown made it feel like a New Year's Eve party, but instead of joyously whooping in a fresh start, we were preparing for the end of an era. Employees working the door wore all white, donning fluffy halos to complete their angelic ensembles. A half-inflated Mylar balloon floated along a side wall, bearing a message, "You'll be missed!"

The music line-up was largely kept a surprise, including a scorching set from Southern Culture on the Skids, one of countless Chapel Hill bands that played some of their earliest shows in that room. A one-off band consisting of Connor and a cast of Cave regulars plowed through a raucous set of covers by other local bands, including The Love Language's "Lalita" and Ryan Gustafson's "Soul Train" They slid from Spider Bags' "Que Viva El Rocanrol" into "Shit Horse (Is Gonna Ride)" the "theme song" for the bizarrely wonderful but short-lived local cult band Shit Horse. Connor and company deftly swapped places with the actual members of Shit Horse, who took over for one last round of song.

click to enlarge Cartridge Family at The Cave Sunday, April 29 - PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA
  • Photo by Caitlin Penna
  • Cartridge Family at The Cave Sunday, April 29

As Shit Horse brought their set to a close a few minutes before 2 a.m., a bartender bellowed for last call. For a few moments, it was all fairly orderly, and I found myself thinking "Wait, is that it?" as Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" played on the PA. But of course that wasn't it. All hell broke loose, beginning with cries of "Who wants a beer?" And out came the free beers, followed shortly by the bar's abundant liquor stash flowing freely. Patrons slapped the craggy ceiling as they took their turns having bartenders pour shots directly into their mouths. Overwhelmed by too much AC/DC, the speakers' low ends surrendered to the stereo gods. There was singing, dancing, and delighted, drunken screaming in all directions. I left the bar at 2:45, aching a little inside as I dipped out of the back door for the last time.

For a few minutes on Friday night, I sat in a corner I'd occupied many, many times before and pondered what the space's future could hold. I couldn't fathom what The Cave would look like with the lights all the way up, much less what it would look like as another bar or boutique or pizza joint. Whatever it ends up as, it'll pale in comparison to the colorful roost of rascals that The Cave nurtured. I spent a lot of time and money there, but I wish I could've spent more. At least it ended with one hell of a party.

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