The music biz isn't always kind to club owners. It's easy for the boss to get mired in all the red tape, tension, chaos, and unpredictably. Fortunately for Charleston music fans, Alex Harris seems to have the right chops and enthusiasm to do the job well at the Pour House on James Island.
"We've always wanted it to be a neighborhood live music venue with a lot of hangin' out," says Harris. "If people show up and pay seven bucks to get in, we want it to be worth it. They'll get something very different from most places that host free live music. I'm happy doing it. I'm glad we get enough support to make it, paying taxes and overhead and all that."
A medium-sized music venue with a sizeable back deck and an adjacent restaurant, El Bohio, the Pour House is one of several vital hotspots in the Charleston area that regularly books original music. They celebrate a sixth anniversary at their current location this weekend, entering their 10th year in business overall.
Harris and his wife Vanessa first started running the Pour House in 2002 in a small space at a West Ashley shopping center on Savannah Highway, booking mostly local bands and acoustic acts. During the spring and summer of 2005, they renovated and moved into an old building on Maybank Highway, opening for business there that August. The place looked like a vintage dinner club from the outside, and it felt like an antiquated lounge in the main room. Within the year, the stage and PA were in top shape, the bar was fully stocked, and the place developed some personality .
"Over the years, we've tried to improve everything, from the size of the staff and how they handle the bar and the door to how well our AC units work, which is a big challenge in the summer during a packed show," says Harris. "Running a club is rough sometimes, but I don't know any other way of life at this point. I like it, and getting burned out never enters my mind."
In addition to tending the basic bar business, Harris has fine-tuned his method of dealing with band managers and booking agencies over the years. It became a bit easier as the club evolved into a genuine destination — a venue not only for up-and-coming local bands to play, but for a variety of big-draw touring acts within the vast jam band circuit and beyond.
"We've put the effort into booking, especially the ones we have to take a big risk on," says Harris. "The Taj Mahal show in April was amazing. The club didn't really make any money at the door, but it was a sell-out night, and it was awesome.
"There's a ton of things that play into the job," he adds. "It depends on the artists, the managers, and the agents. I've put years into booking some of these upcoming shows, like Keller Williams in November. It's a lot about developing relationships with the agents and musicians. I think bands enjoy playing here. We definitely appreciate them coming and playing, and we feel honored to have them."
With a sturdy PA, decent lights, and plenty of seating and elbow room, the additional back deck stage has created great opportunities for local and visiting acts to perform in a festive, stressless setting. Some recurring acts, like the Grateful Dead cover band Reckoning (comprised of various musicians from local rock and jam bands) actually draw big crowds to the deck during the evening hours.
"It's usually a Pour House vibe, and the Pour House people aren't your regular happy hour crowd," says Harris. "They're more of a listening crowd who want to check out the music. The free shows pull people who want to pay attention to the acts, unlike crowds who go to sports bars. When Reckoning plays, there are a bunch of Deadheads out there, people are dancing, and it's like a regular show. Sometimes, they'll draw bigger crowds than the bands on the main stage on a given night."
While some still consider the Pour House a jam-rock haven with built-in hippie clientele, the notion is largely inaccurate. Harris and his staff consistently host a range of musical styles. In one week, it's not unusual to see the likes of New Riders of the Purple Sage one night followed by an electronica act or showcase of members of the local Shrimp Records collective on the next.
"I want to be myself and book music I love, but I want to book a variety of acts," says Harris. "I want to book music that is great, whether it's really good indie rock, really good roots-reggae, or whatever. Some of that is pretty hard to bring, but it's important to try to bring it to Charleston."