Charleston has enjoyed a vibrant music scene in recent times. Seriously. Flipping though the pages of the back issues, one can easily count over 500 legitimate local bands who've played, recorded, bickered, and triumphed over the last 10 years. Some have garnered national interest and acclaim. Some operate just below the radar.
From punk to bluegrass, City Paper's music pages have listed and covered a wild and wide variety of music. Listed here are 10 of the more prominent and significant acts to ever grace our pages:
Jump / Jump, Little Children
Already established as one of the more eclectic and original pop/rock acts in town, Jump, Little Children quickly became a staple in the music pages of the City Paper (they were the first band to have a photo featured in City Paper's Music Board section in Sept. 1997). Until their recent split-up, they drew huge crowds of loyal fans and regularly packed large rooms like the Music Farm and the Dock Street Theatre.
Singer/guitarist Jay Clifford, drummer Evan Bivins, cellist-guitarist Ward Williams, multi-instrumentalist Matt Bivins, and drummer Evan Bivins studied various styles of music at the North Carolina School Of The Arts in Winston-Salem before relocating to Charleston in 1994. Initially, their original material was a delicate mix of traditional Irish folk music, blues, and acoustic pop. In Charleston, they added bassist Jonathan Gray to the lineup and developed textured sound with strings, electric and acoustic guitars, accordion, and keys. Jump wasted little time recording and releasing two independent albums, The Licorice Tea Demos and Buzz. By 1996, they had become one of the South's most popular underground acts. "Here was a band doing something different — something beautiful and melodic, but that you could still bounce around to," wrote City Paper writer and Jump fan Sara Miller a few years back.
While Jump's lineup remained intact throughout their reign, their studio sound and onstage set lists changed considerably around 1999, when they released a guitar-driven collection titled Magazine on the Breaking/Atlantic label. By 2001, unfortunately, they became entangled in music biz red tape, just as their new studio album Vertigo was about hit the streets. Their final full-length release, Between the Dim and the Dark, hit stores in mid-2004. Jump officially said farewell to the scene with their 10th annual Dock Street Theatre concert in Dec. 2005.
Bring us the funk
When Widespread Panic was spreading the funky jam band gospel around the South in the late 1980s and early '90s, several Charleston acts picked up on the good vibes and developed a jam-centric approach to performance and writing. One of the first "jammy" bands to make their mark in Charleston during this time was Uncle Mingo, a funk/soul-inspired rock quartet capable of keeping a full house dancin' and groovin' past last call.
The classic Mingo lineup — Quattlebaum on vocals and guitar, Bryan "Mo" Moore on vocals and bass, drummer Robert Thorn, and keyboardist/saxophonist Jason Moore — formed in 1989 and specialized in a mix of original tunes and amusing reworkings of classic rock and funk standards and TV theme music. "It was always groove-oriented, but it was becoming more like a funky Van Morrison type of thing," Quattlebaum says. Most of them were barely out of high school. They released a handful of albums before signing to the Autonomous Records label in 1997 (just as City Paper came along to pick up the coverage).
After an intense and frustrating tour in support of their final album, Full Circle, in 1998, the band unofficially called it quits, but reconvened for rare shows at the Windjammer, the Pour House, and the "Party at the Point" series. Their wild stage antics and fuzzy grooves inspired a wave of like-minded locals to carry the torch and jam on.
Inspiring a new generation of noisemakers
On the noisier end of the local music spectrum, singer/guitarist and performance artist Philip Estes has been a constant force in the local rock underground. The Charleston native collaborated with a variety of musicians and visual artists over the last 10 years, but in recent years, his jaggedly, buzz-saw punk trio Genrevolta has been his main concern.
Genrevolta have been raising hell and delivering a howling blast of rock 'n' roll for over five years. The most recent lineup — Estes, drummer Pete Rivas, and bassist Richard Weld — released a self-produced, self-titled, five-song EP in 2004. They recorded these three new tunes earlier this year at the Jam Room Studio for a newly released "split EP" with West Coast punk band In the Red.
More aligned with the dark, herky-jerky styles of the Jesus Lizard, the Minutemen, and King Crimson's nastiest stuff than anything "grunge" or "alternative," Genrevolta still stand as one of the scene's most aggressive and musically experimental rock bands. Their loud glory days at the much-missed Johnny Ola's match their current performances at such venues as Cumberland's and the Village Tavern.
The Fire Apes
Neatly-crafted Beatles-ish power-pop
Singer/guitarist John Seymour is a bona fide scene veteran (it only takes a decade to qualify). Busy as the upbeat bandleader with guitar-pop quartet The Fire Apes, he's been a fixture on the stages of the local clubs and in the pages of the City Paper for years.
Two years ago, he put together a new version of the band with longtime Charleston drummer Tommy Hamer (formerly of Astrojet), bassist Julian Volpe (who played on the Apes' 1997 album Perfect Day For Bananafish), and guitarist/keyboardist Matt Bivins (of Jump, Little Children). The quartet debuted at Cumberland's with a headlining show in early Oct. 2005. Hugh Knight stepped in as the permanent keyboardist in 2006.
They dressed like The Knack and The Jam. They played super-tight. They delivered respectful renditions of such pop nuggets as Herman & The Hermits' "I'm Into Something Good" and Pilot's AM radio hit "It's Magic." They dominated various "battle of the band" competitions. They landed on YouTube with videos and exciting footage. They pushed further with their wide-eyed vocal harmonies and arpeggiated guitar sounds. They reestablished themselves stronger than before.
Covering all the bases
They consistently take top spot in the City Paper annual reader's poll for Best Cover Band — and probably deservedly so. For years, Plane Jane has built a following and reputation as one of Charleston's best (and most expensive) "party bands" with a set list of over 400 songs of various musical styles. Led by founding guitarist and Charleston band scene veteran Scott Sain (formerly of '90s band The Pondering), the ensemble performs almost nightly around the Lowcountry at dance clubs and bars (mostly at the three Wild Wing locations), wedding receptions, oyster roasts, and private parties. Their repertoire includes a ton of Motown hits and 1960s classics, '70s Top-40 hits, goofy disco songs, and funk favorites. In recent years, they added more contemporary rock, hip-hop, and R&B tunes, much to the delight of the current dance club crowd.
Sain and his tag-team of bandmates — Trey Smith, Chris Williams, Jimmy Mac, Keith Bradshaw, Charlton Singleton, Ben Hawes, Bobby Alvarez, Matt Jordan, and others — have it down to a science. They understand how to build the energy in a room and read the vibe of an audience. They know how to stretch an arrangement and tighten up on stage. They've produced the blueprint for "cover band science" in Charleston.
Cary Ann Hearst
Strangely beautiful twang-pop
Rising to prominence in town over the last five years, singer/guitarist Cary Ann Hearst is a genuine talent with a big heart. After a brief stint in Nashville in 2005, she returned to Charleston and dove into a handful of band and studio collaborations. The Borrowed Angels included Danny Cassady and Jonathan Gray (ex-Jump). Drummer Evan Bivins (also of Jump) kept time. Multi-instrumentalist Ash Hopkins twiddled knobs and played guitar and bass.
The Cary Ann Hearst Band's debut, quasi-self-titled album (a.k.a. Dust & Bones) finally hit the streets in 2006. It was perhaps her finest accomplishment yet. The songwriter described the collection to City Paper as having "an organic and heart-worn sound with a sharp edge." Equal parts vintage country, gospel, soul, and Americana, it was one of the best collections of the year.
Hearst stays busy these days as a solo performer and a spirited collaborator with the likes of Lindsay Holler, The Jesse Janes, and the Radio Pirates. Whether with The Borrowed Angels, The Cary Ann Hearst Band, The Gun Street Girls (or whatever her band is called these days), Hearst is well loved and highly revered.
Adventures in jumpy ska-beat rock
They were tight 10 years ago ... and there's more squeezin' to come. Horn-driven ska-rockers SKWZBXX were vital players in Charleston's band scene in the 1990s. SKWZBXX (pronounced "squeeze box") toured the Southeast and released two studio albums — 1997's Secret 68 and 1999's Freak in My Candy — and embarked on several lengthy road trips before calling it quits in 2000 after a rowdy 1999 New Year's Eve show.
Most of the band — singer Rik Cribb (currently of The Problems), drummer Jack Burg (currently of The V-Tones), trombonist/singer Steve Spaulding (currently of Love Butter, Booty Call), trumpeter/vocalist Charlton Singleton (currently of Plane Jane), bassist Jonathan Holt (currently of Number One Contender), guitarist/vocalist Brad MacLean (currently of The Dellortos), and sax player David Cole — are still rockin' in various projects these days.
"I'll never forget our first City Paper write-up, with David's face blown up on the whole cover," Spaulding told City Paper in 2004. "I'll never forget driving down the road and hearing one of our demo tapes on 96 Wave, then changing the station and hearing a different tape playing on 95SX."
They stood out as a unique band with a high-energy sound and a hybrid of musical genres. And they still do! While it's been over a decade since their hectic heyday in Charleston, they've recently reformed for a handful of "reunion" shows featuring a lengthy list of original tunes and clever "ska" reworkings of vintage rock hits. Stay tuned, buster.
The Blue Dogs
Embracing their Carolina/country roots
Charleston's beloved Blue Dogs will probably never step outside of their "country" aesthetic. Starting out as a country-rock cover band on a college campus, they gradually assembled a strong set of original tunes and focused more on songwriting and recording. Since landing in Charleston in the mid-'90s, lead singer/guitarist Bobby Houck, bassist Hank Futch, and a rotation of backing players delivered a twangy, bluegrass-tinged mix of Americana, rock, and power-pop. They strummed their way through the South, up the East Coast, and out to the Rockies and back with their confident Southern style. We still like to smack a little coastal flavor in our definition of the band when we refer to the Dogs as "oyster roast rock."
The band's 2000 studio album, Letters From Round O, marked their first national breakthrough. 2001's live album, Live At Florence Little Theatre (recorded in Houck's S.C. hometown) was a sturdy document of the band's melodic approach.
"We evolved into a band that can perform consistently," Houck told City Paper upon the 2005 release of their latest studio album, Halos & Good-Byes. "We've proven that we can write good songs that seem to resonate with fans. Even if the sound of the band is not something that sounds commercial enough to country or rock labels, I still think we've created something unique. That's what we have. I think that's what's going to sustain us for the next 10 years or so."
Gary "Shrimp City Slim" Erwin
The determined blues enthusiast
One of the most dedicated cheerleaders for authentic blues and roots music in town is singer/keyboardist Gary "Shrimp City Slim" Erwin. A native of Chicago, Erwin has been a fixture in Charleston's music scene for almost two decades. A man of many hats (and berets), Erwin has stayed busy as a record store owner, radio show host, festival organizer and promoter, record producer, bandleader, and solo performer. Plans are already in the works for the 17th annual Lowcountry Blues Bash — a series of events aimed at showcasing the talents, interpretations, and grooves from a wide array of local and national blues/roots musical acts.
Erwin first started organizing the annual festival in 1991. "We took the concept and put it out into the city; multiple venues over several days," Erwin told City Paper recently. "It exploded into a 10-day, multi-venue situation. The pub crawl concept is sort of a European concept in a way where you involve a lot of food and beverage outlets — places that wouldn't normally offer live music — and get them involved. We put live blues in these places and spread it around town."
With the festival, Erwin brings in different types of blues styles — from the more traditional guitar and harp styles to the more modern, crossover hybrids. Often, he assembles backing bands for solo performers — usually taking a seat behind his keyboards on stage as well. A selfless champion with a positive attitude and strong sense of dedication, Erwin has been a mainstay in the music section — and probably will be for a long time.
A dash of Brit-style 'shoegaze' and guitar-pop
If there had never been a Killer Whales, there never would have been a Jody Porter ...and there never would have been AstroJet (a.k.a. The AstroJet). The former Charlestonian guitarist's high school band, Foreign Aide, was practically a Whales tribute act when they started out. Porter, bassist Greg Holton, and drummer Chisolm Wilson eventually assembled sets of melodic original songs replete with solos, choruses, verses, and riffs — equally inspired by the Beatles and the British Invasion, local trio The Killer Whales guitarist David Bethany's original work, and the guitar-driven stuff of the British and U.S. New Wave movement.
Porter went on to play with Holton and various drummers in The Fields through 1989 before moving to New York and forming The Belltower with bassist Britta Phillips. In the mid-'90s, Porter formed a new group called AstroJet (a fave of former City Paper music editor Larry Queen) with drummer Tom Hamer (currently of The Fire Apes and Hed Shop Boys). Simultaneously, the frontman signed on as side guitarist with the Fountains of Wayne, which demanded more of his time over the next nine years.
AstroJet was kind of a Charleston-based band, splitting their time between here and the Big Apple. City Paper paid close attention to their every move. After a split-up in 1999, Porter reassembled a new AstroJet lineup in 2003 and recorded an EP titled The Mile Low Club — a disc full of the same Brit-rock influences that initially inspired the frontman.