(This is the second in a series of posts sharing some memories of the late, great Columbia SC live music club Rockafellas, which is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its closing with two nights of shows next weekend featuring many of the local bands that played there)
Rockafellas’ size was in almost opposite proportion to its reputation—the club only held 225 legal capacity, and the original stage was a 10 x 12 platform at one end of the narrow building, with a cutaway into the outside windowsill where they usually stuck the drummer, who had to be careful not to bump his head, either while playing or when he got up to get off stage. In the later years the stage was expanded forward and the cutaway was eliminated, but it was still no wider than the room between the two exit doors on either side.
The most people I ever saw on the original stage was at a show with the Australian band Hunters & Collectors in the spring of 1987. The band had a full horn section among their 8 or nine members, and one or two of them actually had to stand on the floor beside the stage during the show. One of my favorite bands at the time, with a full-bodied rock sound that’s both bass and horn- heavy, it was an incredible show, with Mark Seymour (brother of Crowded House/Split Enz member Paul Seymour) an intense presence up front. So intense, in fact, that at one point in the show when a couple drunks up front were getting into an altercation right in front of Seymour in the middle of a song, he reached out and grabbed one of them by the t-shirt, yelling at him to stop or get the hell out of his show. Yes, the stage and the fans were that close together.
To illustrate how small the stage was and how close the fan-band connection could be, I have to mention the loudest show I ever heard at Rockafellas—The Flaming Lips. They played there twice, once as an opener and then a headliner. It was that second show I attended, around the time right after their Oh My Gawd! Album was released ( a cool clear vinyl platter I wish I still had a copy of—at WUSC we had to mark the places where the tracks changed with a Sharpie so we could cue the thing up easier). I got a spot right up front, with my knees touching the original, low stage. The drum kit was so big that the kick drum was only about four feet from me, and when the band started playing it felt like every whack of the kick pedal went right through me, like a sonic sledgehammer. The only other thing I remember about this show was the funny-tasting bubble machine they were using that we all later joked about having LSD in it or something, and the fact that this was the last rock show I attended without earplugs—a mistake on my part at the time, I’m sure, and any hearing loss I’ve suffered probably started here.
One of my favorite things to tell people about Rockafellas is the big-name bands who played there first, early in their careers. Dave Matthews made so many stops at the club most of the regulars didn’t even bother to go in when he was playing, choosing instead to hang out in the Purple Pit or outside. Hootie & the Blowfish played there, too, though Greenstreets tended to be a more common venue for them. Warrant, Skid Row, and a host of metal bands played there, too.
Edwin McCain was a frequent visitor in his pre-label days, too, with the Edwin McCain Band, as they were called at the time. I vividly remember one show, with Edwin wearing John Lennon shades and a paisley vest, looking like a young Van Morrison, and playing one of the best live versions of, “All Along the Watchtower,” I’ve ever heard—it was a slower, groovier take on the tune that most guitarists use to imitate the Jimi Hendrix rendition.
The last time, I think, that McCain played Rockafellas was after the first Atlantic album was released, which would make it about 1996? Anyway, he had the big Greyhound tour bus already at that point, and “Solitude,” was getting some good airplay, so the line to get in the place was a block up the street. My wife and I were crazy enough to go, so we went early and got in in time to see the opening act, a waif-ish little blonde girl with a guitar who said her name was “Jewel.” The poor kid was quite literally heckled off the stage after about twenty minutes by an over-capacity crowd who’d come to see their latest favorite son play his ‘hit.’
Somebody told me later that they put around 400 into the bar for that show, which is way, way over the legal capacity I listed above. Amy and I were sandwiched into the crowd at about the point where the bar had a lift-up door in it for the bar staff, which was lucky because after Jewel’s aborted opening set, Amy proceeded to have an asthma attack, brought on by the smoke and claustrophobia, probably. Equally lucky for us, one of the bartenders or bar backs, I don’t remember who but I’m grateful to this day for them, saw what was going on and opened up the lift-up door, allowing us to exit through the emergency exit door right behind it, into clean air. We never did go back inside, so I actually didn’t even see Edwin play that show.
My other favorite “I saw them when” story about Rockafellas concerns a band from the Athens/Atlanta area called Mr. Crowe’s Garden. They played the club on a Sunday night in the fall of 1989, a slow time at any bar, and only about ten people were there, including the bar staff. When they got up to play, the singer said they were just going to have some fun, and the band proceeded to play a 90 minute set of every classic 70’s rock song you can name, from “Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo,” to, “Strutter,” and, “Deuce.” It was an amazing display and a great show, for almost nobody. I talked to the singer after the show, and he said they were releasing an album the next spring on Def American, a new label from Def Jam founder Rick Rubin. I didn’t think much more about it until January of 1990, I was fresh out of USC and working a record store job in Charleston when an elderly couple came in and bought two copies of a new album we’d just gotten in from a band called the Black Crowes. After looking closer at the album I realized this was the same band I’d seen at Rockafellas back in the fall. I had even been playing it in the store for several weeks without making the connection, but it clicked then. The couple who came in were an aunt and uncle of Chris and Rich Robinson, the two brothers in the band’s original lineup.
(More to come, including local band lore…)