I drive a lot. I don’t spend a lot of time in the car on a daily basis or anything. I recognize that many people have lengthy commutes and others drive for a living. Some people hate it. I love it. “I Drive a Lot” will be a recurring column covering the places I go and the things I do while I’m away. “I Drive a Lot” is also a song by Starflyer 59.
Growing up in a small town in NC meant anything interesting to a teenage sub-culture kid was at least an hour drive away, if not more. The first show I went to as a 14-15 year old required a drive to Greensboro. I would visit Charlotte, Asheville and Chapel Hill by the time I went to college just to see bands I liked. Even once I had moved away to a more cultured area of our state, I went to probably just as many shows out of town as I did at home.
North Carolina is a wide state with multiple, distinct metro areas. Asheville is nearly isolated in the mountains on the west. Boone had a moment of it’s own though it seems more focused on a local scene now. Charlotte’s gravitational pull stretches into South Carolina and consumes the whole Lake Norman region. Only an hour north from there is Winston-Salem, where I live, and Greensboro thirty minutes away. Roughly another hour to the east is the capitol Raleigh making up one point of a triangle with Chapel Hill–with adjacent Carrboro and it’s Cat’s Cradle–and Durham–home of Lucky Strike cigarettes, Duke University and Merge Records–making up the other two. Even further east still, smaller cities like Fayetteville, Greenville, Jacksonville and Wilmington have all been stops on plenty of tours.
Despite all the places to play in North Carolina, I get the impression that we have a bad rap. Maybe it is the relative sprawl of NC, the limited sight of promoters and the weirdly exclusive nature of each city’s scene? More often than not, I hear about a band coming to my area from the band themselves when they announce their tours.
Perhaps this is why more and more bands are booking multiple cities in NC? With so many small scenes and so few people traveling between them it makes more sense to hit up every place over an hour apart. Lucero have taken to stopping 2 to 3 times here every tour. In truth, this approach has a deep history among Country and Folk associated artists. The Avett Brothers practically did circles around NC for years before striking it big. Yet, this model seems so ideal for Indie and Punk bands, I wonder why so many stick to driving 4+ hours between every show?
For a band like Andrew Jackson Jihad though, playing three dates in NC is more like making up for lost time. It’s been over two years since the Folk Punk duo(now backed with a full band) have been through NC when they played at UNC Asheville with an after show at The Odditorium; a show which I missed in favor of driving to Atlanta to see the newly reunited Five Iron Frenzy. It has been just a little less time since I caught them for the first time at Fest 12. They skipped right over us with Cheap Girls and Dogbreth on their Christmas Island tour with an open date between Atlanta and Richmond. Prior to 2013 the only dates I can find were in support of Can’t Maintain in 2009 when they stopped twice on the coast in Wilmington and New Bern. This time around they visited us in Wilmington, Durham and Charlotte bringing along Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts and Rozwell Kid. But who’s keeping score?
Initially, Justin and I had intended to catch them at the Visulite Theatre in Charlotte but due to the schedule at my new job–I would be closing that night–our only choice would be Durham at the Motorco Music Hall.
The Triangle–Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill–has the highest visibility in NC and a large, well-cultured population so it’s an ideal stop for just about any artist. Chapel Hill was home to Archers of Loaf and Superchunk and it has remained a good target for college music. Raleigh has become the ideal stop for Intelligent metal of all types. Durham however, has remained kind of an oddball. There are only two venues there that I have heard of: Motorco Music Hall which has on their schedule Jessica Lea Mayfield, Mac McCaughan and High On Fire with Crowbar and The Pinhook where Speedy Ortiz will play in December.
I’ve been to Durham a couple of times in my life, but I can’t tell you much about the city to be honest. My wife and I visited while we were still dating and walked around the Lucky Strike factory, downtown and the Bright Leaf District where we ate dinner at The Federal. The second time I visited Durham was just to stop in at Elmo’s Diner for breakfast. The only other time I’ve been through was the time it took for our train to pull through the station–one of many stops on the “Carolinian” line–on our way from High Point to DC.
Having been to shows in a lot of places across NC I am surprised that this is the first time I would visit the Motorco Music Hall. I did almost go once with my buddy Grant to catch a pop punk show but I passed on it because it wasn’t anyone I cared all that much about. Now that I live in a more central place in North Carolina I will keep this venue on my radar.
Before I get into the show recap I want to talk about the drive. It is the name of the column after all. Justin in truth did the most driving, but the stretch of I-40 from Hickory to Winston-Salem is one he makes fairly often and a very unexciting one; regardless of the speed changes and construction. Upon his arrival we took a few minutes to catch up, I was in the middle of playing through a stack of 7″s that I have accumulated but haven’t listened to. More on those another time.
I am always caught off guard at the level of development across the Piedmont region of NC despite the fact that I live here. With the exception of some wooded areas exiting Winston and arriving in Durham, our drive took us through what amounts to a continuous sprawling, low-lying city. There’s a few tall buildings in Greensboro, but other than that the landscape is one blanket of undulating grey and neon commerce, sprinkled with some greenery. At least the traffic isn’t bad on a night like this. It’s getting darker earlier now. A fact that punctuates our annual trip to Fest and signals a jarring shift into the holiday season on our return home.
Before long we’re hungry. Really hungry. There’s the usual fast food options. I’ve hit my Taco Bell quota for the year, so I’m not dying to go back. Then, like a horn blown by some fat angel a yellow and red billboard for Hursey’s Bar-B-Q in Burlington drifted into view.
I’ve seen this billboard before, but never pulled off to give it a shot. Justin expressed some reservation. Is this the real thing? For those who don’t know, as North Carolinians we have certain standards for BBQ. It is not just smoked meat and it’s definitely never grilled. BBQ refers only to the specific dish of wood cooked and chopped, course chopped or sliced pork. Ribs, brisket and chicken are all well and fine, but they aren’t BBQ.
There are further distinctions between styles which I will gladly clarify for you now. In NC we have two major styles. I’m not an extreme purist so both are acceptable to me, but I do have my preference. Originally NC BBQ was cooked whole-hog in a pit and the various cuts were then chopped together and served with a sauce(sometimes chopped in) made up primarily of vinegar and occasionally with spices; mostly red pepper. As expansion moved west across the state a second style was developed in Lexington–the name-sake for this style–focusing exclusively on the shoulder cut(Boston Butt) and served with a thicker vinegar and tomato based sauce.
The happy cannibal pigs on the billboard gave me a good feeling, so we rolled the dice. Pulling up in the parking lot, it was indeed a good, old-fashioned mom’n’pop BBQ place with a big brick chimney. Hursey’s has a history that dates back to 1945 and it seems like their approach to BBQ has remained mostly the same since. We were promptly seated, served Cheerwine and had our orders taken. They have a menu that also includes chicken, ribs and seafood options but our choices were obvious. Two BBQ plates. Their fried okra was sold out and Justin speculated that it would have been the highlight of the meal. We substituted our slaw for other sides.
After our meal, I initially gave Hursey’s a three and a half oinks ranking. With a little more thought and a discussion of our favorite BBQ places I downgraded to just three. Hursey’s was solid. Good in a pinch and a better choice than most fast food, but nothing I would make a point of stopping for again. The sauce was sweeter than I like, still tangy but also a little sticky and it all but disappeared into the already a little too wet pork. I’ll take too wet over anything dry, mind you, so I’ll say that the pork was adequate. The side portions were small, the fries were a little different from the usual frozen crinkle cuts that you get at most BBQ places so that was nice, but the standout was a frustratingly tiny portion of hushpuppies. They were great, the onion clashed a little with the honey butter spread but it was the best thing I tasted there. We were given okay service, no refills were offered to us. We left satisfied but not sickly full, which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it.
We pulled into Durham, found a spot on the street to park between the police station and skate park and started walking. We hoped to check out a record store but ended up not having enough time to walk to any and opted to get coffee at the nearby Cocoa Cinnamon. Buzzfeed assured us that it was one of 24 coffee shops in the US we should visit before we die. Sounded cool. The cafe, housed in a re-purposed gas station with matching reclaimed industrial aesthetics, was bustling with students behind laptop screens where these two flannel clad fat punk-daddies obviously didn’t fit in. Our barista was pleasant, our well-made drinks were served promptly and the patio offered a nice place to sit before the show. I’m not a real coffee snob so I can’t give you much of a critique of the latte I ordered, but the espresso had a nice taste that I complemented with only a little simple syrup and the foam had no large bubbles. A bucket-list coffee shop? Probably not. I can only think of one cafe I would make a point of revisiting if I were given a grim prognosis. A great spot if you’re in town? Absolutely.
We missed the local openers while we were busy caffeinating. My apologies to Almost People. There was a good crowd already. Durham really surprised me, though I imagined that AJJ could draw from all over the region. This fact was confirmed when some attendees shouted they were from as far away as Virginia Beach when Sean Bonnette asked the crowd how far anyone had driven for the show.
We found a nice spot towards the front, house-right. The venue, a 500 cap room along with the Parts & Labor bar and restaurant are housed in a former mid-century car dealership is the largest venue in Durham and is located in the Central Park district which is adjacent to downtown. The room has a decent sound system, though the mix wasn’t great for either Rozwell Kid or Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts, it was better for AJJ who didn’t do a sound check before playing. I assume their levels were set prior to the show.
Rozwell Kid were a blast to watch. Justin has been a fan of theirs since a little before Too Shabby if I’m not mistaken. They play that style of guitar driven slacker, high-five alt. rock Weezery Punk that is getting too ubiquitous, but they were a blast to watch live. Their music, even as technical and soaring as it is, doesn’t quite grab me the way The Superweaks(previously just The Weaks) does, but I did get stronger Piebald vibe from this gang(sans piano, and Travis Shettel’s searing wit of course). Their stage presence blurs the line between goofy, tongue-in-cheek Rock and/or Roll showmanship and sincere Punk energy. I’d go see them again and I don’t know any of their songs.
Jeffrey Lewis brought a different kind of energy to the stage. A slower burn that I wasn’t sure at first that I would catch onto. Justin clued me in to Jeffrey’s anti-folk background, I cringed a little, that’s just not my scene. They opened up with the title track from The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane which was every bit as exhausting to listen to as I’ve been told tripping feels. Though it perfectly setup the opportunity for them to play the fun and funny “No LSD Tonight” which perfectly captures the feeling of being a non-drug user constantly being offered drugs and sometimes harassed to give varying substances a try. No thanks man, I’ll stick to a beer or two. By the time I realized that the second song they played was in fact a cover of “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies, I was intrigued.
Overall their sound reminded me of The Fall or Flipper with their harsh guitar sound, repetition and abrupt tempo changes, but, you know Folky. There were a couple songs, accompanied with a comix style slideshow recounting the history of Sitting Bull and the rise and fall of Communism in Vietnam that were enlightening and entertaining and also reminded me in almost equal parts of School House Rock, They Might Be Giants and Minutemen. That latter comparison also came up for me during “Support Tour” which for me was the highlight of their set, and was highly reminiscent of “Tour Spiel” from 3 Way Tie (For Last).
After switching out the drums and rolling in the rest of AJJ’s gear the folk punk duo now backed by a drummer, cellist and electric guitarist took the stage. Their set reached further back into their discography than I expected and was(thankfully) not too heavy on Christmas Island material. They cut deep with “Love in the Time of Human Papillomavirus” and surprised with “Bad Bad Things” an edgier than expected throwback. The room got sweaty very quickly and though the crowd was raucous it was mostly in control.
Sean did at one point kindly ask the crowd to take a step back to relieve some pressure on the front row which gave me the opportunity I needed to take back the spot that had been usurped by an annoying pair of drunk teens. One of these kids drank repeatedly from a flask and talked through a quieter moment in AJJ’s set and the other resembled a young Paul Stanley over whose shoulder I noticed was texting someone labeled “Parental Bitch” in their phone. Needless to say, I didn’t feel bad about that opportunistic seize at all. Ironically enough, they sidled their way into our side of the room during “Personal Space Invader” which prompted the Kim Pine-est glare I could muster.
Of their newer songs I was pleased to hear “Kokopelli Face Tattoo” and “I Wanna Rock Out In My Dreams” but neither of those cuts could match “Linda Ronstadt” whose poignant but funny lyrics recount the experience of losing your shit in a museum to a video installation of Linda Ronstadt. For me it called up memories of a trip across the southwest just a few months back with the lines “today the salt and sun ran down my face / after a year of hiding all my feelings” and “I can’t handle astounding works of beauty / I think I like my pretty pretty ugly” with references to the Arizona sunset(pictured in the header of this article) and the too relatable image of a grown man inconsolably weeping. This was paired pretty close–if not back to back–in their set with “Little Prince (El Principito)” to which I wailed along about how “I’d like to take advantage of a flock of wild birds to make my escape from this planet” in a moment of catharsis that live music rarely elicits from me much anymore. It was a feeling that only Beach Slang gave me with their heartfelt rock platitudes about not fitting in or Langhorne Slim’s tear-jerking “Song for Sid” earlier this year. It’s the kind of feeling I want more of, but with age comes those jaded barriers and a tighter grip on my emotions.
Andrew Jackson Jihad capitalized on just how tightly wound I’ve been lately from moving away from my home of six years, struggling to find artistic and professional fulfillment and making sense of my mental and emotional state post-college. They reminded me of something that a friend recently texted me about, how much more deeply we felt things as a teenager and longing for that again. Not for melodrama, but something realer than late-twenties blase towards everything. Something that I left a stable job with advancement opportunities to go work at an art house movie theater and freelancing to find. Something that I will keep driving to chase down.
My name is Dylan Hensley. I am the publisher and editor. I am sometimes a music promoter. I am always looking for content writing and journalism work. Feel free to drop me a line at businesscreep[at]gmail[dot]com.