The very first thing you must know about is the stage. The stage is all about possibility, anticipation. The stage is a gift, but you have to own it. You have to claim it, take it from the previous band and then give it to the next.
It’s not much to look at, this stage, but I have stood on a certain spot a bit left of center for hundreds of shows. I can almost feel my foot impressions in the shabby carpet every single time I step up to the microphone. It’s like putting on an old pair of shoes.
If music is a transaction between performer and audience, the stage is a barrier, a fence – the higher the stage, the bigger the divide. The stage at the Double Door Inn is almost an afterthought, about a foot high and smaller than the room I’m writing in now. The result is that you are nearly nose-to-nose with the crowd in the front row, almost like busking on the sidewalk. It’s not for the faint of heart, this stage.
And that’s the second thing you should know about – the audience.
These people don’t come to watch sports on TV, and whatever pickup lines are in anyone’s head will be blown away by the first song. They come to hear you. The Double Door is a room for music.
Ah, the room. The Double Door’s secret ingredient. This room has a sound that’s as much a part of the band as the amplifiers and instruments and microphones we use to make music. It’s not a huge concert hall of a room, but the band knows what to fill it with, and the crowd does, too.
Craig Hanks, the sound man, has been onstage as well as behind the mixing console, and knows every nuance of this place – which is no small thing. He knows how to compensate for the human bodies soaking up the sound and then make the room tap-dance, soundwise, all the while watching the band for hand signals that they want more adjustments.
I’ve been in the audience for so many great bands in this room over the years. The Federal Bureau of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Cruise-O-Matic. Flo and Eddie. The Good The Bad and The Ugly reunion. The Stanleyville Rhythm Section. I watched Skip Castro’s guitar player lying on his back in the middle of Independence Boulevard, playing a hot solo. I saw The Two Rabbits lining the entire stage with tinfoil and generic household products before their set.
I talked to Eric Johnson as he was setting up and auditioning fuses for his amplifier. (I didn’t dare tell him as an amp technician that I thought he was crazy thinking a fuse would make a difference in his tone. He was Eric Johnson, guitar god, and he astounded me at the show.) If I continue, this will take up the rest of this piece. I’ll just say they were all part of The Brotherhood and Sisterhood of musicians who played here.
Listening from the audience is a vital education in Double Door-ness: Feeling the music coming from the speakers and up through your legs, while being rocked back and forth by folks pressing in from all sides. The communal yell at the end of an amazing tune. The intimacy that springs not only from the smallness of the room, but also from the shared secret that something great just happened. It feels tribal.
The band sweats and the crowd sweats, everyone drifting to the bar – to replace the sweat with beer – in groups of three or four, like jungle animals to the watering hole.
And there you’ll find Mike Martin, behind the bottle-scarred wooden bar. “What are you having, Mr. Stoeckel?” he asks. “Surprise me” is the ritual answer, and he cocks his head to think, holds up a finger and disappears for a second. He hands me a new dark ale that he knows I’ll love and watches me take the first sip and give him the inevitable thumbs up.
Mike, like many of the Double Door staff, has been there for decades. Todd Smith, who often works the door, gives my wife, Linda, a hug every time she comes up the steps to the small counter with the worn guest list and hand stamp. We know these folks.
Just behind Todd are the 17 ancient steps (mournful creaks at 12, 15, and 16) leading up to the small dressing room, furnished with two sofas from the Mesozoic Era, mashed against walls painted half a dozen times and supported solely by nearly four decades of graffiti. Lots of band names commemorate the pride of playing here, many altered by waggish musicians from other bands into something new and unprintable. Don’t take a nap on the sofas, by the way.
(Photo by Laura S. Tinnel, Laura Lynn Music Photography, used by permission.)
This is the retreat after load-in and sound check, a place to talk, relax, tune guitars, run over lyrics, and do last-minute rehearsing. The band has to lean in close to hear the electric guitars without amplifiers. Sometimes the drummer will pound the beat on a chair or sofa with drumsticks.
The crowd noise starts rising as we walk down the stairs, careful not to drop guitars in the darkness. We reach the bottom one by one, and to our left a few people see us, and applause starts as we make our way through the people to the stage, the audience turning as we plug in our instruments and face the room.
Looking out at 150 or so faces staring at you before the first note comes, when the adrenaline fizzes through your veins, and you feel your heart rate jack up and anything can happen and you give your bandmates a four count.
That’s what breaks the anticipation, like a dry stick snapping in two, and it becomes a marathon. The band runs hard, and the audience is the people standing on the streets as we pass, handing us applause instead of small cups of water.
If I had to pick one thing I’ll miss the most, it’s that feeling as I walk down those steps and make my way through the crowd and lay claim to a 15x16 space where so many have stood before. I’ll miss the Mojo Spot, a place where Stevie Ray punched his guitar down and cracked the stage, and which you’ll see blues guitar players touch with their foot before they play.
I’ll miss the old Bose speakers that hung low from the stage ceiling in the early days, where I cracked my head when I forgot they were there. I’ll miss the crowd singing the “nah nah nah” part to “Hey Jude.”
I’ll miss Missy McCall’s laugh, which could cut through a packed house. I’ll miss looking to stage left and winking at old friends, some of whom made long trips just to be there. I’ll miss seeing the Double Door calendar.
Live music is a magic trick, a bit of sleight-of-hand. We construct these sounds out of the air, this ephemeral noise that vanishes after each song. If you listen carefully, you can sometimes catch those last few notes dying in the room.
So much incredible music has filled the Double Door Inn over the years, and I like to think that bits and pieces of it are still floating around, stuck behind all the band pictures on the wooden walls. Or lodged deep in the ragged cushions in the dressing room.
It’s a beautiful and foolish notion that things last forever. The ghost notes. The bands in the pictures.
And the Double Door Inn.
Central Piedmont Community College bought the property from owner Nick Karres, who opened the Double Door in 1973. “We wanted to cultivate that music scene in Charlotte, not only bringing in the big names but cultivating the local scene. And that's one thing that we all really cared about at the Double Door,” Karres said in a WFAE interview last week; listen to that “Charlotte Talks” show here. The Spongetones – Stoeckel, Jamie Hoover, Pat Walters and Chris Garges – will play the last New Year's Eve show, which has already sold out, and the place will close Jan. 2, after a performance by longtime band the Monday Night Allstars.
And a documentary
“Live at the Double Door Inn” is a documentary put together by Kim Brattain, Rick Fitts, Chuck Bludsworth and Jay Ahuja. Bands from the Spongetones to the Avett Brothers to the Monday Night Allstars offered music to support the story. $25; find out more at https://www.kimbrattain.com/documentaries/.