Things change slowly at Cat’s Cradle, the storied North Carolina rock club that turned 50 last year. It took half that time to meander from a basement in Chapel Hill through several nearby locations to its current home in a Carrboro shopping center, half a mile from where it began in 1969. One thing you can say about North Carolinians: We grow deep roots. It’s a testament to the Cradle’s history that some of the area’s biggest bands recorded covers to help the iconic East Coast tour stop outlast the pandemic. The result is Cover Charge, a whopping 25-song set with far more riches than a charity project requires.
Carrboro, the former mill town that started collecting artists when Chapel Hill got expensive, is central in the music scene, but nobody ever talked about the “Carrboro sound.” When the Cradle moved there in 1993, the club was already inextricable from Chapel Hill and indie rock. Hell, it could probably move to Durham (like Merge Records did) or Raleigh—the other cities that make up the loose conurbation we call the Triangle—and still not shake the association.
The Cradle began as a coffeehouse-folk spot, and like most midsize rock clubs, it has grown into more polyglot bookings—shy of techno, anyway, which throbs at one of its former haunts, now Nightlight. But the early ’90s cast a long shadow. In that myth-clouded time, Cradle denizens like Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Ben Folds put Chapel Hill on the map for more than UNC basketball. Major-label A&Rs showed up to find the next Nirvana, who of course had played the Cradle, and national magazine writers showed up to construct the new Seattle. Sonic Youth enshrined the club’s name in a song called “Chapel Hill,” and Merge was setting the national indie-label mold. A hodgepodge of weird little bands were being mashed into a canonical sound.
It’s natural that this brief but influential era radiates through Cover Charge. It could only begin with Superchunk, whose members founded Merge and defined the snotty, rambunctious pop-punk most associated with Chapel Hill. They’re also the rare golden-age band that has lasted without hiatus; their effortless cover of The Go-Go’s’ “Can’t Stop the World” shows why. And it’s inspired to conclude with The Veldt, who risked being forgotten beyond the great “Soul in a Jar” until their reformation several years ago met with a critical renaissance, in a climate more open to a Black shoegaze-soul band than those lily-white days were. They imprint their lush but desperate sound on their cover of Madonna’s “Dress You Up.” The leap isn’t as far as it seems—in the ‘90s, even Madonna was checking for Chapel Hill bands.
In between, Cover Charge spans a range of great moments in Triangle music history, the keenest bridging then and now. The name The Mayflies USA probably only means anything to a subset of late-’90s indie fans. By the time they came along, national attention had largely moved on and the internet was about to redraw the landscape of regional scenes. Archers and Polvo had just broken up, and Superchunk had a string section. The Mayflies were the new national buzz-band most likely to carry the torch. Their sleek, soaring sound almost seemed like a repudiation of their squalling predecessors, so it’s interesting to hear the very early-‘90s vibe they bring to The Smiths’ “There Is a Light that Never Goes Out,” like a handshake across the decades.
Though Archers are finally releasing some good new songs 10 years into their reunion, they don’t show up—but Eric Bachmann does, and his duet with one of the Triangle’s best contemporary singer-songwriters, Skylar Gudasz, is an unexpected and delightful choice. In his folksy Crooked Fingers mode, Bachmann reminds us that his Archers croak is a decision, not a limitation, and the duo’s tender version of The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is the freshest moment here.
This only scratches the surface of Cover Charge, which is stocked with other scenes and eras that have passed through the Cradle. There’s the ‘90s alt-country surge that gave us Tift Merritt, who thankfully is included, and Ryan Adams, who thankfully isn’t. There’s the motley ’80s college rock before the indie-rock boom: the jangle-pop of The dB’s, the jammy Americana of The Connells, and the chicken-fried rockabilly of Southern Culture on the Skids, a retro strain that Flat Duo Jets carried on into the alt-rock ’90s.
This list doesn’t even touch on some of the biggest names here, such as Durham residents The Mountain Goats, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Iron & Wine, or many of the last decade’s vanguard: Mandolin Orange and Mount Moriah, Mipso and The Love Language. It doesn’t touch on soul singer Faith Jones’s brilliant rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” which breaks open the song’s ’60s time capsule to spill into the turbulent modern world beyond the Cradle’s walls, or the Marshall Crenshaw cover by Florence Dore that incited the whole project. It’s just too much, in a wonderful way.
I don’t remember for sure what my first indie-rock show was, but the first one I remember was at the Cradle. I don’t remember The Comas’ set, but I’ll never forget the underwater feeling of the sound and lighting. I became a Comas stan, an indie-rock snob, and a music journalist at the Cradle, all in a short span, and then its tastes broadened with mine to encompass Ghostface and James Blake and onward.
In short, when I die, I want to find myself on the Cradle’s smoker’s patio. It and many venues like it across the country need your help. This comp is no waste of money even if you’ve never set foot in Carrboro, and every venue exists in an ecosystem that feeds bands from one place to the next. It’s imperative to keep them all alive so they can continue to change slowly and change lives for 50 more years.
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