Sunday, December 4, 2016

Double Door Inn Article, Tangents Magazine, December 2016 Issue

An old house sits at 218 Charlottetowne Avenue, just across from Central Piedmont Community College. When the building that has housed the Double Door Inn was first built in 1911, those that built the house could not have imagined the life that the place would have. Originally built as a residence on a dirt road, several blocks from the hospital that dwarfed the neighborhood in those early days, the house went through many changes. As did the city that it looked out over. In time, it would be a home, a business, a clothing store. Its neighbors would first include Central High, then Charlotte College (now UNC-Charlotte), and later, Central Piedmont Community College. 

By 1973, the area around the home was changing. A series of small shops littered around the CPCC area. They included Cronosynclasticinfindibulum, one of Charlotte’s first headshops, which sat next to the house on what is now 218 Charlottetowne. After being a clothing store for some time, the house sat empty for some time, until two brothers saw it as a place to attract locals and college students.

Nick Karres and Matthew Karres opened the Double Door Inn on December 22nd, 1973. They had been looking to open a bar for some time. Their father was not thrilled with their sons’ idea, but he supported them financially, and took some of the first ever photos of the Double Door’s interior. The brothers named the venue for its double doored entrance, not realizing that a music venue in Chicago had the exact name. But music was not in the brothers’ plan in those early days. “The college bar you’ve been waiting for”, proclaimed their hand-drawn early ads. They hoped to draw college students, and folks from the nearby Stanleyville (now part of Elizabeth) neighborhood.

In the early 1970s, music venues in Charlotte were at a low ebb. Larger venues such as Phantasmagoria had been driven out of business, and only a few bars provided live music. Slowly, musicians came into the Double Door, asking for a place to play. Originally, Nick and Matthew set acoustic musicians in the game room area of the club. Over time, musicians help Nick and Matthew build a stage near the front of the venue. Just in time for the Dixie Dregs to show up, and throw the venue’s focus into another place.

According to who tells the story, a couple of regulars at the Double Door happen to offer a ride to two long-haired men that were hitchhiking from the airport. It turned out to be Steve Morse, and one other member of the Rock band Dixie Dregs, who were on their way to Reliable Music. When the musicians inquired as to where they should play in Charlotte, they replied, “The Double Door Inn.” The band promptly booked two nights at the Double Door, and to their credit, the Karres brothers pulled off a show on aa scale that they had never attempted before. At the end of the second night, Moore gave Nick Karres a list of 12 bands that he said needed a place to play between Washington and Atlanta. And until January 3rd of 2017, the Double Door Inn has never stopped.

The Double Door soon established itself as one of the few places for blues music, and music of many genres to play in the Southeast. Along with the national touring acts that were filling their calendar, the Karres brothers never forgot that they were a Charlotte music venue. When the Spongetones began to coalesce in 1980, they immediately made the Double Door their primary home. That would be same for the Belmont Playboys, Extraordinaires, Lou Ford, and a host of local bands through the 1980s and 1990s. 

The Double Door Inn also established itself as what Nick referred to as a “Turnkey venue”. A venue that acts could build up a fanbase, and come back to Charlotte in larger venues. When Stevie Ray Vaughn first played the venue in 1979, the venue was mostly empty. When we returned for his third snd final show there in 1982, the line was out the door. 

And oh yes, another artist showed up at the Double Door Inn that same year. Here is that often-told story, in a nutshell. Harmonica player Jerry Portnoy was friends with Eric Clapton. Portnoy and the Legendary Blues Band, made up of former members of Muddy Waters’ band, had done some recording with Clapton. Portnoy and Clapton agreed that in return for recording, Clapton would guest one night with the band, so that the band could use it in their promotion. 

Clapton was basing his summer US tour out of Charlotte in 1982. The Legendary Blues Band set up a show at the Double Door Inn. Everything was set, and Clapton did not show. Plans were then tentatively made to have Clapton guest with the band in Memphis that Thursday. Soon after, the venue in Memphis closed, and the band needed another venue on that night. They called Nick Karres. Nick agreed to have a local band that was booked for that night, featuring Bill Noonan and Dillard Richardson, play a first set, and then have the Legendary Blues Band play the second set, unannounced. Clapton showed up with his whole band in tow, and after watching the band play for some time, took to the stage for five songs, and an encore. How many people were actually there that night? It’s hard to say. Maybe we all were there, at least emotionally. 

Through 43 years, the Double Door has seen a lot of changes. When Nick Karres took over sole ownership in 1984. Through the changing music scene, and changing musicians. Over time, the venue became the second oldest blues music venue in the United States, and oldest on this side of the Mississippi River. The only one that is older is Antone’s, in Austin, TX, which has been renovated a number of times. About the only physical things that have changed over those 43 years is the removal of the old clothing store display on the second floor, and the bathrooms that were added in the ealy 1990s. But the peope, the music, the Dirty Floor- as it was sometimes known- remained.

I first went to the Double Door Inn in 1994. It was part of a Sunday night meeting of a local video and film group. I soon left the video group, but I started going regularly to the venue over the next two years. By the late 1990s, the Double Door started hosting an Americana Night on Tuesday nights, for the regional and national acts that were playing country, rock and folk music durign that time. THere was no other series like that in Charlotte back then. How many bands that I still listen to, work with, am friends with, still connected to, that I saw in that series? Thankfully, too many to count. A Tuesday night there also led you to shows on Friday and Saturday night. To the All-Stars on Monday night. One great show and night led to the next.

The shows I saw there? Levon Helm with the Barn Burners. Alejandro Escovedo with a string section. Leon Russell, with a set-up that was bigger than the Double Door stage. More Lou Ford shows that many of us can remember, for different reasons. David Childers, with a young Concord band called the Avett Brothers opening? Pinetop Perkins. Nappy Brown. Hubert Sumlin. Thankfully, my camera was with me for all these adventures. I never thought that I would be looking at these photos, and thinking, “I’m glad that I documented this while they, and the building was there.” It was life. My life, my friends’ lives. The Double Door was part of our collective life adventure.

Nick Karres introduced me to Debby Wallace, which whom I co-wrote the first edition of the Double Door book. She needed a photographer for an interview she was doing with Nick, and Nick called me from his office. Somehow, I happened to be home when Nick called, and then drove to the Double Door. Later that day, Debby said that she always wanted to write a book on the history of the Double Door, and I immediately told her that she should, and that I would help her. I wanted to see that story told, and in print. The fact that I was the one involved with the book was almost happenstance. I wanted to see happen, so I helped to bring it to fruition. When Debby passed away a month about publication, I became the person that carried the book’s story on. Through a second edition in 2014, and a third and final edition next year. Because the story deserves to be told, and I still believe in it. Whether the building is standing, or not. And regardless of my involvement with the book, I am like many that hold the venue in a special place in my heart. The story of the Double Door is story of many of us, all in love with the dream that the venue allowed us to have.

It is sad to see the Double Door go. There is no easier way to say it. It’s loss has been one of the few things over my 33 years in Charlotte that made me question why I am still living here. And when it goes, an era of Charlotte will go. Once again, this city talks abou preserving what little history we have left, and then we don’t. That being said, Nick Karres and the Double Door staff, many of whom have been with the venue for over 30 to 40 years, have given us the chance to go out with grace, and the chance to come to terms with the loss.

The documentation of life is often the attempt to capture, or speak to the experiences that we are having. With a pen, with a camera. With a thought, or a scribble on the upstairs green room wall. When it all is said and done, I’m glad that I was there, and I’m glad that so many of you were also there. And for those that never walked through the Double Door Inn, I will always say, I wish you had been.

Thank you, Nick, Thank you, Matt. Thank you, everyone.

Long live the Double Door Inn.

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