Snug Harbor Celebrates 16 Years in Plaza Midwood
Plaza Midwood was a different place in 2007. Funky diner The Penguin’s iconic sign marked the arts district’s epicenter and a modest strip mall housed alternative boutique Boris & Natasha. Nearby, a loft that once housed comedy troupe The Perch lay vacant, two years before Soul Gastrolounge opened. Dive pool hall Elizabeth Billiards anchored a wide open parking lot, and across the street on Gordon Street, a bar called Fire & Ice had just shut down. That was when Scott McCannell called the building’s owner.
“We tried to get the ball rolling,” McCannell says, “Fortunately, it worked out for us.”
McCannell’s rolling ball is Snug Harbor, and the nautically themed bar’s momentum has only accelerated since 2007. Hosting an increasingly eclectic bill of local and national alternative, rock, folk, metal, country, classical, rap, dance, electronic, R&B and more, the sturdy haven for diversity has arguably become Charlotte’s most vital independent music venue.
On May 19, Snug Harbor celebrates its warm embrace of the challenging, outré and astonishing with its 16-year anniversary celebration featuring infectious Raleigh-based Latin fusion band Tumbao and Brooklyn Afro-funk collective Kaleta & Super Yamba Band, fronted by former Fela Kuti sideman Leon Ligan-Majek.
“It will just be a fun, energetic danceable night,” says Snug Harbor talent buyer Zach Reader.
The start of Snug was a less elaborate, though no less energetic, affair. The bar opened on a Thursday night, and with no bands booked, McCannell’s friend and sometime roommate Scott Weaver offered to DJ.
“I enjoyed that experience and I had missed having a regular gig of my own like that,” says Weaver, a multidisciplinary creative who works as a musician, painter, makeup artist and interior designer. “So I said, ‘How about if I make Thursdays a thing?’“
Weaver’s gig developed and grew into a much bigger production. For ten years, that production, entitled Shiprocked!, became Charlotte’s longest running and most famous underground party, breaking outlier artists and enthusiastically promoting LGBTQI+ acceptance. The party ceased being weekly in 2017, but Shiprocked! continues, at least once annually as part of Charlotte Pride celebrations, with an occasional additional iteration.
All that, however, was in the future as McCannell assembled a team that helped put Snug Harbor on the charts.
From safe harbor to Shiprocked!
“From a young age, I always wanted my own spot,” McCannell says, “just to support the local scene and bands coming through town.”
But McCannell had to work his way up before he could act on his dream. From 1995 to 1998, he booked bands at now-demolished NoDa music venue Fat City. (He returned for two years before the club closed for good in 2003.) In his tenure at Fat City, McCannell booked acts like Blonde Redhead, HR of Bad Brains and Archers of Loaf. McCannell also worked at Plaza Midwood eatery Dish for three years while playing drums in bands including Appalucia and Latino Chrome.
Alabama native Weaver had arrived in Charlotte in 1995, first house-sitting for Hope Nicholls and Aaron Pitkin when their band Sugarsmack went on a national tour. Weaver made friends and explored the city.
After he’d seen some memorable shows at Fat City, Weaver introduced himself to the club’s talent buyer and booker McCannell. The two became friends, and started playing together in Charlotte band Babyshaker.
When the lease on the former Fire & Ice premises became open, McCannell reached out to his friend Daylon Brumfield, who was a production manager at what was then Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. With their third partner, food and music business owner Kelly Call, the trio sealed the deal on the building that became Snug Harbor.
“I remember all of us being at band practice, and going over to [Snug Harbor] to do some odd jobs to help out,” Weaver says. “It was a friends and family effort to get that place going.”
Weaver, who was McCannell’s roommate at the time, says the bar’s iconic piratical look was always part of the plan, and the ornamental touches came mainly from decorations in McCannell’s bedroom. “Scott actually had a pirate bedroom!” Weaver says.
Starting in 1998, Weaver was becoming known for throwing increasingly elaborate theme parties with a flair for the dramatic. He brought that aesthetic to Shiprocked!, booking live music, burlesque, go-go dancers and drag queens in a full blown variety show.
“Scott probably knew that I was going to run wild with it,” Weaver says. “He himself had been at all those other parties I threw.”
Among the go-go dancers, drag queens and burlesquer dancers, Weaver began to assemble a party ensemble.
“[It was] our version of either Warhol superstars or John Waters’ stable of performers,” Weaver offers. “That was the Shiprocked! crew.”
Meanwhile, Chris Burns, working as general manager of nearby Diamond Restaurant, noticed the carefree and creative atmosphere and exploits at Snug Harbor.
“I’d wanted to work for Scott McCannell and Kelly Call for quite a while,” Burns says. “The first opportunity to work at Snug came with a door shift for Shiprocked!”
Burns jumped at the chance to get his foot in the door at Snug Harbor. Shortly after that, he picked up an occasional bar shift when available. Over time, Burns became a full time bartender, then manager, and finally general manager, a position he holds to this day.
As GM, Burns handles scheduling, banking, social media, hiring, customer relations and employee relations, as well as any issues that might arise on a daily basis.
Shiprocked! helped get Snug noticed. Besides being a great party, it was innovative. Shiprocked! changed Charlotte’s nightlife, particularly transforming drag and how it was perceived. It all started because Weaver was tired of the boring drag he’d seen in town.
“Here drag was what people expected, female impersonators lip-synching to classic or current pop songs,” Weaver says. His cross-country travels had exposed him to a different drag — a wilder, more satirical form of art and entertainment he dubs “punk drag.”
Weaver found what he was looking for in Plaza Midwood — two wild and funny performers who couldn’t get gigs at the city’s staid venues. As BethAnn Phetamine and Lilith DeVille, A.J. Barker and Justin Crego pushed boundaries, blending aspects of performance art and stand-up comedy to their acts.
“Nobody was booking them. They were too weird. They didn’t fit the mold,” Weaver says.
He promptly recruited them for Shiprocked! After receiving exposure from the boisterous long-running party, Barker and Crego’s alter-egos went from getting zero drag bookings to appearing on the main stage in front of thousands at Charlotte Pride in just a few short years.
“I pushed them, but they wouldn’t have gained a following were they not really fun and great at what they did,” Weaver says.
Booking, noise police and COVID
McCannell started off booking bands at Snug before handing the task over to Brumfield. In 2012, Brumfield moved to Austin, leaving McCannell and Call as co-owners of Snug Harbor. That year, Jason Michel came onboard as a co-owner. Derek Ghent, who’d been with the business since the beginning, also became a partner. In addition to being co-owner, Ghent handles payroll and timekeeping, and is company CFO. Michel left in 2017 and Call passed away suddenly the same year — a tragic and unexpected loss for Plaza Midwood and the city as a whole.
Rounding out the current Snug Harbor crew are Rachel Herberg and Tommy Heffner as bartending shift managers along with Burns. Matt Shane is the bar’s supply manager.
Meanwhile, Zach Reader had been booking bands for local shows since he was 16, eventually launching Recess Fest with partner Casey Malone. He started going to Snug Harbor shows and began to play the venue as a solo act under the name Ultimate Optimist. In time, he formed friendships with McCannell and Michel, and came onboard as the venue’s talent buyer in 2013.
“It was [booking] multiple shows at once,” Reader says. “I definitely hit the ground running.”
If Reader has anything resembling a booking philosophy it would encompass being open to just about everything.
“When I started at Snug, I already had an eclectic interest and taste in music,” Reader says.
He credits Michel with inspiring him to plan cross-genre bills.
“I grew to love and appreciate that, and building bridges between genres,” says Reader, who compares booking shows to making mixtapes. “It’s like planning out a mixtape that stays fluent, constantly combining things to so every kind of person … is coming together in that room.”
McCannell praises Reader for solidifying Snug Harbor’s place on the musical map, making it a place where artists always look forward to coming back.
Weaver has played the room as a member of three bands: Babyshaker, Snagglepuss and his most recent group, Miami Dice, which will play Snug Harbor this summer.
“Everybody I know that tours simply loves playing there, and it’s because of the people,” Weaver says. “The sound guys treat you right. Everybody there loves music.”
“When you walk into Snug in the daytime, it’s not impressive,” McCannell says. Once performers hear the sound check, however, their spirits rise, McCannell notes, and following the wonderful vibes performers encounter while playing, they are hooked and anxious to come back.
The music coming from Snug Harbor that engages both audiences and performers also ironically caused the venue owners some grief. Starting in 2011, and recurring through the next few years, city officials floated changes to Charlotte’s noise ordinances that would bar music coming from clubs like Snug Harbor that are within 400 feet of a residential area after midnight. In Snug Harbor’s case, many of the residences were built and populated long after the venue had been established.
“I never understood why anyone would move right next to nightlife and then complain about nightlife,” McCannell says. “If a residential project is built in close proximity to an existing venue or entertainment district, the builders should be responsible for noise mitigation, especially since they use nightlife as a selling point.”
Any grief caused by noise policing faded into insignificance when compared to the greatest threat posed to Snug Harbor’s and many other businesses’ futures: the COVID pandemic and the shutdown imposed to counter it.
McCannell remembers making the decision to close before Gov. Roy Cooper announced the shutdown.
“Between karaoke and shared microphones and close quarters, we said, ‘We’re going to have to shut this down for a little bit.’ That little bit turned into 15 months. It was a challenge.”
In response to the shutdown, Snug Harbor and other Charlotte venues came together and created the Charlotte Independent Venue Alliance (CIVA). The group successfully lobbied Charlotte City Council for rent relief, McCannell says.
When it came time to finally reopen, only one employee chose not to return to Snug Harbor, Burns says, and that was because they left town to attend college.
“That says a lot about the owners and how well they treat us,” Burns says.
A snug little legacy
After a decade of beneficent debauchery, Shiprocked! went out with a bang, Weaver says.
“The grand finale had a shocking turnout,” Weaver says. “The line was down the block for two hours. We turned the whole place into a carnival — which was the theme.”
Other regular parties have become legendary at Snug, including Elevator Jay’s Player Made: An Ode to Southern Hip-Hop and the weekly b-boy party Nocturnal.
When asked to name the highest of highs, the proudest, most memorable aspect of all his days at Snug Harbor, Weaver unhesitatingly picks one word: “inclusion.”
“I’ve had people come up and say that Snug Harbor was a safe space for them, whether they were a queer kid or not,” he says. “They wanted to share with me gratitude that it provided a place that made them welcome. I am very proud of that, because that was the goal.”
That inclusivity is embodied in Snug Harbor’s embrace of outsiders, performers shunted to the fringe, who later dragged the reluctant mainstream into relevance. Weaver says he’s proud of booking Cakes da Killa, a then obscure queer rapper from New York he heard being verbally abused on NYC hip-hop station Hot 97.
“Now I could never afford to book him,” Weaver says. “He tours all over Europe, and he’s in fashion magazines.”
Reader is proud of booking inspired science fiction rapper/galactic soundscape designer Brother Aten, an alter ego of former Charlotte-based artist Maf Maddix, whose swirling sounds of dark matter radiation and philosophical soothsayer flow orbit far beyond the reach of alternative music.
“I loved his music and wanted to get him into the room,” Reader says. “He’s gone on to some pretty big sound exploration projects in Europe.”
Reader thinks people find a strange kind of continuity in Snug Harbor’s open minded-embrace of outsiders, especially in a changing neighborhood that is drifting away from bohemian diversity and towards corporate conformity.
“Not just Snug Harbor, but all the venues [in Charlotte] have stood the test of … time,” Reader says, acknowledging the contributions of Petra’s, The Milestone, Tommy’s Pub, Skylark Social Club, The Evening Muse and others.
“I don’t think we would last if we … were forced to cater to some specific thing. I think there’s authenticity in having everything be so eclectic.”
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.