There’s something special brewing in Charleston, South Carolina, and it’s not just the world renowned food. Instead it’s time to start recognizing Charleston for the music scene thriving around town. Upstart indie label Hearts & Plugs is leading the charge, and their 3rd annual Hearts & Plugs Summer Shindig at The Royal American on June 25th was the perfect showcase of the charming and collaborative scene growing within this rich, cultured city.
After chatting with Hearts & Plugs founder Dan McCurry about the label’s roots and the upcoming Shindig, I traveled from Atlanta to Charleston to see it myself. Arriving late Friday night, I got to chat with Dan further about the Shindig, seeing first hand the hard work that went into pulling this off. Dan and his wife Megan were still up, working late into the night on final preparations, alternate plans in case of rain, merchandise (there were Flamingo tanks, tote bags, temporary tattoos, records to be prepped and ready to be sold) and so much more. Dan told me how the Shindig had grown from King Dusko, to Palmetto Brewery, and now the third installment would be in the parking lot of The Royal American. This was to be the biggest yet, with over 800 people attending the 2016 Summer Shindig when it was all said and done.
Over 800 people in just it’s third year with primarily Charleston based bands, all on the Hearts & Plugs label? It’s impressive just how quickly the basically 5 year old label and it’s roster has built a following both locally and in the southeast and beyond. I could tell that this is a community that’s really bonding and growing together. It’s refreshing to see from an outsider’s perspective.
Prior to the Shindig, Hearts & Plugs released their summer soundtrack, Hearts & Plugs Summer Essentials. a mixtape featuring Brave Baby, SUSTO, ET Anderson, The High Divers, Grace Joyner, Hermit’s Victory, and Johnny Delaware; listen below on Spotify or free download via Bandcamp or purchase on CD and Cassette. These were also the artists scheduled to play the Shindig, while all the tracks were produced by Wolfgang Zimmerman (of Brave Baby), a common theme of collaboration between musicians in this group.
Arriving Saturday at The Royal American to a summer storm passing through, the start of the Shindig was delayed as people slowly trickled in. Dan and the Hearts & Plugs crew had to scramble to get things situated with a blown speaker. But the delay didn’t damper the spirits, instead giving friends time to catch up, and me the opportunity to further take in what a cosmic moment it was to be there.
One of the things I learned while getting $2 beers (High Life, Genesee, Old Milwaukee, and no PBR), was that it wasn’t just Charleston itself that was out proud to support what Hearts & Plugs were doing, but the state of South Carolina. All the cool South Carolina music sites were there to cover, bands from other parts of the state not on H&P, known scene supporters from around SC, all there, and it felt like a family reunion at times.
The Royal American parking lot ended up being a nice spot for the Shindig, able to comfortably hold the crowd, scenic trains going by behind the stage, and cover to run under on the bar’s porches when rain arrived. Plus the killer regular stage inside the bar, a tiny stage right next to the bartender’s heads. Yeah, The Royal American quickly became one of my favorite dive bars.
As the music began to finally get cranking, the prevailing theme that kept appearing throughout the evening was the shared group of musicians between so many bands. These guys are all friends, they get along, they work well together, they push each other, they support each other. These are the people that are the lifeblood of this label and now the Charleston music scene. They are building this community together, creating a mindset that can propel this into something extremely special. Heck, in addition to running the show, Dan himself played with multiple bands.
But really the biggest thing about it all is the talent that graced the stages that night. I’m not sure what they put in the water in Charleston, but damn if each artist on the lineup wasn’t great, each unique in their own way.
Hermit’s Victory ended up being the first band up, a band I had been hearing about from other artists for a while. Led by Tyler Bertges, Hermit’s Victory included an all star cast with, you guessed it, Dan on base, Wolfgang on drums, Clay White on trumpet, and 3/5s of SUSTO. Hermit’s Victory’s self titled, 2015 debut was one I was late on, but has become the current obsession. Seeing the band live really opened up the songs even more, the layers of grooviness that are keenly applied are just stunning. Tyler roamed around stage, into every melody, with tapestry draped over his head, singing from within. It was a perfect kick off for the Shindig, showing off the eclectic mix Hearts & Plugs brings. This is a band to pay attention to.
Grace Joyner was up next on the outdoor stage. With her debut full length, Maybe Sometimes in C, released earlier this year, the songstress lulled the crowd into a melodic trance as she sang about unrequited love. With Dan again on bass and Wolfgang on drums, it was another family affair. It’s clear that Grace is a force to be reckoned with, a beautiful soul ready to be heard.
As Grace ended, and another storm rolled through, adjustments were made to keep the party going, moving the next set to the tiny inside stage next to the bar. ET Anderson, out of Columbia, South Carolina, was on deck, and they were ready to kick it into high gear. This was probably the surprise of the fest for me as I really hadn’t dove much into ET Anderson’s debut, Et tu, ____?. Before the set even began there was blood all over Hot Tub John’s bass, and a “fuck it, let’s play attitude.” By this point the crowd had packed in around the stage and bar, ready for the band to deliver. Deliver they did. A mix of garage rock, psychedelic 60’s nostalgia, and r&b grooves, ET Anderson felt like home inside at The Royal American, with true good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ roll that had the fists pumping in the air. The energy from the band was infectious, making you forget that daylight was still upon us as the sun began to shine back through the bar window.
With things slightly behind schedule because of the summer storms, Dan and crew adjusted and caught back up with The High Divers set up and ready to go back on the outdoor stage as soon as ET Anderson finished. By this point in the evening with the crowd growing larger, the family reunion was over, it was no longer just friends of the bands and scene in general, but instead the crowd was also full with simply fans of the bands playing, there to enjoy some great live music. Another sure sign of just what a special thing Hearts & Plugs are creating.
The High Divers released their debut album Riverlust last year, quickly making a name for themselves around the southeast with their slightly roots rock ‘n’ roll. Live, you can definitely see why. Those booties in the crowd were really boogying to hits like the unofficial Summer Shindig theme song “Summetime” and “Give It Up,” with odes to Tom Petty and Neil Young. At this point, the crowd was all in this together, the party in full force as The High Divers left everyone in that good time summer mood.
SUSTO was up next, fresh off the release of their new parody single “Chillin’ On the Beach with my Best Friend Jesus Christ” where Johnny Delaware becomes Jesus Christ in the video and the band sings a hymn filled with organs about Jesus Christ and Bud Light. So of course, Jesus himself made an appearance at the Summer Shindig, and let me tell you, Jesus rocks!
It’s no secret of my affinity for SUSTO since first discovering them early last year. Living in Atlanta I’ve had the opportunity to catch this band a bunch of times live over the last year (and yes, I’ll be seeing them again this coming Sunday at Park Tavern as part of the free Sunset Session Series). I’ve not once been disappointed to see them live in Atlanta, Savannah, and now Charleston. They’ve brought it every single time, one of those bands that just don’t get old. But to get to see the band in their hometown of Charleston, around their friends and peers, their fans that have watched them grow, at their hometown bar, in their comfort zone, well, ok, it was the same, they once again brought it. The crowd danced and sung along as they opened with the latest single, and went into hits such as “Friends, Lovers, Ex-Lovers: Whatever”, “Dream Girl”, “County Line” and more. While I’m usually surrounded at SUSTO shows in Atlanta by people first discovering this band and quickly talking about how much they dig the #acidboys, it was cool to see how much respect they have locally in their hometown of Charleston. The honest, good hearted songs from Justin Osborne are all immediately relatable and relevant in today’s world, with deep rooted thoughts and meanings throughout. While on the surface you could call SUSTO alt-country or something such as that, live, this band is straight rock ‘n’ roll fire.
Up last to close out an already stellar evening was Charleston’s own Brave Baby who’ve been building quite the following nationally, while clearly Charleston LOVES this band. And for good reason. I’ve been digging Brave Baby since first hearing their 2013 debut album Forty Bells and continued on with last year’s sophomore album Electric Friends. But quite honestly, as much as I dug Brave Baby, I’ve never quite given them their due with other albums at the time taking my attention. They’ve come through Atlanta a few times over that period, including a few runs with the Communion Music tour. But I was never able to actually catch the band live. Finally catching them in Charleston was special, and the only real word to describe their set was magical. The whole lot was full, flamingos were spread throughout the crowd, and as the lights dimly lit the band from beneath, everyone was dancing in unison as Brave Baby brought their cosmic brand of spacious indie rock with “Plastic Skateboard” being a particular highlight. It was reassurance for me on just how great this band was, and clearly I wasn’t alone in that thought. Now I can’t stop listening to their latest album. If you haven’t yet, don’t miss a chance to catch Brave Baby live.
The night closed out, but the party didn’t finish as Infinitikiss played the after show back inside on the Royal American’s stage. From there it went late into the night as many of the artists gathered at the Brave Baby house to sing your favorite pop songs and dance together till the night ended. The whole experience of seeing this Shindig from multiple sides, better understanding the Charleston scene, and just seeing the camaraderie that exists within this tight knit community was special in itself. The label is DIY, this festival was DIY, and these bands are very DIY; it’s inspiring to see what a group of passionate like minded people can build all working hard and towards the same goals, even if they make very different types of music. Hearts & Plugs and these bands have already accomplished a lot in a short amount of time, and it’s clear that they are only on the cusp of what they can accomplish. The future is bright, and I for one can’t wait to see what it holds. See you next year Charleston!
All photos by Mike Gerry. Additional photos: