Self-doubt. The first thing I felt when The Editor asked me to cover a few sets at Pinhook’s 10th birthday party on Saturday. But of course, I said yes. It was our first meeting to discuss the possibility of me writing for Durham Beat, so when she asked what I was doing later that night I jumped at the opportunity.
Immediately a ball formed in the small crevice between my throat and chest… I’m not qualified for this. What did I know about music? It’s been years since I’ve written creatively. Everyone will think I’m a fraud! These are just a few of the words that swirled together to form this ball. A moment and a deep breath later, I swallowed, expressed my excitement, and told her I’d see her at The Pinhook in a few hours. After all, I had wanted this. Hell, I had asked for this.
I arrived at The Pinhook alone. As the youngest of five children, being alone isn’t really my forte. I’ve been working on fighting that feeling recently, so I dropped $10 into the donation box, held my arm out for a wristband, and marched past the entrance. The room was buzzing – literally – as in the front corner of the venue a local tattoo artist, who I later learned goes by the name Velvet Doe, inked a selection of flash designs onto willing clients. I briefly considered getting one, but managed to convince myself it wasn’t the kind of night to get a spontaneous tattoo in a bar. I moved on toward the dimly lit stage draped in red and blue.
I scanned the room, desperately searching for someone I knew. I recognized a server from far-too-frequent trips to Monuts, but otherwise didn’t see a soul. A pretty typical experience for a Raleigh native who no longer belongs in Raleigh, but doesn’t quite fit into the Durham scene yet. Two other showgoers stood just under the giant PBR panda. PBR and other loners, that’s my spot, I thought. I settled nicely into the familiar periphery, blending into the center of the action just well enough to be present yet unnoticed.
I realized I had positioned myself in almost the exact same spot where my husband and I spent one of our first dates nearly eight years ago. On a frigid January night in 2011 he took me to The Pinhook, my first visit there, to see Greil Marcus host a listening session. Downtown Durham was just starting to blossom at that time, and we had initially shown up at DPAC, mistakenly assuming, as many Raleigh natives would, that it was the only venue in town. Imagine our surprise when we walked into the lobby to find hundreds of fourth graders donning their school colors and carrying recorders. Confused, we walked to the box office where he announced he had won tickets to a Greil Marcus lecture from 88.1. “That’s tomorrow night honey,” the lady said. “But I think he’s at The Pinhook tonight.”
Assuming that’s what he had actually won tickets to, we set out for The Pinhook. We walked up the hill, took a left onto Main, and headed straight toward the one lively storefront in an otherwise silent downtown, like two moths flapping towards a blue light. When we arrived at The Pinhook and announced we had won tickets to the listening party, the bouncer, at first confused, laughed and waved us in for the show. “It’s a free event,” he said. Being only our third or fourth date, my future husband was visibly embarrassed, but I reassured him it wasn’t a big deal. Not only did we stay, but the event also turned out to be one of my favorite dates of all time. It marks one of the first experiences on my journey falling in love with Durham–and my husband.
Fast forward eight years, this memory had me coming around to feeling like I did belong there when the first strum of Jesse Boutchyard’s guitar snapped me back into the present as Severed Fingers prepared for their set with a quick soundcheck. That single strum was all I needed to remember exactly what I was doing there. I love music. I love musicians. I love the feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when the lights go down and a show begins.
Jesse opened the set by announcing what The Pinhook meant to them, a snapshot into a theme I would see weave itself through the rest of the sets that night. Jesse reflected on the support The Pinhook had offered them in their journey to come out as nonbinary, how they had found a home there, and even a job, setting the tone for a deeply personal set.
I was still processing the way that single strum of Jesse’s guitar hit me when they wailed the first note into the microphone from the type of voice that sounds like freshly packed snow crunching underneath your boots–smooth, but announcing itself in all the right ways. The kind of voice that reaches deep down in my throat and punches me from the inside of the gut. I was immediately hooked, and also grateful I had decided not to preview Severed Fingers before I set out to write about them. They’re the kind of band you want to hear for the first time live.
Three songs into the set I found myself dreading its end. Jesse had captured me so deeply that I couldn’t take my eyes away to focus on other members of the band. That is, until they announced their last song, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Slightly disappointed that it wasn’t an original, I spaced out for a moment and turned my attention to the room around me. Then, a beautiful sound caught my attention. It was the strategically shaky stroke of Riley Zed’s violin. Suddenly, a song I had heard covered so many times felt new and raw and right. At the end of the song the band stepped away from their microphones, wordlessly inviting the audience to sing along to the last verse, to belong in that room and in that moment with them.
By the time Bangzz came on, I had found The Editor, grabbed a drink, and listened to the sister,brother set: shredding vocals and some of the most incredible bass-playing I’ve ever seen. Noise-based music isn’t really my cup of tea, but I respected the objective talent they showed in their craft, and I could see what others see in them. Let’s suffice to say I was ready for what was coming next.
Bangzz had been described to me as “Feminist Punk Rock,” so when two women stepped on stage and announced their presence by demanding a change to the lighting, I was both unsurprised and excited to see them take creative control of the space. Following a few stage adjustments and some witty banter between lead singer/guitarist Erika Libero and drummer Blair Coppage, Bangzz began their set.
This was more my type of music, I thought. Not only did it jive with what I like musically, but as a woman in her late twenties, it was also lyrically relatable. When Erika introduced a song about men feeling the need to explain things that women already know, (aka “mansplaining”) I was hardly the only woman in the audience to chuckle. Perhaps most relatable though, was Blair’s announcement that she had to adjust between every song because her thighs were sticking to her stool. It was at that point that I turned to The Editor and said “I want to be friends with them.”
I loved their music, but it was the apparent chemistry between them that admittedly stole the show for me. So hi Erika and Blair, you rock. Let’s be friends.
I grabbed another beer just before ZenSoFly took the stage. By this point, empowered by Bangzz’s set – and maybe the PBR – I was feeling more comfortable in my role there. So when The Editor suggested I may want to be up front for ZenSoFly’s set, I didn’t hesitate. I settled into a new spot right next to the stage, and waited patiently as a stagehand made way for ZenSoFly.
Admittedly, rap is one of my least explored genres, and I usually have to listen to it alone and through headphones before I can judge whether I like it. Weird, I know, but it’s just one of those strange quirks.
Two thoughts immediately came to mind when ZenSoFly stepped on stage. First, there was something incredibly calming about her presence. Second, she radiated cool. I wanted every article of clothing she was wearing, from her retro Bulls hat down to her black Vans sneakers. And it’s just now, as I’m typing this, that I realize her stage name could not be more appropriate. She is somehow simultaneously zen, and so fly.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I also loved her set, every minute of it. And, I wasn’t alone. At one point I looked back to realize the place was more crowded than I had seen it all night, and every person appeared to be having the time of their lives. Like the other artists who had performed on this night, prior to her set, she had talked about what The Pinhook meant to her and went on about the incredible people she had met there. By the end of her set, as I looked around at how she had brought the crowd of people together through a dance move she had coined, I realized she had “that something special.” Those of you who are familiar with her music probably know that’s one of her lyrics. For those of you who are not familiar with her music, you may want to check out her Sunflowers EP.
ZenSoFly ended her set around 10:15. Knowing I had an early morning workout (I slept through it by the way) and wanting to end the night on a high note, I turned to The Editor and told her I was heading out. I knew I was on a music high, but it must have been more outwardly evident than I realized because she said “Did you have fun?” When I responded that I had had a great time, she said, “I can tell. You’re glowing.” She was right, I was.
It was at that moment that I realized I belonged there just as much as anybody else in that crowd. While all of the artists stepped on stage and shared what The Pinhook had meant to them over the years, I had been reminded what it first meant to me on that January night eight years ago. When I left I was excited, as I imagine everyone else there was, about what it could mean to me in the future. And that feeling, now and since forever, is the essence of The Pinhook.
Featured image is the logo of The Pinhook.