Joe Kuhlmann has noticed a curious thing about The Evening Muse, the cozy yet legendary music club that celebrates 20 years at the corner of East 36th and North Davidson streets in the heart of NoDa in April, just as it tentatively opens to live performances in May.
“When people show up here, the comment that I hear more often than not is, ‘Man, this reminds me of home,’” says Kuhlmann, who co-owns the club with Don and Laurie Koster.
Many share that warm sense of belonging at The Muse, as it’s affectionately known. Journalist, photographer and Queen City Nerve contributor Jeff Hahne, who hosted his Off The Record concert series at the club, praises its intimate feel.
“There’s a connection between the people that makes it feel like family when you set foot through the door,” Hahne says.
Don Koster recalls that over the course of two decades the club has served as the setting for several marriage proposals and wedding ceremonies onstage.
“It really makes it feel almost like your living room to have these things occur here,” he says.
Although currently based in Nashville, American Idol contestant Natalie Royal also finds a safe haven at The Muse.
“Every time I’m in Charlotte, I take a trip down to NoDa,” Royal says. “Through the years, numerous restaurants and bars have come and gone, but The Evening Muse has remained a staple on that corner — the purple awning like a beacon, guiding me home.”
Music fans can get their own sense of home when The Muse celebrates it’s 20th anniversary with a virtual livestream event on April 10 at 8 p.m. The program boasts recorded performances and well wishes from artists around the world, many of whom are Muse alumni, including Jonathan Spottiswoode, Ashlee Joy Hardee, Susto, Jim Avett, George Banda, Sam Tayloe and many more. Live components encompass a raffle of a painting of Keith Richards that used to hang on the club’s wall, donated by artist Lori Love, and a toast to The Muse which will conclude the livestream.
On May 19, there will be another reason to celebrate the club as it presents its first live concert since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down music venues in March 2020. Two sets featuring singer and acoustic guitarist Jason Eady and opener Adam Hood at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. sold out in less than four hours.
“We spent more time talking about how to do [the shows] and whether they would work out, than actually selling tickets,” Don Koster says.
With this encouraging showing, Don, his wife Laurie and Kuhlmann are eager to book further gigs.
From living art to live music
Don, Laurie and Joe were at the Muse before there even was a Muse. In early 2001, the corner lot in NoDa was occupied by Living Art, a coffee shop that was open primarily on neighborhood gallery crawls, which occurred on the first Friday of the month.
With partners Wes Robinson and his soon-to-be wife Lea Pritchard, Kuhlmann, who had been a touring performer and recording engineer, became a club owner. The Evening Muse opened for gallery crawl on the first Friday of February 2001. The first band to play there was Tesser, fronted by Kuhlmann’s friend and business partner Robinson. Kuhlmann, who also serves as the club’s sound engineer, was off and flying — by the seat of his pants.
“It was really quick, and down and dirty,” he says, noting that from signing the lease to opening, less than two months passed. Among the club’s earliest patrons were the Kosters.
“We’ve been coming here since day one,” says Laurie. She was designing websites for John Tosco and his Tosco Music Parties, when she came to the Muse with her husband Don to catch a performance by one of the Tosco musicians.
“We fell in love with it all, the music, the scene and the people,” Laurie says. “It was the only place I wanted to go.”
The neighborhood was part of the attraction, and it was a very different place from what it is today.
“NoDa was the wild west back then,” Kuhlmann says. He remembers when the police wouldn’t come through the neighborhood and other times when the sense of danger was so keen that the hairs stood up on the back of his neck.
“It was on the fringe,” he says. “An island in the city.”
At the same time, NoDa was full of artists and musicians on every corner, Laurie offers. Rents were so low that artists could comfortably live and work in the neighborhood. NoDa was the definition of bohemian.
“It was a very fertile area,” Kuhlmann offers. “You could plant a seed, artistically or entrepreneurially, and make something grow.”
Artistic growth began almost immediately at The Muse. A patron of the club since it opened, local musician John Dungan launched The Muse’s first open mic, John Dungan & Friends, in the summer of 2001. Dungan, like many Muse staff members to come, would also work the door, help out at the bar or do whatever else was needed.
“I set up a show called The Eclectic Blend Showcase,” Dungan says. “The bill was going to be a few songwriters in the round: David Childers, Randolph Lewis, and myself.”
When Childers pulled out due to scheduling conflicts, Dungan found a last-minute replacement in Nicole Atkins.
“Seth Avett [of the Avett Brothers] was in the crowd that night too,” Dungan remembers. “Nicole asked him to get up and sing something, but he politely declined.”
Atkins, who has garnered critical acclaim with noirish retro-soul records like 2017’s Goodnight Rhonda Lee and 2020’s Italian Ice, was one of the first, but far from the last, artists who started at The Muse before hitting the big time.
Another artist nurtured by the venue before subsequently finding fame is Natalie Royal. Royal had taught herself to play guitar and write songs while still in middle school. On Wednesday evenings she would get her mom to drive her to The Muse to play the Tosco open mic night.
“I would constantly marvel at the talent pouring from those who lived in our city,” Royal says. “The ages ranged from 10 to 80 years old some nights, and yet we were all there for one purpose — to share and celebrate our love of music.”
‘A burgeoning newness’
During this period, the Kosters would help out at the club wherever they could.
“Joe and Lea used to say that me and Laurie paid the light bill because we were here all the time,” says Don. Their son Chris started working the door in 2006 while he was still in college. Don and Laurie befriended many of the bands that played the club, and soon they started putting up several of The Muse’s touring musicians at their home, forging lasting friendships with their houseguests.
Longtime bartender Kelly McQuillen, considered an integral part of the Muse’s family by Joe, Don and Laurie, often offered members of touring English/American pop-rock band Jonathan Spottiswoode and His Enemies a place to crash in her NoDa home.
A pivotal moment for The Muse came when Rodney Lanier passed away in 2011. Lanier, a musician who founded the band Sea of Cortez, was also a jack-of-all-trades at the club, even running sound when Kuhlmann was unavailable. When Lanier succumbed to cancer, Kuhlmann saw it as the end if an era and a wakeup call.
“It’s that ongoing lesson of not taking yourself and others for granted,” Kuhlmann says. “He’s continued to teach us since his passing.”
Amid the tragedy of Lanier’s death, Kuhlmann also began to see “a burgeoning newness” coming to the club, an infusion of new energy. It was needed. Kuhlmann and Pritchard were going through a divorce, a process that drained Kuhlmann and brought matters at The Muse to a head.
“I hadn’t been maintaining the business as well as it could have been done,” Kuhlmann says. The Muse had never been a textbook success, he offers, but patrons were so supportive of the little club, that Kuhlmann was motivated to keep it going, even if its existence was hand-to-mouth. Kuhlmann acknowledges he didn’t have the expertise to handle all aspects of running a business.
“Joe was overloaded trying to do it all by himself,” Laurie says. “We were glad to help out whatever way we could”.
Laurie started booking acts for the club in 2014, and was the sole agent for The Muse with booking agency MAXX Music through 2016 and 2017. Don started managing the bar after he got off work from his day job at Simonini Builders.
“Laurie and I saw a lot of Joe’s stress, and the need for some new energy,” Don says.
In January 2017, the Kosters became co-owners of The Muse with Kuhlmann.
“The Muse wouldn’t be here today still if Don and Laurie hadn’t come along,” Kuhlmann says. “They brought in a lot of knowledge and discipline.”
Those qualities came in handy in the spring of 2020 when Charlotte’s music venues shut down to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
Fortunately, the club has been helped by a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, Kuhlmann says. The Muse was also awarded financial support from Charlotte Center City Partners’ Innovation Fund, an initiative designed to spur innovation by small businesses pivoting to adapt to a pandemic economy.
With money to invest in the business, Kuhlmann has acquired state-of-the-art video cameras, lighting equipment, and computers to run them. The club plans to partner with artists on livestreaming performances, gaining an additional revenue stream.
“If people aren’t able to get to the show physically, they’ll still be able to watch it remotely,” Kuhlmann offers. “We’ll have ticketing for that as well.”
It’s part of an attempt by the little club to reach a larger audience without losing its intimacy.
“There are people across the country — across the world really — that have lost live music, and so this will be another way for them to participate, observe and support [us],” Kuhlmann offers.
This way The Muse, already renowned for its impeccable audio quality, will have video quality to match. Then each show will look and feel special, Kuhlmann maintains, “not like a cellphone camera shooting from the back of the house.”
The little club that could
With new lights and cameras almost in place, The Muse is ready to launch a series of live shows. Judging by sales for the May 19 show, they are already on the road to success, but they are not neglecting safety precautions.
Currently, the club must maintain a social distance of 6 feet between patrons. Even though occupancy limits for music venues have been raised to 50%, The Muse is still required to maintain the 6-foot buffer. In practice that reduces the occupancy limit to roughly 30% of the club’s seating capacity, which is only 120.
Joe, Don and Laurie are paying attention to state safety mandates, hoping that restrictions loosen as rising vaccination rates bring COVID-19 numbers down. For the May 19 show, the plan is to have cabaret seating with tables on the main floor. Groups of four or five masked people who know each other — family or close friends — will be seated at each table.
“Eventually we’ll hopefully have reserved seating, once we can get [rows of] chairs back on the floor,” Laurie says.
For now, at least, the club’s staff will remain small.
“It will probably be Don, Chris and I most nights,” Kuhlmann says. “The numbers in the room have to be low and the money to spend on staff is going to be limited.”
This clear-eyed frugality is nothing new to the club.
“From a business standpoint, this place has no business being here,” Don says, noting that the property The Muse sits on is worth much more than what a corner music venue brings in, no matter how revered. The three business partners consider themselves fortunate to have neighborhood pioneers Ruth Ava Lyons and Paul Sires as landlords. They say that Lyons and Sires — gallery owners, art patrons and unofficial godparents of NoDa — are committed to keeping the small but mighty Muse at its present location, anchoring the growing, shape-shifting arts district and neighborhood.
Much more than a holdout of the old pre-development NoDa, The Muse appears poised to thrive in the 2020s. Part of its resiliency must be due to what a businessman would call an intangible: People just love the place.
Acts as well-known as Sean Lennon and Jim, Seth and Scott Avett have played the room, as well as performers as cultish as Swedish dream-pop purveyors Case Conrad.
Kuhlmann sees the club as an incubator for these lesser-known acts, many of whom, like Time Sawyer and Lake Street Dive, blow up and become too big to play a small house like The Muse.
After playing the club, many artists are enthralled with their experiences, eager to return. A key component of their satisfaction is the room’s impeccable sound, courtesy of sound man Kuhlmann.
“Joe just dials it in perfectly,” Laurie says. Although it’s hard to convince first-time acts that soundcheck will take minutes instead of hours, once they experience Kuhlmann’s expertise, they become converts to the club’s way of doing business.
“They get on stage and they’re like, ‘That was soundcheck? That was it, and it sounds great?’” Kuhlmann offers. “If you want to get the best performance out of someone, you want as few technical issues as possible. Most artists are on stage for like an hour a day, but the other 23 they’re on the road, navigating the world.”
He’s surprised that other clubs neglect to greet performers when they arrive for their set to make them feel comfortable. The little things like courtesy and friendliness do count, he insists.
Because of its comforting vibe, exquisite sound and eclectic booking policy, which has added hip-hop, poetry and comedy to its bills in recent years, The Muse has garnered praise across Charlotte, including Queen City Nerve’s 2019 Critic’s Choice for the best music venue.
But the highest praise comes from patrons, players and staff who’ve made the little club that could part of their lives.
“The Muse is one of the great small rooms in America,” says frequently booked jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel. “We always have great sound and a great crowd. [The staff] are also the nicest people, always warm and welcoming.”
“It sounds cliche, but the people are my favorite Muse memory,” says John Dungan. “So much of my community and relationships are firmly rooted in The Evening Muse.”
“My favorite memories are the characters at the venue,” Jonathan Spottiswoode offers. “Joe, Don and Laurie, Kelly behind the bar and eccentric audience members like Thistle and her kilted male friend sitting in the front row and big Michael Murphy lifting me up with one arm.”
Though it puzzles Kuhlmann that so many disparate people from all over the world say The Muse reminds them of home, the reaction feels perfectly natural to Pat Maholland, who has been a patron, performer and employee at the club.
Maholland, now living in Philadelphia and undergoing treatment for cancer, says his favorite memory of The Muse is his most recent visit to the club in late March.
“As soon as I stepped through those famous wooden doors, I was at home,” Maholland says. “At home in that building; at home with the wonderful crew — my extended family — at home with the music playing over the speakers. At home. And that’s when it truly hit me how lucky I am — heck, how lucky we all are— to have the Evening Muse in our lives.”
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