A Beginner’s Guide To The Charleston Music Scene
Whether you’ve been living in Charleston for years or you just moved here, you’ve probably heard some people talking about local bands, artists, and music venues. You may be thinking about starting your own band, or maybe you just want to know where some of these people hang out, want to hear the music for yourself, drink some beer, and become a part of something that’s growing faster than ever. It’s an exciting thought, but you may be wondering where to start. Here are some of the basic things we think you should know about. Welcome to the Charleston Music Scene.
Venues of Note
This won’t even begin to tackle the enormous list of venues in Charleston, but there are a few places where you’re bound to run into some people who are heavily involved in the Charleston music scene, and obviously see some great live music. We’ve got some of the main ones listed below. For a more complete list of music venues in Charleston, check out Extra Chill’s directory of Charleston Music Venues.
The Royal American
We wouldn’t be where we are today in terms of Charleston’s music scene without The Royal American. So many local bands have gotten their start at Royal, and they continue to bring in killer acts on a weekly basis. Whether it’s a band from out of town or a local acts based right here in Charleston, you are pretty much always guaranteed a great show at The Royal American. Aside from the music itself, a lot of local musicians hang out there when they aren’t on tour or playing somewhere else, so there’s a good chance of meeting some cool people who are heavily involved in Charleston’s music scene if you get out there for a show one night. Plus, they have cheap beer and great food.
Another great spot to catch some of Charleston’s best local bands is a little dive bar called Tin Roof in West Ashley. Tin Roof features some of the more heavy rock & roll bands as well as the punk side of things, but also brings in some budding indie acts and touring bands quite often. There’s a show at Tin Roof almost every night, and it gets really loud in there, which is something that we at Extra Chill love. Pabst Blue Ribbon might as well be the official beer of the Charleston music scene, and Tin Roof sells it on the cheap.
The Pour House
If you’re interested in a more jammy side of Charleston’s music scene, then The Pour House is a good place to start. They have live music just about every night, including Charleston band The Reckoning playing Grateful Dead covers at Dead on the Deck every Wednesday. Runaway Gin is a Phish tribute band that also plays at The Pour House quite often. It’s not all jam bands, but the vast majority of acts at The Pour House are groovy as hell. The place is super chill, with indoor and outdoor bars and a large viewing area for both stages. If that sounds like your thing, get on out to The Pour House on James Island.
The Purple Buffalo
The Purple Buffalo opened on the outskirts of Charleston in November of 2016, and since then it has become a hotspot for the more eclectic and underground side of Charleston’s music scene. There are a lot of EDM and hip-hop shows at The Purple Buffalo, as well and some punk and hardcore events. The venue is owned by Dan Dickey, who is the same guy who owned the now-closed King Dusko. Dan is dedicated to offering a space for artists to do their thing, and The Purple Buffalo has been successful in that regard thus far. The Purple Buffalo was also the site for the first installment of our very own music festival, Extra Chill Fest.
The Commodore is a renovated jazz club located at the former site of A Touch of Class at 504 Meeting Street, which was closed for over 20 years before reopening in April 2016. The Commodore is a great spot to get your dance on, with several house bands taking up weekly residency and playing some of the best funk covers around almost every night of the week. The venue also hosts some local and touring bands playing original music from time-to-time, so keep an eye out for stuff like that.
This wouldn’t be an article about Charleston’s music scene if I didn’t mention the Music Farm. This 800 capacity music venue has brought in hundreds of acts over the years, and they are big supporters of the scene in general. There is always something going on at the Music Farm, and it isn’t hard to find out about it, either. Just check their concert calendar to see if they’re bringing in any of your favorite artists in the near future. Remember, though, that since the Music Farm is a relatively small venue that brings in big-name artists, many of the shows sell out, so get your tickets early to reserve your spot!
Charleston Music Hall
The Charleston Music Hall probably has the best acoustics in town. Everything I’ve ever seen there has sounded amazing. With theatre-style seating, it’s definitely a classier venue that features a lot of touring artists, but they have been known to host local shows as well. They are major contributors to the Charleston music scene in both the types of shows that they put on and their overall standard of quality. You can’t go wrong with a show at the Music Hall.
There’s nothing quite like attending a sweaty show in a packed-out downtown house. Charleston’s house show venues are constantly changing, but if you know where to look you can always find them. The best place to find out about Charleston’s DIY and house show scene is to join The House Shows of Charleston group on Facebook. It’s a very active group, and local bands, promoters, and house show residents are constantly posting about upcoming shows at Charleston’s finest DIY spaces.
Local Bands You Should Know About
Don’t let anybody tell you that there are no good bands from Charleston, SC. There are a ton of great local bands in and from Charleston. Below I’ll list off a few of the biggest names that get thrown around the Charleston music scene, with a little bit of information about each one. This is only a surface overview of Charleston’s local bands, but the ones I’m going to list are the most basic ones that you should know about if you want an introduction to the scene and the kind of music that Charleston mainstream gravitates toward. I do recommend digging much, much deeper than this, but it’s a good enough start.
If you want to go deeper, check out our new music archives.
Shovels & Rope
Shovels & Rope are an Americana duo consisting of husband and wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. They got their start playing venues like The Pour House, and over time they built up a large local following that has since spread far and wide. They curate the annual High Water Festival, which is Charleston’s first large-scale music festival. Shovels & Rope have contributed greatly to the growth of our scene, and you’ll likely hear their name on more than one occasion as you familiarize yourself with the Charleston music scene.
Band of Horses
While they weren’t founded in Charleston, but rather Seattle, Band of Horses is still a Charleston local band. Frontman Ben Bridwell spent most of his life in South Carolina, and the band did actually make the move back to the Charleston area around 2007, which is around the time that Band of Horses started working on their second album, Cease to Begin. Since then, they have engrained themselves in the Charleston music scene, and have even helped to shine the spotlight on some of Charleston’s up-and-comers.
SUSTO are an alt-country band that cut their teeth playing house shows around the Holy City. Their sophomore album, 2017’s & I’m Fine Today, helped push them into the national indie scene, and they toured constantly for the two years that followed. The word kept spreading and eventually they landed a deal with Rounder Records, and in 2019, they released their third album, Ever Since I Lost My Mind. SUSTO is a prime example of a band that started in the DIY circuit and blew up from there, and is living proof that it’s possible for an independent band from Charleston to attain national success.
Stop Light Observations
Alternative rock band Stop Light Observations got started years back when band members and Charleston natives John Keith Culbreth and Will Blackburn found a mutual connection through Will’s grandfather and decided to start a band together. After their debut album, Radiation, was released in 2013, Stop Light Observations achieved a degree of success rather quickly, and have since gone on several nationwide tours that included stops at major festivals like Bonnaroo and Shaky Knees. The band is notorious for selling out the Music Farm, where they perform in front of a diverse crowd that knows the words to every single song.
Just before the release of & I’m Fine Today, Johnny Delaware announced his departure from SUSTO to front his own band called The Artisanals. It was an amicable departure, and The Artisanals have since built their own following that is respectable in its own right. They started touring almost instantly, with a string of dates opening for Band of Horses before they even released any music. Their self-titled debut album was released in 2018 to much critical acclaim, including a spot on Rolling Stone’s list of 10 emerging country artists to know in September 2018.
The High Divers
The High Divers formed in the same house show scene that formed bands like SUSTO, and have gained a respectable following both locally and nationally. Their song “Give It Up” off their 2015 debut, Riverlust, is considered by many to be one of the quintessential Charleston music scene tracks. 2018’s Chicora was released following a car accident that included the band’s tour bus colliding with a semi truck and nearly ended their lives, but they have bounced back stronger than ever.
She Returns From War
Most well-known for Hunter Park’s darkly poetic songwriting, She Returns From War is one of the most beloved bands in the Charleston music scene. The band started out as a mostly-acoustic project, but the 2018 release of Mirrored Moon Dance Hall shows She Returns From War blazing new sonic territory, with a full band sound that offers a lot more room for experimentation. The scene has absolutely eaten it up, and She Returns From War continues to spread their sound around the region, and is now going on tour with Band of Horses.
Benjamin Starr is more than just a musician. He’s an activist, a poet, and a role model for Charleston’s black community. His music shines light on the difficult topic of race relations, spurring discussion and inspiring positive change. The 2018 live recording of Benjamin Starr’s A Water Album at the Charleston Music Hall was a cultural event of massive proportions that served as a major step toward unity in the Charleston music scene. His name is one that you’ll certainly hear while you navigate the scene.
Human Resources is a synth-pop band that is filled with Charleston music scene veterans. Drummer Matt Zutell runs Coast Records, where he produces the music you’ll hear from many local bands. Guitarist Dries Vanenberg joined SUSTO after Johnny Delaware left, and also makes music videos and takes photos. Bassist Aaron Utterback also plays bass in several other bands around town, and once upon a time was a member of Brave Baby. Last but not least is Paul Chelmis on keys, who also makes music videos, takes photos, and plays in a few other bands. Their self-produced 2018 album Champagne has shown them reaching an audience well outside the Charleston city limits.
It’s hard to talk about the beginnings of Rare Creatures without mentioning the fact that frontman Coleman Sawyer once played bass with Stop Light Observations. It’s become a little bit easier, though, ever since the release of their 2018 self-titled debut. Rare Creatures has earned the band a place to stand on its own two feet. While their following does overlap a bit with that of Stop Light Observations, they have successfully separated themselves from that tie with their energetic live performances and just how damn good that record sounds. Plus, it’s not bad to have a little Stop Light boost when you’re first getting started as a band.
Khari Lucas of Contour started out as a producer first and foremost, and later moved on to creating songs with a full backing band. Known for creating dark, thought-provoking music that bends the confines of genres, Contour has become one of Charleston’s most beloved musical entities. From the house show circuit to the regular crowd at The Royal American, you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of people in Charleston’s music scene who don’t like Contour. Khari also releases some interesting covers. Check out his take on “Stop Trying To Be God” by Travis Scott here.
SondorBlue has roots as a drummerless trio, playing Beatles covers mixed with originals at College of Charleston keg parties. Over time they developed their songwriting talents, added a drummer, and quickly became one of the most popular bands in Charleston’s music scene. They have since gone on tour with South Carolina breakout band Jump, Little Children, and appeared at major festivals like Firefly and Summerfest.
Update: As of February 2019, SondorBlue is on hiatus.
Coast Records is not only a record label, but also a fully-equipped professional production studio run by Matt Zutell, who also happens to be the drummer in one of Charleston’s most popular bands, Human Resources. Coast Records has worked with several prominent artists in the Charleston music scene, including Mark Bryan (of Hootie & The Blowfish), Drivin N Cryin, SUSTO, Heyrocco, Rare Creatures, Chris Wilcox, Youngster, Tyler Boone, and many more. I could go on about how great Coast Records is, but once you get involved in the scene here in Charleston, you’ll find out for yourself rather quickly.
Real South Records
Real South Records is an up-and-coming record label in the Charleston and greater South Carolina area. Priding itself in diversity of both expression and musical styles, Real South Records is home to some of South Carolina’s most promising talent, from americana outfit Mechanical River, to indie rock band Whitehall and rappers Sunny Malin and Abstract That Rapper. Real South is doing some great things in regards to bringing people from different backgrounds together through a musical medium, and there is a certain standard of professionalism that founder DJ Edwards adheres to that is not often matched in a music scene.
While 1770 Records isn’t exactly a record label, they do contribute greatly to Charleston’s music scene by offering students at the College of Charleston an entryway into the scene. 1770 Records is run almost entirely by College of Charleston students, giving them hands-on industry experience and putting on live events that are all-ages and thus accessible to kids who either haven’t turned 21 or haven’t been able to acquire a quality fake ID. 21+ shows are a constant barrier for college students looking to get involved with the local scene, and 1770 Records helps to offset some of that with the shows that they organize.
The Post & Courier publishes a music and arts section called Charleston Scene, and it’s a great resource for finding out more about what’s going on in the Charleston music scene. They handle a lot of interviews and show previews of the bigger artists that come through town, as well as some song and video premieres for local bands and artists. Charleston scene has come a long way since local journalist Kalyn Oyer took over, and if you’re looking to get involved in the Charleston music scene, reading her articles is certainly a good place to start.
Charleston City Paper
Since the City Paper recently released a similar article on this subject, I wanted to show them some love. They interview a lot of artists and cover a lot of the shows that happen in town, and without their coverage, the Charleston music scene would still be mostly underground. You can check their music section to get an overview of what’s going on in Charleston’s music scene. The best part about the Charleston City Paper is that it’s free, so you really have no reason not to read it. Unless reading isn’t your thing. In that case, I don’t know how you got so far into this article.
While Scene SC is based in Columbia, they are the longest-running blog covering the South Carolina music scene, and they are absolutely fantastic. Scene SC covers music all over South Carolina, which certainly includes Charleston bands. They also do a ton of photography and video production, so if you’re looking to find out more about music in South Carolina as a whole, Scene SC is an excellent resource. They release a sampler every year featuring new music from all South Carolina artists. Check out the 2018 Scene SC Sampler here.
Holy City Sinner
Holy City Sinner is probably Charleston’s largest independent website, covering happenings of all kinds in the Charleston area. That being said, they do write some about the music scene in Charleston, and they are a good resource if you just want to keep up with what’s going on in the Holy City.
Last, but certainly not least, you have Extra Chill. Here at Extra Chill, we dedicate ourselves to spreading the word about Charleston’s music scene, and the rest of South Carolina, too. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay in the loop. Also, don’t forget to share this article with anyone who wants to learn more about Charleston’s music scene!
Also check out our Charleston Live Music Calendar.