A vibrant rock scene before social media was a thing

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by Jordan Green

Joe Ferguson, a tall, bearded promoter, was holding forth at the end of the bar at the Blind Tiger, high-fiving and embracing musicians and old friends.

He exalted plans for a big reunion show by the Texas emo band Mineral in November, envisioning fans funneling in through a tent outside and thronging the floor of the Blind Tiger.

He sidled around a cluster of people watching a video of the defunct Greensboro punk band Kudzu Wish from exactly 10 years ago and leaned back as he strummed out a succession of air-guitar power chords.

Michael Sileno, with his trademark ballcap and mustache, cackled with delight as he reminisced about playing drums and managing Alli with an I. Josh King, the lead singer of House of Fools, played the shy and gracious host. Eric Mann, one of Kudzu Wish’s guitar players, wore a good-natured smile.

They were all part of an improbable scene that flourished in Greensboro from roughly 2003 to 2005 at a club known as Ace’s Basement that was in the subterranean level of a crack hotel. The Coliseum Inn, a hive of prostitution and addiction across the street from the Greensboro Coliseum, has long since been demolished, taking the briefly illustrious Ace’s Basement down with it.

Ferguson was almost singlehandedly responsible for making the scene happen.

He cultivated a group of young, local bands loosely identified with a melodramatic, high-spirited pop-punk sound, energetically pursued national acts and unfailingly made musicians feel at home.

But perhaps his single most significant flourish was employing a small video crew to film the concerts. Tim LaFollette, Kudzu Wish’s bass player and a beloved musician who would die of ALS in 2011, was responsible for shooting and post-production while Ferguson served as executive producer. Before people shot video on smartphones and uploaded it to their Facebook pages, before YouTube and Bandcamp, before even MySpace, Ferguson’s team was instantaneously documenting their scene, leaving behind an exhaustive catalog of live-music moments. To this day, Ferguson easily recalls several bills, including the lineup and date. Example: Sullivan, Engine Down and Kudzu Wish, May 7, 2004.

“My specialty was on-the-fly, multi-track editing,” Ferguson recalled. “After the show I was able to hand a DVD to the band before they could even get the sweat off of them.”

The band that probably enjoyed the closest relationship with Ferguson was House of Fools and its forerunner the Necessary. Displaying more technical proficiency and harmonic range than most of their pop-punk peers, the Necessary played their last show in late 2004, and were retired by the emergence of House of Fools, initially a side project of King and keyboardist Matt Bowers that quickly eclipsed its parent. With only a handful shows under its belt in early 2005, House of Fools had a record deal with a national indie label.

Ace’s Basement was House of Fool’s home base, and the band members had a personal key to come and go as they wished.

“House of Fools practiced there, slept there and every once in awhile played shows there,” King recalled.

Ferguson was relatively unknown as a promoter when he bought Ace’s Basement. He booked shows at Rider’s in the Country, a roadhouse near the Guilford-Randolph county line. His 13th show there, a cover-band concert, was his most successful, but by then he was frustrated with the arrangement. The hotel lounge at the Coliseum Inn was close to UNCG, and Ferguson thought it might work.

“The owner’s daughter kept talking about Ace’s Basement trying to do upscale blues and jazz shows,” Ferguson said. “It was a troubling location for that. My dad and I went up to Ace’s Basement and talked to the owner, Ace Kirkman. On May 7, 2003, we booked Denali and Codeseven. It was packed. Eventually, me and my dad bought him out.”

Musicians who played Ace’s Basement tell a consistent story 10 years later about the impression made by the venue. National touring bands initially found the place frightening, and the hotel that sat atop it was undeniably seedy. But the inside of the club functioned as a cocoon of hospitality and creativity. As Todd Turner, the drummer for the Necessary, put it, “It was a hideaway from the chaos.”

Part of Ferguson’s genius was creating a match between local bands and national touring acts. Jimmy Eat World, a 1990s pop-punk band from Arizona that helped popularize the melodic confessionalism of emo, was a common influence for many of the bands.

“For the first time in Greensboro, we had national bands coming through that were huge to us,” King said.

Kudzu Wish’s Mann added, “Bands that would ordinarily skip over Greensboro and go to Chapel Hill or Raleigh started playing there. So we would get to play with them. That was a big part of his plan.”

The local bands more than held their own.

“I think it gave them confidence,” Ferguson said. “Bands like the Necessary, Kudzu Wish and Alli with an I were why I could go after national acts — because I knew I would have good support. You start taking hits with national acts and you get gun shy. I always felt confident that I could come out shooting.”

In rapid succession, four local bands nurtured at Ace’s Basement got signed to national indie labels: House of Fools, followed by Sullivan, Farewell and Far-Less. National touring bands that played Ace’s Basement like Lovedrug and Lucero have achieved critical acclaim. Nate Reuss performed at Ace’s Basement with the Format, and went on to score a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “We Are Young” by Fun, the Format’s successor.

Against the grain of the irony and reservation of the indie-rock scene that was developing concurrently in Greensboro in the mid-2000s, the more mainstream scene cultivated by Ferguson featured bands unafraid to make big gestures and express heartfelt, sincere sentiments. Watching the playback 10 years later, the alumni of Ace’s Basement might wince at some of the technical mistakes and grandiosity, but the energy and community of the scene was undeniable. The video of Alli with an I’s final show at Ace’s Basement shows a young woman in the front row with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Sileno watched as his band prepare to play one of their songs, “This Summer.”

“This is not good, this is not good,” he said. “We butchered this song.”

Later, Sileno and his friends laughed uproariously as the camera panned to Sileno — 10 years younger — wearing an expression of sardonic befuddlement as one of his bandmates launched into a nonsensical tangent.

“The best part is the people who met each other there or went on to be in bands together or got married,” Ferguson said. “I am proud of that. There might not be a lot of people here, but the people who are here tonight know how special it was.”