The road to the river

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brian_clareyby Brian Clarey

The road to the Haw River Ballroom is an unremarkable stretch of country highway radiating eastward from the Triad, just long enough to fall within the confines of my personal moratorium on the distance I will travel for a concert.

I’m not driving more than 90 minutes to see anybody — with the possible exception of Tom Waits, for whom I might even be willing to walk.

On Saturday night, the promise of the short drive and tickets to see Chatham County Line was enough to get me out to the ballroom, about which I had heard much but had yet to see for myself.

I don’t care for the country, preferring urban environs or, at least, a beach, to those deep swaths of untouched land that mark the distances between our cities in North Carolina. I’ll argue all day long that culture emanates from cities — that culture is, in fact, the whole point of a city. But there I was, parking in a mud lot in the true December chill to experience something I can’t get at home.

There’s nothing like the Haw River Ballroom in Greensboro, High Point or Winston-Salem, and not just because we don’t have any rivers.

There in Saxapahaw, a real gem has been worked into the guts of an old cotton mill: a 700-head music space on the river, narrow and long, with three floors of viewing space, ample balcony and enough post-industrial street cred to satisfy even the most ardent urban hipster. The sound booth is an old dryer tank, for example. Solar panels and geothermals power the lights and sound. An upstairs barista crafts coffee drinks and herbal-tea concoctions. Like that.

There’s nothing like the Haw River Ballroom in Greensboro, High Point or Winston-Salem, and not just because we don’t have any rivers

And unlike most shows I go to, I wasn’t the oldest person in the room. Not even close.

The capacity crowd drew much of its number from the nearby Triangle and Triad, their cars lining Church Street before the parking lot even filled. They crowded the merch table at the show, and the general store before it, spending city money at country prices. A gas station on the complex no doubt does brisk business after the shows let out.

It’s a cultural magnet, an economic engine and a repurposed historical space, all the way out in the middle of a nowhere that isn’t really nowhere anymore.

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