Thirty-six years of rocking the Cradle

Sure, we all like to bash that school down the road-yeah, the one with the powder blue-but let's face it: the Chapel Hill area has a lot more going on than Durham. We have Ninth Street; they have Franklin Street. They have James Taylor of the Squirrel Nut Zippers (okay, they're from Efland), Ben Folds, Polvo and Superchunk; we have J.D. Loudermilk, Grady Tate and- uh- the Pulsar Triyo. We have the James Joyce and the 'Dillo, and they have Local 506 and, most notably, the legendary Cat's Cradle.

One of America's best known music clubs-famous for booking bands like Nirvana before they were big-the Cradle has been rocking since 1969. It has survived legal disputes, hostility from local government, unkind landlords and several moves, and it's stronger than ever today. Now located in Carrboro, N.C., the club continues to book some of the best names in music today and also promotes shows at other local venues in addition to the home club.

"I guess what keeps me interested is that it's a different world because every band brings out a different crowd," said the Cat's Cradle's unassuming owner Frank Heath. "It's really an honor to be able to support true artists. There is something in the air around here that's really electric."

Heath speaks self-effacingly with a folksy drawl, a somewhat fatigued tone of voice and with both sincerity and a relaxed nonchalance. For a music enthusiast, he rarely gets excited, even while talking about his personal idols, the most exciting shows he's ever seen, or the roller coaster ride that being a club owner can be.

Heath bought the club with a friend in 1986, after the previous owner decided to move on. The club had gone bankrupt in 1983, and continued to struggle until the 24-year-old UNC grad decided to step in. While he was a student at Univ. of N.C. at C.H., Heath had enjoyed many a Cat's Cradle show and didn't want to see the Chapel Hill music scene wither. There was another incentive: "We didn't pay a lot of money for the club," Heath said. With one small investment, he moved from being just another spectator in a big scene to literally running the show.

Heath bought out his partner two years later and has run the club solo since. In the same year, the Cradle was forced to move after being kicked out by a landlord, who Heath thinks just couldn't stand loud sound checks in the space below his office. ("He would probably deny making the Cat's Cradle move today," Heath jokes.)

And it just wouldn't be rock and roll without more drama. City Hall discussed closing the club after a near-riot in July 1991, and in May 1993, Heath was forced to close the club after losing his lease. While searching for a new location, Heath told The News & Observer he wanted to stay in Chapel Hill. "Nothing against Carrboro, but the Cradle is a Chapel Hill thing," he said at the time. But after failing to find a suitable and affordable location, the club reopened in Carrboro eight months later.

"Carrboro sort of started to become more a part of Chapel Hill in terms of how Chapel Hill and UNC view it," he said. Besides, the Cradle's current location has extremely favorable rent and allows for greater capacity than Heath could ever afford on Franklin Street, his ideal location. "The people here have been really helpful."

Nowadays the club maintains strong ties to both the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities. Heath and his longtime manager Derek Powers make an effort to showcase local bands along with the national acts they book. The weekly Sunday Showcase offers eight bands for $2, giving up-and-comers a chance to taste the big time. On Dec. 19, the Cradle will host an even younger generation of musicians, with East Chapel Hill High School's Battle of the Bands.

Heath's tenure has naturally included plenty of big-name acts as well. He mentions an exciting two-night stand by Let's Active two months after buying the club, an acoustic Smashing Pumpkins show, Elliot Smith ("I wish I could say I was into him when he came here, but I only got into him later on"), Public Enemy ("That was probably the most exciting show in terms of the crowd"), the Pixies and Warren Zevon ("He was tied with Dylan and Lennon for my idols, and since we couldn't get them -" ).

As the club continues to evolve, while staying the anchor of the southeastern music scene, Heath works to keep the venue vital and improving. In keeping with his low-key personality, he doesn't plan any huge changes. Nonetheless, the club may get an entirely new space sometime in the next three to seven years as part of a major redevelopment plan for Carrboro. Heath continues to increase the number of outside shows the Cradle promotes, making the club more of a brand name than just a location. Nonetheless, "I don't think that's ever going to be something that swallows the club," Heath said. As it has been for the past 36 years, the Cradle's focus will continue to be presenting great music.

True to form, the Cradle has a packed schedule lined up for the next few months, including Jump, Little Children (two shows this Friday); Jimbo Mathus, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers (Sunday); the hilarious Southern Culture on the Skids, a band that started in the Triangle (Dec. 10); Hot Tuna (Dec. 15); Susan Tedeschi (Jan. 24); Electric 6 (Feb. 19); and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Feb. 22). On Jan. 25 at Raleigh's Disco Rodeo, the Cradle will also present alt-country icons Son Volt, led by Jay Farrar, former co-leader, with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, of Uncle Tupelo.

Still, it's a long way down 15-501 just to see some live music. Why should Joe Blue Devil take the trouble to go all the way to Carrboro for a show?

"I'm not much of a rah-rah guy," Heath begins. "I don't go to other clubs enough to know, but there's a certain sound and certain vibe that makes most everybody's experience and most shows here really good. It seems like every show, the band is playing well and people are having a good time."

He thinks for a second, then begins anew, with as much enthusiasm ever, "We just try to keep something new and interesting here every night."


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