BOATHOUSE ROCK

For Weekly SurgeMarch 5, 2014 

Fair weather travelers crossing the U.S. 501 bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway have for years rubbernecked at the party taking place at the Boathouse Waterway Bar & Grill just below them and a few hundred yards south. Jet skis buzz and skim the waves like psychotic water bugs, while bikini-clad beauties and shirtless bros bronze themselves on the dozens of expensive boats rafted together. Beer flows freely while DNR officers patrol the water looking for safety compliance, and local celebrities mix with the hoi polloi gathering on shore. Live music is the main draw, and bands pump their tunes off a large permanent stage sitting over the water. This is the party that gets people talking and out of the house. This is the party most bar owners wish they were hosting. This is the legacy of the Boathouse.

The spectacle, now called the Summer Concert Series but often referred to as Sunday Funday, is unlike any other along the Grand Strand. It happens almost every Sunday afternoon, spring through early fall, all courtesy of the bar and restaurant celebrating its 9th anniversary this year on Friday with The Austin Mowery Band and free BLU Energy drinks from 9 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.

Lest you think booking bands and promoting concerts is all fun and games with no pressures and pitfalls, think again; anything and everything can and does happen. Originally the 9th Anniversary celebration was scheduled for Wednesday (March 12), the venue’s actual anniversary date. WAVE 104.1 radio had been promoting a Halfway to JerryFest concert with Melvin Seals and the JGB (formerly the Jerry Garcia Band) but that show was canceled just before press time. Details of the cancellation are, like the music business itself, sketchy. Seals and JGB will perform at the Music Farm in Charleston on March 13, the day after the Boathouse gig was set, but according to a Boathouse Facebook post, “the promoters of the Charleston show complained about our show being free and in close proximity to theirs. Their show was booked first, our becomes a casualty.”

Regardless, the celebration of a business meeting the changing tastes of its patrons for nearly a decade will go on.

But just how did the Boathouse create this live music juggernaut in an old barn-of-a-building in a commercially challenged neighborhood?

A Little Bit Country to a Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll

From its humble beginnings in 2005, after buying and converting a former country buffet, The Country Barn, into The Boathouse, a sports bar and restaurant, owners Tripp Coan, Misty Coan (Lulu’s Café), and Patricia Sourlis have created a success story in an industry known for its troubled waters; bars and restaurants are widely known for their high failure rate. The new owners and staff maximized the Boathouse’s scenic appeal and proximity, which is about halfway between Murrells Inlet and Little River. They’ve combined Intracoastal Waterway views and docking, with an outdoor Tiki bar, and sizeable grounds, called the “backyard” and “the hill.” Mix in the presentation of a wide variety of live music genres, and you’ve given the people what they wanted; a party.

Along the 60-plus miles of the Intracoastal Waterway that parallels the Grand Strand, no other venue has managed to create such an institution, and pull off such sizeable outdoor parties, with such frequency, as has the Boathouse.

“They really do have the perfect location,” said Scott Mann of Myrtle Beach classic rock station WAVE 104.1. Mann hosts the radio program Scott Mann’s Headshop Sunday evenings and is the resident keeper of good vibes and jam band knowledge. He has a longstanding working relationship with the Boathouse and was set to emcee the JGB show Wednesday, before the cancellation. The Boathouse and Mann will celebrate the 10th JerryFest in August, honoring all things Grateful Dead.

“They’ve figured out how to make these shows work,” said Mann, “for free, mind you, and the Sunday afternoon shows, in particular, are a part of people’s lives. It makes me feel good to know that the first Jerry Fest show was partly the inspiration for the Sunday Backyard Summer Concert Series.” The name of the Sunday events is somewhat fluid and has morphed between the longer, cumbersome name, to the simpler, but less descriptive; “Summer Concert Series.”

The concerts have featured a smattering of rock, country, reggae and hip-hop acts on their way up, way down, or on a plateau and includes the likes of Rehab, Blackberry Smoke, Passafire, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Fuel, Marcy Playground, Shooter Jennings, and former member of the Grateful Dead, Donna Jean Godchaux, to usual suspects such as drivin’ ‘n’ cryin’ and curiosities such as Coolio, who has packed the hillside site as bass reverberations bounced along the waterway.

Local booking agent and The Austin-Mowery Band manager, Scott Byrd, worked as general manager of the Boathouse in 2007 – 2008 and was there for its first big summer with outdoor shows, while the stage was still up on the hill, directly adjacent to the restaurant. He continues his involvement as occasional booker/consultant for various Boathouse music festivals and summer shows. “I’ve had Weaving the Fate (formerly Villanova), Collie Buddz, I’ve had Elise Testone, several different acts,” said Byrd, who, with Mann, co-promoted the first JerryFest ten years ago at the former Town Square / Hog Wild venue.

When Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, shows can be moved indoors at the Boathouse.

The Austin Mowery Band regularly performs on the Boathouse’s indoor stage for Nashville Nights, a country music themed night each Friday that more often than not features a national country artist not quite up to theater and arena status, but is working on it.

Though still a relatively new locally based act, with regional shows in North Carolina and South Carolina, The Austin Mowery Band has proven its new country chops and was tabbed as a replacement to keep the Boathouse Ninth Anniversary party rolling. Cole Swindell (“Chillin’ It”) performs March 14 as a part of Nashville Nights.

Indoor-Outdoor

“We saw the potential that first year we did the Summer Concert Series,” recalled Byrd, who was then still working at the Boathouse. “Tripp had this great idea to do the [outdoor shows], and that first summer it was fun; we had good bands, and there were people out there, but nothing like it evolved into by the second or third year. We always knew it was a great idea. The bar is centrally located so you could pull [patrons] from North Myrtle Beach and Murrells Inlet, and [boaters] who can come right up the Waterway, and tie-up dockside.”

Besides the outdoor seasonal offerings, the Boathouse has managed a few spectacular indoor shows as well; 2 Live Crew, The Original Wailers, Nappy Roots, Chase Rice, David Nail, the Yin Yang Twins, and countless others.

While the option for indoor shows has saved the Boathouse from the off-season doldrums and tourist season weather-related disasters, it’s really all about being outside on “the hill,” which acts as a natural amphitheater for seating. Adjacent to and behind the large stage a watercraft business and private dock make access from the water a breeze.

From a Weekly Surge interview in June 2007, Tripp Coan discussed getting some of his customers from boat traffic and the reallocation of his entertainment budget from bands indoors every weekend, to one bigger act outside on a Sunday afternoon.

“We really want to encourage boaters to visit us,” said Coan. “That’s one of the reasons we’re starting these shows early. They can tie-up in the afternoon, get something to eat, watch the show and get back home before dark.” With most shows ending around 7:30 or 8 p.m., the Concert Series is well positioned to get everybody home early, although that rarely happens. Inside the ample dining room with huge U-shaped bar, dozens of flat-panel TVs showcase just about any sporting event offered though Coan considers The Boathouse “first and foremost a restaurant.”

Boathouse general manager Jason Black has been at his post for five years and has seen the progression of the music series and the indoor stage shows as well. He still hears from some customers who remember the old Country Barn buffet. “[They] had animatronic bears that sang and clapped,” he said. “I hear the food was pretty good, as well.”

Black suggests that the success of the Boathouse comes from hard work, innovation, and the owners’ skill-set.

Economy of scale, that is huge numbers of customers buying drinks and ordering from the food menu, along with sponsoring partners (liquor and beer distributors), have helped keep the vast majority of the Boathouse’s shows free. Booking up and coming acts while their fees aren’t through the roof, also help keep talent costs reasonable. This model has worked for the Boathouse, and even the Dead Dog Saloon in Murrells Inlet, which has also booked national acts while maintaining no cover charge.

Sunday, Fun Day

“One of our owners had been in the club business, [even] before Broadway at the Beach was around, and was an opener of the House of Blues,” said Black. “So the love of music has always been an integral part of what he’d done for years.” It seemed from the start that live music would be an inevitable part of the Boathouse’s offerings. “The decision to add live music came shortly after the Boathouse opened,” continued Black. “The Summer Concert Series began in 2007 with local bands and a regional thrown in. It then progressed to mainly regional acts and now national acts.”

Medium and large live music clubs once dominated the Grand Strand in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Most eventually closed leaving the House of Blues as the dominant player in town. But over the past five or six years a local trend of national acts booked in restaurants and bars (menu venues) much smaller than the HOB and its 2,000-plus capacity music hall, seems to be growing. The Dead Dog Saloon’s ever-increasing schedule of Americana acts on the south end of the Strand, along with Pirate’s Cove in North Myrtle Beach, Bourbon Street Bar & Grill in Myrtle Beach, and the Boathouse, gives evidence to this trend. The Boathouse, however, owns the outdoor concert market.

“It’s very appealing,” said Byrd, “the outdoor setting, concerts on the water. People like to be outside in the summer, and you know the saying “Sunday, fun day,” people are looking for that Sunday party, too.”

Live outdoor music at the Boathouse is not strictly just a summertime feature. This year hip hop artist Mike Stud (“College Humor”) will take the stage as the first in the Sunday Series on April 6, just barely spring by the calendar’s designation. The final show of the year, the artist still unconfirmed, will take place just after Labor Day, finishing around 22 weeks of concerts, double the amount from the first few years. And so far, the neighbors don’t seem to mind.

Sitting at 201 Fantasy Harbour Blvd. just west of Myrtle Beach proper, the address of the Boathouse references an interesting piece of Myrtle Beach history – Fantasy Harbour, a name with a cruelly ironic twist. The ghosts of the Waccamaw Pottery Factory Outlet stores, the Hard Rock / Freestyle (theme) Park, and a few defunct theaters are ever-present reminders of this commercially challenging piece of real estate. Of the old guard, only Medieval Times has managed to make a go of it. When Hard Rock Park was first set to open, and construction on a new bridge at Harrelson Blvd. crossing the Waterway into the neighborhood was moving forward, moods were high among most area business owners. After all, Hard Rock Park executives promised three million annual visitors, many who would drive right by the Boathouse’s front door.

The ever-pragmatic Coan, however, was not impressed. He said in 2008 “I wish the best for them, but I’m not counting on any of that to help us here.” Proved right after the economic crash of 2008 and dismal failures of the Hard Rock Park, and its successor, Freestyle Park, Coan plugged on and plugged in. A wide variety of live music would prove to be his moneymaker, and the key to his success.

The Spice of Life

Nearly the full spectrum of contemporary music is represented on the Boathouse’s two stages from up and coming acts, and those at the top of their game, of all genres. But the dinosaurs of rock still have their day, as will pop, alternative rock, hip-hop, reggae, and country artists. The only thing missing: local acts, but even they occasionally find their way to the big stage for special events or as openers. In the early years local favorites Eason, the Tim Clark Band, Black Label, Tru Sol, Painted Man, Sideways Derby, Ten Toes Up, The Mullets, and others, all got a shot headlining on the big outdoor stage. That trend appears to be waning, though last year’s local entries included Treehouse!, Finnegan Bell, and The IZM. But especially in the past two - three years national acts on the rise are filling the roster.

“The Boathouse has been really good about catching up and coming country acts,” said Byrd, “who they will book, and by the time they get to the Boathouse they’ll have a No. 1 single, or close to it. They research who’s working their way up the charts, and get it right fairly often. That’s happened on several occasions; Cole Swindell, and Justin Moore (“Small Town USA”), come to mind.”

Last year American Idol finalist and Coastal Carolina University alum, Elise Testone, made an appearance in front of a capacity crowd.

Still everyone has had their favorites since the Boathouse began booking bands in earnest.

“My favorite touring band, Almost Kings, was the first band to grace the new [Waterway] stage,” recalled Black, though he says he missed the show while in the hospital recovering from a hot dog injury. “True story – cost me $7,000.”

“[The Boathouse] doesn’t focus on only one style of music,” said Byrd. “So you might get the bikini crowd one day, the older crowd one day, the hippies one day. There are not a lot of places that offer what they offer for free. [Tripp’s] never wanted to charge [admission]. He’s always wanted to keep it free. Some shows he has to charge, but not very often. Some of my favorite shows were JJ Grey & Mofro, and JerryFest every year. SOJA was a good show, too. There’ve been some really good country shows to come through. And even the Flashback [concerts] like Skid Row last year, that was a great show.” FireHouse, a ‘90s metal band, which once included native son bassist Perry Richardson, made an appearance in 2010, drawing a large crowd.

Faces in the crowd

Myrtle Beach resident Kathy Davis, who moved here from Florida in 2005, is a regular at the Sunday Summer Concerts. In fact, she has rarely missed one since first discovering the event. “There’s such a great atmosphere there. The breeze is blowing, there’s live music, lots of people, it’s on the water. When I first moved here I didn’t know too many people, and I’ve made a lot of friends at the Boathouse.”

While live music is the purported reason patrons show up at the Boathouse on sunny Sunday afternoons, the party atmosphere is as much a draw within itself, witnessed by some bathingsuit-clad college-aged females chatting last year at JerryFest, the annual homage to the Grateful Dead’s fallen leader. “Who is Jerry?” they asked. Seriously.

“We’re grateful that our customer demographic is widespread,” said Black. “We get children of all ages, parents, grandparents, college students, singles, couples, and everything in between.”

The free, all-ages shows begin around 4 p.m. and go on rain or shine. The permanent stage protects the bands and equipment from light drizzle, but if rain of any significance is determined to dampen the revelers experience, it usually doesn’t. Bad weather moves the party inside, where the crowd may have thinned out, but is no less lively.

With nine years under the Boathouse belt come Wednesday, and a full summer 2014 roster in the works - including a May 4 show by rockers Saving Abel, according to Pollstar.com - it appears this locals’ favorite could continue on indefinitely; as along as the beer is cold, and the babes, the boys, and the bands continue to keep their Sundays open.

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