Come Together… Club Owners Kenny Efird and Joe Ferguson Combine Their Skills and Connections, Bringing Hard Rock to Downtown Greensboro
On a downtown rooftop the afternoon sun banks from tinted windows on the Jefferson Pilot building and scatters off the white gravel surface. Two Greensboro bar owners drift around the roof while a photographer, kneeling low to the ground, gauges the best way to capture the light.
Kenny Efird stands with his hands on his hips, the balmy breeze billowing his sweatpants and riffling his T-shirt. He’s got a Carolina cap spun backwards on his head and when he’s done with the photo shoot he’ll go work out with one of his barmen and then get right back on the roof to tinker with the air-conditioning unit. This is his building, his roof, and below is the two-story club he owns known as Greene Street. He’s got plans for this open space ‘— over the next year he intends to build a rooftop appendage of the business downstairs, a warm-weather club with a tropical motif, complete with tiki torches, palm trees and slinky waitresses in coconut bras. Today, though, his mind is on the a/c unit and the weight room and the beer deliveries and a hundred other things.
Joe Ferguson, owner of Ace’s Basement, paces in the shadow cast by a brick wall, speaking over his cell phone to one of his guys.
‘“Well see if you can get him to do that,’” he says calmly, and then flips the phone shut. He’s lean, in boots and jeans and a black pullover, with a tousled mop of curls that makes him look ten years younger than he actually is.
They’re together for the photo shoot, but also to discuss business and mutual interests at one of the cocktail tables in Kenny’s bar downstairs. Sure, they’re both bar owners fighting to fill their houses at a time when Greensboro barrooms are becoming as common as churches or fast-food restaurants. However they both acknowledge the differences in their clubs, differences that make them practically mutually exclusive ‘— there are not too many people in Greensboro who choose between Ace’s Basement and Greene Street when they decide to hit the town. Greene Street is a big, shiny downtown nightclub while Ace’s Basement is an underground rock pit by the coliseum, heavy on street cred and loud tunes but not the kind of joint where you’d hold a Jaycees mixer, unless the Jaycees events planning committee underwent a strange and demented coup.
Each club has seen success over the years for very different reasons. And each club owner brings something unique to the cocktail table at Greene Street, where they’ll work out the details of their joint venture, a collaboratorial series of events that both see as the natural progression of their respective businesses.
It’s daylight outside, but you wouldn’t know it from the subterranean cluster of rooms beneath the Coliseum Inn, a dimly lit space with cheap commercial carpeting and thin wood paneling that is the home of alternative rock in Greensboro and the Triad, perhaps the whole state and maybe even the entire Southern Atlantic Seaboard. With a prime location between Washington, DC, and the vast and widespread network of Southern rock clubs, Joe’s been luring national acts off the road since he opened two years ago. He’ll celebrate the anniversary on May 7 with local heroes House of Fools. Another band on the bill is Bella Lea, a modified version of the band Denali, the first to ever grace the Ace’s stage. He’s expecting a full house.
Joe came to the bar business in a roundabout way. He’s more a behind-the-scenes showman with an instinct for promotion, Greensboro’s hard-rock version of Bill Graham. He got his start in business as a teenager attending Western Guilford High, hustling rare baseball cards at flea markets and then trying his hand at promotion with a card show to benefit the school’s baseball team his senior year. He worked the circuit for a while, promoting local shows and cultivating organizational skills that serve him well to this day. He drifted into the rock scene while still in his twenties and lamenting the lack of music that spoke to him. He made phone calls and improvised venues, stacking acts that nobody had ever heard of. Except for their fans.
His first ‘real’ show was at Rider’s in the Country.
‘“That’s the first place I booked a show at a real venue,’” he says. ‘“It definitely started there. That’s how I ended up here.’”
‘Here’ is down in the basement, empty in the afternoon, with band stickers on the urinals and red and green walls that hold up rock posters, Beatles pics and a sign reading: ‘No crowd surfing please. Do not get on stage,’ walls saturated with the art of noise that’s been created down here regularly since Joe put out his shingle. His rock shows draw fans of all ages ‘— most of his shows are open to all ages and it’s not uncommon to see parents down here with groups of teenage children, bracing themselves against the aural assault. Joe sells earplugs behind the bar for 50 cents.
‘“Everybody was asking for ’em,’” Joe says.
Joe listens to his customers. He listens to his bands, too. And when he saw that lots of them didn’t have proper promotional tools like demo CDs and video footage, he had a lightbulb moment.
He started Shoot the Moon Media and wired his joint with digital video cameras and high-tech sound gear so he could record his bands live, offering a service as well as a venue. As far as he knows, his is the only club to offer this service for hundreds of miles around. Now, he says, ‘“I don’t hand out my business card; I hand out videos and they show their friends.’” Now bands on the circuit know about Ace’s Basement and they try to squeeze gigs in there so they can see themselves on TV.
Shoot the Moon Media has been making videos for about a year now, and Joe has parlayed them into a TV show of the same name, 30 minutes of live video and interviews shown regionally on the Warner Brothers network. ‘“By fall the plan is to be in a hundred small markets across the country,’” Joe says. He’s also delving into the record label aspect of the business and forming closer relationships with the bands as well.
Joe’s made a name for himself, but a lot of the acts that call him have never seen the club itself. Ace’s is the perfect venue for rock shows, dark and a little bit dirty, but it’s not the kind of room that can attract well-known names or hold the crowd they’d draw. Joe was getting calls from national booking agents with acts and names that, as he says, ‘“don’t necessarily make sense for Ace’s.’”
Like, say, Vince Neil, whose agent is wired into the same network of club owners and booking agents as Joe. Even though Vince came up playing clubs like Ace’s Basement, it’s not the kind of place he hangs out in these days.
It’s Tuesday, a couple of days before the Motley CrÃ¼e after-party at Greene Street and Kenny sits on the screen porch of his house, a place he’s renting while awaiting the completion of his downtown condo. The move will bring him closer to his work, his club, and to downtown nightlife. It’s a move he makes not without trepidation. Yeah, he loves the nightlife and, sure, he’s got to boogie, but the new digs at Smothers Place will put him awfully close to the disco round, oh yeah. This house, the one he’s renting, is set far back enough from the road that one can harbor the illusion, at least, of being a little farther out in the county.
Kenny hails from Albemarle, a town of some 15,000 between lakes Tillery and Badin. He grew up there, played a little football and came to Greensboro to seek his fortune. He says he was working ‘“in computers,’” when he first saw the building on Greene Street, the one that used to be Triad Bank, with ultra-high ceilings, hard-edged acoustics and an upper deck that circled the main room with views to the floor.
‘“It’s set up to be a club,’” Kenny says from his porch. ‘“You couldn’t have picked a better building for it.’”
He got together with a partner, Ashe Jenkins, and together they set the wheels in motion to build a premier nightspot in downtown Greensboro. This was back in 2001, when people still thought nobody would ever go to a club downtown ‘— before M’Coul’s, before Solaris, before Longshanks and the Green Bean and Center City Park, before Southside and the ballpark, when they still turned off the streetlights and rolled up the sidewalks by 6 p.m.
Greene Street was among the first.
Kenny poured his energy into the foundation here: room, logistics and staff, the superstructure upon which he’d build his club. He was flexible about theme and scope. Over the years he tried comedy shows, big-room music acts, themed music nights, private events and dance party weekends. The club has since evolved into a room that’s open from Wednesday through Saturday with drink specials, DJ nights and the local live stuff here and there. He’s had the same staff pretty much since there was sawdust on the floor. Kenny and his bartenders, known in some parts of town as the ‘Greene Street Mafia,’ all operate the club together, but they also hang together, hit the gym, take deep-sea fishing trips and days off at the beach. Kenny’s got a posse, and they keep it tight.
Kenny’s also ploughed much of his profit back into the bar itself, constantly adding touches like the booths in the upstairs barroom and the VIP lounge cordoned off by stone pillars, the place Vince Neil will be hanging after the CrÃ¼e show in a couple of days.
The Vince Neil after-party is the first venture between these two bar owners (for firsthand coverage see pages 9- 11). Joe’s got the connections and Kenny’s got the room, the staff and the downtown location that ensures high visibility. Kenny orders the beer and deploys the bartenders and security staff; Joe takes care of the details, gets the word out and sells tickets online through his website. It’s a perfect model of symbiosis, like the clownfish and the sea anemone, and if everything goes as planned then downtown Greensboro will become a decidedly more rocking place. After the Vince Neil party, Joe has booked ’80s scare-hair band A Flock of Seagulls for the Greene Street stage on June 4. After that, who knows?
‘“He’s got a great room,’” Joe says of Kenny’s bar. He’s seen the sound system and scouted places for video screens that he’ll hang on the walls. Kenny’s going over his booking calendar to spot openings on the schedule and anticipating the needs of thick crowds.
It’s a perfect circle.
Joe and Kenny are on the ground floor of Greene Street now and the photographer sends them behind the bar, instructing them to make a toast for a photo op. There aren’t any Champagne flutes, and there is a discussion about using wine glasses with ginger ale in them or something like that when Kenny shrugs his shoulders, pulls a couple Buds from the beer box and hands one to Joe.
‘“That’ll work,’” Joe says and he takes the top off with a quick twist. He raises his drink and the eyes of the bar owners meet. The each give a slight nod and take swallows from their bottles.
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