All things come to an end, and the final days of April this year also close the book on more than 50 years of history for Chapel Hill’s oldest bar and music venue.
“That bar is a really special, really unique place,” said Sarah Shook, a former bartender at The Cave and bandleader of Sarah Shook & The Disarmers. “As long as I’ve been going there, the friends I’ve made, the memories I’ve made … there’s so much there.”
A familiar haunt for up-and-coming bands, local musicians, bar hoppers and college students across the decades, The Cave’s storied underground ambiance has been a crucial part of Chapel Hill nightlife since 1968. The legendary faux-rock ceiling and floor-level stage have played host to countless local musicians playing their first show and festival headlining acts alike. Big-name bands such as The Avett Brothers, Arcade Fire, R.E.M. and Sylvan Esso have all played The Cave – along with local legends like Luego, Zen Frisbee, Shark Quest, Superchunk and a laundry list of others.
“We always think of ourselves as the first step,” said Mark Connor, one of the three current owners of The Cave that took ownership in October of 2012. “People hit up The Cave because it’s really easy. You know what you’re getting if you’ve played there before. It’s an easy first gig to get, and that’s by design. It’s not that we want to just put anything on
that stage, certainly we like to have some sort of filter and hope that we’re presenting quality – or at least bands we think are doing something original and true to themselves … You don’t [get better] without having a place to perform and learn, a place to start. We always think of our place as an open door.”
The Cave was the first venue that answered Connor’s email when he moved to North Carolina in 2008 and was looking to book his band – Strange Faces – a gig.
“That’s a cool thing for me,” said Connor. “The first place that let me through the door was a place I ended up being a part of later on.”
For Shook, news of The Cave’s imminent closing came just days after she worked her last shift behind the bar, and this coming July would have been her fourth anniversary of working at the storied establishment.
“I started going to The Cave probably right around my 21st birthday,” said Shook. “There’s so much history there. Any band that’s been a band in the Chapel Hill, Raleigh or Durham area has either played there at some point or gone to see other bands there in the past.”
Shook chose to quit her bartending gig in order to pursue music full-time, a decision that has paid off in terms of a tour schedule spanning multiple countries and a fresh LP that is garnering plenty of positive attention. The Cave helped to create success stories like Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, giving them a place to play and practice, to perform and create.
“I think that places like The Cave are super important,” said Shook. “They’re a jumping off point – a portal, so to speak. The best thing anyone can do who gives a hoot about music is to support places like that … Being in a room with other people, sharing this experience that, frankly, is never going to happen again. No two shows are the same; no two performances are the same. It’s this very special, very unique moment in time. To me, that’s the beauty of live music.”
Ownership of The Cave has changed hands before, but the venue and bar have kept the volume up and the taps flowing for over five decades. This time, however, is different. Ownership hasn’t changed hands. The owner of the building has no intentions of considering offers to lease the space to any person or entity intending to continue as The Cave. When The Cave closes its doors on Monday, April 30, it will be for good.
“I feel like it’s unfortunate,” said Connor. “I feel like it would have been great to give somebody a chance to revitalize that business. It’s a shame to let 50 years of history go by the wayside.”
Additional reporting by Kelly Fahey