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Published on December 27th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann

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Uptown: The Royal American Hosts Big Anniversary Bash

Occupying an old forge building between Morrison Drive and Cooper River marshland at the foot of the Ravenel Bridge, the Royal American is a unusual bar and music venue in a unique setting. Since opening in Dec. 2011, the place has become one of top local hotspots for indie/underground music in the Charleston area.

“The past two years have been a whirlwind,” says Kenney. “It has definitely been as challenging as I expected, but nothing can compare to the excitement of our first sold-out show.”

Kenney, fellow owner/operating partner Karalee Nielsen Fallert, and their staff initially laid things out as a two-room venue with a U-shaped bar between a cozy side lounge and a roomier music room, and they decorated the place with a mix of vintage light fixtures, bohemian flair, and a subtle thump of industrial style — some of which stems from leftovers from the building’s previous occupant, the Old Charleston Forge.

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John Kenney at the Royal American, 2011 (photo by Ballard Lesemann)

Kenney initially worked to establish the venue as one that consistently booked and presented clever, unique, original underground rock acts of various styles, but he still finds it slightly difficult to define the type of music club the Royal American has become.

“It’s hard for me to define a specific genre that we fit into, and I don’t think that’s really important anyway,” Kenney says. “What I hope people trust in us is that we book good, solid bands. I want people to know that when they come to a show, the show is going to be good. Whether the band fits into their favorite genre or not, they will be able to enjoy the performance because the band will be good at what it does.”

Kenney settled in Charleston only a few years ago after working as a professional musician, journalist, and photographer in Washington D.C. and New York. His first local bar job was as manager at the former King Street wine joint Raval.

When he helped open the Royal American with the local management company Revolutionary Eating Ventures (REV) in Dec. 2011, he had already determined that there was a lack of original music clubs in downtown Charleston — places like the old Cumberland’s on King Street, which specialized in booking top local and touring indie, punk, and rock acts. These days, after breaking amicably away from REV, he hopes the Royal American has filled some of that the gap and fits in with the ever-changing club scene.

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The Royal American bar (provided by John Kenney)

“I think the music scene in Charleston is growing rapidly and moving in a great direction,” Kenney says. “We book quality local and touring bands, and it’s encouraging to see folks not balk at a $5 cover to see original music.”

One of the most unique aspects of the venue is the relatively small, square-shaped stage, which is situated almost at bar-counter level, just inside the main entrance. To many newcomers, the stage set-up seems a bit strange, but regular patrons have come to enjoy the fact that the club boasts an actual stage that’s elevated so that anyone in the main room can see the musicians with no problem. The PA system sounds great in the room, too.

“Many first-time bands walk in and bemoan the size and placement of the stage, but once they play up there and hear the sound, they generally change their tune,” Kenney says. “I understand that it’s small, but it’s the best we could do at the time, and we are planning on expanding it a bit in the next few months.”

Over the last two years, Kenney and his team have only fine-tuned small aspects of the Royal American’s red bulb, dimly-lit atmosphere. “The main changes we’ve made have been adding TVs, which we really only use for Saturday and Sunday football, and adding both a back and a side porch,” he says. “We have plans to add more to those areas in the spring.”

While the venue draws fans of live music on band nights, many regulars dig the bar atmosphere and drink and food menus over anything happening on the stage. The core menu items from the kitchen have been very savory/hearty specialties like house-made jerky, chili, beef-tip nachos, muffalettas, dogs, loaded baked potatoes, patty melts, and fried bologna sandwiches. Their kitchen space, situated along the back wall of the main room, is super-tight, but their list of specialties seems to expand every season.

RA Punch

“Food has always been a huge focus for us, but because of space issues, we just weren’t able to do much in the beginning,” Kenney says. “We have plans to expand our tiny kitchen, and that expansion will certainly be reflected in our menu. Someone said to me the other day that our menu reminded them of when Mom went out of town, and Dad had to do the cooking … burgers and dogs, bologna sandwiches, chili, and melts. I think that’s an interesting way to look at it and true to an extent, but we’ve already added salads and appetizers like pickled shrimp and hummus. The decadent ‘Dad’ cooking isn’t going anywhere, but you can expect we’ll throw some more curveballs out there this year.”

On the bar side, the Royal American offers several old-school cheap brewskis like National Bohemian, Old Milwaukee, and Genesee alongside high-craft local beers, house punch, and a dangerously drinkable house-made cinnamon whiskey. “It’s definitely a beer-and-shot kind of place,” Kenney says. “We recently added a cocktail menu, which we’re really excited about, but we’ve kept the selections very simple and classic. A few examples are a Gin Lime Rickey, a Dark and Stormy, and a Brass Monkey. Colt 45 and OJ is much better than you remember.”

Some of the venue’s most frequent acts — the local and visiting bands and songwriters who’ve become good friends and supporters over the last two years — include Lowcountry-based bands Elim Bolt, Godwin Falcon, Boring Portals, Jordan Igoe, Rachel Kate, McKenzie Eddy, Co., Brave Baby, Heyrocco, and the 33’s. Local collective {tin} This is Noteworthy has made the club its main spot over the last year and a half for their ongoing performance series “Eclectic Evenings.” Out-of-town town acts like the Water Liars, Pierce Edens, and Spirit Animal regularly swing back into town to specifically play at the Royal American. Even Kenney’s old bandmates in the D.C. alt-rock group Rotoglow (pictured at top) come to town for occasional reunion shows at the club.

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Elim Bolt squeeze on to the RA stage, 2012 (photo by Ballard Lesemann)

This Saturday, the Royal American will host a second anniversary party billed as “Fancy As F*ck: Our 2nd Anniversary Bash.” The Royal Tinfoil, Co., Pierce Edens, and Elim Bolt are on the bill. The name is both a play on the fancy-as-fuck holiday bashes going on around town this week and a bit of an insider thing.

“The name ‘Fancy As F*ck’ was actually the Royal Tinfoil’s idea,” Kenney says. “We’ve never had Lily Slay, Mackie Boles, and their bandmates play the bar, and I’ve always wanted them to, so I approached them to play our second anniversary party. They said ‘yes,’ so then we had “The Royal American & the Royal Tinfoil,” and dang if that don’t sound fancy as fuck. If you know anything about this bar or that band, however, it ain’t that fancy.”

All four acts on the bill seem to fit right in with the Royal American’s rep, style, and vibe. they’re all original, feisty, creative, elegantly sloppy, and amusingly unusual. “All of that is true,” says Kenney. “Basically, these are four great bands that have been with us since the beginning; bands who have helped shape the sound of the Royal American. We would be a different bar without them.”

The Royal American (970 Morrison Drive) celebrates its second anniversary at 9 p.m. on Sat. Dec. 28 with performances by local bands the Royal Tinfoil, Co., and Elim Bolt plus a performance by Asheville rocker Pierce Edens. Admission is $10. Visit theroyalamerican.com for more.

Top photo by Ballard Lesemann.

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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.



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