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Published on December 6th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann

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Voodoo Celebrates 10 Years with a Jazzy Anniversary Bash

When Jen and Michael Kulick opened Voodoo Tiki Bar and Lounge in December, 2004, there wasn’t much nightlife action in West Ashley’s Avondale business district other than Gene’s Haufbrau (across the street) and a few small eateries. The Kulicks were entrepreneurial pioneers with a grand vision in mind for their funky new restaurant and bar.

On Dec. 10, the Kulicks and their team at Voodoo will celebrate their anniversary week with a jazzy show featuring a set by the Gradual Lean. They’ll head into their 10th year with as much enthusiasm, wit, and creative spark as they had during their first months in business.

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Jen Kulick at Vooodoo, just weeks before opening day, 2004 (provided)

On a shoestring budget, the Kulicks first kicked their Voodoo concept into action in the fall of 2004 after they secured a two-room spot along Magnolia Road (just off of Savannah Highway) previously occupied by the small restaurant and music venue Johnny Ola’s.

“We pretty much just used a lot of smoke and mirrors,” Jen remembers. “Anything we could think of to cover up the black and grime that covered Johnny Ola’s, we did. Everything was done in the hours between working at our respective bars.”

Jen had spent time working at Gene’s Haufbrau while Mike had plenty of experience working at 32 Rue De Jean. They spent an intense 30 days renovating their new space. “We were hooking up speakers and caulking up until the very minute we were open,” Jen says. “We had no choice; we had no money left and rent to pay in three days. But we did it.”

They designed the main bar room and side lounge area with a New Orleans/Caribbean atmosphere and vibe in mind. With lush colors, lush fabrics, and funky decor, it looked like a tropical speakeasy from the jazz age. Despite a few updates and adjustments, Voodoo has stuck with same look and developed a distinctive personality.

“Voodoo is Voodoo, and we’ve never had to redesign the concept,” Jen says. “We always strive to keep it fresh, making sure things don’t get to run down. Our ‘smoke and mirrors’ remodel has been slowly falling apart over the years, so we’ve had to fix and redo many things, but we never did much in redesign. The lounge side just received a fresh coat of pant, new light fixtures, and some new furniture. Next up, the back of the bar needs some attention, but budget-wise, it may have to wait a bit.”

Voodoo’s menu featured a wild variety of exotic bar fare, tropical side dishes, elaborate specialty cocktails, and culinary experiments.

“The duck tacos have been here from the beginning,” Jen says. “They were the inspiration for the whole taco menu and the cheese dip. Everything else has been improved, changed, and elevated from the original menu.”

In their early years, Voodoo established itself as a comfortable alternative to the generic sports bars and plastic cup joints in the West Ashley area.

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“It’s still everyone’s bar,” Jen says. “I’ve seen 22 year-olds who work in restaurants come in, and I’ve seen 70 year-olds having happy hour. It’s not able to be defined, and I like that.”

While they didn’t initially intend to morph into a live music venue, the atmosphere of the place naturally suited some of the jazz musicians, DJs, and experimental acts in the local scene.

In the early days, Voodoo experimented with hosting special events and shows, like their “5 Days of Carnival” series and local storytelling series called “Charleston Tells,” which was based on the Moth series. Eventually, local and visiting bands and DJs would set up in the front window or back side of the lounge and give it a go.

“We’ve tried it a million ways,” Jen says. “At the top of the lounge side with screens behind the band, on the wall with the circles … the front window works the best, sound and flow-wise.

“We never wanted to be a music venue, but we loved the idea of having live music in the mix,” she adds. “So we decided to bring in acts that weren’t featured around Charleston, that could be unique to us and that we enjoyed having.”

Charleston-based drummer Quentin Baxter and his Gradual Lean bandmates — electric guitarist Lee Barbour, bassist Kevin Hamilton, and trumpeter Charlton Singleton — became the unofficial house band at Voodoo, regularly performing in the lounge room over the years. Baxter also assisted in booking and promoting the venue’s annual “Winter Jazz Nights” series.

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Quentin Baxter and Charlton Singleton trade licks at Voodoo (provided)

Local performers like vocalist and songwriter Lindsay Holler, jazz combo the Rudy Waltz, jazz/funk trio the Pulse Trio, guitarist/singer Duda Lucena, vocalist Leah Suarez, and percussionist Gino Castillo often headlined various shows during the series.

“We always encouraged the jazz musicians to let it all hang out at Voodoo,” Jen says. “They had to out-play the crowds, since they were in a bar situation. Quentin has always come up with some amazing shows to wow us. His famous ‘Bread Basket’ shows are a great example of being able to do something out of the box that he couldn’t pull off at a venue like Charleston Grill.”

For many local jazz/improv players, the chance to gig at Voodoo was an attractive alternative to playing at the slightly stiff upscale restaurants downtown. In general, Voodoo’s laid-back scene drew jazz cats and other musicians, and it became a genuine hang-out for sceneters. But having a few hip musicians on hand only enhanced the genuinely bohemian mix of patrons at Voodoo in recent years.

“We never tried to be something we’re not, and because of that, people have really responded to what we do,” Jen says. “I think they would like to see us do more music, but we really have to keep a balance between being a neighborhood bar and event venue. We usually see quite a few local musicians coming to support each other.”

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At the Voodoo Anniversary Party with Gradual Lean on Dec. 10, patrons expect a terrific jazz jam session plus a special slide show presentation featuring pictures from dedicated customers and friends from over the years. The event is free and open to the public.

The Kulicks also own and manage the Tattooed Moose, which is located downtown on Morrison Drive.

What is the main goal for Voodoo as they look forward to the next 10 years?

“I would love to see a waterfront Voodoo, frozen tiki drinks, and seafood-influenced tacos,” Jen says. “At our original location, more of the same. Good service, good food, and good atmosphere at a reasonable value.”

The Voodoo Anniversary Party with Gradual Lean is scheduled for Dec. 10 at 9 p.m. Admission is free. The venue will host the Avondale Holiday WinterFest & AfterParty with the Gino Castillo Trio on Sat. Dec. 14 from 3-6 p.m. Voodoo’s New Year’s Eve Party is set to start at happy hour (4 p.m) and continue through the night on Tues. Dec. 31.

Voodoo Tiki Bar and Lounge is located at 15 Magnolia Road in West Ashley. Visit voodootikibar.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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