Illustration by Chris Williams/ Plastic Flame Press
It's approaching midnight on a Thursday evening, and Raleigh's largest rock club teems with neon-clad 20-somethings. Huge balloons bounce from outstretched hands. Clouds of multicolored confetti blast from side-stage cannons. Hip kids with modified leaf blowers shoot streams of toilet paper into the air.
The scene's soundtrack is a manic collage of popular music samples, with iconic rock riffs finding new life as the fuel for filthy-fun rap verses. Shirtless and drenched, a wiry white dude jumps to the top of the DJ booth and pleads for the crowd to become even more energetic. Somehow, they manage it, dancing and shouting like it's all they know how to do.
But overhead, a faded sign glows resiliently: "The Longbranch is QDR country," it proclaims, marking the scene with the emblem of the Triangle's longstanding country radio station. For anyone looking at the near-capacity crowd from the back of the house, it's an ironic, anachronistic image, with the cool kids freaking out to monster beats in an environment once meant for suburban cowboys. Indeed, for 26 years, the Longbranch served as Raleigh's country music headquarters. But a slumping economy and fierce competition drove the venue into bankruptcy. Reopened for almost three years, the Longbranch is now a very different place.
Justin Helms, one of the Longbranch's four owners, sits in front of the desk that belongs to Dan Wood, another co-owner and the club's general manager. A painting of country legends centered around Garth Brooks hangs on the wall behind Helms, a reminder of the history the partners have inherited.
"We wanted to keep it traditional, but at the same time, we didn't want it to be so stereotyped," explains Helms. "I hope we're keeping the tradition alive of the Longbranch that she's always been, but at the same time making that new twist, hopefully putting her in the direction she should be going for the new era."
The performer at that recent Thursday melee was Girl Talk, the pop culture-condensing artist who has become popular for the knee-jerk enthusiasm of his reanimated reconstructions. He joined a growing list of celebrated electronic acts who have stopped at the Longbranch in the last three years. Mainstream dubstep ambassador Skrillex, world-renowned EDM (electronic dance music) DJ Paul van Dyk and Dutch house icon Tiësto have all hit the space since its reopening, earning the Longbranch a reputation for big-name electronica far removed from the club's country roots. For the venue's owners, it's a welcome consequence of the open environment they have been working to create.
With a capacity of 3,500, the Longbranch sits just inside the I-440 beltline off Wake Forest Road, around the bend from Raleigh's other sizable rock club, The Ritz. The one-story building has multiple entrances along the front, creating a camouflage that makes it blend in with the strip malls and car dealerships surrounding it. The space is divided into multiple rooms, long utilized to satisfy disparate crowds. The two largest divisions—the cavernous main concert hall and a smaller dance club—have customarily housed country and Top 40 nights, allowing the Longbranch to simultaneously satisfy its two biggest markets. But the boon of the venue's early days was the country programming, which attracted fans from Raleigh and its hinterlands to drink, dance and socialize.
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