The independent music scene can be one of society’s most practical examples of egalitarianism. Often, people in the crowd are later seen on stage performing or are involved in the promotion. Intimate rooms and lower stages bring a physical connection between the artist and the audience you cannot get when musicians play in gigantic sports arenas. Few people are in it for the money. But these shows that build community and offer avenues of creative expression don’t just happen by themselves. Someone must take the lead.
Savannah is fortunate to have a thriving local music scene. Fueled by the youthful energy of rotating SCAD students and working veteran musicians, we’ve been treated to a post-pandemic explosion of new and revived artists who seem to have made the most of lockdown. Still, a city can have a thousand active bands, but who would even know if no one steps up to organize, promote, and operate a concert?
Whether the concept of hierarchies makes you uncomfortable or not, it is a necessity. Savannah is a relatively small city, but our music community is deep enough to keep three local promoters busy doing their thing. Ryan Graveface of the Graveface Records and Curiosities empire, Tim Walls of AURA Fest and Coastal Rock Productions, and Kyle Brown of Dog Days Presents have each forged their own path toward the common goal of bringing underground and independent music concerts to Savannah on a regular basis. None of them set out to be leaders, but their efforts and motivation to make things happen cannot be denied.
Graveface has been at it the longest. The eponymous record store and oddities market is a Starland District institution with a history that began in another arena of promoting bands. Graveface explains:
“Graveface started as a recording label in 2000, putting out CD-Rs of friends’ bands and my own stuff. Then in 2002 I pivoted to real releases, LPs, things that weren’t just me. That was in Chicago. Then I moved to Savannah and wanted to go record shopping. I looked on Google and there was not a single record store. I had a huge record collection, so I hatched the idea of just finding a spot and opening it as a pop-up to give Savannah something it didn’t have other than an occasional record fair. So that’s how the store came about.”
The store’s second most-known wares, the oddities and collectibles, have their own story.
“Since I am not a big fan of The Beatles or classic rock, instead of adorning the walls with posters of bands I couldn’t care less about, I thought taxidermy and human skulls and other things I’d been collecting seemed like a more natural choice. That’s where the records and curiosities come from, and it afforded me the opportunity to sell other things I’d been sitting on because I’m a hoarder. So that’s how it all came about since we opened 13 years ago. Many record shops have opened since that seem to follow our lead in aesthetic and vibe, so I guess that means people are paying attention.”
Unlike the store’s organic birth story, adding live show promotion to the Graveface brand was a more purposeful, noble pursuit.
“In 2014, I built a pretty big stage in the back of the store because there weren’t any all-ages shows other than house shows at the time. We started doing three to four shows a week, mostly touring bands with a local opener. It became a thing until I got sued by a neighbor who is now long gone, who lived directly above the stage. I tried to work around his work schedule. I was willing to do shows at noon to be over by five if that was when he got home from work, but that wasn’t good enough. It was similar to what happened to Hang Fire. So we had to get rid of that stage in about 2017.”
Keeping busy with the downtown museum he was opening occupied Graveface until the in-store venue alternative, The Lodge of Sorrows, was found. It’s a multi-function space akin to Andy Warhol’s Factory, where plenty of Graveface Records work can be done, including a recording studio, office space, and plans to press vinyl. The Lodge also has an excellent sound system for live performances. Many local acts have played the space, including Graveface’s bands Dreamend and The Marshmallow Ghosts. Touring bands have been carefully selected and include bands that are both obscure and highly regarded, like queer punks The HIRS Collective, Tampa OG death metal act Massacre, and San Jose experimental rock band Xiu Xiu. Graveface explains how he selects the bands hosted at The Lodge.
“It’s basically a replacement for doing shows in the store, and I just book bands that I love. I listen to every kind of music, so it just has to be something I love. We are about two-and-a-half years into The Lodge now, and you’d be shocked at the amount of stuff I turn down that would easily pay the bills. It’s just like running the record label. Back in the day, when I was still touring with Black Moth Super Rainbow, I was getting large, well-known bands approaching me. A record I turned down won a Grammy; it would’ve made me literally millions of dollars, but if it’s not something I’m in love with, I’m not going to do it. The record store is different. I try to stock everything anyone asks for. I’m glad we did that for retail, but it’s different than the label or Lodge of Sorrows.”
That discerning sense of purpose, intended to lead or not, is shared by Graveface’s peers. In the early 2000s, a pre-AURA Fest teenage Tim Walls began booking hardcore punk and metal shows at Velvet Elvis and Teasers, partly to help his band get gigs. After a few years, life took him to Atlanta for college and presented family obligations upon returning to Savannah. He kept an eye on the live music scene and when responsibilities subsided enough in 2017, he started booking shows again in earnest. But there were obstacles.
This was when Graveface ended in-store shows, The Dollhouse and Hang Fire had closed, and house shows just weren’t happening. Nevertheless, Walls persisted. He found places and momentum was building, but he was thinking bigger. Booking regular shows became less preferable to an all-underground rock all-day (AURA) event. The result was the hardcore and metal AURA Fest, held at Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum from 2017-19. Dozens of bands and the expected festival trappings of food trucks, vendors and activities were included. Results were good, leading to AURA’s Underground Weekend in February 2020 at The Jinx, featuring headliners Torche from Miami and Jacksonville’s Inter Arma.
Almost immediately after, the pandemic shut everything down, including The Jinx for good. Walls used the time to plan bigger things for the next AURA Fest, and the 2022 version was a sold-out success. Despite this, leadership directly isn’t something Walls is comfortable discussing. When asked, he defers to his longevity and community as the motivators.
“I’ve been doing it so long, it’s a lot of hard work, a passion project as well as a business. I always like to try to improve what I’m doing. When I grew up, it’s a small market here, so there are periods when it isn’t great. You don’t want to have to drive two or four hours every time to see a band. All-ages shows are a must, too, so maybe that’s why I started.”
Another way Walls stands out is his ability to get a wide array of sponsors to help underwrite the shows and the festival. You don’t see many small-market promotions with such high-profile patrons. From popular local bars, eateries, and tattoo parlors to global brands like Coca-Cola (the Savannah Bottling Co.) and Pabst Blue Ribbon, Walls is realistic about the need for partners to grow his business.
“The scope and scale of doing festivals is primarily why. When I restarted booking in 2014 and 2015, I did small club shows before bringing back the big festival. For a big festival, it’s sort of a necessity to have partnerships because of how expensive it is. Even before that I was working on sponsorships, it’s just a smart business move and it’s great to have the support. It comes down to fostering and building relationships, though. Not just the sponsorships, but with the venues, the bands, and the people coming to the shows.”
As time-consuming as the AURA Festival alone can be — the 2024 lineup is about to be released — Walls still considers his promotion somewhere between a full-time living and a hobby. Given that, it’s a remarkable volume of output. The owner of the newest promotion of the three, Kyle Brown of Dog Days Presents, can relate. He’s also booked an outsized number of shows in a short time for a smaller, newer promotion, including tours for bands outside of Savannah. Before moving to Savannah, Brown was in New York trying to book shows and make things happen.
“I moved there with half of my Charleston band to create a new band and be in New York and see what that was all about. It was incredibly fun. We booked shows, I booked some tours, I made a lot of contacts and got to know that scene, which is super helpful now. But I missed Charleston and being a bigger fish in a smaller pond. I knew people in Savannah, the Triathalon and Wet Socks guys, and I kept visiting, so I gave it a shot. I charmed Wes Daniels (El Rocko owner) enough to give me a job just as a bartender. We began talking about music, and our friendship is based on music. Like me, he has an insatiable love for music and music history.”
The initial concept for El Rocko was a higher-end cocktail bar. As Brown’s role at the bar increased, he began booking shows, helping to direct El Rocko into its current identity known more as a top spot in town for independent music and less for barrel-aged cocktails. Around this time, he also became a member of local favorites Rev. Bro Diddly and the Hips and Chipper Bones.
“Then I started Dog Days. Six months after the pandemic, I had a band, and it was getting safe to play out, so I started booking shows again. This time I had to brand it, try it out, I had the contacts and in a couple of years it felt like Dog Days gave some new life to the scene.”
He also noticed the impact the earliest shows had when people began to re-emerge from lockdown.
“The first couple of shows shook everyone. It was fun and a hungry audience, a community that cares, and it gave people the confidence to give it a go. Music and being in a band became cool again. You had to pull teeth to get people to see bands before the pandemic. Now it’s become an ecosystem of bookers, people, and movers and shakers, and it feels like people take it more seriously because they must pay attention.”
Timing helped, but a lot of legwork allowed Dog Days to put on dozens of shows in its first two years. Like hierarchies, that’s a necessity, too. All three promoters share it, along with a passion for the art form and the need to be moved by it. Brown echoes the ideas of Graveface and Walls.
“I want to make sure I’m excited about what I’m promoting, but it has to work from a business perspective. Some bands work better at some venues. I can’t be totally selfish and just want to put on a show for me, but I definitely have to be into it.”
Ultimately, unintentional leadership is what’s at play here. With varying levels of intent, none overbearing or arrogant, Savannah’s three loudest music promoters have led the way from different directions in pursuit of the same goals. Avenues for artistic expression, gathering the community that supports it, options for underage people of good taste, and building businesses are formal ways to describe them. The short version is these guys throw a helluva party. In a town that offers so many options for a good time, Graveface, Walls, and Brown stand out proudly and loudly.