Slim’s Twentieth Anniversary Shows
Friday, Apr. 12–Monday, Apr. 15, free
My first memory of Slim’s comes from the back patio, on what I remember as a thousand-degree September day. My old band had traveled down from New Jersey for an early slot at Hopscotch, playing at noon between the dumpsters and the noisy air-conditioning unit. The crowd and staff that packed the narrow bar, concrete patio, and steel stairwell were so good to our roving band of unwashed misfits that we kept coming back, often for one-off shows, only to turn around and drive home to Jersey that night.
A lot about downtown Raleigh has changed since that show, nearly six years ago. But one of the few constants amid the development is Slim’s, the tall, skinny bar at 227 South Wilmington Street, its black awning and dark windows too covered with show posters to offer a glimpse of everything happening inside. This weekend, it celebrates its twentieth birthday with a slate of free shows. Friday brings Watershed and The Bleeding Hearts. Saturday features Drag Sounds and 6 String Drag. Sunday’s day party has Mic Harrison and the High Score with Maldora. And on Monday evening, the festivities conclude with Left Outlet and Fruit Snack. Mixing bands that harken back to the earliest days of Slim’s and bands that are highly active in Raleigh today, it’s a snapshot of the life of a little downtown rock club.
Slim’s is owned by Van Alston and Chris Post, and its long, slender bar features relics of their lives in music: ticket stubs, old photos, clippings of flyers of classic Raleigh shows, all encased in epoxy. The stage is tiny, barely a foot higher than the floor. In short, it’s a well-broken-in rock-and-roll dive—a respite of light beer, cheap shots, and high volume in a craft-cocktail world.
Alston and Post opened Slim’s on April 15, 1999, in the tail end of Raleigh’s storied alt-country days, although back then, the bar was called the Lakeside Lounge, in partnership with a New York City bar of the same name. Within a year, however, Alston and Post amicably split with their New York partners, wanting to craft a bar in their own image. Before anything else, it would need a new name.
“We had a bartender there whose nickname was Fats,” says Alston, who, in 1981, left his hometown of Greensboro to study at N.C. State. “We called it Slim’s, as kind of a nod to Fats.”
Alston remembers the bar’s humble beginning as a clubhouse of sorts—a few friends sitting around listening to “sad-ass country music” on the jukebox. While it made for a great hang, it was a horrible business model. But eventually, as one of the only bars in the area, it began to attract customers.
“We used to say, if you saw someone downtown after eight p.m., they were heading to Slim’s,” Alston says. “It was just us.”
By the early 2000s, Raleigh was growing, its streets alive long after the sun went down, as restaurants and bars slowly started popping up downtown and along Glenwood Avenue. A new clientele began to fill the high stools along the bar at Slim’s. It became a watering hole for local waitstaff, bartenders, and barflies. The constant flow of service-industry people allowed the owners to program whatever live music they wanted, as they didn’t need to rely on the night’s entertainment to pad their bottom line.
“We were never dependent on the bands like a proper venue would be,” Alston says, adding that the bar’s nonexistent production costs funnels almost every penny of door charges into the bands’ pockets.
By the 2010s, a city once famed for alt-country had embraced punk, rock, and a far more experimental aesthetic, thanks to the influx of young musicians to the Triangle. Alston credits Mark Connor, a longtime talent booker and bartender at Slim’s, with helping the bar evolve musically in tandem with the growing city around it.
“Mark had ideas,” Alston says. “He wanted this place to be more than it was.” He remembers Connor showing up for his interview in 2009 wearing a tie—hardly a prerequisite when angling for a job in a rock dive, but a sign of his ambition.
“I caught hell for that for years,” Connor says. “But I caught hell for it while having the job, right?”
Connor worked to make Slim’s—and eventually The Cave in Chapel Hill, which he owned with Alston from 2012 to 2018—a welcoming, judgment-free haven for bands and artists of any stripe, setting a precedent that continues with current talent booker Catie Yerkes, who took over three years ago. Connor was intent on not just booking bands that featured four straight white dudes playing some iteration of rock or alt-country.
“I don’t think Slim’s set out to be a bastion of anything,” says Al Riggs, a Durham-based singer-songwriter who identifies as queer and has played at Slim’s many times. “But because they have done their due diligence to make it a safe space for anyone who wants to perform there, it’s become a space for common ground for all sorts of performers.”
Connor credits Alston’s open-mindedness for allowing the bar to evolve in concert with the city around it, keeping the uncertain business of owning a bar going for two decades. But Connor is quick to point out that while Raleigh has grown in populace, it still has a long way to go culturally. Rather than deriding a pace of cultural maturation that can seem glacial, he sees it as a challenge.
“A friend recently told me how hard it is to be a queer promoter in Raleigh,” he says. “We’re not at this perfect space where we’ve grown, and everything’s finished.”
Current bar manager Alison Williams agrees that Slim’s, along with every other bar in downtown Raleigh, needs to continue to strive to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible.
“It’s a changing social climate,” Williams says. “And it’s incredibly important to give people a platform to speak out, especially in places as timeless as music venues.”
Of all the twentieth-anniversary shows, Connor says one in particular combines what Slim’s is today with what it once was. Saturday night’s show features 6 String Drag, a band fronted by former Slim’s bartender and alt-country staple Kenny Roby, and Drag Sounds, which counts current Slim’s bartender and guitar everyman Mike Wallace as a member. It’s the long history created by Alston, Connor, Yerkes, Post, Williams, and so many others, bottled in glorious noise.
This story has been updated to reflect that Maldora is replacing Patty Hurst Shifter at one of the Slim’s anniversary shows.