If things change up then they’re not the same. If they stay the same they’re not new.
–John Manson of Tulsa’s Billy Joe Winghead

Oh, the pangs! I will definitely get the pangs about mid-August for the noisy mess o’ Sleazefest.
–Mary Huff of Southern Culture on The Skids

They come every August–high temperatures, shirt-soaking humidity and this thing called Sleazefest. Since 1994, I’ve marked my days like a jailbird until hipster-powered guitars spark the warm air. The beer would flow, and the banana pudding would fly. So, when the 12- to 14-hour days of Sleazefest went missing this year on the calendars of Local 506 and The Cave, it was news–at least to me.

I started asking around. I got real nosy, real fast. The answer was simple, but that answer just depended on whom you asked.

I started with official Sleazefest video archivist Craig Zearfoss. Don’t let his understated demeanor fool you–inside lurks a mind armed with focus, a Total Recall type. Like Norman Rockwell, but with cool flame and skull tats, The Director’s Cut speaks: “Sleazefest never was the most organized festival, so it never went to the next level, which is probably what made it so successful. It never lost that small-town feeling. It was like an annual community project.”

Next, I approached members of our fine business community. Local 506 owner Glen Boothe has been thinking about Sleazefest and live music–a lot. He offers his snapshot, “Music venues shouldn’t compete with each other. We have enough problems competing with DVD’s and games. College kids don’t support live music, they’ve got video games, the Internet. There’s so much information at your fingertips, fewer people are checking out bands.”

By “checking out,” he means frequenting live shows instead of MySpace, where most musicians now make their presence. By “bands,” he means the dozens of groups hand-picked for Sleazefest each year. I started to panic. But what about the people who bought tickets last year? They would be back, college kids in trucker hats or not, right?

“The Camel cigarettes sponsorship helped us to break even. Attendance wasn’t there. If you took Camel out of the equation, the door money did not cover the expense of the bands,” he lays on me.

Cigarettes supporting music? Interesting. I wondered if music clubs would go the way of the tobacco industry, or at least its Durham warehouses, all converted into other, new-world type affairs. I lit a small cigar and continued my investigation.

A few blocks east on West Franklin Street, there’s an alley that drops down some steps to The Cave. I picked up the phone and pleaded. Owner and proprietor Mr. Mouse answers the phone on the second ring, a sure sign of a slow day. “At first it was so self-sustaining. We were all finally getting opportunities to see bands we usually never get to see. Sleazefest was good at this. But eventually the support from the local scene became smaller and smaller.” Sadly, he means volume, not height.

But Mouse, is a lot of this about people unable to break away from their computers and Gameboys? “It seems to me that there’s less people coming out to support the music scene in general. There’s just a lot more to do in the area. I’m trying to find out how to evolve. We’ve tried streaming some live shows online to build a bigger audience outside.” By “outside,” Mouse means that Internet thing.

But, Mouse, what of Southern Culture on the Skids, the Sleazefest originators that live inside the Triangle? They’ve only been on MySpace since last October. Mouse puts it best: “The whole point of it was to expose this great music SCOTS would see on the road and bring it to the local scene.”

After all, when you talk to him, you can tell SCOTS front man Rick Miller is still simply tickled over the arrival of his son, Jackson, last winter. But for Sleazefest, he’s calm: “Sleazefest existed to bring out the primitive impulse,” he tells me as I daydream about him teaching Jack how to round the bases in a few years. “I think it kind of ran its course. If enough people bitch and moan about it, it’s not like it’s dead. The past couple of years it’s been kind of tapering off.”

But after we talk about the good times–legends like Beatle Bob or musicians like Hasil Adkins, Ernie K-Doe, The Amazing Delores, The Woggles, The Fleshtones or whatnot–Rick softens a bit. “I haven’t given up on it and I don’t think anyone else has. Who knows, maybe next year we’ll do it again.”

But going a year without seeing former organizer Dave Robertson (a hard guy to find) stylin’ his retro-biker helmet on the last night while singing “Danny Boy” is tough on the soul.

The passion behind Sleazefest is hard to miss. It’s in SCOTS bassist, singer and fashion plate Mary Huff. She’s on fire when I reach her, probably because she’s been mowing her lawn. It’s hot out, and she has red hair: “I don’t like hearing about the ‘demise’ of Sleazefest because we’re probably gonna do it again next year.” Then she lightens up, maybe even smiles, “It just needs to be hauled in and sparkled up a bit.”

Mary is setting me straight, and I like it. “Back in the day, we were the only basic garage-band festival. Now, in August, we gotta compete against 10 other festivals, the last two years being Little Steven’s big wing-ding in New York City. Little Steven!” It’s true. Little Steven’s Underground Garage is a syndicated radio show and Web site that is devoted to music first championed by Sleazefest. The former Springsteen guitarist has been bringing down-to-earth garage rock to mainstream audiences for the past few years.

See, Sleazefest was so cool it inspired other fests like nearby Heavy Rebel Weekend in Winston-Salem. But audiences, clubs and bands change. Mary hints that it’s time to take this old hot rod off-road and put it back in the shop: “It’s just going to take a little break and maybe come back reinvented as something else.”

C’mon, Mary, pimp my ride. Next year, at least?

What made Sleazefest tick
Notes from the official archivist

Craig Zearfoss captured Sleazefest with a collection of video cameras, a secondhand video switcher, yards and yards of cable, and a battery of VCRs. Volunteers filmed the bands and helped Craig capture the action. The moment a group stepped off the stage, they would get a copy of their performance right there, on the spot. Today, Craig is working to digitize and organize hundreds of hours of footage. Excerpts from an interview with Zearfoss follow.

I think it was one of the Bent Scepters who told me Sleazefest was the most slack, best-run festival he had ever played.

It was a chance for the fans and bands to co-mingle at a low level. Anybody could hang out “backstage,” beside the dumpster in the alley. It had kind of a family-reunion feel. Although people knew each other pretty well, they didn’t get to see each other more than a few times a year. I remember one year I was talking to a reporter and she asked if she could get an interview with Rick Miller. She was surprised when I said, “Sure, he’s over there.”

Sleazefest always felt like it was thrown together at the last minute, but the bands were always top-notch. The atmosphere seemed to bring out the best performances as bands would try to out-do each other. You can’t have a true rock ‘n’ roll experience in a sanitized, air-conditioned club, so the authentic sweat and grime really added to the experience.

I have to compliment not only the bands, but also all of the people who worked the festival, because they are really what held it together, especially the guys who loaded band gear in and out, the soundmen and the people working the doors. Working one 8- to 10-hour night under those conditions is bad enough, but multiply it by three. After all that, I can’t recall ever seeing anybody lose it, even when they were so exhausted they could barely stand.

Most memorable Sleazefest moments:

  • The Bellrays first performance
  • Drive-By Truckers’ marathon two-plus hours debut of their Southern Rock Opera
  • The Cowslingers’ cigarette piñata
  • Big Top and the Golden Power Twins contortionist act: How could you forget that?
  • Elvis stylist/ interpreter Renelvis in the Carolina Sports Bar lounge
  • D’Lana Tunnell and Kelly Ball doing their burlesque performances while SCOTS was setting up
  • Of course, the first King and Queen of Sleazefest competition in 1996, bumper stickers and all
  • Audio Webcasting in 1998. We were ahead of the curve.
  • All the behind the scene stuff that I probably shouldn’t talk about
  • And, of course, Dave Robertson ending every Sleazefest with his rendition of “Danny Boy”

    –Tony Madejczyk