World-Class acts do private shows - for 'Friends' only

November 30, 2012

By Theoden Janes

Posted on November 30, 2012 (Charlotte Observer)

It looks like just another fancy cocktail reception. A sea of guests is gathered inside Spirit Square, some crowding around tables piled with crab claws or tenderloin sandwiches, many juggling mixed drinks, men in sport coats, women in sparkling outfits.

The only distinguishing feature: a poster near the Seventh Street entrance, emblazoned with a photo of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey.

They’re gathered here on this early November evening because Frey’s here. And they were here last April because Aretha Franklin was here. And in 2011 for Bonnie Raitt. And for Diana Ross. And Crosby, Stills & Nash. And Steely Dan. And Jackson Browne.

So these aren’t run-of-the-mill fancy cocktail receptions. They’re better described as preludes to what would be the hottest tickets in town – if anyone else actually knew these artists were coming here, and that this club even existed.

The club is called Music With Friends, with the “Music” provided by the aforementioned musicians and others, and the “Friends” in the form of anyone willing to fork over $1,650 a year for three events, each built around an intimate concert at Spirit Square’s McGlohon Theatre.

Launched in 2007, Music With Friends now has almost 600 members. It won’t get much bigger. The McGlohon only seats 730, and founder Larry Farber has no plans to move to a larger space. After all, the former First Baptist Church was a key part of his original vision for the club.

“It creates intimacy and the acoustics are marvelous, it’s got the charisma and character of this beautiful old church, and when you combine that with these wonderful artists we’ve had, it makes this room come alive in a way that’s just remarkable,” Farber says of the theater, which is lined with rich-red velvet seats, accented by gorgeous stained-glass windows, and capped by a Byzantine dome.

Though 600 to 730 people sounds like a lot, it seems like only a little once the McGlohon is filled. The space is so small that someone could sail a paper airplane from the back to the front row without much effort; the stage covers slightly more square footage than the average Music With Friends member’s living room.

“(The artists) truly make eye contact with our members,” says Becky Mitchener, the club’s development and membership director. “It’s not just about looking into the lights and into the abyss.”

“Here, the seats that are farthest away,” Farber adds, “are as good as any.”

‘The cost is all relative’

Farber, 61, is a Charlotte native. He came up through Cotswold Elementary, McClintock Junior High, Myers Park High, and then graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1973.

His interest in music was born at age 12 when he started his first band as a piano player; he cut his teeth in business as an agent with Hit Attractions fresh out of college, and – beginning in 1986 – as a partner at East Coast Entertainment, which books, he says, “everything from weddings to country clubs to fairs and festivals.”

Then, in the mid-2000s, he had a dream: a private music club for friends, friends of friends, and those friends’ friends that would bring major nostalgia acts to his favorite venue in his beloved hometown.

Starting with about 50 couples, Farber launched in 2007 with Michael McDonald, then Gladys Knight, then Tony Bennett. The artists came and went with little public notice.

“We have never put an ad in the paper or a magazine,” Farber said. “This is a club based on referrals, and we want to keep it that way.”

That philosophy has worked. Today, the club’s membership includes Carolinas HealthCare CEO Michael Tarwater, Mercedes-Benz dealership owner Felix Sabates, former WSOC-TV news anchor Debi Faubion Attori and Wells Fargo executive Bob Bertges, the man who created the Levine Center for the Arts.

But anyone can join. You don’t have to be in an upper tax bracket. An Ivy League diploma is not required, and no one’s going to come to your house to confirm you have a three-car garage or marble countertops. All you need is that $1,650, plus a one-time seat fee of $500 (“like a PSL,” Farber says).

If it sounds pricey, it is. Then again, at three shows per year, it’s basically $550 per concert. That covers the cocktail reception (catered by Porcupine Provisions); a post-show party (the place varies, but after Frey it was Blue Restaurant & Bar); unlimited drinks; and valet parking.

By comparison, premium tickets to Madonna’s recent concert at Time Warner Cable Arena ran $381, and fans had to share her with 16,000 other people, not 600.

“I’d much rather be around people I know in a great setting, pay double that price, and know it’s going to be a wonderful event,” says Kim Saunders, 54, a mortgage consultant with Allen Tate Mortgage Services and a member for 31/2 years.

“The cost is all relative,” says Alex Funderburg, 49, managing director of Bank of America Leasing and a member for 21/2 years. “Some people spend their money on clothes, some on shoes, some on trips. We all have things that we’re willing to spend a few extra dollars on. For me, it’s this.”

An idea that’s catching on

Farber boasts that there’s nothing else like Music With Friends in the U.S., and Douglas Young – vice president of programming at Blumenthal Performing Arts, which rents the McGlohon to the club – suspects he’s right.

“It’s not that people don’t do private membership series,” says Young. “There are a lot of people who’ll do speaker series, in which you have to buy a full-year subscription but in terms of on the concert side, it is really unique to have something that is using pretty big-name artists.”

Each year, Farber schedules two shows in the spring and one in the fall, or one in the spring and two in the fall. Shows are always on weeknights, and typically end by 9:30 p.m.

“Every reason somebody might have for not wanting to join, we eliminated,” he says. “We don’t do anything on weekends because someone might have a wedding or something. We don’t do anything in the summer when people are traveling.”

The formula has worked, and the concept is spreading. Farber and his minority partners (Johnny Harris, David Rudolf, Steve Cummings and Clay Boardman) launched a second club in 2011 out of the historic Dock Street Theatre in Charleston; it has about 400 members and has welcomed many of the same artists as Charlotte, including Earth, Wind & Fire, Smokey Robinson and Frey.

Coming next fall: a third club, in Nashville, which plans to use a theater being built at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“We’re not opening 25 stores a year – this is a unique concept,” Farber says. “But if we open up one a year for the next few years, we’d be thrilled with that.”

‘You’re really in the band’

Music With Friends concerts have a lounge-y feel. Drinks can come into the theater. Here and there, people chat (sometimes a bit too loudly) in their seats. But mainly, the vibe is exceedingly upbeat. You can see lots of smiles, women clinging to their men (and vice-versa), fingers being tapped on armrests.

On this night, Frey performs for 90 unhurried minutes, telling stories between songs that take a few minutes, or cracking jokes with the audience – at one point, he says, “Excuse me for a sec,” grabs a tissue, then quips, “Someone has cocaine in the house because my nose is running. I thought that was over last century.” The crowd howls.

The singer caps the night with two encores, and Eagles hit “Take It to the Limit” has nearly all 600 people swaying and belting out the chorus.

“It’s a great concept,” Frey says to members at one point. “It’s been a lot of fun for us to play – I don’t want to say in a place this small. Let’s say in a place this intimate, where you can feel the band breathe and feel the music. You get in these big venues and I’m telling you, man, stuff is whipping all over the place and you’ve got your earpiece and you’re trying to drive it the best you can. But here, you feel like you’re really in the band.”

Even in the darkness, you can see Larry Farber in his balcony seat, smiling and nodding.