High-end Charlotte music club is full of big surprises

Music With Friends
October 2, 2015

By Theoden Janes

Posted October 2, 2015

When the server at Davidson red-hotspot Kindred asked me what I wanted to drink last Saturday, I took one look at the cocktail menu and went the adventuresome route.

“Barkeep’s Choice,” I told her.

The idea is simple: Indicate what kind of spirit you want the drink to be built around and how you want it to sit on your tongue (i.e. sweet, sour, etc.), then wait for your $12 surprise to arrive.

In a sense, this is the same basic concept that propels Music With Friends, a private club that promises its members three concerts per year headlined by mystery guests who virtually always turn out to be highly respected veteran artists; the difference is, the cost of the surprise is a whole lot higher than $12.

But if you have classic musical tastes (Taylor Swift fans need not apply), a go-with-the-flow attitude, and pockets deep enough, the payoff can also be a whole different kind of intoxicating.

I wrote about Music With Friends for the Observer in December 2012, and since then, it has continued to book names that resonate loudly with baby boomers and younger Gen Xers: the Doobie Brothers, Willie Nelson, Steve Miller, Heart, Foreigner, Michael Bolton, Steve Winwood, Chicago and – just this past Monday night – Joe Walsh of the Eagles.

Music With Friends brings them to Spirit Square’s tiny McGlohon Theater, which seats just 700 people and is arguably Charlotte’s most acoustically pristine venue; it plies you with all the free Porcupine Provisions catering you can eat and a wide-open bar for the 90 minutes before showtime; and then keeps the party going with more free drinks and snacks afterward, often at nearby Blue Restaurant.

My two experiences with Music With Friends have both involved Eagles – Walsh this past week and Glenn Frey back in 2012.

The vibe is unchanged. The crowd looks the same, full of aging, affable, affluent folks. The setup for the pre-show party inside Spirit Square was a carbon copy of the previous one, down to the piles of tenderloin sandwiches and crab claws.

Upon pressing club founder Larry Farber after Walsh’s concert to come up with examples of how the club might evolve in the future, he struggled a little. “I think what I might do next year ... to keep it fun is do the three post-parties all in different locations, so that it feels different.”

Translation: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In fact, in the surest sign that Music With Friends is a stroke of genius, Farber has brought additional locations of the club – founded here in 2007 – to Charleston (opened in 2011 with Diana Ross), Nashville (opened in 2013 with Diana Ross) and Houston (2014, Tony Bennett). Farber says he and his partners are working on Dallas as a possible fifth city.

Still, if you think about it, it’s an unlikely success story. Who would have thought so many people would buy into a high-end club that leaves so much to chance?

Members can make requests for artists, but this isn’t a radio station; ultimately, Farber books the shows. And if you don’t like who he gets? Sorry, no refunds.

This makes Music With Friends an unprecedented type of season ticket. Although Carolina Panthers PSL seat holders have no guarantee Cam Newton won’t get injured or traded, they pretty much know what they’re getting into. With the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s “Broadway Lights Series,” annual subscribers can opt out if they don’t like the looks of the forthcoming lineup.

But for us adventuresome types, part of the thrill is the element of surprise. And even if we don’t love what we ultimately get, we can socialize over it with the people sharing in the experience, and tell stories about it afterward to those who weren’t there.

Of course, we can only gamble as much as we can afford. For me, that’s $12 on a mystery cocktail in Davidson. The cost to join Music With Friends?

Sorry to keep you in suspense, but it seems fitting to close with a surprise: Membership is $1,650 annually, with a one-time seat fee of $500.