SMALL SCALE, LARGE EXPERIENCE

BY BILL THOMPSON

CurrentsArtsInsider71

Hearing top musical acts in an intimate setting adds layers of pleasure that arenas or large concert halls simply can’t match.

While teenagers and college kids flock to huge venues, in part for the spectacle of it, their elders want something a little less frantic and deafening, with minimal pyrotechnics but maximum musicianship.

While the small cabaret or cozy nightclub— if you can find one—remains a popular draw, you are not likely to see top-drawer performers there outside a major metro area.

Enter the Dock Street Theatre, and Music With Friends (MWF), apparently an idea whose time has come. Now in its seventh year in Charleston, this members-only series of three annual concerts attracts a wellheeled clientele whose demanding tastes require appropriately stellar talents, not to mention food and drink of a higher caliber.

Introduced in 2007 in Charlotte, North Carolina, by long-time booking agent Larry Farber, and now also operating in Nashville and Houston, the series expanded to the Holy City with a splash in 2010, featuring an inaugural performance by Diana Ross. Since then, the Dock Street and MWF have played host to such acts as the Doobie Brothers, Michael Bolton, Kenny Loggins and, most recently, The Temptations and The Four Tops (attended by much dancing in the aisles). Other cities have boasted the likes of Tony Bennett, Bonnie Raitt and Steve Winwood.

“I wanted to change the way people experienced music and where and how they would experience it,” says Farber, who styles MWF as a country club for music lovers. “I had grown up all my life hearing music in big venues and wanted to form a club where you could hear music in the most intimate possible way with your friends. It became about the entire experience, not just the music.”

The 450-seat Dock Street Theatre, like Charlotte’s McGlohon Theater before it, fits the bill precisely. “This is not a corporate environment. There are a million ways and places to hear entertainment. We are just something different. We don’t look at it as an experience just for the One Percenters. This is for anyone who wants to come and see these legendary artists they’d grown up hearing. The artists also can share their stories. It’s about enhancing the experience for the artists as well as the members.”

Not surprisingly, MWF carries a significant price tag: $500 to join and $550 per show ($1,650 for three). But Farber insists it represents good value. With gala receptions before and after each concert, MWF also means networking with friends, and accompanying many shows are fundraisers and auctions that give back to the community.

Farber has booked social events for 40 years and had enough credibility in the entertainment industry to attract top acts to his alternative approach. Ten years on, it’s talent agents who are calling him. Winning over local “movers and groovers” led to a growing clientele, and membership remains open.

First a member and now a sponsor and partner in the enterprise, car dealership mogul Tommy Baker is among MWF’s most enthusiastic proponents. “It’s great fun,” he says. “When you are at the Dock Street, regardless of where you’re seated, you are in a prime space. MWF members are drawn from a very select group and own a piece of it.”

Farber says he has surrounded himself with a production staff, caterers and marketing pros who have the events down to a science. It’s about paying close attention to every detail, including having doctors on call. But the venue is key.

“For me and my family, Charleston has always been a favorite destination,” Farber adds. “Of all the clubs, it is still the best experience.”

Bill Thompson writes about the arts, film and books.