Last Call with Ron Stodghill: The Best Concert You Never Saw
What money can buy: intimate nights with some of the biggest names in music
A FEW YEARS back, Hugh McColl stood in a parking lot behind his favorite Dilworth lunch spot and cast a suspicious eye at my car, an old white Mercedes. It was an awkward moment following our good meal and dialogue about all things Charlotte. “Those are mighty highfalutin wheels you got there,” the former chairman and CEO of Bank of America said. Then he pointed to an old pickup tattooed with bumper stickers. “That there is what I drive.”
The rich, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously mused, are very different than the rest of us. Down south, old money likes to play poor. But Larry Farber, the pianist turned booking agent, knows how the well-heeled in this town really roll. In 2006 and 2007, as Charlotte was falling into some hard economic times, Farber was quietly recruiting a royal court of music-loving one-percenters willing to drop a few thousand bucks to watch private performances at Spirit Square by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Bonnie Raitt, The Doobie Brothers, Diana Ross, and Earth Wind & Fire.
When I was growing up in Motown in the ’60s, the only live music I knew was the tap-tap-tap of my own sneaker on my grandma’s front porch as cars cruised by, their radios pumping soul into the night. I was a teenager when I heard my first live professional band, the Commodores, downtown at Joe Louis Arena. When lead singer Lionel Richie strode onstage in a shimmery jumpsuit crooning “Brick House,” with crystalline purity, my musical palette was forever changed.
Farber’s brainchild, known as Music With Friends, is a nouveau riche spin on such nostalgia. Farber surmised that Charlotte’s wealthy, Boomers mostly in their peak earning years, tend to avoid arena concerts; they’re too noisy, too crowded, and too, well, pedestrian. Farber’s Spirit Square soirees feel Gatsby inspired: Fashionable, festive elite laugh and chatter as white-jacketed waiters and bartenders ply them with premium booze and fancy appetizers, before they are whisked into a small theater where a superstar takes the stage and serenades them. After the show, there’s more food and more booze and more live music, this time by local bands. Sometimes, the night’s star reappears and mingles with guests (I have a snapshot of me and my wife with Aretha Franklin after her Music With Friends performance).
“This is by far the best thing I have ever done since I played my first note on the piano,” Farber tells me in his Dilworth office, as he pulls together an upcoming roster of artists that include Steve Winwood and Chicago. “When I take my final breath, I want people to remember me as a guy who made shows that otherwise would have never happened.”
I suppose most of us hope we leave this world having made some mark on it, and the 62-year-old Farber is building quite a legacy. Still, it’s unfortunate that the best work of one of Charlotte’s most important cultural forces happens in private. The brilliance of Farber’s vision in repurposing sleepy McGlohon Theatre—the 700-seat former Baptist sanctuary blessed with perfect acoustics for gifted singers and musicians—is, in the end, a spectacle that only the wealthiest Charlotteans will ever witness.
A Motown guy like me, of course, has a soft spot for anyone whose life’s goal and passion is to bring great music into this world. Farber is building a true music culture in Charlotte, even if it’s not for the masses. On some level, that’s a chorus with which we’re all familiar. As John Lennon once said: “For those of you in the cheap seats, I’d like ya to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry.”
In the below video, produced by InnerView Media, Ron talks to Larry Farber about Aretha Franklin.