Sunday, March 23, 2014

HRO — A special place

There once was a time when you could go to High Rock Outfitters and buy a kayak, some outdoor gear, perhaps a T-shirt or two, and maybe get some friendly advice from the owners about where to use this stuff while indulging in a calm cup of coffee.

But the unlikely business on the southwest quadrant of the square in Uptown Lexington has quietly — and efficiently — transformed itself into a miniature artist colony since it first opened at its present location at the White Star building in 2010 (see here for an early history of HRO).

Instead of backpacks and kayaks, original art by Chip Holton now hangs on the walls. There is a performance stage dotted by microphones and bordered by sound monitors and overhead lighting.  A corrugated metal wall serves as a curiously eye-pleasing backdrop. A hearty bar serves up craft beers and wine while huge display windows peer out onto Main Street and the Old Davidson County Courthouse across the way.

Welcome to Lexington's most unique gathering place where on any given weekend you can go to listen to high quality live music. Other evenings might feature open mic nights with local performers, or vinyl parties spinning old rock 'n roll records. There is ambiance here like nowhere else.

"Originally, when we laid it out, we were going to do music with a bar upstairs," said owner Chris Phelps. "But because of expense, we just merged it into one thing. It's definitely been an evolution. It's evolved completely differently than what we anticipated."

Owner Chris Phelps likes what he sees at High Rock Outfitters.
 Music came to HRO almost from the start. Bob Crawford, David Childers and the Over Mountain Men performed in December 2010 and things have rolled from there, slowly but happily for Lexington mutating the DNA of the place. "It went over well," said Phelps. "We had 80 or 90 people here and it made the front page of the paper the next day.

"That's kind of when people said, 'Whoa, what the hell are they doing up there?'"

While the focus is clearly on the music these days (and nights), Phelps still wants to keep the outfitter part of the business alive, too.

"We're trying to get back to an equal balance," said Phelps, a graduate of North Davidson. "Somehow, we're working through that right now.

"This whole place is a result of putting together all the things we like to do," said Phelps. "But you had to travel to do things like kayaking, backpacking or drinking good beer and listening to good music. And I had a really good job (in motorsports manufacturing) that I couldn't leave to do those things.

"So I thought I'd bring it here, and if it worked, fine, and if it didn't, that was OK, too."

Fortunately, it's worked out while bringing something completely different to Lexington.

 "That was part of the decision to do it, too," said Phelps, contemplatively stroking his lush, outdoorsman-inspired beard. "We wanted to move to a culture that we enjoy — loud music, good beer, outdoor activities. But we lived here, so why not just try to bring it here? And that's where all this came from."
Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of all this is the response he hears from the artists themselves. Almost every performer who comes through here respects what Phelps has done. The stage was constructed in August 2012 to put the performers on a pedestal as part of the Songcraft series.

Even moreso, the artists love the acoustics. Brick walls, a relatively low tin ceiling, the corrugated backdrop. It all adds up.

"The acoustics were a happy accident," said Phelps. "It's just a good room. But I think it's also a psychological thing. If the room is comfortable, then it's enjoyable for the people and the performers. I think, just by default, that adds to the acoustics. Audio engineers will tell me that I'm full of it, but I think the comfort of a room adds to everything."

He may be right. Many acts, like Dark Water Rising, Wild Ponies and Underhill Rose, keep coming back. On one night, Wild Ponies may be singing at Nashville's Loveless Cafe, and a week later show up at HRO. Underhill Rose does a gig at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, and a month later shows up at HRO. That says a lot.

Everybody who enjoys HRO seems to have found a comfort zone there. Not the least of which is Lexington itself.

Here's HRO's Facebook page:

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