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Fulltime Milestone 

Queen City Underground crew takes over storied venue, seeks return to glory days

Neal Harper adjusts the controls on the soundboard at Charlotte's storied Milestone Club, an ear-to-ear grin plastered across his 24-year-old face. Ryan Westbrook, 23, pulls the tabs on a pair of $1.25 PBRs and extends them across the bar, looking as though he's just won the lottery. Philip Shive, 22, cheerfully greets a modest but enthusiastic Thursday night crowd at the box office, offering them admission wristbands for their $5 entrance fee.

This is what it's like to have a dream come true.

Harper and Westbrook, co-founders of Solid Gold Empire productions, played the Milestone's intimate stage as teenagers in the mid-90s, developing a serious crush on its history-soaked and graffiti-covered walls. It also inspired them in recent years to open their own venue, using the then-mostly dormant Milestone as their blueprint: An inexpensive, no-bullshit, crowd-in-your-face room for touring acts and a venue for beginning bands to cut their teeth.

That was the guiding philosophy behind their new club, Queen City Underground, which got its start eight months ago. But after encountering issues at two other venues, Harper and Westbrook found themselves returning to their roots.

"We always hoped since we were kids to get this place, it just never seemed practical, and we never thought we'd be this successful," with Queen City Underground, says Harper. "Nothing else looked as good as the Milestone."

Queen City Underground began life on Mint Street earlier this year. But the relationship didn't last long once they discovered that they shared space with not just one tenant, as they'd been led to believe, but several, including a church. Within two months QCU was moving.

"It was one of those churches that meet everyday, too," says Westbrook. "So it was basically a mutual agreement -- (the other tenants) wanted us out, and we wanted to get out."

Harper, Westbrook and Shive, who books the club's acts through his Afterbirth Casserole Booking & Promotions, then rented space with developer Noah Lazes in the 4th Ward, and Queen City Underground really began to take shape. But after over four months of incident-free shows, the police were called by someone claiming the club was selling beer to under-age minors (the club didn't sell beer at all). Police and fire marshal visits became the norm, and eventually Queen City Underground was found to be in violation of the city's now-infamous rave (or dancehall) ordinance. The owners began looking elsewhere, taking up temporary residence at their "foster home," SK Net Cafe.

But while they decided whether or not to even pursue the months-long, $700 application-fee process, Harper and Westbrook knew where they really wanted to be.

"When we got the first Queen City Underground on Mint Street, I came over and asked (Milestone owner Bill Flowers) for advice," Harper says, "and he tried to pitch it to me then."

Now the problem was how to come up with $30,000 for a five-year contract for the rights to become The World Famous Milestone Corporation. It turns out they found another investor in Harper's father, Tom, and after a nervous day (with shows booked at the Milestone that night) spent waiting for the checks to clear, the deal went through. While Flowers maintains ownership of the physical building, Queen City Underground finally had a home.

"I had a chance to sell it several times to different types of music, and I held out until I got someone that could just carry it another step," says Flowers, 63. "I believe it'll be a labor of love type thing with Neal and Ryan instead of just a commercial type thing -- that's 99 percent of the main reason I sold it to them."

Flowers bought the building at 3400 Tuckaseegee Road in 1969, and has a list of memories any club owner would be proud of. There's REM's first appearance in Charlotte in front of "about 18 people" (they slept on the stage) in January of 1981, and their last show at The Milestone (four months later), when "you couldn't park within two blocks," Flowers says. The Go-Gos played there, as did the Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, Swervedriver and D.O.A. Flowers remembers spending 45 minutes in the parking lot discussing Buddhist concepts with the "skinny kid" who sang for the group Nirvana, which played to a small crowd that night. Then there was the night he was arrested for violating the room's 170-person capacity during a Black Flag show.

Penny Craver ran the Milestone in the early 90s, but after she left (eventually moving to Tremont Music Hall), the club began yet another fallow period. In the last few years, only one or two shows a year were held just to keep the permits valid, and the Milestone had fallen from the city's venue radar. Harper and Westbrook saw an opportunity to change that.

"There's like four generations of kids that have come through this building. We were just the last ones to come through, and then it pretty much fizzled out," Harper says. "Now we're going to run shows six nights a week, and give a lot of bands who don't have a place to play a venue."

David Childers played the Milestone in the mid-80s with Gutwrench, his "first experience playing with a rock and roll band," he says. Twenty years later, Childers and the Modern Don Juans were one of the first local bands back on the stage last week.

"The main thing to me about the Milestone is that it is just raw fun. That's what floored me last night," Childers says via e-mail. "It feels like Halloween to me in there -- just so much goofy fun in a place that transcends ordinary time and space. There are ghosts all over the place."

Harper, Westbrook and Shive hope to add to that historical roster.

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