For many in the Charlotte music community, Neal "MF" Harper goes along with The Milestone as much as the graffiti that covers the walls inside it. Hearing that Harper is getting ready to hand the keys over is going to come as a shock. But Harper knows he's leaving the club in capable hands — those of Milestone bartender Jonathan Hughes ... and that it's just time to move on.
Harper has been running The Milestone for the last six years with help from the venue's booking agent, Philip Shive. The two reopened the Tuckaseegee Road club in 2004 and brought it back to being a household name.
"We've been talking about this for a long time, and the time is finally here," Harper says. "We're just as solemn as we are excited. I accomplished what I wanted to at The Milestone. It's the closing of one book and the opening of another."
Harper, who got married on Oct. 31, told his bride that at this time next year, they'll be packed and ready to move to Costa Rica. Harper, who first worked at the club at age 15, says he has told Hughes he'll always be a phone call away whenever Hughes needs advice. Harper plans to spend more time performing with his band, 2013 Wolves, as well. Shive, who will continue to book acts at The Milestone and other venues, plans to explore an idea for a new music venue in town.
"What sets it apart as a venue is that it's part of this universal brotherhood of rock 'n' roll," Shive says. "I let bands stay over, feed them and get them gigs in other cities. You just get to meet and become friends with so many bands through doing this. We just keep saying, 'if it's not fun, it's not worth continuing.'"
As for the plans Hughes has, he wants it to basically stay the same. "Maybe a little cleaner," he says via e-mail. "I love the Milestone for what it is... but I also believe there's a potential that hasn't been reached ... but I feel like as long as we follow the 'by musicians, for musicians' mentality that we have over the last six years since Neal took over we should do just fine. I've worked for him for 3 years now (maybe more?) ... I learned from the best. The Milestone will continue to be the best."
Over drinks, Harper and Shive, who also run a label called Afterbirth Casserole, share stories about the club's biggest fight, meeting the neighborhood's drug dealers, how in the six years there were only seven car break-ins and how Harper spent two years living at the club. They also discuss their start as the Queen City Underground.
"There was no doubt the odds were stacked against us. I had to borrow money to open that place and put in plenty of my own money into it this year," Harper says of The Milestone. "We always made sure the bands got paid, even if we didn't have money for anything else."
The main point they want to get across is that while the venue is changing ownership, the song will remain the same.
"Things happen with businesses that a lot of people don't understand," Harper says. "After 'Penguin-gate,' we knew we wanted to come out and let people know about the changes. We love the people that will be running it."
To celebrate the "end of an era," Harper and Shive are holding the Inaugural CasseroleFest on Nov. 16-21. The event will feature the reopening of the patio, bands, giveaways, classic merchandise and more. Find out more information at www.themilestoneclub.com.