“I cared about live music and knew nothing about the bar business. I was just doing something that I loved and trying to make it,” Charleston Pour House owner Alex Harris said of his auspicious 2002 takeover of the establishment formerly called Pour House Restaurant & Pub.
The original West Ashley site of the modest operation migrated after a few years to its current James Island location off Maybank Highway with Harris’ reimagined Pour House concept.
Along the way, Vanessa Harris (Alex’s now wife) joined Alex in this endeavor, and together they crafted a bold mission statement outlining their desire to cultivate a regional epicenter for music lovers, artists of various mediums and other like-minded individuals.
Looking around the venue after 20 years in operation, it’s remarkable to see the sort of community the Harrises carefully created and maintained.
Besides offering live music nightly, PoHo regularly hosts markets, yoga sessions, mural competitions and plenty of kid-friendly programming. And of course, there is the insanely popular weekly Wednesday residency that Grateful Dead tribute act The Reckoning began at Pour House in 2010.
“There is a definite sense that a lot of time, thought and money are put towards the quality of sound and the overall experience of seeing a band there,” The Reckoning’s vocalist/bassist Bobby Hogg said of his long-running relationship with the PoHo team. “They are constantly making improvements, tweaking the PA, updating and buying new gear — basically taking all kinds of steps to ensure that they are providing the best experience.”
Genuine appreciation for PoHo is common among musicians of all backgrounds.
“It feels like my home away from home,” Umphrey’s McGee founding member Ryan Stasik told City Paper. “The [Harrises] basically fostered the beginning of [Charleston-based synthwave project] Doom Flamingo by allowing us to play, rehearse, record and almost live there.”
Stasik has performed in the space with Everyone Orchestra, OUKUO, Ross Bogan & Friends, Little Stranger, Pedal Flex and a few others.
“I also saw Sturgill Simpson play there once on a Wednesday before he blew up,” Stasik said. “It was epic. I love the PoHo.”
Mike Quinn, arguably the Lowcountry’s hardest working sax man, shares the sentiment.
“I can’t tell you how many venues I’ve walked into as an artist that feel impersonal or even standoff-ish,” Quinn said.
“There is nothing worse than feeling like you don’t belong somewhere, especially when you are the entertainment for the evening,” he said. “By contrast, the Pour House is the epitome of a grassroots family business, and I truly feel like a part of that family. I’m pretty sure just about every artist and patron that walks through those doors feels the same.”
Quinn’s presence is frequently felt at PoHo through his ongoing work with groups such as Doom Flamingo, Motown Throwdown and The Fake News.
“The list of acts I have joined on that stage would be hilariously long,” he said.
Notably, Quinn has also turned up at PoHo to support Colorado-based blues rocker Andy Frasco whenever he needed local musicians to back him up.
“There really is no place like it,” Frasco said of his many visits. “I feel like every time I play the Pour House it’s like going to Thanksgiving dinner but instead of fighting about politics, we’re all preoccupied with getting drunk and laughing and smiling together.”
The venue built a reputation as a safe, nurturing space for up-and-coming acts from the Charleston area and beyond. Along with Doom Flamingo, alternative acts Shovels & Rope and Easy Honey have also been welcomed in and given the freedom to grow into their full potential at PoHo.
“The Pour House was the first venue we befriended when we moved here,” Easy Honey’s co-frontman Selby Austin said. “The level of community is through the roof and they are equally welcoming to artists just starting out as well as legendary figures. I mean, where else could we be soundchecking on the stage inside and watching Phil Lesh tell someone to fuck off before he preps to play with his son’s band on the deck?”
It’s little wonder that nonprofessionals hold the place in such high regard, too.
“For me, seeing live music is about having joy brought into the room,” widely-traveled music fan and local bartender Jim Torykian said. “It’s cliche, but the vibe of the room is infectious.”
Torykian’s many treasured PoHo memories include seeing music legend Leon Russell perform while Bill Murray danced two feet away from him and witnessing Andy Frasco turning the place into “a drunken Bar Mitzvah.”
“Probably my all-time favorite PoHo moment, though, was seeing my son play on the deck stage at his guitar teacher’s wedding in front of a few hundred people, including professional musicians,” Torykian said. “I think that was a prime example of the main thing that makes it so special out there: Everyone is egoless and typically supportive, no matter the level of talent.”
Keeping any business afloat for 20 years is reason enough to celebrate. Yet, even with all the exciting birthday festivities planned, the real plan is to keep on keepin’ on.
“All we can do is evolve with the times,’’ Vanessa said. “We have a great team and we are always evaluating how we can improve. For me, success is measured by keeping the doors open and creating a dynamic work environment that is beneficial for everyone that has a hand in it. My hope for the future is just more of the same. That’s really all we’ve ever hoped for.”
Pour House 20th anniversary concerts take place Aug. 27 and Sept. 1-4. For tickets and info visit charlestonpourhouse.com.
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