Music spills from bars, restaurants and venues every night of the week across the Holy City. Songwriters night at Chico Feo. Sunday afternoon rhythm and blues and Monday night hip-hop at the Pour House. Jazz fusion concerts at Forte Jazz Lounge. Raucous rock shows at The Royal American. Alternative shows at Purple Buffalo and LO-Fi Brewing. Punk shows at Tin Roof. Funk shows at The Commodore. Southern rock and Americana jams at Awendaw Green.

“The most important musical event in Charleston history is the 96 WaveFest at Brittlebank Park featuring Screaming Trees, Matthew Sweet and Cracker,” said longtime deejay Jim “The Critic” Voigt of 105.5 The Bridge. “That proved Charleston was a viable concert destination for national touring bands in the decade to follow, which would explode musically.”

Yep, Charleston’s music scene over the last 25 years is nothing less than impressive. Here are some highlights:

By 1997, 96 WaveFest was bringing in acts like Hootie and the Blowfish, The Meat Puppets and Joan Osborne 

1993-1997: 96 WaveFest

Charleston alternative rock radio station WAVF “96 Wave” launched 96 WaveFest in 1993 and it continued every year through 1997. 96 WaveFest lineups included Drivin’ N Cryin’, CAKE, Wilco, Butthole Surfers, Joan Osborne, Semisonic, Ben Folds Five, David Byrne, Blue Dogs, 3 Doors Down, Stone Temple Pilots, Cowboy Mouth, 311, Puddle of Mudd and many more. 96 Wave radio was a fixture in the Lowcountry since 1985 before it met its demise in 2007.

1997: Keb Mo at Charleston Music Hall

After the Charleston Music Hall’s (CMH) resident big band cabaret-style show, “Serenade,” closed downtown, Rob Lamble’s Ear For Music booked five-time Grammy Award-winning blues musician Keb Mo to help promote the CMH’s stage. “We probably did 100 to 150 shows in there,” Lamble said. “Now Charles [Carmody] and his team have done a wonderful job of keeping the venue alive. It’s living and breathing. It’s one of the best places in town.”

2007-2008: ChazzFest 

In the wake of 96 WaveFest’s absence, Shoreline Productions and Fishbait Events put on ChazzFest in 2007 and 2008 at the Daniel Island’s Family Circle Tennis Center, now known as Credit One Stadium. ChazzFest included out-of-this-world performances by Al Green, Buddy Guy, Drive-By Truckers, Toots and the Maytals and Carrie Ann Hearst (pre-Shovels & Rope). 

2007: The closing of a blues club

Cumberland’s blues club, at its Cumberland and King street locations downtown, kept Charleston’s music pulse strong from the early 1990s up until it closed in 2007. Cumberland’s was a favorite watering hole for college kids and King Street food and bev folks. It’s going to be in the Holy City annals as a huge catalyst for local live music. 

Elise Testone (above) is locally known for her Amy Winehouse tribute shows | Photo by Michael Becker/FOX file photo

2012: Elise Testone on American Idol

Blues-rock singer Elise Testone practiced her craft in Charleston starting in 2006. When the soulful singer made it to the national spotlight on American Idol’s 11th season in 2012, it felt like a Lowcountry-wide win. She placed sixth in the competition after singing songs like Queen’s “I Want It All” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love.” While she no longer lives here, her musical career is still going strong.

2015: Ohm Radio 96.3 is first commercial-free radio station

Charleston’s first community commercial-free radio station, Ohm Radio 96.3, started in 2015. The independent, nonprofit radio station broadcasts locally produced programming to spotlight Holy City music, social issues and business. And where else do you go to hear classic Motown blended with an eclectic mix of funk, folk, disco, blues and rock? The go-to station turns 7 next week on August 1.

2015: Riverfront Park

Before the High Water Festival graced North Charleston’s Riverfront Park in 2017, it was already shakin’ with Rockin’ the River concert series in 2015 and 2016 with local acts The Dubplates and Jump Castle Riot. In 2015, the park hosted the Lipton “Be More” Tea Festival headlined by The Roots. Then Widespread Panic’s curation, Trondassa Music Festival, posted up in 2018 and 2019 featuring Sturgil Simpson, Big Something, Billy Strings
and Black Pumas. 

2016: Hearts & Plugs “Slave Baby” fiasco

Charleston independent music label Hearts & Plugs shared a racist caricature on Instagram in September 2016. The drawing pictured in the social media post referred to indie rock outfit Brave Baby as “Slave Baby” depicting a Black child on a chain with large lips and ears. Soon after the picture surfaced, artists signed to Hearts & Plugs left the label en masse and the brand dismantled. It wasn’t long before the formation of Southern Discomfort, a forum for Black artists to discuss their frustrations with racism in the Lowcountry music scene.

2016: Windjammer’s beach stage debuts

The Windjammer’s beach stage on Isle of Palms debuted in 2016 with a performance by worldwide sensation and Charleston’s own Darius Rucker. Then, Sister Hazel and Edwin McCain took to the stage in 2017 followed the next year by JJ Grey and Mofro, Whiskey Myers and Yonder Mountain String Band. More than a dozen 2019 shows featured bands from Moon Taxi to Drivin’ N Cryin.’ These days, ’Jammer’s beach stage is an institution. 

2019: Cultura Festival 

Charleston hip-hop artist Matt Monday’s Cultura Festival of hip-hop and R&B celebrated young Black culture in 2019 when lots of eyes were on the niche scene after some of its featured artists, Jah Jr. and Benny Starr, released well-received material. Cultura Fest at The Royal American marked a time of high-capacity Holy City hip-hop. 

2019: Benny Starr’s A Water Album

Benny Starr recorded his R&B-soul project,
A Water Album, in 2019 live at Charleston Music Hall, and his socio-political expression perfectly paralleled his artistic expression. A Water Album is seen as an emblem of Black music coming out of the South, winning the 2019 City Paper Music Award for Album of the Year. 

2020/2021: Music Farm closing and reopening

Charleston’s homegrown concert venue came to life in 1991 as a haven for gritty alt-rock outfits off East Bay Street before relocating to its current Ann Street location in 1993. Music Farm reopened April 15 this year with two nights of Susto after sitting vacant since the 2020 Covid-induced shutdown. City Paper reveled in the newly opened space for the 2022 Best of Charleston party that spilled out into the Farm’s alley and into Deco nightclub. The comfort it brings just seeing it lit up and bumpin’ again as you walk by is priceless in these strange times.

Ranky Tanky’s Good Time won a 2020 Grammy for best regional root album | Photo by Peter Frank Edwards

2020: Ranky Tanky wins a Grammy

The Lowcountry Gullah quintet took home the 2020 Grammy for best regional roots album for its 2019 LP Good Time. It was Ranky Tanky’s first nomination for a Grammy and the win came just two years after the band’s 2017 album, Ranky Tanky, peaked on the Billboard Jazz Charts at No. 1.

2020-2022: Live music fights for its life

Live streaming concerts lifted our spirits when the Covid virus severely impacted performance of local music. One concert that stands out is local synthwave sextext Doom Flamingo’s two-night live stream from the Pour House, “Po House in Yo House.” Outdoor venues Firefly Distillery and Woodlands Nature reserve sprang up out of necessity to meet social distancing demands and have since become staples in the scene. The best news: Live music is back in 2022, stronger than ever.

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