The Sound of the Underground
Small music venues may be a dying breed, but independent music thrives at 123 Pleasant Street.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, The White Stripes, and even, oddly enough, 3 Doors Down—all have taken the stage at 123 Pleasant Street in downtown Morgantown. For decades, the venue has hosted bands big and small, with a soft spot for local and independent music.
The first thing many music lovers—whether hipsters, punks, or hard rockers—do when they move to a new town is claim a watering hole, preferably one with good music. For more than a decade now, people in the area have found that in 123. “It is the spot. It’s the one real venue in Morgantown,” says Chris Quattro, who’s played in a dozen bands since moving to Morgantown from Thomas as an 18-year-old in 1996. Now a member of local band, Bonfire, Chris says 123 has long been hallowed ground. He went his first week living in Morgantown. “I wanted to see what it was like to go to a rock club. I’d never been to one,” he says. “I suddenly found this place where there were people like me. It was called Nyabinghi at the time.”
Chris says 123 is the one place in town where, if someone wants to get up and hit a snare drum during open mic, they can, but that also hosts some of the best new, national music. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sonic Youth performed when the venue was known as The Underground Railroad in the ’80s, and, as 123, the club has been packed for shows like Clutch, The Clarks, Built to Spill, Lucero, and Girl Talk. “There have been so many memorable shows,” says owner L.J. Giuliani. “Anybody from the Derek Trucks Band to The Avett Brothers to Fugazi—so many different genres play here.”
L.J. says touring bands who stop at 123 are sometimes playing venues three and four times larger. “They look at 123 as a little oasis on their tours. The place is definitely unique, and they recognize that.” Not only is the venue intimate—its capacity is less than 300—but it’s also used the same, phenomenal sound company for nearly 30 years (Squirrel Sound).
Nearly every night, live music dominates the three-room building near the bottom of Pleasant Street. A sign outside lets foot traffic know what shows are coming up—from local to national bands like The Stonewall Jackson 5ive, Single Dads, The Demon Beat, and Dangermuffin. October 15 marks 13 years that the venue has been known as, simply, 123 Pleasant Street—having undergone major renovations in the late 1990s after being purchased by L.J., a Westover native and WVU grad.
The historical venue actually started out as Morgantown’s first major apartment building in the late 1800s before going through many incarnations and finally becoming a hub for music in the early 1980s. By the ’90s, the old building known then as The Nyabinghi Dance Hall had become seriously run down, with overloaded outlets, leaks, and holes in the walls. In 1998, city officials condemned the building and it was expected to be torn down. “For all the years I can remember, when I was a student in the late ’80s, I went there to see live music,” L.J. says. “I was a fan of live music and was friends with a lot of the local bands. When the place was condemned, I was at ground zero.”
At the time, L.J. had just started in the rental business and was familiar with renovating buildings. “I liked the idea of being able to preserve a local watering hole where I went and a lot of my friends went and where a lot of great bands had played,” L.J. says. “It was also nice to be part of something that breathed fresh air back into the scene.”
After six months of hard work, 123 opened to the public. The venue was rewired, the floor in the upper bar was torn up, and original tin ceiling and brick walls were exposed. The space is a work in progress, but 123 has not lost its appeal. The venue keeps a full schedule—everything from indie rock to dance music to bluegrass—and L.J. has no plans of losing that eclectic mix of music.
Chris says the venue has always had a great balance of local and touring bands. “They’ve always treated us fair. No matter what the quality of your music, the doors are always open—at least to giving you a shot.” Chris first took the stage at Pleasant Street in 1997. “It’s hard to believe how long it’s been and how young we were,” he says.
Even in a college town with a transient population, L.J. says more and more people come to call 123 their own. “When the building was condemned 13 years ago, I saw a lot of artists and patrons rally around the club and offer their help in any way. There was an outpouring of people who wanted to see the club re-open.”
L.J. says those same types of people exist today. “Over the years, more students come to love 123 and live music that they wouldn’t be exposed to anywhere else.”