If you’re interested in live music while visiting Wilmington and its island beaches, there are a variety of venues that welcome nationally touring acts big and small—from Greenfield Lake Amphitheater to The Whiskey, Satellite Bar & Lounge and Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern, to name a few. Plus, local breweries frequently host live music.
For those curious to discover homegrown music, Wilmington has a lengthy catalog. As a journalist, I’ve covered music since 2004 and I am still taken aback at the wealth created here. On average, bands, singer-songwriters, and performers release 50 albums each year—that’s plenty of original material for a small, coastal city with a population around 125,000 (and growing). Also noteworthy is the fact that Wilmington’s local music spans many genres—rock, country, hip hop, Americana, metal, noise, electronic, indie rock, prog rock, jam band, reggae, reggae rock, jazz, great singer-songwriters and bands that tour heavily outside of town (ASG, Hank Barbee, Weedeater, Groove Fetish, Toke, He is Legend).
Below is an illustrative list of local bands and musicians—a sampling of acts—that are active in the community playing shows (with links to check out their websites for dates and venues), as well as other artists for further listening. With so much happening, lots of bands tend to slip under the radar of the general public and press coverage. The term “music scene” isn’t one I’m fond of, perhaps because it somehow sets up a border. Wilmington offers a highly creative music community; one need only to lend an ear. All are welcome.
Extensive as the list may seem, it doesn’t begin to cover everything that’s come and gone, especially looking at the last five years alone. Dig in and enjoy!
Newer band The Caroliners has a country-meets-70s rock sound on a solid debut album released this year. Led by Mark Jackson, the singer-guitarist writes with a sense of humor, coupling songs with colorful guitar playing and sing-along with titles like “Butter Up My Biscuit” and “Words My Momma Said.” As a full band or as duo, the songs deliver in different ways.
Travis Shallow’s music, whether performing solo or with his band The Deep End, is personalized by soulful, raspy singing and whose sound is soaked in intimate, colorful, and careful sounding music. Shallow’s albums can be elegant and haunted—a mix of country, rock, and gospel where lyricism takes observations and creates songs in which you can feel the weight and sincerity.
L Shape Lot distills a bevy of sounds—bluegrass, country, and rock—into something more than simply Americana. It’s salt of the earth music that’s fun, earnest, and leveled at audiences with Eric Miller’s hearty vocals and Alex Lanier’s classic guitar-meets-southern roots sound.
Further listening: Striking Copper, The Midatlantic, The Clams, Driskill, Tumbleweed, Chris Frisina
Randy McQuay’s unique, wonderful voice feels right at home with acoustic blues—whiskey-and honey-soaked, powerful, and friendly. Just the same, McQuay’s singing ability can venture elsewhere with smoldering results (R&B, soul, country). McQuay won first place at the 2015 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. Since then he’s released albums like Solo, My Kind of Blues, and a holiday collection.
Further listening: RC and the Moonpie Band, Polar Bear Blues Band, Mike Wolfe, Jason D. Thompson
Into the Fog, just two years into their career, the band has seen membership shake-ups, performed at the famed Telluride Music Festival, and was the subject of a documentary by Mason Godwin that followed the then six-month-old group to Telluride. Now a trio, Into the Fog has refined their sound into something fierce on a debut album where bluegrass songs are injected with country, rock and roll, and a little gypsy fever.
Folkstone Stringband is one of the busiest local acts, playing breweries, festivals, restaurants, private gigs, venues, you name it. They offer a mix of original and old-time favorite songs, sometimes re-tuned for family events and with new lyrics. Band member Jones Smith has been a constant in local acts, playing (and often on his upright bass) with the likes of The Ratchet Bros., Rong, Da Howlies, The Phantom Playboys, and more.
Further listening: Massive Grass, The Barnraisers, End of the Line
On her debut My Hurricane, Monica Jane showcased a carefree, smooth delivery. With 2019’s Wildfire EP her sweet and raspy singing is defined by a classic sound meshed with a smart sense of pop song craft on songs like “Dear Dignity” and “Wildfire.”
Justin Cody Fox released a solo album (Go Down Swinging) in 2017 that combined his power as a guitar player and singer with a new direction venturing into country music. He’s still a rock-and-roller and blues player at heart, and his 2019 release Living Ghosts combines all three styles distilled into something heartfelt and memorable.
Further listening: Madonna Nash, The Dew Drops
Phyphr is the music project of Nick Locke that is pleasantly schizophrenic at times. It’s bass-heavy, boasts interesting samples, features twinges of reggae and disco and is largely injected with blues guitar playing (see this year’s Soul EQ release).
Producer and DJ Rene (Rene Plowden) started with a beats compilation (Knockout) and released the Expose Mystique EP last year. Its tracks came off as lush tapestry—synth, ambient, hip hop, even shades of swing composer Les Baxter. The laid-back songs feel like scenery—different temperatures and seductive moods. His latest, Floral Fauna, continues with a larger palette that excites and relaxes simultaneously.
Further listening: Stranger Dance, Nicolay, Most Golden, Libraries
Beta Radio is a band (its heart is Ben Mabry and Brent Holloman) that, with each album, keeps searching and refining a sound. Mabry is one of the finest, most interesting singers in the area, and with Holloman they diligently craft music that reveals more with each listen. The alt-folk musicians recalibrate with each album and last year’s Ancient Transmission couldn’t have been further from the pop song craft and accessibility of their debut. They made a layered album that seems stealthier, and politely distanced, to draw you in.
Justin Lacy might be the mad scientist of musicians when it comes to local players, making artful, melodic, alt-folk music that challenges and entertains but leaves a smile in your mind. He’ll perform solo or with a 10-member band depending on the show, culling songs from wonderfully layered albums (Control Burn) that are eclectic, tender, epic, colorful, and a sonic journey to be sure.
Stray Local has seen its share of evolution over the years and all for the best. This is a band (at the heart is duo Hannah Lomas and Jamie Rowen) that will change their sound into different shades of their initial old-time, Americana-meets-folk sound that early on could be heard on the sidewalks of downtown Wilmington. Album to album they’ve mutated, sometimes more colorful, sometimes more challenging, but it just keeps getting better. They essentially became a new band with last year’s Passenger which really broke their mold. Working with Lee Hester (Beta Radio) using atypical recording techniques, they created something immersive - a mix of soundscapes, styles oscillating between intimate or grand, and Lomas and Rowen using their instruments in a manner that engaged but were steadfastly outside the box.
Further listening: Darian Rodriguez, Thom Kunz, Unity
Hard Rock / Heavy Metal
This is more incongruent than it sounds, with bands taking a traditionally heavy sound and injecting it with other flavors—southern rock, stoner rock, metal, alt-rock, soaring melodies, instrumental-only songs, and more. In short, it’s a genre with endless branches. The area has seen its share of heavy metal (Salvacion, Children of the Reptile, Red Scare) and sludge/stoner rock (Weedeater, Toke, ASG) and further offshoots like the soaring Wildlights album few people got to hear and should.
It doesn’t get more high wire than Thunderlip, a band fifteen years in and whose music never loses the energy and the reckless abandon of playing full-tilt rock and roll. Doused with shades of punk, classic metal and rock and roll, the band has put on so many memorable shows with catchy, explosive material and animated singer Chuck Krueger is someone a crowd is always happy to cheer on.
Bandolero recently released a great, hard driving self-titled debut album that sounds like ZZ Top and Black Sabbath decided to groove together on material. Produced by Ian Millard, it’s ear candy with ideas to burn—from blistering songs to slower, stripped down, intimate songs.
Exploding Math Lab is a blender mix of gnarly grooves, psychedelic atmosphere, and cool vocals paired with bluesy guitar breakdowns. The result is something gritty, and infectious (perfect for blazing down the highway). It is caustic, left-of-field rock whose sound unfurls with garage band energy and a crash-and-burn persona. If the end of the world needed a soundtrack, this would be fitting (and fun) for falling into oblivion.
Further listening: Medusa Stone, Loose Jets, The Needles, Break the Skyline, Weedeater, Salvación, Children of the Reptile, Toke, ASG, He is Legend
Instrumental music collective Beats & Coffee creates showcases where producers and beat makers can perform music ranging from electronic to jazz, hip hop, and ambient, almost anywhere – local breweries, art shows, and music venues. Each year B&C produces mixtapes of vibrant and eclectic work created by artists such as ALLIN, Rene, Rizzybeats, Fuzz Jaxx, and more, perfect to sit back and relax, or dream to.
MindsOne has worked with different producers (Belgium’s DJ Iron, Kev Brown) on albums, continually creating something fresh and positive. For Pillars, and later, Phaseology the group augmented its boom-bap sound with old school scratching, jazz piano, dusty beats, memorable melodies, and deft sampling. They are currently finishing songs for a new album.
Further listening: Temple5, The Coastal Collective, The Jared Show, LST.1NE
Team Player’s music echoes the earthiness of 90s college rock and 00s alt-rock. Landing in the middle, it’s an exciting, heartfelt combination that makes for rollicking, cheerful material. Just a year old, the band was recently asked to open for The Love Language, released a second EP, and has garnered attention from fans and press alike. There’s a simple reason, they make fun music and are friendly offstage as on.
D&D Sluggers are in a league of their own. Their sound is a hefty mix of R&B, garage rock, pop, dance, electronic, chiptune, hip hop, and synth. The one-man band of Tim White delivers ear candy on songs about video games, relationships, Johnny Depp, and this year saw a release (Prologue) of solid, atmospheric instrumentals.
A Bottle Volcanic is the dark side of indie rock, the powerful result of artful and caustic experimental sounding music. Built on atmospheric and combative song structuring, there’s beauty in the chaos of it all, particularly on the Weird Magic album where Mike Edwards’ vocals are haunting, enticing, and achingly soulful.
Further listening: The Male Men, Tennis Elbow, Pet Names, Poorly Knit
Jam bands in town, like the genre itself, are sometimes evolving creatures. Dubtown Cosmonauts, born out of another great band called Sci Fi, put on a solid show, transcending the genre by incorporating electronica, trance, and rock influences. Groove Fetish makes soulful, strolling music and whose sound is filled with friendly melodies and Clay Crotts’ hearty, graveled singing.
Saxophonist Benny Hill has been a mainstay in Wilmington, graduating from UNCW and Northern Illinois University, and performing classical and popular jazz locally and abroad. Hill puts on the Jazz Jam at Burnt Mill Creek every Sunday. Café Nouveau performs music reminiscent of the hot club jazz of France while The Swing Shifters offers a mix of swing and gypsy jazz. The Dirty White Rags are a mix of jazz and blues, led by Callan Trippe’s smoky, raspy vocals. James Jarvis has been a fixture in downtown Wilmington, whether playing at a restaurant or family-owned bookstore. In August and throughout the fall he’ll be at Bottega, delivering a mix of jazz piano and ambient rich music. And lastly, the annual N.C. Jazz Festival continues to welcome a dynamic range of national performers. It will celebrate its 40th event in January 2020.
Further listening: Jude Eden
Clouds Make Shapes is the music project of Mark Eaton, a self-described “filmmaker who makes music.” His first album one is a collection of songs incorporating a number of styles – manic funk, R&B, and cutting atmosphere. Self-taught and driven, Eaton was inspired by orchestration, video game soundtracks, and anything atypical, wanting to be more than just another rock band.
Post-rock trio Waul delivered a powerful debut in 2015 of crushing, epic, and emotionally driven instrumental music (Esmerelda). They followed with last year’s 7 Cedars, a risky second album live-tracked in a cabin outside of town. The result is another strident album with sounds of nature and piano incorporated into material that at times runs as long as 10 minutes.
Further Listening: Virgin Lung, Youth League, The Title Ceremony, Pretend Surprise, Unholy Tongues
Zodiac Panthers are the husband and wife duo of Johnny and Angela Yeagher. Together they play a blistering, catchy mix of punk rock and roll. They’ve been part of several bands in town (The Luvrs, Ironhead, Thunderlip) but this iteration has stuck around, seeing their songs released on an independent label and opening for national touring acts at Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern, perhaps the best place to catch a variety of music.
The Girls are a trio whose 70s punk music influences and wild energy take music to invasive, scorching heights. Songs are brief and gritty yet catchy—simple ideas that become larger than life via JP Verardi’s gut-punching vocals and blazing guitar riffs. They frequently play shows at Gravity Records, bringing an energetic, enthusiastic crowd.
Slomo Dingo is two albums in and still having fun as a gnarly punk rock band that didn’t intentionally set out to be one. Evolving their sound, the band knows how to write a great song, like barnburner “Just Wanna Be Happy.” Their range of sounds (and influences) allows them the flexibility to share the bill with a variety of bands.
Further listening: Street Clones, Museum Mouth, The Dielectrics
Amani Smith & The Give Thanks Band. Smith has been playing since the early 90s, backed or recorded with the likes of Edge Michael, Culture, The Itals, and HR of Bad Brains and more. The singer and guitarist poured his life experiences into his last album Songs from the Film of Life.
A long-running act in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, Selah Dubb has been around since the early 90s, playing roots-rich music married with funk, dancehall, and rock. Positive vibes and uplifting music, led by the honey-growled voice of Mark Evangelist, the band’s sound is perfect performed on the pier or in a club.
Signal Fire is a reggae rock band taking a laid back approach to positive, rootsy music. The band just released their third album Wake Up and new song “Get it Together” is radio-ready, a relatable and catchy tune about staying with a playful, bouncing quality that reminds us to be thankful for what we have. And that keyboard playing will stay with you.
Further listening: D.H.I.M., Zion Rootz
Rockabilly & Ska
The Phantom Playboys play rockabilly with a dynamic sound and multiple singers. Southern Culture on the Skids’ Rick Miller produced both of their albums which showcase a range of material inspired by old horror movies, a sense of humor, music history, booze. Laced with horn playing, the songs are country-tinged or just unfurl like a muscle car blazing down the highway.
Jake Horton leads trio Slippery Jake & The Bad Brakes, self-described as “raunch-a-billy,” playing a retro sound that combines rockabilly, blues, and surf guitar rock and roll.
For two decades The Madd Hatters has delivered a party-minded and potently fun combination of ska and punk on albums like 2006’s Just Another Day and more punk injected Burnout Rd.
Perhaps the most prolific of genres, the singer-songwriter category has seen its share of great voices over the years. If there’s a pattern in those listed below it’s the immediacy and sincerity of their singing. It hits just right, gets in you, and reflects you in some way.
There’s something rare about the way Jesse Stockton sings. His timbre, that strain in his voice, it reflects the beauty and weariness in all of us. Much of his music sounds more at home in the 70s than today—think James Taylor meets Shannon Hoon. His debut Thank You Very Kindly hooks you quickly but No Hope for Humanity with a band (Dream Machine) was probably my favorite album in 2017. It’s wonderfully all over the place, Stockton and the band exploring on bittersweet gems, folky ragers, radio ready numbers, and taking experimental paths.
Introspection and heartfelt lyricism bolsters Jared Cline’s layered music. Blending R&B, country, soul, and pop together against his husky, soulful voice is inviting. Cline stays busy around town between solo shows and performing with rapper Jared Sales at Burnt Mill Creek for The Jared Show.
Whether solo, in a band (The Umphs), or performing with others (Brown Widow, goldielux), Emma Nelson is splendid. Her stellar, individual voice is unforgettable because when she sings it personifies much—grit, soul, beauty, and pain. Nelson could probably fit within most genres but the songs she creates cut deep with a ragged beauty that makes them ageless.
Further listening: Sean Thomas Gerard, Patrick Carr, Jason Andre, Andy Bilinski, Rebekah Todd, David Dixon, Brad Heller, Hank Barbee, Kyle Lindley, Rob Ronner