ConvergeNC organizers Libby Rodenbough and Gabe Chess weren’t certain there was going to be a year No. 3 for their music festival.
Year one, 2013, went well overall – though there weren’t enough generators for the food trucks. Still, the organizers, then both UNC undergrads, had spent long months trying to secure funding. They had to explain their vision to local businesses – a free, single-day, Southern music fest designed to appeal to both UNC students and Chapel Hill residents – and then ask for sponsorship. It was exhausting and it felt like begging.
Year two was more ambitious, with more days and venues, but there were logistical snags – most noticeably the double-booking of headliner Mipso (Rodenbough, ironically, is that band’s fiddler). The prep work still involved months of seeking sponsors.
This year, the organizers were simply too busy to go through all that again.
“The money part had been such a struggle in years past, and we still had not secured a big sponsor,” Rodenbough says. She’s crossing Kentucky in the Mipso tour van, Skyping from her laptop. Rodenbough graduated in May, and she’s been on the road with the band a good bit. Chess, who graduates this spring, hasn’t seen her in months. Yet, all things considered, the co-organizers seem remarkably relaxed. In year three – the year that almost didn’t happen – it seems they’ve finally hit their stride.
They saved the festival by scaling it back, moving it off-campus and working with just two sponsors. Word had spread about the glitches with the first two years, but year three only really happened because Rodenbough and Chess decided to do more with less.
“I think we realized that a concert was a lot more manageable than a festival,” Rodenbough says. Chess agrees. As much as he enjoyed expanding to a multiday fest in 2014 and having shows at the Morehead Planetarium and at Cat’s Cradle, there simply wasn’t time to organize anything of that scope. So they focused on one location – the plaza at 140 W. Franklin St. – and two bands: 10-strong Houston soul outfit The Suffers and an incarnation of Durham Americana outfit called the Dead Tongues, featuring members of area acts like Mandolin Orange and The Old Ceremony.
“I think in future years we’ll build out with more venues and more time, but it felt like an important pivot to leave campus physically so we could reach more people and be in a more visible area,” Chess says.
The ConvergeNC goal all along was to unite the often disparate communities of UNC students and Chapel Hill residents with music appealing to both sets. In 2013 and 2014, the festival center was an on-campus grassy area by the football stadium – it was a good concert space and familiar to students, but not necessarily on residents’ radar. The new location is, put simply, more visible.
“It’s kind of in the heart of Chapel Hill, and we’re going to close down Church Street so that it’s really walkable,” Rodenbough says.
The organizers’ ongoing efforts to make ConvergeNC appeal to both communities caught the attention of the Water in Our World steering committee, a group overseeing UNC’s campus-wide theme. They offered to sponsor the concert, with the Town of Chapel Hill’s Parks and Recreation department co-sponsoring.
“This festival has been a huge hit for students, especially, but the nature of the acts that perform tend to bring out a lot of people from the community,” says Stephen Barber, who works in the office of the UNC provost and provides extensive logistical support to the Water in Our World steering committee.
Passing the torch
ConvergeNC seemed a natural fit for the Water in Our World theme, he says, because water is a running theme in Southern music and culture. For similar thematic reasons, a concert like this is a logical bridge to the next campuswide theme – food. Barber says the committee had been trying to set up a similar event, and that conversations with artists and managers weren’t really going anywhere. The ConvergeNC organizers impressed them, though – it felt natural.
“A lot of the initial conversations seemed to flow very easily, so we felt really comfortable about supporting them and trying to make this as strong a partnership as possible,” Barber says.
For all they’ve learned in three years, Rodenbough and Chess will be passing the torch: she’ll give advisory support, but she’ll be on the road; he’ll take a job in Chicago after graduation and leave the state. It’ll take strong student leaders, Rodenbough says, to keep ConvergeNC going, and Chess mentions a few who may potentially take the reins. He and Rodenbough make a nice team, he says, but after Friday’s concert it’ll be someone else’s turn.
“I will let go,” he says.
What: ConvergeNC Fest featuring the Dead Tongues (Durham Americana-rock), The Suffers (Houston soul)
When: 6-9 p.m. Friday
Where: 140 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill