It's a Monday night and the Tin Roof is packed. A brightly lit plastic statue of Jesus sits calmly in the corner, next to the stage. The crowd is mixed, from older parents (Dad gets one, then two gin and tonics) to girls in tight groups to lovebirds snuggled in the back. But everyone in the crowd is here for the same reason: To shop for a wedding band.
The Charleston CVB estimates that this city has 100 weddings a week. That's 100 couples, florists, caterers, photographers, venues, planners, and bands. Of the food, the photos, the flowers, the venue, the band — what is the best part of any wedding? If your answer is live music, then meet the Emerald Empire Band.
Each month Emerald Empire Band puts on a showcase to give engaged couples a preview of how great their receptions could be. Featuring a backing band with three female and three male vocalists, brides and grooms — some of whom tell me they've never been to the West Ashley dive bar until this evening — couples have a chance to dig into their future band, deciding which vocalist (or pair or trio of vocalists) rocks their socks, which genre of music best suits their style.
- Steve Aycock
The low ceiling at Tin Roof, the kitchsy holiday decor, the (very) dim lighting ... it's not what you picture when you picture a wedding venue. Which is what makes these showcases so, well, spectacular.
"We're basically a big family of full time musicians," says Emerald Empire's consultant, saxophonist, and sometimes vocalist Mike Quinn. Emerald Empire doesn't feature a set number of musicians — Quinn says clients can choose from a one piece acoustic player to a 20 piece big band. "It gives us this really unique ability to totally tailor the band to the client and to their budget and musical preferences," he says.
Haley Keisler and Nick Holzworth showed up to the showcase because after putting out a request for Charleston wedding bands on Facebook, Keisler was inundated with responses that included two words: "emerald" and "empire." "I was overwhelmed with responses," she says. "But I saw their name so many times. I liked the idea of checking them out — it's such a big part of the wedding."
Live music, if that's the component that revs your engines, can make or break a wedding. As Quinn says, "Good food, booze, band, it's really all you need."
- Steve Aycock
Ed Lemon is the first to take the stage at the showcase. Eyes peering over dark glasses, he sings "Let's Dance" by David Bowie and I swear, sitting now in a drafty office building, I can still hear his moody, dizzying voice: "Let's dance/ let's dance/ for fear your grace should fall/ let's dance."
"There are a lot of wedding bands out there full of, like, doctors," says Quinn. "And they just play on the weekends, and that's a thing especially with the wedding band circuit. Almost everyone we work with are full time musicians. My first contact with clients is me saying, 'You're working with professionals, not just dudes who want to be in a band.'"
Jairus McClanahan dressed to the nines and as cute can be, gets behind the mic, and prompts the crowd to "Shut up and Dance." He extends his arms, makes eye contact with the ladies in the front, grins. This is hashtag swoon, y'all — this is what makes a great wedding band.
"The wedding scene is so huge here," says Quinn, in what may be the understatement of the century. He estimates that Emerald Empire clients are split 50/50 as far as locals and out-of-towners, which is clear in the crowd at the showcase. The random group of gals whispering about each performance (it is a showcase, after all) — they're likely scouting for an out of town friend. Gin and tonic dad? He's got his phone turned sideways, capturing the entire evening. I don't see him send the final video, but I imagine it's loud, mumbly, and as sincere a gift as any dad could send his to-be-wed kid.
Aisha Kenyetta purses her lips, smiles. If the three male singers are smooth as silk, the three females are all sass and sultriness. Kenyetta commands your presence, pulling you into Stevie Wonder's "Do I Do." Some couples are huddled over their phones, some are chatting by the pool table. But most, most are staring at the stage, swaying as not-exactly-drunk people do on a Monday night. Kenyetta is looking at you — yes you! — and she's making you feel special. I ask you this — can a DJ do that?
- Steve Aycock
Ray Durkee and Jorgan McLendon just got engaged a few months ago, but they're not at the showcase for their own wedding. "Our friends are here and looking to hire a band," says Durkee. "We came to support them." Durkee and McLendon tell us that the aforementioned friend happened to be at Tin Roof on a showcase night and told his pals, "This is going to be my wedding band." Whether that comes to fruition or not is yet to be seen, but it does speak to the power of the showcase format.
And while Quinn admits that the wedding band business is "not the most creative outlet," it is fun. Oh yeah, and brings in some dough. "For me, I'm playing with a bunch of total badasses, I love it," says Quinn. "And it's a significant source of income for a lot of musicians." How much income exactly? Well, as any savvy business owner will tell you — it depends.
- Steve Aycock
Emerald Empire has a convenient section on their website that features pricing examples from recent events. A three piece reception band runs about $1,980; an eight piece band plus ceremony string trio and emcee costs around $5,500; and a recent "deluxe package," including stage lighting, a 13 piece band, and ceremony string quartet clocked in at $12,000.
In 2016 The Knot estimated that couples in South Carolina spent an average of $26,435 on their weddings. Granted, the rest of this non-wedding destination state is lumped into those numbers, but it still gives you a rough idea of how much money is poured into the wedding industry. Which is to say a lot.
- Steve Aycock
Quinn does his best to give Emerald Empire clients the most bang for their buck. "Honestly, I'll do anything that makes sense," says Quinn of the band's makeup. "People say, 'I don't get it,' because we're not always the same five guys, and I'm like, honestly, most bands don't look like that anyway."
The Emerald Empire band looks like Zandrina Dunning crooning Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock N Roll." It sounds like Tonya Williams rocking you into a daze with Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." It feels like Manny Houston on the keys, all swag the minute he embodies Bruno Mars' "24K Magic."
Once a month — maybe skipping May or October if the band is too busy, playing say, 20 weddings, like Quinn did this past year — Emerald Empire heads to the Tin Roof and starts their wedding showcase at 8 p.m. Each vocalist takes the stage, with their fellow band members cheering them on. "The vocalists want to sell themselves," says Quinn. "It's competitive in the sense that we're all trying to up each other's game. I honestly don't sing too much Whitney Houston — but I do have some male vocalists who can sing the shit out of some Whitney Houston. The showcase is the place to showcase those things that you love to see."
And some couples just really love a good wedding band. "We were trying to be conservative," says Jonathan Zakhary, who marries Robin Sharon Reese, on Feb. 10. "But you know, that's the one thing we love, music. That's what we wanted, a live band." Zakhary and Reese, joined by two friends who will be in their downtown Charleston wedding, sit in a back table at Tin Roof, enjoying the music, but not necessarily paying attention to each singer. There's no need to — they've already booked Emerald Empire.