Charleston, West Virginia
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Explore the BeatJosh “The Kentucky Gent” Johnson

Explore the Beat

Downtown Charleston rings to life with live music and local art that reverberate through the streets

Story & Photos by Josh “The Kentucky Gent” Johnson

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Downtown Charleston rings to life with live music and local art that reverberate through the streets

Story & Photos by Josh “The Kentucky Gent” Johnson

I love any excuse to load up my car, hit the open road and head out on an adventure to explore a new place, which is why I jumped at the chance to experience a town that I’ve driven through many times but never had the chance to immerse myself in.  

From the moment I crossed the bridge into Charleston, West Virginia, there was a feeling I had a fun-filled weekend ahead, and boy was I right. Everywhere I turned there was a smiling face, or two, to welcome me, with live music and cold beers not far behind. And when I realized that my hotel sat smack dab in the middle of the action, I was ready to jump into the city headfirst.

Charleston, West Virginia's West Side Wonder Mural by Jupiter Hamilton

ArtWalk

Painted steel abstract sculpture, Hallelujah, by Albert Paley in the plaza of the Clay Center for Arts & Sciences in Charleston, West Virginia
Hallelujah by Albert Paley

My first night in Charleston was arguably one of my favorites. You really can’t go wrong with cold beer and local art. The night began at Big Joe’s, a bar not far from my hotel, for a couple of beers with the locals before heading down the street for ArtWalk. The Downtown Charleston ArtWalk is a constantly evolving, free, self-guided walking tour of shops, galleries and businesses featuring regional art and performances—a perfect introduction to the city.

I made my way through local shops down Quarrier, Capitol and Lee streets in downtown, picking up things for my new apartment along the way, including prints from a local artist for my office and framed artwork from a vintage shop for my bedroom. I stopped at Rock City Cake Company for the best cookie sandwich I’ve ever had. It’s safe to say that I frequented this bakeshop several times throughout my long weekend in Charleston.

Painted steel abstract sculpture, Hallelujah, by Albert Paley in the plaza of the Clay Center for Arts & Sciences in Charleston, West Virginia
Hallelujah by Albert Paley

Once my arms were loaded with bags and my belly full, I made my way to the Clay Center for Arts & Sciences for “Art After Dark”—a free event directly following ArtWalk with after-hours access to current exhibitions as well as live music, family activities and a cash bar. In other words, it was the perfect way to round out an already impressive night.

Display cases of albums at Elk City Records in Charleston, West Virginia

Live on the Levee

When your second day in a new city begins with barbecue at a region staple like Dem 2 Brothers and A Grill, you know your day is bound to be one for the books. After eating my fill of brisket slathered in their hottest sauce, I made my way down the block to explore the area now referred to as “Elk City,” where murals dotted the streetscape and smiling faces passed me on the street.

I instantly felt at home, especially after stumbling into Kin Ship Goods. There was an odd sense of familiarity as soon as I stepped foot inside the store, and for good reason. The owners recently moved back to Charleston from Louisville. The same place that I’m lucky enough to call home. We chatted about the rise of local businesses in the area such as Elk City Records and Base Camp Printing, among others.

Outside view of Kin Ship Goods in Charleston, West Virginia
Base Camp Printing Company posters on display at their shop in Charleston, West Virginia
Comic strip mural decor inside Elk City Records in Charleston, West Virginia
Red and yellow tomatoes on display at Capitol Market in Charleston, West Virginia
View of band playing at Live on the Levee in Charleston, West Virginia
Concert-goer taking phone photo of band playing at Live on the Levee in Charleston, West Virginia

Next up, I headed to Capitol Market, the perfect marriage of an outdoor farmers market and indoor shops full of local wares. I fueled up at Mea Cupa with a delicious lemonade and iced coffee mix that was the perfect treat on a warm summer day. I sat back and took in the market’s various walks of life.

By the time I made it back to my hotel, it was time for Live on the Levee—a concert series that takes place every Friday evening from May until September. The music was a mix of a local and national talent with opener, Qiet, followed by multi-platinum alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs. Groups of locals locked arms and swayed to the jams of the bands while the rest of us kicked back on our blankets enjoying the river view and the tunes.

Once the music wrapped, my stomach was growling and my throat parched. I set out in search of dinner and liquid libations. I wanted to go back for seconds and thirds at Black Sheep Burrito & Brews. Order a Baaa’d Ass burrito (filled with everything from black beans to a lime-sriracha crema and their housemade Baa’d Ass Habanero Death Sauce) and a beer flight (packed with in-house brews)—thank me later.

Group of people linking arms at Live on the Levee outdoor concert series in Charleston, West Virginia
Close-up view of black and white chess set in Charleston, West Virginia

Streetfest

Outside view of Adelphia Sports Bar & Grille in Charleston, West Virginia
Kick back and catch the game, or dine alfresco at Adelphia
Over-the-shoulder-view of band playing at Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia
Get lost in Taylor Books’ literary world

Determined to try every coffee shop in Charleston, I set off to try the next on my list, Starlings. Why? Because all their pastry items are made in-house every day, and I’m a sucker for anything baked fresh daily. Ended up enjoying a cup or two of coffee alongside a breakfast sandwich with a housemade English muffin.

Outside view of Adelphia Sports Bar & Grille in Charleston, West Virginia
Kick back and catch the game, or dine alfresco at Adelphia

Afterwards, I headed back to my hotel to recharge before heading to Streetfest, a block party for friends and family to meet up and enjoy live music, food and drinks, kid’s activities, pop-up shops and much more. Several incredible local restaurants also participated in Streetfest and offered great vantage points to experience all the fun. I enjoyed the live music making it’s way down the street while chowing down on Greek nachos and fried feta at Adelphia. Live music seems to be a part of Charleston’s heartbeat, as each street hummed with its own melody from the restaurants, bars and sidewalks—day and night.

Over-the-shoulder-view of band playing at Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia
Get lost in Taylor Books’ literary world

Next, I checked out Taylor Books for another coffee and I wandered through the aisles upon aisles of books. After I perused the local-book selection, I went outside again, and enjoyed a local band and the cool breeze making its way through the tree-lined streets of downtown.

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Mountain Stage

You know what they say about saving the best for last, right? Bluegrass Kitchen was the last “must try” restaurant on my list, and their biscuits and gravy reminded me of the ones my grandma used to make. Soft biscuits with a creamy, peppered gravy may just be the way to my heart.

I closed out my long weekend by listening to a performance at Mountain Stage. It was the most sublime way to round out my Charleston experience. The team at Mountain Stage, led by Larry Groce, welcomed me with open arms and made the night one to remember. Each performance is a two-hour episode of live music that is also broadcasted on more than 150 public radio stations across America. Impressive on its own, but my favorite part of the night was the eclectic mix of musical acts that took stage that night—from Afro-fusion sounds of Mokoomba to singer-songwriters like Curtis McMurty and Joe Pug. There was a beat for everyone in the crowd and each group was welcomed with thunderous applause and reverence.

Find your beat in Charleston.