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Last Night at the Hi-Tone

The Death and Potential Rebirth of Memphis' Most Profilic Rock Club.



"You better call your wife/Call your bossman/Cause we ain't never goin' home," the Oblivians' Greg Cartwright sang late Saturday night at the Hi-Tone Café. "Call the police/Call the police/Cause we're gonna get our drink on," he yelped as a sold-out crowd shook and shimmied before him.

The Oblivians, a scene-starting garage-punk trio that also includes Jack "Oblivian" Yarber and Goner Records founder Eric Friedl, first broke up around the time the Hi-Tone Café opened, in 1998. In the decade and a half since, the now well-worn club had evolved into the city's most prolific venue for emerging local bands and notable touring acts. But it was closing its doors just as the Oblivians — with a new album on the horizon — were getting back together.

This was the club's final public show. (A lower-key, invitation-only drink-up-the-bar party happened the next day.) Opening the Oblivians' show was another reunion, the Barbaras, a garage-pop band nearly a generation younger who had broken up before ever releasing an album. The Barbaras were a thrift-shop-glam carnival. Band-member Bennett Foster was in drag as a rainbow-colored, purse-clutching biddy, assessing the audience with practiced disdain but helplessly cracking an occasional smile. Stephen Pope, shirtless with purple glitter pants and rainbow suspenders, mostly abandoned the stage and spent time dancing on the bar. Balloons dropped, and the band worked through its instant-nostalgia single "Summertime Road."

The Oblivians followed just after midnight with a casual, no-frills intensity, working through new songs, the aforementioned zydeco cover "Call the Police," and, finally, '90s staples such as "You Better Behave" and "Bad Man," as Hi-Tone owner Jonathan Kiersky pumped his fist stage left, cheering them on from an elevated perch.

The crowd matched the bands: fortysomething regulars and returnees who might have been there when roots-rocker Dave Alvin got the club off the ground in 1998 all the way down to college kids for whom it's been a recent discovery. All there to say goodbye to a room that's helped launch local bands from Lucero to post-Barbaras spinoff the Magic Kids, hosted everyone from rock legends (Elvis Costello) to heavyweight touring bands (the Hold Steady), and served as a home to beloved local celebrations such as Gonerfest and Rock for Love.

Lost Sounds
Located at 1913 Poplar Avenue, just across from Overton Park, the 450-person-capacity club is in a building that once housed the dojo of Kang Rhee, Elvis Presley's former karate instructor, who still owns the property. It was a recently closed coffee shop in October 1998 when Dave Lorrison — who gave the club its name — signed a lease and converted it into a music venue. Early on, the Hi-Tone was heavy with rootsier acts such as locals the Pawtuckets and notable national bookings such as Marshall Crenshaw and Iris Dement, while more punk- and alt-rock-oriented bands were more likely to play the Young Avenue Deli. In time, however, the Deli cut back on bookings and the Hi-Tone emerged as king of the Midtown live music scene.

Lorrison sold it in May 2002 to Dave Green and silent partner Bryan Powers, with Powers taking the reins solo for a couple of years before selling to Kiersky in December 2007.

When Kiersky announced the club's closing in December, he cited the confluence of an expiring lease and problems with the building, the desire to book shows at other local venues, and the difficulty of operating a full-time music venue in the Memphis market, suggesting he would continue to book local shows under the "Hi-Tone Productions" title.

"The decision to close was primarily based on lease, location, and the fact that the room had kind of grown a little stale," Kiersky says now.

The building's unreliable cooling made it notoriously hot in the summer, which discouraged some touring bands.

"Heating/air was obviously a big, big issue," Kiersky says. "With the lease [issues], I wasn't really interested in spending more money on someone else's building on a constant basis."

"That building is pretty old and beat up," says Chris Walker, who currently helps run audio/visual for the NBA's Houston Rockets but who has operated Memphis clubs such as Barristers and Last Place on Earth and has booked shows at many other local venues, including the Hi-Tone. "I think the roof was giving [Kiersky] problems. It's hard to have climate control in there."

Like Lorrison before him, who ran the upscale Rumblefish restaurant out of part of the Hi-Tone space, Kiersky had tried to supplement the club's music/bar revenue with a food component, something Walker thinks is crucial to long-term success.

"I don't think you can have a club in Memphis without another source of income," Walker says. "You can't just depend on beer sales at rock shows. You have a pretty small opening to make your money. That's a really small window to pay your bills."

But the layout of the Hi-Tone always made this difficult.

"Food was successful to a degree, but, because of the room, it didn't have a chance to really grow," Kiersky says. "If there's some metal band soundchecking at 7 p.m., you don't want to sit through that while you're having dinner."

The size of the club and the difficulties of the Memphis market also complicated things.

"One of the issues with being right in the middle of the country is you're going to get a million booking requests. On any given day, we'd get anywhere from five to 80. What that ends up meaning, if you're going to be a 350-days-a-year rock venue, is putting a lot of stuff in your club that you're not that interested in doing or maybe it doesn't make financial sense to do a certain band on a Tuesday," Kiersky says. "In Memphis, the seven-shows-a-week concept is really, really hard. There were very few weeks where we could have six good shows in a week and actually hit our numbers on all of them."

Lorrison, who showed up Saturday night for a final walk-through of the club he started, said he was disappointed to see it closing, but he isn't surprised.

"Most rock clubs have a life span anyway," Lorrison says. "And it seems like 15 years is a pretty good run."

Veteran local musician Steve Selvidge, who has played the Hi-Tone stage with innumerable acts, including the Hold Steady, the Brooklyn-based indie-rock band he joined a couple of years ago, is sanguine about the closing.

"I remember when the Antenna club closed," Selvidge says, crediting Kiersky for the Hi-Tone's growth into a similarly beloved entity. "What's happening now, you'll see a spillover into Poplar Lounge and other smaller venues. But I imagine someone will step up with another mid-sized venue. It's unfortunate it's closing, but it's a hard business. But it's not the end of the music scene."

Lookin' for a Thrill
As it turns out, that "someone" might still be Kiersky, who began casting about for a new permanent space soon after deciding to close the current one.

"There was a part of me that said I'm going to get through the shows I already had booked, take the summer off, and figure out if this is something I still want to do or even if I still want to be in the city," Kiersky says. "The more I thought about it, the more I looked around at what was going on, and it seemed like there was going to be a huge gaping hole."

Kiersky was approached by Chris Miner, co-founder of the nonprofit Crosstown Arts, about space available as part of a strip of storefronts on Cleveland that are being rehabbed as a component of the neighborhood's ambitious redevelopment as an arts district. The Cleveland locale already houses a gallery and exhibition space for Miner's organization. As of press time, Kiersky was close to signing a lease on two adjacent bays there.

If the deal goes through, Kiersky plans to knock out a wall separating the two bays to create one 4,500-square-foot space, with higher ceilings and much better HVAC.

"It will be about the same size as the [original] Hi-Tone, but, with the ability to remake the space, it's going to allow for a larger capacity," says Kiersky, estimating a 600-person capacity, which might allow for booking bands that had outgrown the Poplar location.

Kiersky is attracted to the idea of being able to design his own club.

"It just got to the point where the building itself was something I couldn't deal with," he says. "One of the exciting parts about this new space is we'll have a blank chalkboard. We can do whatever we want."

Along those lines, Kiersky envisions a slightly larger stage at the back of the club, rather than the Hi-Tone's odd small stage in the front corner. He imagines a bar in the middle of the room to reduce congestion. He plans on a separate smoking lounge to reduce in-and-out traffic and give patrons a place to watch a Grizzlies game even while bands are playing.

What he doesn't envision is a full-time kitchen — he says the new club would be called the Hi-Tone, sans "Café" — or booking bands every night. He sees the bar/lounge open every day, with the rest of the venue holding concerts four to five days a week. And he's excited about the potential for integration with other tenants, especially the Crosstown Arts space, which has already booked no-alcohol/all-ages shows with a 125- to 150-person capacity.

"There are a lot of bands that I really enjoy that in Memphis on a Tuesday might draw 30 people. Doing it in a 600-person room makes it look really dead to the band and to us," Kiersky says. "Having a smaller space that's a two-second walk down and still having the lounge space will be great."

Wandering Star
Kiersky cites May as the earliest he might open a new club. In the interim — and, he says, even after — the Hi-Tone Productions concept is still a go, with March shows already booked at Young Avenue Deli and the Buccaneer Lounge.

"The Buccaneer always functioned as a Hi-Tone junior, so taking a lot of stuff we used to do at the Hi-Tone to the Buccaneer is super-simple," says Kiersky, who has shows booked at other venues. Most local bands won't lack for options.

“I talked to [New Daisy owner] Mike Glenn, and he was down to do shows. And I love that venue. It's kind of where I grew up,” says Kiersky.

But even with the prospect of moving shows the other venues, the impact of the Hi-Tone's closing seems to be immediate. The Hi-Tone Productions calendar for March is slim in the context of what is usually one of the busiest months on the local concert calendar. (Kiersky will be spending a week at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival with his other local music enterprise, Ping Pong Booking, which he formed with two partners.) And Kiersky says he plans to keep bookings light in April, which is typically a slower month.

The immediate impact of the closing is likely to be felt more in terms of substantial national bookings that smaller shows and local shows, which have plenty of stages around town from which to choose. In the weeks surrounding the Hi-Tone's farewell, there have been record-release and other speciality shows booked at venues such as the Poplar Lounge (Jason Freeman's album-release party), the Cove (Jeff Hulett's album-release), Otherlands Coffee Bar (touring folk act Samantha Crain, with locals the Memphis Dawls), Cooper-Young's new Bar DKDC (Cartwright solo), Young Avenue Deli (a Dead Soldiers record-release show this week), and downtown's Earnestine & Hazel's (a Mark Edgar Stuart record-release show next week). Most local bands won't lack for options.

The Poplar Lounge, in particular, has stepped up to fill part of the void.

"We are definitely being approached by musicians that would normally probably play the Hi-Tone," says Rachel Hurley, who took over booking of the long-standing Midtown bar a couple of months ago. "The positive thing I see is that because of the market we're in, some shows at the Hi-Tone that would have great audiences in other cities might draw only 50 people. That looks bad at the Hi-Tone, but 50 at the Poplar Lounge looks like a party." Hurley estimates the club has about a 150-person capacity.

So far, the venue has featured local acts, but, Hurley says, "we're doing a lot of out-of-town bands in March because of [bands traveling to and from] SXSW. I'm trying to keep weekends open for touring bands. I think that local acts can bring out a crowd that probably wouldn't come out on a Tuesday or Wednesday for a touring band."

As for anchor events such as Rock for Love and Gonerfest, both of which are still months away, Rock for Love organizer Hulett says his event will move to Young Avenue Deli, with nights booked already for September 6th and 7th. Goner co-owner Zac Ives says he and Friedl are still undecided on a Gonerfest location.

Too Much Love
"There's no money in running a club," Walker says. "The only reason to do it is because you want to see bands, but that's a business that will really wear you out."

This may be even more true in Memphis, which as a touring destination tends to underperform its market size and musical reputation.

"There are a lot of uphill battles with Memphis," Kiersky admits. "What Memphians see as the Memphis music scene and what [touring] bands see and what agents see are three totally different things. Memphians tend to see Memphis music as something that isn't going anywhere and something they can see on any night. Bands want to come here. They want to go to Graceland. They want to go to Stax. They want to go to Sun. They want to play the Hi-Tone. They want to be here. They want to eat barbecue. Agents hate Memphis. Agents and publicists hate it. It's the hardest of the Top 50 media markets to sell tickets and CDs."

"It's definitely a secondary market," Selvidge says. "It's upsetting to me, but I have lots of friends in touring bands and that's just the way it's looked at. There's something in the water here. Something unique. But that doesn't make it a great touring city."

Given that reality, it's surprising to see Kiersky getting back in instead of getting out.

"I guess the first reason is that I love it," he says. "I've always believed in Memphis as a music hub. If we could consistently get our shit together and quit pissing away money and ideas, we could be Portland. I've always thought we could be Portland."

Kiersky graduated from White Station High School but spent most of his 20s moving around, living in cities such as Denver, Charleston, San Francisco, and New York. He swears by Memphis music, but worries about the city's demographics.

"Places like San Francisco and Chicago and New York are getting a huge influx of people, whereas cities like Memphis are losing people," Kiersky says. "And that's a little bit of a scary trend when you're looking at how you're going to grow a city where the mayor has said one of your three pillars is going to be the music industry. But Memphis goes through ebbs and flows. It's almost like every five years, you're building a new scene."

Everyone has their favorite Hi-Tone shows, and Kiersky, who's presumably seen more of them over the past half-decade than anyone, is no exception. He remembers '60s cult band ? & the Mysterians. ("I've never seen six dudes drink so much tequila.") He remembers hosting surf-guitar legend Dick Dale's 75th birthday party. ("The coolest thing I've ever done.") He remembers alt-country duo Shovels & Rope's Memphis debut. ("They were incredible, and there were 30 people there to see them. We stayed up til 5 a.m. drinking whiskey, and then they went to sleep in the parking lot.") He remembers hosting outlaw country icon Billy Joe Shaver. ("I got to sit with Shaver for nine hours and hear stories. How many people in their lives get to do that?")

Last Tuesday, after perhaps the club's last big touring show, Rhett Miller, of the Texas alt-country band the Old 97's, came up to Kiersky. "I know the club's closing," Miller said, "but you're doing God's work. Don't stop doing it."

It's moments like these, Kiersky says, that "it becomes a little bit less of a job and a little bit more something you've created."

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