Long-time Memphis residents have seen the space at 1911 Poplar change names, ownership, and focus a number of times. What was once Kang Rhee Karate Studio (best known as Elvis Presley's dojo) and the Hi-Tone Cafe became a hookah lounge and sports bar, Sports Junction, for a time. But in October, new ownership came in and decided to un-break what was never really broken.
Rebranding the space as Growlers, the renovated restaurant and music venue shifted gears in late December. With former owner and booker Jonathan Kiersky now scheduling concert events, Growlers fills the void left in the Memphis College of Art/Overton Park neighborhood when the Hi-Tone moved to Crosstown.
With a new high-end sound system in place and a series of desperately needed technical upgrades, vibrancy and energy is returning to a space that once served as home to an entire generation of musicians.
People who may not have been to the venue since it was the Hi-Tone may need a second to get their bearings. "It's ... extremely nice," Kiersky says. "The new owners did things I'd really wanted to do with the space when the Hi-Tone was there but wouldn't because I was renting. It's cleaner, nicer, and has everything people always asked for. We even have real air conditioning," he says.
There are visible remnants of Growlers' life as Sports Junction, like widescreen TVs showing sporting events, but, Kiersky says, "when musicians are on, the TVs go off. Occasionally we may invite touring acts, but our focus is local musicians, performing artists, and DJs."
With that vision in mind, Pyramid $cheme will take over Growlers Saturday night. The 18-and-older event features a cross-section of local music and arts performers, and was created by Memphian Luke Sexton, known in the music world by his dueling alter-ego: DJ Red Eye Jedi and Glitch Dr.
"Pyramid $cheme is my tribute to the creatives in Memphis who are out there on their hustle," Sexton says. "There are a lot of talented people, but to keep it fresh, you have to go in new creative directions."
The ambitious undertaking, Sexton says, echoes the spirit of the long-running, internationally recognized Los Angeles show, Low End Theory. And, like Low End Theory, Pyramid $cheme's artistic avenues aren't overly manicured or narrowly defined.
"This night is a safe place for DJs and musicians to try new things," Sexton notes. "I know that probably sounds super corny, but we want to go out and perform different kinds of stuff. Be open-minded. Come expecting to hear something different."
Up-and-coming hip-hop artist PreauXX, who has been splitting his time between Atlanta and Memphis, clicks with that notion. "Even though this set is actually gonna be a mix of a lot of fan favorites and songs that I regularly perform, I'm also performing about six or seven songs from my upcoming project with IMAKEMADBEATS. "Instead of having a DJ, it's just going to be me and [IMAKEMADBEATS] doing a live show and really showcasing these new joints."
Headlining will be DJ sets from New Orleans bounce artist Quickie Mart and St. Louis turntablist Hal Greens. There will be live performances and DJ sets from Memphis natives Bored Lord and Minivan Marcus, who run the Rare Nnudes Collective. Memphix co-founder Chase One will spin tracks and there will be a performance by vocalist Nya Sanders.
Local mural artist Codak of the UH Collective will be painting a new work (weather permitting). Expect dazzling jookin performances from G-Force, and Sexton says, "You can expect some surprises that will be worth the wait."
Pyramid $cheme; Growlers, 1911 Poplar, February 18th, 9 p.m.