Early Birds in Memphis Get Plenty of Live Music

By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

The roots of American music run deep in Memphis; we are, after all, the birthplace of rock 'n' roll and the home of the blues. And while the clubs and bands on Beale Street rock until the wee hours of the morning, there are plenty of live venues and excellent bands for non-night owls, also known as early birds, to enjoy.

The clubs and venues on this list range from the fantastic (and free!) Levitt Shell, where concerts, plays and dance performances are held in the open air more than 50 times each summer, and continue through the fall.

Beale Street is ground zero when it comes to live music; with a few dozen clubs, street performers, and a public park that has its own stage all part of the festive scene, you're never far from some blues or rock at any given moment of the day. And on Beale, open beverages are allowed, and many of the early shows are perfectly fine for the kids, too. Plus, early evening sees some of the best bands on stage, from the house blues band at B.B. King's to Brad Birkdahl and his band at the Blues City Cafe's Band Box. The Hi-Tone offers early shows featuring the best indie and alt rock bands from around the region and beyond.

10. Hard Rock Cafe
Photo courtesy of Hard Rock Cafe - Memphis

Talk about rock 'n' roll karma: The Memphis version of the Hard Rock Cafe - the first truly themed restaurant and nightspot devoted to musical culture - is located right on Beale Street, in a building where Elvis Presley once bought his clothing. In this second Memphis location - the first opened in 1997 a few blocks away - there are two dining areas, private party spaces including an Elvis room, two bars, a stage for live performances, and the Rock Shop. One this this location has that the previous Beale location did not is valet parking - and that means you can leave your car while you explore Beale. And while they usual musician memorabilia is also here, there are loads of new items with a Memphis flair, including some of Elvis's performance wear. The menu is standard - burgers and music-themed entrees, plus lots of signature alcoholic beverages. During Elvis Week, the Hard Rock plays home to the last-chance rounds of the Ultimate Tribute Artist contest.

9. Rum Boogie Cafe
Photo courtesy of jbcurio

On any given night, you can walk into the Rum Boogie Cafe and hear great blues, rock or country bands. While the beer selection has its fair share of admirers, the bar's d�cor alone is enough to get most avid music fans in the door as the walls are adorned by guitars autographed by the likes of George Thorogood, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Joe Perry. This ain't the Hard Rock - the feel is local and authentic. If you get the munchies, you'll want to give their menu a shot – it includes everything from barbecued ribs to red beans and rice - and although not the best food ever, it certainly serves its purpose to soak up the alcohol.

8. Mr. Handy's Blues Hall
Photo courtesy of Beale Street Merchants Assn

The tiny Mr. Handy's is a stand-alone juke joint, but connected to Rum Boogie Cafe. It evokes the real feel of a juke joint, to, with tables crammed into the tiny space, worn wood floors, random stuff on the walls, along with historic photos of the Handy family, and, of course, real blues being played. There are no bathrooms within Mr. Handy's, but there's a door connecting the club to Rum Boogie, which is full-service in that regard. The Handy, by the way, refers to W.C. Handy, the father of the blues; the park named after the music legend is just a short walk away.

7. Alfred's On Beale
Photo courtesy of Alfred's On Beale

Located in the heart of Memphis's nightlife scene (the corner of Third and Beale), Alfred's is one of those places that you need to stop in if you plan on telling people you visited Memphis. Known for its live music, Alfred's offers one of the best cover bands you can dance to on Friday & Saturday nights; Kevin and Bethany Paige serve up a little bit of everything in their performances, and they perform from 10 pm - 2 am. Then, it's time for DJ J2, who mixes dance beats until 5 am. Weather permitting, the upstairs outdoor patio is a bit mellower prior to the dance club scene, with acoustic guitarist Jim Wilson usually setting up in one corner on weekend nights.

6. Hi-Tone Cafe
Photo courtesy of Hi-Tone Cafe

If music is akin to religion in Memphis, then it's not ironic that this rowdy Midtown nightspot is now located next to the Jehovah's Witnesses in its new strip center digs. The new space, like the old, is a few rooms - a lounge area, and two spaces, one large and one small for shows. Featured musical acts at the Hi-Tone could be anybody from the North Mississippi Allstars and Cat Power to reggae and country-western acts – all of them party bands, to be sure. There's the most seriously fantastic bar food of any Memphis live music venue, too – with burgers and gourmet hot dogs and made-to-order pizzas, plus the best selection of loaded French fries (think fries topped with cheddar and gravy, or mozzarella and marinara), plus a Sunday brunch that rocks.

5. Blues City Cafe

Blues City Cafe, in the heart of Memphis's nightlife scene, offers the right ingredients for a perfect evening � terrific food and great blues (played right next door at the Band Box). While some folks may dispute the place's claim to the title of "Best Meal on Beale," Blues City does in fact serve a wide range of tasty, down-home delicacies, like barbecued ribs, chicken, steaks and fried catfish. If the rustic interior looks familiar, that's because you saw it in the film adaptation of John Grisham's The Firm.

4. Silky O'Sullivan's
Photo courtesy of Memphis CVB

An Irish dueling piano pub with beer-loving goats? Nothing quite compares with what awaits you at Silky O'Sullivan's. Located in the heart of Memphis nightlife on Beale Street, Silky's serves up Southern pub grub and ice-cold beer in a raucous college atmosphere. After that, you'll be ready to buy a beer for the goats out on the patio, who have developed quite a taste for it and will suck the whole thing down. Silky's is also a great place to catch some local bands and later in the evening, the dueling piano show.

3. Central BBQ
Photo courtesy of upload.wikimedia.org

Central is one of our favorites, thanks to the huge patio that's open during fine weather (often with a band tucked into the corner), the homemade potato chips with bleu cheese dressing, which our table of six agreed recently were the work of the devil, they're so delicious, or maybe it's just the atmosphere - fun and funky, with that aroma of smoking meat wafting from the pit. The magic numbers for Central are 250 (as in degrees) and 14 (the number of hours meat is cooked). The pork is always tender, the ribs have just the right balance of crust on top and moisture inside. Probably our favorite dish is the pork barbecue nachos, which feature a two cheeses - the melt-y nacho cheese down under, then a layer of pulled pork, then shredded cheese on top. Y-U-M. Central's patio is always hopping, and many times there's a band on Friday nights, or Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The beer selection focuses on local brews like Ghost River, and the staff - from the counter help to the food runners - are super-friendly. A second location is further east, at 4375 Summer Avenue.

2. Levitt Shell
Photo courtesy of The Levitt Shell

With 50 free musical performances, movies under the stars and a smattering of dance and drama performances, the Levitt Shell in Overton Park serves as true common ground for residents of Memphis. The historic shell - Elvis once sang here early on in his career, sharing the stage with Johnny Cash (it was not a success for the future King), the shell fell into disrepair and out of favor in the late 1990's, but was saved from demolition by a local group and has since been renamed the Levitt Shell at Overton Park. It reopened in 2008, offering free performances for all.

1. B.B. King's Blues Club
Photo courtesy of B.B. King's Memphis

In the ranks of Memphis's most famous nightspots, B.B.'s is one of those rare places that you must visit if you spend any time in the city at all. Featuring an amazing nightly repertoire of blues, along with great food and cold beer, the bar is a popular destination for tourists. The house band is incredible, and count us as the most pleasantly surprised of locals to say that. We were expecting a tourist trap, and discovered a real hometown treasure. A lot of young blues artists find their way to this stage, which we have to point out is nothing like the New York version. However, when word gets around that the man himself is in town (with Lucille), locals know exactly where to head. It doesn't happen often anymore, but it is always a treat.