From Blues to Rock to Soul, Memphis' Music Scene Is Original, Deep

Photo courtesy of Courtesy Young Avenue Deli
By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

It's no surprise that the city's live music scene centers around Beale Street, made famous as the home of the blues during the early 20th century. Beale is full of live music, whether it is the raucous beat from the house band at B.B. King's to the more mellow tunes of a cover band at Alfred's.

Beale is a great place to just grab a cold drink and wander - and the only district in the city where doing so is perfectly legal. It's usually late afternoon when the cops shut the street down (read:5 .m.), cutting off traffic so the district becomes pedestrian-friendly. And that's when more street musicians open their cases and tune up their guitars, and when bands of all types (and sometimes freelancers looking for some exposure) set up on the stage at W.C. Handy Park.

The Cooper Young area of Midtown is an excellent spot for alternative music, pure rock, local talent, and the occasional Irish pub band. And a variety of venues, from Minglewood Hall to the Mud Island amphitheater, host great national acts in larger venues that still are small enough to really feel the vibrations from the band.

Whether it is pure blues, indie rock or even crunk, Memphis offers breadth and depth when it comes to the live music scene.

10. Bar DKDC
Photo courtesy of Justin Fox Burkes

This funky little spot in Cooper Young opened in 2013 with little fanfare but loads of fans; chef Karen Carrier's latest nightspot is fresh and hip and a great addition to the neighborhood nightlife scene. Decorated with treasures from around the world - and plenty of tag sale chic - DKDC offers small plates with an international flair and yummy libations with a guaranteed kick. The crowd is slightly hipster but that shouldn't scare off you traditional types, as the setting is comfortably eclectic. Cocktails are served up in an array of containers, from Mason jars to juice glasses, and include twists on tradition - like a blackberry julep.

9. 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.

8. Wild Bill's
Photo courtesy of Wild Bill's

With a menu of soul food and 40-ounce beers (or set-ups), Wild Bill's holds sway as the quintessential juke joint in Memphis. But what one needs to grasp here is that Wild Bill's is truly a juke joint – and that means folks sit together at tables, you better be sociable, and you are in Memphis, so that means a mostly African American crowd that's there to listen to great music and relax. This isn't a prettied-up version of a juke joint on Beale, this is the real deal. Those 40-ounce beers come with a couple of plastic cups on top, so you can share. The house band is the Memphis Soul Survivors, and they play most Friday and Saturday nights, so you know the music is always solid. The dance floor - and we hesitate to call it that, it's really tiny - gets crowded fast; don't be surprised if you're dancing with strangers more than you are your friends. It's simply that kind of place.

7. Mollie Fontaine Lounge
Photo courtesy of Mollie Fontaine Lounge

When they say food / spirits on the Mollie Fontaine Web site, spirits has a double meaning - as in, the kind your drink and the kind who haunt old, Victorian homes. Mollie Fontaine is housed in a gorgeous Victorian mansion, stuffed with a combination of retro and vintage-y chic decor - overstuffed loungers, funky little chairs, and super-cool lighting, from chandeliers to multi-hued, single Edison bulbs. Sometimes, a pro sits at the old piano in the first floor front parlor - sometimes a customer jumps on - not always a good thing - and sometimes there's a DJ mixing it up. There's a full bar, and very often anything wet and cold comes straight out of a cooler tucked behind the bar. Since the lounge is owned by Karen Carrier of The Beauty Shop fame, the small plates served up are always something scrumptious - Fontaine sliders with arugula and gruyere, crispy duck rice rolls, and avocado tempura are all part of the inventive fare, and there's always a creme brulee of the day to tempt the sweet tooth.

6. 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.

5. Celtic Crossing
Photo courtesy of Celtic Crossing

Everything about Celtic Crossing feels authentically Irish pub, and walking into the bar is like going through a wormhole into another dimension. Like any respectable pub, the decor offers a mix of tables and chairs, there's always a football match being beamed in from somewhere around the world (if you don't know what EPL stands for, this may not be your bar), and you can order just about any Irish whiskey every made. You can order corned beef, shepherd's pie bangers and mash and even Scotch eggs, or go for the more traditional American pub fare of a burger or salad.

4. Young Avenue Deli
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Young Avenue Deli

Don't be thrown by the name; this cavernous space is indeed a deli (and a tasty one, at that) but it also doubles as a live music must-hit for Memphians. While the atmosphere of Young Avenue screams ROCK!, there's a surprisingly eclectic lineup of local and regional bands booked here, making Young Avenue one of the city's best live music venues. The beer list is expansive, with what just might be the longest beer menu in town, a mix of the most exotic beers on tap and in a bottle or can - and you can indeed order a Bud Light or something of that ilk, but why would you, when you can have a Ghost River Wee Heavy or a Rogue Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout? When the band's on break, throw a few darts or shoot some pool - or simply take in the crowd - an always interesting collection of locals.

3. Lafayette's Music Room
Photo courtesy of Layfayette's Music Room

As the revitalized Overton Square reemerges as a hot dining and nightlife district in Memphis, it seems only natural that one of the Square's most-loved, but short-lived, clubs has made a comeback. Layfayette's Music Room was once known as the spot where one could catch up-and-coming national acts, and the reborn club is off to a solid start to reclaim a prime spot in the Memphis live music scene. There's live music seven nights a week at Lafayette's, which features a large stage with seating on two levels. Local acts and touring bands play jazz, rock, soul, and country; a full menu of classic Southern food is offered throughout the day and into the late evening. Happy hour runs from 3 - 6 weekdays.

2. Levitt Shell
Photo courtesy of The Levitt Shell

With more than 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. The list of bands which play from spring through the fall is eclectic and vast, and a night at the Shell is a made-in-Memphis experience.

1. 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.