When I read that the first Undercurrent event of the new year was to be held at something called the SkyBar in the 100 North Main building, I was thrilled. I vaguely remembered the old Top of the 100 club from my youth, and imagined that the view from the top would be amazing. Also, at least I thought, the announcement indicated that somebody was finally doing something with the long-vacant club, which in its heyday rotated once every hour. Sadly, I was to be disappointed.
The idea behind Undercurrent, is cool enough. Free parties are held monthly at different places around the city, aimed at Memphis’ young innovators, and the idea of having one 38 stories above downtown Memphis was very cool indeed. Unfortunately, there is no SkyBar, that’s just the name the Undercurrent people came up with when they rented the venue, which fully appears as if it hasn’t been used since Christmas 1982 (there were still Christmas decorations up everywhere from the last time it was used). While the view over the city was indeed fantastic, the decor and furnishings were vintage 1977, and there was even a 1970’s-era cash register still in its place. Nothing at the bar had worked in many years, and everything had to be brought in in taps and coolers. Of course there was great music from a DJ, good food, and lots of laughter and conversation. But the club’s appearance as if time had stopped back in the early 1980’s was just another reminder of a city that seems to be dying despite our best efforts. And apparently nobody has any plans for the SkyBar aside from a few event rentals.
Although Memphis has a legacy that includes some of America’s greatest jazz musicians (including arguably the greatest jazz pianist ever, Phineas Newborn Jr.), it is rare to hear authentic jazz in Memphis nowadays. Such jazz as there is generally occurs at Bleu Restaurant in the Westin Hotel downtown, particularly on Friday nights. This past Friday night featured pianist Steven Lee with his trio, including young up-and-coming drummer Nigel Yancey, son of local veteran trumpeter and big band leader Johnny Yancey. The final set became something of a jam session, as it often does, featuring Johnny Yancey on trumpet and Kyle Lee on tenor saxophone. For those that want traditional, straight-ahead jazz rather than the smooth or neo-soul variety, Bleu on Friday nights is the place to be.
Friday night was chilly, but that didn’t stop people from coming downtown in Charlotte. In fact there were crowds of people everywhere, perhaps because of the Bobcats game, and especially around the large entertainment district known as the EpiCentre, which is definitely worth a visit.
When walking back toward the parking garage where I had parked my car in downtown Charlotte, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sounds of a brass band playing somewhere nearby. The band turned out to be The Brass Connection, a well-known Charlotte street band that on this particular Friday night had set up at the corner of 5th and Tryon streets in front of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, drawing a decent crowd of people coming from the Charlotte Bobcats game, despite the chilly weather. Unlike New Orleans brass bands, the Brass Connection takes a DC-oriented go-go approach to brass band music, with a set drummer and a timbale player rather than the separate snare and bass drums so often seen in New Orleans, and their repertoire consists of unique takes on R & B hits like Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison.” After they played about four songs or so, they ended their performance, took down their instruments and walked away.
Unlike New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, the Beale Street Music Festival does not feature a considerable amount of local Memphis talent (and almost no roots artists at all), so it is fortunate that there is another festival held on Labor Day weekend every year, known as the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, sponsored by the embattled yet resilient Center for Southern Folklore. This amazing, free, two-day festival features the music, dance, visual art and foodways of the Mid-South, spread out among two indoor and four outdoor stages on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis. Although there is usually at least one headline artist (this year’s was Bobby Rush), the festival line-up is heavily geared to artists from Memphis or the immediate vicinity, and includes all styles from bluegrass to blues to hip-hop to indie rock and jazz. Even drill teams and drumlines make appearances during the afternoon. Not as well known as perhaps it should be, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival is arguably the best reason to make a trip to Memphis.
When Cockadoos closed a couple of years ago, downtown Memphis was left without a source for espresso-based drinks, aside from the Starbucks inside the Westin hotel across from the Fed Ex Forum. So when I heard that a new place had opened on Gayoso Avenue called Tamp & Tap, I was eager to try it. As the name suggests, Tamp & Tap is a little bit more than the usual coffee bar. It offers coffee drinks, using Chicago’s Metropolis brand, but it also offers craft beers, and a small menu of salads, sandwiches and baked goods, including cookies and brownies. The space is surprisingly large and inviting, with rustic wooden walls, and comfortable couches. Although the official hours are until 9 PM each night, Tamp & Tap has been staying open until 11 PM on Friday and Saturday nights, and is definitely worth a visit for some really good coffee, a cold beer, or just a place to chill.