I’ve strutted down Bourbon Street, 6th Street, and South Broadway. But I hadn’t been to the Memphis version of live venue row in decades. Beale Street is pretty famous and has a long heritage. But it’s funky and while it shares some similarities to the other famous honky-tonk strips, it’s different in important ways.
Of all the strips, Beale Street is most like Bourbon Street, but much, much smaller. It’s about 3 blocks long whereas Bourbon goes on for about 15 blocks. Why is it similar? Well, it’s got a scent of danger with it, a HEAVY police presence, local scam artists trying to get you to part ways with your money (both voluntarily and involuntarily) and it has not only live music but some off-beat stores that are worth a peek.
Let’s start with an obvious issue: the place reeks of danger. On weekend nights, you have to go through a metal detector to get onto the street as a whole. They don’t have them at clubs, but instead for the whole entertainment district. There must be a reason for that.
And there are cops galore. In fact, there is a police station right at the end of Beale Street. But at night, they have these cherry-pickers-on-steroid things called Blue Crush at the end of every block. Cops go up in them to keep an eye on the crowd, and most likely, to direct the many street cops to signs of trouble. There must be a reason for that, too.
Unlike other places we’ve been to, including Bourbon Street, we didn’t see any fights. That’s good. One time in New Orleans we saw two women going at it, one yelling “f+ck with me?” and throwing punches at another, who was trying to get away but occasionally swinging back wildly. It was great. But with the number of people carrying guns now, I’m not sure I want to see that too often. (But every once in a while? Cool.).
We had fun on Beale Street. Like New Orleans, there are chain bars on the street, and we ended up in one called Coyote Ugly. [What’s with life imitating movies? I think the worst one of these is the Bubba Gump shrimp restaurants – who eats at those places?] Like the movie version, they encouraged you to dance on the bar, and Helen did so. But they also had a pool table and not many patrons while we were there, and we shot pool and danced to a really good selection of tunes. It was a great way to spend an hour or two.
We also happened upon a classic car show where the owners were displaying their pride and joys up and down the street. I love those old cars, and seeing them again is always fun in my book. We strolled around and checked them out and chatted up a couple of owners. It was nice.
The blues are king here. At the Blues City Café, we saw Blind Mississippi Morris and his band play a ferocious set of Delta Blues. And in a small city park along the strip, we saw a few different bands take the stage and entertain the blues-hungry crowd.
And then there is the weird stuff. Bourbon Street used to have a place with “French style entertainment.” I never went in, but it looked like a naked rugby scrum. They also had female impersonators. Beale Street has a place with goats in the patio of the bar near where the bands play. And it has Jack Lawler’s place, which is part museum, part live music venue. Lawler was nicknamed “The King” and was a professional wrestler. We sat on his throne, listened to a good blues band, and hung out for a while.
One thing that is different is that some of the clubs charge a cover. What?!? B.B. King’s place had a big band with about 10 people on stage, but they wanted something like $10 to get in. We didn’t know if we wanted to hang there, so we kept on walking and ended up in some other place where the music was free. We never made it back to B.B. King’s.
My biggest impression of Beale Street is that, for a city that has an outsized and well-deserved reputation for music (particularly the blues and early rock), Beale Street is small and a bit overrated. SoBro in Nashville is much bigger, and Nashville also sports a ton of other live music venues throughout town. The same goes for Austin: 6th Street has many more venues, and if you tire of the touristy music thing, there are clubs galore that feature live acts playing their own songs. I didn’t get the sense that non-Beale Street Memphis has much to offer beyond a few clubs, and that Beale itself is not big enough to do Memphis justice. Then again, Memphis itself doesn’t do its heritage justice.
Done! That’s it for my Memphis/Nashville/Little Rock musical sojourn. It’s time to get back to Philly and feast on its summertime music scene, which remains dynamic, diverse and thriving. Onward and upward!
Leave a Reply.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.