Thursday, October 11, 2012

Chattanooga's Music Scene

Chattanooga's reputation as a music city has had its ups and downs over the years. For a long time the city was just a highway sign that bands drove past from Atlanta to Nashville, if they even bothered with a Southern leg of their tour. Chattanoogans had to drive to one of the bigger cities 2 hours away for a major show. As for local music, that too has succeeded in fits and starts as local venus have come and gone and the city's tastes of changed. These days, it seems to be firmly established that Chattanooga has its fair share of diverse talent, from blues to punk to reggae to indie and beyond.

For years there was plenty of local talent but no real venues where they could play. Longtime Chattanooga resident Courtney Cochran explained that during the early aughts there was almost nowhere to go for music other than a small club called The Bay in an old warehouse near where Warehouse Row is today. She described it as "kind of a frat-y place," and not very welcoming to anyone interested in alternative music. Even as downtown revitalized throughout the 1990s, the music scene never really caught up.

That all changed when Rhythm and Brews opened around the turn of the millennium right near the Aquarium. Even manager Mike Dougher isn't sure if it's been 12 or 13 years since the venue opened, but it was definitely around 2001. The venue was an important launch pad for several major local bands, including Glowing Bordis, Up With the Joneses, Moonlight Bride and Infradrig. These days Rhythm and Brews is known best for its roster of cover bands, while other venues have taken over booking local bands with original material and smaller touring acts.

Chattanooga's local music scene built up even more steam throughout the mid aughts. Ziggy's, a liquor and package store that's been open for over 30 years, turned the bar in the back into a concert venue around 2004. There many underground punk and metal bands found a stage and North Chattanooga and Hill City's young hippie, punk, and other alt subcultures found their scene.

JJ's Bohemia opened in 2007. It took the place of an old bar called the Chameleon in a part of the MLK Blvd. area that was once filled with bars and nightclubs that were backbones of a vibrant black community decades before downtown Chattanooga cleared out and decayed in the 1970s and 80s. Today the signage and wall paintings can still be seen of these old nightclubs, including the Retired Men Den, the Whole Note, and Memo's. JJ's quickly became a hipster hotspot and the number one place to see local bands, including Milele Roots, Strung Like a Horse, Big Kitty, Machines are People Too, The Hearts in Light, Prophets and Kings,  The Cadillac SaintsThe New Binkley Brothers, Elk Milk, the Bohannons, Future Virgins,  JJ's has also seen great touring bands like The Two Man Gentleman Band, Megan Jean and the KFB, Christabel and the Jons, and Shovels and Rope, They also have non-music related events, like Wrestlemania nights and shows from the Subterranean Circus/ Scenic City Sadistic Sideshow.

In 2009, the short-lived but legendary dive venue Discoteca joined the music scene. Though it closed in 2011, in two short years it brought some of the best live shows to Chattanooga, including Pitchfork favorites and bands straight out of Brooklyn otherwise unknown in this little corner of the South. It also gave yet another home to Chattanooga's favorite local acts. The Naked Hearts, Jeff the Brotherhood, Fringe Factory, Dolphin Mouth, and Zippers to Nowhere (a post-This Bike Is a Pipebomb effort by some of that band's remaining members) all played hard at the ground zero of the Southside's growing hipster scene.

In 2010 the former Parkway Billiards Club was purchased, renovated and opened as The Honest Pint, an Irish-style pub with pool tables and a stage for live music. The Honest Pint books similarly to JJ's Bohemia, with a mixture of local favorites like The Molly Maguires, The Velvet Hand, Behold the Brave, and touring  bands like Pearl and the Beard, The Maycomb Criers, The Dead Confederates, The Ragbirds, and Unknown Hinson.

Barking Legs Theater, long one of Chattanooga's main events and performing arts spaces and a source of dance classes and community, is also an occasional music venue. They feature some top notch touring acts like Zoe Boekbinder and Kaki King, Galactic Cowboy Orchestra and the Ullmann/ Swell 4. They have unbeatable booking taste in acoustic, indie, jazz, bluegrass, and Celtic music.

For bands that have hit the big time, it is of course remiss to mention the Tivoli Theater and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, which for years were the only venues large enough to accommodate major acts. They've seen the likes of John Hiatt, Loretta Lynn, Bela Fleck, and Hall and Oates. Yet even these venues never established Chattanooga as a city that could truly pull in national acts. It wasn't until Track29 opened in 2011 that Chattanooga finally became more than a place to gas up the tour bus between Atlanta and Nashville. Since it opened, major bands like Social Distortion, The White Stripes, Girl Talk, Lindsey Buckingham, Coheed and Cambria, and Sufijan Stevens have come to town, the the immense excitement of Chattanooga music fans.

It's taken over a decade, but Chattanooga's growth from a post-industrial Southern backwater into a cutting edge city can finally be seen in the quality of its music venues and wealth of local talent. Whatever kind of music you are into, there are many great spots to find a new favorite or get tickets for long-time idols.