The Oblivians, the Barbaras, DJ Matty
9 p.m. Saturday at the Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Tickets: $15, available at hitonememphis.com.
Sometime late Saturday night, or early Sunday morning, the music will finally end, and the Hi-Tone Café will be no more.
This weekend, the Midtown venue brings down the proverbial curtain after more than 15 years as Memphis’ premier nightclub and the hub of the local music scene. The final concert, on Saturday, is expected to be a Viking funeral of sorts, with local pop-punk band the Barbaras and trash-rockers the Oblivians reuniting for a farewell blowout.
“It’s bittersweet, and I hate using that term,” says owner Jonathan Kiersky. “Part of it is that there won’t be that anchor that’s been there for the last 15 years. But it wasn’t a sustainable location for a variety of reasons.”
When the Hi-Tone’s closing was announced in December, Kiersky cited a combination of sagging attendance, rising booking costs and issues with the building as part of his decision to shutter the club. At the time, shock and sadness seemed to be the main reactions. In the months since, those feelings have been replaced by a sense of uncertainty.
The loss of the Hi-Tone comes as a major blow to the Memphis music community, which has relied on the club to host not just touring acts, but also local bands and festivals. The venue has long served as the center for the annual Gonerfest garage-rock extravaganza and the Church Health Center’s “Rock for Love” benefit concerts, both of which are still trying to find new homes.
The Hi-Tone was opened in 1998 by local rockabilly/swing music enthusiast Dave Lorrison. It carried on under the control of entrepreneur Bryan Powers for several years before being sold to Kiersky in 2007. The club, located at 1913 Poplar, came with a colorful history: Its building once housed the dojo of Kang Rhee, Elvis Presley’s longtime martial arts teacher (Rhee still owns the property). The Hi-Tone quickly established itself as the hip venue in the Bluff City, serving as a backdrop for numerous high-profile events and productions over the years, including an Elvis Costello concert DVD in 2004, and the Craig Brewer MTV series “$5 Cover” in 2008.
In spring 2011, the Hi-Tone’s longtime booker, Dan Holloway — who had been involved with the club since 2003 — left Memphis to take a job as talent buyer for the venue Emo’s in Austin, Texas. Holloway, who since has gone on to become a buyer at Transmission Entertainment, will be returning for the final weekend to say goodbye to the club he helped nurture for the better part of a decade.
“I think the fact the Hi-Tone was there as long as it was speaks to the reputation of the club and the hard work that people put into it,” Holloway says. “But I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that Memphis is a tough market on a number of levels. I just wonder where people are going to go see music now.”
Late last year, Kiersky launched a music booking and public relations company called Ping-Pong. He already has plans to continue to promote shows independently under the Hi-Tone banner at local venues — including the Young Avenue Deli, Newby’s and the Buccaneer — starting in March.
In the meantime, the owners of the 1,500-capacity Minglewood Hall in Midtown have started to ramp up booking in their smaller secondary space, 1884 Lounge. Under the stewardship of new bookers, the Poplar Lounge has also attempted to rebrand itself as a home for local music; the venue recently hosted Jason Freeman’s CD-release party. And a number of smaller bars like Murphy’s have been picking up shows by touring bands looking to play in town.
There has been speculation over a new club possibly opening in the Hi-Tone space, but despite its fairly ideal location — right in the heart of Midtown, across from Overton Park — the property itself may be a deterrent to any such plans. Kiersky has long noted that fundamental issues with the building and maintenance contributed to his club’s problems.
Other speculation has centered on the possibility of a new venue emerging in Overton Square. The area, currently in the midst of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment, would seem a natural fit. When construction is complete, the area will have ample parking, steady foot traffic and many nearby amenities. But renovation is expected to carry on for at least another two years — making an Overton Square venue more of a long- term scenario, rather than an immediate solution.
In the end, it may turn out that Kiersky holds the key to Memphis’ venue future. This week, he confirmed that he is actively looking at spaces in Midtown with the intention of opening another club as early as late summer. He adds, however, that this “new” Hi-Tone Café would be less of a seven-day-a-week operation than one focusing on occasional bigger shows and weekend concerts.
Whatever the future holds, Holloway says for now he’ll simply mourn the old club that has meant so much to him and others over the years. “It was our baby, and we loved it,” he says.
“Everyone who worked there, who was a part of it, put a massive amount of effort into keeping it going and keeping it afloat. While it’s sad to see it go, it was inevitable, I suppose. But that doesn’t make it any easier to see it end.”