When the Flyer first reported on its website in December 2012 that local rock club the Hi-Tone Café was closing, you would have thought we broke the news that Midtown itself had shut down.
Before his early 2013 cover story on Hi-Tone's last night in business, former Flyer music editor Chris Herrington put up a simple post that confirmed the Hi-Tone's Poplar location would be closing its doors. Some of our readers' reactions were more than a little dramatic.
"It is time that we wake up and realize the truth. Memphis is a dying city, and its music scene is dying along with the rest of it. Our leadership has probably waited too late to reverse the trend, but if there is to be any hope at all, action must be taken now. The city should enact significant discounts on license fees and local taxes for businesses that routinely book live music, as opposed to DJs," said a commenter by the name Progressive Memphis.
Dogrell3000 also weighed in: "It is unfortunately true. Memphis is dying and so is the Memphis music scene. This is a sign of the times. Unless you are Atlanta, Nashville, or New Orleans (major southern cities), your city is dying along with the death of the middle class."
It seemed a harsh reaction, but when Herrington profiled the last night at the Hi-Tone for a cover story in February 2013, his story made it clear that the club was more than just a rock-and-roll club. It was a Midtown institution.
After recapping a show that showed the strength of what the Hi-Tone was capable of, Herrington pointed out some of the problems that led to its closure. The building's unreliable cooling made it notoriously hot in the summer, which discouraged some touring bands.
"Heating/air was obviously a big, big issue," said Hi-Tone owner Jonathan Kiersky. "With the lease [issues], I wasn't really interested in spending more money on someone else's building on a constant basis."
"That building is pretty old and beat up," said Chris Walker, who currently helps run audio/visual for the NBA's Houston Rockets but who has operated Memphis clubs, such as Barristers and Last Place on Earth, and has booked shows at many other local venues, including the Hi-Tone. "I think the roof was giving [Kiersky] problems. It's hard to have climate control in there."
The size of the club and the difficulties of the Memphis market also complicated things.
"One of the issues with being right in the middle of the country is you're going to get a million booking requests. On any given day, we'd get anywhere from five to 80. What that ends up meaning, if you're going to be a 350-days-a-year rock venue, is putting a lot of stuff in your club that you're not that interested in doing or maybe it doesn't make financial sense to do a certain band on a Tuesday," Kiersky says. "In Memphis, the seven-shows-a-week concept is really, really hard. There were very few weeks where we could have six good shows in a week and actually hit our numbers on all of them."
Toward the end of the cover story, Herrington hints that Kiersky was close to signing a lease on two bays in the Crosstown Shoppes strip on Cleveland, with the hopes of creating one 4,500-square-foot venue. Luckily for the Memphis music scene, the deal went through. Kiersky reopened the new Hi-Tone on May 6th.
And while this Hi-Tone doesn't have $2 slices of pizza or the famed Hi-Tone brunch, it's safe to say that Kiersky has picked up right where he left off. He's added a BBQ chef, and, perhaps most importantly, the shows have kept on coming.
So far in 2014, Kiersky has brought dozens of bands to the Hi-Tone, including Future Islands, the Zombies, and the Flamin' Groovies. So much for the Memphis music scene never recovering.