The Rant 

On getting out and amongst 'em in a thriving new Memphis.

It's been awhile since we've been "out and amongst 'em," as the colloquialism goes, but lately it seems as if I've become downright sociable, or something near that general vicinity. I had become accustomed to the comforts of home and hearth and the company of my wife and three under-trained rescue dogs, whose over-fondness for people is the reason no one comes over here anymore. I'm speaking of the dogs, of course, and not my wife.

But I'm not hard to please: A roof over my head, an easy chair that becomes a lounger, and someone to watch cable TV with who enjoys making snarky comments about these awful shows as much as I do, and I'm content. Content enough to realize that I've had my fun and to leave the nightlife to the young. But lately, there have been so many occasions and venues that have literally forced us out of the house or, rather, me out of the house that I am belatedly seeing Memphis come alive once again, and I am both amazed and overjoyed by what I see.

It began a couple of months ago when Melody and I attended an art opening at Playhouse on the Square. Up until then, I had only driven by and watched, with growing interest, the restoration of the legendary entertainment district. But this was our first visit to the square in a long time, and we marveled at the already thriving businesses and the ongoing construction. We ate lunch in an area restaurant, then widow-shopped our way to the once and future Lafayette's Music Room, where I used to make a living back during the jitterbug era. So I just had to peek in the windows and was delighted to see it looks exactly the same. The big stage is there, with intimate seating and an upper balcony with a booth for a soundman; all the prerequisites for a grand music showplace — same as it ever was. The music and audience will be new, but the venue is vintage, and wonderful, new memories will be made there — and forgotten there, too.

The developers deserve congratulations, especially for the square's architecture. Even the parking garage looks terrific. I thought Yosemite Sam's would have to be dynamited out of their spot, but somehow even that once-nasty old building looks elegant. A California-based investment group announced plans to transform the deteriorating French Quarter Inn into a boutique hotel, and with the addition of the architecturally gorgeous new Hattiloo Theatre, the square will become Memphis' theater district. Imagine that.

Following that outing, a gracious friend got us tickets to see the Zombies at the new Hi-Tone on Cleveland, which gave us the chance to see the development in and around the old Sears-Crosstown. Jobs, jobs, jobs, people. Which put us in a good mood to hear there was no seating in the Hi-Tone, so we took refuge on some steps in the back. But as soon as the Zombies came on, I was drawn, like magic, to join the standing throng in front of the bandstand. For years, my policy has been to go nowhere I can't be seated, but the Zombies made me want to stand, and I can die happy knowing I got to hear Colin Blunstone sing "Time of the Season" 10 feet in front of me.

Melody convinced me that good things awaited outside of our den, and that began a spasm of social activities. We heard Eddie Harrison and Debbie Jamison sing at Neil's. We revisited the square, this time at night, to hear guitar virtuoso Dave Cousar play a set at Le Chardonnay and then on to Huey's to witness the yearly visit by Larry Raspberry and the Highsteppers. In the same night! I'm delighted to see new music venues open up for both local talent and traveling acts, and of course the jewel is the Levitt Shell.

click to enlarge Levitt Shell - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Levitt Shell

I doubt there's a better way to spend an evening than under the stars at the Levitt Shell listening to music. The venue is beautiful and becomes magical when the sun goes down and the lighting comes up. The sound is professional and whoever books the different and often unique acts couldn't be doing a better job. The coming months will bring an array of talent to one of our city's most beautiful, green expanses, and it's all free.

Only an asshole would criticize such a wonderful undertaking — so it may as well be me. There's one noticeable, and aggravating, design flaw at the shell. I imagine whoever designed the large slab of concrete between the stage and the grass intended it as a dance floor, but in the several events I have recently attended, it has become a major distraction. How can you concentrate on the performers and their music with people constantly milling about directly in front of the stage? Stage-front has become a shortcut to the bathroom and a place for unattended children to run wild. As the evening progresses, the kids are replaced by clueless, often inebriated attendees, who stand in front of the stage, blocking the view of half the audience. My suggestion for a more enjoyable experience: Dig up the asphalt and plant more grass. That aside, it seems to me that, at long last, Memphis is a happening place once again. I believe I just might stick around.

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