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VOL. 127 | NO. 137 | Monday, July 16, 2012

Live in Memphis

Growth in venues leads to more concert opportunities

By Andy Meek

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Memphis’ “Live at the Garden” summer concert series may soon have a permanent stage structure to call home.

A new capital campaign launched by the Memphis Botanic Garden could provide a permanent stage for bands like Chicago, seen performing earlier this summer at “Live at the Garden.” 

(Photo: Chip Chockley)

One more place, among many in Memphis, to enjoy the sound of music.

The board of the Memphis Botanic Garden – home to the yearly slate of concerts that bring major touring acts to the garden’s intimate setting – has given its approval for the launching of a capital campaign. That campaign will raise funds to build the new structure, and “Live at the Garden” co-director Sherry Misner said the organization is now embarking on the due diligence process that will include drawings and other preparations.

The capital campaign is likely to be launched this fall, with work beginning next year toward opening the structure in time for the concert series’ first show in 2014. “Live at the Garden” wants the structure, because the concert series essentially creates a venue from scratch every summer.

It’s the venue that Chicago played in June and which will play host to Seal at the end of this month and the rest of this year’s lineup after that.

“This will be for something year-round for us,” Misner said of the structure. “But not just us. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra might want to use it. We might show movies out there.”

There’s a lot that could be done with the structure, once it’s ready. And it’s one indication that when it comes to live music venues in Memphis, while the current selection around the city is strong, the list of available performance spaces is continuing to expand.

“I think the good news, particularly over the last couple of years and looking into the future, is that the assets are continuing to grow,” said Dean Deyo, president of the Memphis Music Foundation. “For example, before Minglewood opened, there really wasn’t a location to cater to that middle-sized need. There were places for a few hundred people, and then there was FedExForum.

“Meanwhile, all these small outdoor events have been popping up everywhere. Even in places like Collierville and Southaven. Everybody, it seems like, has a Thursday night concert series. Even Mirimichi (golf course) every Friday night has live music on their patio. That covers the range, from very small to very large. And from that standpoint, it’s excellent.”

Recent concerts in Memphis have included Jack White, who played the New Daisy Theatre in March. Passion Pit is coming to Minglewood in October. Emmylou Harris will play the Levitt Shell’s annual benefit concert in September, and in December, Carrie Underwood will play FedExForum.

This year’s “Live at the Garden” is just getting started.

FedExForum helps draw big-name acts such as Drake to the region. But a number of smaller facilities play a vital role in the live music scene in Memphis as well.

(Photo: Joe Murphy)

“I think this year’s really well balanced, as far as the entertainment goes,” Misner said of the concert series. “This year, we’re also going into October, and we’ve never done that before.”

The city’s music scene has its share of challenges, no doubt. One local promoter who’s moving away from the city recently shared some of those challenges, as he sees them, with the music foundation in a kind of “exit interview” for the city.

Among them: people not attending shows because of the growth of the suburbs – sticking to their part of town, as it were. Also, artists and agents perceiving Memphis as a third-tier market, with Memphis either getting skipped over for a place like Nashville or seeing the occasional attempt here at unwisely charging first-tier market prices.

“There’s no backstage area at most of the music venues in Midtown,” said Rachel Hurley, who produces a live music series for Ardent Studios. “Sure, the Hi-Tone has a green room, but to get to the stage you still have to plow through the crowd. It’s not a surprise to walk in the front door and catch the headlining band sitting at a table having a beer and enjoying the opening act. I’ve met a lot of bands in Memphis that I’d have little access to in a bigger city just hanging out at the bar after the show.

“With that being said, bands feel more comfortable just hanging out and chatting up the locals because sold-out shows seem to be far and few between, unless you play dub-step or sell glow sticks at your shows. Bands like Nashville’s popular indie rock act Kopecky Family Band, who are slated to play both Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, two highly coveted festivals this summer, didn’t seem to be a blip on the local scene’s radar when they played a few weeks ago, while less polished Memphis acts that veer toward punk, metal and garage seem to gather a steady stream of local devotees.”

Still, the city has a charm – and competitive advantages – all of its own.

“One of the really great things about seeing live music in Memphis is the level of intimacy you get to experience with both the music and musicians,” Hurley said. “You don’t always have to ‘know someone’ to get a face-to-face experience with a musician here. The venues tend to be small and more dive bar than club, and the stages tend to be no more than a couple of feet from the floor.

“This access can put you so close to the musicians you can count the cavities in their mouth, and pack you in so tightly that they might spill their beer on you.”

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