Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Beale Streets Blues - B.B. King's

On Monday afternoon I stopped for lunch at B.B. King's Blues Club at the corner of Second and Beale. The club opened back in 1991, just six years after the opening of the Rum Boogie Cafe initiated the revitalization of Beale Street, kicking off a decade where Beale Street was once again a local destination for people wanting to enjoy live music.

I saw a lot of  great live music on Beale during the '90s. I was a junior in high school in 1996 the first time I saw Rancid at the New Daisy Theater playing a sold out show on the ...And Out Come the Wolves tour. 

Rancid hit the stage playing this song and the entire packed crowd went absolutely berserk. I'd been into punk rock for years at that point, and had been to small local shows, but I'd never seen mayhem like that before. I saw a lot more punk shows at the New Daisy in the years that followed. I still go see punk bands every chance I get, but these days that normally means Midtown bars not Beale Street.

A decade after the first time I saw them Rancid returned to the New Daisy during a tour for their Indestructible album. For some reason they didn't play the song Memphis off that album during their set despite repeated calls for it. Local fans still complain about missing an opportunity to hear the song live on Beale Street.     

As the '90s drew to a close the company that manages Beale Street, Performa Entertainment Real Estate, increasingly turned its back on the street's musical heritage in an attempt to maximize short-term profits. The Center for Southern Folklore, a nonprofit music venue and cultural organization, was booted off Beale to make way for a Wet Willies location. The center relocated to the Peabody Place on Main Street. As a family-friendly nonsmoking venue where beer was the only alcohol sold the center was extremely popular with music-loving locals and tourists. It was even a frequent daytime stop for school field trips. But a lack of mixed drinks limited the amount of money it could bring in, which limited the rent it could pay. Meanwhile Wet Willies may be a soulless frozen daiquiri chain but it has deep pockets.

While the opening of B.B. King's Blues Club on the west end of the historic district was a major milestone in Beale Street's revitalization, the opening of Wet Willies on the east end was a major milestone in the street's growing irrelevance for fans of live music.

 A few years later Wet Willies was joined by another chain aimed at tasteless drunks when a Coyote Ugly Saloon opened on the other side of the street. That is the New Daisy Theater to the right of it.

The moving of the Center for Southern Folklore and a shift in focus away from the street's musical heritage offers a textbook example of poor planning where a drive for increased revenue actually diminished the street's value to its former core customers -- local music fans and tourists. Unsurprisingly, the end of the street with the daiquiri bar that sells a sugary grain-alcohol-based slush called the "Call a Cab" and the chain saloon that encourages women to dance on the bar tends to draw a obnoxious and sometimes-belligerent drunken weekend crowd that is unconcerned with Beale Street's history. The Beale Street Merchants' Association is ironically now concerned with the fact that the street is becoming increasingly unwelcoming for families and tourists on Friday and Saturday nights.

Adding an additional layer of irony, during the first half of the 20th century Beale Street was a place where young black men would hang out along the street and listen to music even if they didn't have money to spend in the clubs. By ignoring the street's former reputation for live music, nightclubs that rely on the prerecorded DJ-driven booty rap that has become common in the Historic District have once again turned it into a weekend destination for young black men who just want to hang out on the street, listen to music and hit on women passing by without spending money in any of the venues. So the Merchants' Association is trying to find a way to limit the street to people spending money in its restaurants and nightclubs.

The western end of the Historic District has managed to maintain a lot more of the bluesy character people associate with the street. B.B. King's Blues Club still embraces Beale's rich musical history with live blues musicians on its stage every night. Even at lunchtime when I stopped by there was a live performance by B.B. King himself playing on a big projection screen on the main stage.

During Monday's visit to B.B. King's Monday I sat at the bar and had a large order of ribs. I'm still not sure why places on Beale tend to sell ribs in quantities like small, medium and large instead of the standard half or full slabs that are offered throughout the rest of the city. I was happy to see that they offered dry ribs as an option. The fried-onion-topped ribs were tender and coated with a really good dry rub but they didn't have a lot of meat on them and there was no evidence of smoke. I'm not sure if they were boiled or cooked in a gas oven but they definitely didn't spend hours in a smoke-filled barbecue pit. In fact, for an area with so many places claiming to offer Memphis-style barbecue, there is disturbingly little aroma of barbecue pit smoke on Beale.

The beans tasted like regular canned beans while the slaw was pretty average. I took a bite of the corn muffin and thankfully it tasted like cornbread, not the sweetened impostor being offered down the street at Rum Boogie.

I wouldn't make a special trip to B.B. King's to eat ribs. But if you are wanting to eat some okay ribs while enjoying some live blues on Beale the club is one of your best bets.

BB King Blues Club on Urbanspoon

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