Chattanooga has never really been known as a prime destination for live music—whether as a “must stop” on a band’s tour or a mecca for music fans wanting to see the latest and greatest live. However, nowadays it seems that by amping up (no pun) our selection of venues and getting people off the couch more often with the great acts they book we’ve turned our former sleepy town into “Chatta-nooga, rock-city!”
Ah, that bad Kiss reference reminds me of growing up here in the 1970s and going to see the occasional rock show at Memorial Auditorium. Maybe two or three times a year we’d have the opportunity to catch Atlanta Rhythm Section, Ted Nugent, former members of Deep Purple, The Captain & Tennille or maybe, just maybe, a jewel like Foghat play to the 2,000 screaming fans smoking pot and spilling beers all over the venue’s sticky floors and disgusting upholstered seats. Those were the days.
In the ’80s The Roundhouse was built and, just because we had a venue that could hold 10,000 people, Chattanooga was on the regular rotation of arena tours rolling through the Southeast. As a teenager, I remember going to any show there just to see some live music. I mean, there were the ones we camped out for—Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Styx, Elton John, Kiss—and then the shows we went to just for the sake of seeing a show—Billy Squire, Loverboy, Heart/Kansas (double bill!), Tina Turner. We’d even flex the fake IDs at Scrappy’s up the street before and after shows just to make it seem more rock ‘n’ roll.
By the late ’80s there was a decent local music scene in Chattanooga. Lots of great bands and shows every weekend in rogue venues such as abandoned buildings, pool halls in the hood, parking lots, basements—anywhere an extension cord would reach. We even had a club called the Nucleus, whose sketchy owner was determined to book those soon-to-be-hot bands touring in broken down vans across the country. And, having seen Black Flag and the Red Hot Chili Peppers there, I’d say he succeeded at the time.
It’s just been in the last five or 10 years that I’ve felt like we’ve again established the vibrant local music scene we had back then. We’ve got tremendously talented local bands that are being courted by music executives far from the Hamilton County line, or even U.S. borders. In addition to their determination, I also credit those who’ve hung a shingle as a music venue and haven’t been afraid to take financial chances booking up and comers much like the Nucleus did.
Rhythm & Brews, JJ’s Bohemia, Barking Legs, Nightfall, Riverbend (yes, there have been some good shows there), Tremont Tavern, Market Street Tavern, The Honest Pint, Sluggo’s and of course our new, smaller version of The Roundhouse, Track 29, have had their moments of awesome shows.
I remember seeing Graham Parker, Warren Zevon, John Entwistle, Glen Tillbrook, Kate Pierson (B-52’s) and The Whigs play Rhythm & Brews. JJ’s has hosted a wealth of up-and-comers who eventually made it big, bands like Alabama Shakes, Cloud Nothings and Girl In A Coma, to name a few. Barking Legs continually gets great acts, as does Nightfall, where I’ve seen too many greats, notably The Black Keys, Of Montreal, Marshall Crenshaw, NRBQ and Dawes in recent years. And, Track 29 has delivered acts that normally play larger venues like Jake Owen, Avett Brothers, Lucinda Williams, and Drive By Truckers, as well as the first-ever solo performance of Jack White, a coup for sure.
In addition to obvious efforts to remain competitive, it seems these venues have recently ramped up the quality of their bookings to fill the unquenchable public demand for more current talent—the kind that we now don’t have to travel to Atlanta or Nashville to see. Chattanooga has never been known as a town to draw a crowd, but naysayers be damned—our wealth of local venues have been able to do so with tremendous success. But in order to make visiting each a more pleasurable experience I’ve found there are some basic unwritten rules of thumb to keep in mind.
Track 29 and Nightfall shows start precisely at the time advertised, while Rhythm & Brews and JJ’s Bohemia maintain more of a “when we say 9 p.m., we really mean 10:30 p.m.” policy. Barking Legs has limited seating, so advance ticket purchase is suggested. And, I’ve found from experience that JJ’s regularly places the out-of-town “headliner” second in the three-band lineup in order to maximize attendance during the peak hours of 11:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Once you’ve discovered the groove of these venues, be sure to visit often and enjoy the awesome music scene happening in the Noog—for we now ROCK!
Chuck Crowder is a local writer and general man about town. His opinions are just that. Everything expressed is loosely based on fact and crap he hears people talking about. Take what you read with a grain of salt, but let it pepper your thoughts.