by Zachary Corsa
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ebb and flow with each new variant, the profound impact of our strange new way of life is felt in changes large and small. Aside from masks and vaccines, services we rely on for day-to-day living have taken a hit; mail and parcel delivery is slow and erratic, supermarket shelves emptier than usual, construction projects standing halted partway to completion. When we make our half-sarcastic references to ‘the before times’, we illustrate a deeper, unspoken truth: that nothing is ever going to be the way it was before the virus, and it’s foolish to think otherwise.
Memphis hasn’t been particular unique as far as COVID-19 is concerned, neither especially blighted nor miraculously un-spared, but in cities like ours that were built upon a foundation of vibrant culture and art, the show truly must go on. No matter how dark this impenetrable night, we still need escapism and perspective to continue, after all. Though most venues in Memphis have seen sporadic returns to live music at best, two primary powerhouses of consistently-quality bookings have emerged in these harrowing days. One of these is the new Hi-Tone location in Crosstown, and the other is Growler’s.
The building Growler’s inhabits, on Poplar Avenue directly across from Overton Park, has had a very colorful history. “The location was originally a martial arts studio, owned by Kang Rhee” says the venue’s general manager Mark Schreck, “where he trained Elvis Presley and many others. Years later it became the original Hi-Tone Cafe, which held a legacy of having many incredible intimate shows over the years. After The Hi-Tone initially shut down and moved locations, it turned into a sports/hookah bar called Sports Junction for a brief period of time. Current owner Tony Westmoreland bought the property in 2016 in an effort to revitalize the space as a concert venue and keep its legacy going.”
That legacy has been more than honored by Growler’s spacious, well-appointed environs and well-curated bookings. Like The Hi-Tone, Growler’s has become a dependable proving ground for local talent, and both venues appear devoted to some of the city’s (and country’s) most envelope-pushing metal and heavy music acts. The vision, according to Schreck, is simple enough, to “keep live music going on in the city of Memphis, and have a safe and fun space for people to have a good time and enjoy live music, with good drinks and food in an intimate atmosphere.” That humble modus operandi is evident in Growler’s hospitable atmosphere. Its sizable stage and stellar in-house sound help, too.
Schreck first became involved with Growler’s in late 2017, occasionally assisting Growler’s talent buyer Mikey Glenn while working at the much-missed New Daisy Theater. “I ended up loving the venue and the staff and moved over to working at the venue full time in the fall of 2018”, he says. Cooperation across Memphis venues is also key to the Growler’s vision: “We’re continuing to keep booking bands that people love, whether they’re legacy acts or up and coming bands. We’ve partnered up Hernando’s Hide-A-Way, another iconic venue in town, to help keep the honky tonk/Americana/folk scene alive, as well running shows at Carolina Watershed for a fun and beautiful atmosphere.”
Several current and future developments show that the Growler’s crew isn’t dissuaded by the pandemic from expanding. “We have a brand new patio with a stage at Growler’s where we plan to start doing shows in the spring,” Schreck tells me, “as well as an upcoming merch/Delta 8 shop that will be opening in our side room soon.” When asked about the impact of the pandemic, Schreck calls it the venue’s “bigger obstacle so far, but we’ve been able to get through it the best we can like everyone else. We used to be open every day with a show every night pre-pandemic. Right now we’re currently only open on nights we have shows, but plan to hopefully be open more regularly come springtime. Since shows have come back there’ve been the obstacles of having to make sure guidelines are met to keep attendees and bands as safe as possible. COVID has also had us either cancelling or rescheduling shows due to outbreaks, which has put us back, but we’re still toughing through it all.”
In spite of the challenges every venue is facing during this difficult era, Schreck is being a bit modest when he refers to Growler’s as ‘toughing through it all.’ Bookings at Growler’s have remained reliably strong, adventurously-curated, and well-run, a much-needed source of familiarity and abandon when so much remains frighteningly unpredictable. When asked about upcoming bookings he’s personally excited for, Schreck singles out “up and coming country singer Sierra Ferrell with Nick Shoulders in February, as well as legacy act Sister Hazel on St. Patrick’s Day and hardcore titans Madball in March. But there’s many more shows on our upcoming calendar that we’re excited to have in the building.”
From martial arts training with The King, to the legendary original Hi-Tone, to Sports Junction, to Growler’s, here’s hoping that the building on Poplar’s colorful history has found its permanent resident in Growler’s. When Memphians turn to music in times of crisis, Growler’s is there to take care of them.