Venue Profile: The Lamplighter Lounge

By Zachary Corsa

When I relocated to Memphis in the summer of 2016, one of the very first clubs I found myself checking out was The Lamplighter Lounge at 1702 Madison. At the time, the clearly little hideaway met every possible definition, colloquial or terminological, of the term ‘dive bar’. Beneath pallid lighting, through a perpetual blue haze of cigarette smoke, one could find bands awkwardly pressed into the tiniest of wood-paneled foyers, cues nearly poking out their eyes from the shabby nearby pool tables. The Lamplighter of those days and prior had its diehard adherents, but the rough-hewn charms were often missed in its cramped and disorienting spaces. As a Memphis Flyer article headlined it in 2018, ‘you either love it or hate it’, and the Lamplighter of old certainly had its share of both fans and naysayers.

But that Flyer article also noted a changing of the guard at what some Memphians simply call ‘The Lamp’. Around this time, the bar was purchased by the new owners that would give it life, a partnership between two well-known Memphis music scene fixtures, Laurel Cannito and bartender Chuck Wenzler. Even before I’d set foot in the Lamp of 2016, I’d been attending lovingly-curated DIY shows in a rambling old yellow house at the northern edge of Orange Mound, and Cannito, who was a resident at the time, was a big part of what made that much-missed space work. By the time the pandemic hit in 2020, The Lamp had made a breathtaking turnaround, from increasing space for band performances (farewell, shabby pool tables) to purchasing a vacant adjacent storefront for even more performance options. The bookings are better, the food is better, and the ambience is better, and the Lamp’s become one of my favorite live music spots in Memphis, either for performing or spectating.

“I feel like it wasn’t ‘taken over’ necessarily”, Wenzler tells me about the transition from the old Lamplighter to the new. “Its kind of like a portal that’s casting high arts from the center of the city, that perhaps took me over. Together with Laurel Cannito , I believe the space offers a menagerie of uses that evolve music, dance, art, theater and comedy. We wanted to contribute an additive cultural tool for people to take advantage of, more a co-op of ideas, rather than a commercial arts venue.”

When asked what the reborn Lamplighter offers patrons that they might not find elsewhere in Memphis, Wenzler emphasizes the importance of community and diversity in shaping the space’s offerings. “We aren’t trying to out-do or out sell in a competitive market, rather we invite diversity and safety for those who want

more from a place than drinks and a sideshow. I always encourage new artists to play and like to help people put together a performance for their original ideas. We mostly don’t host cover bands or tributes unless it’s in a completely unique or parodied way. Growth always happens inside first. As far as the physical, I’m not sure what more we could add to the space…we just got a disco ball!”

Such modest agendas aside, though, the Lamp definitely has its eye on growth in future years, regardless of the challenges COVID-19 or anything else might present. “I want to continue to be able to serve and streamline things for more people to have the best experience possible”, Wenzler stresses. “As far as challenges for the business, for the most part, its been progressively easier to entertain and get people involved. Many seeds have been planted over the years by my peer group to enlighten creativity in the community. As far as the ‘rona, the worst part of that was filling out a ton of government forms to get grants and loans. It was so intricate and frustrating, I would have never been able to keep it together without my faithful business partner. Her additions to the food selection, and the constant sustaining of aspects of the business that I have shortcomings in, have really made a recipe for managing the potential catastrophe of losing everything. Also, our property managers, Arthur and Janet, have been very accommodating and open-minded.”

Overall, Wenzler’s enthusiasm about the space is infectious, his passion for its possibilities inspiring even as he makes sure to honor its past legacies. “Lamplighter’s contributed to a good amount of people having a great time, enjoying shows, discussing conceptual ideas, and theatrical/social gobbledygook, and I hope everyone locally throughout time has time to share with us here. One thing I wish that people knew more about The Lamplighter was that Keith, who used to work with his mother, Mrs Anne (the previous owner), was quite possibly the best billiards player in the world. Also, he could sing the best cover of Seger.”

From the very definition of a ‘dive bar’ to a trend-setting space that redefines what such a term might mean, the Lamplighter’s in very good hands, and more than worth your visit.

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