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Musical chairs
The changing face of Savannah's nightclub scene
Joe Nelson performs at the 'old' Jinx, soon to move to another location - photo by Geoff L. Johnson
DESPITE BOASTING a handful of large venues ranging in capacity from the 1,100-seat Historic Lucas Theatre for The Arts to the MLK Jr. Arena inside our Civic Center (which tops out at around 9,500 seats), the heart of Savannah’s constantly evolving live music scene revolves around its nightclubs.

Over the past few years, much about our local scene’s capacity to nurse, bolster and —conceivably— launch commercially viable, Savannah-bred acts has stayed static. However, in some key aspects, plenty has changed as well.

For those who’ve just arrived in Savannah to start —or continue— their college matriculation, or for those who’ve called our fair city home for some time now but simply aren’t able to keep up with such things as easily as in the past, I offer this bird’s eye view of the current (and ever-changing) face of our smaller venues.

While room does not allow for the inclusion of every single established outlet for live entertainment (look to our weekly

Soundboard Concert Calendar for that), this roundup of some of the more reliable locations for catching local and regional as well as nationally —and even internationally— known touring artists should prove a great place for music lovers to start searching for their own favorite hangs.

First things first: With a few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of live music venues are to be found in Historic Downtown, although, reportedly, a large, 21+ rock-oriented nightclub will soon open for business in the adjacent Victorian District near Starland.

Which reminds me: Our Mayor and City Council recently passed legislation designed to clarify lingering confusion over how old one must be to enter an establishment that offers live entertainment while also serving alcohol.

It’s a relatively complex ordinance, but in a nutshell, here’s what you need to know: If you’re under 21, unless the venue is a theater or auditorium of some sort which is primarily geared toward presenting concerts as opposed to slinging drinks, or it’s a restaurant that serves a full menu throughout the show and doesn’t rearrange the furniture to create more standing room during concerts, you’re not gettin’ in.

That still leaves minors a decent number of places to legally catch live music — although perhaps not nearly as many as wherever they moved here from!

As far as alcohol-free rock shows that are always open to all ages, Sweet Melissa’s Pizzeria (corner of Broughton and Whitaker) occasionally lets indie promoters throw DIY punk, metal and hardcore shows in their brick basement, with little other than MySpace bulletins, flyers and word-of-mouth for publicity.

Plus, two downtown coffeehouses, The Sentient Bean (on Forsyth Park — which celebrates its 7th Anniversary this week) and The Metro (on Mlk, Jr. Blvd.) fill an important niche by offering a wide variety of all-ages shows by underground indie-rockers, neo-folkies, Old-Time acoustic pickers and Americana combos. The Sentient Bean has also emerged as a focal point of the local indie film community, hosting weekly screenings of cult and foreign movies, plus the occasional political or humanitarian documentary.

The recently opened Blowin Smoke BBQ restaurant on MLK is another hip all-ages place to grab a meal or a libation and catch free, early-evening outdoor courtyard sets by high-profile local blues, jazz, rock and country acts.

Elsewhere, Tybee Island’s Caribbean-themed North Beach Grill finally has all its noise-ordinance issues worked out, and is once more offering free, outdoor gigs on weekend evenings. That venue and Randy Wood’s intimate, 100-seat Concert Hall in Bloomingdale are the local music scene’s two best-kept secrets: they’re both great places to see quality entertainment —in the case of Randy’s place, world-class bluegrass and acoustic country and jazz— plus, they’re open to all ages, so whole families are welcome.

For those of age, a variety of popular local and regionally-based cover, party and original bands and solo acts in the genres of blues, rock, jam, funk, honky-tonk and bluegrass can be found on a weekly basis at a large number of watering holes and bistros — such as The Warehouse, Isaac’s on Drayton, the Mercury Lounge, John’s Bar (below City Market) and Fiddler’s (both their River St., and Southside locations).

Even West Chatham’s music scene is growing, with numerous bars and restaurants in Richmond Hill and Pooler — such as both locations of Augie’s Pub, The Jukebox, Glazer’s and the newest location of the downtown-based Molly Macpherson’s Scottish Pub — booking cover and party bands on weekends.

City Market’s Wild Wing Café is part of a growing regional chain with live rock, blues and pop as a bedrock of their business plan. Most weekends find their upstairs bar/music room offering free shows by rising stars on the Southeastern circuit (such as Sun Domingo).

Similarly, downtown’s branch of the small, Athens-based sports bar chain Loco’s has positioned itself as one of the only venues in town to regularly book the kind of original Southern rock, blues and jam-based acts (and the odd professional tribute band) that appeal to both the fraternity crowd as well as mainstream Savannahians. For example, they’ll soon feature a Halloween night show by acclaimed Widespread Panic associates Bloodkin.

While we recently lost the city’s only dedicated jazz venue with the closing of Kokopelli’s on Broughton Street, just a few blocks away, underneath The GAP, Jazz’d Tapas Bar continues to bolster its regular rotation of standout local R&B and jazz combos. Chi-chi hotel The Mansion on Forsyth presents a similar roster in its second floor bar overlooking Savannah’s most famed public park.

From time to time, independent promoters throw special, one-night-only shows at either Savannah Smiles Dueling Piano Bar (i.e., Cracker, Electric Six and —soon— Jonathan Richman) or Malone’s (Dropkick Murphys and —soon— Rev. Horton Heat), but of late, most folks likely associate live club shows with either local institution The Jinx (which specializes in punk, metal,, garage-rock and underground hip-hop, and soon relocates to a larger, subterranean location) or the Live Wire Music Hall, a newer River Street venue that’s been booking a steady stream of respected blues, jam and fusion acts).

News that a 300-capacity restaurant and “American craft beer bar” called The Distillery will soon open directly across from the Visitors Center has many local scenesters curious. The proprietor says his goal is to present nationally known musicians and comedians every weekend, while avoiding cover acts of any kind.

With two new showcase venues an hour away on Hilton Head (the 550-capacity Stages Music & More and the 1,500-capacity Shoreline Ballroom) and a new upstart music bar gracing Bluffton (Rock City), the greater Savannah area would seem to afford more live entertainment opportunities than perhaps ever before. Only time will tell... cs