I can’t remember the first show I saw at the Hi-Tone (I think I was 16), only that when I got there, it felt like I was somewhere important, in the sort of place where good and strange things could happen.
Since that first show, I’ve spent countless nights there, dancing (or, as is more common at the Hi-Tone, not dancing), drinking beer, DJ-ing beer busts, eating pizza and listening to incredible music from here and elsewhere. I’ve been there for shows that almost no one came to, and I was there for shows that everyone came to, 400 people, standing packed, sardine-style, into the three-room bar.
It’s really hard to find out that now, after 15 years, the Hi-Tone is closing. I understand owner Jonathan Kiersky’s concerns: the building is in need of repair (and an air conditioner), attendance could be low, parking in that neighborhood is tough (but not impossible) and it’s expensive and difficult to book the sorts of shows that will fill the venue often enough to make it profitable.
It’s understandable, but it’s so sad. There’s no other venue like it in Memphis. It’s divey, but big, the size is perfect for small local acts and mid-sized touring bands. The food is good, the beer is cheap, and the bartenders are generous on their pours. Everyone you know goes there, and the sound system is good.
I feel like I should be able to do better than just saying it’s really sad. After years of going to the Hi-Tone, I should be able to say something more eloquent about this place that matters so much to so many of us.
In a way, the Hi-Tone closing sort of feels like the universe telling me that I need to grow up, that my days of staying out late and listening to loud music and tall boy PBRs with my friends are over.
I get that venues close – the Antenna, the Map Room and Barrister’s all had communities built around them, and they’re not here anymore. Kiersky is moving on – he’s taking the Hi-Tone name and adding it to his booking company, Ping Pong. He’s still planning to book shows for local and touring bands. And while I’m glad for that, it won’t be the same.
When something so vital to our local music scene closes, it’s hard to look at the good things that could come out of it. It’s easier (and, admittedly, more satisfying) to complain, to say that there’s nothing left. But that’s not true. Things change, bands break up and venues close. It doesn’t make it easier, or less sad, or less sucky.
What shouldn’t change is your support of the things in the city that you care about. If there’s a venue that you love, support it. Go to shows. Buy tickets in advance. Go see a band you’ve never seen before just like you would go see a band that you’ve loved forever.
It’s yet to be seen what other venues will step in and fill the space in our local music scene. Maybe Minglewood, Newby’s, the New Daisy or Crosstown Arts will step up, maybe something new will open. But it won’t be like the Hi-Tone.
There's still a little bit of time, though – the Hi-Tone won't close officially until the end of February. For a list of all of the shows coming up in these last, precious weeks, go here.