Memphis in Motion - 831 South Cooper
When I first spent some time in Memphis (I passed through once, visiting The Stax Museum of American Soul Music of course) I had a unique experience. It was a wrap party for the Indie Memphis Film Festival at the home of Kris Kourdouvelis, The Warehouse. That experience played a part in my decision to move here. I seek out those unique experiences - attending a fundraiser for musicians’ health care, a headstone dedication for a 1930’s Memphis musician - and encourage others to do the same. My niece was my first visitor over Easter weekend. She wanted to see Elvis’ house so I planned on showing her a little bit of the rest of the city. Of course we went to Stax, ate some barbecue, saw Eric Hughes solo on Beale Street, and went to a Redbirds game. But I told her we were going to see something unique, too. A friend* was playing at a new venue, a converted video store. When we walked into 831 South Cooper Street, before anyone started playing, my first of three impression was the amazing look of the place. The attention to detail just jumps out. When the artist took the stage, what caught my eye was the way the stage was placed in a windowed corner at the front of the building. I framed a picture in my mind of the room’s lighting with the street lights, traffic, and local businesses providing depth to the scene of the performance. When I heard about the goals of this unique place, I was instantly hooked.
Memphians know it as the former home of Black Lodge video - before my time, but I can respect his-directions (navigation based on extinct landmarks) and the people I’ve talked to about it since my last visit seem to know it by that ancient and honorable business. Owner Les Birchfield bought the building in 1989, and while the store operated on the main floor, he and his partner Shawn Lane built Sounds Good Studio upstairs. Again, you take in the visual beauty climbing the stairs past reclaimed pallet wood trim. The studio room also contains the home of the streaming service - music you can hear on their website. When the video business left the building, they decided to take the next step. They began working on a performance space with studio-quality acoustics downstairs. The second time I walked into 831 South Cooper, the first act of the night was playing. The second thing that hit me was how amazing the room sounded - and unlike walking past most venues, I could barely hear the music from the sidewalk. I am not acoustically qualified to comment on the construction, but when it sounds that good inside and is that quiet outside, someone has put a lot of effort into making it that way. Even with a full band performing later, we were able to hold a conversation in a back room and upstairs. One musician who walked in described it as the best sounding room in Memphis. My experience is extremely limited, but based on my sampling I would agree.
I have heard that the perfect is the enemy of the good - show off what you got and work on making it better. Les and his team at 831 South Cooper have taken that to heart. They didn’t wait until everything was in place to show off what was done. My final thought is this is a work in progress. They introduced their project to the public at last year’s Cooper Young Festival. Since then they have regularly live-streamed performances from the venue. All they have to do is switch over from the programmed broadcast. They have a vision for the future - a fully functioning music venue and rehearsal space with studio-quality sound and the ability to broadcast via the internet to the world. Judging by the two performances I attended and the enthusiasm and drive of Les Birchfield, Crafton Barnes, Steve Mayer, and Chris Swenson, 831 South Cooper will become that complete, visually appealing, acoustically perfect venue. With their permission I hope to track their progress and talk about their success. Without quality venues musicians toil on the streets and fans stand in the rain to hear them. Although a building is static, projects like 831 South Cooper and the vision of its creators keep Memphis in motion.
Click here for more information or to contact 831 South Cooper
*Thanks to Tony Manard for the performances, the inspiration, and the introductions.