A treatise on dive bars

I’m a dive bar fan. A good dive bar feels like an extension of your house, a place where (to use the cliche) everybody knows your name, a joint where you can hang out and feel comfortable.

I come by my dive bar love honestly. In the modest Missouri town where I grew up, good dive bars were a fixture. They served as common halls for entire neighborhoods, filled with the descendants of the German immigrants who originally settled the area. Children drifted in and out, and nobody cared or complained. You still see a few bars like this in Baltimore and through the Rust Belt, but they’re rare.

Washington has a few dive bars, but it’s been a long time since I lived near one. I’d pick three as being good examples of the genre: The Surf Club in Hyattsville, the Sunset Grille in Annandale and JV’s in Arlington/Falls Church.

The Surf Club is really inconvenient for me and I’ve only been there a couple of times, but the combination of pool tables, shredded furniture, great live music and good-natured regulars puts it in prime dive bar territory. J.V.’s is smaller and can be a notch rougher — the first time I played music there, my wife stuck up a conversation with a woman who had just gotten out of prison for stabbing her no-good lyin’ cheatin’ husband — and the happy-biker Sunset Grille is the smallest place in which I’ve ever played music (but they love their roots/classic/blues music there).

Little Rock and Memphis — two towns where I once lived — both had great dive bars. Little Rock had the White Water Tavern, which brought in barbecue from Sims once a week and had the sort of permanent floor stickiness that comes from generations of accidental beer spills. Memphis had the P&H Cafe, with drawings from editorial cartoonists on the ceiling, booths held together with duct tape and a one-night-a-week resident poet who would pen a tome for you for a small donation.

But the greatest dive bar I’ve ever entered, without a doubt, is the Northside Tavern in Atlanta. I spent exactly one night there when I was in town for business in 2000, and here’s how that special night went down:

I had brought my harp case along with me on the business trip in hopes of sitting in at a local open mic, and the closest joint with a blues open mic to my downtown hotel was the Northside. When I got in the cab and told the cabbie my destination, he looked at me and said, “You sure you want to go there?”

Soon we were driving through a wasted industrial area, filled with half- and completely abandoned buildings. We eventually pulled up to what appeared to be an old gas station, although its true purpose was disclosed by the neon “LIVE BLUES” sign in the window.

I walked in. There was the bartender, the ‘host’ band that was setting up on the modest stage and one other person at the bar. I couldn’t help but note that this particular bar had its own Hammond B-3. I also couldn’t help but note that I had just been dropped off at a nearly empty bar in the middle of nowhere.

Twenty minutes later, the bar was packed.

It was more than packed, really: The happy crowd leaked out of the doors and hung out in front of the club. This was not a problem because there were no other human beings in any direction for a mile.

Unlike most open mic nights, musicians did not make up the majority of the audience at the club, although there were plenty of musicians. The place was filled with tables of blues-loving fans, all of whom knew each other and knew what was coming.

The house band opened up, put down half a dozen super-tight numbers, and the open mic began. I was the new meat in the room, so they called me up first (the sweet performance spots at an open mic are usually closer to the end of the night) and they stuck me on stage with a bunch of players under 25.

Ugh, I thought. Young blues players are usually too loud, too busy and too inexperienced. This had all the makings of a train wreck.

And then the guitarist kicked in his first chord, and the whole band fell right in the pocket behind him, and I thought, “Holy crap, these guys are good!” to myself, and we proceeded to set the house on fire. We closed with “Lollipop Mamma,” a high-energy jump blues standard that I used for years to close sets (I even used it to close my ‘open mic’ performance at my own wedding).

The audience simply went nuts.

For the rest of the night, I walked around the place and got a serious dose of unjustified adoration. People bought me drinks, introduced themselves, gave me their life stories, talked about the blues, bought me some more drinks, and when I stopped drinking alcohol because I had to work the next day, they bought me Coca-Colas in eight-ounce bottles.

At 1:30 a.m., I got in a cab and went back through the industrial neighborhood to downtown. I had to be at work at 8, but it took me another hour to wind down before I could sleep.

And that, my friends, is a quality dive bar experience.


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