Walking Frankfort Avenue

By Keith Wicker

The muggy air feels more like the Mississippi Delta than the Ohio River-hugging city of Louisville on this Saturday night in mid-summer. I am alone and new to the street that announces itself with multicolored banners as "Historic Frankfort Avenue." Lighting a cigar, a couple of questions ignite along with the tobacco: What kind of music can I find within walking distance? How much would a Bud and a shot of my favorite cheap bourbon cost in each place? Not exactly an epic quest, but one that suits my limited budget and curiosity. I have twenty bucks.

The humidity makes the air like walking through cheese. I turn north and struggle up Frankfort to the Lighthouse, where I'm greeted by a long bar and a chubby-cheeked bartender. The combo of Bud and bourbon costs six dollars. With fourteen bucks and drinks in hand, I sit down and study the band More for Boris. Is it a reference to Boris Karloff or some Russian everyman? The four twenty-something musicians offer no answer. Fronting the band is a young woman who reminds me of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. Unfortunately, she has neither the tension-filled voice nor the insidious sexuality of Hynde. Although she strokes her Fender with a cocksure confidence, the PA is a muddle of midrange, making the words impossible to understand. Worst, the music is dominated by a drummer who seems only concerned with how loudly he can play.

I would rather hear bands swimming in rock and roll nirvana - sweat, smiles, fun, and fantasy - so I assume they are having a bad night. If asked, I would offer a couple of pieces of advice: don't do all your songs in the key of D and shoot the drummer, who is such a dolt that he even rat-a-tat-tats between songs, completely obliterating the introduction of band members. Mister Chubby Cheeks makes them stop until they can get the PA sorted out, which is a kind way of saying, "You sound awful." For that I praise him, raising the whiskey that he needs to serve in shot glasses rather than cocktail glasses, and, perhaps because it's my first of the night, seems a less-than-generous portion. Nevertheless, I kill it, leave a dollar tip, and, humming "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Momma," continue my journey.

The walk down Frankfort feels like seven miles of swamp but is actually about three blocks of urban asphalt that lands me in a pizza joint club called Clifton's. Lights are bright in Clifton's, giving it an insipid family-oriented atmosphere. I place my order only to discover that Clifton's has no liquor license. Bud is two-fifty. I have two beers and now I'm down to eight bucks. On the stage a guy somewhat adrift in his forties is strumming an Ovation and singing from the Corniest Songs Ever Recorded Songbook. "Time In a Bottle" segues into "Tears in Heaven," and by the time he reaches "Desperado," I'm trying to ignore him and his generic, inoffensive, easily ignored voice and flirt with the very attractive bartender. I'm beginning to feel discouraged about musical offerings on Historic Frankfort Avenue when the solo act calls out to a guy in the club to join him. Greg Walker of Walker and Kay tunes up and the fare kicks up nine notches. They do "Teach Me Tonight" and a couple of other standards. Walker is a top-notch musician. Afterward, I ask him where he got his chops. He says, "On the street." I like this guy.

I am beginning to feel good. I tip the bartending beauty one of my diminishing bucks. A simple street crossing finds me in Longshot's Tavern, where a three-piece band is cooking up some competent Southern rock/blues and my poisons cost six bucks, again. Turns out I'm hearing a Louisville favorite, the Merry Pranksters, or at least the three-piece version of that group. Tom Browning and his buddies, playing in the dark, know what to do with the tools of their trade. They listen to each other, sing well, and generally demonstrate the working-class musician's version of craftsmanship to an apathetic audience too young and tragically hip to care. The bourbon is served properly, in a shot glass. The brown liquid kisses the rim. The generous bartender gets my respect and leer. During the break I speak with Browning, who's as astute when discussing Beethoven as when talking about the blues. I enjoy the conversation so much I want to buy him a drink; however, I'm down to one dollar. I tip the bartender the last greenback and leave.

I light my last cigar and lurch through the cheese air for home. Since it's my new neighborhood, I'm pleased to discover that with twenty bucks and perseverance, I can remain a pedestrian and find good music and a good time on a hot Saturday night in mid-summer on Historic Frankfort Avenue.