Music Cities, USA

by Country Inns & Suites
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It’s sometimes easy to forget that music is a performing art. And as thrilling or enjoyable as a song might sound on the radio, the Web or a CD, nothing compares to the experience of hearing music live. Whether it’s the performance of a classical score by a symphony orchestra or a simple, heartfelt blues tune by a lone guitarist, the opportunity to hear live music should not be missed. We’ve asked some of our correspondents to create performance- and music-related itineraries for four premier U.S. music destinations—Miami, Florida, Memphis, Tennessee, Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, California. Each of these cities offers one-of-a-kind music experiences featuring great musical traditions. By: Andrew Humphreys, Linda Romine, Paris Permenter, John Bigley and Jean Schiffman
Miami

The talk stops for the band of the night, a trio of Cuban-Americans led by an impassioned vocalist. The music they play is bolero, traditional ballads of old Havana that elicit appreciative murmurs from the crowd. But as soon as the band finishes, the house sound system sweeps aside feelings of nostalgia by cranking up the tempo. Dancers moving to the contemporary beats of timba fill the recently vacated stage area. Welcome to Friday night at Hoy Como Ayer in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana.

Miami has been swinging to a Latin beat ever since nearly 100,000 Cubans poured into the city following political upheaval in their homeland in the late 1950s. By day, Little Havana is a languid affair. Stroll on Calle Ocho (SW Eighth Street), also known as the “walk of fame,” with its inscribed pink marble stars inset in the sidewalk, celebrating Cuban icons. Clattering Latin rhythms, broadcast out of the open doorways of countless small Cuban music stores, supply a soundtrack for your adventure. At the corner of SW 15th Avenue, in nearby Máximo Gómez Park, old Cuban retirees gather every day to play dominos for dimes. The staccato clacking of their domino tiles competes with the music. The fat cigars clamped between the retirees’ teeth are all rolled locally here on Calle Ocho at places such as El Crédito Cigar Factory, a small factory-cum-store that welcomes visitors. That other Cuban standby, the adrenaline-racing coffee delivered in a thimble cup and known as a cafecito, is available from takeout counters. The coffee provides a booster before you head out to take in more Miami sites.

To complete the Latin experience, take dinner at Versailles, a Cuban diner with a menu featuring every dish known to the culture. After-dinner entertainment can be enjoyed at Bongos Cuban Café, the restaurant and club owned by diva Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio.

Still in town the following day? Sunday mornings are well spent on Española Way in South Beach, browsing the weekly market for vintage gewgaws, ethnic handicrafts and food. Stick around until Monday and you can enjoy Jazz Night and Theatre de Underground at Churchill’s. This weekly jam session of musicians young and old is set to be the biggest thing to hit Florida since Hurricane Andrew.

Author Bio: Writer Andrew Humphreys says that while he’s not a natural, he’s learning how to move to Latin rhythms.

Memphis

For decades—long before anyone had ever even heard of hometown heartthrob Justin Timberlake —music lovers the world over have been singing the praises of Memphis. The city is, after all, the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll.

So as the sun sinks behind the magnolia-lined banks of the Mississippi River, your pilgrimage begins along Beale Street, where in the early 1900s trumpeter W.C. Handy first penned the blues.

Today Beale boasts one of the South’s liveliest music scenes. Clubs abound, but best is the intimate blues venue B.B. King’s Blues Club, named for the beloved guitarist who got his start on Beale in the 1940s.

Although you’ll find the standard Hard Rock Café, other good Beale bets are less glitz and more grit: Try Alfred’s on Beale, King’s Palace Café, or the Rum Boogie Café to hear some of Memphis’ finest working musicians.

After you investigate the bars, slip inside the funky Center for Southern Folklore for a Moon Pie or a latte.

In the morning, like Paul Simon, you’re goin’ to Graceland. You can tour the entire mansion where Elvis Presley lived—and died. The garish Jungle Room, with its avocado shag carpet, faux waterfall and monkey figurines, always draws wisecracks. But you’ll want to keep the sarcasm in check as the escorted tour concludes at the Meditation Garden, where the King was buried in 1977.

Before you leave Graceland, check out some if its lesser-known attractions: Stroll through the car museum to see the King’s purple convertible and 1955 pink Cadillac.

Elvis wasn’t the only celebrity driven to excess. Dig this: Isaac Hayes’ gold-trimmed 1972 El Dorado revolves under spotlights at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. A cornerstone of the resurgent South Memphis neighborhood where Aretha Franklin grew up, the museum celebrates Stax Records, home of such 1960s hits as Otis Redding’s “(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay.”

While you’re in the mood for music, head over to Sun Studio. Sam Phillips’ label launched the careers of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Ike Turner a half century ago. The tiny studio still lures rockers hoping to mine its mojo.

Back on Beale, your last stop is the Memphis Rock n Soul Museum with its Smithsonian music exhibition. Allow several hours for this cultural treasure trove. Now reflect on it all over a slab of ribs at Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous, a Memphis landmark, or stake out a booth at ultra-hip Automatic Slim’s Tonga Club for Southwestern and Caribbean fare.

Author Bio: Writer Linda Romine finished this article with the inspiration of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.”

Austin

As the sun sets behind the juniper-clad hills west of Austin, lights along Sixth Street flicker from the clubs lining this historic area, inviting pedestrians to stop in for a quick drink or to linger awhile as musicians entertain. In a club called Maggie Mae’s, a rock band warms up. Next door at the 311 Club, a blues guitarist plays some sultry licks, while a couple blocks away at La Zona Rosa well-known groups such as the Indigo Girls and Train home make appearances.

Nicknamed “The Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin showcases an eclectic scene powered by talent ranging from garage band startups to internationally known names. Today, awareness of local music has spread thanks to South by Southwest (SXSW), one of the nation’s largest music festivals, and the Public Broad-casting Service’s long-running Austin City Limits.

On any Friday, a mix of melodies fills the city. In Austin’s fabled Sixth Street entertainment district, energize for a night of music at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, known for barbecue and blues.

Stroll south to Sixth Street, a music lover’s dream. After 10 p.m. the district really hits its stride, the street closing to vehicles.

Sure, it’s late, but there’s more music to enjoy. Just blocks away, the Warehouse District was once filled with dilapidated railroad storage facilities. Today, from its heart at Fourth and Colorado streets, this area offers everything from cappuccino to cigars to cabernet—plus cool clubs. To reach the Warehouse District, hop an Austin symbol: the ’Dillo, open-air trolleys that cart club-hoppers until 3 a.m. on weekends.

Dominating the district is Antone’s, “Austin’s Home of the Blues,” thanks to repeated performances by blues greats such as Buddy Guy and B.B. King, still often found on the club calendar of upcoming events.

After a night of clubbing, save time Saturday for a look at late blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan’s statue on the banks of Town Lake. North of the statue, Austin’s downtown skyline rises, including the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. The museum’s signature IMAX movie, “Texas: The Big Picture,” includes Tish Hinojosa’s Tejano tunes.

As Saturday draws to a close, head to Austin’s South Congress district, nicknamed SoCo. Funky shops sell everything from vintage clothes to cowboy boots.

Here, you’ll also find the granddaddy of Austin music: the Continental Club. Reminders of rockabilly, country and swing artists, such as W.C. Clark and Joe Ely, recall the club’s early days—and a time when Austin was cutting its musical teeth.

Author Bio: Paris Permenter and John Bigley don’t miss a beat—but the two-step knocks them for a loop.

San Francisco

Nothing says classical music—and big-city savoir-faire—like Davies Symphony Hall. Casting a golden-lantern glow, its sheer, glass wall illuminates concert-goers mounting the sweeping indoor staircase.

The San Francisco arts scene has long been known for its renegade spirit, from bawdy, Gold Rush–era music halls to beatnik poets and hippie rock bands. But music lovers have always flocked to classical concerts, held at churches, parks, theaters and especially right here at Civic Center, the stateliest of several downtown performing-arts hubs.

Your visit starts with a San Francisco Symphony concert, conducted by beloved music director Michael Tilson Thomas. Look for the prized “David,” a 1742 Guarnerius del Gesu violin once owned by Jascha Heifetz and now played by first violinist and concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. For close-ups of Tilson’s facial expressions, buy seats on the “Center Terrace,” which is right behind the stage.

First, dine around the corner on pan-fried oysters at the Hayes Street Grill, a popular seafood house. Reserve for an early seat so you won’t miss the pre-performance curtain talk. Later, have a nightcap nearby to the tune of the jazz piano at elegant Jardinière.

Next morning, take the vintage streetcar down Market Street to the gleaming new Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (open on Tuesday and Saturday). Grab a latte at Peet’s Coffee & Tea, a sushi roll at Delica, and an outdoor bench to watch the ferries dock.

Backtrack along Market to Third Street; a block down is the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Be sure to make a stop at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where “The Anniversary Show” chronicles the museum’s 75-year history. Lunch downstairs in Caffé Museo—try the grilled wild salmon and seared chanterelle mushroom polenta cake and fava bean ragout—and browse in the gift shop.

Cross the street for a moist, ear-splitting stroll beneath the Martin Luther King Memorial Waterfall, its opaque granite and glass walls inscribed with quotes from King’s inspirational speeches.

Back at Civic Center, feast à la française at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar. The goat cheese and green garlic pierogies are must tries.

The nearby War Memorial Opera House, built in a beaux-arts style in the 1930s but newly renovated, is home to the world-class ballet and opera, respectively.

Other Civic Center attractions include Monday’s guided walking tour of the Opera House and Symphony Hall, the symphony’s music store and Max’s Opera Café with its aria-warbling waiters.

Author Bio: Writer Jean Schiffman’s musical tastes range from Mozart to the Chieftains to Ralph Stanley.