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Tuning In to Birmingham
Alabama City's Music Scene Offers More Than 'Idol' Pleasures

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006; P01

Do "American Idols" grow on trees?

In Birmingham, apparently so. Over the past four years, three of the city's talents have barreled to the finals of Fox's hit reality show. The streak started with Ruben Studdard in 2003, followed by 2005 runner-up Bo Bice and this year's crowned crooner, AARP-haired Taylor Hicks. So, America wants to know: How did Birmingham get its groove?

Alabama's largest city cannot be pigeonholed -- musically or culturally. The three Idols are a good example: Hicks sings pop-wrapped soul, Studdard belts out gospel, and Brice channels Southern rockers. Indeed, there's no pure Birmingham sound; it's more like a compilation disc.

"We have gospel, punk rock, Dixie, jazz musicians who claim to be gospel and Christian instrumental," says Hunter Bell, 34, who produces and hosts a weekly public radio show featuring local bands. "I think there's a ton of talent. . . . A lot of people think the Birmingham music scene is going to explode like Athens [Ga.] or Austin. It hasn't happened yet, but it's on the brink."

A big push has, of course, come from "American Idol," which just announced that it will hold auditions in Birmingham for the first time. But the city is also working hard to improve its image, breathe life into deserted buildings and create a environment that sparks innovation and makes its own stars.

"We suffered inertia for a long time. Civil rights was the overriding theme for the past decade," says Birmingham native Alan Hunter, one of MTV's original VJs, who returned home in 1994 and opened WorkPlay, a multimedia center. "But the potential is here for greatness, if we can just get beyond the low self-esteem. We're looking forward, not backward."

To be sure, after a long period of dormancy, Birmingham seems to be waking up. Throughout the rambling downtown, encouraging scenes are unfolding in neighborhoods on both sides of the railroad tracks. Lakeview, a drab district of low-lying buildings and parched grass, is filling up with color: During a Saturday market at the Pepper Place, stalls selling outsider art, homemade soaps and shelled peas cluster near the 1930s Dr Pepper plant. Across the way, in the former digs of Martin Biscuit Co., a Mexican restaurant called Cantina shares space with an antiques store. Around back, the Amani Raha bar co-opts the L.A. style -- and martini menu.

The established district of Five Points South is also expanding, with a wine bar and a seafood cafe. Even the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain is getting into the act, with Friday-night in-store wine tastings. You can't get more random than sipping Pinot Grigio at the Pig.

Nor can you ignore Birmingham's turbulent past. In the late-19th to mid-20th centuries, the Magic City earned its nickname from iron and steel production, raw materials extracted from Red Mountain and the rapid expansion that followed. When the Depression hit, Birmingham's growth sputtered, and the city never fully recovered. It is perhaps best known for the violent civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s; for many, the city's name still conjures images of fire hoses, bombings and frightened faces of all colors. But slowly, things are perking up: In 2004, the U.S. Conference of Mayors designated Birmingham as "America's Most Livable City."

"The scene is really happening now," says Bell. " 'American Idol' has brought attention to Birmingham. There's such a buzz going around; very few bands are moving out of town these days."

Since "American Idol 2007" is not too far off, it seemed like a good time to check out the city's music scene -- before Simon & Co. get there first.

* * *

On a recent weekend, the events listings for Birmingham filled pages and pages in the local papers. Part of the problem, if you can call too many options a problem, is that many venues multi-task.

The Safari Cup, for example, doesn't just serve coffee and sandwiches; it also sells African objects, displays art and hosts jazz-jam nights. The sushi restaurant Sakura in Five Points South adds some edge to its raw fish with live punk bands. WorkPlay, which opened in 2001, also has multiple personalities: Besides housing media businesses, it packs in the people at its low-key bar and cavernous club.

Despite the plethora of diversions, it took some sharp navigation to find them. Birmingham streets follow a grid system, but there are few tall buildings to orient you. Whenever I got turned around, I headed for the railroad tracks that divide the city. But there was an upside to getting lost -- finding attractions I might otherwise have bypassed. Though clean and well preserved, downtown is a bit forlorn, with little sidewalk traffic and many empty storefronts. However, cranes and "Coming Soon" placards dot the landscape, and signs of life are everywhere: a newly opened bar, a renovated theater, an old-school barbershop with more bantering than trimming.

When it was time to head out for the night, I was torn. Should I sway to R&B performer b-Haskins at a front-row table at WorkPlay, or slum with sub-radar bands performing outside at Sloss Furnaces, a 19th-century ironmaking facility (and national historic landmark) that doubles as a concert hall? Lightning was slicing across the sky, delaying the Sloss show, so I started off at WorkPlay. There I caught the first half of b-Haskins, a buff and bald latter-day Marvin Gaye whose silken melodies had a hypnotic grip on the females in the house.

The trance was broken, though, with the last clap of thunder. Word traveled via text message (from a guy I'd met earlier at WorkPlay's bar) that the show at Sloss Furnaces was on: The musicians were setting up their instruments beneath an ominous boiler that provided a wisp of protection from the bad weather.

Seven local bands were performing, surrounded by peachy-cheeked kids drinking soda and sitting respectfully -- nay, reverentially -- in folding chairs before the slipshod stage. I climbed up to a nook in a piece of machinery and steadied myself between giant metal knobs.

Most of the music was of the soft-alt-rock variety, and I couldn't help comparing the bands to other established performers: Kiss Me at the Gate was a cross between the Sundays and Juliana Hatfield; Preston Lovinggood of Wild Street Orange was John Mayer with a backbone. But overall, the groups were original, not derivative, and so earnest and pure. I wanted to go out and buy (not download) all of their CDs. And, hey, at least they weren't singing covers like you-know-Hicks.

* * *

The following morning, the music continued at Pepper Place, where a couple called Fiddlin' in th' Parlor livened up the Saturday market with Scottish and Irish ditties performed on accordion, fiddle and whistles. Later, a female guitarist was setting up a stool and microphone stand at the Grape, a wine bar in Five Points South. And on Sunday morning outside Starbucks, a guy with bed-head hair and a beat-up guitar was pounding out classic rock tunes while his friend banged drum sticks against the chair and table.

Across town and over the tracks at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, veteran musician Frank Adams started his tales with, "When I played with Duke Ellington . . ." and "I was talking to Sun Ra . . ." Openers like that can silence a jazz fan pretty quickly.

Adams, 78, is the museum's director of education who leads tours through the two floors of exhibits. The collection is pretty spare, with some quick blurbs on the artists and a smattering of artifacts spanning a half-century (my favorite: the gold Neiman Marcus credit card, including charge number, of honorary Alabamian Ella Fitzgerald).

Back at the front desk, Adams, dressed in a pinstriped suit with a turquoise bolero tie and an unfailing smile, talked a streak:

On avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra: "He'd walk down 20th Street and get stopped by cops for dressing like an alien. When they asked where he was from, he'd say, 'I'm from Mars.' "

On performing in the 1940s: "We'd play in high schools, at matinee dances. Admission was 25 cents and we had a blind booker who'd just walk around, feel the crowd and say, '$400 in the drawer.' "

On the future of Birmingham music: "Birmingham has some hard-hitters now. You have people who are really stomping, and we have some youngsters who are really going to blow jazz out."

Adams took a breather to play a clarinet solo of Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." The man can still make the girls swoon.

* * *

In Birmingham, day can easily run into night, then back into day -- without pause for sleep or a change of clothes. At the Nick, a hole-in-the-wall club, bands often start around midnight and play until 3 a.m. If you have a craving for a burger afterward, Marty's is still flipping patties. Yet, even after an obscenely late night, locals still get up for church on Sunday morning. There's nothing like a blast of gospel to pry open your eyelids.

The basement of the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in the Civil Rights District, displays photos of the events that occurred at the church and still burn in people's minds. The Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963, which killed four young black girls. The teeth-baring dogs; the water tanks rumbling down the pretty, leafy street; the police clubs and fire hoses and tearful, scared expressions.

While I studied the images, sweet, stirring music drifted down into the darkness. The service was starting, and three women and a young man were standing before the packed congregation, microphones in hand, faces tilted toward the parishioners. To their right was the band, with drums, piano, a trumpet. Two TVs scrolled lyrics karaoke-style. People stood up, dancing and singing with no inhibitions. The teenager hit high notes that could shatter stained glass.

Then the music faded out and the singers took their seats in the congregation. The young man sat quietly two rows behind me, and as I left the church, I took one long, lasting look at him. Maybe he'll be the next "American Idol," I mused. Or perhaps he'll decide to stay in Birmingham.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company