On a recent Wednesday night a friend and I headed down to celebrate the Longbranch's 34th birthday - quite a feat considering how frequently bars on the Strip disappear or morph into something else.
In celebration of its birthday, Longbranch hosted a handful of musical acts, including local favorites Llama Train, Tim Lee 3 and RB Morris.
My friend summed up Longbranch's role in town by saying "Longbranch is the alternative to the Strip on the Strip." The place might hold the monopoly on bars that are both Saloon style and dives simultaneously.
I don't just mean in town. I mean nationwide.
Its dark wood paneling looks less like the smooth, finished brown walls of a quaint British pub and a lot more like water-logged, decaying lumber that sat in the back yard barely covered by a tarp for 20 years. There are swinging doors, lengthy tables, and plenty of bar seats that make it feel like an Old West saloon (or part of Red Dead Redemption), but the lack of lighting, vague sticky spots of drying PBR, and lurking cloud of smoke provide that dive-bar environment. Nonsensical graffiti is carved into the wood on just about every spot possible, not just taking over the bathrooms but occasionally scattered along the bar or piece of the wall.
The crowd mirrors this alternative feel, with unkempt appearance, plaid shirts and other ratty clothing.
I started off my evening with a 24-ounce Miller High Life in a can, which was a popular choice of the evening among most of the crowd. It only seems appropriate to be wielding an enormous can of beer at Longbranch.
I paid the $5 cover (which is entirely worth it for an evening of multiple bands) and blended into the crowd upstairs. The audience ranged in age from early 20s to 50s with the bulk being in their 20s. Since school isn't in session, the typical Strip crowd was absent (for the most part). That's the way I prefer my Strip outings.
Having been to the venue numerous times and performed at it once, I can safely say it's never been legendary in the sound department. Most dive bars don't boast great sound. But Longbranch is clearly attempting to solve this problem, as Llama Train's multi-faceted rock approach featuring effects pedals and multiple vocal harmony lines melded together perfectly, resulting in better sound for the band than I've seen in several other venues.
But even when the sound is lacking, that's part of Longbranch's approach. The stage is hardly elevated, putting the band mostly on the same level as the audience. The sloppy nature of the sound and the dive-bar environment make it feel like you're watching a garage band practice. Fortunately, all the bands that performed that evening had an air of professionalism and great stage presence, so it wasn't quite that bad.
Llama Train, who rarely performs locally these days since they have at least one member who moved out of town, mesmerized the audience. In their years of rocking out locally they've built quite a loyal fan base who seemed present at the show.
Someone leaned into me while I was taking video of the band and asked me if I knew who they were. I answered his question, and he proceeded to explain how impressed he was. "It's rare you see a good vocalist in Knoxville," he said, adding that he loved Llama Train's vocal melodies.
Most live performances at Longbranch that I've been to don't leave you loving the singer - it's usually impossible to hear them. But the balance was just right.
People continued to pack into the living-room-size upstairs area to watch the live music. Audience members flowed from standing in front of the stage to grabbing a beer at the bar in the back of the room and occasionally stepping outside to catch a breather (or cigarette). I asked around the young crowd why they were out celebrating the venue's 34th birthday, assuming they couldn't be particularly attached to a venue they've only been attending for a couple years at most. Their overwhelming collective answer: "There's nothing else to do." That's the attitude that surrounds dive bars in the first place, so I found it appropriate.
Around midnight, after watching the mantra-based rock of Tim Lee 3 I decided to head out, satisfied with my evening.
I'm going to make a point of catching more live shows at Longbranch.
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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