Say “East Village” and most people probably think of New York City, but since the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library and the nearby headquarters of the Heifer Project International, a hip, trendy new district called the East Village has been developing in Little Rock, Arkansas east of I-30 and downtown. Perhaps the centerpiece of this district is a new coffee bar and roasters called Fidel and Company.
Fidel is a warm and welcoming spot; it’s sleek and modernistic, with plenty of glass, lighting and outdoor sunlight streaming in. There are varieties of Fidel roasted coffees, as well as Onyx coffees from Fayetteville, and plenty of inviting baked goods, both sweet and savory. There is also a lovely outdoor patio area, although it was too cold for people to make much use of it on the December day I was there.
I bought a bag of Fidel whole bean coffee to make at home, and it was great. Unfortunately, the website seems peculiarly geared to local orders for pick-up, so it does not currently seem possible to order bags of beans for mail order delivery. Hopefully, that will change in the near future.
Little Rock’s River Market District lies along President Clinton Avenue, and is the city’s premiere entertainment district, equivalent to Beale Street in Memphis, except for the fact that the River Market has a far better selection of shopping options as well as the clubs and restaurants. On a cold December Saturday, just down from the diner where I had eaten breakfast, I encountered a coffee bar called Nexus Coffee and Creative, and, on the theory that you cannot have too much coffee on a cold day, I headed inside. The inside was in fact warm and cheery, and the place has their own roastery where they roast their coffees. There is also a sort of local art/antique market inside, which had some interesting items, including cigar-box and coffee-can guitars. The intent of the place seems to be to function as a community hub, sort of the “third place” between home and work that Starbucks often talks about. But locally-owned entities like Nexus are better equipped to do this successfully than large corporate chains. And Nexus’ coffee was very good.
Down the block, I found the large Central Arkansas Library, but what attracted me inside of there was a used book store. Our library in Memphis has a good store of that sort, and the one in Little Rock was as well., There weren’t as many old books in Little Rock’s store, and the prices seemed a bit higher, but I left with four books, Unlike a lot of other entertainment districts, the River Market has something for day and night.
I was in Little Rock on a Saturday morning for a gig with Hill Country bluesman Garry Burnside, and it was downright chilly after my previous weekend in New Orleans. I am the kind of person that cannot start the day without breakfast and coffee, so I had scouted out a place online called At The Corner Diner, which is located right at the entrance to the President Clinton Avenue/River Market area downtown, but I feared it would be outrageously crowded. It did prove to be somewhat crowded, and yet, I was able to get a table fairly quickly, and I was impressed with the modern, stylized decor, the cheerful touches of red throughout the interior, and the general festive atmosphere.
At The Corner calls itself a “modern” diner, and I am not sure what that entails, but like a similar establishment called the 24-Hour Cafe in Austin, it seems to mean diner food with a bit of a gourmet accent. Prices are not as cheap as an old-fashioned traditional diner, but they are fairly reasonable, and there are plenty of familiar comfort foods on the menu. I chose an Arkansas Breakfast Sampler, which is a typical bacon and eggs and biscuit breakfast, but even here there was a neat gourmet twist, a cup of fresh fruit; I’m not always the biggest fan of fruit but the fruit in the cup was so fresh and so sweet that it made a pleasant addition to the meal. As any breakfast establishment should, The Corner had several coffee options as well, and as cold as it was, people were definitely taking advantage of it.
For those not in the mood for breakfast, At The Corner also has a fairly diverse selection of hamburgers, other sandwiches, and salads. When in Little Rock, it is definitely worth a visit.
Sometime before New Year’s Eve, a lady friend had shared a link with me on social media about a young musician named Akeem Kemp who was performing in Conway, Arkansas on January 13. I had not heard any music of this young man, although the name seemed vaguely familiar, as if I had heard somebody mention him in the past. At any rate, I googled him, and soon found that he would playing a little closer to home (and sooner) at the White Water Tavern in Little Rock on January 6, so we made plans to go.
The weather proved to be cold and quite wet, but we encountered a large crowd at the White Water, which is the best venue in Arkansas to enjoy live blues, as Akeem Kemp is from right up the road in Morrilton, Arkansas, and thus is considered a hometown hero. At only 20 years of age, and sporting dreadlocks, Kemp might look like a rap artist to those who didn’t know better, but his youthfulness belies a serious mastery of the electric guitar, and an uncanny ability to handle the kind of deep, soulful blues that other young artists avoid, tunes such as “As The Years Go Passing By” or “The Sky Is Crying.” Of course, like any young star of the guitar, Kemp knows his Hendrix, Prince, and even a bit of R & B/Southern soul, as in his hit original “Are You Doubting My Love.” But Akeem Kemp has internalized the language of the blues, and his decision to embrace the genre is thrilling, because only as young musicians become involved in blues will we succeed in preserving this endangered art-form. The future of the music is truly riding on his shoulders.
A lady friend and I had decided to drive to Little Rock to see the young blues sensation Akeem Kemp, and we needed to eat dinner before the show. So I turned to my Yelp app on my phone, and it showed a place called Agasi 7 Bar & Kitchen, which had opened only a few weeks before, on the rooftop of the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Little Rock. Reviews were good, and rooftop options are never a bad idea for a romantic night out, weather permitting, so we headed there when we arrived in Little Rock and were not disappointed.
It does need to be stated that Agasi 7 occupies a fairly small space on the roof of the hotel, and thus capacity is closely watched. If the venue is considered full, the staff on the ground floor of the hotel will not allow you to ride the elevator up to the bar. On this particular Saturday night, the venue was very crowded, but we managed to be allowed to go up immediately, and were shown to a table.
In warm weather (which this definitely was not), there is a large outdoor area of chairs and fire pits for patrons to enjoy, but a small indoor area and bar means that Agasi can accomodate patrons year-round, rain or shine. As for the menu, it is somewhat limited, which really makes sense as the place is first and foremost a bar. But there are a number of small individually-sized pizzas, a burger, other sandwiches, steak, salmon and small plate options, which can all be enjoyed while overlooking the city of Little Rock, which is arguably one of America’s most attractive downtowns. The view from almost any side of the room is beautiful, and my hamburger, which came with bacon, cheese and mushrooms was amazing, with an unexpected smokey flavor that immediately caught my attention. Prices are not cheap, but then you really wouldn’t expect a rooftop bar to have cheap prices anyway, and the view, quality of food, and enthusiastic service make Agasi 7 worth the time and money.
Agasi 7 Rooftop Bar and Grill
Hilton Garden Inn
322 Rock St.
Little Rock, AR 72202
Open daily at 4 PM
Although Arkansas has a delta region as well, and although the state has produced lots of great blues and jazz musicians, Arkansas has few blues clubs. Little Rock’s venerable White Water Tavern is one of the few places in the state to consistently book great blues, as well as many other forms of roots music. I first became acquainted with the place in 2015 when the young retro-soul star Leon Bridges performed there, and I soon became aware that the Tavern has played host to such blues figures as Patrick Sweany, Cedell Davis and Lucious Spiller. So this dive bar was a perfect site for Lightnin Malcolm’s traveling caravan of Hill Country blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce, Leo “Bud” Welch and Robert “Bilbo” Walker. Every event I have ever attended at the White Water Tavern has been standing-room-only, and this one was no exception. There is a back patio, but because the weather was so cold and wet, nobody was going out there, and the room was very crowded indeed. But the crowd was treated to some of the very best in Hill Country music, starting with Leo Welch backed by Lightnin Malcolm on drums, and then Lightnin’s own solo set with guitar and drums as a one-man band, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and juke joint dancing. R. L. Boyce followed, doing a number of his traditional tunes, and then Robert “Bilbo” Walker followed, in a style that showed considerable Louisiana influence. Altogether, it was an amazing show in an amazing place.
The Italian word “raduno” refers to a gathering, and everyone knows that pizzas are a favorite party food. So Little Rock’s new Raduno Brick Oven in the trendy South Main entertainment district next to the venerable South on Main is a great place for friends and family to gather around great food and drink. Although the concept of wood-fired pizzas is not as new to Little Rock as other cities, Raduno offers a more upscale environment for its artisan pizzas, a sleek, modernistic look with plenty of artwork on the walls, and electronic dance music playing in the background. The fairly diverse menu features weekend brunch, soups, salads, a small assortment of Italian sandwiches, and of course, pizzas, which are the restaurant’s signature. My thin-crust pepperoni was more than enough for one person, and absolutely delicious. Prices, while not cheap, were reasonable, and service pleasant, prompt and efficient. Raduno is definitely worth a visit when in Little Rock. Highly recommended.
Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom
1318 S Main St
Little Rock, AR 72202
(501) 374-7476 http://radunolr.com
I was really not familiar with Tawanna Campbell at all, but I was in Little Rock on business, and saw that she was performing at the Afterthought Bistro and Bar, which is Little Rock’s oldest jazz club, and that her drummer was Cliff Aaron, so I decided to swing by and check out the show before driving back to Memphis. The band was first rate (Cliff is an amazing drummer) and Tawanna Campbell proved to be a great vocalist and an exquisite show personality on stage. The crowd was engaged through both sets, and unlike so many neb-soul shows, I was amazed at how diverse the crowd was- young and old, Black and white. The Afterthought is a wonderful venue, and this particular Friday night show was worth coming from Memphis to see.
Keep up with Tawanna Campbell:
https://www.facebook.com/tawanna.campbell?fref=browse_search Tweets by tcampbell1922
Keep up with The Afterthought Bistro and Bar:
It’s hard to believe that only a couple of months ago I had never heard of Leon Bridges. Of course, the Fort Worth-based soul singer had already been doing things and beginning to make moves, but he somehow didn’t hit my radar until one of my favorite Mid-South venues, Tupelo’s Blue Canoe sent me an email in January triumphantly announcing that they had booked the up-and-coming young soul star in March, with all the enthusiasm of a record collector proudly showing off his newly-acquired copy of some rare 45 single. And the analogy is apt, because Leon Bridges and his band carefully craft the aesthetics of 1964-era classic soul and rhythm and blues (not R & B). His original compositions have that flavor, and even the appearance and dress style of him and his band members reinforce the retro feel. Not that this is entirely unprecedented, because the last few years have seen the emergence of a number of these types of groups, from Alabama Shakes to St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to J. C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound, to even James Hunter. And in some ways, Bridges and his band have points of similarity with all of that, and yet, Bridges is so young, his band so dynamic and tight, his compositions so personal (the newest released song “Lisa Sawyer” is a musical biography of his mother), his guitar playing so exquisite, that he is something at once familiar and yet brand new.
Freshly back from Europe, Bridges returned to the states with a Monday-night gig at Little Rock’s White Water Tavern, a venerable dive bar that happens to feature some of Arkansas’ best live music. It was in some ways a strange choice of venue, but Leon Bridges’ record label, Last Chance Records is based in Little Rock, and it was also a strange choice of night for a concert, but it is a tribute to Bridges’ rising popularity that the Monday night event was completely sold out, and he played to a standing-room-only crowd.
The building blocks of Leon’s magic are astoundingly simple. His band consists of guitar (two of them when he plays), bass, drums, a saxophonist and three female singers. His voice exudes a youthful naivety and innocence that is eminently appealing, and as he sings of his desire to “come home” to his sweetheart, you could almost imagine that you had been transported back to 1965. While only three songs are currently available commercially, Bridges performed far more on this night, with moods that ran the gamut from 6/8 soul ballads to 1950’s R & B, and lyrics that frequently mention the Mississippi River, New Orleans, even being washed clean from sins, the timeless themes of the South, white or Black. At show’s end, it was hard to imagine that the smiling, humble kid we were meeting is a star, but his single “Coming Home” was the most-donwloaded song in the world last week. And that suggests something exciting- perhaps soul music is finally “coming home.”
Keep up with Leon Bridges:
http://www.leonbridges.com Tweets by leonbridges
In the field of Black music worldwide, no other musical instrument is as important as the drums. Not only is percussion the musical foundation for much Black music and dance, but the instrument looms large in the cultural memory of people throughout the African diaspora. So it was only fitting for Arkansas’ best drummers to be honored at an event called The Drummer Is In The House, which was held at the Revolution Room on President Clinton Avenue in the River Market area of Little Rock on Thursday July 10. The event, sponsored by Clifford Drummaboy Aaron, featured performances by current and former Little Rock drummers Yvette Preyer, Rod Pleasants, Steve Bailey, Aerion Jamaal Lee, Jonathan “JJ” Burks and Charles Anthony Thompson. Rather than just a lot of extended solos, most of the drummers played with their individual bands, and even some singers, performing songs from the neo-soul, jazz and gospel traditions. But there were great solos too, including one from Jamaal Lee full of afro-caribbean rhythms and patterns, and one from Charles Anthony Thompson exhibiting extended sticking and tone techniques including pitch bends, and plenty of jazz influence. The final highlight of the evening was an event called the Roundabout, at which drummers moved across the stage from the first drum set, to the second, to the third, while Yvette Preyer kept a basic conga pattern for them on an octapad. As one drummer would exit the stage, another would come on from the left, enabling all the drummers to have an opportunity to shed three at a time, and to play each of the three drum sets. The Drummer Is In The House was truly a major event that highlighted some really great drummers, and a lot of other great horn players, guitarists, bassists, keyboardists and singers. I am told that future events will be held at the Revolution Room to highlight the other instrument families, and I am looking forward to it.