It's a Friday night at Mercy Lounge, and the legendary Bobby Keys — the Texas-bred sax player who's played on classic albums by The Rolling Stones, George Harrison and John Lennon, among countless others — is burning through a high-powered set of rock 'n' roll numbers. He's backed by his band The Suffering Bastards, which boasts top-notch players including founding Georgia Satellite Dan Baird and sometime John Fogerty sideman Mike Webb. And then there's the longhaired guitarist stage right, bandleader Chark Kinsolving, who is not only adroitly executing the iconic riffs of "What Is Life" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," but also owns the club.
Ten years ago, Kinsolving and his partners opened up Mercy Lounge in the building once known as just "The Cannery," which had been home to venues including Junkman's Attic and Rooster's. Kinsolving, a longtime rock 'n' roller with an affinity for classic hard-rock acts like Foghat, didn't foresee Mercy being a hip, open-nightly music venue.
"We were gonna do music occasionally, maybe the weekends," says Kinsolving. "I never wanted music all the time — at all."
The sardonic Kinsolving seldom hides the fact that he's heard enough live music to last anyone a couple of lifetimes, whether he likes it or not. So when it comes time to give the local paper some quotes, the classic-rock fan often turns the reins over to current Mercy GM Drew Mischke — an electronic dance music aficionado who started at Mercy in early 2006, and who has the word "DISCO" tattooed on his forearm.
"They just found that when they had shows, they were doing far better than when they had just a bar night," says Mischke.
Fairly early on, Mischke explains, Kinsolving brought Todd Ohlhauser on board as general manager. A storm, in Kinsolving's words, "essentially blew the fourth floor of the building off," forcing him and Ohlhauser to close the venue for several weeks. The two remodeled the space downstairs, which had once been used as a stage to shoot performances for The Nashville Network, and renamed it Cannery Ballroom. Ohlhauser made the move to partner, and before long, John Bruton (formerly of 12th & Porter) was brought on as the talent buyer.
"John was the guy that really kinda brought us into what being a real music venue in Nashville was about," says Kinsolving. "He knew the bands, he had the contacts, and it really stepped us up a bunch of notches."
It was Bruton, in fact, who established Mercy Lounge's ongoing 8 off 8th series — an idea he'd brought over from his 12 on 12th run at 12th & Porter. It's a free weekly show with drink specials and eight local bands playing truncated sets. According to Mischke, it's Bruton who made Mercy a fair and welcoming place for local and non-local outfits alike to play.
"With John, it's such a big thing: Treat people right, and go out of your way to find ways to help a band make extra money," says Mischke. "And make sure that you do everything you can to take care of people, because while you might not make a ton of money in the short run off of that, in the long run, the stability you'll have from your reputation is more valuable than making a quick buck."
Just last year, the Cannery/Mercy folks opened the upstairs private-event space One (which the proprietors hope will be open to the public in the spring), along with The High Watt — basically a miniaturized version of Mercy Lounge that frequently plays host to local bills and comedy nights.
This Friday and Saturday night, Mercy Lounge, Cannery Ballroom and The High Watt will host anniversary shows, with free admission for the first 250 attendees each night. Night one will see performances from locals including ever-rising psychedelic siblings JEFF the Brotherhood, pop songstress Tristen, riff-rocking funnyman Ri¢hie, electro-pop troupe Wild Cub and more. Night two will feature electronic dance-pop duo Cherub, Kings of Leon protégés The Weeks, synth-pop outfit Machines Are People Too, rock 'n' roll badasses Natural Child and more.
Kinsolving seems especially pleased that rock acts JEFF the Brotherhood and Natural Child will play the anniversary, even though he'll be nowhere near his club. He and the rest of the Suffering Bastards are currently at sea as part of the Rock Legends II Cruise, playing alongside bands including Foreigner, .38 Special, Kansas and yes, even Foghat.
"I'd rather be on a boat where I know the bands and I know the songs," laughs Kinsolving. "I'm not trying to sound like an old guy."