2016 Derby Nightlife Guide: Stumble off the beaten path

May 4, 2016 at 11:59 am
Verity Vice and friends take over Mag Bar
Verity Vice and friends take over Mag Bar Photo by Mary Yates

I say this to the visitors and the hometown folks: There are beautiful surprises all over town if you stumble off the beaten path.

You can find punk shows, pirate music, zombie rockabilly, drag queens and God knows what else. But more about that later. We don’t recommend you do anything to get arrested or worse, but we certainly hope you break out of the ordinary in search of a great party.

By way of encouragement or maybe as inspiration, I offer the following story. It’s from a Derby not too long ago and not so far away. It’s a day that has stuck with me, and even though I wasn’t looking for it, I think I caught a hint of the real spirit of this holiday.

It was Oaks night, the night before Derby, when the bars never seem to close, and the drinks never stop until you crawl home to catch a nap before you don your finest and head to the track.

We crept out of Mag Bar in Old Louisville just before dawn, hunting for the elusive chickens of Second Street.

I was hanging with the usual crew: Mag Bar nights get blurry, so the cast could have been any number of the couple of dozen assorted college students, waiters and artists with whom I passed the time.

Someone joked that since we could drink ‘til dawn, we ought to go find the chickens just before sunrise. The chickens of Second Street weren’t quite an urban legend, but this was back before urban gardening became a thing, back when a chicken coop was magical to a bunch of Old Louisville scenesters. A couple of people had heard rumors, but nobody seemed to know where the coop actually was, just that it was on the same block as Mag Bar.

No one but me. I have a terrible secret you see: I’m a morning person, and I’ve heard that rooster crow.

As the night wore on, most people tapped out. Just before dawn the crowd had dwindled to me and S, and I said I thought I knew where the chickens were, so we set off.

The city was taking a recuperative breath, and we walked in secret-agent silence several doors down from Mag Bar, then quietly entered a backyard that shall remain unspecified.

The big backyard was dark and seemed empty. My heart sank, but then S spotted a chicken coop in the far corner, and we crept closer.

There were six or seven chickens, huddled together in sleep, and one big rooster. The second we got close the  rooster’s eyes popped open, and he gave us a look that said, “Shuffle off, or it’ll get ugly.”

It was a hard look. This rooster was no joke, so we did shuffle off, and watched the sunrise over the Ohio River.

After a good long nap, and some breakfast, it was time to get Derby’d up. I was kicking it at a house party on Eastern Parkway. There is always good people watching, as gussied up Louisvillians brave the bus system that they turn their nose up at every other day of the year. (The real heroes on Derby are the transit workers, ya’ll.)

The liquor flowed, but my horse didn’t come in. Still, good times.

Shortly after the race was run, I remembered a friend at Mag Bar had said there was a dumpster full of books behind T, the beloved book store that had just finally died, killed by rising rents on Bardstown Road. It was easy walking distance from the house party, so we went on a little adventure.

We cut through the back alley, and wandered across Bonnycastle Avenue, the general post-Derby cacophony that settles over the city was in full effect, every third house was throwing a party, and from several blocks away you could hear Bardstown Road, where every bar would have a tent out front full of revelers.

I have to tell you, there are a lot of dumpsters in the alleys of Bardstown Road. It took us longer than you would think to locate the right one.

But there it was. Eighteen feet long, 9 feet wide and 10 feet deep. We climbed inside, and began scaling the little mountains of books. There were rolls and rolls of old register tape, that worked perfectly as streamers when thrown. The well-known titles were all long gone, everything left was arcane, and strange, made more wondrous from our healthy Derby buzz.

Finally the store’s former owner — still in the last bits of closing his business — came and shooed us away. He didn’t even seem mad, just resigned. “We’re just looking for books,” we said. “Everything good is gone,” he replied.

We eschewed the back alleys on the way home, heading straight to Bardstown Road, and headed back to the house on Eastern Parkway.

The Southern way of greeting strangers is amplified on the first Saturday in May, when most people are your friend, and the rest are your family. We waved and yelled from the yard of the house party, to the stream of party people, some headed home, some just changing venue.

We saw a man stumbling solo towards us. He was looking rough, but not like he was in danger; just that general post-Derby bacchanal chic. He stopped long enough to light his cigarette, and asked us if he was headed in the right directions to hit Bardstown Road. We told him he couldn’t miss it.

“Where you coming from?” we asked him. “Churchill Downs,” he replied. Now that’s over 4 miles, for the folks counting at home. I don’t know if being plowed would make that walk better or worse. Maybe it would make the walk a sort of mythic journey, each step a joyful challenge, a race run against the gravity that’s suggesting your best option would be to slow down and have a nap.

We felt great love for this hard-walking hero, and in an effort to help him along his way, asked what he was looking for on Bardstown Road.

“Just looking for a good party. Heard there was a good party there.”

I hope he found it.

For the rest of you, here are a few places to start:

TURNSPIT, THE RUNAROUND Derby Mag Bar 1398 S. Second St. magbarlouisville.com Mag Bar — excuse me, The Magnolia Bar and Grill — has been a fixture of Louisville nightlife since before most of the hip, young crowd was even born, yet it manages to stay a perennial favorite of scenesters young and old. Its jukebox has won awards, and slightly surly service has earned nods from Thrillist, Maxim, Louisville Magazine, and LEO.

It’s a great place to spend the endless Oaks night before, when dives like Mag Bar can legally sell booze the whole night through.

On the big day itself, Mag Bar is betting on two Chicago bands, Turnspit and The Runarounds. Turnspit is making their first Louisville appearance. “It will be the last stop of our tour before returning home to Chicago,” said bassist and vocalist Jason Duarte. “We plan to go out with a bang.” The Runaround has rocked the Derby City before, and are excited to be returning to Mag Bar. They have a brand new album to show off, and vocalist Jason Fein promised LEO that Louisville will see “a whole new level of debauchery riddled punk rock.”

TEAL GRAPEFRUIT, PLEASURE BOYS, CEREAL GLYPH, DJA Oaks Kaiju 1004 E. Oak St. kaijubar.com $10; 9 p.m. If there are giant monsters on the walls, and Germantown hoodrats crushing PBR’s, you are either at Kaiju or in the midst of Godzilla-inspired fever dream.

It’s only been open for a few years, but the eclectic mix of programing has earned this Germantown watering hole a loyal following. Depending on what night of the week you go, you might catch local punk bands, improv comedy or drunken Mario Cart on the big screen.

They’ve got a great show for Oaks, a mix of local bands and a serious DJ. Teal Grapefruit, an experimental band from Lexington, will be joined by the psychedelic and experimental rock of Pleasure Boys and Cereal Glyph’s garage rock.

Then down a shot and get ready to switch gears into dance-your-ass-off mode as DJA takes over.  Better known as Diplo’s right hand man at Mad Decent, DJA has had his fingers in serious jams. He produced the newest RiFF RAFF record, is part of Major Lazer, worked on the new Lana Del Ray, and has produced tracks from Lil Wayne, Usher and MIA.

La Cage: A Night with the Stars Derby/Oaks Play Louisville 1101 E. Washington St. playdancebar.com It’s hard to tell a holiday from a regular Saturday night at Play Louisville. The big dance floor is always full and multiple bars keep the drinks flowing, but Play’s biggest ongoing draw are its drag shows.

While fancy Derby parties like the Barnstable Brown Gala like to boast about celebrities showing up, Play will be doing one better, offering a La Cage: Night with the Stars, when your favorite performers, alive and dead, make appearances via the celebrity impersonating skills of the Playmates, and a roster of out-of-town visitors.

Since the full-time Playmates are often imports from other cities, many of the queens, like Akasha O’hara Lords, have only experienced a couple of Derbys. “This will be my second (Derby) since I’ve moved here,” Lords told LEO, before bragging about the celebrity impersonations that will be on display. “Play has an amazing lineup of many entertainers and impersonators from Nicki Minaj to Cher, to Tina Turner, Shania Twain and Taylor Swift.”

Guest performers Obsinity, Rasean Montreses and The Princess fill out the bill, impersonating Reba, Madonna, Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson.

‘12 Days of Derby’ APRIL 23–MAY 8 The Bard’s Town 1801 Bardstown Road thebardstown.com $5; 8 p.m. This bar/theatre/eatery in the Highlands doesn’t mess around during Derby. They offer 12 full days of shenanigans, with a gauntlet of events.

On Oaks, The Bard’s Town skewers the highfalutin Barnstable Brown Party by offering the Stable Barn Party,  featuring the 7 Ate 9 Comedy Show, Total BS Improv, and Groucho Karaoke.

7 Ate 9 is hosted by two time LEO Readers’ Choice Award-winning comedian Kent Carney.” Very few of our performers will be inevitably butchered to slake America’s unquenchable thirst for glue and glue-based products,” said Karney. “Our competitors cannot make this claim.”

Groucho’s, the late and much lamented Germantown karaoke club, left a gaping hole in a lot of hipster hearts when it closed suddenly last year. Thankfully the spirit of the bar lives on, and Groucho himself now hosts karaoke around town several nights a week, and he’ll be at the Bard’s Town on Oaks and Derby.

After the race is over, if you are tired of horses, board a ship with the music of Drunk & Sailor. “I’m the sailor,” said Captain Amnos Muirhead, in a recent conversation with LEO, “And I’m the Drunk” said Phillip McGuiness. The two met working at the Kentucky Renaissance Park, and their partnership and onstage personalities were built there. They started performing outside of work, doing improv and music, until their shenanigans evolved into pirate-themed party music. Shanteys abound, as do audience sing-a-longs. A perfect way to end the debauchery of the Derby season. “We celebrate all year-round,” said Captain Amos, adding, “We’re definitely qualified to lead the party.”

Nülydedz, The Punknecks Derby Third Street Dive 442 S. Third St. 749-3483 In Louisville, there is a zombie themed rockabilly band called The Nülydedz. Because of course there is. If there is anything this town loves as much as horses it’s zombies.

The group’s members had been playing together for almost a decade when they decided to get dead. “The  lead singer, Danny Lee, he came to me one day he said, ‘I’ve got an idea, I wanna do a rockabilly band, but I got a theme for it, we’re gonna dress as Zombies,'” said guitar player Ryland Hoke.

They bought a stand-up bass and a hollow-bodied electric guitar, and found a makeup artist named Steve-o Shepard. For the last five years the Nülydedz have been rocking out with their brains out.

The look is more than just a gimmick at this point. The band still goes all out for every show, but Hoke said it’s not just shows. “We wear the makeup when we do radio interviews. When we go out, we get made up. I went out last weekend to Zanzabar and I got painted up. I’m a zombie all the time.”

Derby is so wild it can almost feel like the apocalypse, and this year you can pretend it’s the end of the world at Third Street Dive. The music there is loud, and the beers are reasonably priced. It’s a welcome waterhole in the otherwise overly commercial Fourth Street Live district.

The Nülydedz have played Third Street Dive regularly since their formation, but they are particularly excited about the visitors during Derby. “We’re gonna play to a packed house, it’s gonna rock,” said Hoke.

The Rocket Queens Oaks The New Vintage 2126 S. Preston St. newvintagelouisville.com $10; 9 p.m. A lot of people have theories as to why Germantown is such a hot neighborhood right now, but the truth is it boils down to GPSs making it easier for outsiders to finally navigate the disjointed warren of streets and alleys.

Which is good, because otherwise the three left handed turns you’re going to have to make off Eastern Parkway to get to The New Vintage might discourage you from spending Oaks at one of the best music venues in the city.

This year they’re hosting the return of Brooklyn-based The Rocket Queens, an all lady Guns ‘N Roses cover band. Lily Maase, who started the band and plays guitar as Slash, spoke with LEO. “It started as a labor of love, as a calculated rebellion,” said Masse, describing the band’s formation a little over three years ago. She has decades of experience session playing, a degree in jazz guitar, is a contributor to Guitar World Magazine, but she still finds herself head banging against the glass ceiling, only being recognized as a “female guitarist.” “I felt like, if this is the corner I’m getting painted into, I’m gonna own the corner, and make it a really great place to be,” said Maase.

The group has played Zanzabar before, and loved it, “People from Louisville definitely like to party, and we like to party with them,” said Maase, of the Halloween show they played last time they were in town.

Halloween is cool, but do they know about Derby? Maase used to work in a sports bar that held a yearly Derby Party. “The entire lower East Side (would be) coming out in hats and dresses to watch the race here in New York. I can’t wait to be in Louisville in the thick of it.”

Steve’s Bar and Grill 1670 S. 17th St. 772-0607 If you get on Hill Street and head west, going under the railroad overpass, past the windowless porn store at Seventh, all the way down to 17th and Hill, you probably wouldn’t be too tempted to take a left and explore. A row of imposing factories starts a block or two over, giving that chunk of neighborhood a cold industrial feel.

Turn left.

Two more blocks over, set just far enough back from the road that you can’t see it until you make that turn, is a brightly lit sign for Steve’s, a little secret the Algonquin neighborhood has been keeping for over a decade.

Steve’s is a bit of a Chimera. The long counter top functions as a bar at night, but the $5 lunch special served there every day feeds plenty of hungry factory workers. The spot is your corner diner and your neighborhood bar.

The four pool tables get plenty of use. On our recent visit they were filling up with players who looked like they meant business.

The music plays loud through the house system, with a mix of hip-hop hits that gets louder when someone starts playing the jukebox.

The food isn’t deconstructed, or reconstructed, or a new take on an old favorite. It’s just good, fresh, salty and crunchy. Steve has a deep fryer and a grill, and he knows how to use them.

Order some of that food cause you’ll need something in your stomach when you start knocking back cocktails like The 17th Street Diddy Bop. The drinks are poured stiff. Maybe not quite Back Door stiff, but it’s close.

Check this place out on Oaks, because Steve’s is giving folks the day off on Derby.

Old Rascals 1102 W. Ashland Ave. 365-2141 In 10 years when all the hipsters are living in Beechmont, Old Rascals will be the bar where they get into trouble. With cheap, stiff drinks and a $10 card minimum, it’s easy to lose track here, especially on a Friday or Saturday night when the $1 Jello shots are on offer, and the Karaoke comes sailing out of the speakers in the back room. Pro tip: sing some old George Jones to win the crowd over.

It’s more spacious than it looks from the road, with several nice big TVs, turned to a variety of sports. The vibe is South End chill, with old dudes knocking back beers and cheap mixed drinks.

There is a menu that includes pizza, cheese sticks, and other assorted pub grub, but do yourself a favor and stick to the peanuts and chips. The vibe and the cheap booze are the reason to go there, not the food.

Beechmont is a stone’s throw from the Downs, so Old Rascals would be a near perfect after Derby hangout, a quick bus ride, or a long walk for the adventurous crowd.

Freddie’s 220 Bar 220 E. Broadway 582-9123 Freddie’s isn’t quite a secret; it’s been hiding in plain sight for years, with two old-school light box signs out front. One says “Freddie’s Bar, Lounge, Liquor, Beer” and another that promises “Beer to Go.”

The old school vibe extends inside, with dark hardwood, deep leather booths and walls lined with sports memorabilia from days gone by. The Derby winners of the ‘60s and ‘70s proudly displayed are certainly pertinent to this article, but I’m more a fan of the rifles and pistols hanging over the back corner of the bar.

Freddie’s has clearly looked at the trappings of the modern nightlife and said “no thank you,” though there’s a TV to watch the race on Derby day.

It’s long been known as a hang out for the artistic crowd, especially the performers and crew from Actors Theatre of Louisville, a fact that can often give this bar an old New York vibe. This watering hole can turn from quiet to party at a moment’s notice.

On days when the artists aren’t hanging around, there is always a couple of regulars holding the bar down, and it’s just a quiet place to wash away the stress of the day. Dark enough to be anonymous, friendly enough that you are never alone. To say this bar lacks pretension is like saying the Ohio River is wet.

Freddie’s is cash only, so bring a handful of Hamiltons.