Best Bars and Some Music

Text by Shawn Basey

As a musician, I’m constantly looking for places to play and also to catch some live tunes. Tbilisi certainly has an odd combination of having a ton of superbly talented musicians and not many places to play (something you might disagree with me on after reading through this list). Year by year, this changes: last year, when I moved back to the city, I was overwhelmed with the venues; this year though, most of those places have shut down. Either the proprietors lost too much revenue, passed away, or started bringing in DJs instead. Indeed, Tbilisi has been for some time trying to rebrand itself as a “New Berlin” (thinking that Berlin is only Berghain, they’re not realizing, I guess, that Germans also like live music).

I have found a rise in live folk music, which is great. Just walk down Kote Abkhazi Street in old town and you should be able to find an easy route to enjoying some Rachuli or Suliko. But what about jazz, rock, blues, or even, punk, hip hop, heavy metal or country-western? Believe it or not, they all exist here in Tbilisi, you just have to know where to go. But without knowing the places, it becomes impossible to find a show, as many of the venues are quite spread out or not really on the tourist radar. That’s partly why I’ve been pushing to develop some sort of coordinated scene.

Okay, “pushing” might be a somewhat gregarious word to use, but it is accurate regarding the Facebook page – Live Music in Tbilisi – that I set up trying to promote all the original live music acts around the city.

The danger is real though, as more and more bars seem to give up on hosting live music acts to take on the perceptively much cooler electronic music scene. As singer-songwriter Shota Adamashvili tells me, “I’m not sure how much of a hunger for live original music is out there in Tbilisi. The electronic music scene and karaoke nights seem to have taken over.” It’s not a recent development though, as previously live music was once defined strictly by the ability for a band to play Pink Floyd and Beatles covers (such bands are still in abundance on Giorgi Akhvlediani Street). I’m not mentioning any of those acts or bars as I want to push for at least a more original mood (though I do mention some cover acts, they aren’t the ad nauseam cover acts that you get in those places, bands that devour the derisive minds of many Americans when the term “cover band” is mentioned – though do check out that street if you’re into that sort of thing). “Most live music bars,” Shota adds, “have the same trends regarding having certain types of bands. You’ll hear cover bands playing something in-between the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC kind of rock’n’roll tunes or mainstream pop music.”

There are some places though that I regularly play at myself and that regularly draw live original talent. They might not feature a show every night, but just check their schedule on Facebook before making a night out and chances are, you’ll find something. Here is my list of favorites that I find myself at night after night, with a mix of larger venues for full bands, a couple of restaurants, and small bars that just have enough room to squeeze in a singer-songwriter or two.

Backstage 76

Vake Park, near the Abashidze Str. Entrance Vake

Call: 593 74 92 38

Backstage reminds me of some clubs I’ve been to back in the States, complete with the grungy, warehouse-feeling atmosphere that leaves you no doubt you’re in a rock club. The founder, Romain Brisson, discovered the run-down Soviet-era outdoor amphitheater sitting in the middle of Vake Park not long ago and decided it’d be the perfect concert venue (he wasn’t wrong). The only things that you can tell were upgraded were the sound equipment, as everything has something of a derelict feel, which is part of the charm. “We came up with Backstage76 because it was difficult to go see bands performing their own music,” Romain told me. “It was more about cover bands playing in ‘tourist’ kind of areas.” So he decided to come up with a new concept: “a small to medium-sized venue where local bands will perform their own music.” During winter, shows are crammed into the indoor space with a stage on one end, but it’s during summer where the venue really shines, with its huge outdoor auditorium out back. For smaller shows the seating is on the stage with the bands playing on a side stage, while for larger shows the full potential of the venue is exposed. Brisson books both well-known local bands and up-and-coming groups, and often brings in foreign touring talent as well. “We wanted to become a platform for regional bands from the Georgian countryside, and also from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey.”

Fb: Backstage76

Monohall

2 Davit Bakradze Str Didube

Call: 557 62 77 74

One of the newest entrants to the live music scene, and more in Tbilisi proper away from the touristic revenue parlors of the Old Town, Monohall follows the recent fashion in renovating old Soviet factories and turning them into trendy hangouts. It was a long abandoned Soviet milk factory which has now been turned into a modern live music venue. They do have DJs and electronic music there as well, so it’s hard to say how it’s going to end up. Will it be part of the live music revival, or will it go the route of 99% of Tbilisi bars and submit to the easier revenue generating machine of four-on-the-floor dance beats? As for now, the venue is only open for events, so check their Facebook or tkt.ge for the schedule.

Fb: Monohall

Café Volver

Call: 555 16 61 07

56 Lado Asatiani Str.Sololaki

What was once a simple, upscale wine bar has now turned into a place where you can catch regular music. They had such fun hosting one artist, that they decided to turn it into a regular thing. They now host a soloist or duet every Friday night.

Fb: cafevolvertbilisi

Dedaenis Bar

Dedaenis Park Old Town

Way back in the day, Canudos was one of the only alternative bars (or what they dubbed an “ethnic bar”) to hang out at in town. Tbilisi has long changed since those dark days, literally exploding in bars today. The team that started Canudos all went their own way, some opened hipster barber shops, others ran off to some meditation compound in India. Yet others did those things and started new bars. Dedaenis is the product of one of those brave founders. A much more adult feeling location, with a lot more of the gloss (and face control) that Canudos lacks. Dedaenis, situated right near a skate park along the side of the river in the park of the same name, hosts Sundayz hip-hop nights. It may seem to be a strange scene, how many young Georgians have embraced African-American youth culture, but in many ways it does make sense, given how these Georgians view Russian occupation and their own perceptively oppressive system. Make sure to check out renown MC Tato Rusia (MokuMoku) occasionally rocking their microphones.

Fb: dedaenis

Politika

164 Aghmashenebeli Ave., Chugureti

Call: 555 12 55 65

Originally opened by the same team that brought us the renovated park toilets of Bauhaus, comes a bar front reviving the front end of the old Tumanishvili movie studios and theater hall. They’ve gone the opposite direction that most Tbilisi bars have gone: originally they were an electronic music only venue, but then there started being more and more experimental live electronic acts, and now their shows have been branching out to even cover fusion jazz bands, hip-hop, and prog rock. Their shows are usually on Thursdays and Fridays, but be sure to check their Facebook first.

Fb: politikabybauhaus

Chaos Bar

2/4 Aleksandre Diumas Str. Old Town

Call: 599 54 55 34

Heavy metal and punk have both had a long tradition in Georgia. During the chaos of the 90s, people were meeting in dire conditions just to get together and let off some thrashing steam. There were some legends that were only recorded on tape, never to be appreciated by a wide audience since there was neither a place to play nor someone to record them, and playing then were such local legends as wild-voiced Robi Kuxianidze, who met this kind of fate, but has been an honored person on the scene ever since. The scene has grown a lot since Robi’s chaotic days in Kutaisi, and Tbilisi bars have come and gone, and for the last few years the crown for punk and metal was at the HR Giger-themed Creator Bar in Sololaki. With the passing of the late and great entrepreneur Maka Vekua, it seemed like there would be a permanent hole in the scene.

That hole didn’t last long though, as someone stepped up to start a new metal and punk bar: Kaosi Bar, just off Apkhazi Street. The sound system offers a heavy dose of bass and screaming, with stone walls giving some solid feedback, a perfect mix for finding your inner mosher. When I was there for the opening celebration, the place was packed with Georgian punks and metalheads, so much so that they ran out of beer midway through (but no worries, their boxed wine tap was working just fine).

Fb: Chaosbartbilisi

PurPur

1 Abo Tbilieli Str.Old Town

Call: 32 247 77 76

For the jazz lover, there’s always the venerable PurPur, the original Tbilisi art bar. PurPur perfectly preserves the scene of an 1800s Tbilisi café, using possibly the same furniture and definitely the same paint – though in the 1800s it served a very different purpose as the headquarters of the Russian army and officers’ hotel. It’s one of Tbilisi’s oldest and most distinguished venues, though has received numerous makeovers since I’ve been in Georgia, mostly depending on the state of the eternally under renovation Gudiashvili Square. For now they inhabit the second floor space, creating kind of a secret, heavenly atmosphere, a perfect place to bring dates and hold after-business get togethers, sipping on excellent wine while listening to some of the best jazz musicians in the city. Live music is featured every night after 9:00, though not always jazz (sometimes a classical pianist, or violinists – but always on the classy side).

Fb: PurPurRestaurant

Makulatura Bar

15 Shalva Dadiani Str. Sololaki

Call: 557 14 77 89

Way way way back in the day, before the aforementioned Canudos, there was a smoke filled, beer-stained pit of hangover residue known as Salve, named for the Latin greetings found in entryways throughout Sololaki. Salve is long gone, but Makulatura has moved in and revived the space, trying to bring back the cheer and merriment which once reigned under those arched bricks. They do have frequent solo acts, but they don’t have a regular show schedule, so be sure to check out their Facebook first.

Fb: Makulaturabar

Café Tiflis Brunch

4 Kote Apkhazi Str. Old Town

Call: 591 10 95 92

What looks like a typical art café on Kote Abkhazi Street is actually one of the best blues venues in town. Don’t be fooled by its bright colors and lighting, vintage chairs, wine selection, tasty khachapuri, or lack of stage. The best nights are Wednesday nights when Paul Rimple’s blues band, the Natural Born Lovers, jam it out in the corner. They’re masters of blues standards from across the genres and will take you traveling from the swamp jams of the Delta all the way up to the smokey barrooms and speakeasies of Chi-town. Rimple’s got the perfect blues voice and harmonica skills to carry them through. It’s a special treat when the owner, Zaza, sits down on piano and joins them slamming down on the old ivories. They usually have other acts on Fridays and Saturdays as well, also riding the minor blue scales with an improvised perfection.

Fb: Tiflisbrunch

Number 8 Bar

22 Irakli Abashidze Str.Vake

Call: 558 64 46 46

The perfect place to catch a football game, eat some chicken wings, drink a microbrew, and listen to the amazing crooning of Georgia’s only country-western singer, Shota Adamashvili. Shota started out on the streets of Tbilisi busking, but after literally riding a horse onto the local television talent show, Georgian Voice, he’s become something of a local celebrity. He’s got the American Southern accent down perfectly and sings with a voice part-Willie Nelson and part-Hank Williams. He’s now often found touring with his band Windshield in Europe, but when he’s home he’s playing at Number 8 in Vake on Fridays and Saturdays.

Number 8 can be a confusing place. There are actually two bars of the same name two doors down from each other. The smaller one was the original and when the owner wanted to expand, he found that his neighbors didn’t want to sell out, so he bought the neighbors’ of the neighbors’ room. I imagine he’ll eventually be able to create one big bar, but for now, he’s got two separate watering holes. If you enter and don’t see the bar and hear Shota’s twang immediately, you might be in the wrong one.

Fb: number8bar

Woland’s Speakeasy

2 Ivane Machabeli Str. Sololaki

Call: 596 30 94 94

The first place I check when I’m in the mood to go out (or to pick up a show). They often feature blues, jazz, and country, trying to keep true to their “speakeasy” roots. They started a few years back underneath a vegan café. You had to walk through the café to a bookshelf, speak a password found hidden on a Facebook post, and then be welcomed downstairs to the luxurious cocktail bar down below, where the bartender Meji would pour you some of the best mixed drinks this side of the Black Sea. Amir Zafari, the owner and founder, told me he got the idea of a speakeasy from when he was living in Ukraine. “At the time, there was no speakeasy bar in Tbilisi, so I decided to open the concept of it here.”

The password has since been dropped, and now you have to walk through the American Diner (also one of Amir’s projects) instead of a vegan restaurant. While you’re at it, make sure to grab one of their juicy burgers or delicious milk shakes before going down to the evening’s entertainment.

They feature live music typically once a week. “My ideal view,” Amir continued, “is to make a place for all talents who have not any other place to find their audience anywhere else… live music is about the artist, a talent which needs a scene to deliver their art to an audience.”

Be sure to check their Facebook for their schedule as they host a variety of different events, not always music related.

Fb: wolandsspeakeasy

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