LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with documentary filmmaker Hal Jacobs about the Atlanta bar.

A scene from Hal Jacobs' documentary on Atlanta's Northside Tavern.

A scene from "Northside Tavern: The Mostly True Account of the Golden Age of Atlanta's Most Exquisite Blues Dive," director Hal Jacobs' documentary on the longtime Midtown Atlanta venue.

In the Atlanta neighborhood in recent years, rechristened as West Midtown, among the gleaming new office and apartment buildings and retail shops, sits a cinderblock tavern emblazoned with beer logos. It stands out like a man wearing dirty overalls at a black tie dinner. This is the Northside Tavern, a hub of Atlanta's blues scene that over the years has hosted the likes of the Breeze Kings, Lola Gulley, Sean Costello, Donny McCormick and Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, among countless others. A new documentary celebrates the modest bar's storied past. It's called Northside Tavern: The Mostly True Account of the Golden Age of Atlanta's Most Exquisite Blues Dive. It's available via Vimeo on Demand. Director Hal Jacobs spoke about it with GPB's Peter Biello.


Peter Biello: So what made you want to take on Northside Tavern as a subject?

Hal Jacobs: I literally wanted to dive into the subject. Part of it was the pandemic: I really wanted to get back out and be in a place with people and live music. The other part was thinking back 20 years ago when we used to go there and just remembering what a great scene it was. We weren't even conscious of how great it was at the moment. And then driving past that little building and that and that new corridor and just thinking, "Oh my God, how much longer is it going to be here? And what's going to happen to all the stories that have happened here and been told about the place?"

Peter Biello: Well, let's talk a little bit about how it came to be what it is today, a sort of living museum of blues in Atlanta. It started in part with Ellyn Webb, who took over the bar from her family in the — in the 1990s and really made it a blues bar — not just a bar, but a blues bar. Can you tell us a little bit about Ellyn Webb?

Hal Jacobs: Ellyn is what really set the tone for the whole project. And she took it over from her father, who bought it or who came into ownership in 1972. He passed away in 1993, and she's the one who brought in live music. She met a young musician named Mudcat, and he started bringing in blues musicians, old and young.

Peter Biello: He seemed to be the one who knew the scene better than she did. And she gave him free rein to start inviting people and making some nights regular nights for musicians.

Hal Jacobs: That was the interesting twist in the story: Without Mudcat, you don't have that scene. She had the place and she brought him in and trusted him to do whatever he was going to do with it. And he really shaped it and shaped the music culture there. Everybody gave him credit.

Peter Biello: Let's hear a little bit of Mudcat from this documentary on Northside Tavern. Here's Mudcat talking about Allen Webb's choice to turn Northside into a blues bar.

Mudcat: "She said she had in mind was blues club or a strip bar. The strip bars are really easy, especially some dive like that on that road. So I don't know how, who, why, but somebody told her to go see us up there at Fat Matt's Rib Shack.

Peter Biello: Fat Matt's Rib Shack is mentioned quite a bit in this film, in part because there were blues musicians playing there at the time, so there was a little cross-pollination between the two venues. Hal Jacobs, you had a chance to talk to Mudcat for this documentary, but unfortunately, Ellyn Webb passed away a few years ago. What do you wish you had the chance to ask her about Northside Tavern?

Hal Jacobs: I remember Ellyn back when we used to go there. She would walk through the crowd. You would never even know she was the owner, except for the reactions of people who knew her and sort of parted for her to go sit at the bar. She was the most unassuming person you could imagine owning a little club like that. I think I would have been a little intimidated by her, frankly, to talk to her about it. I don't know what she would have said. That's a good question.

Peter Biello: Well, let me ask you about the nature of a place like this and how it works with blues music, because you can play blues music on a street corner, you could play in a big stage. You could play at a place like this, which is — some people like calling it a "dive." Some people want to get away from that word. But what does a dive-y place like this synthesize in a musician or in a particular song?

Hal Jacobs: I think the magic of this place, besides its authenticity, is a very organic feel. Things grew up, things were leaking, there was mold. The bathrooms were never kept up.

Peter Biello: For a long time, one of the bathrooms didn't have a door.

Hal Jacobs: Exactly. But it was a place where the audience felt as much part of the action as the performers. You go to blues clubs these days and everybody is sitting at a table. They're listening to the performers who are way up there on the stage. You enter the Northside, even now, and you're 3 or 4 feet away from the stage. And you may stand there all night. And you may better well dance while you're there, too, because there are people packed in right feet away from those musicians, bumping into them. I mean, how many places like that are left? And that was part of the magic. I mean, everybody felt like they were a piece of it.

Peter Biello: Is there a musician that you did not personally get to see at Northside that you really wish you had?

Hal Jacobs: I don't think I ever saw Beverly "Guitar" Watkins play there, and now seeing the clips of her makes me realize what I miss.

Peter Biello: Let me ask you about what's happening with real estate on that side of town, because, as we mentioned at the outset, this is a little cinderblock building among lots of new, swanky places. In your documentary, you interview Ellyn's brother, Tommy Webb, who owns the place, and he says he has no plans to sell. And that phrase leaves room for him to make plans later. So what's your read on that? Is Northside Tavern long for this world?

Hal Jacobs: Tommy Webb makes no bones about being a businessman and he's a contractor, a full-time contractor. He says he has no plans to sell. He also says that he's got a number that he doesn't think anybody's going to match, but — so he leaves it slightly open, but his family goes so deep into the Atlanta history and roots. He knows he knows how important the Northside is to Atlanta. I mean, he understands the significance of that. So it would be hard for me to imagine him walking away from it. But you've got to wonder.