Everyone loves to go somewhere everybody knows your name. And no, I’m not talking about “Cheers.” I’m talking about Northside Tavern.
What started out as a small grocery store in the 1940s has become a staple of the Atlanta music scene. From Buddy Moss, to Curley Weaver, to Cora Mae Bryant, the legends of the Atlanta blues have passed through the Tavern’s hallowed halls. And now, there’s a new film documenting its history and cast of colorful characters.
Through his new documentary called “Northside Tavern: The Mostly True Account of the Golden Age of Atlanta’s Most Exquisite Blues Dive,” director Hal Jacobs shares the story of how so many came to call the dive bar home. From photographer Unknown Vincent Tseng, to bartenders Hank, Cory, and Rommel, to too many fans and musicians to count, the documentary explores the Northside from every corner, inviting new fans to discover the blues and connect to the music that makes the place special.
“That was the heart of what we wanted to share, was the fact that we had this history,” Jacobs said. “Most people are probably not going to be drawn to that subject by itself, but we thought the Northside would be like the delivery device, to get those people in and to hear some of their music.”
Jacobs is originally from Jacksonville, Fla., but moved to Atlanta in 1983. He first heard about the Northside Tavern in about 2000.
“I met some parents at the youth baseball park where my son was playing,” he said. “They were the ones who said if you like blues, if you like funk music, then you have to check out the Northside Tavern.”
In the summer of 2021, Jacobs started work on a documentary about the place he and so many others had come to adore. Over the course of 50 or 60 interviews, the heart of the story started to emerge. The culture of family and music that the Northside evokes was due to the efforts of Ellyn Webb and Danny “Mudcat” Dudeck.
Webb, the daughter of the original owner of the Tavern, became the bar’s proprietor in 1989. According to the documentary, the evolution of bar’s music started when Webb took over at the helm. She wanted to turn the joint into a blues clue or a strip bar – she tried the blues club idea first.
Somehow – perhaps by divine intervention – she met Mudcat at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack. Mudcat had been traveling the country busking before ending up in Atlanta, crashing on the floor of a high school friend who attended Georgia Tech. After a show at Fat Matt’s, Webb approached Mudcat and asked him to play at the Northside. The rest is history.
Webb passed away in 2017, but the documentary makes clear the profound effect their partnership had on the Tavern and its evolution into a home for the blues.
“We knew early on that Mudcat was central to the Northside story, and everybody confirmed that for us,” Jacobs said about coming to the realization that this relationship would be central to the story. “We needed to get Mudcat’s side of the story in there as much as possible. That’s like a film in itself, the two of them coming together to create that environment of blues.”
While Webb and Mudcat form the heart of the documentary, Jacbos said he and his team quickly realized how many people would be integral to getting the Northside’s story right. What they thought would be a roughly 45-minute film began to get longer as the amount of interviews and archival footage continued to grow.
Jacobs said that they weren’t able to use all of the interviews they conducted, but he hopes to turn some of those conversations into oral histories to give to the Emory University Archives. When it comes to archival footage, much of which came before cell phones and YouTube were very prominent, the team had their work cut out for them making everything look and sound as good as possible.
“We really had to work with that material,” Jacobs said. “We had to work with the audio quality and the color. We ended up doing that in post-production, making it look better and sound better.”
Even in the pre-cell phone and YouTube era, there were people – such as Unknown Vincent Tseng – who were bringing in nice cameras to capture the magic. Jacobs said he felt fortunate to be able to use that footage, particularly when it came to Sean Costello.
The mere mention of his name brings a smile to the face of everyone featured in the film. “Meteoric,” said musician Bill Sheffield. “The biggest talent to come out of Atlanta in my lifetime.” Costello was a prodigal talent, playing gigs at the Northside Tavern long before he was old enough to be in a bar. When no one else would give him a shot at a gig, Webb let him play.
Multiple musicians in the documentary, from Coy Bowles of the Zac Brown Band to young blues player Cody Matlock discuss how Costello’s style inspired them, underscored by electrifying footage of Costello playing guitar.
Costello is one of the stories that ends the documentary, a choice Jacobs came to consciously. Costello’s career was sadly cut short when he died suddenly of an accidental overdose in 2008.
“I guess we wanted to save the best for the end, in a way,” Jacobs said. “There should be a full documentary about him. He was just so amazing, and so tragic as well.”
Jacobs’ documentary had two premieres of sorts, on Dec. 13 and 19 at another Atlanta institution, The Plaza Theatre. The film will be available to view online for a week, starting Dec. 23 and running through Jan. 1.
The first thing you’ll see when the film starts is a quote from Questlove, one of the frontmen of the hip hop band The Roots.
“Music is like one gigantic organism, flowing through people at different times, in different places,” reads the quote. Jacobs said he was inspired after seeing Questlove’s documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
“That sort of resonated with what I was feeling and seeing at the Northside,” Jacobs said. “It does kind of create an organism in itself that we’re all sharing, and it’s kind of a living breathing thing, for however long it lasts.”