Oct. 15 2013 06:42 PM

Live Wire and Hamilton's Tavern battle for best dive-bar jukebox

A patron flips through the expansive collection of tunes on Live Wire’s jukebox.
Photo by Candice Eley

    Everybody's had the experience of being a couple of drinks into a long, blurry night before hearing a familiar hook, riff or beat coming out of the jukebox, only to shout, "Oh, man! I love this song!" And if you've had that experience in San Diego, it probably happened at Live Wire in University Heights (2103 El Cajon Blvd.).

    The sign outside boasts "Cold Beer—Warm Friends," but it's not until you walk inside the joint that it's clear that the bar also has a pretty hot collection of jams on the jukebox. Spanning various genres, eras, regions and sounds, the music collection available to spin at Live Wire ensures a feel-good vibe for a night of well-intentioned debauchery. It probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise that a sizable majority of the jukebox's contents is punk. But those punk records—which include Wire, Mission of Burma, The Saints and Wipers—offer something a little more advanced than the standard Clash and Ramones (which should come standard on every jukebox, but I digress).

    Outside that circle, however, it gets even more interesting—Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Iron Maiden, Red Fang, Geto Boys, a handful of mixes of hip-hop jams. And, most importantly, there are more sleeves devoted to local bands than in any other watering hole that I know of, including two full discs of Rocket from the Crypt.

    But a jukebox doesn't have to win on the strength of its underground cred. Show up at Hamilton's Tavern in South Park (1521 30th St.) from happy hour into the wee a.m. hours, and it'll be packed with folks indulging in its plentiful selection of beer on tap, munching on pub-style comfort food or playing an intense game of shuffleboard. But a guaranteed party like that requires a good soundtrack to keep it going.

    Just like the tater tots and grilled-cheese sammies that Hamilton's serves from its adjacent kitchen, the tunes on the jukebox mostly are musical comfort food that immediately hit the spot. The curated collection—a similar variation of which can be found at the fellow Scot Blair-affiliated Small Bar in University Heights—is stacked with guys-night-out staples: Thin Lizzy, T. Rex, David Bowie, The Clash, Ramones, et al. 

    But it doesn't stop there. If you're in a sad-bastard mood and feeling like drinking your blues away, Elliott Smith and Ryan Adams are both ready to help. Or, if you're feeling like mischief and mayhem, you have your choice of The Birthday Party and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And it probably goes without saying that there's plenty of Tom Waits to go around. The hip-hop selection is more or less nonexistent, which is a bit of an oversight (maybe push out some of the jam bands?), but there's so much good stuff on the playlist that it's easy to forgive an omission or two. 

    The winner: Live Wire, both for its punk-rock deep cuts and total absence of Phish.

    Email jefft@sdcitybeat.com or follow him at @1000TimesJeff


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