The recent release of Robert Gordon’s superb new book Respect Yourself: The Rise and Fall of Stax Records has unleashed a flurry of renewed interest in Stax Records and its impact on Memphis. On March 6, 2014, a panel discussion was held at the student center at Rhodes College in Memphis, discussing the history and significance of Stax Records on the city of Memphis. Such panels had been held before, but this one was significant, as it featured voices from Stax that have not been heard quite as often- drummer Willie Hall, songwriter Bettye Crutcher, bluesman Don Nix and pianist/songwriter Marvel Thomas. Don Nix spoke forcefully and at length about how Stax was a different sort of place racially compared to Memphis at large until after the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bettye Crutcher talked about how she became a songwriter, and Willie Hall talked about his early career as a drummer at Stax. Altogether it was a fun and uplifting experience.
Memphis, unfortunately, is not as much like New Orleans as it should be, despite some obvious points of similarity. We do have krewes, a legacy of the old defunct Cotton Carnival/Carnival Memphis/Kemet, but the krewes don’t hold parades. In fact, the longest Mardi Gras parade in Memphis runs the two blocks of the Beale Street Entertainment District. But Memphis does have a cool New Orleans-themed restaurant called DejaVu, whose owners are originally from the Crescent City, and we do have some great musicians like Suavo J, so on Mardi Gras Day 2014, DejaVu had an all-day Mardi Gras party with live music and free king cake, featuring another one of Suavo’s numerous alter egos, the MemphOrleans Street Symphony, which seems to be an indoor band that takes influences from outdoor brass bands such as the ones in New Orleans. There were set drums rather than the marching snare and bass, and an electric bass rather than a tuba or sousaphone, but the music had a certain New Orleans vibe to it, and at least on this particular day, much of membership seemed to overlap with my homeboy Otis Logan’s band 4 Soul. Logan himself was on drums. So while I was disappointed about not being in New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day (I in fact never have been), I was cheered by the shrimp po-boy, king cake and great music at DeJaVu downtown.
When I heard that a place in Raleigh called Precious Moments at Lorenzo’s was sponsoring a Down Home Blues Night on Sunday March 2, with a band called the C3 Band, I had to go and check it out. Live music outside of Beale Street is not all that common in Memphis, and is extremely rare in Raleigh, and the venue seemed to be a new one as well, so I wanted to support it. But that particular Sunday proved to be a cold rain that started turning into a freezing rain and sleet event. Even so, the band was there, and a small crowd of brave souls who came out to party. The C3 Band is only a few months old, and consists of Courtney Brown on drums, Chris Pitts on guitar and Colton Parker on bass, and is something of a blues power trio. While they can certainly play the blues, they can effortlessly shift into funk, soul or rock, anchored by Courtney’s aggressive drumming style, and seem to be a group with potential far beyond the basic blues category. Their covers can range far and wide, from Frankie Beverly and Maze, to Bobby Rush, to Clarence Carter. At the end of the night, when I thought they had no more surprises, they went off in left-field with a totally unexpected cover of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” I left even more impressed than before. (The C3 gig on Sunday nights has become a regular weekly event at Precious Moments at Lorenzo’s in Raleigh).
The South Memphis rap group known as the Trap Mob is a popular featured group at the annual Tate Street Block Party each June, but they only rarely perform in Memphis, so when I heard that they were sponsoring a rap show at God’s Sons Motorcycle Club on Crump Boulevard in South Memphis, I decided to attend. Unfortunately, the occasion was a sad one, as the concert was being held in memory of a recently-murdered South Memphis youth called O.G. Lumplump, and many of those who came were wearing shirts in his honor, including one worn by a young man which read “You will live on through me.” Despite the somber reason for the event, the concert proved to be upbeat and raucous, with a standing room only crowd. The Trap Mob performed several of their bigger songs, including “You Ain’t Straight” and “Ain’t No N_gga”, and I was also pleasantly surprised by an artist I wasn’t familiar with, Big Gwalla, who performed his single “One of Me.” What wasn’t cool was the series of confrontations between different neighborhoods that kept breaking out during the evening. Nothing really got out of hand, but it was all somewhat annoying nonetheless. A few miles down Lamar Avenue at another motorcycle club where a party was going on, things didn’t end quite as well. A fight broke out which led to people leaving, and as they were leaving, shots rang out, striking a young man. Whether it was related to the conflicts that had broken out at our event was never determined.
Hardworking trombonist Suavo J looks increasingly like a man on a mission to single-handedly rescue Memphis music, and he is everywhere these days, whether it’s playing with Otis Logan’s awesome 4 Soul aggregation, or the Crescent City-tinged Memphis-New Orleans Street Symphony band, or the more rootsy The Bones. The latter group was playing on Friday February 28 at the Center for Southern Folklore down on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis. The weather was cold, and there was only a modest crowd, but the band rocked the house for those of us who were there.
When I read that the first Undercurrent event of the new year was to be held at something called the SkyBar in the 100 North Main building, I was thrilled. I vaguely remembered the old Top of the 100 club from my youth, and imagined that the view from the top would be amazing. Also, at least I thought, the announcement indicated that somebody was finally doing something with the long-vacant club, which in its heyday rotated once every hour. Sadly, I was to be disappointed.
The idea behind Undercurrent, is cool enough. Free parties are held monthly at different places around the city, aimed at Memphis’ young innovators, and the idea of having one 38 stories above downtown Memphis was very cool indeed. Unfortunately, there is no SkyBar, that’s just the name the Undercurrent people came up with when they rented the venue, which fully appears as if it hasn’t been used since Christmas 1982 (there were still Christmas decorations up everywhere from the last time it was used). While the view over the city was indeed fantastic, the decor and furnishings were vintage 1977, and there was even a 1970’s-era cash register still in its place. Nothing at the bar had worked in many years, and everything had to be brought in in taps and coolers. Of course there was great music from a DJ, good food, and lots of laughter and conversation. But the club’s appearance as if time had stopped back in the early 1980’s was just another reminder of a city that seems to be dying despite our best efforts. And apparently nobody has any plans for the SkyBar aside from a few event rentals.
Otis Logan’s 4 Soul band is one of the bright rising stars of Memphis right now, and they were in fine form last month at the Wine Down Monday at the 300 South Main Gallery in the South Main Arts District. Wine Down Mondays are wine tasting events with live music and light food, which occur twice a month. Contact the gallery for further details.