Murphy’s, a divey Irish bar in Midtown is not a place one would usually go for blues, although I remember catching Willie Hall on drums there with somebody back in the early 1990’s. But perhaps because of B. B. King’s recent death, I noticed that Memphis bluesman Earl “The Pearl” Banks was scheduled to perform there with his band extremely early on a Friday night so I headed down to Midtown to check it out. Although Murphy’s doesn’t usually book blues, it is not a bad venue for blues, and there was plenty of available seating and no cover. Banks is an authentic traditional bluesman, and during the course of the evening, he played a number of standard tunes, including “Chain Gang”, which the Skatalites recorded under the title “Christine Keeler”, and of course “The Thrill Is Gone”, as was appropriate for a B. B. King tribute, with a hard rain falling outside. The crowd was an interesting mix of locals and a handful of people in town for the barbecue festival. All of them were treated to some of the best music Memphis has to offer.
Although Memphis’ live music scene is not as healthy as it should be, one of its redeeming features is the occasional opening of new live music venues, often in the inner city. When these spots appear, they often feature the authentic soul and blues music for which Memphis is known, so when I saw that a place had opened on Brooks Road called Kings Sports Bar and that they featured a band every Thursday night called Since 5, I had to make the trip to Whitehaven to see what was what.
As it turned out, King’s Sports Bar was in a small strip mall in a place I recall as a club years ago when I was in college, across the street from what was then Club Obsession. Back then it was a rap club, but nowadays it is a small and nondescript local sports bar attracting a small older crowd of locals, including a handful of vocalists who come to sit in with the band. Memphis is literally full of great musicians, and although I had not encountered the Since 5 Band before, they proved to be a gifted group of musicians, switching seamlessly from contemporary jazz and funk to soul and blues, and backing three different female singers, including Lisa Cook, a gifted vocalist who performed a blues and a Chaka Khan cover during the course of the evening. Even better, Since 5 played some original compositions, something that very rarely occurs with a lot of Memphis R & B bands these days. Kings Sports Bar features live music every Thursday night beginning at 8 PM, with free admission.
I never had a chance to visit Junior Kimbrough’s legendary juke in Chulahoma, but his son David’s juke in Holly Springs is the place to check out live Hill Country blues every Sunday at 6 PM, with a band consisting of David Kimbrough and Robert Kimbrough on guitars and Kinney Kimbrough on drums. With nearby Foxfire Ranch in Waterford offering blues every Sunday at 5 PM, Sunday is definitely blues day in Marshall County. Junior’s Juke Joint #2 is located just north of the Rust College campus on Highway 7 in Holly Springs. Admission is $10.
On Mothers’ Day afternoon, I saw that Joyce Jones, whom I had seen at Sherena Boyce’s party in Como a month ago, would be performing at Foxfire Ranch in Waterford, Mississippi. The weather was warm and sunny, so I decided to drive down, but I got there about an hour after the gate opened. Joyce performed one song after I arrived, but then turned over the stage to a comedian, an evangelist, a Southern Soul artist with a song called “Pour It In A Cup”, and then a Christian rock band called Destination Up. The latter act was interesting, as the drummer was one of Joyce’s cousins, and although I’m not always a big fan of rock, they were really good musicians and I loved the uplifting message of their songs. Then Kenny Brown came back on stage, with Joyce Jones and a guest artist from Nashville named R. B. Stone and Cameron Kimbrough on drums. They did several traditional Hill Country blues songs, including the standard “Rolling & Tumbling” and “Old Black Man”, Joyce Jones’ variant of the standard “Coal Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie”. Then Lightning Malcolm came up to feature on a song as well. Although it wasn’t exactly what I expected, it ended up being a decent night of music under a full moon and starry sky.
Live blues is common in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which makes its rarity in neighboring Helena, Arkansas all the stranger, but Helena just hasn’t seen the renaissance that Clarksdale has seen in recent years. Nevertheless, when I saw that fantastic Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller would be playing at a place called Club 21 for the kickoff party of something called the Americana Music Triangle, I called my homegirl Evelyn Archer and asked her if she wanted to go.
Evelyn used to live in Helena and owns a building on Cherry Street that blues fans recall as Bunky’s during the King Biscuit Blues Festival in previous years, so I knew she would want to go, but unfortunately she had church responsibilities, so we got a late start out of Memphis, and by the time we got to Club 21, things were winding down somewhat. We were met in front of the club by the grandson of the legendary bluesman Houston Steakhouse, and Lucious was playing a great blues tune when we walked in. Unfortunately, he only played about four more songs after that, and all of them were rock or pop covers, including his closing version of “Purple Rain.” Still it was great to see the juke joint, which the people in Helena are trying to turn into a regular music venue, and the Americana Music Triangle is a website that covers a half-moon shaped region from New Orleans to Nashville where so many roots forms of American music were born. Evelyn took us by her building so we could see it, and we dropped her friend off at his house. But it was now after 11 PM, and there was no place to eat in Helena, so we grabbed a breakfast at the Waffle House in Tunica before heading back to Memphis.
The 4 Soul Band featuring Otis Logan on drums has been one of Memphis’ premiere neb-soul and funk bands for the last several years, but now has a new look since the departure of bassist Lloyd Anderson to the cruise ship circuit. On Monday, May 4, they were the headlining act for the biweekly Memphis Music Monday sponsored by the Memphis Music Commission. They performed several instrumentals, and backed up guest vocalist Randy D on a Usher cover as well. Horn work was provided by ubiquitous Memphis musician Suavo J. It was also my first time checking out the new Hard Rock Cafe, located in the former Elvis Presley’s building just outside the Beale Street district. While the stage is somewhat smaller, the upstairs is bigger, and the outdoor second story deck is a very pleasant oasis in downtown Memphis.
I had not planned on going to the Beale Street Music Festival this year, since I wasn’t particularly pleased with the line-up, and also I hadn’t been able to get a press pass last year, and didn’t even try to this year. But when a friend of mine who works for Rockstar Energy Drinks posted on Facebook that he was giving away tickets, I decided to go, asked him for two of them and invited a friend from college to go with me. By the time I had picked her up (and the tickets), it was nearly 10 o’clock, so I figured we would only get to see one act. I wasn’t at all interested in the hard rock groups on the bigger stages, and nobody was on the Blues Shack stage, but when we got to the Blues Tent, a band was coming on stage called Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Although they were a Black band, they featured a young man playing the steel guitar, an instrument usually associated with country music, and so I knew that they were from Florida. The phenomenon of Black steel guitar is pretty much unique to the state of Florida, and largely in one denomination of church, the House of God. Robert Randolph in fact began his music career in the House of God, and told an interviewer that he was completely unfamiliar with secular music before he began collaborating with Mark Medeski and the North Mississippi All-Stars.
What Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar, Robert Randolph is to the pedal steel. His flexibility and inventiveness with the instrument is absolutely amazing, and his repertoire is extremely diverse, from gospel standards to blues and even rock. And he is a consummate showman, exhorting the crowd to get them involved. He calls his band the Family Band, and that’s not just a name, as most of the musicians are actually relatives of Robert. At the end of the set at 11 PM, the Blues Tent was still standing room only. The band performed one final encore at the crowd’s demand, and the Friday night of the Beale Street Music Festival ended with a standing ovation for about five minutes straight.
Keep up with Robert Randolph & The Family Band: