Considering that Memphis is only a scant six hours from the Gulf of Mexico, the lack of seafood in the local restaurant scene is hard to fathom. Seafood places have come and gone over the years, with Owen Brennan’s (one of the New Orleans family of fine restauranteurs) being the one constant. So when I heard that the new restaurant on the Highland Strip with the Memphocentric name The Bluff was going to feature Louisiana-style seafood, I quickly took notice, because authentic Louisiana seafood has been hard to get up here.
The Bluff occupies the former theatre space of the old Newby’s, which remains open next door, and thus features a large stage which will eventually be used for live music bookings. As for the food, I opted for the fried shrimp dinner, and was pleasantly surprised. The shrimp were lightly breaded, well-seasoned and beautifully fried, and almost reminded me of the ones I loved so well at Trapp’s in Monroe, Louisiana back in October. My plate was full of shrimp, fries and hush puppies. An order normally would also come with something called “cajun greens”, but I asked them to omit that, and they did. In addition to the amazing shrimp, The Bluff features Catfish, Oysters, Crawfish, Gumbo, Etoufee and a full selection of burgers. Although Sunday was my first visit to The Bluff, it will certainly not be my last.
After the screening of the last film of this year’s Clarksdale Film Festival (which was appropriately enough a documentary about Leo “Bud” Welch), my girlfriend and I headed around the corner from the Delta Cinema to Levon’s to get a dinner at what has become Clarksdale’s greatest restaurant. But an after-party in honor of Leo was being held down at Red’s Juke Joint, the legendary spot near the corner of Sunflower Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King, so as soon as we had finished dinner, we made our way there. Red’s is always the perfect ambiance for blues, and although the weather was cold outside, the inside was warm and cozy, perhaps due to the large and ever-growing crowd. Leo performed a couple of sets accompanied by his own musicians, and was then joined by Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller, who recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock. When we left near midnight, the party was still going strong.
The annual Clarksdale Film Festival is a rather unusual film festival. For one thing it is held in the Mississippi Delta city of Clarksdale, which is more known for blues music than for film. For another, the films it presents are almost all documentaries, and the majority of them are films about music. But all of this makes the Clarksdale Film Festival worth attending. Unfortunately, this year, the films I would have liked to have seen the most were shown on Friday afternoon, during times when both I and my girlfriend had to be at work. But we managed to make it down on Saturday to catch Bayou Maharajah, Lily Keber’s superb biography of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, and the world premiere of Late Blooming Bluesman, a documentary about the late discovery of 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch, whose debut album for Big Legal Mess Sabougla Voices shocked the world. Before the film, Clarksdale bluesman Sean “Bad” Apple performed with Stud Ford on drums, the nephew of the late T-Model Ford from Greenville, with juke joint dancer Sherena Boyce joining them. Then Leo performed a handful of tunes as well before the start of the film about him. Altogether it was a great final day of the film festival.
On the first Saturday of the new year, a cold day indeed, my girlfriend and I headed down to Clarksdale to eat at Levon’s and enjoy some blues at Red’s Juke Joint. This was our first occasion trying Levon’s, and in my opinion, it is the fine dining restaurant that Clarksdale has been needing. R. L. Boyce was playing at Red’s, but when we arrived, some of his musicians had not shown up, and there wasn’t much of a crowd. But Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller has recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock, and he agreed to go get his guitar and amp to play with R. L., and soon there was at least a trio of two guitars and a drummer. On some tunes, R.L.’s daughter joined him on stage playing the tambourine and dancing, and toward the end of the evening, they were joined by a musician playing a bass made out of a plastic bucket, a mop handle and a string. By then the crowd had grown fairly large, despite the cold weather outside. It was a great way to start off 2017- with the blues.
Duwayne Burnside had played The Shelter on Van Buren in Oxford, Mississippi earlier in the fall, but I had not been able to attend, so when it was announced that he would be playing there again on New Years’ Eve, I was eager to be there. It would prove to be both my first, and sadly my last, visit to The Shelter.
The venue was a coffee bar and live music venue, which also served a very limited food menu, some desserts, and craft beer. The atmosphere was extremely laid back, with couches, benches, chairs and tables in a rather haphazard pattern near the stage. The night of Hill Country blues featured not only Duwayne Burnside but also Kenny Brown, and a few local Oxford musicians, including guitarist Kody Harrell. At first Duwayne’s drummer had not shown up, so he was playing a sort of “unplugged” acoustic set. After his drummer arrived, he picked up the pace and intensity level to an extent, and the moderate crowd in the seats loved every minute of it. Como bluesman R. L. Boyce then joined Duwayne on stage for a few songs, and some local musicians came up to sit end toward the show’s end. At 10 PM or so, Duwayne brought things to a halt, as he had another show at The Hut in Holly Springs starting at 11, and we all left in a happy frame of mind. Unfortunately, it would be the last time we got to visit The Shelter on Van Buren. A week into the new year, it abruptly closed for good.
When a young Lebanese man from Port Arthur, Texas named Clifford Antone got kicked out (or perhaps dropped out, depending on who you ask) of the University of Texas after a marijuana arrest in 1970, it seemed like an end to a promising career. The Antone family were prominent businessmen in Houston, owning an import firm and a chain of sandwich shops that specialized in po-boys. Other young men might have fallen into a depression, or started on a downward spiral into harder drugs and ruin, but Clifford Antone decided to open a night club. Yet when Antone’s opened in 1975 on a then-moribund East Sixth Street in downtown Austin, it was hardly the kind of club that people would have expected success from, for it was a blues club, and the blues revival had fizzled out by the end of the 1960’s. Nor was Austin well-known for blues, despite a Texas blues legacy that was primarily centered around Houston. But all of the best names in blues from around the country played at Antone’s, and by the time of Clifford Antone’s death in 2006, his empire had added a record store and a record label as well. The record store belongs to other owners now, and the record label was sold to Warner Brothers after a bankruptcy, but the club, despite occasional closures and numerous relocations, remains the absolute best blues club in Texas, and probably one of the best blues clubs in the world. So it was quite an honor for Hill Country bluesman R. L. Boyce to be invited to play there, along with Marshall County bluesman Lightnin’ Malcolm, who has increased in popularity over the last several years. The club was packed to overflowing, despite the cold, rainy weather, and the crowd enjoyed every minute of the proceedings. The drum chair was held by the late T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud Ford, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena provided the juke joint dancing and played the tambourine. Seen in the crowd was noted music journalist Matt Sonzala. It was a great night indeed.
While traveling from Dallas to Austin in incessant rain, I decided I wanted some sort of coffee when we got to Waco. With Baylor University located there, I noticed several different coffee options on my phone, but opted for one called BRU Artisan Coffee Works on Franklin Avenue in the Praetorian Building in Downtown Waco. It was still raining when we arrived at the coffee house, and we were amazed to find that BRU occupies the old elevator shaft of the historic building, and otherwise shares space with Interior Glow, a home decorating and gift shop. We found that the barista was friendly, and the coffee amazingly good, just the thing to cheer us on a grey, rainy afternoon. BRU is somewhat off the beaten path, but worth a visit.
Believe it or not, there was a time in my lifetime when espresso, cappuccino and other artisan coffees were just about impossible to obtain in the South. Certainly we could not find them anywhere in Memphis. There were no Starbucks locations, and few local coffee houses either. Only the biggest cities, such as Atlanta or Dallas had such places. Nowadays, the South is second only to the Pacific Northwest when it comes to artisan coffee, and the available choices can truly be bewildering, particularly in coffee-loving cities like Atlanta or New Orleans. New roasters seemingly pop up every day. But a young upstart, Birmingham’s Revelator Coffee Company, hopes to become the South’s coffee company, and with locations in New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta,Charleston, Chattanooga and Nashville, they are well on their way toward achieving that goal. Founded in New Orleans, Revelator decided fairly early to build a central roastery in Birmingham, Alabama, a city which is just now starting to undergo a renaissance, but which already had a history of love for coffee and a decent number of local coffee bars. On the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, I came off the road on my way to Atlanta to stop and purchase a couple of pounds of beans to take back home with me. Because the local coffee house and shop closes at 5 PM, I barely made it there before closing time, but the employees were gracious about serving me right at the close of the day, and even gave me a free cup of brewed coffee because I had purchased two bags of beans. I have to say that I was impressed with the sleek, futuristic look of the place, and was surprised that they had an electronic dance music DJ, particularly since they close at 5 in the evening. But the brewed coffee was delicious, and the Central American beans I bought (from Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as I recall) proved to be delicious as well once I brewed them back home in Memphis a few weeks later. One disappointment of mine, which I hope will eventually be corrected: While Revelator Coffee is available at Piggly Wiggly in Birmingham, it is not available anywhere in Memphis. Hopefully, they will either get it into some of our local supermarkets, or better yet, perhaps open a Revelator store here.
Jazz is not an immensely popular music style in Memphis, so opportunities to hear authentic jazz in our city are few and far between, but some local jazz musicians are branching out and starting their own events. Recently, jazz saxophonist Kelvin Walters and drummer James Sexton have started holding jam sessions on Sunday evenings from 5-8 PM on the first three Sundays of each month at the Midtown Crossing Grill in the burgeoning Crosstown neighborhood one block over from the venerable Hi-Tone Cafe. The building where the grill is located has been all kinds of things, once having been home to Bobby Q’s barbecue restaurant and later Foxcee’s Sports Bar. As a jazz venue, it has the necessary intimacy, and despite its small stage area, it functions fairly well. Walters is at a young age already a decent saxophonist, and James Sexton is one of the city’s best drummers, and the jam session format gives young musicians from Memphis an opportunity to hone their skills in a performance setting in front of an actual crowd. As for the food offerings, the Midtown Crossing Grill has artisan pizzas, and they are pretty decent and reasonably priced. The jam session is not held on the fourth Sunday so as to not conflict with the monthly Sax on Sundays event at Neil’s out in East Memphis, which is another opportunity to hear jazz in Memphis. Take advantage of these events and enjoy.
I love catfish, and I love blues music, so when a place puts them together, like Hernando, Mississippi’s new Catfish Blues restaurant, I am intrigued, to say the least. Because in its earliest days, the restaurant was running as a buffet only, I had held off on trying it, but finally my girlfriend and I decided we could delay no longer, and we were pleasantly pleased with what we found. Catfish Blues is located east of downtown Hernando, near the railroad tracks on Commerce Street in a building meant to resemble a train depot. The room is expansive and cheerful, with plenty of blues memorabilia on the walls, including pictures of North Mississippi stars like Duwayne Burnside and the Rev. John Wilkins, and there is plenty of room for live music, which typically happens on Saturdays. On the Friday night we visited, there was no live music, but the star of the show was catfish, which comes in two ways. The traditional catfish has the usual cornmeal batter, while the “Robert Pettiway” is a New Orleans-style breading which more resembles what you would get at Middendorf’s in Louisiana or Tug’s Casual Cafe in Memphis. Its name commemorates Robert Petway, the bluesman who first recorded the song “Catfish Blues.” Altogether we found the service cheerful and the prices fairly reasonable. If it wasn’t the absolute best catfish we had ever had, it was darn good, and overall a pleasant experience. We will certainly return.