I had seen that Cameron Kimbrough, the grandson of Hill Country blues legend Junior Kimbrough, would be playing at The Dirty Crow Inn on Saturday night, but I had a gig of my own on the University of Memphis campus, so our decision to go to Cam’s gig was something of a spur-of-the-moment thing after my gig was over. Little did we know that we were in for an amazing blues experience in the little funky dive bar in South Memphis.
Of course, Cameron Kimbrough has been getting attention for several years as a powerful new voice in the blues, and his mother, Joyce Jones, who is an excellent blues singer, has been working on her debut album. But I was surprised to see the venue so packed with blues fans, particularly as it is a venue that doesn’t usually book blues, and it is in a somewhat out-of-the-way location.Cam was performing on drums when we arrived, joined by some local guitarists including Moses Crouch, a really-young harmonica player from North Memphis, and his mother Joyce Jones. They were set up on the enclosed deck, and there was hardly a table available, the crowd a combination of blues fans and basketball fans in town for the sweet sixteen tournament at the Fed Ex Forum. Unlike a lot of blues shows, much of Cam’s set was jamming, with songs being improvised extemporaneously on the spot, Joyce Jones adding vocal riffs that occasionally became something like song titles, perhaps.
When Moses Crouch came back on stage for the second set, the style was a little more orthodox, with familiar Hill Country tunes like “See My Jumper Hanging Out On The Line” and “Coal Black Mattie”, which Cam played on the guitar. But he also followed the traditional blues song with an original called “I’m Still Standing”, which highlights Cam’s unique ability to craft new material that still belongs firmly to the Hill Country tradition. As midnight approached, the crowd began to dwindle, but the music remained as strong as ever, powerful, relentless. We left, feeling that something of real importance had just happened in a hole-in-the-wall in South Memphis. It just might be possible that Cameron Kimbrough is the future of the Hill Country blues. (You can buy Cam’s debut EP Head For The Hillshere and can listen to Cam’s earlier recordings here).
The late Jim Dickinson was passionate about Memphis’ Beale Street. He carried on a running feud in song with the Memphis Housing Authority and Memphis’ city government over its rough treatment of Beale Street during so-called “urban renewal”, and it was almost certainly at Dickinson’s suggestion that Alex Chilton’s early working title for Big Star’s third album was “Beale Street Green”, a reference to the green fields that surrounded the entertainment district once the surrounding neighborhoods had been destroyed (the poetic title would later resurface as a movement of instrumental music on one of Dickinson’s Delta Experimental Projects). So when the Orpheum Theatre commissioned Dickinson to put together an album as a fund-raiser, he responded with a recorded paean to his beloved street, now endangered by civic ineptitude, an album called Beale Street Saturday Night. The album was somewhat bizarre, consisting of two unbanded sides that played continuously. Songs and interview clips faded seamlessly into one another, more like a radio documentary than an album. For years, the album was a highly-sought collector’s item, but it has now been lovingly reissued by the Omnivore label, and to celebrate that fact, Shangri-La Records in Midtown sponsored a performance of Sons of Mudboy, that most elusive group of Memphis musicians and folklorists, centered around Cody and Luther Dickinson and Steve Selvidge, along with Jimmy Crosthwaite of Mudboy and the Neutrons, the supergroup that started it all. Hearing a Sons of Mudboy concert is like taking a crash musicology course in Memphis music. First, there are no genre barriers, as the group works seamlessly from blues, to rock, to bluegrass, folk or gospel. Some of the songs are originals, or at least songs that were original to Jim Dickinson, Sid Selvedge or Lee Baker of Mudboy and the Neutrons, while many others are covers, which range from Furry Lewis to Sleepy John Estes to Mississippi Fred McDowell. This performance was somewhat unusual in that it opened with Jim Dickinson’s “Power To The People” which is usually a closer, and so it closed with the Hill Country blues standard “When I Lay My Burden Down”, where they were joined by the great Sharde Thomas on the cane fife. A crowd of about 100 people enjoyed the unexpected sunny weather (storms had been predicted) and pleasant temperatures, the perfect setting for a great afternoon of Memphis music.
Buy Jim Dickinson’s Beale Street Saturday Night here if your local store doesn’t stock it:
Keep Up With Sons of Mudboy here:
Madjack Records is a Memphis label known for releasing first-rate indie material, so when I saw that they were releasing a new album by James and the Ultrasounds, a band I knew only from local live music schedules, I was eager to check it out. Madjack is of course the label that launched the career of Lucero, and is also known for such melodic indie/folk artists as Delta Joe Sanders, John Kilzer, the Memphis Dawls and Mark Edgar Stuart, so I was expecting James and the Ultrasounds to be in the same general vein, and I was in for something of a shock, to say the least. The album Bad to be Here opens with a blistering, fast-paced punk-rock anthem called “Sleep Cheap”, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like this album or band after all. But the second track “Raise My Kids” maintained the punk ethos while mixing in a fair dose of Memphis roots rock, and by the time I reached the slow ballad “Streets Get Slick”, with its melodic, soulful implications, I was hooked. Memphis implications appear throughout the remainder of the album, a more pronounced soul feel on “Letters In A Box”, the Hill Country blues feel of “Ballad for the Man” whose lyrics address police harassment, the 50’s Jerry Lee Lewis approach of “Lover Man” or the 1960’s summertime groove of “We’ll Be Together Again.” For a relatively new band, James & The Ultrasounds have internalized a vast library of Memphis aesthetics, from Stax to Sun, and from Tav Falco to the Compulsive Gamblers, and even shades of the Alex Chilton of “Like Flies On Sherbet”, yet they are at once a bold and fresh new voice in Memphis music. Altogether, James and the Ultrasounds’ new album is a like a wild ride on the old Zippin’ Pippin’, and despite the title, it shows that when “here” is Memphis, it’s not so bad to be here after all. (GRADE A+)
Keep up with James and the Ultrasounds:
With Austin being such a hip town, it has become ground zero for the vinyl renaissance, with plenty of vinyl record shops in several different neighborhoods. South Austin’s End of an Ear is definitely one of the better shops, with a specialized inventory that emphasizes indie rock, jazz, soul, funk and reggae. Vinyl is the main thing here, although there are plenty of compact discs as well, with a decided bias toward independent labels. A small selection of music books and DVD’s rounds out the offerings. Live music gigs in the shop are not uncommon either, at least during South By Southwest.
End Of An Ear
2209 South First Street
Austin, TX 78704
Memphis rapper Snipes has always tried to connect Memphis’ soul past and its rap present in a way that few rap artists other than Al Kapone have done locally. His shows were characterized by live musicians at a time when few known rap acts other than The Roots were doing that on a regular basis, and his label Overwater Entertainment had a roster that included singers as well as rappers. Setting him apart even more from many of his fellow Memphis rap artists was the often upbeat and inspirational nature of many of his songs. All of these trends are very much in evidence on The Classic Soul Project, a 6-song EP that is releasing today on Bandcamp. The six tracks, produced by Kingpin Da Composer, are all based around samples of soul songs that have an old and deep root in Memphis, such as the obvious single for the upcoming warm weather months “Summer Breeze”, based around the Isley Brother’s classic take of the Seals and Croft hit from the 1970’s. “Keep Steppin” is based around Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and “The Approach” features a snippet from Willie Hutch as well as a rap verse from Memphis trombonist/band leader Suavo J. Finally, the closing “We’re Gonna Make It” is a positive and uplifting anthem that wouldn’t be out of place on gospel radio. As for the overall sound of the project, the combination of classic soul sounds and Memphis-style rap creates an atmosphere reminiscent of classic Eightball & MJG. The Classic Soul Project can be downloaded for a donation here.
Fans of Yo Gotti‘s previous work might be in for a surprise when they listen to his recently-released album I Am, but the surprise should be a pleasant one. Not that there’s any lack of the street stories and trap lyrics that Gotti is known for, but this time everything happens over sheets of beautiful and soulful sounds that evoke Memphis’ musical legacy of Stax and Hi Records. Gotti’s lyrical content is also deeper and more mature, as on the album’s masterpiece “Cold Blood” featuring J. Cole and Canei Finch, where a sample from obscure Stax band 24 Carat Black becomes the luscious backing for a gritty tale of ghetto struggle, or “Respect That You Earn” with Ne-Yo and Wale, urging women to conduct themselves with respect so that they will be respected. “Don’t Come Around” has more of a pop and electronic sound that might very well cross over to the mainstream pop world, and of course the more familiar Gotti sound comes through on songs like “I Know” and “Die A Real Nigga”. Nor is Gotti above a clever humor on this record, as at the end of “Sorry”, where an irate female suggests that Gotti should go back to one of those “sorry females” he’s been with. Gotti replies “I am”, both answering her statement and invoking the album’s title. So well-conceived and varied are I Am‘s offerings that by the time one reaches the end, the single “Act Right” almost seems an after-thought. But this album is Yo Gotti’s first real masterpiece, an achievement which should turn some heads, change some opinions and win over a lot of fans beyond Memphis and the South.
In the American mind, the South often brings up images of military struggle or racial struggle, but rarely that of class struggle. Yet, in his debut album The Long Way Home, Mobile, Alabama rapper Sonny Bama has become the voice for the South’s dispossessed working class, continuing the legacy of left-leaning Southern populists like Big Jim Folsom and Huey Long and invoking the culture of Alabama’s Gulf Coast. While the country/rap fusion has been around long enough to develop certain cliches of its own, Bama skillfully avoids most of them, and even on the most typical “country rap” track “The Bottom”, you can tell that he knows his folks and that he means every word. Other songs venture into soul and funk territory like the sad and mellow “Anyway” featuring Gregg Fells on vocals or the more-up-tempo “Ain’t No Use”. “On My Own”, which describes a battle with alcohol and features singer and guitarist Wes Bayliss is more of a country ballad, as is the pleading “Jonna Lee” featuring Memphis rap icon Lil Wyte, while the single “Let Go” featuring Nashville rapper Jelly Roll is rock, but the one thing that unifies most of the record is its stark and somber mood and its emphasis on change, whether political and economic, or a man’s promise of better days to his woman. Even the album’s main anthem of defiance “UnPhased” contains the lines “I’ve seen trouble all my days.” Aside from the descriptive “The Bottom”, the only other ray of sunshine occurs in the determined closer “Today”, which contains a self-affirming message. With The Long Way Home, Sonny Bama has reminded the world of the South’s other struggle, calling for change while at once expressing his pride at who he is and where he’s from, reclaiming what it means to be Southern from the usual assumptions and prejudices.
John Kilzer should be a familiar name to most Memphians, although many will likely remember him for different reasons. At various times he has been a Memphis State University basketball player, a university professor, a singer-songwriter with a major label deal, a recovering alcoholic, a theological student and now a clergyman. With the release of Seven on the Memphis-based Madjack Records, Kilzer returns to his roots as a songwriter and lover of literature, along with evidence of his new-found faith, for as the name suggests, Seven is an extended meditation on God, brokenness and grace.
The album begins joyfully enough, with the nonsensical soul-funk of “Kentucky Water”, a Memphis romp reminiscent of The Hombres old “Let It All Hang Out”, bolstered by Teenie Hodges on guitar (who taught Kilzer how the play the guitar), Charles Hodges on organ, and a first-rate horn section. Kilzer tells an unnamed someone to “Pass me the rattlesnake, honey, I’m feeling faithful.” All good fun. But the bulk of the album moves on to weightier matters, with the song “Mary” setting the solemn theme of spirituality, and “Two Coats” explicitly referencing Kilzer’s own conversion. “Two coats were before me, the old and the new,” he sings. “I asked my sweet Savior what should I do?” A similar mood hangs over “The Stranger”, Kilzer’s brilliant retelling of the story of the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda. Referring to being “beside the pool of the broken”, he mentions a Stranger that comes and says “Everyone alive today is broken, Anyone who says they’re not’s a fool.” There are even notes of doubt, such as the song “Resurrection Train”, where Kilzer sings “If the dead can rise why can’t they see me down here on my knees.” But the darker and more solemn moments are broken up by joyful soul in “Walk By Faith, Not By Sight” or the upbeat “All For Joy.” Even the somber, wistful “Fading Man” has the mood and feel of a New Orleans ballad. Altogether, John Kilzer’s Seven is a masterful accomplishment, full of the various strands of musical tradition that make up Memphis, backed by incredible musicianship, great arranging, superb songwriting and good recording values. An essential addition to the Memphis musical legacy.
From the first notes of John Murry‘s debut album The Graceless Age, we are confronted with a dichotomy- on the one hand, the tuneful, lucsious soundscapes that would suggest a sunny brightness, and on the other hand, the album’s somber recurrent themes of loss, broken lives, broken relationships, death or near-death and disillusionment. No attempt is made to resolve this dissonance, nor do the clouds ever really break in this harrowing yet somehow strangely beautiful album. The first single, “Little Colored Balloons” is Murry’s autobiographical tale of a heroin overdose that nearly killed him, while other songs seem to return to recurring themes of Tupelo, Mississippi (Murry’s hometown), San Francisco (where he now lives), or failed relationships, the latter particularly referred to in “Photographs” which has something of a Billy Bragg feel to it, and the brief epigram “Thorn Tree in the Garden.” Although Murry and his label Evangeline Records are based in the Bay Area, the album was cut in San Francisco and Memphis, using a large number of Memphis musicians. The Graceless Age is a masterful debut from John Murry, and is available for purchase here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Graceless-Age/dp/B00C2E18DA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1366230857&sr=8-2&keywords=John+Murry
The legendary Junior Kimbrough’s son Robert fronts a Hill Country blues band called the Blues Connection, and they went up on the stage in front of Cat Head Delta Blues at noon during the Juke Joint Fest. The band has a new EP called Battlefield which they were selling at Juke Joint Fest this year, and they performed songs from it, including the traditional-sounding “Can I Smell You?” and the more soul-oriented title track “Battlefield.” Robert Kimbrough and the Blues Connection also hosts a weekly event each Sunday night at a club called The Hut in Holly Springs. The doors open at 6 PM, the event runs “until”, and admission is $5.