Mattie B’s is an old ballfield and juke joint in far western Marshall County, where for the last month or so, they’ve been having live Hill Country blues with Duwayne Burnside. The address is Byhalia, Mississippi, although the club is really closer to Independence, in Tate County. Beginning on Sunday nights in November, the blues night has moved to Friday nights since the third week in December, and will continue in January after a hiatus for the holidays.
On one particularly cold and wet Sunday night, the crowd was late in arriving, and the musicians were just chilling, hanging out, and playing pool.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to lots of lockdowns and curfews, but in the middle of it came a Curfew of a different sort: the new gourmet restaurant called Curfew Memphis in the new Canopy Memphis Hotel downtown across from the Peabody. Well-known Chef Fabio Viviani is the driving force behind Curfew, whose ethos seems to be that of a sports bar with a gourmet twist.
My first impression was the bright, sleek modern surroundings of the place. With plenty of glass windows, the restaurant has a nice, cheerful open feel, and the seating, which includes couches, suggests comfort and a feeling of being at home.
I ordered a burger, which the menu says was made from “beef belly.” It was beautiful cooked to order, and delicious, with cheese, bacon, and (at my request) house made steak sauce. The accompanying french fries were hot and golden brown. The menu is not large, but includes interesting choices, including a rib-eye steak, which I will certainly have to try on another visit. Prices are not cheap, but I felt the burger was worth every penny I paid. My server was cheerful and very attentive.
The area of the hotel lobby nearest the restaurant was decorated with record albums and small speakers. This seems to be a continuing trend in new Memphis hotels; similar music and record themes are in the lobbies of the Central Station Hotel and Arrive Memphis. Apparently, music is the way Memphis tourism will be marketed going forward.
New Orleans-themed restaurants have come and gone over the years in Memphis; few of them offered beignets, those delightful doughnuts we learned to love at the Cafe du Monde in Jackson Square. Fortunately, there is now a place called Ben Yay’s on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis that offers the best in New Orleans cuisine and the delicious beignets as well.
Located in a space that has housed several New Orleans-themed restaurants over the years including most notably Chef Gary’s Deja Vu, which closed when he passed away, Ben yay’s proclaims itself a “Gumbo Shop,” but they have an absolutely delicious shrimp po-boy, and one that is fairly authentic. Nothing fancy, of course; po-boys are not fancy food. But it is, as all good po-boys are, a thing of beauty. There are too many shrimp for the french loaf; they fall off the sandwich onto your plate, which is the mark of a good po-boy. The french fries that came with it were delicious as well.
But it is what came afterwards that sets Ben Yay’s apart. Authentic New Orleans-style beignets, covered with powdered sugar. There have been beignet places in Memphis before, including several locations of Crescent City Beignet that have since closed, and a suburban place called Voodoo Cafe in Bartlett which sells sweet and savory beignets shaped like voodoo dolls. But the beignets at Ben Yay’s give the place its name, and are the most like what you would find in New Orleans I have seen in Memphis. They are delicious, but messy, and your clothes WILL be covered in powdered sugar when you are through enjoying them. All the same, it’s worth it.
Halloween this year fell on a Saturday, and early in the afternoon, I drove over to Backermann’s Country Market in Whiteville, Tennessee, an Amish bakery known for its fried pies and other desserts. I had hoped to buy a chocolate peanut butter pie to take back home, but to my disappointment, I found that they do not stock them, and only bake them when ordered. I ended up not buying anything, and upon my return to Somerville in Fayette County, discovered that the new coffee bar I heard about there had closed at 3 PM. So I decided to head down to Moscow and into Mississippi on my way to Como.
With my car having been in the shop for two months, this was my first opportunity to visit Como in some time, and I had heard that Micol Davis of the band Blue Mother Tupelo had opened a coffee bar there called Como Coffee Stop. As it turned out, the new coffee shop is in the former Delta Recording Service building next to the post office, which has more recently been an ice cream parlor, an arts and crafts store, and a drum lesson studio (at least in the back room). The Coffee Stop is a business born of necessity, as the COVID pandemic has canceled almost all of Blue Mother Tupelo’s shows; for now, it does not have an espresso machine, but serves brewed Community Coffee and baked goods. I enjoyed visiting with Micol, and had planned on walking down to Windy City Grille for a dinner, but my friend Sherena Boyce (R. L.’s daughter) called me and wanted to go to Tribecca Allie Cafe in Sardis.
So I drove back to Senatobia to pick her up, and we rode down to Sardis to Tribecca, which has been proclaimed some of the best pizza in the United States. After a period of time when they were closed to inside dining and allowing to-go orders only, they are now back to allowing at least limited dine-in service. The pizzas at Tribecca are unique because they are cooked over a wood fire, which imparts a special flavor to them. After dinner, we were invited by our waitress to attend the Panola Playhouse’s performance of Little Shop of Horrors next door, but Sherena did not particularly want to go, and I was tired. It was late enough that trick or treating was largely over, and so we both went home.
Periodically, I receive sponsored messages in my Facebook timeline, and on one afternoon, a message from a restaurant called The Biscuitry caught my attention. The restaurant turned out to be in Bolivar, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, and the message was to the effect that they were going to start opening for happy hour and dinner on Fridays (the restaurant was otherwise open only for breakfast and lunch). With Bolivar only about an hour from my house in Bartlett, I decided to drive over there on the following Friday and try it out.
Like many other West Tennessee towns, Bolivar is historic, built around a typical Southern town square. A statue of Simon Bolivar, for whom the town is named, stands in front of the courthouse. As it turned out, The Biscuitry was located across the street from a historic Big Star supermarket, and next door to the historic Luez Theatre. I found the restaurant lovingly restored and decorated, and the place was full, with an upbeat and convivial atmosphere, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
My waitress was also cheerful and upbeat, and she helped me greatly in negotiating all the various menu choices. Indeed, one of my difficulties was in deciding which of the many delicious menu options to try. Ultimately, I tried a burger, which, uniquely, was seared with a sugar-based dry rub. This caramelized and crusted on the outside, which made the burger absolutely amazing. It came with bacon and cheese on it, and nearly a whole plate of french fries. Afterwards, I enjoyed a slice of dark chocolate cake and a cup of coffee before heading back out to the square.
There was actually a live music concert on the court square as I was coming out of the restaurant, but it was country music, which is not my cup of tea, and it was beginning to drizzle somewhat. Instead I drove down into the southside of Bolivar, where I finally managed to find the old lodge hall of the United Sons and Daughters of Charity, which was a Black benevolent society in Bolivar. The historic building seems abandoned and in poor shape, but it was amazing to see it and photograph it. Altogether I had a satisfying meal and an enjoyable evening.
Shelby County, Tennessee is largely dominated by Memphis and its suburban satellites, but it was not always so. The county had a long past as an agricultural and rural region, and a few areas still retain that atmosphere, perhaps none so much as the twin communities of Rosemark and Barretville in Northeast Shelby County between Millington and Arlington.
Rosemark, originally called Richland but renamed when it became apparent that there was a Richland elsewhere in Tennessee, was a good-sized place with a telephone company, gin, school and several churches, but Barretville, just to the north, was something of a one-man town, or at least a one-family town. The Barret family dominated this area of Shelby County, opening the J. H. Barret Company store, the Barret cotton gin and the Barretville bank. The nearby Black high school was named Barret’s Chapel, probably after a church the Barret family had donated the land for, and the Barrets were deeply involved with the Bolton Agricultural High School located to the south and east of their community.
Of course, times change. The Barretville Bank became Patriot Bank, and the general store closed, and Millington placed both Rosemark and Barretville in its annexation reserves. Barret’s Chapel High School was closed and merged with Bolton High School. Most recently, the general store had been a cider brewery called Long Road Cider Company. Although the place also featured some light salads and sandwiches and live music, I never had occasion to visit it.
But here, during the summer of the pandemic, the cider company closed and was replaced by a new J. H. Barret & Company General Store, also known as the Barretville General Store. Although the building features some gourmet grocery items for take-home, and a few locally made arts, crafts and clothing items, the place is primarily a restaurant, and one with a number of different choices. Pizza is at the top of the menu, and the pizzas look absolutely delicious, but on my visit, I decided to try one of the burgers. There are two options, including one with bleu cheese called the “Bobby Blue” (Bobby “Blue” Bland was born in nearby Rosemark). I had that burger, plain except for bacon and bleu cheese, and found it delightful. The fries it came with were good as well. In addition to the two burger choices, there is a patty melt, and then two chicken sandwich options. Besides that, Barretville General Store offers barbecue, and a whole sandwich menu as well. At a time when many restaurants are suffering from the pandemic, I was amazed at how many people were enjoying the general store, and the atmosphere was fun and upbeat. Of course, masks are required everywhere in Shelby County.
As for the surroundings, the place has been restored to its former glory. Plenty of wooden chairs and benches have been placed on the front porch for sitting, which was, of course, the main feature of any rural country store back in the day. The primary color scheme is black and white, but the aquamarine benches offset that and add a dash of color. Despite progress in the area, Barretville has changed little, and the area still has the look of a small rural community. For fun and good food, the drive out from Memphis is worth it. Plan a weekend trip to Barretville General Store, eat a great meal, and buy some baked goods to take back home with you.
The sudden closure of everything in mid-March due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on all live music, including the blues. Nearly everything was closed down through April, but as weather warmed up in May, things began to slowly reopen, and I began to venture out more. Having acquired an iPhone 11, I decided to experiment with its photo capabilities, using some of my favorite photographic apps. I am especially partial to one called Filca, which lets you photograph with filters based on popular color and black-and-white films. The Agfa and Ilford filters really do resemble the old films they are based on, and the effects are really neat. Furthermore, the iPhone 11 boasts by far the best camera ever on an Apple phone.
Although live concerts did not resume in May, several artists performed live concerts intended for streaming. Duwayne Burnside did such a show outdoors at Red Banks in Marshall County, and the next day R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm did one at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale for the virtual Oxford Blues Fest.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.
After a long drive across Mississippi through drizzly, wet weather, I was late getting into New Orleans, and thought I might actually miss the start of the To Be Continued Brass Band‘s weekly Sunday night gig at Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge. But Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC told me they might not get started until 9 PM, so I decided to try to grab a dinner before heading to the venue. I got off on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie because I knew they had every kind of restaurant along that route, but I forgot that there could be parades in Jefferson Parish too. When I got to Clearview Parkway, the police had the road completely closed due to a parade, and there were only two restaurants in the area, Don’s Seafood and Saltgrass Steakhouse. I like Saltgrass, but was more in the mood for seafood, so I chose Don’s and it was quite good, and rather crowded, to my surprise. From its parking lot I could hear the music, yelling and laughter from the parade to the east on Veterans.
I feared that the Sunday parades could cause traffic gridlock in getting to Kermit’s, which is on North Claiborne Avenue, but the journey was remarkably uneventful. I parked under the I-10 overpass, walked into the lounge, and found to my surprise that TBC was just setting up and had not started playing yet. Their weekly Sunday night gigs often attract crowds, but with so many people off work on the following day, Lundi Gras, the crowd was the largest I had seen at Kermit’s. The band played a number of its newest songs, including “I Heard Ya Been Talking” which was aimed at the Big 6 Brass Band after members of that band had been allegedly talking down on TBC. As is always the case at Kermit’s, at a certain point during the night, a female dancer appeared on the roof of the lounge, and Kermit Ruffins himself came outside to shoot off fireworks over the patio. The weather was warm, and with its banana trees and tin-roofed outdoor bar, the patio had the ambiance of Jamaica or somewhere else in the Caribbean.
However, the biggest surprise of the night was after the TBC Brass Band had played their final tune and were putting their instruments away. The crowd, as usual, begged for one more tune. To oblige them, Brenard “Bunny” Adams started a tuba bass line which Darren Towns picked up on the bass drum, and soon the whole band joined in. The unfamiliar tune proved to be the Meters’ “Fiya on the Bayou,” a tune I had never heard TBC play before, and a fitting way to close out a Sunday night before Mardi Gras.
Later Bunny, Darren and myself met up at the Cafe du Monde in the Quarter for some coffee and beignets, since my old favorite spot in City Park is no longer a 24-hour establishment. There was a fairly big crowd in the Quarter too, but it was late and I was tired. As is so often the case in New Orleans, the next day offered endless possibilities.
The actual day of my birthday was much colder than the day before, but my friend Darren Towns of TBC Brass Band and I headed out to Polly’s Bywater Cafe, which is just about my favorite breakfast spot in New Orleans, for omelettes, biscuits and coffee. Then I stopped by Aunt Sally’s Pralines in the French Quarter to pick up a box of pralines to take home to Memphis. Actually, Decatur Street is a bewildering array of different praline shops, and figuring out which one to choose is not easy, but a waiter at the Cafe du Monde the night before had told me to pick a shop where the pralines were being made in house. It proved to be great advice. Although Aunt Sally’s pralines were outrageously expensive, they were just about the best I had ever had.
Darren had a busy day of things to do, so I dropped him off and headed by a Rouse’s supermarket to get the French Market coffee varieties that I cannot find in Memphis, and then headed across the Causeway to the Northshore on my way back to Memphis.
At Jackson, I headed to the District at Eastover to have lunch at Fine and Dandy, the upscale burger and sandwich restaurant which I had seen on my Grambling trip. Fine and Dandy is something of an enigma, with the high-end ambiance of a steakhouse, but an emphasis on burgers and other sandwiches. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and other jazz vocalists comprise the soundtrack, giving the place a sort of “Oceans Eleven” vibe, but prices are reasonable, and the food is very good. I learned from my server that Fine and Dandy and its sister restaurant nearby, Sophomore Spanish Club, are locally-owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants. However, they are concepts that I could imagine working well in other cities.
After grabbing a latte at il Lupo coffee across the parking lot, I got back on the road north toward Como, Mississippi, where the bluesman R. L. Boyce was to be the Grand Marshal of the annual Christmas parade. With each mile northward the weather seemed to get colder, and by the time I arrived in Como, it was almost time for the parade, and extremely chilly.
Presumably the freezing weather and Monday night timeframe combined to keep the crowds to a minimum, but there were handfuls of parents and kids along Main Street, where some Black equestrians with their horses were riding up and down the street ahead of the parade’s start.
As I expected, Como’s parade was fairly small, some fire trucks, some cars with the mayor and other city officials, a few mayors from other towns, a Corvette car club, the bands from Rosa Fort High School in Tunica and the North Panola High School in Sardis, and the horsemen. R. L. was riding in a truck that had been emblazoned with the words, “Grand Marshal R. L. Boyce” and waved to me when he recognized me.
The parade u-turned north of the business district and headed back down the other side of Main Street, but the whole event only took about twenty minutes.
When it was all over, thoroughly frozen, I headed into Windy City Grill for my birthday dinner. Windy City is not a fancy restaurant, but it was bright, warm and cheerful inside, and fairly crowded for a Monday night. After a small pepperoni and bacon pizza, then I got back on the road to head home to Memphis. Although it was cold, it was a thoroughly enjoyable birthday. And I was so happy for the great honor showed to R. L. Boyce by his hometown.