The blues of the Hill Country region centers largely around two families, the Kimbroughs (who call their music “Cotton Patch Soul Blues”) and the Burnsides, and although the patriarchs of the two families, Junior and Rural, have passed, the legacy is continuing now into the third generation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the music of the band Memphissippi Sounds, whose drummer Cameron Kimbrough is the son of Kinney Kimbrough, who is himself a son of the late Junior Kimbrough. Like Cedric Burnside, a grandson of the late R. L. Burnside, Cameron is both a drummer and a guitarist, and he has a unique skill at composing new material that fits firmly into the Hill Country/Cotton Patch Soul Blues style of blues. His sidekick, Damian Pearson is an incredible harmonica player and equally talented guitarist. They often appear as a duo, but at the Wade Walton Stage at this year’s Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, they had a third member playing bass.
Although these young men infuse the music with a youthful vitality, the music of Memphissippi Sounds remains true to the legacy of northeast Mississippi, and guarantees that the musical traditions of that region are in good hands for many years to come.
I am not sure how my friend Sherena Boyce became aware of Australia Jones “Honeybee” Neal, but at some point a couple of years ago, she began to tell me of this female blues artist who was kin to the late Paul “Wine” Jones and who sounded something like Jessie Mae Hemphill. Since that time, we had wanted to help her market and promote herself as an artist, but the pandemic got in the way. Finally, here in April 2021, with the worst of the pandemic seemingly subsiding, we set up a time for her to come to Clarksdale so we could shoot still photos and video footage of her that we hope will enable her to gain notice and get more live performances.
“Honeybee,” as she likes to be called, lives at Indianola, in the Delta, but her guitar style more resembles the Hill Country style of blues than that of the Delta. She is furthermore a traditionalist, and has avoided the influence of most modern blues; her repertoire consists of old, traditional lyrics like “Baby, Please Don’t Go” or “Catfish Blues.” Her appearance should be welcomed at a time when most blues is of the Southern soul variety, and where female blues artists are few and far between outside of Southern soul.
Sean “Bad” Apple, blues musician and entrepreneur extraordinaire in Clarksdale was gracious enough to provide the use of his new club, the Bad Apple Blues Club, for our video and photo session on a Saturday afternoon before a small crowd of people who were in Clarksdale for the full week before Juke Joint Festival. His club, in the former Club 2000 building on Issaquena Avenue, has something of the authentic juke atmosphere of Red’s, but if the color scheme of Red’s revolves around red, Apple’s club revolves around blue. The space is tiny, but the atmosphere is warm and convivial. As for Australia Jones “Honeybee” Neal, she is a new voice of Mississippi blues that we will be hearing about for some time to come.
Clayborn Temple is one of Memphis’ most historic locations. Built in the late 19th century as Second Presbyterian Church, it became known as Clayborn Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church after the Presbyterian ccongregation moved far to the east of Midtown. The building became an important focal point of the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, particularly the Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 which resulted in the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, at some point, the Clayborn Temple congregation died, and the building fell into disrepair. At one point, the City of Memphis put fencing around it to protect against falling bricks, and it seemed likely that the building would have to be demolished. Fortunately, against all odds, Clayborn Temple was resurrected in 2017 as a performing arts venue, and on November 3, 2018, Blue Tom Records, the student-run record label of the University of Memphis, sponsored its annual This Is Memphis concert in the historic structure.
Unfortunately, I learned upon entering Clayborn Temple, that the building’s success story may be somewhat premature. There is still significant roof damage and a considerable amount of work remains to be done. However, it is good to see that a plan for renovation is in place, and funding is being raised. Because This Is Memphis is a celebration of the young musical talent of one of America’s most musical cities, the building was an inspired choice of location for the concert, and indeed, a very impressive soul-jazz band called Back Pockets was soundchecking on stage when I entered.
The Back Pockets proved to be the first band on stage of the evening, and is a large collective with a sizable brass section and a female vocalist. They filled the large room with sound, and were fairly impressive, alternating between neo-soul vocal tunes, and jazz instrumentals. Unfortunately, the videos I took of them proved to be out-of-focus and unusable. Hopefully I will catch them performing elsewhere.
After a performance from a local singer/songwriter named Sienna, a new band called Estes came on stage. Estes is the latest project of Andrew Isbell, formerly of The Band CAMINO, and it proved to be a melodic, tuneful band reminiscent of The Southern Sea or The Autumn Defense. The songs were well-written and immediately attractive, at once sunny but with a hint of nostalgia.
Estes was followed by a very soulful singer-songwriter named Phillip Bond who is a senior at the University of Memphis. Unlike a lot of neo-soul artists today, Bond’s original compositions are lyrically daring and more poetic than pop. On this particular night, he performed the first song he ever wrote, “Fool For You” and became somewhat emotional about it, as the song undoubtedly has significant meaning for him. He was also backed by a first-rate band of young musicians.
Memphis has produced a number of great singer-songwriters in recent years including Amy Lavere and Valerie June, and Bailey Bigger can hold her own with the best of them. A talented singer with a beautiful voice, Bigger is also a consummate songwriter, as evidenced by her original compositions, including “Green Eyes” with which she launched her This Is Memphis performance. With only her guitar, and occasionally one other musician, she managed to captivate the audience in the large venue. Bailey’s album Closer to Home is currently out on iTunes, and she is now signed to Blue Tom Records, working on an upcoming release.
Another singer/songwriter/activist Jordan Dodson, known as JD, seeks to use her music to promote empowerment for women and African-Americans. Her performance at This Is Memphis included her brief put powerful song “Don’t Shoot,” a reference to the numerous police shootings of young Black men in America.
This year’s concert was closed out by Dylan Amore, the only rapper currently signed to Blue Tom Records, and one with a growing following in Memphis, Tennessee. He is hard at work on his EP for the label, and also has several previous releases and mixtapes.
Altogether, it was a fitting tribute to young and upcoming Memphis artists in a beautiful setting, as well as an opportunity for University of Memphis students to learn the business of concert promotion and operation….in short, a win-win for performers, attendees and students alike.
I got an invitation on Facebook a week or so ago from a musician friend, trombonist Victor Sawyer, to come to the debut performance of a new Memphis brass band called the Lucky 7 Brass Band, which was being held at Growlers, the former location of the Hi-Tone on Poplar Avenue across from Overton Park. Memphis has had a couple of other brass bands, the Mighty Souls Brass Band and the Memphorleans Street Symphony. But, because we are not a city that has Mardi Gras (or even the Cotton Carnival any more) and because there is no real second-line culture here, our brass bands are more concert ensembles, and none has the separate snare and bass drums that characterize the average New Orleans brass band, and they may include indoor instruments like a drumset, a keyboard or even an electric guitar or bass. In that regard, the Lucky 7 Brass Band was true to form, including an electric bass rather than a tuba, and a drumset rather than the traditional separate snare and bass drummers. But what it did bring to the table was more of the street edge that the Crescent City bands have, and a tight and clean ensemble sound. For their debut performance, which was all too short at just under an hour, they played cover tunes exclusively, but these ran the gamut from New Orleans standards to contemporary hip-hop, and a good-sized crowd came out (with the threat of bad winter weather hanging over Memphis) to cheer them on. The Lucky 7 Brass Band is one we will likely be hearing a lot more about in the future.
Sometime before New Year’s Eve, a lady friend had shared a link with me on social media about a young musician named Akeem Kemp who was performing in Conway, Arkansas on January 13. I had not heard any music of this young man, although the name seemed vaguely familiar, as if I had heard somebody mention him in the past. At any rate, I googled him, and soon found that he would playing a little closer to home (and sooner) at the White Water Tavern in Little Rock on January 6, so we made plans to go.
The weather proved to be cold and quite wet, but we encountered a large crowd at the White Water, which is the best venue in Arkansas to enjoy live blues, as Akeem Kemp is from right up the road in Morrilton, Arkansas, and thus is considered a hometown hero. At only 20 years of age, and sporting dreadlocks, Kemp might look like a rap artist to those who didn’t know better, but his youthfulness belies a serious mastery of the electric guitar, and an uncanny ability to handle the kind of deep, soulful blues that other young artists avoid, tunes such as “As The Years Go Passing By” or “The Sky Is Crying.” Of course, like any young star of the guitar, Kemp knows his Hendrix, Prince, and even a bit of R & B/Southern soul, as in his hit original “Are You Doubting My Love.” But Akeem Kemp has internalized the language of the blues, and his decision to embrace the genre is thrilling, because only as young musicians become involved in blues will we succeed in preserving this endangered art-form. The future of the music is truly riding on his shoulders.
My homeboy Otis Logan is one of Memphis’ best young drummers, so when he told me he would be playing for a singer named Bigg Smith at The African Place, I was intrigued, as I didn’t know the singer or the venue, but I made plans to attend. As it turned out, The African Place is the former Cafe 581 which had an extremely brief run about four years ago, and it is not usually a music venue, but rather more of a shop/gallery for imported African goods. All the same, the place was packed to overflowing, with a very small space for the band. The show opened with a few songs from an R & B singer named Lamar, but Bigg Smith proved to be an amazingly talented singer, with a warm voice that exudes confidence, and the backing band was first-rate as well. Smith’s repertoire included some originals, as well as covers ranging from Aretha Franklin to Jeffrey Osborne. All too soon it was over, but it was a Friday evening well-spent.
Two days before Christmas, the Hi-Tone in Midtown Memphis was the scene of an all-star gala rap show with a live band, featuring many of Memphis’ best lyricists, old and new. The DJ and announcer for the occasion was none other than Radio Memphis‘ DJ Bay, and the line-up of performers included such Memphis icons as Tori Whodat, Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, as well as guest appearances from Memphis veterans like DJ Zirk. But there were also some outstanding new artists in the house, including a new Memphis rapper named Wala Wyse who was quite impressive, as well as the solo debut of Tune C, Al Kapone’s long-time hype man and a former member of the 1990’s hip-hop group NationWide. Tune performed his new single “Naturally”, one of five recent songs that have been recorded toward his upcoming album The Great Flood. Also fun was an impromptu collaboration between the band’s drummer and DJ Bay during an extended break between live acts. Such drum/DJ duets have caught on in markets like New York, Vegas and Miami, but have not been seen as often in the Memphis market. Altogether, it was a cheerful holiday tribute to our city’s hip-hop past and future.
It’s hard to believe that only a couple of months ago I had never heard of Leon Bridges. Of course, the Fort Worth-based soul singer had already been doing things and beginning to make moves, but he somehow didn’t hit my radar until one of my favorite Mid-South venues, Tupelo’s Blue Canoe sent me an email in January triumphantly announcing that they had booked the up-and-coming young soul star in March, with all the enthusiasm of a record collector proudly showing off his newly-acquired copy of some rare 45 single. And the analogy is apt, because Leon Bridges and his band carefully craft the aesthetics of 1964-era classic soul and rhythm and blues (not R & B). His original compositions have that flavor, and even the appearance and dress style of him and his band members reinforce the retro feel. Not that this is entirely unprecedented, because the last few years have seen the emergence of a number of these types of groups, from Alabama Shakes to St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to J. C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound, to even James Hunter. And in some ways, Bridges and his band have points of similarity with all of that, and yet, Bridges is so young, his band so dynamic and tight, his compositions so personal (the newest released song “Lisa Sawyer” is a musical biography of his mother), his guitar playing so exquisite, that he is something at once familiar and yet brand new.
Freshly back from Europe, Bridges returned to the states with a Monday-night gig at Little Rock’s White Water Tavern, a venerable dive bar that happens to feature some of Arkansas’ best live music. It was in some ways a strange choice of venue, but Leon Bridges’ record label, Last Chance Records is based in Little Rock, and it was also a strange choice of night for a concert, but it is a tribute to Bridges’ rising popularity that the Monday night event was completely sold out, and he played to a standing-room-only crowd.
The building blocks of Leon’s magic are astoundingly simple. His band consists of guitar (two of them when he plays), bass, drums, a saxophonist and three female singers. His voice exudes a youthful naivety and innocence that is eminently appealing, and as he sings of his desire to “come home” to his sweetheart, you could almost imagine that you had been transported back to 1965. While only three songs are currently available commercially, Bridges performed far more on this night, with moods that ran the gamut from 6/8 soul ballads to 1950’s R & B, and lyrics that frequently mention the Mississippi River, New Orleans, even being washed clean from sins, the timeless themes of the South, white or Black. At show’s end, it was hard to imagine that the smiling, humble kid we were meeting is a star, but his single “Coming Home” was the most-donwloaded song in the world last week. And that suggests something exciting- perhaps soul music is finally “coming home.”
Keep up with Leon Bridges:
http://www.leonbridges.com Tweets by leonbridges
Chances are, even if you live in Memphis, you’ve probably never heard of Adam WarRock. Had he not been on this year’s South By Southwest line-up, I might have never encountered him, but when I watched one of his videos and noticed that it was filmed on Beale Street, I was intrigued, and some further research revealed that he is indeed from Memphis. But Adam WarRock is fairly different from any other rapper working in Memphis today. With a somewhat nerdy, geeky approach to hip-hop, WarRock often raps about comic books or his favorite television shows, and he has no reservations about rapping over hit instrumentals to do it. His EP Parks and Recreation references one of his favorite television shows, and one of his songs is entitled “Marvel vs. DC”. But Adam WarRock is neither a jokester nor a gimmicky artist. He has tremendous skillz, and his new EP title City Beautiful (Memphis was the nation’s “City Beautiful” for many years in the era of E. H. Crump) suggests a depth of meaning that reflects on Memphis as a city. Adam WarRock will be performing at the Flamingo Cantina during SXSW at 10:05 PM on March 12. His music can be downloaded by visiting his website at http://www.adamwarrock.com/.
The homie @DJBay at Select-O-Hits introduced me to this amazing singer from Texas named Latasha Lee, who is working the same kind of retro soul vein that brought the late Amy Winehouse to prominence. “So Blind” is Latasha Lee’s most recent video, and the song benefits greatly from Salih Williams’ throwback track that recreates something of a 60’s ambience. While Lee’s earlier work was in a more traditional R & B and Texas rap zone (some of the early songs actually have screwed-and-chopped versions!) the atmosphere of soul nostalgia hangs over all her more recent songs. Latasha Lee is an incredible talent that deserves wider recognition.