Lafayette’s Music Room is a reincarnation of one of Memphis’ best-beloved music venues of the 1970’s, but the latter-day version has something of a New Orleans tinge, both with the cuisine and often with the music as well. This past Wednesday, both featured bands presented different aspects of the musical traditions of the Crescent City. Multi-reedist Breeze Cayolle, a distant relative of jazz great Sidney Bechet, has a group called New Orleans, whose musicians are ironically some of Memphis’ best-known jazz musicians, including Tony Thomas on piano, Tim Goodwin on bass and Tom Lonardo on drums. They play traditional New Orleans jazz, occasionally venturing into the world of jazz standards as well, and have developed a following at the weekly brunch at Owen Brennan’s in East Memphis. Some of that same crowd was in evidence Wednesday night, sitting at the tables nearest the stage and even getting up periodically to dance. Cayolle is a first-rate saxophonist and clarinetist, and he sings with a husky tone that exudes the flavor of New Orleans.
The Mighty Souls Brass Band on the other hand is something rather different, although they share Tom Lonardo with Breeze Cayolle’s group. The Mighty Souls take their cue from the brass band revivalism that started with the Dirty Dozen and the Rebirth in New Orleans, with the main difference being the occasional covers of Memphis soul tunes, such as Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train” or Willie Mitchell’s “20-75.” Like some New Orleans brass bands these days (notably the Stooges), the Mighty Souls replace the separate snare and bass drummer with a set drummer, and add a guitar, at least indoors, but there is a tuba and plenty of horns, and if they lack the hardcore street edge of the younger, Blacker bands in New Orleans, they compensate with consummate musicianship and plenty of good spirits. Although Memphis does not have a modern brass band tradition by any means (W. C. Handy notwithstanding), the MSBB has developed a very loyal following, and have released a debut CD called Lift Up Your Mighty Souls on the University of Memphis-related Blue Barrel label.
Despite the importance of Hill Country blues on Memphis music, and despite the short distance between Memphis and Holly Springs, it is rare to hear Hill Country blues in Memphis, sadly. So on the rare occasions when Hill Country artists perform in Memphis, I try to be there. Overton Square’s venerable Lafayette’s Music Room is fairly good about booking Hill Country blues artists, and has featured Duwayne Burnside on at least two occasions. His June appearance this summer was preceded by an acoustic set featuring blues scholar and musician Dr. David Evans, and then Duwayne played more than two hours of the best blues. Of particular interest was his unique reading of the standard “Stormy Monday”, and his cover of the Willie Cobbs Memphis blues classic “You Don’t Love Me.” Although he is firmly rooted in the style of his hometown, Burnside has incorporated more modern blues styles as well, and shows amazing versatility. Before the evening was over, dancers had filled up the narrow space in front of the stage.
Back in 2011, the Stooges Brass Band were one of the more active street brass bands in New Orleans, with a regular residency at the Hi-Ho Lounge in the 9th Ward, which is where I first heard them. Over the last four years, like the Dirty Dozen before them, they have morphed into more of a touring entity, although they have a street version that still marches for certain second-lines during the year. The traveling version of the band is somewhat stripped down, with fewer horns, a set drummer instead of the traditional snare and bass drummers, and the addition of non-brass-band instruments like keyboards and electric guitar. Still the band generates a considerable amount of crowd participation as it runs through its combination of standard brass band repertoire and unique originals like “Wind It Up” and “Why They Had To Kill Him”, the latter a tribute to Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams, a trombonist shot to death by the New Orleans Police in the year before Hurricane Katrina. Memphis has a number of New Orleans expatriates, and even more local fans of New Orleans music, and so Lafayette’s Music Room was packed for the performance, which was rescheduled from an earlier date that had to be cancelled due to snow and ice.
Old Man Winter had other ideas when the Stooges Brass Band was supposed to play at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis a few weeks ago, but Memphis had another opportunity to enjoy some New Orleans music last Wednesday when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band performed at the same venue. The Dirty Dozen was one of the young bands that appeared in the early 1980’s as brass bands began a strange renaissance in New Orleans after near extinction in the early 1970’s, and for awhile the Dirty Dozen played the second-lines, funerals and weddings that are the mainstays for brass bands, but eventually they moved away from that to focus almost strictly on touring and club dates. Toward that end, while the bass lines are provided by a tuba, the Dirty Dozen employs a set drummer rather than the traditional rhythm section of bass drum, snare drum and cowbell, and adds an electric guitarist as well. Nor did traditional New Orleans songs make up much of the evening’s repertoire, although they did play a version of “Li’l Liza Jane”. Primarily, the sound of the Dirty Dozen these days is much more funk oriented, and much of the material had that feel and direction. For that style, a funky drummer is mandatory, and Julian Addison proved up to the task, providing a firm backing for the band, and a groove that soon filled the dance floor in front of the stage. Trumpeters Gregory Davis and Efrem Towns (the latter familiar to fans of the TV series Treme) took turns bantering with the crowd between songs and keeping a jovial and upbeat mood. Many of the songs were taken from the band’s most recent album Twenty Dozen, including a rousing reading of the song “Tomorrow.” At show’s end the crowd was still begging for more, and an encore featuring baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis closed out the show.
Friday February 6 was some kind of special day for blues apparently, because there were blues performances everywhere. Ori Naftaly was at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis, Duwayne Burnside was at the Blue Monkey in Memphis, Leo “Bud” Welch was at Rooster’s Blues House in Oxford, Albert King Jr and the Final Touch Band was at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod was at Club 2000 in Clarksdale, and Bill Howl-N-Madd Perry was at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale. Choosing between all of these great options was hard, but I finally decided to head for Clarksdale, stopping first at Sardis, Mississippi in order to enjoy a pizza at the superb Tribecca Alley Cafe, and then heading across the Delta on Highway 6. I had intended to check out the Albert King Jr. performance at Ground Zero, but when I first arrived in Clarksdale, I could hear a loud rock-influenced band playing elsewhere downtown, and since I could hear the Hill Country blues influence in it, I started looking for it. At first, I thought that the band was playing in an old warehouse on Sunflower Avenue, but it soon became clear that the sound was bouncing off that building and was coming from somewhere on Delta Avenue, so I walked around the Ground Zero club and found that they were playing in the new Delta Blues Alley Cafe, which is the former Club Vegas across the street from Ground Zero. It cost me $10 to go inside, and I proved to be the only patron, but the duo that was playing was Greenville, Mississippi drummer Stud, the nephew of the late T-Model Ford, and a Native American guitar player named Cactus from South Dakota who periodically hitchhikes to the Delta each year to play. They sounded good, and I spent some time checking them out before I finally headed back across the street to Ground Zero.
Considering the close distance between Holly Springs, Mississippi and Memphis, it is strange that blues legend Duwayne Burnside doesn’t appear more often in Memphis. In fact, I only recall seeing him perform at the Beale Street Music Festival or the Levitt Shell, usually with Kenny Brown or the North Mississippi All-Stars, so when I saw that he and his band had been booked to play the new Lafayette’s Music Room, I made it a point to go. Duwayne is a first-rate guitarist, of course, and he performed with his brother Garry Burnside as well, featuring a number of classic blues songs, some from the Hill Country tradition of his Dad R. L. Burnside and the late Junior Kimbrough, others from Elmore James and other sources. Duwayne performed two long sets of great blues, and brought the house down. I definitely hope we’ll see more of him here in Memphis.