Memorial Day, and not a whole lot to do, but I called down to Square Books in Oxford and found out that they were going to be open, so after breakfast I drove down into Mississippi through occasional pop-up showers. On the square in Oxford, the sun was out, flowers were blooming and the businesses and courthouse looked like a postcard image. I browsed for a couple of hours and dicovered a couple of books I couldn’t live without, including the new autobiography of Bob Zellner, who was a white civil rights worker in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960’s (try finding that book in a Memphis bookstore). I then walked down to Abner’s for lunch, but while I was in there eating, a nasty storm developed, and I was two blocks from my car. Fortunately, the shower soon passed, and I walked back to the bookstore to get a latte before starting the long drive back to Memphis. Between the showers, it was a laid-back, summer kind of day, and I chose Maze as the soundtrack to that.
I drove down to Greenwood for a rap conference at which I had been asked to speak, and the weather in Memphis was horrible, but after I got past Grenada, it was nicer in the Delta. When I got to Greenwood, I had some extra time before I was supposed to be at the conference, so I stopped at a downtown bookstore called Turnrow Books, and immediately found two books about teachers teaching in predominantly-Black schools in Greenville and Leland, so I purchased those and then walked down the street to get a latte from the Mockingbird Bakery only to find that it had closed (or at least the little cafe had). I soon learned that the bread could still be purchased in the Viking Range shop, and that coffee was available on the second floor of the bookstore I had just come from, so I walked back over there and got a latte, then drove a couple of blocks west to the Memorial Building where the conference was taking place. A lot of Shreveport artists were there, one group from Rochester, New York that I had met in Albany, Georgia, Kilo from New Orleans and Razzen Kane from Jackson, Mississippi. After I spoke, it began to rain, and I decided to leave, grab a dinner and head back to Memphis. Outside the building were some older people that were part of a family reunion going on in another part of the building, and they were outside doing a dance called the “stanky leg” that I had thought was only for the young people. The dancers in the parking lot had recommended a restaurant called Webster’s Food and Drink, north of the river across the bridge, so I drove there and had a delicious filet mignon dinner. When I came back outside, however, the rain had begun to come down in buckets, and I got drenched getting to my car. Worse, large black, tornadic-looking clouds were hanging all over the western horizon. I drove over to Dunkin Donuts for a latte, and while I was there, I downloaded an app into my iPhone for realtime weather radar and forecasts. Knowing what to expect, I decided to drive back through Grenada and up I-55, and although the weather was bad at times, I made it all right.
Album Alley/Bebop Records in Tupelo had a Select-O-Hits listening booth that was on the fritz, so the company sent me down there with a new CD changer to fix it. Fortunately, it was nice weather, and fixing the listening booth proved to be simple once I got to Tupelo, so I rolled past the other record store but found it closed since it only opened on weekends, and I soon found that the FYE was gone from Barnes Crossing Mall as well. It was about 5 PM, so after browsing briefly in Books-A-Million, I drove around the 45 bypass to East Main Street, where there was a restaurant called The Grill at Fair Park, which belongs to the Harvey’s corporation. They were fairly empty, but open, and I enjoyed a steak dinner there while watching the CNN news talking about President Obama and the worsening economy. After dinner I wanted coffee, but JoJo’s across the street had moved over onto Gloster, so I was headed that way, west down Main Street when I spotted Cafe 212, and it appeared to be open. Not only did they have great coffee, but they had something called a peanut-butter chocolate chip pie, which was undescribably good. After that, it was all I could do to stay awake back to Memphis.
I took off work early so that I could pick up Al Kapone and Sir Vince and head to their show at the State Theatre in Starkville. The drive down took awhile, but Al and I were engaged in one of our discussions about philosophy and religion, so we were in Starkville before we knew it. After we stopped by the venue, we found that we had time for dinner, so we drove a few blocks to a restaurant I knew about called Harvey’s. The waitress was fascinated by Al and Vince being rappers, and she sped up our dinners so that we wouldn’t be late in getting back to the club. Unfortunately, a band called Galactic was playing at another club in Starkville and had a huge crowd, so we knew that our crowd would be slim, but still people came out. Al and Vince went first, followed by Lord T and Eloise, but Al had a couple of songs to do with them, so we waited for their set to end at midnight. Then, with no coffee bars open, I got a latte from a McDonald’s, and we drove the two hours back into Memphis.
After breakfast at Jim’s, I picked up Al and Vince and we rode downtown for Al and Vince to do a Memphis Music Foundation interview. I wanted to go to the Austin Record Show that was being held as part of South By Southwest in the Convention Center, but it was a small show and I didn’t find much there. I did run into Missy Querry and Kim Martini, two of Select-O-Hits’ sales reps who were there with the owner of Perris Records. After the interview Al and Vince were hanging out with friends at the Courtyard Marriott, and I walked over to Z Pizza for a small lunch, running into a couple of rappers from Atlanta who were there. On the walk back I stopped by a gelato shop, and then waited in the lobby of the Marriott, trying to get updates on the University of Memphis game. When Al and Vince came downstairs, we caught the van over to the Austin Civic Center for another large rap show. The people running this event were rude, however, not wanting to allow us in the green room and not allowing anyone to do sound checks. Al Kapone’s show with a live band captured the crowd however, and those who came after him just couldn’t do anything to equal the enthusiasm that a live band brings. Vince and I went to the Magnolia Cafe afterwards for dinner, and then I drove back to the hotel. The University of Memphis won their tournament game.
Al and Vince and I all went to Jim’s Restaurant for breakfast, and then Al had to go downtown for an interview. Vince and I ended up going back out to Backspin Records again, and then to a coffee bar on the eastside called Hot Mama’s. Leaving there, we got caught up in a tremendous traffic jam outside a warehouse that was selling jeans and shoes in conjunction with the South By Southwest week. Live bands were playing there, and there was a line out the door and around the building. Vince went with me to Texas Land and Cattle Company for dinner, and then we rode out to a dessert and coffee cafe called Dolce Vita, and even they had a live DJ playing out on the patio. I wanted to go to the Continental Club in South Austin to catch the Bo-Keys, Classie Ballou and Barbara Lynn, so I dropped Vince back off at his hotel, and headed down there. I had to pay for parking, and it was quite a long distance from the venue, but the weather was nice, and there were crowds everywhere, so I didn’t mind the walk. Across from the Continental Club was an old art-deco hotel called the Hotel San Jose, with a courtyard where a stage had been set up, and about a thousand people or so were out there listening to bands. The Continental Club was also packed to the rafters, but I managed to find a seat. Classie Ballou is a blues legend from Lake Charles, and he performed a number of swamp pop and blues hits, and later Barbara Lynn came on stage, performing a number of her best-known songs. The concert was sponsored by the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau and the Ponderosa Stomp, and was being broadcast by New Orleans’ WWOZ radio, and at one point the MC silenced the crowd and announced the tragic news that Eddie Bo had passed away. I caught the Bo-Keys first set, but afterwards, it became so hot and stuffy in the little, over-crowded club that I left. The coffee bar across the street next door to the hotel had already closed, so I walked back to the car and drove back to the hotel.
Somebody had recommended the Magnolia Cafe for breakfast, so I drove down the Mo Pac Expressway to Lake Austin Boulevard, and to the restaurant, but there was no place to park, and I had to park down by the lake and walk a block up the hill. There was a wait for a table as well, but the breakfast was worth the wait. From there, I drove down into South Austin to a record store called End Of An Ear, where there was a live DJ performing for the South By Southwest crowd. I was beginning to notice that all kinds of businesses had booked live bands during the festival. I bought a few things there (and could have spent a lot more), then drove back up to Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse for a latte. Sir Vince had called me from the Drury Inn and told me that he and Al Kapone had made it to Austin, so I met them at the hotel. Vince wanted to ride out with me to some more record stores, so we headed over to Backspin Records on the eastside, where there was an outdoor stage with a female band playing. The store had a great selection of reasonably-priced 45’s, and I bought a few singles there. The owner there recommended another store in South Austin called Friends Of Sound, so we drove over there, and they also had a live band playing, but the prices there were very steep indeed. For dinner, Vince and I went to a place called Chez Zee, an “american bistro” which offered very good food at reasonable prices. After dinner, it was time to head downtown to meet Al Kapone for the Memphis Music Foundation show at the Dirty Dog. Al and his live band were the high point of a show that also included the Tennessee Tearjerkers, River City Tan Lines and Free Sol. Walking back to the car, I grabbed a cappuccino from a coffee bar in the Hilton, before dropping Al and Vince off at their hotel and driving back to the room. (Photos by Loveless Photography)
I ate breakfast at Early Bird’s Cafe on Washington Boulevard, and then I drove west to Houston, stopping at Black Dog Records, but I didn’t buy anything there because everything was so expensive. The book store next door had a couple of books that I bought, and then I drove around to Cactus Records and browsed there for a minute. After noon, I headed out Highway 290 toward Austin, stopping for a coffee at Nestle’s Toll House Cafe. Between Houston and Austin were fields of bluebonnets in bloom, with families stopping to take pictures among them, but the drive seemed to take forever. It was nearly 4 PM when I arrived in Austin, and I went straight downtown to the Convention Center to get registered for the South By Southwest Conference, but I had to wait for Mike, Al Kapone’s road manager to get there so I could register. Afterwards, I walked around the downtown area and over to 6th Street, where most of the clubs and crowds were located. As the afternoon progressed, I walked down 6th Street past a number of clubs and cafes with bands playing, and over to Waterloo Records, where there was a Leonard Cohen tribute in progress. I bought some classical CDs there, and then stopped by the Amy’s Ice Cream next door for refreshment before I started walking back toward the convention center. After I checked into my hotel room at the Springhill Suites by Marriott, I drove down to the Pappadeaux’s on I-35 and ate dinner, and then headed back downtown to a club on Neches Street called Fuze, where there was a hip-hop showcase in progress. I ran into the Dallas rapper Money Waters, and some of the people from Swisha House records, and then, as it got later, I walked back to my car and headed back out to the hotel.
Al Kapone had arranged for me to get access to the South By Southwest Music Festival in San Antonio, where he was performing this year, so I headed out early in the morning down I-55 across Mississippi. At Madison, I stopped for coffee, but since Jazz & Java had closed in December, I had to settle for Starbucks, and then I started down the Natchez Trace into Natchez. Although the city had seen better days, there were still a lot of old, historic buildings downtown, many with the upstairs balconies that people often associate with New Orleans. On Franklin Street, I found the Natchez Coffee Company, which was filled with a mix of tourists and local people enjoying sandwiches and coffees. I ordered a latte, and then noticed a bookstore across the street, but I felt that if I went in there, I would lose at least an hour of time, so I went back to my car and drove back out to the bypass, across the Mississippi River, and into Vidalia, Louisiana. The drive from Ferriday to Alexandria was hot and boring, and it was 5 PM when I finally got to Pineville.
I didn’t want to stop in Alexandria, but I did want to drive down Lee Street, since, judging from old city directories, it had been the center of Alexandria’s Black night life. As recently as 1984, there had been a couple of record stores on the street, but as I drove down it in the early evening, there was very little left. Urban renewal had taken its toll in Alexandria just as it had everywhere else, but there were some clues to the past along Lee Street. I noticed a building with signs indicating that it had been a hotel, a nearby tire shop, a couple of night clubs that looked as if they might still be open, a few older Black men gathered out in front of the buildings. Still, Lee Street was now more vacant lots than buildings, and I wondered if anything was being done to preserve the historic buildings that remain.
Heading south on I-49, I exited onto a state road that led to the town of Eunice, where the first thing I noticed was two young Black kids on horseback riding south toward the downtown. There had been a couple of record stores in Eunice, but one of them was closed for good, and another was closed for the evening. Across the street from it was yet another coffee bar, where I ordered another latte, while watching the same young kids I had seen earlier as they rode their horse down the main street of town. Highway 190 was good road to the west, and the sun stayed with me until I crossed into Texas.
The Holiday Inn in Beaumont where I had booked my room was across the street from a Pappadeaux’s, but I had decided I wanted steak instead, so after checking in, I drove down to Crockett Street, Beaumont’s entertainment district, where I ate dinner at a steakhouse called Spindletop. They were having a pre-South By Southwest party at the rock club next door, but I decided to drive down the streets that had been entertainment centers for Beaumont’s Black community back in the 1960’s. Urban renewal had devastated Black communities everywhere, but in Beaumont, there had also been hurricanes, so streets like Gladys and Forsythe were almost completely vacant. I had hoped to catch of glimpse of what life must have been like in those streets’ hayday, but I could see nothing. Disappointed, I drove the expressway southward into Port Arthur, thinking I might find some kind of live music going on along Gulfway Drive. But Port Arthur proved to be an eerie, ghostly city almost entirely abandoned. It had seemed troubled but still alive back when Al Kapone had been booked to perform there back in the 1990’s, but now there seemed to be nothing left. As I drove down the main street downtown, I came upon the abandoned Sabine Hotel first, and then street after street of abandoned business buildings. Boarded up department stores, boarded up furniture stores, an abandoned World Trade Center, an abandoned federal courthouse. The apocalyptic landscape was made all the more strange by the brilliant streetlights with bathed everything in this area (the residential areas were pitch-black, with few streetlights at all), as well as the strange mist and fog that hung over the city.
I drove back along the Twin City Highway, now thoroughly depressed, wondering how a whole city of 70,000 people could be so thoroughly abandoned. Catching Washington Boulevard, I drove across the Peach Orchard neighborhood, noticing a new Screwed Up Records store that hadn’t been there the last time I was in Beaumont, and The Unit store, which sold mostly clothing but a few compact discs. Realizing that I wasn’t going to find any live jazz, blues or soul, I decided to retire to the hotel and to bed.
I had been asked to speak at a music conference in Leland, so, although winter weather was being predicted for Memphis, I headed out driving down Highway 61, stopping in Cleveland at a coffee bar called the Bean Counter. Further down the road in Greenville, the weather was grey and overcast, yet warmer, and after driving around the nearly-deserted downtown area, I stopped at Gino’s Hamburgers for lunch. McCormick’s Book Inn was already closed for the day, so after I bought a few books at a flea market, I drove down historic Nelson Street, filming the juke joints and R.I.P walls with my flip video camera, and then I headed on out to Leland. The music conference was in the National Guard Armory at Leland, and it was strangely hot and stuffy inside the building. I was surprised to see Donnie Cross and Charlie Braxton there when I got inside, and we spent some time catching up before I spoke to the crowd. Then, with rumours of bad weather to the north, I told the organizers that I needed to head out, and I drove northward into Cleveland, where I stopped for dinner at the Airport Grocery. When I came back out to my car, the rain was falling as sleet instead, and I began to worry about making it home. At Clarksdale, with no coffee bars available, I stopped at McDonald’s and bought a latte, which, if not as good as Starbucks, would at least serve the purpose. At Tunica, road conditions began to severely deteriorate, and I had to go rather slowly on I-69, which was largely elevated roadway. Where 69 joined with 55, there had been a huge accident in the lanes headed toward Tunica, and the highway patrol had shut down the road. Once I was in Memphis proper, however, there was more rain than sleet, and I got to the house safely, if exhausted.