Wiseacre Brewing Company is one of the new local microbreweries that have sprung up around Memphis, and they have started booking occasional live music on Saturdays. On February 7, the featured act was the Mighty Souls Brass Band, Memphis’ only local brass band, whose new album Lift Up was recently released on the non-profit Blue Barrel Records label, distributed by Archer Records.. The Mighty Souls played to an overflow crowd that spread out onto the decks and parking lot behind the building, featuring mostly songs from the new album, including the gospel-tinged composition “Saints” by drummer Tom Leonardo. The Gulf Coast Shrimp food truck from Southaven was purveying shrimp poboys and other cuisine appropriate to the occasion.
I knew there was to be a massive majorette jamboree at the Manassas High School gym on Saturday afternoon (February 7), so I rode over there to see if I could capture any last remnants of the old Memphis majorette and drummer tradition. As usual, most of the performing groups involved were using prerecorded compact discs, but there were three contestants that used the traditional drumline instead, the Millennium Maddness Drill Team and Drum Squad, the Crump Elementary Majorettes and Drummers from Hickory Hill, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Diamond Divas and Drumline, the latter being the new name for the former Frayser High School now that it has been taken over by the state and turned into a charter. While I am thrilled that there are still a few groups who uphold the old tradition of dancers and drummers, I miss the old jamborees of my teenage years when everyone did their routine to drummers lined up against the wall of the gym.
When I left the Delta Blues Alley Cafe, I walked across the street to Ground Zero Blues Club where the Final Touch Band was playing featuring Albert King Jr on bass, who claims to be the son of the late blues guitarist Albert King. The club wasn’t particularly crowded (which was unusual), and I had no problem finding a seat near the stage. After the first set was over and the band went on break, I left Ground Zero and walked back to Red’s Lounge on Sunflower Avenue at Fourth, where Bill Howl-N-Madd Perry was on stage performing. There wasn’t a huge crowd there either, but as Red’s was a smaller venue, the room seemed crowded by comparison. After Perry performed a few blues numbers, he invited up a local singer named Junebug to do a song, and then a fellow bluesman named Terry “Big T” Williams. The patrons were a good mix of local residents and out-of-town visitors, and the mood was jovial. Bill Perry came back up around 11 and played until midnight, when I left to make the long drive back to Memphis.
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.
People who know me know that I’m not a huge fan of modern-day Beale Street. In its current garish, Disneyland-like iteration, it seems like a travesty upon the street where blues became famous rather than a tribute to it, and bad cover bands seem to be the order of the day, along with mostly mediocre food and plenty of alcohol. So I was less than thrilled when my musician friend Otis Logan suggested that we go to B. B. King’s on Beale Street, but I like going out with friends, and he was supposed to sit in, so I agreed to go. Beale at this time of year is pretty much a ghost town, even on weekends. Winter is the off-season in Memphis, as we get weather every bit as cold as St. Louis or Cincinnati, and people wanting great music and a warmer climate are heading further south to New Orleans, not shivering here. But there was a decent-sized crowd in B. B. King’s, all the more amazing since it was a Thursday night. I ordered a fudge brownie, which was actually delicious, and sat down at a table as the band was walking up on the stage. The band this particular night was known as the B. B. King’s All-Stars, and an impressive bunch of Memphis musicians they were. They were tight and together as a unit, and they played a couple of funky instrumentals before bringing up their vocalist, a soul singer named Rodney Tate whom I had never heard of, and he was also quite good. One of my bigger complaints about Beale Street in recent years has been how little of the music heard on the street is actually classic Memphis blues or soul, but the music at B. B. King’s on this particular night was exactly that, and it was thrilling to hear. Due to a late start, the Memphis musicians who had gathered in the club hoping to sit in did not get to, but it was altogether a fun and exhilarating experience. Perhaps I’ll venture there more often.
On the last Saturday in January, there was a kickoff party for the new year to call attention to the On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival, which will be held on Labor Day weekend this year. The party was held at Phillip Ashley Chocolates in the Cooper-Young neighborhood, and guests had an opportunity to sample the world-famous chocolates, as well as gourmet coffee from Memphis’ own Ugly Mug Coffee roasters. A few guests won free tickets to the festival screenings of Oscar shorts held at the Hard Rock Cafe. The excellent music was provided by renowned singer-songwriter Juju Bushman.
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:
I really was not familiar with the Memphis rapper Crisis 901 who was putting on an event called Dope On Arrival at the House of Mtenzi in Midtown Memphis on a Friday night in January. But I did of course know the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy band that was providing the musical backdrop for the MC’s, and my homeboy Otis Logan was playing drums with them on the gig in place of Donnon Johnson, so I decided to go down and support the event, and I enjoyed myself. Most of the artists were young new artists from Memphis, and I wasn’t familiar with them, but they were all decent MC’s. Crisis, who was celebrating his birthday, closed out the set, and I learned was not only a rapper but also an R & B singer as well. He refers to himself as “The Dark Knight” and uses a considerable amount of Batman references. Apparently the Dope on Arrival events are regularly-scheduled recurring concerts that happen about every three months or so.
Every Monday night, musicians, singers and poets head down to a Latin club and restaurant in Memphis’ South Main Arts District for a weekly open mic event called The Word. Hosted by Memphis singer Tonya Dyson, The Word usually features a live band which backs up the singers, rappers and poets, and on the particular Monday night I was there, the band in question was Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, Memphis’ best local reggae and dub band. The main drummer for CCDE is Donnon Johnson, but on this particular night, he traded out with my homeboy Otis Logan on certain tunes, and Otis was featured on an amazing drum solo over a keyboard vamp. Several singers and poets performed, including Tonya Dyson herself, who had an incredible reading of the Jamaican festival classic “What A Bam Bam”.
The Go DJ’s are Louisiana’s main DJ coalition, and DJ Phat should be familiar to anyone in the Grambling, Ruston and Monroe areas. Now they have released their first mixtape of the year, The Street Supplier, which features three segments, one mixed by DJ Phat, one by DJ J-Weezie and one by DJ Dat Boi. The mix features plenty of Louisiana artists from the familiar to the obscure, including Lil Cali, Boosie, Kevin Gates, 3 Feet and Juvenile. Download and enjoy!