Reggae and other Jamaican music styles are not particularly common in Memphis, so when there are occasions to see reggae bands, I usually jump at the opportunity, such as last Thursday’s concert at the Hi-Tone in Crosstown. Of course, I was already familiar with our superb local dub band the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, but the other band on the bill, The Slackers, was a complete unknown to me. The CCDE usually perform mostly dub, but somewhat surprised me during their set on this particular night by doing two songs from the rock steady/early reggae era, Toots Hibbert’s “54-46 Was My Number”, and Desmond Dekker’s “Shanty Town”. The Slackers are based in New York City, and proved to be an excellent ska band with live horns. They have released numerous albums since 2000, and the songs they performed were almost strictly originals taken from across their discography. The one exception was the Skatalites cover “Christine keeler”, whose title references a 1962 go-go girl who figured prominently in a British political scandal. When the band tried to end their set, the crowd demanded more, and the Slackers obliged with not one, but about four songs, and it was nearly 1 AM when things broke up.
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Although the Levitt Shell season doesn’t start until May, there is usually an earlier special music event or two during the warm weather in April, and this year, the occasion was a tribute to the late John Fry and John Hampton of Ardent Studios, two Memphis music figures who dies within a week of each other. As Ardent has been the most important studio in Memphis since the late 1960’s, their impact on the city and the local music industry was considerable, and so three popular Memphis bands associated with Ardent came out to perform.
First up was the hard rock band Tora Tora, which I had never been much of a fan of, but I found to my surprise that some of their songs had a recognizable Memphis influence. Behind them came the Gin Blossoms, who were produced by John Hampton and had recorded at Ardent. What I didn’t know, however, was that the band was originally from Arizona and chose to record at Ardent because of their admiration for Big Star.
The final band of the evening was the current incarnation of Big Star, featuring founding member Jody Stephens on drums, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and Steve Selvidge on guitar. They played a number of familiar and not so familiar Big Star songs, as well as a reading of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos”. A few of the songs featured vocals from the singers of the Gin Blossoms and Tora Tora. The evening ended with the performers standing together and taking a bow in front of the several hundred people who attended. John Fry was also posthumously awarded a note on Beale Street.
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The late Jim Dickinson was passionate about Memphis’ Beale Street. He carried on a running feud in song with the Memphis Housing Authority and Memphis’ city government over its rough treatment of Beale Street during so-called “urban renewal”, and it was almost certainly at Dickinson’s suggestion that Alex Chilton’s early working title for Big Star’s third album was “Beale Street Green”, a reference to the green fields that surrounded the entertainment district once the surrounding neighborhoods had been destroyed (the poetic title would later resurface as a movement of instrumental music on one of Dickinson’s Delta Experimental Projects). So when the Orpheum Theatre commissioned Dickinson to put together an album as a fund-raiser, he responded with a recorded paean to his beloved street, now endangered by civic ineptitude, an album called Beale Street Saturday Night. The album was somewhat bizarre, consisting of two unbanded sides that played continuously. Songs and interview clips faded seamlessly into one another, more like a radio documentary than an album. For years, the album was a highly-sought collector’s item, but it has now been lovingly reissued by the Omnivore label, and to celebrate that fact, Shangri-La Records in Midtown sponsored a performance of Sons of Mudboy, that most elusive group of Memphis musicians and folklorists, centered around Cody and Luther Dickinson and Steve Selvidge, along with Jimmy Crosthwaite of Mudboy and the Neutrons, the supergroup that started it all. Hearing a Sons of Mudboy concert is like taking a crash musicology course in Memphis music. First, there are no genre barriers, as the group works seamlessly from blues, to rock, to bluegrass, folk or gospel. Some of the songs are originals, or at least songs that were original to Jim Dickinson, Sid Selvedge or Lee Baker of Mudboy and the Neutrons, while many others are covers, which range from Furry Lewis to Sleepy John Estes to Mississippi Fred McDowell. This performance was somewhat unusual in that it opened with Jim Dickinson’s “Power To The People” which is usually a closer, and so it closed with the Hill Country blues standard “When I Lay My Burden Down”, where they were joined by the great Sharde Thomas on the cane fife. A crowd of about 100 people enjoyed the unexpected sunny weather (storms had been predicted) and pleasant temperatures, the perfect setting for a great afternoon of Memphis music.
Buy Jim Dickinson’s Beale Street Saturday Night here if your local store doesn’t stock it:
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Record Store Day is a worldwide holiday held in April to call attention to an endangered species, the neighborhood record store. Record companies release all kinds of cool limited-edition vinyl LP’s and singles, and local stores often sponsor live performances on the day, and with vinyl sales picking up all the time, the future of independent stores doesn’t seem quite as bleak as it did a few years ago. In Memphis, three stores were official Record Store Day participants, and the first one I visited was Goner Records in the hip Cooper-Young neighborhood. Goner is a record label as well as a store, and not surprisingly they made a big deal of the day, with live bands such as the Blackberries out under the gazebo at Cooper and Young, and a store literally full of customers.
Things seemed more subdued at Shangri-La Records on Madison Avenue, although they had opened an hour earlier than Goner. They had decided to have their live music the next day on Sunday, when they were having Son of Mudboy play for an album release party for the reissue of Jim Dickinson’s legendary Beale Street Saturday Night compilation, but there were still a number of crate diggers enjoying their Saturday afternoon by browsing.
The third and final store participating in Record Store Day was Memphis Music, the blues-oriented record store on Beale Street, where the Memphis Music Commission had decided to sponsor live performances. Unfortunately, things were quite hectic on Beale, with a Corvette competition, and the annual Africa In April festival at Church Park, but small crowds gathered to enjoy Memphis singer-songwriter Michael Joyner and the a cappella vocal group Artistik Approach. It needs to also be pointed out that Memphis Music has greatly increased its vinyl selection over the last year or so, and is not just a store for tourists, but is worth a visit from local music lovers as well. It’s selection of import CD”s, particularly those with a Memphis connection, is also worth browsing.
2152 Young Av
Memphis, TN 38104
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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.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, with not much going on, I decided to join a walking tour that was walking across the old Memphis & Arkansas Bridge. The tours are apparently held to increase interest in the Harahan Bridge redevelopment scheme, and I must say, I think they work. We met in Crump Park, one of the city’s forgotten and disused parks, which sits at the foot of the bridge near a Super 8 motel that used to be a Holiday Inn years ago. The park has a magnificent old magnolia tree in its center where we met the tour director who gave us a lecture about the park and the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, which was erected in 1949. He also gave us information about the Harahan project, and then we set off walking across the bridge to Arkansas. The view from the bridge provides a lot of opportunities for photographs, even though the other two bridges effectively block any good view of the city’s skyline. And even though the weather was hot, it was not unbearably so, and all of the trees and grass were beautiful at this time of year.
Perhaps Easter doesn’t bring thoughts of blues to many people, but this Easter evening was the occasion for an amazing event at Foxfire Ranch celebrating the release of a new album by 84-year-old bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch. Welch’s story is amazing, for he is an authentic traditional bluesman who remained undiscovered until 2013 at the age of 82, when he began recording his first record. He signed with Fat Possum’s Big Legal Mess subsidiary the same year, and released his debut album Sabougla Voices, which was a gospel record. (“Sabougla” is a hamlet in Calhoun County, Mississippi where Welch is from). Gospel is Leo’s preferred music, but his young audiences love to hear him play blues, and he does so on his sophomore album, which is aptly entitled I Don’t Prefer No Blues. But to celebrate its release, rather than a typical release party, a full evening of live Hill Country blues was scheduled at the Hill Country Pavilion at Foxfire near Waterford, Mississippi. Although the sun was out, the day was chilly, but a decent crowd showed up at 5 PM for the opening act, Jason Carter, who performed acoustically with another guitar player. Right behind him came Cedric Burnside and Trenton Ayres, collectively known as the Cedric Burnside Project, who got things crunk with the heavy, rock-inflected brand of blues they play, including one of Cedric’s trademark extended drum solos. Several members of the legendary Burnside family were in the audience, including Duwayne and Garry Burnside. The next act up was something a little different. Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition are also on the Fat Possum label, and are more of a strange but winsome amalgam of indie rock, traditional country, blues and funk, which Jimbo whimsically calls “catfish music”. Although he maintains a different sound than Hill Country blues, the influence of blues can be heard through much of his work. Robert “Bilbo” Walker is 76 years old nowadays, and is a former Mississippi bluesman who currently lives in California. Although he is originally from Mississippi, his music has considerable Louisiana and swamp influences, which came to the forefront in his reading of the classic blues/soul song “Staggerlee”. Finally, at the end of the night, Leo “Bud” Welch came up with his three-piece band and performed a collection of songs from the new album, which he had available for sale there at the pavilion. When things finally came to an end around 10 PM, there was still a decent crowd.
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Monuments, memorials and murals are common to cities. All cities have histories, and important events and people are often honored with statues, parks, buildings or other public markers. But few cities have such things to commemorate a form of music. Yet over the last several months (because it wasn’t there in November), a brick wall behind the Circle Food Store in New Orleans was remade into a colorful and beautiful tribute to bounce music, New Orleans’ most recently created musical genre. Since bounce is a DJ-based music, there is of course a DJ in the mural with turntables, as well as the “Wobbly, Wobbly, C’Mon” chant which is ubiquitous in most bounce music. It’s quite a cool thing to see along North Claiborne Avenue.