After the screening of the last film of this year’s Clarksdale Film Festival (which was appropriately enough a documentary about Leo “Bud” Welch), my girlfriend and I headed around the corner from the Delta Cinema to Levon’s to get a dinner at what has become Clarksdale’s greatest restaurant. But an after-party in honor of Leo was being held down at Red’s Juke Joint, the legendary spot near the corner of Sunflower Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King, so as soon as we had finished dinner, we made our way there. Red’s is always the perfect ambiance for blues, and although the weather was cold outside, the inside was warm and cozy, perhaps due to the large and ever-growing crowd. Leo performed a couple of sets accompanied by his own musicians, and was then joined by Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller, who recently moved to Clarksdale from Little Rock. When we left near midnight, the party was still going strong.
The Mid-South Coliseum was built and completed in 1964, during the administration of Memphis Mayor William B. Ingram, and for many years was an important fixture in Memphis for sports and entertainment, hosting Tiger and Memphis Tams basketball, minor league hockey, concerts and pro wrestling. For many high school seniors, it was also the location of graduation. Unfortunately, after the building of the Pyramid downtown, the Coliseum fell on hard times and was eventually closed. A master plan for Fairgrounds reuse proposed tearing it down, like so many other Memphis landmarks. But the Coliseum means so many good times and historic occasions in Memphis, and as a result, a large number of Memphis citizens have come together in an effort to rally support for preserving the historic structure. They have sponsored events called Roundhouse Revivals, in which pro wrestling, vendors, food and live music are used to call attention to the efforts to save the Coliseum, and the at the second of these on November 4, Memphis’ superb reggae band the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy performed, followed by rap godfather Al Kapone and his hype man Tune C, who were unexpectedly backed by the CCDE as well. Although the weather was chilly, a decent crowd came out to enjoy the music and food, as well as pro wrestling demonstrations by Jerry “The King” Lawler himself, and of course the obligatory visits from political candidates.
InLOVE Memphis is one of Memphis' most elegant clubs, but it is not usually the venue for any kind of rap music, so I was somewhat surprised when I saw that a rap concert called Fall In Love Memphis was being held there. But it was also no ordinary rap concert, as the rappers were to be backed by the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, Memphis' superb dub band. The show was hosted by Memphis comedian/rapper/actor Elliot "Hardface" Nelson, and opened up with a rapper named Fuller's Back, who did a couple of songs. Memphis hip-hop artist CBeyohn was next, featuring the Chinese Connection's drummer Donnon Johnson on an amazing solo at the front of one of the songs. But the headliner for the night was Memphis veteran Jason Da Hater, well-known for his unique image and "hater" persona. Despite being introduced as the "worst MC in Memphis" and his appearance on stage being greeted by a chorus of boos (per his instructions), Jason is actually one of the city's most gifted MC's, and demonstrated that fact during his fairly brief set of some six or so songs. It was a night of great lyrics and great musicianship in an upscale, grown-folks environment.
Memphis has almsot no Caribbean expatriate community at all, and as a result, little Caribbean music either. What Jamaican music comes through the city is largely due to the efforts of one band, the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, who not only perform and promote their own music around Memphis, but who also arrange for out of town ska and reggae bands to come to the city and perform, such as Nashville’s Roots Of A Rebellion, who opened up for them at the Hi-Tone in Midtown in early June. CCDE has developed something of a cult following in the Memphis area, and their authentic approach to dub and reggae is refreshing in an era where computerized digital styles are all the rage.
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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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”.
When I got to New Orleans on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go hear live music. There weren’t any brass bands performing anywhere as far as I could tell, so I ultimately decided to head to a venue on Canal Street called Chickie Wah Wah where a pianist named Jon Cleary was playing with his band the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. I had never been to this particular spot before, although I had heard of it, and of course I knew of Jon Cleary, who had moved from England to New Orleans in the 1970’s and had stayed. I found the venue to be relatively small, but packed to the rafters, sharing its space with a barbecue stand called Blue Moon that smelled so good it made me sorry I had already eaten. Cleary, of course, is an amazing pianist, showing influences from Professor Longhair and James Booker, but his band is quite funky, even contemporary, and his choice of songs ran the gamut from originals to classics like “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights” and even the ska oldie “The Loving Pauper.” I was further amazed to run into a Memphian who had never met me, but who recognized me from Facebook and who was enjoying the music with his New orleans girlfriend. I told them about the second-line on the following day, and was sorry to see the music end at 1 AM or so.
The final act to appear on the River Arts Fest’s Webster Avenue Stage was Memphis’ only local dub band, the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, or CCDE. Like 4 Soul, the CCDE has occasionally backed up local rappers, but for the most part, these musicians have chosen the harder path of upholding the banner for dub music and reggae music in a city where these style are not particularly popular. Nevertheless, they are always a crowd-pleaser, whether calling out oppressors on songs like “Tyrant” or spreading the feel-good vibes on their single “Heavy Meditation.” Perhaps the band’s most unique attribute is their ability to see the reggae potential in the most unlikely of songs, such as Norwegian band A-Ha’s “Take Me On.” The Chinese Connection Dub Embassy closed out Saturday’s River Arts Fest on a high note.
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The Caribbean atmosphere of New Orleans has been pointed out many times, from the fact that the city celebrates Carnival, to the African-derived cultural practices of the Black Indian tribes and brass bands. But yet another point of Caribbean-Louisiana fusion is the unexpected prevalence of reggae music and culture in New Orleans. Young Black men often sport dreadlocks, reggae shops are found in many inner-city neighborhoods, reggae music is popular, and there is even a First Church of Rastafari in the 9th Ward. This shop on North Claiborne seems fairly typical, and wouldn’t look out of place in Montego Bay or Ocho Rios.