Murphy’s, a divey Irish bar in Midtown is not a place one would usually go for blues, although I remember catching Willie Hall on drums there with somebody back in the early 1990’s. But perhaps because of B. B. King’s recent death, I noticed that Memphis bluesman Earl “The Pearl” Banks was scheduled to perform there with his band extremely early on a Friday night so I headed down to Midtown to check it out. Although Murphy’s doesn’t usually book blues, it is not a bad venue for blues, and there was plenty of available seating and no cover. Banks is an authentic traditional bluesman, and during the course of the evening, he played a number of standard tunes, including “Chain Gang”, which the Skatalites recorded under the title “Christine Keeler”, and of course “The Thrill Is Gone”, as was appropriate for a B. B. King tribute, with a hard rain falling outside. The crowd was an interesting mix of locals and a handful of people in town for the barbecue festival. All of them were treated to some of the best music Memphis has to offer.
Keep up with Earl “The Pearl” Banks:
Keep up with Murphy’s:
Although Memphis’ live music scene is not as healthy as it should be, one of its redeeming features is the occasional opening of new live music venues, often in the inner city. When these spots appear, they often feature the authentic soul and blues music for which Memphis is known, so when I saw that a place had opened on Brooks Road called Kings Sports Bar and that they featured a band every Thursday night called Since 5, I had to make the trip to Whitehaven to see what was what.
As it turned out, King’s Sports Bar was in a small strip mall in a place I recall as a club years ago when I was in college, across the street from what was then Club Obsession. Back then it was a rap club, but nowadays it is a small and nondescript local sports bar attracting a small older crowd of locals, including a handful of vocalists who come to sit in with the band. Memphis is literally full of great musicians, and although I had not encountered the Since 5 Band before, they proved to be a gifted group of musicians, switching seamlessly from contemporary jazz and funk to soul and blues, and backing three different female singers, including Lisa Cook, a gifted vocalist who performed a blues and a Chaka Khan cover during the course of the evening. Even better, Since 5 played some original compositions, something that very rarely occurs with a lot of Memphis R & B bands these days. Kings Sports Bar features live music every Thursday night beginning at 8 PM, with free admission.
Keep up with Since 5:
Keep up with Kings Sports Bar:
Kings Sports Bar and Grill
949 E Brooks Rd
Memphis, TN 38116
On Mothers’ Day afternoon, I saw that Joyce Jones, whom I had seen at Sherena Boyce’s party in Como a month ago, would be performing at Foxfire Ranch in Waterford, Mississippi. The weather was warm and sunny, so I decided to drive down, but I got there about an hour after the gate opened. Joyce performed one song after I arrived, but then turned over the stage to a comedian, an evangelist, a Southern Soul artist with a song called “Pour It In A Cup”, and then a Christian rock band called Destination Up. The latter act was interesting, as the drummer was one of Joyce’s cousins, and although I’m not always a big fan of rock, they were really good musicians and I loved the uplifting message of their songs. Then Kenny Brown came back on stage, with Joyce Jones and a guest artist from Nashville named R. B. Stone and Cameron Kimbrough on drums. They did several traditional Hill Country blues songs, including the standard “Rolling & Tumbling” and “Old Black Man”, Joyce Jones’ variant of the standard “Coal Black Mattie” or “Old Black Mattie”. Then Lightning Malcolm came up to feature on a song as well. Although it wasn’t exactly what I expected, it ended up being a decent night of music under a full moon and starry sky.
Keep up with Joyce Jones here:
Keep up with Destination Up here:
Keep up with Foxfire Ranch here:
Live blues is common in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which makes its rarity in neighboring Helena, Arkansas all the stranger, but Helena just hasn’t seen the renaissance that Clarksdale has seen in recent years. Nevertheless, when I saw that fantastic Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller would be playing at a place called Club 21 for the kickoff party of something called the Americana Music Triangle, I called my homegirl Evelyn Archer and asked her if she wanted to go.
Evelyn used to live in Helena and owns a building on Cherry Street that blues fans recall as Bunky’s during the King Biscuit Blues Festival in previous years, so I knew she would want to go, but unfortunately she had church responsibilities, so we got a late start out of Memphis, and by the time we got to Club 21, things were winding down somewhat. We were met in front of the club by the grandson of the legendary bluesman Houston Steakhouse, and Lucious was playing a great blues tune when we walked in. Unfortunately, he only played about four more songs after that, and all of them were rock or pop covers, including his closing version of “Purple Rain.” Still it was great to see the juke joint, which the people in Helena are trying to turn into a regular music venue, and the Americana Music Triangle is a website that covers a half-moon shaped region from New Orleans to Nashville where so many roots forms of American music were born. Evelyn took us by her building so we could see it, and we dropped her friend off at his house. But it was now after 11 PM, and there was no place to eat in Helena, so we grabbed a breakfast at the Waffle House in Tunica before heading back to Memphis.
Keep up with Lucious Spiller:
130 Walnut St
Helena, AR 72342
I had not planned on going to the Beale Street Music Festival this year, since I wasn’t particularly pleased with the line-up, and also I hadn’t been able to get a press pass last year, and didn’t even try to this year. But when a friend of mine who works for Rockstar Energy Drinks posted on Facebook that he was giving away tickets, I decided to go, asked him for two of them and invited a friend from college to go with me. By the time I had picked her up (and the tickets), it was nearly 10 o’clock, so I figured we would only get to see one act. I wasn’t at all interested in the hard rock groups on the bigger stages, and nobody was on the Blues Shack stage, but when we got to the Blues Tent, a band was coming on stage called Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Although they were a Black band, they featured a young man playing the steel guitar, an instrument usually associated with country music, and so I knew that they were from Florida. The phenomenon of Black steel guitar is pretty much unique to the state of Florida, and largely in one denomination of church, the House of God. Robert Randolph in fact began his music career in the House of God, and told an interviewer that he was completely unfamiliar with secular music before he began collaborating with Mark Medeski and the North Mississippi All-Stars.
What Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar, Robert Randolph is to the pedal steel. His flexibility and inventiveness with the instrument is absolutely amazing, and his repertoire is extremely diverse, from gospel standards to blues and even rock. And he is a consummate showman, exhorting the crowd to get them involved. He calls his band the Family Band, and that’s not just a name, as most of the musicians are actually relatives of Robert. At the end of the set at 11 PM, the Blues Tent was still standing room only. The band performed one final encore at the crowd’s demand, and the Friday night of the Beale Street Music Festival ended with a standing ovation for about five minutes straight.
Keep up with Robert Randolph & The Family Band:
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.
Keep up with Chinese Connection Dub Embassy:
Keep up with The Slackers:
Keep up with The Hi-Tone Memphis:
412-414 N Cleveland
Memphis, TN 38104
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.
Keep up with Tora Tora:
Keep up with the Gin Blossoms:
Keep up with Big Star:
Keep up with Ardent Studios & Records:
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:
Keep Up With Sons of Mudboy here: