Como, Mississippi is a town of significant importance when it comes to the Hill Country style of blues, and it is a town that has had something of a nightlife renaissance in recent years, with several regionally-acclaimed restaurants, so it is somewhat surprising that live blues is considerably rare in Como. After all, this was the home of Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the town where the Rev. Robert Wilkins and the Rev. John Wilkins preached and played their unique style of blues-inflected gospel. But aside from the occasional recording sessions at Delta Recording Service, I had never seen any live blues in Como, so when Sherena Boyce invited me to her birthday party and said that her dad, legendary bluesman R. L. Boyce would be playing, I made plans to go.
Her party was held at a little building called the Back Street Ballroom on the street immediately behind Main Street. Although the building was more of an event rental venue, it had the look of a typical Mississippi juke, particularly inside. Friends and family gathered, and a few fans of R. L. Boyce as well, and the event soon got underway, with R. L. Boyce playing the guitar, backed by a band from Potts Camp in Marshall County whose name was never mentioned. It was a versatile band, however, because its keyboard player at one point switched to drums, and its drummer also played guitar and sang. After a few songs, a female singer named Joyce Jones came up and performed several more tunes, and the floor filled up with dancers, many exhibiting the same kind of moves that I had seen the weekend before at the second-line in New Orleans. Also reminiscent of the second-line culture was the fact that at least one party-goer had brought a tambourine with them that they beat and shook in time to the band on stage. After two sets of live music from the band, the DJ picked back up with southern soul and blues music, and the party kept going strong until 2 AM.
Perhaps no New Orleans experience is more enjoyable yet exotic as the Sunday afternoon parades called second-lines. Inspired by the bass-drum, cowbell and tuba-driven grooves of a brass band, the second-line is basically a rolling party led by one of the many social aid and pleasure clubs in the Black community of New Orleans. Unlike more traditional parades elsewhere in the United States, these are participatory events. People come off their porches and fall in behind the marching band, or jump onto high places to dance and be noticed. The refreshments roll too, pulled by vendors with coolers on wheels, so with the music and cold drinks easily available, the average second-liner might not even realize that he’s been marching and buckjumping for nearly four hours in the hot New Orleans sun. Plus, unlike other parades, second-lines stop. The sponsoring club needs to rest, as some of the members are not young, and besides, they are usually dressed in elaborate and beautiful costumes that are extremely hot to wear. They also need to salute other clubs by visiting the bars where they hang out, so a second-line is everything- the beat of great music, the exuberance of impromptu dancing, the colorful brilliance of suits and costumes, the joyful meeting of friends or relatives, and ultimately a statement of identity- what it means to be from New Orleans.
On this particular Saturday, the second-line was being sponsored by the Revolution Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a downtown organization, so the parade lined up at the entrance to Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme neighborhood. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the Congo Square Rhythm Festival was going on inside the park, so there was quite a crowd in the vicinity. Revolution is one of the bigger parades of the season, and this year, it featured three bands- the TBC Brass Band, the Sons of Jazz and the New Breed Brass Band, which had formerly been known as the Baby Boyz. With a 70% chance of rain predicted, I had been concerned about the weather. It was certainly grey and overcast, and as the parade began to get underway, big drops of rain came falling down, sending a rush of people into the Ace Hardware on Rampart Street to buy ponchos and umbrellas. But once the parade was up and rolling on Basin Street, the rain abruptly ended, never to return, and eventually, up on Broad Street the sun came out. The crowds grew steadily bigger through the afternoon as we headed down Broad Street toward A. P. Tureaud. At one stop along the way, the club members disappeared into a building, and then came out in completely different attire. Since there had been no “coming out the door” at the beginning of the parade, this was their first “coming out” of the day. All downtown second-lines get kicked up a notch when they hit the I-10 overpass at North Claiborne Avenue. For one thing, the acoustics under the bridge are amazing, and the bass drums and tuba lines seem to hit harder, and the dancers get more creative. For another, there’s usually a crowd of people gathered under the bridge awaiting the arrival of the second-line. The neutral ground of Claiborne was a place of significance in Black New Orleans before the interstate was built, and the ground remains important to the community today, even in spite of what has been done to it. Outside of some establishments were large groups of people, particularly at Kermit Ruffin’s Mother-In-Law Lounge near the intersection with St. Bernard Avenue. On the last stretch of parade down St. Bernard Avenue, there was some question as to whether we would be allowed to continue, because the parade had run past its permitted time of 5 PM, but the police finally relented and allowed the parade to continue to its end.
Second-line crowds are always reluctant to disperse, and that is even more true of the ones downtown. Lots of people come out with custom cars and motorcycles, cruising up and down North Claiborne Avenue, despite the efforts of the police to break it up. An hour later, there was still a street party in full swing under the bridge. As the sun sets, it gradually breaks up naturally most of the time, the revelers headed home tired but happy until the whole process is repeated the next Sunday.
Old Man Winter had other ideas when the Stooges Brass Band was supposed to play at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis a few weeks ago, but Memphis had another opportunity to enjoy some New Orleans music last Wednesday when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band performed at the same venue. The Dirty Dozen was one of the young bands that appeared in the early 1980’s as brass bands began a strange renaissance in New Orleans after near extinction in the early 1970’s, and for awhile the Dirty Dozen played the second-lines, funerals and weddings that are the mainstays for brass bands, but eventually they moved away from that to focus almost strictly on touring and club dates. Toward that end, while the bass lines are provided by a tuba, the Dirty Dozen employs a set drummer rather than the traditional rhythm section of bass drum, snare drum and cowbell, and adds an electric guitarist as well. Nor did traditional New Orleans songs make up much of the evening’s repertoire, although they did play a version of “Li’l Liza Jane”. Primarily, the sound of the Dirty Dozen these days is much more funk oriented, and much of the material had that feel and direction. For that style, a funky drummer is mandatory, and Julian Addison proved up to the task, providing a firm backing for the band, and a groove that soon filled the dance floor in front of the stage. Trumpeters Gregory Davis and Efrem Towns (the latter familiar to fans of the TV series Treme) took turns bantering with the crowd between songs and keeping a jovial and upbeat mood. Many of the songs were taken from the band’s most recent album Twenty Dozen, including a rousing reading of the song “Tomorrow.” At show’s end the crowd was still begging for more, and an encore featuring baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis closed out the show.
Just across the Hardeman County line from LaGrange, Grand Junction should have fared better than it did. Its name referred to the fact that it was located at a place where the Memphis & Charleston railroad line heading toward Chattanooga met what was then the Mississippi Central Railroad heading from Jackson, Tennessee to Water Valley, Mississippi by way of Bolivar and Holly Springs. Both railroads were important, and while Bolivar was the county seat, one could have expected that a town of some significance would have grown up there, and indeed, some of the buildings suggest that Grand Junction was once a little bigger than it is today. But like all the towns I had seen on this particular Saturday, Grand Junction’s downtown was largely dead, if not quite as abandoned as some of the other towns. Again, there was a certain amount of commerce along Highway 57, which probably contributed to the problems in the old business district, and there was the National Bird Dog Museum, which is probably what the town is most famous for, as the national field trials are held annually nearby on the Ames Plantation. But downtown Grand Junction is largely empty, with a number of buildings that look as if they haven’t changed in 60 years. Unlike many of the other towns, there is also a train depot that still exists, although it seems to be undergoing renovations, and is far smaller than I would have expected in a town where two important railroads met. Here’s hoping that someone begins to think about restoring the historic downtown buildings. They would work well as restaurants or cute boutiques and antique shops.
Unlike the other towns along Highway 57, LaGrange did not come about because of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. It was platted in 1829 and developed by early settlers, and its original street plan was supposedly patterned after that of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Memphis & Charleston Railroad reach LaGrange in 1838, but a financial “panic”, as recessions were called in that day, led to the railroad going into bankruptcy. Since LaGrange was very much a going concern before the railroad arrived, it is not surprising that the business district is on the opposite side of town from the railroad, and there are still a number of historic homes and business buildings, many of which predate the Civil War. Unfortunately, only 133 people actually live in the town, and Main Street, though much better preserved than that at Moscow, was equally empty.
Further east along Highway 57 is Moscow, Tennessee, a town that looks as if it had been completely abandoned. The name of its main street, Charleston Street, reflects the importance of the Memphis & Charleston railroad in the town’s history, but on a Saturday afternoon, the street is devoid of cars or people. Few of the buildings along the street seem to be occupied at all, and the same is true of what was obviously once a massive town square along the railroad tracks. The gigantic Moscow Mercantile Company once presided over the spot, but it has been closed and abandoned, too. It is hard to tell what has brought about such dramatic decline in Moscow. A large plant of the Troxel Corporation just outside the town makes Flexible Flyer swing-sets, and there is a small scattering of businesses still open along the highway, including a branch of Brad’s Bar-B-Que. The town has several hundred residents, and is far from a ghost town, but for some reason the downtown has been totally abandoned, and it has an empty and eery feel.
In 1838, early investors dreamed up the idea of a railroad east from Memphis to the Atlantic Ocean at Charleston, South Carolina. Such a railroad would connect the cotton-growing areas along the Mississippi River with an Atlantic port, where such goods could be exported to Europe or the Caribbean. Economic downturns killed and delayed the plans repeatedly, and the railroad initially only got to the Fayette County town of LaGrange, Tennessee. Yet, by 1857, the Memphis & Charleston Railroad was a reality, and this rail line was to have a profound influence over a number of the towns that today are located along Highway 57, which runs from Collierville to Pickwick Landing. Rossville, the first town of any significance after crossing over into Fayette County, was a beautiful town when I was young, and still is. Despite its proximity to booming Collierville, it doesn’t seem to have grown all that much, perhaps due to the lack of schools (the nearest public high school is almost 20 miles away in Somerville, although there is a private academy). Old houses, some of them elaborate line the few streets, and there is a newly-restored town square, and the Wolf River Cafe, a restaurant that I haven’t tried yet but which I’ve heard good things about. Sadly, one thing I remember from my youth is long gone, the row of Black jukes on the north side of the railroad opposite the square. As I recall one of them was called Phase II, but they are all gone without so much as a trace.
On a rainy Friday night, after I had eaten dinner at AC’s Steakhouse in Hernando, Mississippi, I was driving back into Memphis looking for some live music, preferably blues or soul. Coming in on Elvis Presley Boulevard, I had stopped briefly at Club Superior in South Memphis, a place that at least in the past has sometimes featured live blues on weekends, but seeing three young teenagers coming out of the door just as I pulled up convinced me to look elsewhere, at least on this particular night. So I decided to head down Crump Boulevard and check on a place called The Plexx, a venue owned by a local doctor, Dr. Alfred Brown, where my friend Larry Chambers from Ecko Records told me that sometimes I could find live music. Since he told me that, I had periodically checked the place out on Friday nights, but invariably found it dark and locked up. I almost didn’t check it on this particular night either, but I finally did, and for the first time, found the parking lot absolutely loaded with cars. Better yet, when I got out, I could hear the boom of the bass drum and the thump of the electric bass out on the parking lot. Admission was $5, and I soon saw that not only was there a live band, the Juke Joint All-Stars, but a large horn section as well, and a man named Melvino was fronting the band and singing when I got there. The occasion turned out to be his birthday/anniversary party, and the joint was filled with his friends and area musicians, including legendary Memphis drummer Willie “Too Big” Hall, famous for his work with the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes and the Blues Brothers. After the Juke Joint All-Stars performed, a man named Anthony Turner performed with his band as well, and then a group who billed themselves as Gerard and Friends performed two funk tunes with Willie Hall on drums. Randy “Wildman” Stewart, a DJ from WMPR in Jackson, Mississippi had also come up, and performed a version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”, and Bertha Payne, Butch Mudbone and an amazing singer named Joyce Henderson all performed. Payne’s song “It’s Friday Night” was appropriate for the occasion as far as mood, although by the time she performed it, it was Saturday morning, and Joyce Henderson’s 1 AM reading of “Wang Dang Dula” brought down the house. After her performance, the horns left, and I did as well, although I could hear that things were continuing inside. Out on the parking lot, another club down the shopping center was just getting started, and a group of teenagers was starting to argue in the line waiting to be admitted, and I figured it was time to go. Still, it was an amazing night of of the best Memphis soul and blues in an out-of-the-way spot that isn’t always open, but is always worth investigating on Friday nights.
380 E E. H. Crump Blvd
Memphis, TN 38126
It’s hard to believe that only a couple of months ago I had never heard of Leon Bridges. Of course, the Fort Worth-based soul singer had already been doing things and beginning to make moves, but he somehow didn’t hit my radar until one of my favorite Mid-South venues, Tupelo’s Blue Canoe sent me an email in January triumphantly announcing that they had booked the up-and-coming young soul star in March, with all the enthusiasm of a record collector proudly showing off his newly-acquired copy of some rare 45 single. And the analogy is apt, because Leon Bridges and his band carefully craft the aesthetics of 1964-era classic soul and rhythm and blues (not R & B). His original compositions have that flavor, and even the appearance and dress style of him and his band members reinforce the retro feel. Not that this is entirely unprecedented, because the last few years have seen the emergence of a number of these types of groups, from Alabama Shakes to St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to J. C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound, to even James Hunter. And in some ways, Bridges and his band have points of similarity with all of that, and yet, Bridges is so young, his band so dynamic and tight, his compositions so personal (the newest released song “Lisa Sawyer” is a musical biography of his mother), his guitar playing so exquisite, that he is something at once familiar and yet brand new.
Freshly back from Europe, Bridges returned to the states with a Monday-night gig at Little Rock’s White Water Tavern, a venerable dive bar that happens to feature some of Arkansas’ best live music. It was in some ways a strange choice of venue, but Leon Bridges’ record label, Last Chance Records is based in Little Rock, and it was also a strange choice of night for a concert, but it is a tribute to Bridges’ rising popularity that the Monday night event was completely sold out, and he played to a standing-room-only crowd.
The building blocks of Leon’s magic are astoundingly simple. His band consists of guitar (two of them when he plays), bass, drums, a saxophonist and three female singers. His voice exudes a youthful naivety and innocence that is eminently appealing, and as he sings of his desire to “come home” to his sweetheart, you could almost imagine that you had been transported back to 1965. While only three songs are currently available commercially, Bridges performed far more on this night, with moods that ran the gamut from 6/8 soul ballads to 1950’s R & B, and lyrics that frequently mention the Mississippi River, New Orleans, even being washed clean from sins, the timeless themes of the South, white or Black. At show’s end, it was hard to imagine that the smiling, humble kid we were meeting is a star, but his single “Coming Home” was the most-donwloaded song in the world last week. And that suggests something exciting- perhaps soul music is finally “coming home.”
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All the years I have lived in Memphis, I had never been to the Buccaneer Lounge in Midtown, but I saw on a live music schedule in the Memphis Flyer that my homeboy Daniel McKee was playing a gig there, so I decided to go. According to the schedule, the show was supposed to start at 10 PM, but when I pulled up, the place actually looked closed. One guy was standing on the porch, and only a couple of cars were outside. But I ventured on in and paid the cover charge, even though the place seemed fairly deserted. My friend Daniel was the first to arrive, and over the next half hour musicians started to arrive, Pat Fusco with his B-3 organ, a drummer who had only recently moved to Memphis from New York and whose name I didn’t catch, indie Memphis rocker John Paul Keith and blues guitarist/singer Dave Cousar. When things got underway about 11 PM, it proved to be one of those amazing, serendipitous nights of music that can happen in Memphis. The song choices ran the gamut from soul to rock to blues to country, with a decided New Orleans bent at times. Dave Cousar and John Paul Keith took turns fronting different songs, and saxophone player Art Edmiston wandered in during the first set. When it seemed like it couldn’t get any better, shortly after John Paul’s soulful reading of “Bring It On Home To Me”, Marcella Simien dropped by to join him in a duet of Lee Dorsey’s “Waiting For My Ya-Ya”, and Paul Taylor came through to sit in as well. The Buccaneer is not a large club, and by the end of the night, it was standing room only, as John Paul Keith closed things out with a very appropriate song, “That’s How I Got To Memphis.” The cold winds howled outside, but it was a warm and cozy night of Memphis music inside.
1368 Monroe Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104
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