Arkansas doesn’t have quite the blues scene that Mississippi has, and an Irish bar in Jonesboro wouldn’t exactly be the place one would expect to hear blues either. But in early June, Cregeen’s in Jonesboro hosted a performance by Hill Country bluesman Lightning Malcolm with T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud on drums, and this performance was interesting, in that Malcolm did a number of different tunes than the ones he usually plays at his shows. Despite the small upstairs stage and the lateness of the hour, the crowd was quite enthusiastic, and Cregeen’s also deserves a commendation for the excellent food on their late-night menu.
Memphians reacted with understandable sadness to the news last year that Memphis in May was eliminating the Sunset Symphony, which had been one of the highlights of the annual monthlong festival. For many of us, nothing short of a reversal of the decision would do, but eventually, Memphis in May softened the blow by replacing it with something called 901 Fest, an inaugural day-long event of local Memphis musicians in Tom Lee Park. One of the annoyances of the Beale Street Music Festival, at least to me, is the lack of local artists scheduled, when compared to Jazz Fest in New Orleans for example, so the 901 Fest concept was decidedly exciting.
Across three stages, a number of Memphis artists from all genres performed on a bright blue Saturday afternoon on the Memorial Day weekend, with perhaps the biggest headliners being veteran Memphis rappers Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, and Cody and Luther Dickinson’s North Mississippi Allstars. Boats were out on the river, people sitting on blankets enjoying music, plenty of local food trucks, and to cap off the evening, fireworks over the river. All in all it was a satisfying day.
I used to pass the old Loflin Safe & Lock Company on Carolina Avenue in Memphis for years, and never thought much about it, but unexpectedly a few months ago, the place was transformed into a hot new Memphis bar and grill called Loflin Yard, with a primarily-outdoor focus that resembles Austin, Texas a lot more than it does Memphis. While there are a few tables and a bar indoors, and a few more tables on a deck outside, the central emphasis is on a huge backyard, filled with plenty of chairs and fire pits, an outdoor stage and bar,a waterfall and the only visible portion of historic Gayoso Bayou, most of which has been paved over elsewhere in Memphis. The effect is something like an urban equivalent to Mississippi’s Foxfire Ranch, and the booking policies are somewhat similar as well, with Loflin Yard featuring a lot of roots music groups, from blues to bluegrass. On the day we went, the featured artist was the Rev. John Wilkins, an artist whose dad was a blues legend in the 1920’s, and whose music bridges the gap between Hill Country blues and gospel music. On a somewhat cool and pleasant day, we found the place packed to overflowing, and we could barely find outdoor seats. Wilkins, backed by two and later three female singers, performed his dad Robert Wilkin’s signature tune “Prodigal Son” AKA “That’s No Way To Get Along”, which was made famous by the Rolling Stones, and he performed many of his best-known tunes as well, including “You Can’t Hurry God.” We had to wait until after Wilkins’ performance to find table space in order to eat. Food, by the way, is ordered from an outdoor window and then picked up to eat at one of the tables, and the menu is extremely limited. There is no traditional bar food here, only beef brisket, pork tenderloin and salads, although there has been some talk that the menu might eventually be expanded. With such an emphasis on barbecue, there is plenty of wood stacked near the kitchen, and the smell of roasting meat pervades the whole place, but we found that the food was primarily little plates, a currently popular trend, and the prices seemed steep for the quantity of the food. Altogether it was a great afternoon and evening for me and my friend, although we personally enjoyed the atmosphere and music more than the food.
7 W. Carolina Avenue
Memphis, TN 38103
Mon – Tues: Closed
Wed – Thurs: 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Fri: 11:30 am – 12:00 am
Saturday: 12:00 pm – 12:00 am
Sunday: 12:00 pm – 9:00 pm
My homeboy Otis Logan is one of Memphis’ best young drummers, so when he told me he would be playing for a singer named Bigg Smith at The African Place, I was intrigued, as I didn’t know the singer or the venue, but I made plans to attend. As it turned out, The African Place is the former Cafe 581 which had an extremely brief run about four years ago, and it is not usually a music venue, but rather more of a shop/gallery for imported African goods. All the same, the place was packed to overflowing, with a very small space for the band. The show opened with a few songs from an R & B singer named Lamar, but Bigg Smith proved to be an amazingly talented singer, with a warm voice that exudes confidence, and the backing band was first-rate as well. Smith’s repertoire included some originals, as well as covers ranging from Aretha Franklin to Jeffrey Osborne. All too soon it was over, but it was a Friday evening well-spent.
The good folks at Ponderosa Stomp, otherwise known as the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau, don’t stop at putting on a wonderful roots music festival each year, but they also sponsor occasional events throughout the year. This May, they arranged for Mississippi Hill Country blues artist R. L. Boyce to appear at the new Three Keys NOLA lounge at the Ace Hotel. Boyce is one of the last of his generation to play the Hill Country style a blues, a music with strong residual influence of West African music, and his performance was augmented by his daughter Sherena Boyce, a juke joint dancer who was a part of the scene at Junior Kimbrough’s old juke joint in Chulahoma, Mississippi. The standing-room-only crowd was thrilled.
New Orleans might be America’s music capital, but it’s not the place we think of much when it comes to blues. We revel in its differences as a city…its European style, its African tendencies, its Caribbean joy…and then we forget that it is still an American city, perhaps the quintessential one. So while we think of blues being music that came from other places, New Orleans has produced some great blues musicians, and perhaps one of the best current ones is Guitar Lightnin’ Lee, a musician whose style incorporates elements of Louisiana swamp pop and swamp blues as well as the traditional blues. When the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau/Ponderosa Stomp folks decided to sponsor a blues event at the all-new Three Keys Lounge at the Ace Hotel New Orleans, they invited Guitar Lightnin’ Lee to be the opening act, and a worthy choice it was indeed. Lee’s selections ran the gamut from traditional blues to such swamp pop classics as “Mathilda”, and before his set was through, revellers had filled the dance floor to overflowing. I must add that the Three Keys Lounge is an awesome venue for music, and will be welcomed.
My homeboy Darren Towns plays bass drum for the TBC Brass Band, which in my opinion is New Orleans’ greatest brass band. They don’t play a lot of gigs in night clubs these days, but they get called for a lot of birthday parties, wedding receptions, funerals, and second-lines, so when I heard that they were playing over in the 9th Ward, I couldn’t wait to get out there to see them. Any TBC performance is an experience, and in the Crescent City, even a birthday party is a really big deal.
Tourists have undoubtedly heard that New Orleans is an island, but they seem to often forget that the city lies with a river at its front and a lake at its back. If they spend a lot of time at or near the river, they spend remarkably little at the lake, and that is a shame indeed, for the city’s lakefront is one of its most beautiful assets. Although Hurricane Katrina wrecked much of the lakefront of old, things are slowly building back, with several lakefront restaurants having opened in the last several years. I had reviewed Brisbi’s Lakefront Restaurant here in 2014, and there’s not much new to add, except to remind visitors that it is a great place for seafood, with an unbeatable view of Lake Pontchartrain from its upstairs deck.
Brisbi’s Lakefront Restaurant & Bar
7400 Lakeshore Drive
New Orleans, LA 70124
Somehow I had never heard of the Ace Hotels chain, much less that one was being opened in New Orleans, so when my friend said that her dad R. L. Boyce was being booked to play at the Three Keys Lounge at the Ace Hotel New Orleans, I was somewhat confused, having never heard of either spot, and as one who prides myself on knowing New Orleans like a native, that had me concerned. As it turned out, I could be excused, for the hotel had only been open for a month, but as part of her dad’s performance, we had a room there, which was absolutely awesome, with an old-school vibe and modernistic art at every turn. But perhaps the crown jewel of the place (at least in my mind) was Alto, a sleek, modernistic rooftop bar with a swimming pool. Although on the day we arrived, the pool and bar were restricted to hotel guests, that apparently is not always the case, and non-guests can occasionally pay a fee for pool access. The pool was big, fairly shallow, very cold, and full of people, but none of that was worrisome in any way, since the day was so hot. All the same, it should be noted that people tend to lounge in the pool rather than swim in it. Outside the water, guests can enjoy drinks and a limited bar menu. It was by far the most luxurious spot I’ve found in New Orleans, and a whole lot of fun.
Alto (atop the Ace Hotel New Orleans)
New Orleans, LA 70130
Open Daily 10 AM-9 PM
Usually people don’t celebrate their birthdays by working, but that is what Hill Country guitarist Eric Deaton did at The Crawdad Hole in Water Valley in May. Billed as a birthday party for Eric Deaton at the venerable restaurant that is owned by another great musician and record label owner, Justin Showah, my friend and I were astounded to find that Eric was performing himself with his band. We had figured that he would be chilling and enjoying other musicians playing, but his band sounded great and we had a lot of fun. It was equally fun to reconnect with Justin, and to enjoy some of the best steamed shrimp within a hundred miles of Memphis. His restaurant occasionally books live music, and I assume he still occasionally does things with his superb small record label, Hill Country Records.