After R. L. Boyce’s show in Leland, we headed on down Highway 61 to Natchez and checked into the Hotel Vue. Duwayne Burnside had a show at the Circle Bar in New Orleans on Sunday night, and we wanted to get as close to New Orleans as we could get, so that our drive down the next morning would not be bad. Our room was big and comfortable, and better yet, it came with a free breakfast buffet for the next morning. Arriving at 2 AM, we hadn’t seen much of the decor, but on the next morning, we were able to see amazing views of the city of Natchez and the Mississippi River from the rather steep hill on which the hotel was built. After we checked out, we both wanted coffee, so we headed downtown to a place called Steampunk Coffee Roasters, which turned out to be directly behind Smoot’s Grocery, the local blues venue in Natchez. The coffee roastery and cafe was housed in an historic brick cottage that dated back to the 19th century, and was fairly crowded, a mix of local people and those coming or going from New Orleans Mardi Gras. Although the previous Saturday had been cold, the weather was warming up on Sunday, and people were walking along the Mississippi River, and enjoying the outdoor tables at the coffee bar. We took a table inside, and enjoyed our coffee drinks, and I purchased three bags of beans to take home, some Costa Rican, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan varieties. Across the street from the coffee bar was a large warehouse with a mural promoting a different kind of coffee, the Interstate Coffee Company of Natchez, and its brands of coffee, Double Eagle Coffee and Chicory, and Alcafe Coffee. The company was long out of business, sadly, but the mural had been beautifully restored by the building’s current owners, and we were told that it would soon become Natchez Brewing Company. Fueled with light food and coffee, we soon headed out to New Orleans.
It was perhaps a strange night for Hill Country blues in New Orleans. It was raining heavily. Mardi Gras parades had led to road closures and gridlock across portions of the city. And the NBA All-Star events were going on at the New Orleans Arena. But at the Circle Bar on St. Charles, a small crowd braved the rain and parade aftermath to enjoy the music of Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce, playing with a backing group of local New Orleans musicians. The Circle Bar, located on Lee Circle in the Warehouse District, is a very small venue which books a rather eclectic music schedule on a regular basis, with events ranging from classic rap and hip-hop DJ parties to Mississippi bluesmen like Boyce or Duwayne Burnside, New Orleans classic bands like the Iguanas, or rock groups. It doesn’t sell food, and has almost no room or parking, yet its music policy is free-wheeling and worth checking out. Despite the gloom of the rain, the crowd was in a festive and cheerful mood, many of them decorated with Mardi Gras beads, and some of them dancing to the trance-like grooves that Boyce played on his guitar. R. L. was joined by his daughter Sherena, who danced and played the tambourine, and with a guitarist, bassist and drummer. The show, having started at 11 PM, didn’t end until 2 AM.
Lafayette’s Music Room is a reincarnation of one of Memphis’ best-beloved music venues of the 1970’s, but the latter-day version has something of a New Orleans tinge, both with the cuisine and often with the music as well. This past Wednesday, both featured bands presented different aspects of the musical traditions of the Crescent City. Multi-reedist Breeze Cayolle, a distant relative of jazz great Sidney Bechet, has a group called New Orleans, whose musicians are ironically some of Memphis’ best-known jazz musicians, including Tony Thomas on piano, Tim Goodwin on bass and Tom Lonardo on drums. They play traditional New Orleans jazz, occasionally venturing into the world of jazz standards as well, and have developed a following at the weekly brunch at Owen Brennan’s in East Memphis. Some of that same crowd was in evidence Wednesday night, sitting at the tables nearest the stage and even getting up periodically to dance. Cayolle is a first-rate saxophonist and clarinetist, and he sings with a husky tone that exudes the flavor of New Orleans.
The Mighty Souls Brass Band on the other hand is something rather different, although they share Tom Lonardo with Breeze Cayolle’s group. The Mighty Souls take their cue from the brass band revivalism that started with the Dirty Dozen and the Rebirth in New Orleans, with the main difference being the occasional covers of Memphis soul tunes, such as Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train” or Willie Mitchell’s “20-75.” Like some New Orleans brass bands these days (notably the Stooges), the Mighty Souls replace the separate snare and bass drummer with a set drummer, and add a guitar, at least indoors, but there is a tuba and plenty of horns, and if they lack the hardcore street edge of the younger, Blacker bands in New Orleans, they compensate with consummate musicianship and plenty of good spirits. Although Memphis does not have a modern brass band tradition by any means (W. C. Handy notwithstanding), the MSBB has developed a very loyal following, and have released a debut CD called Lift Up Your Mighty Souls on the University of Memphis-related Blue Barrel label.
Duwayne Burnside had played The Shelter on Van Buren in Oxford, Mississippi earlier in the fall, but I had not been able to attend, so when it was announced that he would be playing there again on New Years’ Eve, I was eager to be there. It would prove to be both my first, and sadly my last, visit to The Shelter.
The venue was a coffee bar and live music venue, which also served a very limited food menu, some desserts, and craft beer. The atmosphere was extremely laid back, with couches, benches, chairs and tables in a rather haphazard pattern near the stage. The night of Hill Country blues featured not only Duwayne Burnside but also Kenny Brown, and a few local Oxford musicians, including guitarist Kody Harrell. At first Duwayne’s drummer had not shown up, so he was playing a sort of “unplugged” acoustic set. After his drummer arrived, he picked up the pace and intensity level to an extent, and the moderate crowd in the seats loved every minute of it. Como bluesman R. L. Boyce then joined Duwayne on stage for a few songs, and some local musicians came up to sit end toward the show’s end. At 10 PM or so, Duwayne brought things to a halt, as he had another show at The Hut in Holly Springs starting at 11, and we all left in a happy frame of mind. Unfortunately, it would be the last time we got to visit The Shelter on Van Buren. A week into the new year, it abruptly closed for good.
Although Arkansas has a delta region as well, and although the state has produced lots of great blues and jazz musicians, Arkansas has few blues clubs. Little Rock’s venerable White Water Tavern is one of the few places in the state to consistently book great blues, as well as many other forms of roots music. I first became acquainted with the place in 2015 when the young retro-soul star Leon Bridges performed there, and I soon became aware that the Tavern has played host to such blues figures as Patrick Sweany, Cedell Davis and Lucious Spiller. So this dive bar was a perfect site for Lightnin Malcolm’s traveling caravan of Hill Country blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce, Leo “Bud” Welch and Robert “Bilbo” Walker. Every event I have ever attended at the White Water Tavern has been standing-room-only, and this one was no exception. There is a back patio, but because the weather was so cold and wet, nobody was going out there, and the room was very crowded indeed. But the crowd was treated to some of the very best in Hill Country music, starting with Leo Welch backed by Lightnin Malcolm on drums, and then Lightnin’s own solo set with guitar and drums as a one-man band, and R. L.’s daughter Sherena Boyce on tambourine and juke joint dancing. R. L. Boyce followed, doing a number of his traditional tunes, and then Robert “Bilbo” Walker followed, in a style that showed considerable Louisiana influence. Altogether, it was an amazing show in an amazing place.
After the Rebirth Brass Band performance, I walked back through the crowds on Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Many of the vendors were beginning to take down their displays for the night, but there was still a lot going on. At an outdoor performance spot, a group of younger blues musicians was performing, and it was actually really good music. A sign nearby explained that the group was Mookie Cartwright, Josh Parks and Friends. I am not sure who any of them were, but presumably, they are local Helena area artists. After checking them out for a moment, I stopped in Southbound Pizza nearby for a pepperoni and bacon pie before making the drive back to Memphis.
Those who know me know that I love New Orleans brass band music. Given the fairly short distance between Memphis and New Orleans, it seems odd that we so rarely have an opportunity to hear authentic brass bands in our area, but on the rare occasions that they do come up here, I try to be there. The Rebirth Brass Band is really the band that picked up where the original Fairview Brass Band left off, and made sure that the photo-revival of brass band music in the 1970’s would be permanent and not merely a footnote of history. Their performance at the Main Stage at Helena’s King Biscuit Blues Festival was absolutely perfect. The breezy, warm night was a perfect setting for an outdoor show, and brass band music is intended for outdoor settings. The crowd was literally standing room only. And Rebirth played all of the hits for which they are famous. Before it ended, people were standing up and dancing in the aisles.
Duwayne Burnside, son of the late R. L. Burnside, is one of the best guitar players in the country, and in September each year, he sponsors the R. L. Burnside Memorial Jam at the Blues Shack, which is out in the middle of nowhere off of Highway 310 and Old Oxford Road near Waterford, Mississippi. Don’t be expecting a big formal festival like the Hill Country Picnic. Instead, you pay your $10 entry fee at a gate on a gravel driveway and come to a small wooden stage in front of a mobile home. The pleasant smell of barbecue smoke from an oil drum drifts through the air, and a small crowd is mesmerized by such musicians as Duwayne Burnside, Kenny Brown, Garry Burnside and Little Joe Ayers, in a more intimate setting where the line between performers and fans is non-existent. Duwayne might come down off the stage for a break and sit at your picnic table, or he might be behind the food stand pouring beers or fixing food plates. With plenty of children running around and having fun, it feels more like being invited to a house party than a festival. And that is an experience not to be missed.
Drums have played an important role in all Black musical cultures, and Memphis is no exception. Although Blacks were forbidden to have drums prior to the Civil War in almost all Southern states other than Louisiana, they quickly became an important part of Black musical life during Reconstruction, being used in the brass bands and fife-and-drum bands that accompanied fraternal organization parades or picnics, political rallies and funerals. Many of these organizations had been founded by Black troops that had fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union after the Emancipation Proclamation, and undoubtedly some of these men had been drummers. The all-Black colleges and schools that began to form during and after Reconstruction also had marching bands with percussion sections as well, and this tradition had an influence on Black communities in the South. By the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement, a new interest in Black culture and its African roots may have led to the formation of the majorette and drummer phenomenon in Memphis which emerged around 1969 or so. Although Black high schools and colleges had always had majorettes and drummers as part of their bands, the phenomenon where majorettes performed competitive routines accompanied only by the drummers was new, and perhaps unique to Memphis. As the years progressed, the drummers added some innovations, like the use of marching toms and eventually roto-toms, to add different layers of pitch to the percussive musical landscape, and the addition of hi-hat cymbals, so as to approximate the sound of a drum set. The accompaniments were often influenced by funk or Latin music, but aside from occasional melodies played on the glockenspiel, the musical backing for these routines was strictly drums, and the drummers were judged as well as the majorettes. This musical and cultural phenomenon was so much a part of my teenage years in the 1980’s that it was unthinkable that it could ever disappear, and yet nowadays the majorette jamboree as it existed then is largely a thing of the past, the drummers having been replaced by recorded CD’s of popular songs played by a DJ. There are lots of theories as to why the majorette drumming phenomenon has died in Memphis, but some of them point out the lack of instruments and high expense of drums, the discouraging of the tradition by school principals and band directors, the lack of available drum instructors, the banning of majorettes and drummers from local community centers (apparently due to the noise involved with their practices), and the negative influence of the streets and gang activity causing lack of interest on the part of young men. For whatever reason, the Black drumming tradition in Memphis is certainly endangered, but at least one organization, the Baby Blues Drumline, has worked over the last few years to try to preserve this culture. Often appearing at the Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, Africa in April on Beale Street or the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they frequently draw a crowd of onlookers. At this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, they were a featured act, appearing briefly at the Gayoso Street Stage on Sunday afternoon before a small but appreciative crowd.
The annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, held each Labor Day weekend along Main Street in downtown Memphis, is the city’s premiere music festival featuring the styles of music indigenous to Memphis and its surrounding region. The totally-free festival features multiple stages across two days, filled with gospel, blues, soul, rock, bluegrass and country, as well as local drill teams, majorettes and drumlines, cooking demonstrations and visual art. One of the highlights of this year’s festival was the Sunday afternoon meeting of Hill Country blues veteran R. L. Boyce with Hill Country youngblood Cameron Kimbrough, grandson of the legendary Junior Kimbrough. The early tunes featured R. L. Boyce on guitar and Cameron Kimbrough on the drums, and then, about halfway through the performance, they switched, with Boyce setting up a fife-and-drum-inspired groove on the drum set, and Cameron playing his original blues tunes on the guitar. It was a truly magic collaboration from the start, and one that I hope finds further opportunity in the future.