Authentic blues in an authentic environment is hard to come by these days, and when the Memphis juke joint Wild Bill’s closed in December, it became just that much harder to find. But in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on the occasions when The Hut is open, great blues musicians hold forth for a local crowd in the kind of rough, non-descript setting that is appropriate.
The Hut is a former American Legion post in the Black community of Holly Springs. Located near the intersection of West Valley Avenue and Boundary Street, it is a small, white building set down in a ravine far from the street, a structure which looks as if could only hold about a hundred people. Yet it is cozy, has a kitchen, has ample graveled parking, and on a recent Friday night was full to the rafters, with the great Robert Kimbrough Sr. on stage as I walked in.
Robert, a son of the late Junior Kimbrough, is a favorite musician around these parts, but despite all the enthusiasm for his performance, the order of the night was to highlight female blues performers, an event organized by Fancy! Magazine owner Amy Verdon called “Lady’sNight at The Hut.” The original band consisted of Robert Kimbrough, J. J. Wilborn and Artemas Leseur, aided occasionally by Johnny B. Sanders, who had come up from Jackson. These men backed singers Iretta Sanders, and Lady Trucker, whose performances brought many dancers out, including R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. There were also a number of visitors from other parts of the country who traveled to Holly Springs to see the show. Robert Kimbrough came back on stage to close out the first set with a version of his dad’s song “You Better Run”, and then the band took a break.
Unfortunately, during the intermission, two women in the crowd got to fighting, which led to the police being called, and an early end to the evening, as a lot of people chose to leave. But that too has always been part of the blues. Authenticity is not for the squeamish.
The Clifton Gin was a large building that loomed over the West End neighborhood of Hernando, Mississippi where many blues musicians lived and played their trade in nearby jukes. The Rev. Robert Wilkins, Gus Cannon and Jim Jackson all lived in the area for a time, and Mississippi Joe Callicott was from nearby Nesbit, Mississippi. Now each year, the city of Hernando commemorates that musical legacy with an event called the Front Porch Jubilee, held on the grounds of the historic gin, as part of Hernando’s larger Water Tower Festival. This year’s jubilee honored the legacy of the late R. L. Burnside, and members of the Burnside family were presented with a plaque. Performers included Jack Rowell and Triple Threat, Desoto County native Kenny Brown, who was mentored by both Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, rockabilly legend Travis Wammack, and R. L. Burnside’s grandson Cedric, performing with Trenton Ayers as the Cedric Burnside Project. In addition to the great music, there was a considerable amount of great food too, including some excellent pulled pork and the homemade ice cream from Senatobia-based Bliss. A warm afternoon turned to a chilly evening, but a stalwart crowd of about a hundred stayed to the end of Cedric’s last set. It was a great day of blues in Hernando.
The years have not been kind to jazz. In fact, the wonderful creative music that has been called “America’s classical music” was dubbed “the least popular form of music in America” last year, receiving that dubious honor just below its cousin, the Blues. Defenders of the art form point out that the claim of jazz’s current unpopularity was based upon the number of digital downloads broken down by genre, and claim that jazz fans are more likely to prefer vinyl or compact discs. Still, jazz clubs have been closing, too, most recently the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC and the venerable Afterthought in Little Rock, Arkansas. The situation is far grimmer in Memphis, a city where jazz never had all that much of a foothold, and that despite a legacy of producing great jazz musicians. The first great trumpet star in the pre-Louis-Armstrong era was a Memphian, Johnny Dunn. Jimmy Lunceford, Jimmie Crawford, Joe Dukes, Frank Strozier, Charles Lloyd, Harold Mabern, Booker Little, Frank Lowe, Sonny Criss, Hank Crawford, Phones Newborn Jr, Donald Brown, James Williams, Jamil Nasser, Tony Reedus and Mulgrew Miller were all either born in Memphis or developed their careers as young men in the city. But from a high-water mark in the 1960’s and 1970’s where jazz could be heard at The Sharecropper,Bill’s Twilight Lounge, or the Gay Hawk, or Sunbeam Mitchell’s hotel, the opportunities to hear live jazz in Memphis on a regular basis have largely dwindled down to one location: Earnestine and Hazel’s on Sunday nights. And the location is oddly appropriate, as Earnestine and Hazel’s was once a second hotel belonging to the same Sunbeam Mitchell who had his main hotel and club on Beale Street. Although Mitchell was said to detest beboppers, most of the city’s great jazz musicians played there on a regular basis. Nowadays, jazz musicians from around the city, including students from the University of Memphis and Rhodes College come down on Sunday nights to sit in, play some standards, and perhaps enjoy a beer or a famous “Soul Burger.” On a recent night in March, a special guest came through, an incredible drummer and former Memphian, Aaron Walker, who for many years was the great Abbey Lincoln’s drummer. Now resident in Wilmington, Delaware, he conducts drumming and percussion classes for young people and continues to perform in the Baltimore/Philly/DC area. Such guests come through frequently, and the jam session scene at Earnestine and Hazel’s on Sundays is not to be missed if you are traveling to Memphis.
Fans of the unique Mississippi style of blues known as Hill Country blues are of course very familiar with Marshall County, as it was the home of both Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, arguably the two most important Hill Country bluesmen. And they are probably also familiar with the Foxfire Ranch at Waterford in Marshall County, where a superb summer schedule of live blues occurs nearly every Sunday at 5 PM, under a shelter known as the Hill Country Pavilion. But this year, the Hollowell family, which owns the ranch, decided to sponsor an all-day concert of blues, and somewhat surprisingly, chose to do it in March, which is slightly earlier than the start-up of the festival season, which generally occurs in April.
Although the weather can be chilly and unpredictable in March, this year’s inaugural Foxfire Blues Festival was warm and pleasant, with plenty of sunshine. A large portable stage had been set up in the valley at the back of the large hill on which the pavilion stands, and a moderate crowd sat on blankets on the hillside, enjoying performances by Little Joe Ayers, Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, Heavy Suga and the Sweet Tones, The Duwayne Burnside Band, Kenny Brown, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Lightning Malcolm. For a first-time festival, the event was fairly well-attended, it rolled smoothly, and the crowd enjoyed a beautiful day of great music.
This year’s On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival launched something new, a gala blues concert at Cooper-Walker Place in Memphis’ Cooper-Young neighborhood. Hosted by Memphis’ own blues diva Redd Velvet, the concert featured performances from Butch Mudbone, Cash McCall, Beverly Davis, Garry Burnside and Cedric Burnside, and drew a crowd of music lovers and film makers alike. Veteran Memphis drummer Terryl Saffold and bassist Cecil McDaniel anchored the rhythm section for the earlier acts, and it was quite an enjoyable event.
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.
Although the Delta of Mississippi is known as “The Land Where Blues Began”, the area to the east known as the Hill Country produced a unique style of blues that has become famous around the world. This subgenre of blues was especially prevalent in Marshall and Benton Counties, so it’s not surprising that Holly Springs, the county seat of Marshall County, is a town that emphasizes its blues heritage. The county was home to Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, and each Thursday night during the summer, Holly Springs sponsors a weekly live music concert called Blues in the Alley, which is held directly on the courthouse square. On July 9, the featured artist was the Cassie Bonner Band, a group from Oxford that I was not familiar with. Cassie Bonner proved to be a keyboard player and a singer, and while the group’s style was more neb-soul than blues, I was quite impressed with them, particularly the young drummer. There were also food vendors and a DJ, and a crowd of several hundred people, as well as a number of motorcyclists, and a camera crew filming a documentary about Holly Springs and David Caldwell, the owner of Aikei Pro’s Record Shop. I also ran into Hill Country Blues legend Little Joe Ayers on the square as well.
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Radio Memphis is a superb internet radio station that for the last four years has been supporting Memphis music and musicians. So for their fourth birthday, they threw a party at their studios with food and music, and broadcasted the music live on the air. The performers covered nearly all genres, from the folk of Mason Jar Fireflies, to the funky organic hip-hop of Tunica rapper Jay DaSkreet, who was backed by D-Squared, consisting of Donnon Johnson on drums and Devin Jordan on keyboards, to the country of Ciera Oulette, to the authentic blues of Zeke Johnson (who studied with the late Furry Lewis) and Sturgis and Mandy Nikides of Low Society. Rarely has so much great Memphis talent been in one building at the same time, and it led to some startling serendipities, as when Donnon Johnson got on the drums backing Mason Jar Fireflies as they played an instrumental riff as a warm-up. It was a great way to celebrate Radio Memphis and what it means to the local music community.
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Each year in B. B. King’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, deep in the historic Delta region, the great bluesman returned in late May for an event called the Homecoming, where he performed for the people of his original hometown, and on the occasion of the 2014 Homecoming, he stated that that year’s event would be his last. The old man’s health was fading, and the travel was hard on him. But none of us could have imagined that he would not live to see the next one. This year’s Homecoming, coming a week or so after B. B. King’s death, was a sad occasion, and yet an opportunity for many great blues musicians to come together and honor King’s life and legacy on the grounds of the museum that bears his name. Just as the occasion was both joyful and sorrowful, the day was alternated by periods of heat and sunshine and downpours of rain, but in between the showers came a diverse array of performers, including Greenville blues diva Eden Brent, youthful St. Louis blues star Marquise Knox, Lil Ray, son of the Louisiana blues star Raful Neal, and the North Mississippi All-Stars, with Cody and Luther Dickinson, featuring Sharde Thomas on the keyboards and fife, and Lightning Malcolm on the guitar. The crowd ebbed and flowed due to the weather, but at its strongest seemed to be about 200 or so, equipped with lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets, and even sparklers. The North Mississippi All-Stars had barely finished their outdoor set, when the rains came a final time, more decisively, and some of the crowd headed around to the Club Ebony for the indoor evening performance. There really couldn’t have been a better way to honor B. B. King.
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