The Oxford Blues Festival was not held on the Square this year, as I would have expected, but rather on the Grove on the Ole Miss campus, and a good thing, since the entire Mid-South was under a heat advisory and the sun was beating down fiercely. Perhaps as a result, when I first got there, the crowd was rather small, and that despite the fact that the festival was also free. But as the day progressed, from the jazz of Doc Prana, to the bluesy rock of the Zediker Brothers, to the folk blues of Bobby Ray Watson (who had studied with Mississippi Joe Callicott), the crowd grew steadily in numbers and enthusiasm, and ever so slowly the heat began to subside. Female blues singer Joyce Jones was in the audience, and was called up on stage by Bobby Ray Watson and by Cadillac Funk to feature on a couple of songs. Then the Como Mamas came on stage to do some a cappella gospel numbers, and the afternoon was closed out by Blind Mississippi Morris as the sun was setting. Although there was a headline act for later in the evening, the people I was with wanted to head back to the Square for dinner. Despite the outrageous heat, it was a fun day of blues in a beautiful, shady setting.
Keep up with the Oxford Blues Festival:
Keep up with the Zediker Brothers:
Keep up with Cadillac Funk:
Keep up with the Como Mamas:
Keep up with Blind Mississippi Morris:
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:
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:
As I posted last week, the Memphis metropolitan area has an amazing level of talent when it comes to drummers, and that was obvious again during the third round of the Memphis Drum-Off at Guitar Center on September 23rd. Two winners from each of the rounds advance to the store finals on the 30th, from which one will advance to Nashville for the state competition, from which one will advance to Atlanta to battle for the regional award, and one drummer from the South will go to Los Angeles for the national championship, which includes a drum set, endorsements and $25,000. And yes, a Memphis drummer has won nationally in the past.
Memphis musicians were shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of a young drummer, Mario “Yoggi” Stewart, but on September 10, a number of musicians and relatives came together to honor his memory in the most appropriate way possible, with music and song. The setting was the Blue Worm AKA The Blues Night Club, a neighborhood fixture on the backside of the Lamar/Airways Shopping Center in Orange Mound. The band was anchored by three drummers playing three sets on stage, with “Cowboy” Neal on guitar and my homeboy Danny Peterson on bass. I had intended to observe, enjoy and film, but I got called to the stage to play keyboards. Other guest musicians and singers included Tony Gentry, Deij’rah Terrell, Gerod Rayborn and Terry Wright. The night closed with a drummers’ shout shed in memory of Yoggi, and Cowboy thanking all of those who came out. It was a great night of Memphis music, with nothing but love and respect between the musicians.
In the field of Black music worldwide, no other musical instrument is as important as the drums. Not only is percussion the musical foundation for much Black music and dance, but the instrument looms large in the cultural memory of people throughout the African diaspora. So it was only fitting for Arkansas’ best drummers to be honored at an event called The Drummer Is In The House, which was held at the Revolution Room on President Clinton Avenue in the River Market area of Little Rock on Thursday July 10. The event, sponsored by Clifford Drummaboy Aaron, featured performances by current and former Little Rock drummers Yvette Preyer, Rod Pleasants, Steve Bailey, Aerion Jamaal Lee, Jonathan “JJ” Burks and Charles Anthony Thompson. Rather than just a lot of extended solos, most of the drummers played with their individual bands, and even some singers, performing songs from the neo-soul, jazz and gospel traditions. But there were great solos too, including one from Jamaal Lee full of afro-caribbean rhythms and patterns, and one from Charles Anthony Thompson exhibiting extended sticking and tone techniques including pitch bends, and plenty of jazz influence. The final highlight of the evening was an event called the Roundabout, at which drummers moved across the stage from the first drum set, to the second, to the third, while Yvette Preyer kept a basic conga pattern for them on an octapad. As one drummer would exit the stage, another would come on from the left, enabling all the drummers to have an opportunity to shed three at a time, and to play each of the three drum sets. The Drummer Is In The House was truly a major event that highlighted some really great drummers, and a lot of other great horn players, guitarists, bassists, keyboardists and singers. I am told that future events will be held at the Revolution Room to highlight the other instrument families, and I am looking forward to it.
After Easter morning services at my church, Easter Sunday proved to be dull indeed. I have no relatives in Memphis, my best friend had to work, and a lot of restaurants were closed. But I had seen on Facebook that Windy City Grille in Como, Mississippi would be open, and with evening church and choir practice canceled due to the holiday, I decided to drive down and have a leisurely lunch. Perhaps afterwards I could find a blues picnic, car show or something else to get into. I have to mention that Windy City Grille is an amazing restaurant with an incredible pizza recipe that is said to be similar to Uno’s in Chicago. Having never had Uno’s, I can’t say how Windy City compares, but it’s good enough that Memphis people used to occasionally make the drive to Como for it. More recently, a location has opened closer to Memphis in Hernando, and the food there is just as good, but I still prefer the Como location’s ambiance, and the town of Como itself. Next to the grille, I noticed a poster for a group called the Como Mamas, which I had never heard of until I was reading an article about Mississippi artists at South By Southwest. The three gospel singers are signed to Daptone Records, the same label that earlier had released the excellent Como Now compilation.
After lunch, I saw signs around the town of Como for a car show at a place called LP’s Ball Park, but try as I might, I could not find it. While trying to find it, I found something else, the beautiful Davis Chapel Church from 1851 on the Old Panola Road west of Sardis. When I finally stopped at the convenience store in Como and asked about the car show, I was told it had been postponed a week due to the weather. There was a Lightning Malcolm birthday party scheduled for 7 PM in Clarksdale, but that was still three hours away, and I couldn’t think of how I’d possibly kill three hours in Clarksdale on Easter Sunday. So I reluctantly drove on back to Memphis.