New Orleans’beloved Jazz Fest celebrates the wide diversity of New Orleans music, but the Memphis equivalent, the Beale Street Music Festival generally does not feature Memphis’ musical culture or history, despite the occasional appearance of a big Memphis or Mid-South act, such as Yo Gotti or the North Mississippi All-Stars. So people who want to delve deeply into the musical culture of Memphis and the surrounding area must look elsewhere, and fortunately, there is a festival geared particularly to the indigenous music cultures of the Mid-South, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Founded in 1982 by a non-profit called the Center for Southern Folklore, the festival is a free event across two days and six downtown Memphis stages (four of them outdoors) where the best in local soul, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, indie rock, fife-and-drum music, majorettes and drumlines are presented. The line-up is always surprising and enjoyable, but this year’s Saturday schedule involved a number of artists from the Mississippi Hill Country, including veteran Como bluesman R. L. Boyce, who recently released his third album Roll & Tumble on the Waxploitation label out of California, who was joined by guitarist Luther Dickinson at the Center for Southern Folklore stage. The highlight was a song that Boyce improvised on the spot for the victims of the flooding in Houston, entitled “We Can’t Drink This Water.” Young up-and-comer Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, performed on the same stage with drummer Timotheus Scruggs and some assistance on tambourines from his mother Joyce Jones and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. Jones, affectionately known as “She-Wolf”, was herself featured with her band on the Gayoso Stage later in the day, performing several of her original songs, including “Poor Black Man” and “Juke Joint Party”, and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on the large Peabody Place stage to a decent-sized crowd. These were just a handful of the hundred or so artists that performed each day on the various stages, and while the donation cans were passed around frequently, there were no VIP areas, no fenced-in areas, and no stages requiring tickets or wristbands. A day spent at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival will immerse you in the diverse cultures of the people of Memphis and the Mid-South.
Once in a while, a local music show gets announced which I just cannot miss, and the announcement of a Don Bryant show with soul revivalists The Bo-Keys was just such a show. Better yet, it was being held at Loflin Yard, one of my favorite Memphis venues.
Don Bryant is one of Memphis’ forgotten soul geniuses. Originally a member of Willie Mitchell’s group The Four Kings, he recorded a number of soul sides for Joe Coughi’s Hi label during the 1960’s, but ended up becoming better known as a staff writer for the label, with “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, recorded by Ann Peebles in 1973 becoming his biggest hit. Bryant married Peebles in 1974, and soon disappeared from popular music. There were rumors that both Bryant and Peebles had transitioned to gospel music, and a few gospel releases appeared under Bryant’s name. Peebles would occasionally return to blues and soul music, but Bryant did not, at least until embarking on the recording of a new album “Don’t Give Up On Love” for the Fat Possum label out of Oxford.
Friday night’s show at Loflin Yard was primarily a showcase of the new songs, backed by Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys, the highlight of which was a funky gospel tune called “How Do I Get There?” which is the single from the forth-coming album. Despite the drizzly weather, the venue was fairly crowded, and Bryant, at 74 years of age, was still in great form and voice, a consummate performer. And thanks to the Bo-Keys ,featuring such Memphis legends as drummer Howard Grimes and keyboardist Archie Turner, the backing sound was authentic, with live horns and real instruments, and no modern anachronisms. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear authentic Memphis soul music as it was intended to be heard.
In previous posts here at The Frontline, I have discussed the importance of Black fife-and-drum music, both as an African cultural survival among Blacks in America, and also as a form of pre-Blues music, part of the building blocks that came to make up the music we call blues. Despite growing publicity and efforts at preservation, the Black fife-and-drum tradition is remarkably fragile, existing primarily today only in two rural Mississippi counties, Tate and Panola. For those with an interest in this music, the primary event where it can be witnessed (for it is as much a visual spectacle as a musical form) is the annual Otha Turner Picnic, held in the remote community of Gravel Springs east of Senatobia, Mississippi. Usually held on Labor Day weekend, or occasionally the weekend before it, the Otha Turner Picnic began as a small family gathering at Otha’s house on the O. B. McClinton Road. Otha and other fife-and-drum musicians such as Napoleon Strickland, Sid Hemphill and R. L. Boyce were frequent participants, and some line-up of these men appeared at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, billed as the “Como Fife and Drum Band”. Over the years the picnic grew, and now run by Otha’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, has become a two-day festival of blues (and occasionally rock) musicians, and a $5 admission is now charged. But there is still barbecued goat, unexpected appearances from musicians like Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-stars, and of course, plenty of fife-and-drum music as the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band parades through the crowd between stage acts.This year’s first night featured such performers as Memphis blues/folk singer Moses Crouch, Hill Country blues/rock band the Eric Deaton Trio from Water Valley, Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi All-Stars (whose drummer is Sharde Thomas), and Dr. David Evans, the eminent musicologist who is also a first-rate blues performer in the archaic styles of the 1920’s and 1930’s country blues. But it is the powerful, hypnotic drumming that sets the Otha Turner Picnic apart from other blues festivals, even those in the Hill Country of Mississippi. On such hallowed ground, the snare and bass drum patterns invoke trance, and the fife calls to remembrance an African past. Sharde Thomas amplifies the connection between Mississippi and Africa when she exchanges the fife for a djembe drum, which she plays with her drum squad. As the night gets later, dancers fill up the space near the drummers, some them exhorting the young men on the drums to “beat that thing”, and whooping with delight. Although the music is more raw and basic, the scene is reminiscent of a New Orleans second-line.
Outside the gate, another festival is in progress, a sort of Gravel Springs block party, full of young people, custom cars, motorcycles and rap music. If the atmosphere inside the gates is old-school, that outside is like a rural version of Freaknik. Although there are never any major problems, the young people’s festival makes coming and going to and from the picnic somewhat difficult. All the same, the Otha Turner Picnic is a must-see event for anyone interested in Black music and folklore.
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.
When I heard that Luther Dickinson would be having a performance and album release party at Shangri-La Records on February 13, I naively had assumed it would be indoors, completely forgetting that there is no place indoors in the record shop where such a show could be held. As such, the event was held outside, and with it being February, the weather was extremely chilly indeed. But a decent crowd braved the elements to hear Luther perform songs from his new album “Blues and Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook, duly aided and abetted by the lovely Sharde Thomas on drums, while the good folks at Beale Street Caravan recorded the day’s proceedings. All in all, a chilly day for a worthwhile reason.
While the annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival was going on downtown, the On Location: Memphis Film and Music Festival was also taking place in Overton Square and in the Cooper-Young neighborhood. The music showcases were held in the basement of Cooper-Walker Place, and featured great Memphis musicians from all genres. Memphis hip-hop star Jason da Hater was on stage when I arrived, followed by a new local rock band called One Word. Then Tori WhoDat performed, along with Preauxx and other members of the TRDON camp. Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon showcase was 4 Soul’s performance, with Otis Logan on drums, and extraordinary Memphis vocalist Tonya Dyson fronting Memphis’ premiere neo-soul band. Over at Studio on the Square, a large crowd was watching a preview screening of an upcoming movie called The Man in 3B, with the filmmaker present. Altogether it was a great year for On Location: Memphis on its first Labor Day weekend.
I had read on the Memphis Flyer‘s website that a soul band called Objekt 12 would be playing at the new Red Zone Cigar and Sports Bar in the Broad Avenue Arts District, so when I left Havana Mix downtown, I headed that way, and could hardly find a place to park. The new Red Zone is a branch of the one on Winchester in Hickory Hill which has been open for several years. I have never been inside that location, but the new one (which is somewhat misleadingly called Red Zone Midtown) is quite elegant and comfortable inside. The live music was outside however, on a patio which was packed with people despite the heat and humidity. The band, Objekt 12, was not exactly what I was expecting in the way of a “soul band”, but might be better described as a “soulful” indie rock band. They were talented musicians however, and did some originals as well as covers. It’s always good to discover new Memphis musicians, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more from Objekt 12 in the future.
Red Zone Cigar and Sports Bar
2583 Broad Ave
Memphis, TN 38112
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.
Reggae and other Jamaican music styles are not particularly common in Memphis, so when there are occasions to see reggae bands, I usually jump at the opportunity, such as last Thursday’s concert at the Hi-Tone in Crosstown. Of course, I was already familiar with our superb local dub band the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, but the other band on the bill, The Slackers, was a complete unknown to me. The CCDE usually perform mostly dub, but somewhat surprised me during their set on this particular night by doing two songs from the rock steady/early reggae era, Toots Hibbert’s “54-46 Was My Number”, and Desmond Dekker’s “Shanty Town”. The Slackers are based in New York City, and proved to be an excellent ska band with live horns. They have released numerous albums since 2000, and the songs they performed were almost strictly originals taken from across their discography. The one exception was the Skatalites cover “Christine keeler”, whose title references a 1962 go-go girl who figured prominently in a British political scandal. When the band tried to end their set, the crowd demanded more, and the Slackers obliged with not one, but about four songs, and it was nearly 1 AM when things broke up.
Although the Levitt Shell season doesn’t start until May, there is usually an earlier special music event or two during the warm weather in April, and this year, the occasion was a tribute to the late John Fry and John Hampton of Ardent Studios, two Memphis music figures who dies within a week of each other. As Ardent has been the most important studio in Memphis since the late 1960’s, their impact on the city and the local music industry was considerable, and so three popular Memphis bands associated with Ardent came out to perform.
First up was the hard rock band Tora Tora, which I had never been much of a fan of, but I found to my surprise that some of their songs had a recognizable Memphis influence. Behind them came the Gin Blossoms, who were produced by John Hampton and had recorded at Ardent. What I didn’t know, however, was that the band was originally from Arizona and chose to record at Ardent because of their admiration for Big Star.
The final band of the evening was the current incarnation of Big Star, featuring founding member Jody Stephens on drums, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and Steve Selvidge on guitar. They played a number of familiar and not so familiar Big Star songs, as well as a reading of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos”. A few of the songs featured vocals from the singers of the Gin Blossoms and Tora Tora. The evening ended with the performers standing together and taking a bow in front of the several hundred people who attended. John Fry was also posthumously awarded a note on Beale Street.