The recent release of Robert Gordon’s superb new book Respect Yourself: The Rise and Fall of Stax Records has unleashed a flurry of renewed interest in Stax Records and its impact on Memphis. On March 6, 2014, a panel discussion was held at the student center at Rhodes College in Memphis, discussing the history and significance of Stax Records on the city of Memphis. Such panels had been held before, but this one was significant, as it featured voices from Stax that have not been heard quite as often- drummer Willie Hall, songwriter Bettye Crutcher, bluesman Don Nix and pianist/songwriter Marvel Thomas. Don Nix spoke forcefully and at length about how Stax was a different sort of place racially compared to Memphis at large until after the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bettye Crutcher talked about how she became a songwriter, and Willie Hall talked about his early career as a drummer at Stax. Altogether it was a fun and uplifting experience.
The South Memphis rap group known as the Trap Mob is a popular featured group at the annual Tate Street Block Party each June, but they only rarely perform in Memphis, so when I heard that they were sponsoring a rap show at God’s Sons Motorcycle Club on Crump Boulevard in South Memphis, I decided to attend. Unfortunately, the occasion was a sad one, as the concert was being held in memory of a recently-murdered South Memphis youth called O.G. Lumplump, and many of those who came were wearing shirts in his honor, including one worn by a young man which read “You will live on through me.” Despite the somber reason for the event, the concert proved to be upbeat and raucous, with a standing room only crowd. The Trap Mob performed several of their bigger songs, including “You Ain’t Straight” and “Ain’t No N_gga”, and I was also pleasantly surprised by an artist I wasn’t familiar with, Big Gwalla, who performed his single “One of Me.” What wasn’t cool was the series of confrontations between different neighborhoods that kept breaking out during the evening. Nothing really got out of hand, but it was all somewhat annoying nonetheless. A few miles down Lamar Avenue at another motorcycle club where a party was going on, things didn’t end quite as well. A fight broke out which led to people leaving, and as they were leaving, shots rang out, striking a young man. Whether it was related to the conflicts that had broken out at our event was never determined.
Hardworking trombonist Suavo J looks increasingly like a man on a mission to single-handedly rescue Memphis music, and he is everywhere these days, whether it’s playing with Otis Logan’s awesome 4 Soul aggregation, or the Crescent City-tinged Memphis-New Orleans Street Symphony band, or the more rootsy The Bones. The latter group was playing on Friday February 28 at the Center for Southern Folklore down on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis. The weather was cold, and there was only a modest crowd, but the band rocked the house for those of us who were there.
When I read that the first Undercurrent event of the new year was to be held at something called the SkyBar in the 100 North Main building, I was thrilled. I vaguely remembered the old Top of the 100 club from my youth, and imagined that the view from the top would be amazing. Also, at least I thought, the announcement indicated that somebody was finally doing something with the long-vacant club, which in its heyday rotated once every hour. Sadly, I was to be disappointed.
The idea behind Undercurrent, is cool enough. Free parties are held monthly at different places around the city, aimed at Memphis’ young innovators, and the idea of having one 38 stories above downtown Memphis was very cool indeed. Unfortunately, there is no SkyBar, that’s just the name the Undercurrent people came up with when they rented the venue, which fully appears as if it hasn’t been used since Christmas 1982 (there were still Christmas decorations up everywhere from the last time it was used). While the view over the city was indeed fantastic, the decor and furnishings were vintage 1977, and there was even a 1970’s-era cash register still in its place. Nothing at the bar had worked in many years, and everything had to be brought in in taps and coolers. Of course there was great music from a DJ, good food, and lots of laughter and conversation. But the club’s appearance as if time had stopped back in the early 1980’s was just another reminder of a city that seems to be dying despite our best efforts. And apparently nobody has any plans for the SkyBar aside from a few event rentals.
Otis Logan’s 4 Soul band is one of the bright rising stars of Memphis right now, and they were in fine form last month at the Wine Down Monday at the 300 South Main Gallery in the South Main Arts District. Wine Down Mondays are wine tasting events with live music and light food, which occur twice a month. Contact the gallery for further details.
Coinciding with the International Blues Challenge, the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street sponsored a Memphis Blues Showcase on Saturday, featuring an afternoon and evening line-up of local blues talent, including a new blues power trio called Blooz Emergency, featuring musicians who are also a part of Paul Taylor’s band Merrymobile. Their set was an interesting mix of traditional blues and roots rock, including a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand”.
Vince Johnson and the Plantation All-Stars perform Saturday afternoon on the outdoor stage at Handy Park on Beale Street despite the cold weather. Saturday was the last day of the International Blues Challenge.
Winter can slow things down in downtown Memphis, as it gets really cold here in January and February. February, however, brings the International Blues Challenge, a week of competition amongst young blues artists that takes over downtown Memphis for the first week of the month. Saturday, February 2, 2013 was the final day of this year’s IBC, and blues artists from all over the world assembled at the Orpheum theatre on Main Street for the final day of competition. IBC attendees also roamed all over Beale Street and downtown, and the week sadly represents one of the few times of the year when authentic blues can be heard on Beale Street.