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.
I had driven out to Covington for the inaugural Isaac Hayes Day in Frazier Park, but found it disappointing, as there were no live bands or musicians on the stage when I arrived, and the lack of instruments or equipment led me to believe that whatever musicians had played were done and that there would be no more music at the event. So I drove back into Memphis and went to Crosstown Concourse, which was celebrating their grand opening with lots of food trucks and great local music on two stages, one indoors and one outside. When I arrived, I ran into Sharde Thomas and the members of the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, who had played earlier, and a neo-soul singer named Candy Fox was on the outdoor stage with a first-rate band. But I was hungry, so I went inside to Farm Burger for dinner, and despite the truly huge crowds, I was able to get served fairly quickly. A classical music ensemble was on stage downstairs, and somewhere upstairs a marching drumline was performing. When I came back outside after dinner, a large crowd was enjoying Melina Almodovar, a former Memphian of Puerto Rican descent now based in Miami, and her Orchestra Caliente, and they sounded really good. But my friend Sherena Boyce was wanting to go out to Benton County, Mississippi to a blues yard party, so I left out to head to Mississippi.
My homeboy Otis Logan is one of Memphis’ best young drummers, so when he told me he would be playing for a singer named Bigg Smith at The African Place, I was intrigued, as I didn’t know the singer or the venue, but I made plans to attend. As it turned out, The African Place is the former Cafe 581 which had an extremely brief run about four years ago, and it is not usually a music venue, but rather more of a shop/gallery for imported African goods. All the same, the place was packed to overflowing, with a very small space for the band. The show opened with a few songs from an R & B singer named Lamar, but Bigg Smith proved to be an amazingly talented singer, with a warm voice that exudes confidence, and the backing band was first-rate as well. Smith’s repertoire included some originals, as well as covers ranging from Aretha Franklin to Jeffrey Osborne. All too soon it was over, but it was a Friday evening well-spent.
Dr. Alfred Brown’s club called The Plexx in an old decrepit shopping center on E. H. Crump Boulevard in Memphis is one of the few places in the city where authentic old-school live blues and soul can be heard, but on the Friday night before Halloween, things took a slightly different turn, as veteran blues singer Jewel Jones was backed by the 4 Soul Band, consisting of some of Memphis’ best young musicians, including Lloyd Anderson on bass and drummer Otis Logan. While it’s common to think of there being something of a musical divide between young and old, the consummate talents of these young musicians enabled them to fit in perfectly with the older blues and soul offerings of Ms. Jones. Veteran Memphis drummer Willie Hall was in the crowd as well, and it was a great night of Memphis music off the beaten path and away from the tourist crowd
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
The Havana Mix in downtown Memphis is primarily a cigar lounge, but occasionally books live music, often on Friday evenings. So when my drummer friend Otis Logan told me to come down because he was playing there, I did. The band was billed as the Havana Mix Band, and did a series of neo-soul and R & B classics for the ample crowd inside. Of course, as one would expect with a cigar bar, the place is not for those who don’t enjoy plenty of smoke. But the atmosphere is elegant and refined, and the music (when they have it) is first-rate.
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.
A year or so ago, Joshua McCain & The Soul Seven were playing every week at a place in Hickory Hill called El Toro Loco, but were left without a regular home when that place quit booking live music. Now they have ended up right around the corner at Los Cabos on Quince, where they hold forth every Tuesday night. Featuring vocalist Gerald Bailey and keyboardist Joshua McCain, the Soul Seven performs a mix of instrumental originals and covers from Memphis’ favorite R & B artists, such as Bobby Womack, Willie Hutch, Frankie Beverly and Michael Jackson, and usually draws a crowd anywhere they play. With two birthday parties on this particular night, the audience was even larger than usual.
Keep up with Joshua McCain:
Los Cabos Mexican Bar & Grill
6542 Quince Rd
Memphis, TN 38119
Audie Smith has been well-known around Memphis as an extraordinary keyboard player, so when I saw that his band Prime Cut was playing at the Southwind location of Huey’s on Sunday night, I made plans to go and check them out. Although Audie’s background is jazz, Prime Cut plays primarily neo-soul and R & B, although in a rather jazz-inflected way. His keyboard skills are absolutely tremendous, and the band featured a really soulful singer as well. Particularly impressive were jazzy takes on “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It”, neither one of them tunes usually associated with jazz. The music was great, and a decent crowd was in the house as well.