I got an invitation on Facebook a week or so ago from a musician friend, trombonist Victor Sawyer, to come to the debut performance of a new Memphis brass band called the Lucky 7 Brass Band, which was being held at Growlers, the former location of the Hi-Tone on Poplar Avenue across from Overton Park. Memphis has had a couple of other brass bands, the Mighty Souls Brass Band and the Memphorleans Street Symphony. But, because we are not a city that has Mardi Gras (or even the Cotton Carnival any more) and because there is no real second-line culture here, our brass bands are more concert ensembles, and none has the separate snare and bass drums that characterize the average New Orleans brass band, and they may include indoor instruments like a drumset, a keyboard or even an electric guitar or bass. In that regard, the Lucky 7 Brass Band was true to form, including an electric bass rather than a tuba, and a drumset rather than the traditional separate snare and bass drummers. But what it did bring to the table was more of the street edge that the Crescent City bands have, and a tight and clean ensemble sound. For their debut performance, which was all too short at just under an hour, they played cover tunes exclusively, but these ran the gamut from New Orleans standards to contemporary hip-hop, and a good-sized crowd came out (with the threat of bad winter weather hanging over Memphis) to cheer them on. The Lucky 7 Brass Band is one we will likely be hearing a lot more about in the future.
Sometime before New Year’s Eve, a lady friend had shared a link with me on social media about a young musician named Akeem Kemp who was performing in Conway, Arkansas on January 13. I had not heard any music of this young man, although the name seemed vaguely familiar, as if I had heard somebody mention him in the past. At any rate, I googled him, and soon found that he would playing a little closer to home (and sooner) at the White Water Tavern in Little Rock on January 6, so we made plans to go.
The weather proved to be cold and quite wet, but we encountered a large crowd at the White Water, which is the best venue in Arkansas to enjoy live blues, as Akeem Kemp is from right up the road in Morrilton, Arkansas, and thus is considered a hometown hero. At only 20 years of age, and sporting dreadlocks, Kemp might look like a rap artist to those who didn’t know better, but his youthfulness belies a serious mastery of the electric guitar, and an uncanny ability to handle the kind of deep, soulful blues that other young artists avoid, tunes such as “As The Years Go Passing By” or “The Sky Is Crying.” Of course, like any young star of the guitar, Kemp knows his Hendrix, Prince, and even a bit of R & B/Southern soul, as in his hit original “Are You Doubting My Love.” But Akeem Kemp has internalized the language of the blues, and his decision to embrace the genre is thrilling, because only as young musicians become involved in blues will we succeed in preserving this endangered art-form. The future of the music is truly riding on his shoulders.
Keep up with Akeem Kemp:
Robert Palmer’s movie and book “Deep Blues” was instrumental in introducing the world to the Hill Country Blues style and its stars, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, so it is totally appropriate that the annual Deep Blues Festival is held in Mississippi, in the holy pilgrimage site of blues known as Clarksdale. With events spanning a full weekend at two historic venues in the area, the Shack Up Inn and the New Roxy, the Deep Blues Festival is a great opportunity to hear some of the remaining greats of authentic Mississippi blues, and the generation of young musicians that have been influenced by them.
The New Roxy is the scene for most of the roots blues acts, and it is itself an amazing venue. Formerly a theatre in Clarksdale’s Black business district, known as the New World District, the Roxy had been abandoned and lost its roof many years ago. It was assumed that the building was doomed, but then the current owners acquired it, and rather than putting a new roof on it, conceived it as an outdoor courtyard and music venue. Restoring the front rooms has given the Roxy both indoor and outdoor space, and it has become a favorite location for live music in pleasant weather.
On the first night of the Deep Blues Festival, the New Roxy was packed with people. The Kimbrough Brothers, consisting of Robert, David and Kinney Kimbrough, three sons of the late Junior Kimbrough, were just coming off stage as we arrived. They were followed by an amazing all-star line-up of R. L. Boyce and his daughter Sherena, Lightnin Malcolm and T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud on the drums, which filled the dance floor up in front of the small indoor stage at the front of the venue. After them, Clarksdale native Jimbo Mathus appeared with his band on the big outdoor stage, performing songs primarily from his most recent release Dark Night of the Soul. We also briefly rode around to Levon’s Bar and Grill, where the Space Cowboy and his blues band were on stage.
There was also live music at the Shack Up Inn, the former Hopson Plantation to the south of Clarksdale along Highway 49, but the acts on that schedule leaned more toward rock, and we did not head out there. Altogether it was a fun night of blues and food.
Like all of Eastern Arkansas, Helena had seen better days by the late 1970’s, but the worst was yet to come. When the Mohawk Tire Company decided to close its West Helena plant in 1979, the local economy completely collapsed. While both Helena and West Helena had about 10,000 people each in 1980 or so, by the time they agreed to merge in 2003, they barely had 12,000 people together, and merger was fraught with so many roadblocks that they could not agree to name the resulting city “Helena”, but rather the unwieldy name of “Helena-West Helena.” Nowadays, the only real income generator for the area is tourism, and tourism is pretty much limited to one week of the year, the October week of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. Unfortunately, this year’s King Biscuit festival left a lot to be desired. For one thing, Arkansas’ veteran bluesman Cedell Davis died unexpectedly, leaving a vacancy in the lineup. Secondly, with no apparent irony, under a heading that proclaimed the festival as the “real deal”, were pictures of this year’s headliners- J. J. Grey & Mofro, Government Mule and Tab Benoit, hardly a triumvirate of blues musicians, to say the least. But what I noticed this year more than last year was the extent of abandonment, decay and devastation in Helena, particularly downtown. Although many buildings on Cherry Street have been restored, the bulk of them are largely vacant. Crowds thronged the street of course during the festival, but it was largely to go to and from the stages, or to patronize the food trucks and temporary vendors. Things were even more devastating along Walnut Street, the street where the barbecue festival was going on. North of the festival area were eviscerated buildings, and an abandoned motel whose rooms were largely open to the wind and cold, one wall of which had been turned into a mural in honor of the late Cedell Davis. Even finding something to eat other than a food truck took some doing, although last year’s Southbound Pizza had turned into a slightly-more-upscale place this year called Southbound Tavern, and the local coffee bar Bailee Mae’slocation behind the Lockwood Stage on Rightor Street made it a popular place for festival-goers. Odder yet was the difficulty I encountered in finding any roots blues music around the festival. Blind Mississippi Morris was playing on a stage at Walnut Street to a small crowd, but the best blues of the evening was actually to be found in a small square called Thad Kelley Square along Cherry Street, located on the footprint of a demolished building, where Taildragger and others performed to a moderate but enthusiastic crowd. Unfortunately, when I returned to my car, I found that it had been entered and rifled through, although nothing actually appeared to be missing.
After the second-line, we were so hot when we got back to the car that I immediately started searching in my phone for ice cream options, and soon found a place listed on Prytania Street called The Creole Creamery. The location was a small business strip in an area I had somehow managed to miss all the years I had been going to New Orleans, and with the weather as hot as it was, the place was crowded. After enjoying some homemade ice cream, I realized that Sherena had never had an authentic New Orleans snowball (snowballs are nothing like snow cones, by the way), so I took her to Hansen’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, since that is the place that claims to have invented the snowball. Whether that is true or not, Hansen’s has been selling this frosty, New Orleans goodness for 75 years, and although I’ve had their snowballs many times before, this time I decided to act like a local and try the nectar flavor. I found it to be unique, and delicious, although I cannot really describe in words what it tasted like, and unfortunately, it is not a flavor you can get in Memphis. Later, we headed to Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar and Fish House on North Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City for a seafood dinner on our last night in New Orleans. After dinner, I had wanted to head to a club in the Seventh Ward called Josie’s Playhouse in order to see the Big 6 Brass Band perform, but Sherena wanted to see Guitar Lightning Lee, who had opened up for her dad on a previous trip to New Orleans, so we headed to a dive bar on St. Claude Avenue called The Saturn and met him and his friends.
Sherena had never been to a second-line, so on our weekend trip to New Orleans, I wanted her to experience one first-hand. And by chance, we ended up going to the biggest second-line of the year, the four-hour Young Men Olympian second-line, with its five divisions and five bands. As I have discussed elsewhere in this blog, the YMO is the oldest social aid and pleasure club still existing in New Orleans, and would seem to be the largest as well. One of the divisions had hired the TBC Brass Band to play with them, so when we got to the starting point for the second-line after a leisurely breakfast at Slim Goody’s Diner on Magazine Street, we looked for TBC and quickly fell in behind them. Sherena had brought her tambourine, and though it was all new to her, she fell into the rhythm perfectly as if she had been doing it all her life. Despite the hot weather, the turnout was truly large, with hundreds of people buck-jumping behind the various bands. The division behind us had hired the New Creations Brass Band, and I met some of their members when we stopped at the Sportsman’s Lounge at Second and Dryades. When we passed by a cemetery on Washington Avenue, some young boys were actually dancing on top of tombs along the fenceline, an example of the tendency of dancers to look for elevated locations where they can be seen, although there may be further significance to dancing on graves. The act might be a defiance of death itself. But the heat took its toll on Sherena, and the large crowds made it hard for us to keep up with one another. When we got back to Simon Bolivar Street, we decided to leave the second-line and find something indoors and cooler to get into.
My friend and I had visited my cousin in the Handsboro neighborhood of Gulfport, and then we had headed on east into Biloxi. We noticed a festival going on at Point Cadet close to the bridge, but I had intended to go on to Ocean Springs, which has become a charming little artists’ colony since Hurricane Katrina, and to a waterfront bar and grill called Da Bayou Bar and Grill in Gulf Park Estates. Unfortunately, clouds were gathering and rain beginning to fall, so eating at a restaurant that primarily seemed outdoors was not an option, so we headed back to Ocean Springs, where rain was pouring. To our amazement, the heavy rains were continuing throughout Biloxi, where the outdoor festival we had seen was breaking up, and in Gulfport as well. Nevertheless, we had to eat somewhere, so we decided to park in downtown Gulfport and pick a spot for dinner.
Gulfport’s downtown had fallen on hard times long before Hurricane Katrina, emptying out rapidly in the 1970’s due to the opening of Edgewater Gulf Mall on the border between Gulfport and Biloxi. Despite occasional new openings and numerous plans, nothing really made a difference in downtown Gulfport through the early 1990’s, not even the building and opening of a massive Hancock Bank headquarters there. Even the casinos did more harm than good, as their buffets and restaurants brought hard times to other restaurants, including some that had been coastal icons for decades. But finally, during the 12 years since Katrina, downtown Gulfport shows signs of finally turning the corner. The opening of restaurants like the Half Shell Oyster House (where we ate dinner) and live music venues like the Thirteenth Street Jazz Bistro is beginning to make Gulfport’s downtown a destination for food and fun. We were also thrilled to discover an alley of brightly-colored painted murals called Fishbone Alley that runs between a number of the establishments. In fact, the difficulty for us was not finding a place to eat, but rather choosing from a number of downtown places that were available. Despite the rain, we left Gulfport full and contented.
Hewes Avenue, named for the first mayor of the modern city of Gulfport, Mississippi, was and is a major thoroughfare that leads from the East Beach neighborhood, where some of my relatives lived, to Bayou View, where other relatives of mine lived, so we were always heading up that street during my summers with my grandparents in Gulfport. But in between those two neighborhoods was another neighborhood that fascinated me as a boy. North of the railroad along Hewes Avenue was a Black neighborhood with some old juke joints on both sides of the street, with sandy, dirt parking lots and big, ancient oak trees shading the yards and the buildings. Old Barq’s Root Beer and Coca-Cola signs out in front announced the places, and in nice weather, groups of young men sat in chairs under the trees out in front, some of them occasionally shirtless. Looking inside one of the establishments, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of a pool table, or a man with a cue stick. My grandmother seemed to consider the place disreputable, but I was strangely attracted, although I never ventured up there, even once I was a teenager and could have.
I never really knew the name of that community in those days, but I have come to realize that it was called Shady Grove. Because there has never really been a good, definitive history of Gulfport, I have no idea how the community came to be, but I wonder if it was formed by African-Americans that had been employed by the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad as it was building its rails and the city of Gulfport. Sadly, the colorful, vibrant community I recall is largely a thing of the past, as I learned on a recent visit to the area. Old clubs like the Shady Corner Cafe, the Lullabye Inn and the King Edward Bar are gone without a trace. The musicians, players and hustlers that once populated the area have vanished, and no crowds hang out under the trees. But amazingly, one establishment still survives, Holder’s Nightlife, a rough and weatherbeaten juke that looks at if it could have never stood through Hurricane Katrina and yet somehow did. It’s not really a blues spot, more of a DJ club apparently, judging from their profile on social media. Yet it still has the classic image of what the whole neighborhood once looked like when I was young.
Robert Kimbrough Sr. calls his style of music “cotton patch blues”, but he is the son of one of the biggest legends of what blues scholars often call Hill Country blues, Junior Kimbrough. The Hill Country is generally considered to be Marshall, DeSoto, Tate, Panola, Lafayette and Benton Counties, and perhaps the most important city in the region is Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi. Music fans in Oxford love the cotton patch or Hill Country styles of blues, and they often go to Rooster’s Blues House when regional blues artists are booked, so there was a large, enthusiastic crowd on a Friday night in September when Robert Kimbrough performed with his band the Robert Kimbrough Sr Blues Connection. Kimbrough treated the crowd to a mix of original compositions and Junior Kimbrough standards like “All Night Long”, and the dance floor in front of the stage stayed full. It was a great way to kick off a big Oxford football weekend.
After Bradley Hanson of the Tennessee State Archives sent me a link to recordings made of a fife and drum band in rural Fayette County in 1980, I spent several weeks trying to determine if any fife and drum activity remains in West Tennessee today. Ultimately, I was disappointed, in that I found no evidence of any, but there is still something of a live blues culture in the area around Mason and Stanton, Tennessee. Stores in Mason and Stanton often display flyers for the latest blues or rap events at area clubs or parks. Since Labor Day is arguably the biggest weekend for fife-and-drum picnics, I decided to roll the backroads around the area on Sunday, September 4, in the hopes that I might stumble onto something. Near Stanton, Tennessee, in Haywood County, is a small community across the line in Fayette called Fredonia, that was once a site of much fife- and-drum activity. That doesn’t seem to go on there anymore, but the Gilliam family still holds a large picnic there on Labor Day weekend each year featuring a live blues band, usually Big Don Valentine and Booker Brown. This year there were already a lot of cars around the spot and a large crowd was gathered, but because R. L. Boyce was playing in Clarksdale, Mississippi later, I decided not to stop at the Gilliam picnic. Not far away, on Wagon Wheel Drive, I came to what had once been the Bonner Grocery. Now called Mike’s Grocery, it was otherwise largely unchanged from its historic past, even featuring a wood-burning stove in the center of the building. Such stores are common on Fayette County backroads, but while I found the place interesting, it didn’t get me any closer to any fife and drum activity. Ultimately, I headed out to Mississippi for the show in Clarksdale.