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.
Duwayne Burnside, brother of Garry and another son of the late R. L. Burnside, is possibly the best-known performer in the Hill Country blues style today. Although he has made few recordings, fans flock to his infrequent live appearances, including an annual performance at the Juke Joint Festival each April. Like his brother Garry, Duwayne plays in a style that incorporates the Hill Country blues legacy, as well as the influences of more modern bluesmen, such as B. B. King, Albert King, and even Stevie Ray Vaughan.
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.
Record Store Day is a worldwide holiday held in April to call attention to an endangered species, the neighborhood record store. Record companies release all kinds of cool limited-edition vinyl LP’s and singles, and local stores often sponsor live performances on the day, and with vinyl sales picking up all the time, the future of independent stores doesn’t seem quite as bleak as it did a few years ago. In Memphis, three stores were official Record Store Day participants, and the first one I visited was Goner Records in the hip Cooper-Young neighborhood. Goner is a record label as well as a store, and not surprisingly they made a big deal of the day, with live bands such as the Blackberries out under the gazebo at Cooper and Young, and a store literally full of customers.
Things seemed more subdued at Shangri-La Records on Madison Avenue, although they had opened an hour earlier than Goner. They had decided to have their live music the next day on Sunday, when they were having Son of Mudboy play for an album release party for the reissue of Jim Dickinson’s legendary Beale Street Saturday Night compilation, but there were still a number of crate diggers enjoying their Saturday afternoon by browsing.
The third and final store participating in Record Store Day was Memphis Music, the blues-oriented record store on Beale Street, where the Memphis Music Commission had decided to sponsor live performances. Unfortunately, things were quite hectic on Beale, with a Corvette competition, and the annual Africa In April festival at Church Park, but small crowds gathered to enjoy Memphis singer-songwriter Michael Joyner and the a cappella vocal group Artistik Approach. It needs to also be pointed out that Memphis Music has greatly increased its vinyl selection over the last year or so, and is not just a store for tourists, but is worth a visit from local music lovers as well. It’s selection of import CD”s, particularly those with a Memphis connection, is also worth browsing.
This year’s closure of Morning Bell Records was a terrible blow to Jackson, Mississippi’s music scene, so the news that a new record shop had opened in Jackson was welcome. But Offbeat Arts, the new venture from adventurous Jacktown DJ Young Venom is not exactly a record store in the ordinary sense, and what it is might at first seem confusing. It is (all at the same time) an art gallery, a record shop, a clothing store, a book store and a performance space. When I visited for the first time the weekend of the Core DJ’s Retreat, it was hosting a video shoot for local hip-hop artist Jaxx City. Its vinyl selection isn’t huge, but leans toward the funky, hip and less familiar side of the spectrum, and as might be expected, there’s a decent selection of local artists and releases (but not much in the way of CD’s, so be forewarned). There are also books about hip-hop and Black culture, comic books, local Jackson clothing gear, and beautiful local art. Occasionally, on weekends, Offbeat becomes a performance space for various DJ-based genres of music, which is appropriate, as the shop sits in the middle of Jackson’s burgeoning Midtown Arts District. When visiting, it’s probably a good idea to call ahead, as some days Offbeat is open by appointment only, and the opening hours seem to vary and be a little sporadic. That being said, Offbeat is as cool as store as I’ve seen anywhere in the South.
I had been invited by my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC Brass Band, to go around with the band to their gigs on the Saturday of Satchmo Fest, and for the better part of the afternoon I had. But when I found out that there was an hour and a half interregnum between gigs, I decided to head out to Lake Pontchartrain and try a restaurant that I had been seeing for about a year but had never tried called The Blue Crab.
Elsewhere in this blog, I have discussed the odd fact that the seafood cuisine of New Orleans and of the Mississippi Gulf Coast are rather different, despite close proximity, and that while it has been fairly easy to find fried seafood in New Orleans, it has not been nearly as easy to find the kind of gourmet seafood that is fairly common in Biloxi, Gulfport or Bay St. Louis. That now seems to be changing, and while Hurricane Katrina decimated the old seafood restaurants on the West End, a couple of new restaurants have appeared along what New Orleanians call the Lakefront, and the Blue Crab is one of them.
All of the new restaurants along Lakeshore Drive have certain things in common, chief of which is beautiful views of the lake, the marina and the yacht club, and the Blue Crab is no exception. The view from its outdoor dining deck is truly amazing, and the resort ambiance is far more akin to something from Florida than something from Louisiana. As for the menu, there is little unusual for a New Orleans seafood place, and the prices are fairly reasonable. I opted for the fish of the day, which was pompano, and had it prepared in an almondine style, where the fish was breaded and fried, then topped with a butter-based almond sauce. As one might imagine, it was amazingly good, and accompanied by french fries that were golden brown and delicious. I chose to end my meal with a slice of key lime pie, which I enjoyed while watching the sun go down in the west over the marina. All in all, I was pleased with the Blue Crab, and will likely return.
Since the last time I had been in New Orleans, the great Louisiana Music Factory record store had moved from their longtime location on Decatur Street to new digs on the ground level of the building where Offbeat Magazine is headquartered at the foot of Frenchmen Street. While the new location is smaller (there’s no upstairs), there’s still plenty of selection. I can usually expect to spend about $100 in this store, and this trip was no exception. While vinyl and CD’s are the main attractions, don’t overlook the amazing book department, which is for the most part restricted to books about music or books about New Orleans (I’m especially partial to books that are about both). There’s also a fairly decent selection of DVD’s (mostly about Louisiana), some T-shirts, and an assortment of concert poster replicas. Don’t miss it.
Although I was in St. Louis for a Recording Academy event, the event wasn’t until the evening, so I had the better part of the day to go around to local book stores and record stores, and St. Louis is really a dream come true to anyone who collects books or records. As the day progressed, I made my way around to Left Bank Books, the Book House, STL Books, Vintage Vinyl and Euclid Records, the last of which was only a couple of doors down from where our event was being held.
After I left Travis Heights, I drove over to East Austin and parked my car across the street from the Carver Community Center. As I was walking down the hill, I came first to Trailer Space Records, the cool vinyl and used CD shop that is also a music venue. During SXSW, it can get too crowded to come inside, but I was able to do some browsing before I continued walking down past the cemetery to the Hotel Vegas. While there, i checked the SXSW schedule on my phone and saw that the 1970’s funk/soul band Kool & Together was playing at the 512 Rooftop on Sixth Street, so I decided to walk over that way and see if I could catch their show.
Also in South Austin is a record store called Friends of Sound, which can be hard to find despite its South Congress Avenue address, as it opens onto the alley behind. Unlike Waterloo or End of an Ear, Friends of Sound sells nothing new, and no formats other than vinyl. The emphasis is on soul and funk, especially 45’s, and some of the best and rarest ones often come through the store, particularly ones with a Texas connection. Prices are not low, but the selection of records that aren’t seen anywhere else is significant.