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.
Each year in B. B. King’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, deep in the historic Delta region, the great bluesman returned in late May for an event called the Homecoming, where he performed for the people of his original hometown, and on the occasion of the 2014 Homecoming, he stated that that year’s event would be his last. The old man’s health was fading, and the travel was hard on him. But none of us could have imagined that he would not live to see the next one. This year’s Homecoming, coming a week or so after B. B. King’s death, was a sad occasion, and yet an opportunity for many great blues musicians to come together and honor King’s life and legacy on the grounds of the museum that bears his name. Just as the occasion was both joyful and sorrowful, the day was alternated by periods of heat and sunshine and downpours of rain, but in between the showers came a diverse array of performers, including Greenville blues diva Eden Brent, youthful St. Louis blues star Marquise Knox, Lil Ray, son of the Louisiana blues star Raful Neal, and the North Mississippi All-Stars, with Cody and Luther Dickinson, featuring Sharde Thomas on the keyboards and fife, and Lightning Malcolm on the guitar. The crowd ebbed and flowed due to the weather, but at its strongest seemed to be about 200 or so, equipped with lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets, and even sparklers. The North Mississippi All-Stars had barely finished their outdoor set, when the rains came a final time, more decisively, and some of the crowd headed around to the Club Ebony for the indoor evening performance. There really couldn’t have been a better way to honor B. B. King.
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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.
Buy Jim Dickinson’s Beale Street Saturday Night here if your local store doesn’t stock it:
Keep Up With Sons of Mudboy here:
After an early morning breakfast at the Magnolia Cafe, I parked my car downtown and set out walking across the bridge to Austin’s Butler Park, where there was an afternoon-long concert being held of Memphis music, scheduled to coincide with the film Take Me To The River, which was screened several times at South By Southwest this year. Despite the threat of rain, there was a decent crowd at the outdoor stage, and although rain started several times during the afternoon, it never continued long enough to run people off, and the day ended with the sun coming out. After an hour of so of DJ mixing from a really cool DJ, the show opened with a performance from the Hi Rhythm Section, and then a number of musicians featured in the film appeared, including Bobby Rush, Frayser Boy, Al Kapone, William Bell, Booker T. Jones, Charlie Musselwhite, Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson, Otis Clay, Iffy, Miscelllaneous Bosslife and Syl Johnson. Perhaps the high point of the day was when Snoop Doggy Dogg appeared without warning to join William Bell in a version of the classic “I Forgot To Be Your Lover.” It was actually a great day for Memphis and for Austin as well.
After a fairly late breakfast at Magnolia Cafe, I headed over to the Austin Convention Center to meet my friend Travis McFetridge, who had an afternoon panel. I was torn, because I wanted to see his panel, but I also wanted to attend the Memphis Music panel which Al Kapone was on, so I ended up going to the second one. This panel, held in conjunction with the Martin Shore film Take Me To The River, featured Al Kapone, Boo Mitchell, Cody Dickinson, Booker T. Jones, Frayser Boy, William Bell and Al Bell, and was sponsored by the Memphis Music Foundation. MY homeboy Miscellaneous was not on the panel, but was in the audience. Noted author Robert Gordon was the moderator.
To close out the Memphis Recording Academy’s 40th Anniversary concert, Luther and Cody Dickinson’s North Mississippi Allstars came on stage along with bluesman Duwayne Burnside. Any North Mississippi Allstars show is great fun, and this was a rousing and appropriate way to close out the night.
The Sons of Mudboy perform their variation of W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” also known as “Mr. Crump Don’t Allow It Here” at the Sid Selvidge Tribute Concert at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park, 6/25/13
The band Sons of Mudboy AKA Three-Legged Dog is the logical outgrowth of the super Memphis group Mudboy and the Neutrons, which I have discussed at length in the past. Sons of Mudboy consists of Steve Selvidge, Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson and Paul Taylor, and as such was the perfect group to close out Tuesday night’s celebration of the life and work of Steve’s dad Sid Selvidge. The band played an acoustic set, which was followed by a fairly lengthy documentary about Sid Selvidge in which the late singer-songwriter discussed the impact of Furry Lewis and Black culture on his music, and also where he discussed the origins of the name Mudboy and the Neutrons. Then the band Son of Mudboy came back out and closed out this most important night of Memphis music with a final electric set.