The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.
2017 had its ups and downs, but one of the better stories in Memphis was the opening of a lot of new restaurants, the vast majority of them really good. One of them, Sunrise Memphis, recently appeared in a building where nothing has ever seemed to work. The place, on Jefferson Avenue between downtown and the Medical Center, has been a barbecue restaurant and a French cafe specializing in crepes, both of which came to a dismal end. But Sunrise seems headed for better things, at least in part because Memphis still is woefully underrepresented when it comes to breakfast restaurants, despite some beloved gems, and also because it has a unique twist on getting your day underway. Although it is a sitdown restaurant, Sunrise operates more like a fast-food place. You stand in line, move up to the counter, and order your food, they give you a number and then you sit down. The menu is a little strange compared to ordinary breakfast restaurants, and the focus is on biscuit breakfasts, Asian-tinged breakfast specialties, bowls and tacos. However, there are a few standard breakfast options, and a couple of omelettes. Prices are reasonable, the eating space is brightly-colored and cheerful, the music overhead is the classic sounds of Memphis, and the coffee is Memphis’ own J. Brooks. There’s really very little not to like, although I didn’t like the lack of parking. However, the block walk I made to and from my car probably did me some good, although it was likely offset by how much I ate. Pay Sunrise Memphis a visit for breakfast. It’s worth it.
670 Jefferson Av
Memphis, TN 38105
5 AM-3PM Daily
I had not planned on going to the Beale Street Music Festival this year, since I wasn’t particularly pleased with the line-up, and also I hadn’t been able to get a press pass last year, and didn’t even try to this year. But when a friend of mine who works for Rockstar Energy Drinks posted on Facebook that he was giving away tickets, I decided to go, asked him for two of them and invited a friend from college to go with me. By the time I had picked her up (and the tickets), it was nearly 10 o’clock, so I figured we would only get to see one act. I wasn’t at all interested in the hard rock groups on the bigger stages, and nobody was on the Blues Shack stage, but when we got to the Blues Tent, a band was coming on stage called Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Although they were a Black band, they featured a young man playing the steel guitar, an instrument usually associated with country music, and so I knew that they were from Florida. The phenomenon of Black steel guitar is pretty much unique to the state of Florida, and largely in one denomination of church, the House of God. Robert Randolph in fact began his music career in the House of God, and told an interviewer that he was completely unfamiliar with secular music before he began collaborating with Mark Medeski and the North Mississippi All-Stars.
What Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar, Robert Randolph is to the pedal steel. His flexibility and inventiveness with the instrument is absolutely amazing, and his repertoire is extremely diverse, from gospel standards to blues and even rock. And he is a consummate showman, exhorting the crowd to get them involved. He calls his band the Family Band, and that’s not just a name, as most of the musicians are actually relatives of Robert. At the end of the set at 11 PM, the Blues Tent was still standing room only. The band performed one final encore at the crowd’s demand, and the Friday night of the Beale Street Music Festival ended with a standing ovation for about five minutes straight.
Keep up with Robert Randolph & The Family Band:
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.
Although Memphis has a legacy that includes some of America’s greatest jazz musicians (including arguably the greatest jazz pianist ever, Phineas Newborn Jr.), it is rare to hear authentic jazz in Memphis nowadays. Such jazz as there is generally occurs at Bleu Restaurant in the Westin Hotel downtown, particularly on Friday nights. This past Friday night featured pianist Steven Lee with his trio, including young up-and-coming drummer Nigel Yancey, son of local veteran trumpeter and big band leader Johnny Yancey. The final set became something of a jam session, as it often does, featuring Johnny Yancey on trumpet and Kyle Lee on tenor saxophone. For those that want traditional, straight-ahead jazz rather than the smooth or neo-soul variety, Bleu on Friday nights is the place to be.
221 South 3rd Street
Memphis, TN 38103
Live jazz on Fridays from 7-11 PM, and on the last Sunday of each month
Friday night was chilly, but that didn’t stop people from coming downtown in Charlotte. In fact there were crowds of people everywhere, perhaps because of the Bobcats game, and especially around the large entertainment district known as the EpiCentre, which is definitely worth a visit.
When walking back toward the parking garage where I had parked my car in downtown Charlotte, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sounds of a brass band playing somewhere nearby. The band turned out to be The Brass Connection, a well-known Charlotte street band that on this particular Friday night had set up at the corner of 5th and Tryon streets in front of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, drawing a decent crowd of people coming from the Charlotte Bobcats game, despite the chilly weather. Unlike New Orleans brass bands, the Brass Connection takes a DC-oriented go-go approach to brass band music, with a set drummer and a timbale player rather than the separate snare and bass drums so often seen in New Orleans, and their repertoire consists of unique takes on R & B hits like Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison.” After they played about four songs or so, they ended their performance, took down their instruments and walked away.
Unlike New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, the Beale Street Music Festival does not feature a considerable amount of local Memphis talent (and almost no roots artists at all), so it is fortunate that there is another festival held on Labor Day weekend every year, known as the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, sponsored by the embattled yet resilient Center for Southern Folklore. This amazing, free, two-day festival features the music, dance, visual art and foodways of the Mid-South, spread out among two indoor and four outdoor stages on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis. Although there is usually at least one headline artist (this year’s was Bobby Rush), the festival line-up is heavily geared to artists from Memphis or the immediate vicinity, and includes all styles from bluegrass to blues to hip-hop to indie rock and jazz. Even drill teams and drumlines make appearances during the afternoon. Not as well known as perhaps it should be, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival is arguably the best reason to make a trip to Memphis.
When Cockadoos closed a couple of years ago, downtown Memphis was left without a source for espresso-based drinks, aside from the Starbucks inside the Westin hotel across from the Fed Ex Forum. So when I heard that a new place had opened on Gayoso Avenue called Tamp & Tap, I was eager to try it. As the name suggests, Tamp & Tap is a little bit more than the usual coffee bar. It offers coffee drinks, using Chicago’s Metropolis brand, but it also offers craft beers, and a small menu of salads, sandwiches and baked goods, including cookies and brownies. The space is surprisingly large and inviting, with rustic wooden walls, and comfortable couches. Although the official hours are until 9 PM each night, Tamp & Tap has been staying open until 11 PM on Friday and Saturday nights, and is definitely worth a visit for some really good coffee, a cold beer, or just a place to chill.