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.
Second-lines are not generally associated with Memphis, and neither is sledding, but both were highlighted in December at the Levitt Shell during Winter Wonderland, an event to give kids a taste of winter magic while unveiling the future construction and improvements under way at the Shell. Unfortunately, the weather was anything but seasonal, and the artificial snow barely stayed on the ground long enough for kids to sled, but the excellent Memphorleans Street Symphony Band led the way from the Memphis College of Art into the Shell area, supplemented by students from the Chickasaw Middle School Band, and additional music was provided by the Dantones and the Mighty Souls Brass Band. If it didn’t exactly feel like winter, it was still a lot of fun.
Although the Levitt Shell season doesn’t start until May, there is usually an earlier special music event or two during the warm weather in April, and this year, the occasion was a tribute to the late John Fry and John Hampton of Ardent Studios, two Memphis music figures who dies within a week of each other. As Ardent has been the most important studio in Memphis since the late 1960’s, their impact on the city and the local music industry was considerable, and so three popular Memphis bands associated with Ardent came out to perform.
First up was the hard rock band Tora Tora, which I had never been much of a fan of, but I found to my surprise that some of their songs had a recognizable Memphis influence. Behind them came the Gin Blossoms, who were produced by John Hampton and had recorded at Ardent. What I didn’t know, however, was that the band was originally from Arizona and chose to record at Ardent because of their admiration for Big Star.
The final band of the evening was the current incarnation of Big Star, featuring founding member Jody Stephens on drums, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and Steve Selvidge on guitar. They played a number of familiar and not so familiar Big Star songs, as well as a reading of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos”. A few of the songs featured vocals from the singers of the Gin Blossoms and Tora Tora. The evening ended with the performers standing together and taking a bow in front of the several hundred people who attended. John Fry was also posthumously awarded a note on Beale Street.
Keep up with Tora Tora:
Keep up with the Gin Blossoms:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Gin-Blossoms/10194655949 Tweets by ginblossoms
Keep up with Big Star:
http://bigstarthird.com Tweets by BigStarBand
Keep up with Ardent Studios & Records:
https://www.facebook.com/ardentstudios Tweets by ArdentStudios
R. L. Burnside was one of the most famous musicians in the blues tradition of the North Mississippi Hill Country, and many of his children and grandchildren have carried on that great tradition, including Cedric Burnside, a grandson of the late R.L. who is accomplished on both the guitar and the drums. After coming to prominence as part of a duo with another Mississippi bluesman, Lightning Malcolm, he more recently has formed a band called the Cedric Burnside Project, which is really just him on drums and Trenton Ayers on guitar (I suspect that Trenton Ayers is kin to the older Marshall County bluesman Little Joe Ayers). On Saturday June 21, Cedric brought his music to the Levitt Shell in Memphis’ Overton Park, and an overflow crowd despite hit and run showers early in the evening. Beginning on acoustic guitar, Burnside soon switched to drums, and performed most of the Hill Country standards, including “Coal Black Mattie”, “Don’t Let My Baby Ride”, and even the late Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me In The City.” It was a great evening of great Mississippi blues.
After two albums that had done little on the charts, Memphis rock band Big Star was basically falling apart when Jim Dickinson, Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton went into Ardent Studios to start work on an untitled new album. By some accounts, the album was tentatively named Beale Street Green, an indirect protest of the city’s demolition of the Black neighborhoods around legendary Beale Street. By others, the album (or perhaps even the band) was to be called Sister Lovers, since Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton were dating two sisters, Lesa and Halladay Aldridge. Today we know and love it as Big Star Third, but nothing prepared me for the experience of hearing that music played live by an all-star cast of musicians including a string orchestra to kick off the Levitt Shell’s Summer Music Concerts in Memphis. After a brief introduction by John Fry, the owner and founder of Ardent Records, all the songs from the album were performed by a whole host of great singers and musicians, including Pat Sansone of Wilco, Star and Micey, Van Duren, Jody Stephens and Lesa Aldridge herself. This presentation highlighted Alex Chilton’s amazing talent and the timeless quality of his songwriting. It’s just a pity that he didn’t live to see Memphis honor him as they should.
Backstage was sheer pandemonium after the Recording Academy concert at the Levitt Shell. It was also as hot as an oven, but performers and some chapter officers and board members got an opportunity to relax and hang out briefly.
At the end of a wonderful evening of commemorating 40 years of The Recording Academy in Memphis at the Levitt Shell, all of the evening’s performers came out on stage a final time to thunderous applause.
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.
Memphis soul revivalists The Bo-Keys have played a huge role in the rebirth of interest in the classic Memphis sound, and they have frequently provided the backing for Memphis soul great William Bell, so it was not at all surprising that Bell was tapped to perform at the Recording Academy celebration. He performed several of his biggest hits, including “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”, probably his biggest hit ever.
First lady of Memphis soul Carla Thomas and her brother Marvel Thomas made rare Memphis appearances on Saturday night July 13 at the 40th Anniversary Concert of the Memphis chapter of The Recording Academy at the Levitt Shell. They performed several songs that had been written or made famous by their father, the late Rufus Thomas. Rufus and Carla’s unexpected meeting with Jim Stewart as Stax Records was moving into the old Capital Theatre on McLemore Avenue led to the label embracing the recording of Black music instead of the country and rockabilly they had intended to record, and thus changed the whole history of Memphis music.