Lafayette’s Music Room is a reincarnation of one of Memphis’ best-beloved music venues of the 1970’s, but the latter-day version has something of a New Orleans tinge, both with the cuisine and often with the music as well. This past Wednesday, both featured bands presented different aspects of the musical traditions of the Crescent City. Multi-reedist Breeze Cayolle, a distant relative of jazz great Sidney Bechet, has a group called New Orleans, whose musicians are ironically some of Memphis’ best-known jazz musicians, including Tony Thomas on piano, Tim Goodwin on bass and Tom Lonardo on drums. They play traditional New Orleans jazz, occasionally venturing into the world of jazz standards as well, and have developed a following at the weekly brunch at Owen Brennan’s in East Memphis. Some of that same crowd was in evidence Wednesday night, sitting at the tables nearest the stage and even getting up periodically to dance. Cayolle is a first-rate saxophonist and clarinetist, and he sings with a husky tone that exudes the flavor of New Orleans.
The Mighty Souls Brass Band on the other hand is something rather different, although they share Tom Lonardo with Breeze Cayolle’s group. The Mighty Souls take their cue from the brass band revivalism that started with the Dirty Dozen and the Rebirth in New Orleans, with the main difference being the occasional covers of Memphis soul tunes, such as Rufus Thomas’ “Memphis Train” or Willie Mitchell’s “20-75.” Like some New Orleans brass bands these days (notably the Stooges), the Mighty Souls replace the separate snare and bass drummer with a set drummer, and add a guitar, at least indoors, but there is a tuba and plenty of horns, and if they lack the hardcore street edge of the younger, Blacker bands in New Orleans, they compensate with consummate musicianship and plenty of good spirits. Although Memphis does not have a modern brass band tradition by any means (W. C. Handy notwithstanding), the MSBB has developed a very loyal following, and have released a debut CD called Lift Up Your Mighty Souls on the University of Memphis-related Blue Barrel label.
Despite the importance of Hill Country blues on Memphis music, and despite the short distance between Memphis and Holly Springs, it is rare to hear Hill Country blues in Memphis, sadly. So on the rare occasions when Hill Country artists perform in Memphis, I try to be there. Overton Square’s venerable Lafayette’s Music Room is fairly good about booking Hill Country blues artists, and has featured Duwayne Burnside on at least two occasions. His June appearance this summer was preceded by an acoustic set featuring blues scholar and musician Dr. David Evans, and then Duwayne played more than two hours of the best blues. Of particular interest was his unique reading of the standard “Stormy Monday”, and his cover of the Willie Cobbs Memphis blues classic “You Don’t Love Me.” Although he is firmly rooted in the style of his hometown, Burnside has incorporated more modern blues styles as well, and shows amazing versatility. Before the evening was over, dancers had filled up the narrow space in front of the stage.
Mention crawfish and most people will immediately think of Louisiana, but the “mudbug” is a popular sign of spring throughout the South, and Memphis is no exception. The Bluff City actually has two festivals in April dedicated to crawfish, and the first of these is the Overton Square Crawfish Festival, held in the city’s restored Overton Square entertainment district, mainly in the parking lot of the Bayou Bar and Grill. This year, in addition to plenty of beer and crawfish, the Overton Square festival featured a day of North Mississippi’s best blues musicians, including R. L. Boyce from Como, Robert Kimbrough and Garry Burnside from Holly Springs, and Lightning Malcolm. By the end of the afternoon, the crowd filled Madison Avenue for three straight blocks. It proved to be great food and great fun.
While the annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival was going on downtown, the On Location: Memphis Film and Music Festival was also taking place in Overton Square and in the Cooper-Young neighborhood. The music showcases were held in the basement of Cooper-Walker Place, and featured great Memphis musicians from all genres. Memphis hip-hop star Jason da Hater was on stage when I arrived, followed by a new local rock band called One Word. Then Tori WhoDat performed, along with Preauxx and other members of the TRDON camp. Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon showcase was 4 Soul’s performance, with Otis Logan on drums, and extraordinary Memphis vocalist Tonya Dyson fronting Memphis’ premiere neo-soul band. Over at Studio on the Square, a large crowd was watching a preview screening of an upcoming movie called The Man in 3B, with the filmmaker present. Altogether it was a great year for On Location: Memphis on its first Labor Day weekend.
Back in 2011, the Stooges Brass Band were one of the more active street brass bands in New Orleans, with a regular residency at the Hi-Ho Lounge in the 9th Ward, which is where I first heard them. Over the last four years, like the Dirty Dozen before them, they have morphed into more of a touring entity, although they have a street version that still marches for certain second-lines during the year. The traveling version of the band is somewhat stripped down, with fewer horns, a set drummer instead of the traditional snare and bass drummers, and the addition of non-brass-band instruments like keyboards and electric guitar. Still the band generates a considerable amount of crowd participation as it runs through its combination of standard brass band repertoire and unique originals like “Wind It Up” and “Why They Had To Kill Him”, the latter a tribute to Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams, a trombonist shot to death by the New Orleans Police in the year before Hurricane Katrina. Memphis has a number of New Orleans expatriates, and even more local fans of New Orleans music, and so Lafayette’s Music Room was packed for the performance, which was rescheduled from an earlier date that had to be cancelled due to snow and ice.
Old Man Winter had other ideas when the Stooges Brass Band was supposed to play at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis a few weeks ago, but Memphis had another opportunity to enjoy some New Orleans music last Wednesday when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band performed at the same venue. The Dirty Dozen was one of the young bands that appeared in the early 1980’s as brass bands began a strange renaissance in New Orleans after near extinction in the early 1970’s, and for awhile the Dirty Dozen played the second-lines, funerals and weddings that are the mainstays for brass bands, but eventually they moved away from that to focus almost strictly on touring and club dates. Toward that end, while the bass lines are provided by a tuba, the Dirty Dozen employs a set drummer rather than the traditional rhythm section of bass drum, snare drum and cowbell, and adds an electric guitarist as well. Nor did traditional New Orleans songs make up much of the evening’s repertoire, although they did play a version of “Li’l Liza Jane”. Primarily, the sound of the Dirty Dozen these days is much more funk oriented, and much of the material had that feel and direction. For that style, a funky drummer is mandatory, and Julian Addison proved up to the task, providing a firm backing for the band, and a groove that soon filled the dance floor in front of the stage. Trumpeters Gregory Davis and Efrem Towns (the latter familiar to fans of the TV series Treme) took turns bantering with the crowd between songs and keeping a jovial and upbeat mood. Many of the songs were taken from the band’s most recent album Twenty Dozen, including a rousing reading of the song “Tomorrow.” At show’s end the crowd was still begging for more, and an encore featuring baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis closed out the show.
Considering the close distance between Holly Springs, Mississippi and Memphis, it is strange that blues legend Duwayne Burnside doesn’t appear more often in Memphis. In fact, I only recall seeing him perform at the Beale Street Music Festival or the Levitt Shell, usually with Kenny Brown or the North Mississippi All-Stars, so when I saw that he and his band had been booked to play the new Lafayette’s Music Room, I made it a point to go. Duwayne is a first-rate guitarist, of course, and he performed with his brother Garry Burnside as well, featuring a number of classic blues songs, some from the Hill Country tradition of his Dad R. L. Burnside and the late Junior Kimbrough, others from Elmore James and other sources. Duwayne performed two long sets of great blues, and brought the house down. I definitely hope we’ll see more of him here in Memphis.
During the On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival, Le Chardonnay was the location of the neo-soul showcases on both Friday and Saturday nights. On Saturday night, the showcase opened with the superb Memphis jazz/soul vocalist Jamille “Jam” Hunter with her band, and was followed by the blues/soul/rock trio known as C3, consisting of drummer Courtney Brown, guitarist Chris Pitts and bassist Colton Parker, a power trio that I have discussed elsewhere. They were to be followed by Ethan Kent and my homeboy Otis Logan’s band 4 Soul, but as I was on the festival staff, I soon got called away to handle a crisis at the hip-hop showcase at 1884 Lounge at Minglewood.
Memphians have been enjoying Thursday night parties in the warm weather months for several years now, both on the rooftop of The Peabody Hotel, and more recently on the rooftop of the Madison Hotel. Now a third series of parties and concerts has been launched at the new Tower Courtyard in Overton Square, known as Thursdays on the Square. The inaugural event was held on Thursday April 17, featuring performances by Memphis blues queen Ruby Wilson, Al Kapone (who led the crowd in a chant of “Whoop That Trick” for the Grizzlies), and indie artist Free Sol. Several hundred people attended, and the event will be held every Thursday night through the end of August. Admission is $5.
Perhaps no restaurant’s opening has been more widely awaited in Memphis than Kelly English’s new Second Line concept next door to his acclaimed Restaurant Iris. As the name suggests, The Second Line is a gourmet casual take on New Orleans cuisine, located in a cheerfully-restored house at Monroe and Cooper in Overton Square. Pictures on the walls and video loops of Louis Armstrong and New Orleans scenes reinforce the theme of the restaurant, as does the menu’s emphasis on po-boys and seafood, but while The Second Line is a more casual restaurant than Iris, it is not by any means inexpensive or a typical bar and grill. With only a dollar’s difference in price between the shrimp po-boy and the shrimp dinner, I opted for the latter, and was quite pleased. The shrimp were fairly large, fried in a well-seasoned batter, and, somewhat unusually, had had their tails removed, so every bit was edible. The accompanying french fries were a thing of beauty, thinly cut (but not shoestring) and fried to a dark golden brown, and also well-seasoned. Although by now I was thoroughly full, I was offered dessert, and bread pudding (which was my mother’s favorite) seems to be the signature, which I will have to try on my next visit. If you go, a couple of cautions are in order. One is that the parking lot across the street, which used to welcome Restaurant Iris patrons, is now off limits to customers of Iris or The Second Line, and if you park there, you will get towed. Parking is scarce, but you can park over in the Overton Square lot (at least for now) and walk over. The other is that The Second Line is quite expensive. The food is very good (and I am sure that it costs a great deal to fly in seafood from the Gulf), but The Second Line is more a place for a special night out than a place that can be frequented regularly. But it is cheaper than driving to New Orleans when you have the urge for Louisiana cuisine.
The Second Line
2144 Monroe Avenue
Memphis, TN 38104