A few years ago, the Commercial Appeal newspaper compared Memphis to Austin in an article, a rather strange and forced comparison perhaps, despite the fact that both are music cities. When it comes to business, economy and culture, the two cities are nothing alike, but Memphis often seems envious of the kind of weirdness and success that Austin seems to represent. At any rate, over the last year, Memphis has witnessed the opening of two music venues that resemble the way things are done in Austin, Loflin Yard and now Railgarten. The similarities between them prove to be more than coincidence, as some of the same people are involved with both.
Anyone who has visited Austin during South By Southwest has probably been to Amy’s Ice Cream or the 24 Diner, both of which are located next to Waterloo Records at the central intersection of 6th and Lamar near downtown, and the developers of Railgarten seem to have patterned their location as a merger of Amy’s, 24 Diner and an outdoor-type music venue such as Austin’s Container Bar. The decision is an inspiring one indeed. First of all, Railgarten offers great food in their diner, breakfast items at certain hours, and gourmet burgers, including the one I had with a fried egg on top for good measure. Next door to that is an ice-cream parlor, that features homemade milkshakes as well. There is a ping-pong parlor in a building to the east, outside a volleyball court, and a lawn with fire-pits, as well as an outdoor stage made of shipping containers which incorporates the Skateland “Roller Skate For Health” neon sign from the legendary Summer Avenue skating rink of long ago. A food truck provides eats and snacks for those enjoying the outdoor music. All told, the fairly-large complex offers something for everyone.
ADDENDUM: Unfortunately, after my visit, all kinds of trouble broke out for this place. Local code enforcement, responding to complaints from the residential neighborhood north of the restaurant, hit Railgarten with “Do Not Occupy” warnings in April because of their use of shipping containers (despite the fact that the area is zoned industrial), and because they allegedly did not have a permit for live music. Further complaints to the Board of Adjustment stated that Railgarten did not have sufficient parking for a venue of its size. (It is worth noting that Austin did not have a problem with the Container Bar using shipping containers as part of its permanent building). As a result of the controversy, the backyard at Railgarten remains closed during a City Council-mandated 30-day delay before the Board of Adjustment can make a ruling as to whether it can reopen. The diner, ping-pong hall and ice cream parlor remain open under curtailed hours.
It’s a long way from Beirut to Memphis, and Lebanon is definitely not the first place you think of when it comes to blues, but that didn’t stop the Wanton Bishops, a Beirut-based blues/rock band, some of whose members had met outside a well-known Beirut blues bar. After several years of growing popularity in Lebanon, Turkey and France, the Bishops started gaining attention from American audiences as well. Sponsored by Red Bull, the Wanton Bishops ended their triumphant appearance at South By Southwest in Austin with a journey up Highway 61 from New Orleans to Memphis by way of Clarksdale, documented by a film crew. Perhaps the apotheosis of that journey was a recording session in a most appropriate place, Boo Mitchell’s legendary Royal Studios in South Memphis, the place where classic recordings were made by Al Green, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, O. V. Wright and many others. For young, blues-loving men from the Middle East, it must have seemed like the dream of a lifetime. Although it took all day, it resulted in one perfect song, and some lasting memories.
After I walked back to downtown Austin, I caught up with Travis McFetridge, and he and his friend wanted to check out the rapper Danny Brown who was performing at the Red Bull Sound Select stage at The Belmont, so I agreed to go with them. I had heard of Danny Brown but never actually heard any of his music, and he wasn’t bad. I had fortunately gotten press credentials, so I was able to take some pictures of his performance, and the stage was outdoors in a courtyard, and was very cool indeed. We left about 2 AM and headed over to 24 Diner, which was a lot more crowded than I had expected. Getting our food took quite awhile, and I didn’t get back to the hotel room until 4 AM. But it was the best way to end my year at SXSW- a good breakfast with friends.
After the Memphis concert was over at Butler Park, I walked down to South Congress Avenue and ended up encountering a band called The City from Houston who was performing on the outdoor stage at Mrs. P’s Electric Cock. They played an exciting blend of neo-soul and jazz, and were fun to listen to, but my phone was running out of charge and there was no place to charge it there, so I began walking back toward the convention center.
After the show was over, Al Kapone got me backstage where I was able to hang out with a lot of the performers, and I even briefly got to meet Snoop Dogg. Ultimately, all the people from the film headed off to dinner at some place on South Congress, so I headed out walking, trying to decide where I wanted to eat.
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.
With its late hours (open until 3 AM on weekends), Halcyon is the quintessential coffee bar in downtown Austin, popular at any time, and stuffed to overflowing during South By Southwest. Its location near many of the music venues is part of the attraction, as is its menu, featuring everything from smores and other desserts to breakfast sandwiches and paninis. They play great music too, if you can hear it, but Halcyon is almost always crowded and always noisy, even at 2 AM. But that’s a lot of the fun, as you begin to realize that everybody had the same idea you did…to hit up Halcyon after the last showcases were over.
People in Louisiana believe in something called “lagniappe”, a tradition of giving the customer a little something extra, or a bonus to thank you for your patronage. Those of us at the bounce showcase on the Average Rooftop at South By Southwest got a bit of lagniappe on Friday night in the form of an unexpected appearance by the Queen of Bounce herself, Katey Redd. Katey Red began her career on the groundbreaking Take Fo Records label, the same label which launched the career of bounce pioneer DJ Jubilee. She is best known for her debut album Melpomene Block Party (the Melpomene is another former housing project in New Orleans that was demolished after Katrina), and has more recently been featured in several episodes of the television series Treme.
It was 10th Ward Buck that was the headliner of the showcase at the Avenue on Congress rooftop, and he was the first performer of the night that I had actually heard of. In recent years, he has been something of an activist for his hometown of New Orleans and the bounce music movement, writing a book called The Definition of Bounce and running unsuccessfully for a seat on New Orleans’ City Council. He also ran a hot wing restaurant in Uptown New Orleans for a period of time, but New Orleans is a competitive restaurant market, and the difficulties of running a restaurant can interfere with a music career as well. Buck’s performance was charismatic, and featured the usual contingent of female dancers on stage.
Magnolia Rhome’s performance was followed by an act named Big Chu and the Crew, which I had also never heard of. But they were decent bounce artists as well, and the dancing crew that was on stage with them stole the show.