On Tuesday December 16, the Memphis Music Foundation and the Memphis Chapter of The Recording Academy sponsored a Memphis Music Holiday Party at the 1884 Lounge of Minglewood Hall in Midtown. The event featured some great barbecue and desserts, as well as live music from the Steven Lee Trio featuring trumpeter Johnny Yancey and his son, drummer Nigel Yancey, and the Hill Country blues inflected rock band Turchi. Over a hundred people came to get in the festive spirit, including legendary producer Boo Mitchell and Elizabeth Montgomery of Ardent Records.
On November 23, 2013, two of the greatest jazz musicians to ever come out of Memphis, pianist Harold Mabern and saxophonist George Coleman appeared in concert at Blount Hall on the campus of Rhodes College. For both musicians, it was their first time back in Memphis in many years, and ended up being something of a reunion of Manassas High School alumni in the audience, including activist and former Manassas and Rhodes student Dr. Coby Smith. Despite suffering a stroke some time ago, George Coleman sounded as good as ever, and his son George Coleman Jr. was the drummer for the evening. But perhaps the highlight of the evening (for those who stuck around) came after two sets of great jazz music, when Harold Mabern spoke to the few of us left in the hall about his good friend and mentor Phineas Newborn Jr, who was also a Memphian, and arguably the best jaazz pianist ever.
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.
Last Saturday night, December 14, I was invited out to the all-new Deuces Bar and Grill on Winchester Road next to Hickory Ridge Mall to see a performance by two of Memphis’ best-known female vocalists, Carmen Hicks and Stefanie Bolton. They were backed by a first-rate band, anchored by drummer Taz Fields, and despite the venue’s newness, it was packed to overflowing. Deuces is located in the strip mall where Pop Tunes record shop was years ago, near the corner of Winchester and Hickory Hill roads. The club is comfortably equipped and spacious enough to accomodate even large events.
Deuces Bar and Grill
5959 Winchester Road
Memphis, TN 38115
On Saturday night December 14th, my drummer partner Mike Mosby invited down to Bhan Thai restaurant in Midtown where he was playing a gig with a Memphis musician, singer and actor named Brennan Villines whom I had not heard of before. He is a gifted pianist and singer, and the band, complete with horns was immensely soulful in that unique Memphis sort of way, which was all the more remarkable considering the fact that they had never played together before. It was an altogether enjoyable evening.
When I rolled through the Castleberry Hill neighborhood of Atlanta on Thanksgiving night, it was well after midnight and yet I noticed that the hip-hop clothing store Fly Kix was not only open but crowded, so I found a spot where I could park for free a few blocks away, and walked back to the shop. It turned out that Fly Kix was having a customer appreciation sale, with a lot of merchandise heavily discounted, and I found some T-shirts that I knew would make great Christmas gifts. The store was literally filled with people, and I met the young woman who owned the place, as well as Atlanta rap artist Money Makin Nique. Checking out ended up taking an hour of waiting in line due to the crowds of shoppers and significantly-deep discounts.
A friend I had run into at Cafe 290 the night before told me about a female singer he was working with and a jam session that was supposed to be taking place Thanksgiving night at a spot called Studio 630 on Atlanta’s westside. So after all the day with my family, I headed over there to check it out. The female singer was of Iranian background and from Germany, and was an amazing neo-soul singer, but the jam session part of the event proved to be a disappointment. Although a number of musicians were present, there were no bass players, so everyone just packed up their instruments and left after the singer’s performance. It was altogether disappointing.
I must admit that when my stepbrother’s family said we were going to a buffet for Thanksgiving dinner, I was somewhat concerned. But I didn’t know that the buffet they had in mind was the Blue Willow Inn in the little town of Social Circle, Georgia about 30 miles from Atlanta. The Blue Willow Inn is technically a buffet (food is brought out to tables either upstairs or downstairs, and you serve yourself),but it is not cheap, the surroundings are an historic mansion on the town’s main street, and the food is exceptional. While it seems almost strange that such a family establishment would be open on Thanksgiving, it was actually quite crowded, with people loading up on corn muffins, their famous fried chicken, turkey, and one of several desserts including peanut butter pie and red velvet cake. Although I felt sorry for their employees having to work, they seemed cheerful and good-natured about it and actually seemed to be having fun. The gift shop next door was also open, and decorated beautifully for Christmas, with all kinds of gifts and food items available. It was altogether a fun time with family on Thanksgiving Day.
Oddly, there was less live music on Thanksgiving Eve in Atlanta than I would have expected. I thought about heading to Apache Cafe in Midtown, but ultimately ended up driving out to Cafe 290 in Sandy Springs, where there was a live band called Will Harlan and the Mo Funk Jazz Band. The style was more soul and funk than jazz, but it was a tight and talented band regardless, and I always like the vibe of the venue.
Now that my stepbrother and his family live in the Atlanta area, I not only get to see them more often, but I also get to Atlanta a lot more often, and one of the upsides of that is that I get to try some great new restaurants from time to time, like the oddly-named Seven Lamps in the trendy Lenox area of Buckhead. Seven Lamps is a hip restaurant and bar featuring “new cuisine” and innovative cocktails, but what lured me to the spot was something of a secret, although a not-so-very well-kept one, namely a delectable burger called the 50/50 Burger that isn’t even on the menu. The 50/50 burger is half beef brisket and half ground round, served on brioche with pancetta and grilled cheese, and usually comes with Thousand Island dressing and pickles, all made in-house. I’m not a fan of pickles nor salad dressing, so I dispensed with them, but the burger was amazing, probably among the 5 best I’ve had in my life, cooked over a wood fire and precisely to my “medium rare” order. It came with cottage fries, which were unique and extremely good, crusty on the outside and as soft as mashed potatoes inside, coated with a cayenne-based dry rub. Both came together at $10, making it the best bargain in what is not an inexpensive restaurant. While Seven Lamps has a selection of desserts, I was more impressed by their offering of espresso-based drinks and their use of Atlanta’s superb Dancing Goats Coffee from Batdorf and Bronson. I must conclude by pointing out that the service was extremely attentive and prompt, and that the atmosphere, while noisy, was warm and cheerful. All in all, I left full and contented.