Not that many years ago, Broad Street (as we called it then) was largely vacant, except for a bar or two and the venerable Broadway Pizza Company. It had once been the downtown of a separate town called Binghampton, but in 1915, Binghampton voted to give up its separate identity and become part of the city of Memphis. Not long afterwards,a city ordinance changed Broad Street to Broad Avenue, because Memphis had determined that all east-west streets must be avenues and all north-south streets would be streets. (This ordinance also tripped up the legendary “Beale Street”, and getting Beale back to “street” status took almost 30 years). But the remarkable transformation of the Broad Avenue area to Memphis’ second arts district has only taken about two years, and periodically now the district celebrates its new boom with Friday night art walks, similar to the Trolley Nights in the other South Main Arts District. On Friday, November 7, a large crowd was in the Water Tower Pavilion, listening to a great band of students from the School of Rock performing on the stage, with food trucks and clothing vendors nearby. Up on Broad, crowds were making their way to the different galleries and shops, new restaurants like Bounty on Broad, and temporary exhibits highlighting local products like Relevant Coffee Roasters, and some of the best handmade caramel candies I have ever eaten. Broad Avenue is definitely worth a visit as the Christmas season approaches, for unique gifts that cannot be found elsewhere.
The final act to appear on the River Arts Fest’s Webster Avenue Stage was Memphis’ only local dub band, the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, or CCDE. Like 4 Soul, the CCDE has occasionally backed up local rappers, but for the most part, these musicians have chosen the harder path of upholding the banner for dub music and reggae music in a city where these style are not particularly popular. Nevertheless, they are always a crowd-pleaser, whether calling out oppressors on songs like “Tyrant” or spreading the feel-good vibes on their single “Heavy Meditation.” Perhaps the band’s most unique attribute is their ability to see the reggae potential in the most unlikely of songs, such as Norwegian band A-Ha’s “Take Me On.” The Chinese Connection Dub Embassy closed out Saturday’s River Arts Fest on a high note.
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Tyke T was already an up-and-coming Memphis rapper when the local radio station K-97 proclaimed him the “Next Big Thing” after he won a contest they sponsored. Since then, he has been to New York and several other places for concerts, and although he might not be nationally known yet, he is part of a growing movement of Memphis rappers who seem to be more positive, more upbeat and more lyrical. He is also part of a growing local trend to rap with live musicians instead of just recorded tracks or a DJ, and for his performance at the River Arts Festival, he chose one of Memphis’ best up-and-coming bands, 4 Soul to back him, along with live singers, and guest appearances from other Memphis rappers such as Li’l Cam and S.O.U.L. Altogether it was a rap performance that could appeal even to people who don’t usually like rap, and that was probably precisely the point. Tyke’s lyrics avoid the negative tendency of the local artists that lean more to the gangsta style, and the live band gives him an appeal to those whose musical preferences lean toward other genres.
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Memphis indie duo Deering and Down wear their Memphis influences on their sleeve. Yet the 13-year-old duo of Lahna Deering and the Rev. Neil Down started not in the Bluff City, but in the unlikely town of Skagway, Alaska, when Deering’s mother introduced her to Rev. Down, who was known in the community as a musician and band-leader. The quick friendship led to an album, a cross-country tour that included a stop in Memphis, and eventually an album recorded at Yellow Brick Studios in Memphis in 2007. Shortly, thereafter, Deering and Down relocated to Memphis, cutting yet another album, 2009’s Out There Somewhere at the legendary Royal Studios, working with Willie and Boo Mitchell, Teenie Hodges and other Memphis musical legends. Memphis music was always part of Down’s musical vision, and Deering and Down pull off the seemingly impossible, reconciling alternative/indie music with soul in a way that doesn’t seem forced or contrived. Given the rise of other soul-inflected indie bands over the last couple of years, it could be truthfully argued that Deering and Down were ahead of their time.
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Given the immense and growing popularity of craft beer and micro brewing, it comes as no surprise that there is also a craft soda movement, but the craft soda movement has been a little more subdued and not as well-known. So when Love Pop Soda Shop opened up a pop-up shop in the vacant lot next to Ernestine and Hazel’s during the River Arts Fest, I was amazed at the selection of craft sodas available, all made with natural ingredients and sweetened with nothing other than pure cane sugar. I was even more amazed when a friendly employee told me that the selection exhibited at the festival was nothing compared to the choices that the permanent store will have when it opens. The Love Pop Soda Shop opens November 22, 2014 at its new digs at 506 South Main, right in the thick of the South Main Arts District, and will definitely be worth a visit.
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Each October, the River Arts Festival takes over Memphis’ South Main Arts District, the trendy neighborhood south of Beale Street and north of the Central Station train depot. Of course there are plenty of art works and crafts, but there is also a lot more, including three stages of live music, some strolling musicians, and plenty of food and drink.
The neighborhood where the new Offbeat Arts gallery is located is called the Midtown Arts District, and is Jackson’s fastest-growing arts community. Unlike Fondren, where rents are soaring, Midtown still has affordable buildings, but it is rapidly becoming the hippest neighborhood of Mississippi’s capital. Although the emphasis is on the visual arts, there are a few places that involve music, including the Soul Wired Cafe, Offbeat and TurnUp Studios.
This year’s closure of Morning Bell Records was a terrible blow to Jackson, Mississippi’s music scene, so the news that a new record shop had opened in Jackson was welcome. But Offbeat Arts, the new venture from adventurous Jacktown DJ Young Venom is not exactly a record store in the ordinary sense, and what it is might at first seem confusing. It is (all at the same time) an art gallery, a record shop, a clothing store, a book store and a performance space. When I visited for the first time the weekend of the Core DJ’s Retreat, it was hosting a video shoot for local hip-hop artist Jaxx City. Its vinyl selection isn’t huge, but leans toward the funky, hip and less familiar side of the spectrum, and as might be expected, there’s a decent selection of local artists and releases (but not much in the way of CD’s, so be forewarned). There are also books about hip-hop and Black culture, comic books, local Jackson clothing gear, and beautiful local art. Occasionally, on weekends, Offbeat becomes a performance space for various DJ-based genres of music, which is appropriate, as the shop sits in the middle of Jackson’s burgeoning Midtown Arts District. When visiting, it’s probably a good idea to call ahead, as some days Offbeat is open by appointment only, and the opening hours seem to vary and be a little sporadic. That being said, Offbeat is as cool as store as I’ve seen anywhere in the South.
151 Wesley Av
Jackson, MS 39202
As I headed back toward the CBD, I drove through the Central City area, and with the weather blazing hot, when I saw a snow-cone sign on Washington Avenue, I took a detour onto the side street and found a snowball stand called The Red Rooster. While New Orleans people are familiar with snowballs, I need to point out that New Orleans-style snowballs are quite different from the snow cones that are sold elsewhere across the country. Not only are the flavors different, but so is the ice, which at the better snowball stands is shaved. This particular stand also serves food, and has a shrimp po-boy on the menu that I will have to try on a future visit. The street where the stand is located looked familiar to me, and might have been the location where I visited Eddie’s 3-Way Records back in the 1980’s. I recall that it was on a side street off of Washington Avenue, that it was a block from a housing project (likely the Magnolia Projects), and that there was a snowball stand nearby that served po-boys. Further down in Central City, I came to a number of inspirational murals, which are common in New Orleans. One listed the Zulu Nation Laws of Success, as well as a number of famous men and women and was attributed to the Central City Art Project. Another one stated “Be The Change You Seek.” One of the things I love about New Orleans is the prevalence of public art, official and unofficial, even in the roughest neighborhoods.
Vaughan’s is an out-of-the-way neighborhood bar in the Bywater neighborhood just across the Industrial Canal from the Lower 9th Ward, and the last time I was there, the great Kermit Ruffins himself was playing on a Thursday night to a standing room only crowd. Ruffins gave up that gig not long after, and Vaughan’s has tried a succession of different bands and groups since then on Thursdays, which is the only night that the bar features live music, but Ruffins’ shoes are hard to fill. However, Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, though hardly as well-known as Ruffins, is a brilliantly-gifted trumpet player with the mastery of his instrument and the self-assuredness to attempt to fill the slot, and does a good job at it, ably backed by his band, known as the Heart Attack. Hill’s repertoire is younger and less traditional than Kermit’s, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. After my arrival, his first set included a funked-out version of the brass band standard “Always There”, and a far more traditional reading of the classic “Backatown Blues”. Such versatility should stand Hill in good stead, and I suspect we’ll be hearing far more from him going forward. As for Vaughan’s, unsuspecting tourists should not be fooled by the signs out front. The bar does not offer po-boys, although they do have red beans and rice on Thursdays.