For whatever reason, the music at this year’s River Arts Festival seemed oriented toward folk, rock and country, with far less jazz, blues, soul or gospel than previous years’ festivals. But one exception was Clarksdale-based bluesman Terry “Big T” Williams, who played all Saturday afternoon on the festival’s far northern end of Main Street, occasionally accompanied by Latin percussionist Rico Rumba as well. Big T’s repertoire stretches from traditional blues to soul tunes like Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog.” Occasionally, groups of festival goers would stop to listen before heading further down to the art exhibits.
On the first Sunday of each month, Brinson’s in downtown Memphis sponsors a free event called First Sunday, which seems to be something of a music showcase and a trade show all at once, with live performances and exhibits of locally-sourced products. This month, my homeboys in the 4 Soul Band were scheduled to perform, so I went to support them. 4 Soul is one of our city’s best neo-soul/funk/jazz bands, performing in a number of local venues, and behind several local rap artists.
As I posted last week, the Memphis metropolitan area has an amazing level of talent when it comes to drummers, and that was obvious again during the third round of the Memphis Drum-Off at Guitar Center on September 23rd. Two winners from each of the rounds advance to the store finals on the 30th, from which one will advance to Nashville for the state competition, from which one will advance to Atlanta to battle for the regional award, and one drummer from the South will go to Los Angeles for the national championship, which includes a drum set, endorsements and $25,000. And yes, a Memphis drummer has won nationally in the past.
Memphis musicians were shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of a young drummer, Mario “Yoggi” Stewart, but on September 10, a number of musicians and relatives came together to honor his memory in the most appropriate way possible, with music and song. The setting was the Blue Worm AKA The Blues Night Club, a neighborhood fixture on the backside of the Lamar/Airways Shopping Center in Orange Mound. The band was anchored by three drummers playing three sets on stage, with “Cowboy” Neal on guitar and my homeboy Danny Peterson on bass. I had intended to observe, enjoy and film, but I got called to the stage to play keyboards. Other guest musicians and singers included Tony Gentry, Deij’rah Terrell, Gerod Rayborn and Terry Wright. The night closed with a drummers’ shout shed in memory of Yoggi, and Cowboy thanking all of those who came out. It was a great night of Memphis music, with nothing but love and respect between the musicians.
After dinner, I drove over to the Seventh Ward, to a neighborhood sports bar called Bullet’s, where the all-girl Pinettes Brass Band has a weekly gig on Friday nights. The Pinettes won last year’s Red Bull Brass Band competition in New Orleans, and gets a lot of attention, as female brass band members are the exception rather than the rule. Bullet’s is the kind of neighborhood joint that you would miss if you weren’t looking for it, but I should have noticed the oil drum cooker out in front of it, which is a common site at New Orleans community bars. Inside was already packed, with an NFL preseason game on the big screen, but one by one the Pinette musicians arrived, and soon the club was rocking. The Pinettes are a decent brass band, with good arrangements, and a loyal following that soon filled the dance floor. While they played a lot of tunes unique to them, they also played some songs I recognized from the TBC, like “When Somebody Loves You Back” and Deniece Williams’ “Cause You Love Me Baby”, which I have never heard outside of New Orleans, but which is immensely popular there. After a brief intermission, the Pinettes played a rousing second set, and then everything wound to a close at midnight. By that point, cars filled the median on A. P. Tureaud.
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.
My bass-playing friend Monte Butts had asked me to come down to Tupelo and play a gig with him at the Linc Center, and when the gig was over at 9:30, I didn’t just feel like turning around and driving back to Memphis. So I used my Hangtime app on my phone, and saw where a band called the House of Funk was playing at Woody’s Steakhouse on Gloster Street. I had always thought of Woody’s as an upscale steakhouse, and not the sort of place to book a band with a name like House of Funk. But I dutifully headed over there anyway, and discovered that far in the back of Woody’s is a place called the Captain’s Den Lounge, with a stage area for bands, and there the House of Funk was, playing a delightful mix of soul and rhythm and blues, with a room full of their fans in the bar. They took an intermission, but only a brief one, and soon returned with a fiery latin instrumental, and then performed a couple of vocal originals that were actually really great songs. I was actually disappointed when their performance ended for the night.
4 Soul Band is Memphis’ premiere soul and contemporary jazz group, and on Monday night, July 28th, they held an open rehearsal at Aji’s Sports Bar and Grill on Lamar Avenue in Southeast Memphis so that they could shoot photographs and video footage for publicity purposes. The band played about an hour of tunes, featuring their vocalist Shenea, trombonist Suavo J and drummer Otis Logan. They will be playing at Aji’s again on Friday night, August 1.
My homeboy Jackie Clark is one of Memphis’ best bass players, and I had noticed him on Facebook talking about a new spot in downtown Memphis called The Suga Shack. After several weeks of hearing about it, last Saturday night I decided to head downtown to check it out. The Suga Shack is a rather clandestine speakeasy, located in the basement of the Bon Ton Cafe on Monroe Avenue in downtown Memphis, not far from the Rendezvous restaurant. There is no signage, and the entrance is down a flight of stairs on the outside to a door on the side of the building, although the spot is also accessible from the Bon Ton Cafe’s main dining room. There is a strict dress code, and I almost didn’t get admitted because of it, so men should avoid athletic gear and tennis shoes, as it is a really elegant environment. Even if I had been dressed fully appropriately, I still might not have gotten admitted, as the place was absolutely at capacity, and when I first arrived, nobody was being admitted at all. I’m told that reservations are accepted, and are definitely a good idea, because by 8 PM on a Saturday night, the place might be full. Eventually, enough people left that I was admitted, but the venue, though warm and inviting, was packed to the rafters with people. Every seat and booth was taken, as well as every bar stool, and people were standing against nearly every wall or pole. The band on stage was called the Suga Shack All-Stars, and they featured such well-known local Memphis musicians as drummer Marles Flowers, bassist Jackie Clark and saxophonist Jackie McCraven. Vocals were traded between a young man I didn’t know, and Memphis’ own hometown hero Lil Rounds, who had been featured on American Idol some years back. Rarely had I felt such excitement in a Memphis music venue, and the quality of the music was excellent, with the band doing favorite songs by Bobby Womack, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Luther Vandross and more. I have to say it was quite a rewarding experience, and a must-visit place for music-oriented tourists to Memphis.
Memphis has a number of neighborhood clubs, bars and hole-in-the-walls, but it’s not all that common for them to book live bands, so when I heard that Joshua McCain & The Soul Seven were playing at a place called The Spot on Jackson Avenue in the Mitchell Heights area, I was intrigued. I had driven past the little sports bar many times, but had never imagined there being live music there. And while I had heard the Soul Seven before, it had always been a stripped-down three piece version of the band, but on this particular Friday, the larger ensemble was crowded into a corner of the tiny club, playing an incredible jazz/soul instrumental, complete with saxophone. During the rest of the evening, the band featured a number of tunes with their male and female singer, including covers of Frankie Beverly’s “We Are One” and “Happy Feelings.” The venue was tiny, with walls painted with every kind of Dallas Cowboys decoration imaginable, since the owners seem to be Cowboys fans, and the small crowd of neighborhood regulars grew bigger as the evening progressed. It was actually a lot of fun.