Hardworking trombonist Suavo J looks increasingly like a man on a mission to single-handedly rescue Memphis music, and he is everywhere these days, whether it’s playing with Otis Logan’s awesome 4 Soul aggregation, or the Crescent City-tinged Memphis-New Orleans Street Symphony band, or the more rootsy The Bones. The latter group was playing on Friday February 28 at the Center for Southern Folklore down on the Main Street Mall in downtown Memphis. The weather was cold, and there was only a modest crowd, but the band rocked the house for those of us who were there.
Tav Falco and the Panther Burns were a vague name on posters and albums at Poplar Tunes in my youth, and I sadly didn’t discover what all the fuss was about until later, long after Tav had left Memphis behind for Paris and Vienna. But the band, whose name is taken from a plantation home and post office in the Mississippi Delta, has alternately thrilled or exasperated Memphians for years with their quirky blend of punk-inflected blues, agit-prop political songs and theatre, rockabilly romps with an occasional tango or Frank Sinatra cover. Falco continued to record in Europe, but Memphis didn’t get to see him again until 2012, when he performed at the old Hi-Tone on Poplar as part of the release of his book Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor , Enigma and Death in Memphis (which is an epic, and a must-read for any fan of Memphis music). That night was marred by Tav’s hoarseness, the result of a grueling tour schedule, but Saturday night’s performance at the Memphis Music & Heritage Festival was a stunning success, with Tav in great form and an audience of true fans and admirers in front of the stage. Tav Falco’s music is slowly being reissued by Big Legal Mess Records, a subsidiary of the Oxford-based Fat Possum label. All of his albums are worth purchasing.
The Jack Rowell Jr. Blues Band is one of Memphis’ best-known blues bands, with a long-standing Thursday night gig at T. J. Mulligan’s in Hickory Hill. At this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, I noticed that the band featured my homeboy Cedric Keel on drums, and his solo toward the end of the set enthused the crowd.
The Anointed Cowan Singers are another Memphis gospel group whose performances and repertoire highlight the extremely close relationship between Memphis gospel and Memphis soul. In fact, the very first song I ever heard them perform, at a previous Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, was a song that resembled the classic sound of Stax in every way. They usually appear at the festival each year, and are not to be missed.
The Millennium Madness Drill Team and Drum Squad is a Memphis-based youth organization that provides opportunities for young people to be involved in drill team dancing and drumming, and is one of only a few such organizations that still involve young men as drummers, sadly. Although Memphis has a number of majorette teams and drill teams, the overwhelming majority of them don’t have drummers and do their routines to prerecorded compact discs. Millennium Madness travels the country, entering and winning a number of competitions against drill teams from many different cities. Their performance at this year’s Memphis Music and Heritage Festival held the audience spellbound.
The city of Memphis has a formidable blues tradition, so young men who choose to play the blues are up against some legendary competition and a legacy that is at once inspiring and frightening. But Memphis bluesman Preston Shannon has proven himself equal to the task, a worthy successor to past Memphis greats. With four albums under his belt, and plenty of original songs, Preston Shannon is probably the best-known and best beloved Memphis blues singer today, and has appeared all over the country, as well as in movies and television. His performance at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival was highly appropriate, and well-received.
Also on the Arts Memphis stage of the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival was a local indie rock band called Bean, which I seem to recall hearing at a previous Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Their music seems upbeat and tuneful, and they have a 7-song self-titled EP which can be purchased for download here.
One of the best aspects of the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival is the close proximity of different styles of Memphis music on different stages, which allows audiences to immediately discover the points of relationship and influence between gospel, blues, jazz and soul. Every year, there are some impressive gospel music groups, and this year was no exception. I was especially pleased by the male quartet known as The Appointed, a traditional Memphis-style gospel group backed by a first-rate band, whose music shows the close relationship between gospel and classic soul.
Like many of the other acts at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, I had not heard of Artistik Approach prior to last Saturday, but I was extremely impressed with their talent and artistic vision. Artistik Approach is basically a rap group, but one member accompanies the lyrics of the other with beat boxing rather than using prerecorded tracks, which makes the act both unique and self-contained. And despite the limited sonic palette, they can hold an audience spellbound.