There’s not a great deal of reggae activity in Memphis (perhaps because our city has very few Caribbean residents), but we do have one really good reggae and dub band known as the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, so when I saw that they were playing on the outdoor stage at Handy Park downtown on August 15th, I called my homeboy Otis Logan and he and I went down to check them out. Early in their show, they provided the backing for former American Idol participant Lil Rounds and for the rapper C Beyohn, but it was on their own set of songs that I was most impressed. After an original opening, they launched into a reading of the Dramatics classic “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get’, followed by a ska classic instrumental known as “Rockfort Rock”, and finally with the timely political original “Tyrant”, which the lead singer skillfully connected to the recent police shooting of Michael Brown and the militarized police response to peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite that somewhat grim reminder, the vibe of the evening was good times and good fun.
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.