Memphis Blues Again 

Cities war for music claims

Cities war for music claims

It’s pretty well understood that Nashville and Memphis are separated by more than a three-and-a-half hour drive. Our city is thought of as being genteel and polite, while Memphis has a reputation for being funky, greasy, down-to-earth. Whether or not such generalizations are true, the debate becomes especially heated when the subject turns to music. While Memphians might argue that theirs is the cooler city, Music City does have a leg to stand on. Sure Memphis had Elvis Presley, but we had Arthur Gunter, the bluesman who wrote “Baby, Let’s Play House,” which turned up on Elvis’ fourth Sun single.

But looking at Nashville today, it seems as though we’ve forgotten (or just started to remember) some of our city’s greatest musical legacies. Even though the club scene is thriving, there’s no doubt that we live in a company town. And, as such, our local music scene sometimes seems to lack focus, even personality. Memphis might have its share of sucky blues bands, but it has for years boasted a thriving scene full of iconoclastic music-makers like Jim Dickinson, Ross Johnson, and Alex Chilton.

And this is where I have to concede that maybe Memphis has something on us. As a case in point, check out the latest collection of singles from Memphis’ Loverly Music. Since 1993, label honcho Ed Porter has been documenting the music of his city on beautifully packaged 45s. The Singles (1995-1996) is the second CD compilation of Loverly’s vinyl releases, and its array of sounds is pretty impressive. Even more impressive, though, is the fact that all of the featured artists, in some small way, manage to convey something quintessentially Memphian in their music.

Yeah, there are plenty of cool, Stax-styled horns, and some jangly guitars that recall the innocent bliss of Big Star’s Radio City. But the CD offers just as many pleasantly jarring moments, little flashes that suggest soul and rock ’n’ roll are still viable art forms in Memphis: a pair of grimy Iggy Pop covers by local legend Lorette Velvette; Nick Name’s soaring remake of Lou Rawls’ “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing”; the slamming, punked-up blues of The Satyrs’ “Johnny Rebel.” Meanwhile, some of the loopier contributions—by The Young Seniors and New Car Smell—hint at Memphis’ rich tradition of musical eccentrics.

Not everything on the Loverly collection’s two discs is a winner. For all the hoopla I’ve heard about Professor Elixir’s Southern Troubadours, they sound like little more than garden-variety alt-country to me. And Robert Gordon might be a skilled music writer, but his beat-inspired spoken-word contributions are just a little too archly, self-consciously hip. But taken as a whole, the Loverly CD has something instructive to say to Nashville: A local scene isn’t just a bunch of bands playing in some smoky nightclubs—it’s a creative community where like minds come together to create original music that manages to look to the future while trading on the past.

In the end, much of the music on The Singles 1995-96 isn’t exactly earth-shaking, but it still stands as part of Memphis’ grand musical continuum, which stretches from the raw blues and country of Sun Records to the string-bending skronk of The Grifters. Ah, if only more of Nashville’s local bands built on our own city’s exalted traditions with such class—and if only someone here had the moxie to lay it all down on wax. Instead, we’re stuck with deal-makers and oily entertainment attorneys. No wonder Memphians look down on Nashville; they think we got no cred. Maybe it’s time we proved ’em wrong.

Elsewhere in Soulsville news: While we continue to mourn the passing of Lucy’s Record Shop, Memphis’ cool mom ’n’ pop record retailer/label Shangri-La Records celebrates its 10th anniversary on Mar. 21. Much like Lucy’s did in Nashville, Shangri-La has served as a galvanizing force in Memphis’ music scene, providing a place where local bands can sell their records and collectors can track down the latest indie releases. And, like Lucy’s, the store has played host to local and touring bands looking for a place to play—without a stage, even. What’s more, the store’s small record-label enterprise, which boasts over 30 releases, has provided yet another outlet for many of the town’s fine music-makers.

Saturday’s celebration kicks off with a noontime show at the store featuring bands who’ve recorded for the Shangri-La imprint: 611, The Simple Ones, Citizen’s Utilities, Grifters offshoot Hot Monkey, 80-year-old fife player Othar Turner, and a reunion show by legendary garage outfit the Memphis Goons. (Fans of the Shaggs and the Stooges, if you’ve never heard the Goons’ killer reissue CD on Shangri-La, go out and get it now!) The festivities continue that evening at Club Barristers, where the Memphis Goons play another set, along with The Grifters, and Wilroy Sanders & His Memphis Soul Blues Band.

While you’re in Memphis, or if you plan to head that way anytime soon, be sure to pick up a copy of Kreature Comforts Lowlife Guide to Memphis, published by the folks at Shangri-La. This handy little fanzine, now in its third edition, is the ultimate tour guide. Forget Graceland, Kreature Comforts directs you to all the important spots in town: Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle, the birthplace of Johnny & Dorsey Burnette, and Alex Chilton’s parents’ house, not to mention recording studios, thrift stores, clubs and juke joints, and of course the city’s best barbecue. What’s more, it’s all rendered in good-humored, user-friendly fashion. Say, somebody ought to do that for Nashville....

For more information about Shangri-La’s 10th-anniversary show or about Kreature Comforts, call (901) 274-1916, or make a beeline to the store, at 1916 Madison Ave. in Memphis.

—Jonathan Marx

Last year’s theremin concert at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Cinema drew about 200 people, and it was easy to see why. The electronic instruments are irresistibly exotic. Playing one looks like practicing karate, and playing with one produces a gratifyingly weird variety of skreeps and doinks. They’re basically black boxes with antennae, and to create that wonderful eerie whine you’ve heard in a zillion sci-fi flicks, you simply move your hand in varying proximity to the antennae.

With the revival of electronic exotica, the theremin constantly resurfaces in the margins of pop culture: on the Mars Attacks! soundtrack; in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s riotous live show; on recent recordings by R.L. Burnside, Pavement, and the Nashville band Lovebucket and Slaphappy Superfly. It has proved so popular at Vanderbilt—where a student, Jason Barile, created one of the first theremin pages on the Web—that Sarratt has scheduled its most ambitious theremin concert yet.

Composer Tim Grogan will conduct an original 30-minute theremin performance before a screening of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood next Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Grogan and Rod Lewis composed the piece for a 10-piece orchestra, including a string quintet, marimba, vibraphone, piano, and assorted percussion. The theremin soloist for the evening is Ross Marshall, an independent horror-movie producer from L.A., who may be accompanied by pertinent clips from his features Zombie Ninja Gangbangers and Unnaturally Born Killer.

Grogan, who performed last year before a screening of The Day the Earth Stood Still, says Sarratt representatives have been pleased by the response to the theremin shows. “They said please do more, and please make it longer,” he recalls. If the turnout this year is large enough, there’s talk of making the concerts an annual event. For more info, call Sarratt at 322-2425.

Say what you will about the sprawling South by Southwest festival this weekend in Austin, the annual music fest makes an impressive commitment every year to international acts who would scarcely play the U.S. otherwise. An extra benefit is that some of those acts slate a few gigs around the country to justify the trip. One such performer is Matt Walker, an Australian lap-steel player and rootsy singer/songwriter who recently opened for avant-goth crooner Nick Cave on his tour down under.

Walker’s CD W.Minc came out on Shock Records, the Australian indie whose roster includes the Dirty Three. It hasn’t been released yet stateside, but Walker has booked a brief U.S. tour to play Austin, and one of the stops on the tour is Nashville. Walker performs 9 p.m. Monday at the Bluebird Cafe with drummer Ashley Davis. If you want to see what kind of artist can list Nick Cave and the Ben Folds Five as fans, by all means check him out.

—Jim Ridley

Al DeLory’s newly expanded Salsa En Nashville ensemble makes its first appearance Friday at the Exit/In. The show will mark the Nashville debut of the band’s vocalist, Willie Crespo from Puerto Rico, along with a new nine-piece lineup that now features a full horn section. It will also be the first time Salsa En Nashville performs new songs and arrangements that DeLory picked up during a recent trip to Cuba.

A former Capitol Records staff producer who worked with the Beach Boys and won Grammies for his work with Glen Campbell, DeLory visited Cuba with bandmate Dann Sherrill as part of a cultural program put together by an arts group based in San Francisco. The travelers consisted mostly of musicians and dancers, and they met with artists based at a large, state-sponsored music center in Havana.

“It was an incredible trip,” says DeLory, who spent time boning up on new arrangements with a former musical director for trumpeter Arturo Sandoval’s band. “I came back with a lot of new material and some great ideas for arrangements.” In addition to new songs and new performers, the Friday show will feature D.J. Sabor Latino, who will play Latin dance songs before the performance and during intermissions.

Know those rock guitar lines actor Mike Myers imitates in the movie Wayne’s World? They were created by hard-rock vet Danny Johnson, a Nashville resident who has played guitar behind Rod Stewart, Alice Cooper, Rick Derringer, and, most recently, John Kay and Steppenwolf. The 42-year-old Johnson recently released his first solo project, Grih-Grih Thing, and it features just the kind of big-chord, formulaic hard rock that would inspire Wayne’s World denizens to pick up their air guitars. Johnson strains to add a touch of Louisiana swamp boogie to his basic Southern rock themes, but his sound is most likely to please those who miss Blackfoot and Grinderswitch.

Johnson performs Wednesday, March 25, at 12th & Porter with Redstone, a more jam-oriented Southern rock band led by Chad Johnson, Danny’s son. Both bands recently drew rave responses from motorcycle aficionados attending Bike Week festivities in Florida. Both acts also reportedly gained music-industry interest with a recent Hard Rock show in Los Angeles.

—Michael McCall

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