COMMENTARY: LOOKING FOR MEMPHIS MOMENTS 

COMMENTARY: LOOKING FOR MEMPHIS MOMENTS

The other day my psychiatrist asked me why I live in Memphis. She said, “Is it the never-ending small-time, New Orleans-style political corruption, the exciting levels of crime, the generous lack of education, or the extremely pleasant summer humidity?” I told her that all of those great traits were reason enough alone to be in Memphis, but the real attractions here are the food and the Memphis Moments. The Memphis Moments are those things that can only happen in Memphis (usually music-related for me), and they happen all the time. They make Memphis worth living in. Much like playing the lottery, the more you play, the greater your chances of winning. So play often and win more, looking for those Memphis Moments.

In a bid to begin 2005 on a positive note, here are some of the best Memphis Moments I experienced in the last ten years or so. The great thing about a Memphis Moment is that you have to be present to appreciate them; you (usually) cannot enjoy one from watching the news, checking out a website, or staying at home. I am sure there were many I missed, but these were my classics:

Booker T. & the MGs B.B. King’s Fall, 1993
These shows were the first opportunity in many years that this brilliant quartet returned to Memphis. The MGs, who had been tightening up by backing Neil Young on the road that year, played four shows in two nights. The one I attended sounded incredible and explained the magic of Stax music, a sound that usually does not emanate from soul “reunion” shows. This group superceded the negative idea of reunion bands and played better than I could have ever imagined, unless, of course, Al Jackson were still around to lay the backbeat down. This great show portended a level of music of which B.B. King’s has yet to follow-through.

The North Mississippi All-Stars with Kelly Hurt at Dixie Fried, June 22, 1996
Barristers (formerly Antenna Club)

DDT had been a band that overplayed their music. While the young Luther Dickinson had the guitar chops, he did not know when to play and when not to play. The first time the North Mississippi All-Stars emerged in Memphis on this gig, everything about that situation had changed. Dickinson had reeled himself in guitar-wise. The band came out with all of the confidence of experienced road vets with a slow, dirge-like gospel/blues/rock that explained to me what exactly Southern blues-rock could be at its highest moments. The young and angelic-looking Kelly Hurt sang some of the most soulful background vocals I have ever heard, raising the hair on the back of my neck. In my mind the group peaked on this first gig, something I have never seen any other band do first time out.

Stax Museum Groundbreaking/Groundshaking April 20, 2001
On a sunny, cool April morning, about one thousand members of the Memphis community came together at the corner of College & McLemore to celebrate the ascendancy of the Stax Museum with fireworks, speeches, and music. While the music that day was not anything particularly eye-popping, the notion that something positive was finally being done about Stax Records made even the most cynical Memphian feel good about the whole world that day. Black, white, rich, poor--they were all there on a corner of one of Memphis’ worst crack neighborhoods in the ‘80s taking part in something very positive for the future of Memphis music: acknowledging Memphis music’s glorious past.

Reigning Sound, P& H Café (winter, 2001?)
In which the Oblivians’ Greg Cartwright reinvented himself from sophomoric, plate-in-my-head lyrics to the second coming of Gram Parsons. I do not recall which amazed me more: that Cartwright could be such an incredibly diverse musician, that Greg Roberson was a competent drummer, or that Memphis could have a band with such an incredibly soulful country-rock feel. With the Alex Greene’s organ sound as the solid cornerstone, this group was a band where the sum of the parts was far greater than the individual members. Heart-wrenchingly great music that kept getting better each gig for the next couple of years.

The Sensational Six of Memphis, Center for Southern Folklore Festival, Labor Day, 2004
From the 1940’s up until the death of O’landa Draper, Memphis gospel was arguably the best anywhere. But the old-school ‘50s quartet style that I love took place in a different time and place, one which I was not privy to and therefore have never enjoyed live. This group changed all of that. Like a supernatural entity of gospel flying to earth from 30 or 40 years ago, these musicians take their songs round & round until the Holy Spirit has come, danced, flirted, had a beer or four, passed out, woken up, and gotten back in the spaceship. They are a Memphis Moment time machine.

Willie Mitchell Blvd. Street Dedication, September 20, 2004
Well, this was certainly another feel-good Soulsville, USA, blowout! A street party with every Hi Records star (& many Stax ones) that you would want to see in person. Al Green, Ann Peebles, J.Blackfoot, the Hodges Bros., William Brown, and, of course, the star Willie Mitchell himself. The power blew out in the middle of Al Green’s sangin’ “Love & Happiness,” and he kept on going like only he knows how, singing a capella along with the crowd (I’m beginning to think that Soulsville throws the best street parties in town). Pops Mitchell could not have had a better tribute unless the long-winded, opportunistic, and hot-aired politicians had not shown up.

Big Star on the Tonight Show, October 31, 1994
We live in an ephemeral state of pop culture. Will anyone play a Clay Aiken song in a year? Will Jessica Simpson be remembered for her songs or her buffoonery or not remembered at all? Great music lasts and bad music fades to black quickly.

Twenty-five years of hipster friends trading tapes and the patience of Chilton, Frye, and all those who worked on the great Big Star records in the ‘70s (as well as the legion of cult-like fans including those at University of Missouri who got the band back together again in ‘93) paid off with this Thank You, Friends from the Jay Leno Tonight Show. Over 22 years after the 1st record was released, Big Star finally achieved national prominence with this belated appearance. All Big Star fans could enjoy this Memphis Moment, even those coach potatoes watching from home.

The Grifters in Bavaria, Germany on Dave Shouse’s b’day, October 23, 1996
Indulge me for a moment, if you will, on a Memphis Moment that occurred far away in a small town in Germany in the fall of 1996. The Grifters were playing to a fanatical crowd of about 350 (mostly) non-English-speaking Germans in a town I would have never heard of had the band not been touring Europe. It happened to be Dave Shouse’s birthday, and there happened to have been much tequila enjoyed all around. At the end of the set, the Grifter’s German concert promoter brought out a birthday cake they had made for Shouse. Shouse showed his appreciation for the cake by smashing his head right in the middle of it and showering the crowd with it, creating a mini cake food-fight. The Germans loved this act of drunkenness, total disrespect, and out-and-out rock ‘n roll. I’m certain that every one of the Germans went home talking about the “crazy Memphians” who had invaded their small brewery town. Truly a long distance Memphis Moment for all.

I am looking for many new Memphis Moments in 2005.

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