The Levitt Shell Concert Series 2014 Guide (Part 1) 

The Levitt Shell kicks off a great season of free music.

Levitt Shell is back. Our Shell and our civic commitment to it form a linchpin in the new Memphis 'tude. Once the Griz pack it in, we take off half our clothes and lay in the grass listening to great, free music. The world could learn a lot from us. The series starts this Friday, May 23rd.

On May 23rd, Big Star (Jody Stephens, Chris Stamey, et al) will perform their album Third to open the season. Third is sort of a Big Star album. It certainly is a tipping point away from the Fry/Bell/Nicholson era of Memphis' most blogged-about band toward the Chilton as Col. Kurtz-like cult leader phase. There are fewer chime-pop masterpieces, but things have not yet evolved/devolved into the bend-rounding of Like Flies on Sherbert. Carl Marsh's arrangements for strings and synth will be a thrill to hear at the Shell.

The first weekend ends with the Hillbenders, a high-lonesome string band from Springfield, Missouri, who play Saturday the 24th. They take a more fun approach to music that runs the risk of getting its overalls in a bunch. These aren't pinch-lipped East Tennessee types; this is the fun kind of mountain music. Memphian Gedeon Luke and The People perform Sunday. Luke runs a big-bus funk band in the mode of Sly and the Family Stone or '70s James Brown.

click to enlarge Ester Rada - ADI HARARI
  • Adi Harari
  • Ester Rada

Green River Ordinance brings a Jackson Brown type of soft-rock vibe on Thursday, May 29th. New Country Rehab plays Friday, May 30th. They are a refreshing rehabilitation of Nashville's evil mixes and insistence on lowest-common-carburetor lyrics. Ester Rada plays Saturday night and amounts to a major gear change. The Israeli-Ethiopian songstress played Glastonbury last year. One day, you might brag about seeing her at the Shell. SHEL, a Gaelic girl group winds things down on Sunday, June 1st.

Katie Herzig performs on Thursday, June 5th. Her acoustic, pop-oriented songs are well-served by a good voice. Again, the Levitt Shell favors acoustic music. This sort of act always sounds good at the Shell. Kopecky Family Band plays Friday, June 6th. Their contemporary pop sound has all the music-school DNA and post-production string section stuff that the kids in the ironic-clothes generation like. Saturday is a bye, but don't miss Sunday. Amy LaVere is at her best with the release of her latest album, Runaway's Diary. To channel Chris Herrington: She's the home team, and she's on a winning streak.

Davina and the Vagabonds bring their high-energy, early 20th-century retro mix on Thursday, June 12th. It'll take the wisdom of old King Solomon to decide between this and the Square. The Dynamites, featuring Nashville-born soul singer Charles Walker, are the Bo-Keys from a parallel universe. They're not as greasy as the home team, but it will be a fun Friday the 13th. On Saturday, June 14th, the Mike Curb Institute strikes again, sponsoring Rosanne Cash. Get there early for this one.

You can't run from School of Rock. The ubiquitous kid army that puts the "Aw" in "Aw Hell Yeah!" takes the stage on Thursday, June 19th. Playing for Change (June 20th) is a touring music project sponsored by Levitt Pavillions, a network of six outdoor spaces that present live music. Cedric Burnside Project cranks up the Hill Country machine on Saturday the 21st. Sunday, June 22nd, you'll hear the California Honeydrops, led by Lech Wierzynski, a Polish graduate of Oberlin who has an acrobatic voice and infectious enthusiasm for American music.

Okie folkie John Fullbright will light up the stage on Thursday, June 26th. Cloud Cult plays the following night. The experimental (trippy) band hails from Duluth, Minnesota. I hope the poor things don't melt, because their music is a harmonically interesting blend of violin and cello and all sorts of other stuff. Saturday, June 28th, is a funky acoustic bonanza with the Stooges Brass Band. They are festival stalwarts who cook hip-hop and R&B into their New Orleans mix. Brass bands are the most welcome trend I can recall. The Stooges have played Pakistan. The last concert for June (on the 29th) is a humdinger and is fast becoming a Shell tradition: Stax Music Academy's Summer Grand Finale Concert.

Dagnabbit, we're out of space. The series runs through July 20th. Read about all the concerts at levittshell.org. Stay tuned and we'll do another round-up of the bands for July. Go shine your flip-flops, Memphis. It's Shell time.

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