1. The North
A year ago, the North Mississippi Allstars were facing down the sophomore slump. Their rapturously received debut, Shake Hands With Shorty, had made them national names and a self-conscious music scenes great hope.
The bands nimble, exploratory take on the hill-country blues tradition brought a regional music home to jam-band kids across the land, but you can only cover R.L. Burnside and Fred McDowell for so long before people begin wondering what else youve got in your arsenal.
But the Allstars answered whatever doubts may have existed in the opening moments of their sophomore album, 51 Phantom, when singer-guitarist Luther Dickinson lets loose some trademark slide-guitar runs and then growls out lyrics that prove the band has mastered the verbal tradition of the blues as well as the musical one: Late in the evening, bout this time of night/51 Phantom gets to feelin right/Memphis to New Orleans, the 51 I ride/White lightning flashin cross the Mississippi sky. And then he punctuates the line with a little ghostly howl to seal the deal.
Though locals and this is a band that Memphis cares deeply about seem split on whether they prefer the slightly new-look Allstars to the world-boogie missionaries that everyone had grown so accustomed to, theres little doubt that 51 Phantom, with its crisper, more rock-oriented sound and reliance on original material, has confirmed the bands staying power, even if its unclear whether its expanded their audience. The record has met with a strong response from national media outlets and the video for Sugartown has been airing on MTV2 and HBOs Zone.
The bands past year began with a massive performance at the 2001 Beale Street Music Fest, and their incessant touring schedule hasnt let up much since. But, in addition to the bands busy touring in support of 51 Phantom, much of the past year has been spent adding some of that world-boogie spirit to other projects. First, Luther and Cody Dickinson lent their talents to Smiling Assassin, a solo album from Widespread Panic keyboardist John Hermann, and subsequently toured with Hermann. Then the whole band joined jazz keyboardist John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin, & Wood) and steel-guitar virtuoso Robert Randolph on the instrumental gospel project, The Word, bringing yet another regional and subcultural style to a mass audience that may have otherwise never discovered it. Most recently, both Luther and Cody can be found on Keep It Coming, a new album from 20 Miles, aka Jon Spencer Blues Explosion guitarist Judah Bauer.
Next local show: Friday, May 3rd, at the New Daisy Theatre.
What a surprise. Jim Dickinsons kid can play. Luther has had a big part in bringing the younger crowd back to the blues. A little bit Muddy and a little bit Garcia. Wow! Brent Harding
Although I prefer it when they channel old, salty bluesmen instead of Duane Allman, these guys are still the saltiest young dogs on the scene. Lisa Lumb
Well, it aint my thing, but theyre top-notch people. Theyre also helping out other hometown homies like Lucero. I hope they get rich.
2. Richard Johnston
For the crowds of tourists who stroll down Beale Street on Friday and Saturday nights and find themselves captivated by this guy in front of the New Daisy Theatre playing drums with his feet, guitar or diddly bow with his hands, and hollering out blues standards with his mighty lungs, Richard Johnston could be just another street musician which, on these nights, is what he so proudly is. But how many of them know theyre watching one of the true rising stars in Memphis music?
The past year has been one long coming-out party for Johnston, the former member of the Soul Blues Boys (the house band at the late Junior Kimbroughs Mississippi juke joint) and struggling Beale Street performer. A year ago, Johnston was fresh off winning the Blues Foundations International Blues Challenge becoming the first artist in the talent searchs 17 years to win the main competition as well as the Albert King Award for the most promising guitarist and was preparing to showcase his unique one-man-band approach to the blues world at the Handy Awards.
Johnstons breakout year climaxed in January with the incandescent release party for his lovely self-produced debut, Foot Hill Stomp, a show at which Johnston played ringleader for an all-night, revue-style celebration of the area blues scene that has nurtured him, bringing friends and influences such as Brad Webb and Blind Mississippi Morris, the Burnside Exploration, the Soul Blues Boys, and, most memorably, Othar Turner. Johnston has also drawn hill-country matriarch Jessie Mae Hemphill back into the public eye through her crucial contributions to Foot Hill Stomp and recent joint appearances.
The Handy exposure made Johnston a popular draw on the blues festival circuit hell be touring Norway and Finland in July and August, playing a couple of dates in Norway with fellow Memphian Robert Belfour but when hes not on the road, Memphians have the pleasure of seeing him and sometimes his new band, the Foot Hill Stompers, at his standing Wednesday night shows at the Flying Saucer downtown and his frequent weekend performances on Beale.
Next local performance: Sunday, May 5th, at 2:15 p.m. in the NBA Yahoo Blues Tent at the Beale Street Music Fest.
If there was ever an artist to say that he did it his way, R.J. is the man. Not only is he an uncompromised, raw talent, but his story is amazing. He has suffered for his craft and broken new ground along the way. In the past, he left everything to live in the presence of the living greats like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and to learn what it meant to live the blues, not just play them. He knew that he had to get inside the mind of the hill-country men to really understand what they were playing and how to make it work. And he did. The lesson here is almost biblical: Take up your Lowe Bow and follow me, you will be a fisher of men and song . Look out for the lightning.
What Johnstons doing is not original combining aspects of Junior Kimbrough, Joe Hill Louis, and Lonnie Pitchford, among others but few have ever done it as well as Johnston. Hes simply a badass guitarist (or diddly bow-ist), he sings with more passion than just about anyone else in town, and the Johnny Depp look-alike has got charisma to spare.
Since Beale Street reopened in the early 80s, no one [on the street] has commanded the attention that Johnston [has]. His unique hill-country style is popular with all ages. Johnstons approach to the record industry is trendsetting, with a Handy Award and Grammy awaiting. Dennis Brooks
Setting the blues establishment on fire. Not good at all but significant for this reason.
3.(tie) CORY BRANAN
Cory Branans The Hell You Say isnt just the best Memphis record of the past year. Its the best record about Memphis, although its hard to believe he wrote about a bar where Everyone except the band looks like a rock star/And everyone except for you can go to hell before he started playing the swank confines of the Gibson Lounge.
With all due apologies to Lucero and the Subteens, who have fruitfully mined similar territory, Pale Moon On Paper Town is the greatest song anyones gonna write about wasting another night in a Midtown bar (where You hear the girls/You know just where you are). On that song, Branan looks up from a table full of empties and muses that its never a good sign when the whole state line is outlined in chalk, while on One of Theirs, he similarly captures local bar culture in vivid strokes, catching a glimpse of local girls with imported beers sinking in their chairs. But the clincher is the epic Green Street Lullaby (Dark Sad Song), an utterly serious anti-love song to the city that comes with a deadly humorous edge. It begins with a sketch of a local singer playing a regular gig, one who Starts a song about the highway/But it aint going anywhere. Its a song about the struggle against entropy in a city of stifling comfort and the sense that, whatever music heritage the city has, you have to head elsewhere to get anything done. Its a song about trying to make it as a musician in a town where Mosquitoes hum like window units/But you gotta move if you want a breeze.
And its that song that seems key to Cory Branans year. Last spring, Branan was fresh off winning the Premier Newcomer Award at the local music industrys annual Premier Player Awards and on the verge of releasing his astonishing debut album. On the surface it doesnt seem like much has happened since. But Branan has been busy. After talk of some Nashville-based labels getting involved, The Hell You Say will finally be released nationally later this year by local label MADJACK. Branan recently spent a month in Los Angeles working with a new publicist in anticipation of the release, returned to Memphis last month to perform and present at the Premier Player Awards (and to record some new tracks for the album), and will soon be headed to New York for a club residency. So its taken a while, but it looks like The Hell You Say will finally get a shot at the larger audience it deserves. Chris Herrington
Next local show: A solo gig on
Thursday, May 2nd, at the Hi-Tone Café and on Sunday, May 5th, at 5 p.m.
on the Gossett Volkswagen Stage at the
Beale Street Music Fest.
Some might say Cory is so last year, but I say theres more to him, musically, than weve seen yet more than he even knows about. My recommendation? Take it on the road, way out there, and see what happens. Posey Hedges
Corys ability to weave a poignant story or simply laugh at himself lends his songwriting a refreshing quality. And with his recent sabbatical in L.A., one can only think that his repertoire will continue to grow. Deni Carr
[Branan is here for] the vitality of his songwriting expertise, which I feel is essential to the local music scene, because this ultimately serves to fuel the musical and lyrical educations of all the other artists around him and raises the bar for everything that comes after him.
With his debut album about to be released nationally, Cory Branan could just sit back and enjoy the accolades, but we all know that he aint that type of guy. Keep an eye and both ears on this one, and youll be able to say, I knew him when Andria Lisle
3.(tie) THE REIGNING SOUND
The Premier Player Awards are a source of constant frustration to those of us who actually listen to virtually every local release. The fact that the Reigning Sound was not nominated for best band is a shame, and the fact that Greg Cartwright has yet to receive a nod as best songwriter is a borderline crime. Not that he would even care. Perhaps Cartwrights work with the Compulsive Gamblers was too raw to meet certain standards, and there can be little doubt that while the Oblivians were big enough to merit a spread in Variety, lyrics like Im not a sicko, theres a plate in my head were punk enough to insulate them (and thereby him) from a typically Bealecentric clique of voters. But by the time Cartwright started recording with the Tip Tops in the mid-90s, his softer side had begun to show. The punk facade dropped away and what remained was nothing short of astounding. Here is an artist able to merge garage rock, pure country, gospel, folk, blues, and soul and imbue this hybrid with the finest qualities of mid-century pop. Here is also a songwriter confident enough to step out from the camouflage of noise rock to embrace complexity and polish without fear of being labeled a sellout.
Break Up, Break Down, Cartwrights first disc with the Reigning Sound, is a hot damn record filled with beautiful anthems to shattered nerves and castles made of lies, with Alex Green (early Big Ass Truck) contributing on the keys and bassist Jeremy Scott and drummer Greg Roberson laying down luscious R&B-inspired grooves. When Cartwright opens up his gut, converting lyrics like You never call, though the pain is often grievous/You just lay there paralyzed into the soaring melodic epiphany of Since when do you apologize?/It was there all along in your eyes, its easy to see why they call themselves the Reigning Sound. They sure as hell dont need anybodys seal of approval.
Word has it that the next disc Time Bomb High School on In The Red is even better and due out soon. Not soon enough.
Next local show:
Heading out for the West Coast
in May, with the Hives, but theyll be back at the Hi-Tone Café
on Saturday, June 8th, with
Mr. Airplane Man.
I like my roots rock to point to the Byrds, the Gun Club, 60s L.A. folk, and real country. The Reigning Sound do this like a walk to the drugstore. Andrew Earles
A highlight of my year was hearing the Reigning Sound cover the Guillotines I Dont Believe and Tommy Burk and the Counts Stormy Weather at Robert Gordons It Came From Memphis reissue party. Its great to have a good old-fashioned garage band in town and even better to hear them paying homage to the garage greats before them. Pam McGaha
Listening to Greg Cartwright and his R&B edge-cutters pumping out blistering original material and breathing new life into standards like Stormy Weather makes all too clear what Beale Street is so sorrowfully lacking. Dan Ball
Flamboyant lead singer Josey Scott and his band of hard-rock heroes had the kind of year a Memphis rock band hasnt seen in decades, if ever. The bands major-label debut, Every Six Seconds, had the requisite post-industrial darkness and hip-hop-bred interest in beats and rhymes to fit in with the current metal boom, but it also had the glammy, feel-good swagger of the 80s metal the band came up on. And with the full power of the corporate entertainment complex behind them, the band became massive, selling gold and landing a Grammy nomination for the lead single Your Disease.
Along the way, the sound of Saliva has become a ubiquitous fixture on television commercials and Hollywood soundtracks (Resident Evil, Not Another Teen Movie, The Fast and the Furious, WWF Forced Entry, and Spider-Man, for starters). And Saliva have toured nationally with some of hard rocks other buzz bands, including Nickelback and Sum 41. The band, winner of the Recording Academys Premier Player Award last month for the citys best band, has begun working on material for its follow-up album, tentatively titled Back Into Your System, and should begin recording in Vancouver later this year.
A year ago, Saliva played a coming-home party at the Beale Street Music Fest. This year, theyre back but on the festivals main stage, playing just before Kid Rock. Should be a party. Chris Herrington
Next local show:
Friday, May 3rd, at 9:10 p.m. on the AutoZone Stage at the
Beale Street Music Fest.
Not so good but significant nationally. Memphis is not Midtown. Eric Friedl
[They belong because] I feel it is absolutely essential for any music market (and especially for Memphis!) to export the best of what it has to offer to the worldwide public through incessant touring, national and international releases, Grammy nominations, and TV and radio exposure. Richard Cushing
They were nominated for a Grammy and still hang out in the Memphis music scene. Gotta love that. Deni Carr
6. ALVIN YOUNGBLOOD HART
Its a bit of a mystery how Alvin Youngblood Hart failed to crack the Top 10 of this poll last year, since he was riding the wave of his wonderful, Jim Dickinson-produced Start With the Soul album. But whatever the reason more frequent local gigs, the use of Memphis musicians (the Pawtuckets Mark Stuart and the Star-Crossed Truckers John Argroves) in his backup band, the city coming to its senses Hart seemed to be embraced by his adopted city more in the past year than he had before.
Part of a brave new school of blues performers (see also Corey Harris), Hart is just as likely to drop into his sets a torrid classic-rock cover (Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones being particular faves) or a bit of cosmic country (Doug Sahms Lawd, Im Just a Country Boy In This Great Big Freaky City always a highlight) as he is to rely on vintage country blues. And Hart demonstrated this streak of stylistic adventurousness at The Orpheum last month when, performing as part of the Premier Player Awards tribute to Sun Records, he delivered a souped-up version of the Johnny Cash classic Folsom Prison Blues.
Its been a while since Start With the Soul, but fans aching for some new music from Hart shouldnt have to wait long. Hart recently hooked up with Dickinson again to record Down In the Alley, a country blues record set to be released later this summer by the new Memphis International Records, a label co-founded by Memphis-based entertainment consultant David Less.
Next local show:
Nothing scheduled now, but keep eyes peeled.
From W.C. Handy to Al Green to Jeff Buckley, some of the more interesting chapters in Memphis music history have been written by artists who arent native to the Bluff City but who wound up following or finding their muse here anyway. In a town that has often encouraged and inspired its musicians to blend their influences and blur the lines between musical styles, is there a better musical alchemist in Memphis right now than Alvin Youngblood Hart?
Hart had a good thing going as a neo-traditional bluesman when he decided to record an album of Hendrix-drenched rock. Then, when he was asked to play a song by a Sun Records artist at this years Premier Player Awards, he didnt pick Howlin Wolf but Johnny Cash, turning in a James Gang version of Folsom Prison Blues. In a town that segregates itself often without thinking, its great to have someone around again who so willfully crosses borders. Mark Jordan
Just finished a CD on Hart with Jim Dickinson. Alvin played some old dobros and banjos he has around the house. Furry Lewis would have been as amazed at Alvins music as we were.
7. THE BLOODTHIRSTY LOVERS
Why would Dave Shouse, whose bands the Grifters and Those Bastard Souls earned a national reputation much larger than record sales begin to suggest, put together yet another group? After all, during the indie heyday, every other music zine in the country made it clear the Grifters are one of the best rock-and-roll bands on the planet. Shouses side-project-turned-main-trick, Those Bastard Souls, sporting as much glam and polish as the Grifters had grit and power, likewise burst on the scene to glowing reviews.
I follow a compulsive muse and she had new tricks up her sleeve, Shouse says, explaining that his new material didnt fit with the five tracks already in the can for Those Bastard Souls next outing. Also, core Bastard Souls players are scattered from New York to Australia, which makes jamming a logistical nightmare. Also, the loops and sequences crucial to the new sound would, according to Shouse, deny [fellow Grifters] Tripp [Lampkins] and Stan [Gallimore] the ability to work their own special brand of rhythm-section magic. So it was time to go back to the drawing board.
The Bloodthirsty Lovers sound pop-rocktronica, bordering on prog may be far removed from previous efforts, but Shouses plaintive lyrics continue to mine pop culture, finding gritty commentary in some unlikely places. When he sang with the Grifters about being kidnapped by spacemen, it was always closer in spirit to Hank Williams Youll Never Get Out Of This World Alive than The X-Files. Now when he sings about Plastic Man with the Lovers, images of a hero stretched to the limits prevail over Jack Coles zany comic book. Add to Shouses peculiar genius the classical sensibilities of the Satyrs melancholic Jason Paxton and the virtuosity of peripatetic rhythm ace Paul Taylor and you have the Bloodthirsty Lovers in all their glory.
Booking agent Robin Taylor, who handles such groups as Modest Mouse and Beachwood Sparks, scored the Lovers The Village Voice party gig at the most recent South By Southwest music festival in Austin, and they recently did four dates with Daytons finest drunks, Guided By Voices. The groups eponymous release can be found at your finer record stores.
Next local show:
A tempting Music Fest
alternative on Friday, May 3rd, at Young Avenue Deli,
Former Grifter/Bastard Soul Dave Shouse has been listening to a lot of Radiohead and U2 lately and using them to make his own great, distinct music. But when he teams with Shelby Bryant, Jason Paxton, and Paul Taylor in the all-star live version of this project, it is simply transcendent. Mark Jordan
Just signed with one of the best booking agents in the business. Will be very popular, very fast.
The latest project from David Shouse moves him deeper into his prog-/glam-rock musings while simultaneously maintaining his unique, contemporary, and decidedly un-Memphis concerns.
8.(tie) THREE 6 MAFIA
The past year has been up and down for this Memphis rap dynasty. First lady Gangsta Boo, soon after the release of what promised to be a very successful sophomore album, changed her name to Lady Boo and disowned the bands hardcore persona in favor of gospel-inspired music. Then the debut album from gangsta-moll-in-training La Chat failed to drum up much excitement. Finally, the groups biggest current star, solo rapper Project Pat (Patrick Houston, the brother of Three 6 leader Jordan Jazzy J Houston) was convicted in March of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
But, on the positive side of the ledger, the group continued to produce hits, most prominently with Project Pats Mista Dont Play and with the summertime single 2-Way Freak. The group also branched out into new territory with the straight-to-video feature film Choices, a gritty morality play cum gangster flick that went platinum.
The next year will be a crucial one for the citys most prominent music enterprise. With a new Three 6 Mafia album on the horizon and possibly a follow-up to Mista Dont Play (the release of Project Pats new album has been delayed several times), well soon find out how relevant the Three 6 crew are on an ever-changing hip-hop landscape. Chris Herrington
Next local show:
Sunday, May 5th, at 5:40 p.m. on the AutoZone Stage at the
Beale Street Music Fest.
With Project Pat in jail and Gangsta Boo doing the Lords work, one might think Memphis primary rap dynasty was on the skids. But La Chat easily filled Boos position, and, if the release of last years Choices is any indication, Three 6s work is more compelling and creative than ever. 2-Way Freak is a masterpiece.
Theyre still an incredible force to be reckoned with in Memphis, but you almost have to wonder if theyve got any new tricks up their sleeves, anything to help them stay relevant in a rap world where most hardcore gangsta rappers are watching their record sales dwindle away. A group at the crossroads. Steve Walker
8.(tie) THE SUBTEENS
The [Young Avenue] Deli doesnt seem to mind, says the Subteens charismatic yet vaguely Frankensteinesque frontman, Mark Akin, of his retina-damaging proclivity for stripping down to nothing but a stoopid smile. But I imagine if we quit selling beers for them, theyd mind a whole lot more.
Bassist Jay Hines has said of his bandmates famous exhibitionism: Were probably the only rhythm section that can play an entire three-song encore with our eyes closed.
But skin and sin aside, the Subteens continue to earn their ever-growing crowds with a stand-and-deliver ethos that translates into the sweatiest rock-and-roll show the Bluff City has to offer. The bands combination of shimmering pop and punk allows them to cover the Ramones and Billy Joel in the same set and with a straight face. In the boredom-drenched world of a Subteens original, girlfriends exist only to provide a reason for young men to go wrong, and its hard to tell whether the stumbling alcoholics they essay should be the object of pity or envy. Theirs is the same accidentally existential landscape that Big Star defined in their teenage anthem In the Street, a never-ending parking lot filled with equal parts possibility and disappointment. Every big score, like every big heartbreak, is a big excuse to rock, and with Bubba Bonds maniacally banging away at the drums, rock is the word.
Since recording their 9-song CD Burn Your Cardigan in 1999, the Subteens have gone from power trio to powerful quartet by adding Terrence Bishop on guitar. We actually thought a triangle player would be just the thing, says Hines of the change in lineup, but we couldnt find anyone.
Triangle or no, the beefed-up group is currently working on their next release, a full-length CD with the dubious working title Cory Branans Broken Heart. Since signing with local bookers Snax Memphis and a new management company out of Atlanta, the boys spend most weekends on the road, so catch them when you can.
Next local show:
Friday, May 17th, at the Young
Avenue Deli, with like-minded
Arkansans Go Fast.
Their eye-popping live shows and ear-catching songs have created a buzz for these guys for a long time. And their ballsy approach with covers (AC/DCs Whole Lotta Rosie and Billy Joels You May Be Right, for example) helps keep the Subteens worry-free when it comes to packing a club. But, with no follow-up to 1999s Burn Your Cardigan, fans have to wonder about their prolificacy. Nicole Ward
Hey, the Ramones are gone (R.I.P., Joey), and its a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Lisa Lumb
These guys embody all that is rock-and-roll, and while it might not always be pretty, its always gritty and its always real, live, sweaty, heady, raucous, raw, ruthless, raunchy, bare-assed mayhem. Enter at your own risk! Pam McGaha
10. THE LOST SOUNDS
This town is filled with reasons to kill/But everybody wants to play the blues, the Lost Sounds Alicja Trout croons near the outset of the bands most recent, and best, album, the epic Black-Wave, and nothing else so poetically captures the bands place in relation to Memphis musics polite society. More so than anyone else on this list, the Lost Sounds are on the outside looking in, but they probably wouldnt have it any other way.
Yet the pop climate could be turning in the bands direction. The relative commercial success of bands such as the Strokes, the White Stripes, and (more relevant to the Lost Sounds sonic concerns) Clinic and And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead hints at a growing dissent from the guitar-rock status quo. If theres a rock revolution, this is one band youd want leading the troops into battle. Led by the guitar/synthesizer/vocal mega-duo of Trout and Jay Reatard, the Lost Sounds may offer the loudest and most blisteringly confrontational live show in town, but theyre also a far more serious and accomplished lot than those taking a passing glance might think.
Black-Wave, easily one of the strongest local records of the past year, is a home-recorded tour de force that deepens considerably with repeated listens, with emotional and melodic undercurrents as forceful as its full-on noize-rock exterior.
The ultimate termite artists, this extremely prolific band just keeps digging deeper into their own music with a torrent of releases planned for a variety of indie labels, including the song Total Destruction on the new Fields and Streams compilation from Olympia punk label Kill Rock Stars, an outtakes-and-demos LP on the Italian label Hater Records, the live album Rats Brains and Microchips, Radio Waves and Bloody Lips on a new label out of New York, and, later this fall, the official follow-up to Black-Wave on Seattles Empty Records. Do your best to keep up, because this bunch wont be slowing down for you.
Next local show:
Friday, May 24th, at the Hi-Tone Café, with New Yorks Oneida.
The dynamic duo of Jay Reatard and Alicja Trout could kick the White Stripes asses any day. These Memphis no-wavers may look and sound dead-serious, but they have a darkly entertaining side as well. (Check out the cover of last years Black-Wave LP.) Not music for the masses, but they never fail to get a reaction from anyone within hearing range. Andria Lisle
From synth-driven, scuzz-punk singles to double-record gatefold self-indulgence in less than two years. Who knew that dystopian prog-rock was where Jay Reatard and Alicja Trout were headed all along? David L. Dunlap Jr.