Music Notes

by Mark Jordan

Tunesmiths on Beale Street
Keith Sykes' Songwriters' Showcase returns to Beale Street this Thursday, though in a different venue than before. Black Diamond will replace Blues City Cafe as the home for the monthly show which features nationally renowned songwriters performing in an intimate, listening-room setting.
The series, sponsored by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, will kick off its new season with three fresh faces: Lari White, Chuck Cannon, and Teenie Hodges. White got her start in 1988 when she won a talent show on the Nashville Network. She has since recorded four solo albums and toured with Rodney Crowell .
White's husband Cannon has penned tunes for John Michael Montgomery and Toby Keith and is currently writing with pop singer Paul Carrack.
And though Hodges, who will add a much-needed touch of Memphis to the event, is best known as the guitarist for the Hi Rhythm section, he has also written a number of soul classics, including Al Green's hit "Take Me To The River."
Future Songwriters' Showcases will be held on the last Thursday of every month. Admission is $6 for members of NARAS and the Memphis Songwriters' Association and $8 for non-members.

Premier Players honored
The nominees for the 12th Annual Premier Player Awards have been announced. The Premier Player Awards are the local version of the NARAS-sponsored Grammys, with recognition being given to artists in different instrument categories as well as to the best vocalists, songwriter, engineer, producer, and band of the year.
This year will also see the debut of a new category, the Phillips Newcomer Award. According to Jon Hornyak, the executive director of the local NARAS chapter, the award, which goes to the best new act of 1996, is named for the entire Phillips family -- including Sun Studio owner Sam, producer Knox, and Select-O-Hits owner John -- in recognition of their contributions to the Memphis music community.
Also this year, the local NARAS chapter will bestow its highest honor, the Governor's Award, on Stax legends the Bar-Kays, who recently celebrated their 30th anniversary.
This year's Premier Player nominees are: Best Guitarist: Lily Afshar, Tommy Burroughs, Luther Dickinson, Calvin Newborn, Preston Shannon, and Michael Toles; Best Keyboardist: Jim Dickinson, Ross Rice, Rick Steff, Tony Thomas, Ernest Williamson, and Charlie Wood; Best Drummer: Robert Barnett, Cody Dickinson, Steve Potts, James Robertson, and David Skypeck; Best Bassist: Richard Cushing, Tim Goodwin, Joseph Patrick Moore, David Smith, Paul Taylor, and John Williams; Best Brass Player: Ben Cauley, Wayne Jackson, Reid McCoy, David Spencer, and Scott Thompson; Best Woodwind Instrument Player: Art Edmaiston, Herman Green, Lannie McMillan, James Mitchell, and Jim Spake; Best String Instrument Player: Roy Brewer, Richard Ford, Peter Hyrka, Peter Spurbeck, and Kevin Tallant; Best Female Vocalist: Joyce Cobb, Kelley Hurt, Susan Marshall Powell, Reba Russell, and Ruby Wilson; Best Male Vocalist: Parker Card, Jimmy Davis, James Govan, Al Green, Jimmy Jamison, Kevin Paige, Preston Shannon, and Steve Wiggins; Best Songwriter: Nancy Apple, John Kilzer, Todd Snider, Keith Sykes, and Mary Unobsky; Best Audio Engineer: William Brown, Eric Flettrich, John Hampton, Jeff Powell, and Mark Yoshida; Best Producer: Jim Dickinson, Jim Gaines, John Hampton, Willie Mitchell, Ross Rice, and Don Smith; Best Band: Big Ass Truck, DDT Big Band, FreeWorld, Mash-O-Matic, the Riverbluff Clan, and Straight Up Buzz; Best Newcomer: Stefanie Bolton, Kelley Hurt, the Pawtucketts, Saliva, and Garrison Starr.
The Premier Player Awards will be presented in a ceremony in The Peabody's Memphis Ballroom Wednesday, April 16th. Call NARAS (525-1340) for ticket information.

Deep-Fried Dixie

Col. Bruce Hampton's Grease Band set the stage for a career of musical daring and performance hijinks.

by Matt Hanks

ol. Bruce Hampton's raspy voice has been well-known around these parts for years. Many Memphians' first exposure to him came in the late '80s when he headed the schizophrenic, Atlanta-based jam band Aquarium Rescue Unit. More recently, he has been the savage genius behind the Fiji Mariners, who will play Newby's this Friday. He has even made a foray into movies, with a small role in Billy Bob Thornton's Oscar-nominated Sling Blade.

But Hampton's moderate celebrity hasn't come overnight; his musical career has actually spanned the better part of three decades. It's been a weird cult ride full of musical daring and stage hijinks, hallmarks that have been in place since the '70s.

Though no one remembers them today, the Hampton Grease Band was one of the great Southern rock bands of the early '70s, a long-lost group of acid casualties who never took drugs. Though their career spanned five years, this Atlanta-based quintet recorded only one album. Released in 1971 on Columbia Records, the HGB's Music To Eat is purported to be the second-worst-selling album in the label's history, barely edging out a yoga instructional record by Swami Satrinanda. But in the 26 years since, Music to Eat has become a blue lobster among record collectors, with pristine copies of the original vinyl LP fetching up to $150.

Just as puzzling as the fate of the original LP is the heap of critical praise bestowed last year upon the CD reissue of Music to Eat. Spin magazine certified the album a lost classic and called it "one of the left-field high points of the Nixon era."

At the heart of the HGB sound was a beautiful tension between inspired musicianship and utter cacophony. The former was delivered via the dual guitar attack of Glenn Phillips and Harold Kelling, and the pliable rhythm section of Mike Holbrook and Jerry Fields. The latter was the product of one skewed mind, a then-18-year-old weirdo reared on Son House and Ornette Coleman -- Bruce Hampton.

Then as now, Hampton had a rare talent for extracting inspiration from the most mundane circumstances. On "Halifax," Music To Eat's 19-minute lead-off track, he reads verbatim from a encylopedia entry on the Canadian coastal town of the same name. For the album closer, "Hendon," he rattles off the contents of a warning label on a can of spray paint. These two songs, along with the other five that compose Music to Eat, are all rendered in Hampton's maimed-dog-yelp of a voice.

"We were pretty improvisational," says Hampton. "To me personally, deconstruction was just as important as construction. [I would] tear it down and build it up."

Hampton would extend this credo even further onstage, and HGB performances are now the stuff of legend. Their earliest live shows were harmless enough but still unlike anything Atlanta had ever seen.

"It was just the five of us," Hampton recalls, "a bunch of young kids trying to find our way. We had no idea what we were doing."

Neither did the club-owners of the day, and their sentiments toward the band ranged from indifference to genuine, sometimes violent derision. Discouraged by the club circuit, the HGB began holding free shows in Piedmont Park, in downtown Atlanta. It was there that they found their audience and their element. Soon, HGB shows turned into major "happenings," loyally attended by Atlanta's burgeoning underground community and characterized by a bizarre, confrontational brand of performance art. At times Hampton would throw equipment into the audience as the band played; at others the HGB would invite friends onstage and instruct them to do anything they pleased, from picking up an instrument and playing along to watching TV or eating cereal. "We'd just do whatever came immediately. It was all instinct," he says. "We were hellbent on pleasing ourselves. We figured if you please yourself, you'll please others."

The HGB carried a heavy chip on its shoulder, they blurred the lines between performer and audience, and they had little if any respect for rock-and-roll as an institution. Had they come along five years later, the HGB might be remembered now as one of punk's founding-father acts. But in the context of the South during early '70s, they were rebels without a cause.

After one too many bouts with bad luck, the HGB unceremoniously disbanded in 1973. Since then a couple of alumni have moved onto greener pastures. Glenn Phillips has recorded several solo albums and done session work with Hootie and the Blowfish. As for Hampton, through his membership in groups like the Late Bronze Age, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and the Fiji Mariners, he's become something of a guru to the H.O.R.D.E. bands -- Phish, Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band, et al -- most of whom he's toured with at one time or another. He has relaxed his stance, refined his delivery, but there are still strains of the HGB within him.

"Basically, I've always tried to do the same thing," he says. "I try to take pure music -- bluegrass or jazz, blues or rock-and-roll -- and just extend it and meld it into one thing. I really haven't changed what I've done -- ever."

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