Thursday, September 14, 2017

Honoring the legendary Beatles/Arkansas connection

Posted By on Thu, Sep 14, 2017 at 3:12 PM

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In September of 1964, the Beatles were busy conquering America. We were busy welcoming our new overlords. It was a manic, unforgiving time for the Fabs, who were encountering an unheard-of level of teen mania and police protection. Having just played Dallas less than a year after Kennedy's assassination, on the 18th, they were a bit overwhelmed. That's when the owner of their charter plane, Reed Pigman, Sr., suggested that they take some time off, far from the madding crowd, before resuming their tour in New York on the 20th.  And thus did Arkansas earn its place on the map of Beatles' legend.

In a little-known chapter of the Beatles' touring history, they made a two day detour to Pigman's dude ranch in Walnut Ridge, relaxing by the pool and presumably working on their Arkansasian accents. Two teenage boys discovered the ranch's location, jumped the fence, and ended up sitting with their idols for a spell. While it may have merely been a bit of downtime to the Fabs, they made an indelible impression on the little burg that hosted them. And it's commemorated to this day, with the annual “Beatles at the Ridge” celebration.

Walnut Ridge now plays host to much the same scene as the “Fest for Beatles Fans,” with merchandise vendors, bands, impersonators, and panel discussions by Beatle-ologists. Say what you will about the original visit's importance to Beatles history, this is a decidedly oddball event, sure to draw a diverse mix of folks to this small Arkansas town, only ninety minutes from Memphis.

The full schedule is listed here; highlights include a panel discussion with Bettie and Eva, stewardesses on the charter plane for the entire tour, who probably saw a thing or two, and a presentation by Bruce Spizer, author of the new book The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper: A Fans' Perspective.
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With the movement to save the Mid-South Coliseum hitting its stride, the history of the Beatles in the region is bubbling up in all sorts of ways. Exhibit A: the brand new decals designed by Mike McCarthy, including one honoring the Mop Tops' appearance here in 1966. That brings to mind images of numskull Klansmen, record burning, and assassination threats. (Imagine hosting a Beatles gathering there, where they actually played).  But to go back even further in time, when the 1960s seemed more an extension of the 1950s, consider a little road trip this weekend up to Walnut Ridge.

The 5th annual Beatles At The Ridge celebration, Friday, September 15 and Saturday, September 16, Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, free admission to all events. Most events are held in or near The Studio, 123 Main Street, downtown Walnut Ridge.

The Memphis Country Blues Festival rises again

Posted By on Thu, Sep 14, 2017 at 1:17 PM

Reverend John Wilkins
  • Reverend John Wilkins
These days, it seems that music festivals are blossoming like algae around the Greater Memphis Area. But it 's worth remembering a time when such celebrations were few and far between, and made a much greater political statement. The original Memphis Country Blues Festival of 1966 was the local counter-culture's shot across the bow at the prevailing status quo. Held at the Overton Park Shell only a week after the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in the park, it promoted a vision of radical possibilities.

For all the details, (re)read your copy of Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis, which vividly evokes a rag-tag cohort of artists, musicians, and other blues fans whose utopian vision was rooted in a careful salvaging of the past – in this case, the genius of blues players like Furry Lewis or Bukka White, who had fallen into obscurity. These were heroes to many in the nascent hippie culture. They ended up throwing a party on a grand scale that included both living legends and cutting edge rock and funk.

Today, we again face the question of who to memorialize from the past and who to scorn. It's a perfect time to revive that spirit of communal action, and it's about to happen in two days' time when the Levitt Shell hosts rebirth of the Memphis Country Blues Festival.

One of the key organizers of the original festival, and a performer there with Insect Trust, was musician and author Robert Palmer. His daughter Augusta Palmer, a documentary film maker, is currently working on a documentary about the original festivals that ran from 1966-69.

The Blues Society - Kickstarter Trailer from Cultural Animal on Vimeo.


“Last year there was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the first blues festival,” she recalls. “And Robert Gordon and I curated a panel of people who came and talked. So Marcia Hare/Misty Blue Lavender, and James Alexander, and Jimmy Crosthwait, and Chris Wimmer, who were all part of the original events, came up. We showed a little bit of the New York Channel 13 footage that was shot of the 1969 concert. And then had all the people to talk on stage and answer questions. Yeah, it was a great conversation. Ric was there and that's where we met, actually.”

Reviving the festival was the brainchild of promoters Ric and Stephen Whitney, cousins from Memphis who learned of the original festivals just as they were looking for fresh ideas for community events. Says Ric, “The fact that there was something that happened so long ago, and it was very innovative in terms of bringing together constituencies who didn't necessarily spend a lot of time together, but the common denominator was music. And that was one of the things that we often talked about in terms of things we wanted to do in the city ourselves: to produce music-based shows that brought people together.”
Original poster for the Memphis Country Blues Festival - AUGUSTA PALMER
  • Augusta Palmer
  • Original poster for the Memphis Country Blues Festival

Soon after that, Ric Whitney met with Liz Levitt Hirsch, president of the Levitt Foundation in Los Angeles. “There was a salon she had at her home, actually, and we had a chance to chat about the idea in general. And then we ended up being introduced to the Levitt Shell folks in Memphis. And it sort of blossomed from there. Our biggest goal was to produce a free concert. And it worked well because the Shell produces their concert series each year, and the majority are free shows. We didn't see this as something that we were looking at making tons of money on. We really saw it as an opportunity, really, kinda looking at what's happening in the US today – there's a lot of strife, a lot of miscommunication. So we wanted to come up with an opportunity for people to use music, and particularly the blues genre, as an way to bring people together.”

Palmer, naturally, will be there to document the proceedings, and may screen a trailer for her newest work. It's a powerful moment for both her and the city, “that these two African American Memphis natives are taking on the mantle of the Blues Festival. I think my dad would have been really happy.”

It's especially fitting that the headliner for the show was a performer at the original event: Rev. John Wilkins. Kevin Cubbins, who plays in the band, reflects, “What a lot of people don't know is that this is a return trip for Rev. Wilkins. It's not his first time at the Shell. And that's not even counting the time he played with his father, delta blues and gospel icon Rev. Robert Wilkins, at one of the first Memphis Country Blues Fests in 1968. See, up until 2006, the year he retired from the City of Memphis Park Services, Rev. Wilkins was the groundskeeper and maintenance supervisor at the Shell. He was responsible for everything from keeping the grass cut to keeping the place secured and cleaned up.”

Once again, honoring the past is lighting the way forward. “It's kind of epic,” adds Cubbins. “He was there in the golden days of the late 60's, he was they guy holding the place together during its years of neglect, and now he's taking the stage in it's rebirth. Kinda cool.”


The Memphis Country Blues Festival, Levitt Shell, Saturday, September 16, 7:00 - 10:00 pm, free admission. Lineup: Reverend John Wilkins (son of Robert Wilkins); Blue Mother Tupelo (southern soul and blues, Husband & Wife duo); Cam Kimbrough (grandson of Blues legend, Junior Kimbrough).


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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Listen Up: Jeremiah Matthews

Posted By on Tue, Sep 12, 2017 at 12:52 PM

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Santa didn’t realize how boss he was when he brought Jeremiah Matthews a drum set for Christmas 21 years ago.

“I thought drums were the coolest things when I was a kid,” said Matthews, 27. “I still do to this day. I just think they dictate the whole song. They’re the ones just kind of guiding everything. If music’s a train, then the drums are the wheels. They’re the ones that are actually getting you from point A to B.”

Matthews, a graphic designer at the Memphis Flyer, also is an experimental singer/songwriter. He describes his performances as “a live show that’s just me and a guitar. I have a drum machine attached to my guitar that I run through loopers. So, it’s a lot of looping, a lot of ambient, weird stuff. I have several different loop pedals running at the same time. A lot of feedback. A lot of ambient reverb noise.”

Drums, which eventually led to keyboards, were “more like a foundation of music theory,” Matthews said.
“When I started with drums, it was like, ‘This is how rhythm works. Breaking down into fours or threes. This is how time signatures work.’ And that kind of thing. And then when I got to keyboards, it was like, ‘This is how a music scale works.’’’

His mother died when he was 10, said Matthews, who was born near Houston, Texas. “I was a really angry kid for a while. Everyone kind of had that impression of me.”

His dad, guitarist Freddie Matthews, who was in bands, kept music going around the house for Matthews and two of his brothers living at home. He played records by the Beatles, Bob Seger, and others.

“I was that really lame kid that always had his big old book of CDs on the school bus. That kind of thing. Eventually, I got an iPad and I was like, ‘This is amazing.’”


Matthews picked up the bass when he was 14. “I didn’t have a lot of really close friends or active friends so I would just stay home and practice all the time. Eventually, I just started playing bass with my dad. When I was like 15 or 16 my dad made me learn the bass line to ‘Something’ by the Beatles, which is still the hardest bass line.”

Matthews joined his dad on stage at times and played bass on “Johnny B. Goode.”

He joined his first band as lead guitarist after his family moved to San Angelo, Texas. “I had moved from bass to guitar because it’s a pretty natural slide.”

Asked the name of the band, Matthews said, “It might been like ‘Running on Empty’ or something lame like that.”

He remembered playing with the band at a festival. “People were cheering and stuff and I was like, ‘This is not cheer-worthy. I’m terrible.’”

Matthews joined a contemporary alternative band when he moved to Cleveland, Mississippi. He also became a nicer guy. “When I moved to Mississippi, nobody knew who I was, so I got to kind of reinvent myself and make some friends. I think overnight I went from being this angsty little teenager to this actually OK-to-be-around dude.”

His father bought him some recording hardware. “I had already downloaded Audacity, which is like a free recording software, and was messing with that. I had this old four-track tape recorder that I would run though as an interface into my computer through the audio input. I would just record all these songs myself. I was really into Mars Volta at the time, so I would make all these crazy, trippy songs. I’ve gone back and listened to them and they are terrible. They are super-trebly.”

Matthews, who double majored in graphic design and audio technology at Delta State, was more fascinated with recording music than playing it. If he wrote a riff, he would say, “This is a cool riff. I‘m going to record it into my computer.”

He began putting his compositions on MySpace and ReverbNation using the moniker “Winston the Crime-Fighting Office Manager.’”

Matthews, who played “real simple instrumentals, but with weird guitar solos,” began writing songs when he took a business of songwriting class. “I always overproduced my stuff. I would have MIDI drums all over it. I would have keyboards, guitar, bass, multiple vocals with harmonies. LIke everything.”

Overproducing was because of “a lack of self confidence. I wasn’t confident enough in my writing ability or my singing ability or one specific area to just let it rest on that. I was like, ‘If this guitar solo isn’t that good,’ or, ‘I don’t know if these lyrics are any good, I need to make everything else good enough to distract from that.’”

He joined his friend’s band, The Belts, as bass player. “I got comfortable enough with them to where I was like, ‘I have all these songs I’ve written and I have recorded and I have up online to listen to. Do you guys want to help me make a live band out of it?’”

The result was “The Ellie Badge,” which was his pseudonym. He got the name from “that Disney Pixar movie, ‘Up.’ I was like 20 at the time and thought it was super cool and romantic.”

When the band broke up, Matthews began performing his original songs, which he described as “sad and emotional,” in coffee houses.

He graduated with a degree in studio art with an emphasis on graphic design. He then moved to Memphis, where he got his masters degree in graphic design at University of Memphis. “I spent three years at U of M and kind of worked on an album in the background. It was a lot more super overproduced. I was just like, ‘I don’t have a band right now. I’m going to make the craziest conceptual record I can.’”

The album, “The Ellie Badge vs. all Your Problems,” was based on a “really bad breakup” that had taken place before Matthews moved to Memphis. “There’s a song called ‘500 Days of Bummer’ that I thought was really good. I’m really proud of that song. That’s the one everybody kind of latched onto.”

The album, he said, is “very pop-punk energetic kind of stuff. There’s a lot of indie influence, a lot of mallcore mid 2000s influence. But then there’s a lot of 8-bit stuff on there, too. I did a lot of really bit-crushed drums and video game theme stuff. All the art is very nerd-culture based.”

“...Again,” his latest album, is a “time-based concept about repetition. I tried to make one song for each season.”

Describing his one-man-show, Matthews, who performs about once a week at various venues, said, “I have a drum machine attached to my guitar. I start a loop and make the drumbeat on my guitar. I have a lot of kill switches and stuff to turn the signals off and on and just start and change the signal afterward. My guitar goes through my pedal board, splits into three signals, goes through a bunch of delays and reverbs and then to my amp.

“There is also a second and third pickup on my guitar that only picks up the bottom E and A string and goes through a kill switch and then goes straight to a bass amp. Basically, I can lay down a guitar lead, lay down a drum thing on two different loops. And then I can kill the signal post loop to kind of change the way it sounds. And then run a distortion after on the drums. Stuff like that. When I need it, I can turn the bass on and just have this really deep big sound for choruses and things like that.”

As far as he knows, Matthews say, “I’m the only person that has the duophonic pickup around here. People have been using loops forever, but I think I’m the only person who thought of doing it this way. I like to think I have my own little niche, but I probably don’t.”

Matthews recently bought a Thinline telecaster body. “I’m building another guitar with the same set up.”

He usually plays “a weird hybrid” Squire guitar. “It’s Frankensteined with a new neck, new parts and everything, but the intonation is off because that specific guitar was made with a conversion neck. The intonation is messed up permanently. I’m building one that’s going to have better intonation.”

Matthews constantly searches for just the right sound. “I buy new pedals a lot. I’m probably going to buy a new amp eventually. I have way too much gear.”

Jeremiah Matthews will perform at 8 p.m. Sept. 12 at the HI-Tone. Also appearing are Alex Fraser, Kake and the 0.* and Sequoia. Tickets: $5.

'The Road to Judecca' from Michael Donahue on Vimeo.



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Friday, September 8, 2017

A new live release from Valerie June

Posted By on Fri, Sep 8, 2017 at 5:28 PM

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Though Valerie June has moved on from Memphis, the city was and will always be the place where she cut her teeth as a performer. And her fans here are legion, often left wondering when her next 'hometown' show will be. While June is in the area, playing St. Louis tomorrow night and Nashville on September 12th for Americana Fest, she won't be stopping in the Bluff City. The good news is that fans can enjoy a live performance anyway, released today via Spotify, Apple Music, and GooglePlay.

Most Los Angelenos have a soft spot in their hearts for the KCRW program, “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” Living up to its name, it's full of musical surprises. This past June, appropriately enough, the program hosted Memphis' own June as she ran through eight songs from her latest album, The Order of Time. Her appearance was recorded beautifully by KCRW, and as of today anyone can hear her crack band lay down choice selections from the album with fresh energy.

“To me it's kinda similar to a trance, a meditation of sorts,” June drawls to introduce the song “If And.” And it's in her drawl that so much of the charm lies. Somehow evoking a cross between a New Age Jessie Mae Hemphill and a long gone mountain woman from Appalachia, June's singing is perfectly suited to the simple drones of her compositions. Her voice wouldn't sound out of place on the classic Anthology of American Folk Music. (Perhaps that's why Bob Dylan name checked her as one of his favorite recent artists in an interview this year).

Her singing makes ventures out of the folk genre especially unique, such as the swaying soul of “Slip Slide on By”. Once you're in June's world of countrified caterwauling, the precision of the pitch is irrelevant. The heartfelt delivery carries it, and it's a welcome contrast to the acrobatic melisma that plagues so much contemporary soul.

Midway through the set, there's an interview with June that offers a glimpse into what makes her tick. All in all, it's a charming gift to the fans out there who may not see as much of her as they'd like. Here's a sample of it on YouTube:

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Bob Dowell slides into Mississippi

Posted By on Thu, Sep 7, 2017 at 1:14 PM

Bob Dowell
  • Bob Dowell
Jazz releases are few and far between from Memphis, let alone Mississippi, so Bob Dowell's Mississippi Slide!, arriving for general consumption on September 12th, immediately caught my eye. Even better, one listen made it clear that this was no jam band claiming to be fusion with a jumble of lightning runs over looping grooves. This is music steeped in the classic sounds of hard bop of the 1960s, combining the harmonic innovations of bebop with a groovier, earthier sound rooted in blues, soul, and R&B. It is a sound that has aged very well.

Trombonist Dowell is an interesting cat. Hailing from the United Kingdom, he plied his trade for years as a session man, arranger, and composer in and around London. Accruing a list of credits as long as your arm, including performances at the Royal Albert Hall and Jools Holland's Later, he worked the scene there, chiefly playing ska, reggae, salsa, and African music. But jazz was always his first love. And when he relocated to Greenville, Mississippi two years ago, that's what he wanted to focus on.

Dowell wasted no time in finding kindred spirits. For this record, he assembled the cream of the Memphis crop: Tony Thomas on Hammond B3, Art Edmaiston on tenor sax, Tim Goodwin on bass, and Tom Lonardo on drums. All of them sound right at home in the original compositions. Dowell's touchstones are Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, and trombone master J.J. Johnson, and the band does these forerunners justice. The playing is inventive, ensemble-based, and musical. Following the traditions of hard bop, the melodic head of each tune is clear as a bell, with solos grooving and breathing over Dowell's intriguing changes.

Dowell says he's right at home in Greenville, and these soulful, swinging compositions make that clear. The title track rides moodily over Thomas' deep organ chords, with especially fluid soloing from Dowell. "Crawdaddy Blues" could be the product of Jimmy Smith going fishing down south. But it may be the heartfelt ballad “Southern Skies” that expresses his new roots the most. With broad, open brush strokes, it paints a lazy expanse of Delta landscape.

If only there were more venues to hear this classic jazz in our city...but never fear, lovers of live jazz: Dowell will be leading a quintet in a week's time, at the E.E. Bass Auditorium in Greenville at 7:30 pm – well worth the trip.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Get ready for the 31st Annual Memphis Music & Heritage Festival

Posted By on Wed, Aug 30, 2017 at 5:14 PM

Sharde Thomas and The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band
  • Sharde Thomas and The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band
For Memphians, the days leading up to Labor Day are synonymous with good local music. For over three decades, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival has filled the holiday weekend with select local sounds, often reaching far back into the region's history. This coming Saturday and Sunday are no exception.

One strength of the festival is its eclectic sampling of local cultural traditions. Latino, Native American, gospel, jazz, bluegrass, electronica, hip hop, rockabilly, reggae, rock, and blues of all stripes will be available. This diversity has been cultivated since day one by Judy Peiser, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Southern Folklore, the non-profit that stages the festival. Peiser has just been honored for her dedication to promoting local music and culture with a brass note on Beale Street, to be dedicated on Sunday.

A recurring treasure of the lineup is Jimmy Crosthwait, erstwhile member of Mudboy and Neutrons and creative dynamo of Memphis for over forty years. This year, he'll be joining country blues master Zeke Johnson, who learned a thing or two from Furry Lewis himself. Guitar virtuoso Luther Dickinson will also bring some folk and blues flavors to the proceedings.

Many other fine performers will grace the five stages (click here for a complete schedule). But surely the highlight will be Sharde Thomas and The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band. Thomas carries on the tradition of her grandfather Otha Turner, playing fife and leading a drum corps that epitomizes country funk and soul. Though they are based in North Mississippi, the band's appearances in Memphis are all too rare. Not to be missed!

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

2017 Memphis Music Hall of Fame inductees announced

Posted By on Tue, Aug 22, 2017 at 4:44 PM

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At first blush, many of us pooh-pooh the notion of awards. Especially if you're an artist, staking your sense of self-worth on some official recognition can be a recipe for creative death. But there is a sense in which recognition of artists alive and dead can clarify our fragmented views of disparate artists, revealing a shared strain or backdrop to their works that can be lost as history rolls on.

Take the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Created five years ago by the Smithsonian-developed Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, it grounds our experience of its many and varied inductees, rooting them in this specific chunk of land. Even when the musicians were not Memphians – especially when they weren't, really – it can express the ways in which the artists and this city mutually shaped each other, revealing the many historical and biographical threads that led us to where we are.

Today, in a press conference at the historic Clayborn Temple, attended by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, this year's inductees to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame were announced, and through their names we see a kaleidoscopic view of the city's history, and perhaps its future.

The 2017 inductees include: Sun Records icon and member of the original Class of ’55, Roy Orbison; Booker T. Washington alum and co-founder of the supergroup Earth, Wind & Fire, Maurice White; prolific Stax and Hi Records horn section, The Memphis Horns; father of Memphis guitar blues, Frank Stokes; gospel singer and songwriter, Cassietta George; Sun Records performer and producer who later had a huge influence on Nashville’s country music scene, “Cowboy” Jack Clement, and artist manager who also helped start the Beale Street Music Festival 40 years ago, Irvin Salky.

Just going over the list reveals another positive aspect of such awards, when done right: the fact that Salky, a largely unsung hero of music promotion, can stand side by side with Orbison, still an internationally recognized celebrity and artist, speaks volumes for the power of well-curated honors to celebrate the many factors that make the arts possible. The same goes for Stokes, George, and Clement, who have all been under-recognized by the mass press, relative to their huge contributions to American music. So here's to mixing it up with the new inductees – all of whom will be honored in the Induction Ceremony on Friday, October 27 at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.


From the Documentary "Shakespeare was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement's Home Movies"

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trap Revival: Moneybagg Yo & the Second Coming of CMG

Posted By on Mon, Aug 14, 2017 at 3:54 PM

Moneybagg Yo - TRAVIS WHITESIDE
  • Travis Whiteside
  • Moneybagg Yo

There wasn’t a group prayer, but the anticipatory energy, the pop and rumble from the crowd, and the obligatory smoke (fog and otherwise), called for one. Someone in the hallway backstage at Minglewood Hall Friday night obliged. “You done turnt up on the city, mane,” the voice said. “The city f*ck with you.” Shouts of affirmation went up in succession and crescendo, rolling through the hallway. Then the crowd of some four dozen folks, more church family than rap posse or crew, climbed the steps up to the stage to bask in that fact and prophecy. Before the sold-out crowd and with Moneybagg Yo at the front, Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group continued its award tour on the home court.

The three dollar pop-up show, announced the same week, quickly sold out, a testament to Moneybagg Yo’s particular appeal, CMG’s enduring and broadening popularity, and the evolution of live music consumption in the city. Ostensibly, the show was a celebration of the release of Moneybagg Yo’s Federal 3x, the debut album follow-up to mixtapes Heartless (2017) and 2 Federal (2016). The release of February’s Heartless was accompanied by a show at The New Daisy, now familiar (if contentious) turf for hip-hop artists of all varieties. But Minglewood has become a marker of a rising hip-hop star’s ascent and a corollary to FedEx Forum. The call and response between Yo and Gotti, first deployed on the collaborative mixtape 2 Federal, was manifested here: If Yo Gotti’s birthday bash at FedEx Forum in June was an apex, Moneybagg Yo’s Minglewood show was a signal of what is to come from CMG. Friday's show kicked off a run for the artist that includes stops in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

Moneybagg Yo - TRAVIS WHITESIDE
  • Travis Whiteside
  • Moneybagg Yo
Moneybagg Yo, like CMG compatriot Blac Youngsta, is part of a second generation of the label’s trap artists, men chronicling loss, trauma, gun violence, and intimacy live from the underground drug economy. Yo, however, pushes the mechanics and intricacies of the trap to the background, marshaling a heavy but nimble flow to ruminate on relationships, friends lost to incarceration and murder, and the specific perils of success and fortune. Across 2 Federal favorites, including “Doin’ Too Much,” “Pull Up,” “Lil Baby,” and “Reflection,” and adding new tracks from Federal 3x like “Doin’ It” and “Insecure,” the performance barreled forward with the undeniable rhythms of trap and Moneybagg Yo’s deft cadences.

There were no flourishes or live show transitions. Show openers, including M-Squad Entertainment’s Heroin Young and BlocBoy JB, were community favorites, and there wasn’t a set list per se. But the crowds, on the stage and on the ground, were there for a collective celebration of trap Memphis, trap music, and the ascension of yet another CMG artist to the global stage. The crowd all but expected Yo Gotti, such that when he arrived towards the end of the set and performed “Rake It Up,” the celebration reached a simultaneous fever pitch and relief.

Trap music is a kind of hip-hop blues structure, of which Memphis artists have long been inheritors and architects. Though Moneybagg Yo has not yet found a consistent footing in that trap-as-blues space, the path there is evident. Blues tropes of women, trouble, and heartbreak now find themselves in discussions of infidelities outed on blogs and Twitter timelines; more importantly, the crowds, a diversity of black Memphians not unlike that on the I-40 bridge last July, know. All kinds of church services happen across the city every day of the week, but Friday night was a kind of revival, a recommitment to the next generation of trap in Memphis.

As whispers and shouts about the “new” Memphis music scene reverberate throughout the city’s arts administration elite, Friday's pop up show served as a notice that the city will only continue to discount black music, black artists, and black consumers at its own peril. Moneybagg Yo, signed to CMG last year with much fanfare, has a distribution deal with Interscope records for Federal 3x via his independent label, N-Less Entertainment, a coup for an artist working in any genre. He has thus far easily topped the iTunes charts, and next week’s sales will likely indicate similar successes across industry metrics.

CMG, like Hypnotize Minds before it, has created its own pocket in Memphis music and in the global music industry, with little support from a city that sells music like FedEx moves packages. The pop-up show alone reflected a robust wrap-around industry of jookers, photographers, videographers, deejays, and journalists, many of whom appeared to be the age of those “disconnected youth” about which there has been much handwringing over the past two years. The artists, performers, and crowds on Friday were about survival and revival, and Moneybagg Yo proved himself to be amongst trap’s preachers. A good portion of Memphis’s 65% black population already knew that. The rest of the city, like the rest of the world, would do well to take notice.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Gonerfest 14 lineup announced!

Posted By on Fri, Aug 11, 2017 at 10:16 AM

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Goner Records have announced the final line up for the four day extravaganza known as Gonerfest. Now in its 14th year, Gonerfest has serious momentum and pulls in bands and concertgoers from all over the world. And while many associate it with purely punk sounds, Goner proves once again they're not just one trick ponies. Indeed, the Goner folks are not ponies at all, but rather untamed, genre-burning dragons of the mind.

Take for example the headliner, Derv Gordon, who, with the Equals, belted out such hits as “Baby Come Back,” “Police On My Back,” “Back Streets,” and many other great songs that don't include the word “back.” Springing out of the 60s London club scene, the bi-racial Equals were a rare hybrid of bubblegum, soul, and beat boom music – genre-burners in their own right. Writers often remind us that their personnel included the great Eddy Grant, who played guitar and wrote many of their songs, but, though their heyday was over when Grant left the group in 1971, they soldiered on without him into the 80s. At the core of the group was singer Derv Gordon and his brother Lincoln on bass.

Of course, there will be plenty of bands bringing the noise, such as Orlando's Golden Pelicans, or Sydney, Australia's Feedtime. But other textures will abound, including the retro synth moods of BÊNNÍ and the Krautrock of Mississippi's Hartle Road. And while the festival will have its usual globe-spanning curation of bands, from Japan to New Zealand to the UK, Memphis groups will be there in full force. Ex-Memphian extraordinaire Greg Cartwright will DJ and play a solo show, and Jack Oblivian, the Nots, Sweet Knives, and Hash Redactor, among others, will be hometown favorites. Finally, we've just learned that film director and Schlitz-fueled street aesthete Dan Rose from New Orleans, writer and director of Wayne County Ramblin', will emcee the Saturday show.

Check out the full schedule here; follow the links to view profiles of the bands and buy tickets.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Neighborhood Texture Jam awakens for early show!

Posted By on Fri, Aug 4, 2017 at 12:12 PM

Neighborhood Texture Jam - DON PERRY
  • Don Perry
  • Neighborhood Texture Jam
Who among us can honestly say they've never fallen into the Borax factory of someone's love? Neighborhood Texture Jam, veterans of the 80s and 90s Memphis scene, will address that musical question Saturday at the Railgarten. In a nod to their longtime fans, rejecting the ageism implicit in late night start times, they will play on the early side. The show will be walker- and hearing aid-friendly. Segways are optional.

Gestating around 30 years ago out of  the rich compost of the Antenna Club scene, the group has proved over the decades that this idea has legs, with reunion shows staged every few years.

The band's emblem, a single high-platform shoe, is enigmatic, partly because it's just a single shoe (what's up with that?), partly because their proclivities tend more toward industrial-strength riff rock and punk. If the shoe suggests a hint of glam, it is buried in pile-driving sounds more likely appropriated from President's Island. Indeed, rhythmic technician Greg Easterly may have pilfered his haz-mat-approved steel barrels from such a place. For every gig, he picks a new location from which to steal his instruments, the smells of the respective 55 gallon drums contributing to the unique character of every show.

Playing the Railgarten brings with it the added benefit of a good sound system, the better to hear singer Joe Lapsley's lyrics with. The songs, exuding a canny political awareness, might range from the history lesson of "Old South" to the happy-go-lucky "Rush Limbaugh-Evil Blimp." Expect a rollicking good time punctuated with bizarre theatrical touches.

Neighborhood Texture Jam "Live at Young Avenue Deli, Memphis, TN" from Price Harrison on Vimeo.

NTJ - Memphispalooza happens Saturday, Aug. 5, at the Railgarten, 7:30 pm.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Motown legend Lamont Dozier records at Royal

Posted By on Thu, Aug 3, 2017 at 4:50 PM

Fred Mollin & Lamont Dozier at Royal Studios
  • Fred Mollin & Lamont Dozier at Royal Studios
Going in to this, I knew that Lamont Dozier was nothing short of a pop music icon – a true legend. After all, the man’s resume is undeniable. As a member of the Motown songwriting and production trio Holland-Dozier-Holland, he is responsible for well over 30 top ten hit singles, including 13 number ones. He also had an often overlooked but influential career as a performing artist, and his music has been sampled by everyone from Tupac Shakur to Linkin Park. Go ahead and tack on another number one co-written with Phil Collins and more awards than I could possibly list. Simply stated, the man knows his way around a song.

Earlier this week, when I received the invitation to meet Lamont Dozier and his producer, Fred Mollin (who has had an impressive career in his own right, working with folks like Miley Cyrus, Billy Joel, and the late Chris Cornell), I was a bit nervous, but also excited. Interviewing musicians, much less famous ones, is always a bit of a hit-and-miss proposition – they aren’t always patient, cooperative subjects or even nice people in some cases. However, none of that was true of Lamont or Fred. In our time together, they were introspective, generous with stories and information, and generally just good guys to hang out and share a meal with. Here are some of the highlights of our lengthy conversation:

The Memphis Flyer: For starters, what brings you to town?
Lamont Dozier: We’re here to work on a new album at Royal Studios singing old songs that were iconic back in the day and putting a new slant on it vocally and arrangement-wise.

Fred Mollin: It’s very intimate and stripped down. Don’t look for big production. It’s the first time Lamont has recorded them in this way, in his own voice, very acoustic and intimate. Essentially, you’re going to get to hear these songs again for the first time, at the genesis of where they came from.

Why did you decide on the stripped down approach?
FM: As a producer, I’ve done several records with great songwriters this way. Lamont was one of the first ones I wanted to do, but it’s taken 20 years to get it actually started. It was always my dream to do it like this because it becomes a timeless album. These are just incredible songs, and he’s an incredible singer. It’s a real chance to hear him sing these songs in a way that is really soulful and heartfelt.

LD: We’re giving the songs a new approach, a face lift, a new idea to give the fans an opportunity to hear these songs in a new light but still bring back memories. Really, it will give everybody insight as to what it was like to hear them as they were being written – just very sparse and intimate.

Do you see this as an opportunity to re-claim these songs as your own?
LD: There were a few that I had put in my back pocket that I had always hoped to record myself. But when Barry Gordy comes in saying, “Hey, you’ve got to come up with something in a hurry. Marvin Gaye is going out of town and we need something to put in the can,” you have to come up with something. So, for instance, I had stashed “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).” I always had this comeback idea in my head, so I was holding it back. I had a feeling that it could bring me back to the forefront as an artist. But we were in a hurry and couldn’t really come up with anything special, so I went ahead and pulled it out of my back pocket and gave it to Marvin to do. It became a big hit for him.

And for James Taylor.
LD: Oh, yeah (laughs) – and a lot of other people too.

FM: We’re hoping to have James come in and sing with Lamont on that one for the album.

Are there any other songs you wish you could have back?
LD: I guess “Little Darling.” That was Marvin, too. It was a personal song for me because I wrote it for my grandmother, who was very ill at the time. I came over to her house when she was ill and played her this song when we had just recorded it. And this is one song, personally, that I wished I had sung myself, to her. But Marvin didn’t do a bad job with it either. And it became a hit for the Doobie Brothers and Michael McDonald later on.

Why did you decide to record in Memphis?

FM: Most of the album was actually done in Nashville, because that’s where I’m based out of. But we wanted to pay homage to Memphis. Because I know Boo Mitchell and work at Royal when I’m here, I wanted to bring Lamont down for a day of vocals. It was literally like a pilgrimage day for us.

What songs did you work on at Royal?
FM: I think we did “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” and “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While).” These are unbelievable songs, the soundtrack to people’s lives.

What did the guys at Motown think of the music coming out of Memphis back in the day? Did you view it as a rivalry?
LD: No, we didn’t view it as a rivalry. A hit song is a hit song. I loved Stax. Stax had its own iconic sound. There was stuff coming out of there that we respected as songwriters and producers. Their sound was more blues-based. Their house was full of blues, I’ll put it that way. We respected that sound, because we knew the blues started it all, and I think they respected us.

How long have the two of you worked together?
FM: We’ve worked on a few things together. We worked together here on a Cliff Richard record at Royal back in 2011. To be honest, this is the first chance that I’ve had to make this particular dream come true.

LD: If there’s anyone I trust enough to work with as my producer, it’s him.

Do you feel your immense success as a songwriter and producer has overshadowed your career as an artist?
LD: No, I think it added to it. They always say Motown was like a college for music writers and producers. Sometimes if you wait, and study hard on your skills, you’ll just be better at something. When the time came for me to sing again, I was better because I had written and produced for other artists.

Did you ever tailor songs for particular artists?
LD: Oh, no. A hit song is a hit song, anybody can sing it. The song is king always. If it’s good, anybody with half a voice can do it. That’s how it was done, cut the tracks first and then bring in whoever was going to sing it and teach them the song.

My favorite song of yours from the Motown era is “Bernadette.” What do you remember about writing that one?

LD: (laughs) Everybody asks about that one.

FM: The version we have on the new record is so gorgeous.

LD: This particular song is a girl’s name, which is something we would never do because then all the other girls would want their names in a song. But in this particular case, the name just fit the music so well, and we all at one time had girlfriends called Bernadette. All three of us – different girls, though. She was my first puppy love thing was when I was 11 or 12. My Bernadette was like Venus de Milo. What does an 11 year old know? (laughs) She was this little Italian girl that just made my heart sing. And she was my muse, I used that feeling that I had for her to write songs up in to my 20s. Whenever I was writing a love song about someone I had feelings for, she would always be the picture in my mind’s eye.


For more information on Lamont Dozier, visit www.lamontdozier.com.



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Thursday, July 27, 2017

From Hex Dispensers to BBQ glory: Goner hosts Austinite's food trailer tour

Posted By on Thu, Jul 27, 2017 at 2:04 PM

Tom Micklethwait
  • Tom Micklethwait
Austin band The Hex Dispensers were a delicious mix of punk and pop that won over a lot of Memphis fans. They had a good run and even played Gonerfest a couple of times. How things have changed. Tomorrow, one of the band members will be passing through town while touring up to New York for a Goner-sponsored event. But it's not what you're thinking. He won't be playing the Hex Dispensers' "Pile of Meat," he'll be serving it, and you should get on out and git you some.

Tom Micklethwait was always passionate about food, and had a day gig baking for an Italian restaurant. But around 2012, he began delving into the world of barbecue, and it has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Though based out of small food truck, Micklethwait Craft Meats has developed quite a reputation in Texas. As Food & Wine wrote last month, the eatery has been "turning heads at its Austin trailer. Unorthodox offerings like pulled goat, brisket Frito pie, and pork belly kielbasa helped put Micklethwait on the BBQ map."

It hasn't dimmed his love of music, either. Recently, he combined his passions by recreating the feast featured in the gatefold of Z.Z. Top's Tres Hombres album...and ate it. Billy Gibbons reportedly quipped, "I stand in awe of what he accomplished."

Goner co-owner Zac Ives says, "His BBQ is insanely good, totally unlike anything you can get in Memphis." At Memphis Made on Friday, you can find out for yourself, while Ives and Hot Tub Eric spin vinyl on the wheels of steel. Oxford's Tyler Keith will be there as well, playing a solo set. While it may not shake everyone's faith in Memphis' reign as king of the 'cue, it could do us all some good to get some strange for once. It's free and family-friendly.


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Poppa Willie's Night: Royal Studios kicks off 60th Anniversary Celebration

Posted By on Thu, Jul 27, 2017 at 11:35 AM

Royal Studios - JOEY MILLER
  • Joey Miller
  • Royal Studios

Don Bryant
  • Don Bryant
“Hey, I"m looking forward to this! It's a full band and everything. It's exciting to me!” Don Bryant can barely contain his mirth, contemplating another show with old-school soul masters the Bo-Keys. With a new album out this year – his first since his 1969 debut LP on Hi Records – he's been leading the band through several performances lately. But Friday's show, dubbed “Poppa Willie's Night” in honor of Hi's longtime manager and producer Willie Mitchell, will be especially notable: it marks Bryant's return to Royal Studios, where he worked for many years as a hit songwriter for Hi. He'll be kicking off a series of three concerts being staged to celebrate the studio's sixtieth anniversary.

It was as a songwriter that Bryant gained his widest fame, having co-written the hit “I Can't Stand the Rain” with Ann Peebles, who he married soon after. And it could only have been in the Hi Records milieu, bursting with talents like Al Green, Otis Clay, and others, that a singer of Bryant's caliber would be relegated to writing rather than recording hits. And he wrote many – 154 by one account.

It started early. Having begun his career leading a vocal quartet, the Four Kings, he had a song of his, “I Got to Know,” recorded by the 5 Royales when still in his teens. “When they recorded the song it was at a studio down on North Main,” he recalls. “And I wasn't even allowed to go in the studio, I had to sit out in the lobby. That was one of the biggest deals I could have had in those days, because they were one of the most famous groups. My group was always trying to imitate them, dance-wise and song-wise. They had a lot of popular songs.”

Soon after that, the Four Kings began fronting Willie Mitchell's band. This proved fortuitous for Bryant's solo career. “My group had problems and broke up. So I told Willie, 'If you would accept it, I'd like to try doing solo.' Because singing was my thing. And he said, 'Okay, I'll try you out.' And that's how I got to sing vocals with Willie Mitchell and band.” Bryant started by contributing vocal parts to some of Mitchell's singles for Hi.

Boo Mitchell, heir to Willie's throne as manager of today's Royal Studios, says “He sang on some of my dad's instrumental recordings. My favorite is a song called 'That Driving Beat', which he sings. It's a Willie Mitchell song and Don is singing it. It is badass. It's from like '66, I think. And there's a song called 'Everything's Gonna be Alright', and it's a Willie Mitchell song, but Don is singing. And I only found this out after my Pop passed, 'cos it has harmony vocals throughout the whole song, and Don said, 'That's Willie singing harmonies.' I was like, 'No Shit!' I never knew it, man! And then, Pops wasn't around so I couldn't give him any shit about it, and say, 'How come you never told me it's you singing?'”

For Bryant, this culminated in the release of his solo album, Precious Soul, in 1969. But it wasn't long before other singers in the Hi Records stable, like Al Green, eclipsed Bryant's solo career. Part of this had to do with major changes for Hi Records, Royal Studios, and Willie Mitchell himself. Says Boo, “Right after Joe Cuoghi [Hi Records' original owner] died in 1970, I think he willed his shares in Hi Records to Pops, and so it was a big transition for him, you know. And when Joe Cuoghi died, [Al Green's] 'I'm So Tired of Being Alone' had been out for like three or four months and had only sold like 2000 records. And Pops knew it was a hit, so after the funeral and all that stuff was over, Pops basically went to Atlanta, New York, and Chicago, and just camped out at radio stations until they played it. And they finally played it. When they played it in Atlanta, it hit. They played it in NY, same thing, Chicago, same thing. And then it went platinum.”

This marked the beginning of many years of mega-hits from Green, who outsold even the classic hit makers from Stax Records. As Boo Mitchell recounts, “Stax was doing a lot of singles. And they weren't really selling a lot of albums, you know what I mean? And Al Green was doing the opposite because Willie Mitchell came from the album world. Which was more I guess what white artists were doing. Because of Hi Records. And so when he started doing Al Green, he did it with that same mentality of the album. And you know there were songs that were selling the albums...like 'How Can You Mend a Broken Heart' was the song that sold the Let's Stay Together album. 'Let's Stay Together' as a song was awesome, but all the radio stations were playing 'How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,' which was like a six minute song. It was never a single. Neither was 'Love and Happiness'.”

Bryant settled in as a songwriter for the Hi Records team. He married Ann Peebles and saw her star rise through the 1970s. But by the end of the decade there came another sea change. “You know, it was like a perfect storm of badness,” says Mitchell. “Stax posted bankruptcy in '75, which was very impactful. Then Elvis died in '77. Al Green went completely gospel around the same time. And then disco was coming in. So things were changing. Pops had partners and he was kind of outvoted to sell the label. Because his partners were business guys, you know. And on paper it probably looked like the right thing to do. Okay, our bread and butter Al Green is going gospel and the music is changing and we should get out. You know what I mean? It may not have been a good decision. But Pops made the great decision, when they outvoted him to sell the label, he made the decision to buy the studio. So that was a great decision on his part.”

Royal Studios - JOEY MILLER
  • Joey Miller
  • Royal Studios
This was a pivotal moment for Royal, enabling it to continue operating without Hi. And through all these years, the studio itself has barely been altered. “It hasn't changed since 69. It's the same,” says Mitchell. And this only enhances its appeal to current day artists. Lately, after the success of the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit “Uptown Funk,” recorded at Royal, the studio's star is on the rise again. Mitchell explains, “Me and my sister started Royal Records last year. And also Royal Radio. Which is an app, or on Google Play. And it's housed at Royal Studios, and it streams mostly music that was made at Royal, but all kinds of different music. We have radio shows with Barbara Blue and Preston Shannon, they have a blues show. Al Kapone has a show. Frayser Boy has a show. Charles Hodges from the Hi Rhythm Section has a show.”

Boo Mitchell - JOEY MILLER
  • Joey Miller
  • Boo Mitchell
A distinct family vibe permeates the studio to this day. This will be apparent at Friday's shindig. The in-studio party will feature homestyle cooking by Mitchell's Aunt Yvonne, who has served soul food to most of the renown artists who have recorded there. And now Don Bryant, with his new record, Don't Give Up on Love, out on Fat Possum Records, will return there to honor Royal's rejuvenation. “It's just like homecoming to me,” he says.

And no other living artist goes as far back into Royal's history as Bryant. “It's so awesome to have Don, because he was there with my dad almost from the very beginning, you know,” says Mitchell. He says having Bryant kick off this year's anniversary celebrations “was really the only thing that made sense to me, historically. You know, it was just like, that's the right thing to do. It's a miracle he was available because he's been touring all over the place. And, you know the stars lin ed up.”

Rhythm on the River (Poppa Willie's Night), featuring Don Bryant & the Bo-Keys, takes place at Royal Studios, Fri., July 28, 7 p.m.,  $200. Future events connected to Royal Studios' 60th Anniversary include a free show, Memphis Mojo, at the Levitt Shell on October 14th, and the grand finale, Sixty Soulful Years, featuring several international stars at the Orpheum Theatre, November 18th.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Listen Up: Ben Abney

Posted By on Wed, Jul 26, 2017 at 8:29 PM

Ben Abney - MICHAEL DONAHUE
  • Michael Donahue
  • Ben Abney

Ben Abney’s first audience was a church congregation in Millington.

“My dad was a Southern Baptist minister, so I was on stage at the church when I was three or four years old,” said Abney, 34. “I had this little three-piece suit with the vest and everything. I had little wingtip shoes.”

His dad, Terry Abney, a songwriter, taught Ben how to play guitar. “(He) had some minor success in the ‘90s. He’s a pretty traditional guy in the vein of Marty Robbins and George Jones. That’s what I grew up on.”

Ben got into Nirvana “and whatever was cool in the ‘90s” when he turned 13.

His dad wasn’t happy about that. “Secular rock and roll was definitely not encouraged in our house.”

That lead to confrontation. “I was in high school and I had my stereo blasting away some ‘Free Ride! Come on take a free ride!’ I thought my dad was going to lose it.”

His dad, who referred to the music as “that ‘70s rock and roll stuff,” made him turn it down. “I was a teenager. Nobody’s parents are cool when you’re’ a teenager. I realized later that he was pretty cool because my first concerts were Porter Waggoner and Jerry Reed. That kind of stuff.”

Ben began writing poetry in middle school. “It was probably about being sad about something. That’s still kind of what I write.”

When he turned 15, Ben got into punk rock. “I kind of discovered it through Navy brats who had moved to town.”

They introduced him to Blink 182, the Vandals and NOFX. “I wasn’t a great guitar player at the time, but I could play that. I could play three power chords. I think, for me, it was the energy. I was always pretty energetic and silly and goofy as a teenager, especially.

“A son of a Southern Baptist preacher man, there was a lot of rebellion just in listening to that music. I didn’t have to do anything crazy or against the law, but just listening to that music, for me, was like a small rebellion.”

Ben and a couple of guys “who’d gotten into punk rock,” including Chris Wagner, who went on to play in 7 Dollar Sox, formed a punk rock band, Punks for Christ. “We got a couple of churches that let us play.”

They weren’t really a Christian band, Ben said, but his mom and dad were supportive. “I think they were probably afraid of bearing down too hard on me. They wanted to give me some leeway. They actually drove us to a couple of shows.”

After Punks for Christ, Ben started a band, Bedford Falls. “Still very pop punk stuff.”

He began writing music when he was 16. “I think I was just writing about whatever I knew about in high school. Going to punk rock shows. Wearing Converse All-Stars.”

Ben moved to Memphis when he turned 18 and helped start a new band, Hold Me Yesterday.

He also got his first tattoo - a black star on his back.

He held down two jobs - waiting tables at Spaghetti Warehouse and Hard Rock Cafe, but he couldn’t pay his rent and moved back to live with his parents in Millington.

Joining the Navy was next. “Part of it was I just didn’t know what I was doing. I had kind of flunked out of my first couple of semesters in college.I was back in Millington and I didn’t really have a lot of job prospects. My car had broken down and I didn’t have any money to fix that. I just joined up because that’s kind of what kids that don’t have any money do.

“I finished boot camp. I graduated top of my class. I was in a performance division. I got to play marching snare at one of the White Sox games.”

Ben only was in the Navy for four months. He went home because of medical issues. But he wrote a song about his experience, “Teenage Anarchism.”

He joined a new band, While I Breathe I Hope, but the Navy still was on his mind. “I actually did go back and talk to a recruiter about joining back up. I was pretty well covered up with tattoos at that point. They were like, ‘No, man. You can’t.’ They had changed their policies of how much you can show in the uniform and they wouldn’t take me back. It’s like, ‘Alright. Cool.’ I just started playing music more.”

Ben worked construction jobs and at UPS and Two Chicks and a Broom. He continued to play in bands. After three years in While I Breathe I Hope, he joined another punk rock band, First Wave.

He also played in the Angel Sluts. “Contrary to the name, it was just a bunch of really nice guys. We just had fun. We played music just to hang out with our best friends.”

How did “Angel Sluts” go over with his mom and dad? “Not my parents’ favorite band name.”

They continued to be supportive, Ben said. “I feel like as long as I wasn’t in jail they were like, ‘OK.’”

His first band tour was three-months on the road with First Wave. “While I was on that tour, I met a girl in Los Angeles. I ended up moving out there and getting married.”

He was in an indie rock band, The Chase, in LA, but after moving to Memphis, Ben started a punk rock band, The Drawls.

He got a job as an archeology tech for Pan American Consultants, a private cultural management company. “I started taking all these contract jobs through them for the National Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers and basically wAS doing archeological survey work.”

He only was home eight days a month. “I was still playing music, but it made it harder to be in a band. So, I started taking an acoustic guitar with me on the road. Being gone and being in a marriage that was not healthy, I started writing songs to get through that stuff.”

Those songs were country. “I don’t know any other way to write that kind of stuff without it coming out as just country-folk-Americana.”

After a few years, Ben and his first wife divorced. He met his future wife, Cat Allen, and they now have a daughter, Lily.


Ben began playing more solo shows - and got a good reaction from the audience. “I do have a lot of tattoos and I’m sort of a former punk rock dude who’s playing acoustic guitar. That seems like kind of a standard these days except I don’t have a gravelly voice. I have a pretty tenor register. It’s a pretty clear voice.”

Even his punk rock friends were supportive. “Everybody that I’ve ever played in bands with were like, ‘Man, you should have been doing this the whole time.’”

Ben doesn’t really consider himself ever being a “punk.” “I played punk rock music, but was I ever really a punk? Did I ever really think that punk rock music was going to become a political revolution? No.”

So, what is Ben Abney’s favorite style of music? “I really like singing gospel. I like the way that it’s written. I like the musical structures, especially Southern gospel. That has a lot of roots in working people. I feel like that’s some of the most emotional music ever written.”

Ben continues to write. “I write a lot of stuff about struggling with faith. And whether or not to believe or not to believe.”

He’s working on several albums. “I already have an album written and I’ve started writing the one after that. And then I already have the concept for the one after that.”

Ben recently completed his first year teaching music at Holy Rosary Catholic School. “I absolutely love it. I also cantor for Mass three days a week.”

And, he said, “I have sort of a middle school choir club. We meet on Tuesdays and then they sing with me on Wednesday mornings.”

So, what do the kids think about Ben’s tattoos? “They don’t, really. The administration and I haven’t gotten any sort of negative feedback.”

But, he said, “I wear long sleeves to work.”

Ben Abney & Familiar Faces will play with Kitty Dearing & the Dagnabbits and Justin Vinson & the Wayward Saints at 8 p.m. July 28 at Canvas, 1737 Madison. Cover: $7 at the door.

"Teenage Anarchism" from Michael Donahue on Vimeo.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dead tribute raises awareness & donations for MIFA

Posted By on Tue, Jul 25, 2017 at 9:16 AM

If there is a rule book for Memphis music, the following are surely included: Memphis bands share members, and they love tribute shows like nothing else.

From the recently released, Luther Dickinson-led Sun Records tribute, Red Hot: A Memphis Celebration of Sun Records to Graham Winchester’s “Memphis Does Bowie” show, to last year’s star-studded lineup for the Talking Heads tribute concert, musicians in the Bluff City usually jump at the chance to pay tribute to their heroes and legends — both the local and international varieties. And what else do all the aforementioned concerts and records have in common? They all raised money and awareness to benefit local charities. Proceeds from sales of Red Hot go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, as did the proceeds from the Memphis Does Bowie benefit show. And the Talking Heads tribute benefitted the  National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
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So local psychedelic jammers Left Unsung will be honoring a Memphis tradition when they pay tribute to the Grateful Dead by accepting canned goods as admission, for use by the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA).

Left Unsung is John Day on guitar and vocals, L.J. Cates on guitar, Michael Shelton on drums and vocals, Chris Hardy on bass, and Nathan Powell on pedal steel. The members of the tribute group all play in other local bands; they met after a Dr. Brown show. “We all kind of share each other around here,” drummer Shelton says. They also share a passion for the Dead, and, as Memphis was somewhat lacking in the long-and-improvisational tribute band department, they set about to remedy what they saw as a serious deficit in the usually lush Memphis music landscape.

But the jam-heavy musicians are more interested in playing music than in earning a buck. The members of Left Unsung have day jobs and gigs in other Bluff City bands, and the Grateful Dead tribute project has more to do with a passion for the Dead than with a paycheck. “It’s never been about the money,” Shelton says. So, after their first two performances, Shelton and the group decided to partner with local organizations to bring attention and donations to charitable causes. “We have an opportunity here with a captive audience and one who is focused on conscious change.” With that in mind, Left Unsung have partnered with MIFA for their upcoming Growlers show.

MIFA is one of the local organizations partnered with the Mid-South Food Bank – an organization that typically sees a “food drought” in the summer as donations slow down until the next school year (see article below). MIFA is the organization behind the Meals on Wheels program, which delivers nutritious lunches daily to senior citizens. “We want to remind [the audience] that we have this service in the community,” Shelton explains.
As for what to expect at the Growlers show, Shelton says the band has been steadily adding songs to the set list since their last performance at the Cove. “We focus on learning songs that not only span the band’s discography from the ’60s and onward, but also on varying styles of structure through playing songs like ‘Brokedown Palace’ and ‘Dark Star’ all the way to ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘Scarlet Begonias.’”

Shelton says the band intends to perform only every two months, with the intention of keeping the shows special – and giving the musicians time to learn new songs. They plan on adding 15 or so songs to their repertoire for each new performance so that, much like the concerts of the Grateful Dead themselves, no two shows will be the same. “Our goal is to keep the crowd guessing about what we’ll play at each show,” Shelton says. “We value learning well-known songs as well as deep-cut, obscure originals from the band. We keep an integral focus on transitioning and improvising through songs throughout our sets, so the music flows similar to the way Grateful Dead’s sets flowed. We’ll be dropping some newly learned songs at Growlers and will continue to expand our song base every show we play.”

Left Unsung Grateful Dead tribute and MIFA benefit at Growlers, Saturday, July 29th at 9 p.m. $5 or two canned goods.

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